Understanding the 'virtual band'
Hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, Alicia Stark holds an undergrad degree in Music Education and spent 3 years as a music teacher in the U.S. She originally came to the School of Music in 2009 to pursue an MA in Music, Culture and Politics. The environment was just the right fit for her studies, so she returned to Cardiff in 2012 to begin her PhD in Musicology under the supervision of Dr. David Beard.
“‘Authenticity’ is an often-used term in academic discussions about popular music. It relates to that elusive something which sustains multi-millionaire Springsteen as the spokesman of the blue collar life, and it turned Madonna into a feminist icon in the 80s, rather than just a sex object. It’s the demeanor that makes you believe your favourite popular artist knows about ultimate heartache, true love, being down on their luck, or rolling deep in money and women. But how is authenticity established when the artist technically doesn’t exist?
“My research focuses on virtual bands, or music groups whose members are not real. Think Gorillaz, The Banana Splits, Dethklok, Alvin and the Chipmunks. How are these bands able to win over huge fanbases, and why do we accept that their characters are the true creators of the music?
“With a band like Gorillaz, music journalists the world over conduct their interviews with Murdoc, 2D, Russel and Noodle, the fictitious, anime-inspired members of the band. Gorillaz have an eclectic style and seem to be masters of many genres, mixing reggae and rock, hip-hop and the spoken word into their catchy singles. The idea of authenticity in Gorillaz is further complicated by their one female character, Noodle. She is a classic example of an Orientalist construction: hailing from Japan, Noodle is a mysterious and beautiful young female who arrived at Murdoc’s front door, not knowing where she’d come from, and bearing an incredible gift for virtuostic guitar playing. Brilliant and girlish, Noodle excels in what has traditionally been a man’s realm - the prowess of the lead guitarist. She raises many questions of gender and ethnicity constructions within the world of virtual bands.
Image from Flickr user Danny Choo
“Not unlike Noodle, a fascinating phenomenon from Japan is starting to sweep into more and more Western countries. Vocaloids are virtual pop stars created by gaming software companies; each game features a pre-designed singer who can be taught any song that the player wishes. In Japan, the games sell based on the popularity of the featured singer. Arguably the most famous is the blue-haired Hatsune Miku, dressed like a steampunk schoolgirl, who has sold out more than one Japanese stadium tour. Miku is just one example of a vocaloid that has introduced an entirely new kind of fandom: the ability to control your pop star. The songs performed on stage by the 3D hologram Miku are mostly written by her fans, not producers in a studio. Does Miku’s authenticity and popularity stem from her looks, the accessibility of her interface, or the voice she gives to the fans who write her chart-topping hits?”