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METAMERICANA: Gorillaz’ PLASTIC BEACH Is Our A HARD DAY’S NIGHT

METAMERICANA: Gorillaz’ PLASTIC BEACH Is Our A HARD DAY'S NIGHT

Fifty
years ago, at the height of Beatlemania, The Beatles released a
black-and-white film depicting their lives as rockstars in 1964. The
Oscar-nominated A Hard Day’s Night
took a quartet whose superstardom was positively cartoonish and
depicted it in gritty terms, delivering a clear message: The Beatles were now fame’s prisoners. As the band once put it in helping A Hard Day’s Night
scriptwriter Alun Owen encapsulate their experience in the public eye,
“our lives are a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a
room.” Owen’s film depicted the Fab Four trying to
escape—unsuccessfully—from those geographic and spiritual
restrictions.

Now
it’s 2014, and we’ve come entirely round the bend: the gritty realities
of rock stardom have been so carefully detailed in decades of tour
documentaries and biopics that bands now long to fictionalize themselves
the way The Beatles finally did in Yellow Submarine (1968). But where Yellow Submarine
was an animated musical fantasy with comic overtones, popular culture
today allows for the intervention of comic fantasy only where the
cynicism of the music industry is implicitly acknowledged. In other
words, in the 2010s we get the alternately dark and sublime Plastic Beach,
a fan-constructed musical fantasy (published online just over a year
ago) that takes animation clips released in conjunction with the
Gorillaz album Plastic Beach
(2010) and orders them sequentially to create the album the “band”
itself likely intended. As of last month, well over 4 million people
have viewed Plastic Beach
on YouTube, and that number seems certain to climb much, much higher as
the film’s value as a High Art/Low Art hybrid is more widely
appreciated.

It’s only appropriate that this generation’s A Hard Day’s Night
be partly a piece of fan fiction–even if its component parts are all
band-produced. In a world of remixes, mash-ups, photoshopping,
virality, and spinoff memes, each of us can participate in our
collective culture-making project much more than sixties Beatles
fanatics ever could. And it’s only appropriate that it be Gorillaz
who come in for this sort of cinematic treatment, as from the start
Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett (the real-world duo behind the four
animated bandmates comprising Gorillaz) have been exploring how
conspicuously aestheticized realities often channel our contemporary
reality more clearly than gritty realism.

It won’t do to say here that Plastic Beach
was largely meant to be watched by citizens of Colorado, Washington,
Oregon, and Alaska—states whose voters recently made possible watching
this film in a state of benign intoxication—but it is important to note that Plastic Beach
is a “happening” more so than a linear narrative. There’s
unquestionably a well-storyboarded storyline at work (in fact, you can
read the whole thing here), and that narrative self-consciously echoes A Hard Day’s Night, as the
four fictional members of “Gorillaz” flee the trials and villains of
the civilized world to cut a new album on an island composed of
congealed first-world trash. However, the larger throughline here is that the
best music today is at once silly and skin-deep and raw and urgently
political. Plastic Beach
is therefore half archetypal “musical fantasy” and half a politically
committed statement about institutionalized violence and environmental
degradation.

It
certainly doesn’t start out that way. It starts (following a brief 3D
fly-by of the Gorillaz studio on “Plastic Beach”) with a hilarious
homage to Yellow Submarine: Snoop Dogg dressed like a fifth Beatle from the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,
standing before an animated yellow submarine lifted straight from the
Beatles’ 1968 film. Snoop Dogg deserves credit for delivering here an
acting performance so inscrutable that after forty views of the clip you
still won’t know if he’s taking himself seriously or not.

What’s
for certain is that the lyrics of the Snoop Dogg/Gorillaz collaboration
“Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach” belie the light-heartedness
of the attached visuals. “The revolution will be televised,” says Snoop Dogg, reversing the famous proclamation of seminal rapper Gil Scott-Heron, “and
the pollution from the ocean.” After urging “kids [to] gather around”
and hear his message, Snoop tells them, “I need your focus; I know it
seems like the world is so hopeless. It’s like Wonderland!” Which is a
pretty good summary of the Plastic Beach of the film, Plastic Beach the
album and film, and Gorillaz themselves: a Wonderland of
hopelessness that entices and even genuinely pleases with its fictions
even as it obscures its dark realities. We’d call the whole thing
cynical if it wasn’t so earnest about its political commitments. We’d
call it morose if Albarn and Hewlett weren’t so clearly having the time
of their lives animating the four fictional members of Gorillaz.

The
members of the band are distinct and memorable. There’s 2D (lead
vocals, keyboard, and melodica), a kindhearted and hapless waster whose
naive immersion in this cartoonish Limbo suggests a sort of everyman
Millennial. There’s Murdoc Niccals (bass and drum machine), a likely
Satan-worshipper whose nihilism and oily creepiness implies an
unthinkable penchant for violence just beneath the surface. There’s Noodle
(guitar, keyboard, and backing vocals), a Japanese girl whose tweener
otherworldliness seems simultaneously born of innocence and a possibly
alien consciousness. And there’s Russel Hobbs (drums and percussion), intended
by his creators to be hip-hop made flesh—so much so that this kind,
protective older brother-like figure can actually channel the ghosts of
former hip-hop superstars and inflate his own size to Iron Giant-like
proportions.

There’s no point in detailing all the shenanigans these four get into in Plastic Beach,
except to say that they involve machine guns, warplanes, Snoop Dogg,
cruise ships, giant manatees, ghosts, a pirate ship, a fleet of
submarines, a giant, a killer-robot version of Noodle, Bruce Willis,
sportscars, a terrorist organization known only as “The Black Cloud,”
and a devilishly well-conceived, gas mask-wearing, black-cloaked villain
named “The Boogieman.” What brings it all together, however, is first
and foremost the music—hip-hop soaked in a pop-tart reduction—and also
its political message, which (briefly summarized) is, “Stop killing each other and the planet, assholes!”
Plastic Beach is, at its heart, a rhetoric-conscious seduction. If A Hard Day’s Night asked us to wake up to the dark recesses of popular culture, Plastic Beach
is the allure of popular culture challenging us to “just like that,
wake up!” (lyrics from “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach”). Although we’re drowning in a 24/7/365 Wonderland of manmade stimuli, this very immersion can allow us to see our current dilemmas
with new eyes.  Albarn and Hewlett understand that living in the present
cultural moment is like having to force yourself awake–daily–from a
dream that’s 50% sublime and 50% a nightmare. Is a dream like that
better classified as entirely nightmarish, or is it somehow worth
inhabiting in the moment and worth remembering clearly later on? The
answer is: both. And that makes the interaction of the dream state and the
reality we find in Plastic Beach an existential question whose resolution is of dire importance to us all.

Seth Abramson is the author of five poetry collections, including two, Metamericana and DATA,
forthcoming in 2015 and 2016. Currently a doctoral candidate at
University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is also Series Co-Editor for
Best American Experimental Writing, whose next edition will be published by Wesleyan University Press in 2015.

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