For the past year, concerts have been a distant dream. Packed stadiums of shouting fans travelling from all over the region to dance and sing was the nightmare contagion scenario for health officials. Without a major profit revenue, artists had to get creative by putting on virtual concerts to replace their in-person performances. But now that vaccination rates are increasing, the online concert can fade into a thing of the past.
Except now, musicians aren’t just dipping their toes into the virtual world, but diving in headfirst to become a part of it. This month alone, three huge singers have turned into animated personas of themselves for performances. With Ariana Grande touring the Fortnite universe, Billie Eilish embracing her inner Disney princess, and Miley Cyrus’s anime escapades, it seems that the virtual world isn’t going back behind the wings, it’s about to take centre stage.
This isn’t the first time music and animation have been combined. Even in the ’60s, the Beatles used cartoon characters to market their Yellow Submarine album in a topsy turvy film. At the advent of MTV, animation gained even more recognition, with artists going out of their way to create original and interesting music videos that would hype up less than original songs. In comes the popular choice of animated videos that offer a lot more artistic freedom than the traditional script.
One of the most successful bands to take animation to another level is Gorillaz, which has full backstories for completely fabricated characters and has been putting on live virtual concerts for years now. Sure, in-person performances consist of Davom Albarn and his real life bandmates playing on stage with the animated character 2-D sings on a screen behind them, but Gorillaz marked one of the first bands to make virtual reality their home and still maintain a following. Expanding on new vocaloid technologies, Crypton Future Media has run with the virtual artist to create Japanese stars like Hatsune Miku.
But recently, real singers have also taken to creating their own virtual personas. Billie Eilish echoes Gorillaz creepy-sleepy style in her own animated music videos. She first debuted her animated face in the music video You Should See Me in a Crown, drawn by Takashi Murakami, which portrays the artist singing the song as she turns into a monster.
The transformation matches Eilish’s indie and anime aesthetics, plus Murakami’s art side-steps costly visual effects. In the teaser for Eilish’s upcoming Disney concert film, she again makes a virtual appearance, this time as a Disney-style cartoon, suggesting that the film contains more animation in the rest of the performance.
As Eilish continues her use of animation in pre-recorded music videos, Cyrus and Grande are utilising the technique for the first time in more innovative ways.
Miley Cyrus, for one, has monetised a foray into the world of anime with the help of Italian fashion house Gucci. In an ad promoting their new Flora Fantasy fragrance, Cyrus plays a guitar cover of Delicious by Shampoo, turning into an anime-fied version of herself halfway through the song. With the help of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure artist Terumi Nishii, Cyrus is able to enter virtual space while still fulfilling her job as the (now animated) face of Gucci.
The move was clever, since animation allows artists to put their brand onto a campaign without having to spend as much time physically committed to filming and photography, not to mention skipping the hassle of makeup and wardrobe. In effect, animation allows the artist to achieve the impossible of being in two places at once.
Grande is exploring this aspect to its full extent on Fortnite’s video game servers. While not the first to do a virtual show (Lil Nas X held a concert in Roblox earlier this year), Grande performs at five live concerts in four different regions over the span of just three days.
Tours normally mean travel, but the singer skips the hours of plane rides and jet lag, covering a whole world tour with the click of a button, literally. Along with the concerts, Fortnite has also released special game skins and cosmetics which function like t-shirts and band merch that a fan would buy from a physical show.
While in-person concerts are starting back up, music’s time in quarantine has been enough to uncover the benefits of virtual performances. Production studios have already augmented movie releases with streaming services, trading box office profits for the convenience of a computer. Animation allows artists to try out new, creative, physics-defying projects, all of which may render in-person performance obsolete. When the fans couldn’t come to the concerts, the concerts came to them. But now that fans can return to concerts, the question is: will they?