“The morbid curiosity prompted by absence. Your Eminence, as an orphan, I’m very familiar with this.”
With these words, a visionary Jude Law in the role of fictional Pope Pius XIII in Paolo Sorrentino’s successful TV series ‘The Young Pope’ explained his decision to deliver his first speech as Pope while keeping his face concealed. The absence of physical appearance, he argued, would surround his identity with a halo of mystery very similar to what believers feel when they think about God, or orphans when thinking about their missing parents. This would, in turn, trigger a research, a quest for discovery which would, in his opinion, make him even more famous and successful. While his character may or may not have been influenced by childhood trauma in making this decision, there are indeed other cases of celebrities who chose a similar approach to notoriety, choosing to keep their identities and faces a secret in favor of a symbol. But is it indeed a marketing strategy, or are there deeper motives behind this choice?
The first and possibly most notorious example of such a strategy is that of alt-rock/indie band Gorillaz, whose newest album, Humanz, was released on April 28. The band released its first eponym album Gorillaz in 2001, which sold seven million copies and entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the Most Successful Virtual Band. The band indeed started its public relations hiding behind a group of cartoonish characters, each with its nickname, designed by comic book artist Jamie Hewlett. At first, most people believed these characters to be personae of real-life musicians involved in the project. However, it later turned out Gorillaz is actually the result of the more or less intermittent cooperation of several artists, with occasional features of other very well-known celebrities, such as Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, Rag’n’Bone Man and Noel Gallagher among others. The only permanent members of the band are its founders: Damon Albarn, who also happens to be the frontman of Blur and the one who leads the vocals and the keyboards for Gorillaz, and Jamie Hewlett. By admission of Damon Albarn, Gorillaz initially started as an experiment: what happens if you separate the music from the artists that make it? When we listen to music knowing who the musicians are, what they look like, and we have some information about them, we tend to have a bias towards them, he argues. Gorillaz is then an attempt to disentangle the intrinsic quality of the music from the obligations of celebrity. And the quality seems indeed to be appreciated, considering the enormous success of the band, which has performed at several festivals, such as Coachella and Glastonbury, has won numerous awards (including five platinums in the UK, two in the US, and a Grammy) and is working on several multimedia projects on its website, for example interactive short cartoons and videos.
Other well-known pioneers of musical alter-egos are the Daft Punk, a mysterious French techno duo started in 1993. While in the beginning Daft Punk was more oriented towards disco and dance music, which became cult in clubs all over the world, they took a turn into the synth-pop and electronic scene in the last decade, officially becoming world icons in 2013 with their album Random Access Memories which includes the hit single Get Lucky. They also cooperated to the soundtrack of the movie Tron: Legacy.
The two members, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, always disguise themselves with a futuristic attire and their trademark robot helmets. When interviewed by the Rolling Stone magazine on the reason of their choice, Bangalter replied: “We’re interested in the line between fiction and reality, creating these fictional personas that exist in real life.” They basically intend to create a cult of these icons, rather than the people behind it, which is also exemplified by their attempt to present a film based on these characters to the Cannes Film Festival, or by the cooperation with cult directors such as Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry on some of their music videos. Or in de Homem-Christo’s words: “We’re not performers, we’re not models—it would not be enjoyable for humanity to see our features. But the robots are exciting to people.” So far the trick seems to have worked, and the two artists enjoy the comfort of anonymity, although it appears some people around the world tend to try and steal their identities from time to time. But I guess that’s part of the charm.
It seems then that anonymity worked miracles for the success of these visionary entrepreneurs of music. But how do the two things relate? Is it possible that Pius XIII may be onto something when he claims that absence prompts “morbid curiosity”? It may be partly right; however, there are other, more convincing explanations for the success of Gorillaz and Daft Punk, and they have more to do with what they have in common than with their differences.
First of all, both bands skillfully combine different media in their approach to the production of music. It’s not just music, but rather an entire experience, a virtual environment that delivers a narrative to the audience. Music videos are no longer something parallel to the act of playing music, but rather an extension of it, that affects the public on both the visual and auditive dimension through the use of sophisticated visual and sound effects. Then, the artists create alter egos that are not mere images, but rather defined characters that move and live within their artificial universe: it is the case for the quirky characters of Gorillaz and their trippy adventures, drawn by the hand of Jamie Hewlett, sometimes based on the input of their fanbase, collected through their website; and it is also the case for the Daft Punk robots. As a result of this strategy, the audience does no longer connect the music with the actual authors, but to the narrative of it, and music becomes more like an interactive game. When the authors then start merchandising their products (clothes, gadgets, all sorts of accessories) in line with this narrative, they extend this fictional universe into reality, bringing it within the consumer’s grasp. They do nothing more than follow basic business: create a market from the needs of the population. And so a new industry is born.
Whether this outcome of Gorillaz and Daft Punk’s strategy was intended from the very start or their almost metaphysical aspirations were genuine is hard to tell. But what we can conclude from this experience is that sometimes ideas sell better than people: a lesson that more and more artists in different creative industries are starting to learn and apply in practice.