Pop Will Eat Itself: Gorillaz’ “Plastic Beach” as a Commentary on the Disposable Nature of Pop Music

I’ve tried to get into the mainstream consciousness, which is not an easy thing to do these days because it is primarily a very disposable medium… pop will eat itself.
-Damon Albarn, Spinner interview

A Casio on a plastic beach
-Gorillaz, from “Plastic Beach

The imagery that is presented in the title track off of Gorillaz’ third studio album, Plastic Beach, is pretty blunt: there’s a disturbingly massive pile of crap that’s gathering in an ocean somewhere, and we’re to blame.  The lyrics may not explicitly make this connection, but how else can you account for a Styrofoam deep-sea landfill?  It’s a cynical, if not delightfully cheeky, reminder that our actions as humans have a profound impact on our environment.

This, however, is not the only reading of either this track or this album taken as a whole.  As Damon Albarn (Gorillaz’ co-creator and musical mastermind, and former Blur frontman) imparted in an interview with Wired about Plastic Beach, “it has environmental thoughts scattered and peppered around every bit of this record.  But at the end of the day, it’s not just that.  It’s way more colourful than that.”  For Albarn, “plastic” isn’t simply symbolic of our wasteful tendencies as a society.  It is also a commentary on the disposable nature of pop music as a genre and a way of life.

Actually, the very nature of Gorillaz is designed to be a running critique on the plasticity of pop.  The “band” is technically four animated cartoon characters (2D, Murdoc Niccals, Noodle and Russel Hobbs), which are all the creation of Gorillaz’ other co-creater and artistic director, Jamie Hewlett (also co-creator of the comic Tank Girl).  Albarn and Hewlett have held faithfully to this façade, oftentimes going to unusual lengths to uphold the identities of their surrogates.  There has been a book published detailing the history of the band and its “members” as told from their perspective, and during an appearance on the Colbert Report in 2010, Murdoc “called in” to explain to Stephen that the real band couldn’t get visas, so they were sending Damon & Jamie to do the show in their place.

When Gorillaz first hit the scene in 2001, it seemed like little more than shtick, and a pretty shallow one at that.  In a time when boy bands were being created hourly in A&R labs across the country and American Idol was taking flight, a cartoon band with a catchy lead single seemed like par for the course.

But maybe that was the point.

As Eliot van Buskirk quipped in the intro to his Wired interview with Damon & Jamie, Gorillaz was “created… in response to what they saw as too many gilded personalities making their way onto the airwaves and MTV.”  While on the surface the idea of a cartoon band seems way too cute, it takes on a new dimension once it is seen as a depiction of pop stars as lifeless, two-dimensional images.  And really, this isn’t that far removed from conventional pop music practices.  The involvement of studio or touring musicians or even computer-generated sounds and programs means that much of what we hear in pop music is created by people or things that do not factor into our perception of that pop star’s identity.  So why not have a cartoon band, anyway?

Like many great satiric artistic efforts, Gorillaz was able to comment on its subject by subverting it and taking its form.  Think Dr. Strangelove – it was such a biting anti-war satire because it was essentially a war movie.  In this same vein, Gorillaz has always simultaneously been an ongoing critique on the state of pop music as well as a pretty damn good pop band.

And Gorillaz is undoubtedly that – their music has always been catchy, but it also rewards its listeners who stick around for repeated hearings.  Their self-titled debut release is chock full of fine examples of this.  The second single released from the album, “19-2000,” features a synth hook with microtonal dissonance against the rest of the track.  The closer, “Left Hand Suzuki Method,” builds a groove off of an exemplar etude of the titular children’s pedagogy.  But most intriguing of all, the album’s second track, “5/4,” is, as its title implies, in quintuple meter.  Or at least that’s what the introduction implies.  As the track plays out, the drums lay down a solid and unchanging duple backbeat, which creates strong tension with the quintuple ostinato.  Once the chorus enters, which is firmly in a duple feel, it becomes clear that the opening quintuple pattern is really just a stubborn hemiola over the otherwise conventional backbeat.  Not bad for a bunch of cartoons.

Their earlier examples of pop music subversion notwithstanding, Plastic Beach is still Gorillaz’ crowning achievement in their ongoing satirical embrace of the genre.  For starters, Beach is easily the most pop album in their catalogue to date.  The guitar-laden Gorillaz sounds like it could be a lost Blur album, while their second album – the Danger Mouse-produced Demon Days – bears enough of Danger Mouse’s signature retro sampling to sound more like hip-hop than pop.  Beach, on the other hand, is driven by heavy synths, glossy production, and other staples of a typical pop record.  As Albarn himself claimed in an interview with Vulture, “[Beach] is the most pop [Gorillaz album].  It’s certainly not a pop record in the sense that a lot of the structures in the songs bear any relationship to pop music, really.  It’s a hybrid.”

