Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc.:” An Anthem of (Un)rebellion

Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc.:” An Anthem of (Un)rebellion

“I don’t fuck with Gorillaz, but I fuck with people who fuck with Gorillaz.”

My friend stared at me wearing a black beanie with the band’s name sewn across my forehead in bold red stitches. I could feel my face contorting as I simultaneously processed his words and formulated a reply: “Oh, haha… uh, thank you.” Realizing the odd execution of his compliment, he responded with “Oh, yeah… no prob… well, see you.” Although the exchange was short-lived, I couldn’t help trying to discern why my friend only enjoyed a second-hand experience of Gorillaz. As an entity, the group’s existence is already second-hand: all of the band members have been represented as cartoons since the group’s inception in 1998.

Gorillaz is headed by real-life musicians Damon Albarn and Remi Kabaka, and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett. We don’t have to look past much to see why they are killing the early 2000s progressive pop game: on the base level, Gorillaz’s music oozes with psychedelic blends of rock, funk, hip-hop, folk, and electropop that sound both nostalgic and rejuvenating. Beyond that, the acclaimed “first virtual band” completely immerses and markets itself from the headquarters of its own unreality: the cartoon-musician-characters — Murdoc, Noodle, 2D, and Russel — have no problem conducting real-world interviews and recording in real-world studios while maintaining their 2-dimensional form, with the photographs to prove it. And each band character is equipped with their own frightfully fleshed-out backstory, sense of style, and curious personality. So maybe it’s the overwhelmingly detailed nature of the band members’ semi-virtual lives that deters fans from appreciating Gorillaz beyond their musical exterior. And I can’t blame my friend for not fucking with Gorillaz directly — the origin and developing story of the Gorillaz universe is a rabbit hole that I’m still falling into… like, imagine the Marvel universe, but with less superpowers and more music. Hopefully, we can work through Gorillaz’s multi-faceted appeal by focusing on what their presence means in relation to the real-world music industry. How meaningful is it to engage with a virtual band whose world seeks to overlap with ours? And, specifically, how relatable is the message within Gorillaz’s hit single, “Feel Good Inc.” in relation to our pop culture industry?

I have listened to Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc.” and raved about it so many times that my closest friends will confess that I have conditioned them to think of me whenever they hear it. I first heard the song on a Kidz Bop CD at the budding age of six, and did not hear it again until a friend played it from his phone nearly a decade later. It’s hard to describe how the rediscovery of “Feel Good Inc.” transformed my relationship with singles without making it sound mystical, so bear with me. At the age of fifteen, as I listened to the song’s infectious bassline and De La Soul’s skillful raps instead of the prepubescent cover voices of Kidz Bop, I realized that I had found a keeper. “Feel Good Inc.” became one of the only singles that I chose not to play on repeat for fear of losing my appreciation for it. But what was even more spectacular was that, even when I couldn’t help myself and gave in to a second or third listen, each three-and-a-half minute interval felt the same as the first. So what makes listening to “Feel Good Inc.” so special within the pop music scene?

I’ll take it bit by bit. It’ll be helpful to delve into “Feel Good Inc.’s” backing track before moving on to analyze its lyrics and accompanying music video. And we can begin by noticing that before all that — before the play button is even pressed — the title of “Feel Good Inc.” promises listeners that they are in for a carefully constructed and downright sickening auditory experience. The song is scientifically composed. Psychologically infectious. And about the exploitative nature of modern music corporations. Then the play button is pressed, and the listener is immediately apprehended by the echoing cacklings of De La Soul’s Trugoy the Dove. His laugh becomes more precise, strained, and lower in pitch as he runs out of breath, indicating the addicting but overpowering nature of the pop music industry. Enter: Albarn’s flacetto whisper, reminding the listener to “feel good” before the bassline begins to thump louder than the accompanying backbeat and melodic electric guitar. Goddamn, that bassline. Its melody increases and decreases in pitch, repeating in waves until the occasional flick of a high note cues listeners to strike their favorite 70s dance pose. Then 2D’s voice (or actually, Albarn’s) mimics a salt shaker as he repeats, “sha, sha ba da, sha ba da, feel good,” and the listener’s brain begins to sizzle as the intro repeats for 64 counts. This track is also repeated (without 2D’s careless whispers) throughout the song, behind the verses and raps, but not behind the chorus. Which is interesting, not because the tone of a pop song doesn’t usually change when the chorus comes around, but because it doesn’t usually become more tame during the chorus.

Because up until then, this musical example of what the pop culture industry does — sucking listeners in, seeking out the beats that will rumble in their stomachs and leave them asking for more — is effective in convincing listeners to give in to that temptation. To gleefully munch on whatever pop music decides to cook up. But even in this specific case, listeners are directed towards sinking into the pools of pop music whose water is most crystalline: “Feel Good Inc.’s” backtrack plays odes to the key elements of funk, hip-hop, and rock that keeps its revolutionary aspects alive within the mainstream. The bassline is reminiscent of unapologetic, badass funk. The backbeat brings it back to gangster rap. The electric guitar is as pleading as the blues. And all combine to point a massive middle finger towards the music corporations that seek to distort and distastefully regurgitate such content.

