The New Wave Of Cartoon Bands

Jun 30, 2011
Originally published on June 30, 2011 5:22 pm

Hatsune Miku is an anime girl with kiddie-pool sized eyes and flowing teal pigtails. She stars in a new Toyota Corolla commercial aimed at the Asian-American market.

Miku is huge back home in Japan. Originally invented to sell synthesized voice software, the character's featured in a video game, she's released hit pop songs and she sells out live concerts. (If "live" is the right word.)

"They use twelve different projectors to project her in 34D space," explains Justin Sevakis, of the Anime News Network. "She towers. She's a good twenty feet tall in those concerts."

Miku's performing in Los Angeles for the first time this weekend. Her shows have completely sold out. Cartoon bands for kids are nothing new, but Japanese anime has taken them to slick, sophisticated new levels-- and created adult demand for them.

They bear little resemblance to animated bands you might remember from the 1960s and '70s, like Alvin and the Chipmunks, Josie and the Pussycats, or the Archies.

"The Archies were born because the Monkees didn't want to sing 'Sugar Sugar'," says Ben Greenman, music editor of The New Yorker, "It was offered to the Monkees, an artificial band; The Monkees rejected it, so it went and helped create this artificial band, The Archies."

"Sugar Sugar" famously became a number one hit single. But the animation was, Greenman says, almost sub-Scooby Doo. So were many other cartoon bands until about ten years ago, when Gorillaz came along. As much innovative pop art project as anything else, Gorillaz proved that animated bands could be multimedia pioneers, combining music, technology, art, video, even comedy.

Since then other animated bands have experimented with image, artifice and theatricality, all qualities vascular to pop. Greenman is partial to a Cartoon Network band called Dethklok, so successful they got on real pop charts a few years ago.

Another animated band called Studio Killers is finding a following with a cheeky music video called "Ode To The Bouncer" about fruitless attempts to get into nightclubs. Studio Killers is a shadowy international collective of artists, and virtual bands are actually a great way for people who don't live in the same country to collaborate.

Cartoon bands also make a certain harsh economic sense in a crumbling music industry. Producers can swap out voices or even use machines-- and how convenient to have pop stars who never get fat, never throw tantrums, and never get old.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

One of the ad campaigns that Toyota recently rolled out targeting Asian-Americans features a Japanese pop star. Here's the catch. That pop star is animated.

And as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, she's part of a new wave of virtual musicians.

NEDA ULABY: Hatsune Miku is a cartoon, a pink-eyed anime girl who looks like any other anime girl but with long flowing green hair. In this commercial, she jumps out of a shiny black car.

(Soundbite of Toyota ad)

Unidentified Man: Introducing the new 2011 Toyota Corolla.

Unidentified Woman (Voice Actress): (as Hatsune Miku) (Foreign language spoken)

ULABY: In Japan, Miku is everywhere. She's recorded hit songs. She's got a videogame, and she sells out live concerts.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (as Hatsune Miku) (Singing in foreign language)

ULABY: If live is the right word.

Mr. JUSTIN SEVAKIS (Director of New Media, Anime News Network): They use 12 different projectors to project her in 3-D space. She towers. She's a good 20 feet tall on those concerts.

ULABY: Justin Sevakis of the Anime News Network was hoping to see Miku live this weekend. She's performing for the first time in Los Angeles, but her shows have completely sold out.

Cartoon bands for kids are nothing new - think Alvin and the Chipmunks -but Japanese anime has taken cartoon bands to slick, sophisticated new levels and created broader demand for them. They're nothing like the creaky old groups of the 1960s and '70s, like Josie and the Pussycats or The Archies.

(Soundbite of song, "Sugar, Sugar")

ARCHIES (Music Group): (Singing) Sugar, ah, honey, honey.

Mr. BEN GREENMAN (Music Editor, The New Yorker): The Archies were born because the Monkees didn't want to sing "Sugar, Sugar." It was offered to the Monkees.

ULABY: Ben Greenman is the music editor of The New Yorker magazine.

Mr. GREENMAN: An artificial band, the Monkees rejected it, so it went and helped create this artificial band, The Archies.

ULABY: And gave them a number one hit single. But The Archies animation...

Mr. GREENMAN: I wouldn't say sub-"Scooby-Doo."

ULABY: But close.

For years, cartoon bands were mostly sub-"Scooby-Doo." Then, about a decade ago, the Gorillaz came along.

(Soundbite of song, "Clint Eastwood")

GORILLAZ (Music Group): (Singing) I ain't happy. I'm feeling glad. I got sunshine...

ULABY: The Gorillaz are a sophisticated pop art project. They proved that animated bands could be multimedia pioneers, combining music, technology, art, video, even comedy.

(Soundbite of song)

ULABY: Since then, other animated bands have experimented with image, artifice and theatricality, all vascular to pop. The New Yorker's Ben Greenman likes a Cartoon Network band called Dethklok.

(Soundbite of song)

ULABY: They made an album that got on real pop charts a few years ago.

Greenman thinks there's a chance another animated band called Studio Killers might score a hit this summer.

(Soundbite of song, "Ode to the Bouncer")

STUDIO KILLERS (Music Group): (Singing) Ooh, let me in or I'll get physical with you.

ULABY: Studio Killers is a shadowy international collective of artists. When you think about it, making a virtual band is a great way for people who don't live in the same country to collaborate on a song, say, about failing to get into a nightclub.

(Soundbite of song, "Ode to the Bouncer")

STUDIO KILLERS: (Singing) No, I haven't had no dope. Lift up the velvet rope. Mr. Doorman, stop teasing. I'm freezing out here.

ULABY: In a crumbling music industry, cartoon bands can solve labor problems. Producers can swap out voices or even use machines. And how convenient to have pop stars who never get fat, never throw tantrums and never get old.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Ode to the Bouncer")

STUDIO KILLERS: (Singing) 'Cause all in all you're just another prick at the door. Ooh, let me in or I'll get physical with you. I just got to dance right now. It's critical to do. Bouncer, hey, bouncer, bouncer, bounce, bounce, bouncer, bouncer, hey, bouncer... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.