Perhaps the most pop aspect of Beach, though, is the barrage of guest artists that appear throughout the record.  There are 16 distinct guest artists from widely disparate genres and cultures that appear throughout the 17 tracks that made the album (and countless more that recorded on tracks that didn’t make it), with a few of them appearing multiple times.  On many tracks Albarn (or his cartoon surrogate, if you prefer) either does not seem like the lead singer or does not even appear.  Big-name collaborations have long been a staple of pop music, but taken to these extremes, Gorillaz challenge the very notion of a unified band and any sense of central authorship that comes with producing an album.

The way in which guest artists are used throughout Beach also supports this sense of fabricated persona and musical plasticity, especially when weighed against the use of Albarn himself.  One of the most striking things about the organization of tracks on the album is that Albarn’s voice is not used in a prominent role until the fourth track.  The opener (“Orchestral Intro”) is self-explanatory.  The second track (“Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach”) features a prominent guest-spot from Snoop Dogg (whom, interestingly enough, neither Albarn nor Hewlett actually met in person during the recording process).  Albarn’s voice can be heard here, but only singing a very wet and auto-tuned background hook.  He’s gone again in the third track (“White Flag”), giving way to rappers Bashy and Kano and instrumental hooks provided by The National Orchestra for Arabic Music.  So for the record, in the amount of time that about 94% of rock/pop albums have already gotten to their lead single, Beach has used two orchestras (one from the Middle East) and three hip-hop artists with barely a trace of its own lead singer.

There are also a number of musical aspects at play here that contribute to the narrative of pop’s disposable nature.  Specifically, some of Albarn’s sonic choices create a sense of distance between the music itself and those who made it.  “Rhinestone Eyes” – Beach’s fourth track, marking Albarn’s triumphant arrival – serves as a good example of this.  Even though Albarn is clearly the lead voice here, the monotone, almost speech-like delivery of the verse hinders the image of him as a singer.  As the track plays out, the vocal part gradually expands in pitch range, but it never breaks into a traditional melody.  The song depicts a fascinating struggle of the voice to finally emerge from its monotonous barricades, but this is not achieved until the next track.  The fact that Alburn’s delayed emergence as lead vocalist is marked by this droll delivery is telling, as it once again blurs the notion of centralized authority.

“Rhinestone Eyes” is also a good example of the synth-heavy nature of Beach.  Almost none of the instrumental sounds heard throughout the track are acoustic, including most (if not all) of the drums.  There may be a faint hint of a live guitar during the first verse, but if there is, it is drowned out in that tidal wave of a synth line that represents the main hook for the chorus and then washed away completely by the synths that dominate the second verse.  The arrival of the chorus is a crucial moment: at a time when we would finally expect to get a melodic vocal hook, it is instead given to a synth.  During the first chorus, there aren’t even any vocal sounds present.  These glossy keyboard sounds paired with the reduced role and mechanical function of the voice create a significant distance between the organic process of creating music and the finished product.  It is as if the music really could have been made by a cartoon band.

This is not to say that I think Beach is rubbish.  To the contrary, this is one of my favorite albums of any genre, and it’s also among the most played albums in my collection.  Part of this is due to the fact that the hooks and grooves throughout are so solid that they are nearly impossible resist.  In that regard, Beach is a great pop album.  But as Albarn said in his aforementioned quote, this is a hybrid that transcends pop music with its depth, which is why it merits so many repeated listenings.

Take the album’s lead single, “Stylo,” for example.  Propelled by a hook that is reminiscent of Usher’s “Yeah!” in regard to sound and scope, it is easy to see why the track was deemed single material.  Return listenings, however, reveal the song to be nothing short of a post-modern marvel.  Even though everything stems from the opening groove and hook, the song is brimming with subtle juxtapositions and subverted expectations.  There are three main recurring sectional blocks that are each marked by their own distinct persona in the form of their respective artist: Mos Def (currently known as Yasiin Bey – technically Stephen Colbert is now Mos Def), Albarn, and Bobby Womack.  These three represent three wildly distinct genres and periods within the wider umbrella of popular music (conscious rap, pop/rock, and old school R&B/soul, respectively), yet they all gel comfortably around the same basic groove.