So the chorus of “Feel Good Inc.” can actually be a continuation of the same ideal. A simple four chords repeated on the guitar, 2D’s soothing, melodic voice, and the faint crackling of an old record player combine to ask the listener to take a breath and appreciate the soft aspects of classic folk music. This unexpected organization of the single allows listeners to pinpoint the genres of music they find most compelling and to be unafraid of championing old music traditions within the modern music industry. The instrumentals exit the same way they entered — with Trugoy the Dove’s hysterical laughter, telling the listener that when pop music is meaningful, it is the daily vitamin that continually benefits the soul, rather than the quick fix whose repeated use is never the same as that first high.

Onto the lyrics and music video for “Feel Good Inc.” The film opens on a virtual depiction of an industrial, polluted, and corrupted metropolis, with the sounds of police sirens wailing and people yelling. The camera dramatically passes under an overpass and pans upwards, above the clouds, on an incredibly run down and tall tower, revealed to be the Feel Good Inc. from which three of the four Gorillaz members are creating their music and partying. We zoom in past a sea of animated women dancing before focusing on the lead singer of Gorillaz, 2D, rising from a love seat to deliver the first verse. He sings of how the corporation that he is a member of has corrupted his city, turning it into “a melancholy town where we never smile,” and where music that is thought of as rebellious is in fact a part of the industry that has turned the city dark with its enforced monotony.[1] This notion is reinforced as 2D’s voice remains monotone and muffled although he is shown to be singing of hardship through a megaphone. The revolution is being televised, but the screen is muted. While this is happening, we see Murdoc playing the bassline of the song with an empty look on his face as women attempt to seduce him, and Russel unenthusiastically beats the drums in the background. The lavish life that the Gorillaz are living has contributed to the upending of their own city and the dullness of their personal lives, turning them into the tools that the music industry uses to hold the masses under their control.

Then that lovely chorus begins, and the camera pans to a flying, turning windmill as it cuts through the clouds, fully illuminated by the sun. Here is that old, dependable, working-class method of music making that is the light at the end of the industrial tunnel. 2D sings of the windmill and its persistency as the force that can topple the destructive system of pop music and lead the masses into the light of original music making. “Is everybody in?”[2]

In comes Trugoy the Dove’s iconic rap, accompanied by projections of him across the plasma screens within Feel Good Inc. 2D is forced out of broodily staring out of the studio’s window in order to twitch and dance to the rap. And nothing prevents this verse from making his body move, as Trugoy sings of the group’s success and ability to “ghost town this Motown,” nodding towards the potential that Gorillaz has for revolutionizing the pop music industry by playing into it in the right ways.[3] For “Gorillaz’ work emanates from a spirit of collaboration that decentres notions of authenticity and originality, positioning their work openly in a postmodern field of play and display.”[4] Specifically, instead of depending on the presence of big pop artists on their tracks, Gorillaz is notorious for using their animated band members to showcase the work of local musicians who hold a real passion for the art. And as Trugoy proves, the work pays off.

As the music video continues and the chorus returns, we see the fourth member of Gorillaz, Noodle, strumming her acoustic guitar while sitting atop the windmill island. She glides gracefully through the clouds and past the tower of Feel Good Inc. as 2D stares at her through his window, longing to join her in the act of proletariat music making. But the end of the music video follows the arc of the song — viewers are brought back inside the tower to witness Murdock thrusting his hips to his own bass playing, as Trugoy sings “Don’t stop, get it, get it / Peep how your captain’s in it / Steady, watch me navigate, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!”[5] Gorillaz remains within Feel Good Inc.’s depressing walls, but Trugoy sings of victory, having realized the agency that he and the band members can attain by turning the monotony of the music industry on its head, instead using the resources provided to them to popularize the aspects of music making that they most admire: the references to the past, the uplifting of local artists, and the joy that comes from that process.

In short, Gorillaz makes pop music what I want it to be: a platform through which artists with real creative skill can collaborate with the other forms of pop culture that our society consumes — animation and video — and receive the praise they deserve. By manipulating multiple forms of pop culture and still experiencing success within the entertainment industry “Gorillaz have provided Albarn and Hewlett with a tool to critically reflect, persiflage, and playfully (up)stage the world of mass-market music.”[6] Their “Feel Good Inc.” assuages any fear of buying into a manipulative entity, for although it is a corporation, the morals of the artists and collaborators within that entity are still sound, and makes me feel… good.

An earlier draft of this essay was read by Alejandro Zuleta.

I have written this essay in the styles of Ellen Willis and Greg Tate.

[1]  Gorillaz, “Feel Good Inc,” in Demon Days, Parlophone Records, 2005, http://spotify.com.

[2]  Gorillaz, Feel Good Inc, http://spotify.com.

[3]  Gorillaz, Feel Good Inc, http://spotify.com.

[4] Kelly, Jem, “POP MUSIC, MULTIMEDIA AND LIVE PERFORMANCE,” Music, Sound and Multimedia: From the Live to the Virtual, (2007): 114.  http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1g0b5k8.12, 114.

[5] Gorillaz, Feel Good Inc, http://spotify.com.

[6] Eckstein, Lars, “Torpedoing the Authorship of Popular Music: A Reading of Gorillaz’ ‘Feel Good Inc,'” Popular Music 28, no. 2 (2009): 252-253. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40541429.