Formally, there is little variation within each of the three units, but the way in which they are presented is notable.  For starters, there is really no sense of hierarchy between them, and while they are all distinguishable from one another, none of them stand out as being a clear chorus.  This is largely due to the fact that, aside from the occasional transposition up to the subdominant, the repeating bass line that spans the first five seconds never stops or changes.  A cursory formal diagram of “Stylo” with time markings can be seen below:

0:00 – Vamp
0:19 – A (Mos Def)
0:38 – Vamp
1:16 – B (Albarn)
1:36 – B
2:04 – C (Womack)
2:33 – B
2:52 – C
3:21 – C
3:40 – Vamp
3:50 – A
4:09 – Vamp (ends at 4:30)

Each section has two distinct appearances throughout the track, with Albarn’s and Womack’s sections each having one of theirs doubled in duration.  While this form is perhaps comparable to the stock pop form of verse/chorus, a glance at the large-scale form reveals something far more fascinating.  Upon the completion of Womack’s first section, the song embarks on an abstractly inverted version of itself.  The B and C sections appear in their original order, but their durations have been swapped.  The track also ends the same way it started: a verse of flow from Mos Def sandwiched by the vamped groove.

The use of Mos Def’s section is also somewhat noteworthy, as it constitutes both the initial and final sections with vocals. When a pop song has a guest hip-hop artist, this will usually only appear in the latter portion of the song, typically after the second chorus and prior to the final chorus.  While “Stylo” seems like a fairly conventional pop song on its surface, Albarn’s formal manipulations present a masterful subversion of our preconceived notions of what defines pop music.

Sweepstakes,” another standout track that, coincidentally, also features Mos Def, becomes increasingly more rewarding upon repeated listenings.  On the surface this track shares many elements with “Stylo,” including an infectious ostinato groove that drives a seemingly simple form and Mos Def emerging as the first voice.  The form here, while equally distinct from conventional pop forms, takes on a shape of its own.  Instead of distinct formal units, this track simply has one extended section that constantly shifts and evolves.  The motion of the music is steady, however, and it follows a consistent crescendo towards its climax at 4:34, at which point the groove abruptly drops, and the music proceeds to taper to its conclusion (5:20).  And while different musical elements are layered to add interest and direction, their entrances are blurred by either entering midphrase or emerging from a soft dynamic.  For the build and decay of an entire pop song to be so unilateral and seamless is incredibly rare.

The other interesting aspect of “Sweepstakes” is the metric dilemma that plays out in its first half.  Similar to the earlier Gorillaz recording “5/4,” this cut appears to start in one meter, alerts the listener that there is a conflict between two meters, and then finally resolves this dispute by awarding the second meter as the victor.  The groove at the very beginning is in a steady triple meter, and while the cadence of Mos Def’s opening flow doesn’t always adhere to this groove, it is not so jarring to suggest that the song is in anything but 3/4.  However, a synth line enters at 1:13 that is clearly in a duple meter, and Mos Def’s next verse seems to lock in much more comfortably with this new idea.  Finally, a backbeat-heavy street beat joins in tepidly at 2:17, and with the cymbal crash at 2:21, the conflict is finally resolved in favor of the duple meter.  The original groove is still in the track, but it is revealed that it was a three-over-four hemiola figure the whole time.

One thing that these three tracks share that further subverts our perception of pop music is the obliteration of the conventional chorus.  “Sweepstakes” is one extended, evolving section, and none of the unique sections in “Stylo” functions like a chorus.  Only “Rhinestone Eyes” has a section that carries this function, but the reliance on synths and the reduction of the role of the human voice place it at odds with a prototypical chorus.  There is no more important part of a typical pop song than its chorus, the section that provides a concise and convenient 10-second sound bite to represent the entire song.  None of these three, like many of the other tracks on Beach, have that representative clip, or if they do, it would likely be of an instrumental portion of the song.

Although this reading of Beach portrays it as a critical and satiric commentary on pop music, it does not mean that Albarn is subverting pop music to blow it up or because he loathes it.  If Albarn really despised pop music, it wouldn’t make sense for him to craft such a fine pop album.  Again, Albarn himself identified this album as Gorillaz’ most pop effort to date.  Even the tracks that challenge the aesthetics of pop music are still rooted in pop music traditions.

When asked about his thoughts on the American Idol phenomenon in an interview with Spinner, Albarn had this to say: “They do things to these kids.  They play with their bodies and their faces.  They just bleach and sanitize everything about them, and that’s a very potent aspirational aspect of our society.  So in that sense, the music business is in very ill health – but that can change because the opportunities to make music and communicate ideas are better than they’ve ever been.”  This is an incredibly revealing quote.  He may have concerns about the current state of pop music, but he is ultimately optimistic about its future.

Pop music today may sometimes feel like an endless vat of Casio keyboards and other plastic sounds washing up on a beach of conformity, repeatedly consuming itself in an endless cycle of rehashed ideas.  But herein lies the beauty of Plastic Beach – it is not tolling the death of pop; it is a siren call for what the future might bring.

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