Which is why I showed up at New York’s Webster Hall May 22 for Gnarls’s first live gig on the East Coast — I knew there’d be high jinks. The question was what and who and how the rap blog community would react to it. The bit was simple: Gnarls Barkley cancelled last minute, so Brush Fire, a Gnarls Barkley cover band, were filling in for them. Thirteen people came out to do the work of two — ’80s hair-band flash and big wigs, three back-up singers, four strings, some dudes on guitar and keyboards, a drummer, another guy with a cape, and then an enormous black man also wearing a cape. The two caped crusaders came out to Europe’s “Final Countdown,” high jinks made audio, which riled the mostly late-20s crowd into throwing up the guns and saying (sort of loudly), “Holy shit, I didn’t know Gnarls Barkley wrote that song for Arrested Development. . . ”
The goof felt tossed off, very superficial, until the band actually started playing and something clicked for me. Webster’s mix was off — keyboards pushed all the way up, strings and singers back, the drums miked such that you could only hear the drummer’s bass and snare and no cymbals. But the mix was off because Brush Fire were a cover band — right? It’s as if the goof pre-emptively explained away the bad mix, the no-momentum show, Cee-lo saying he wants to see “titties . . . and crowdsurfing,” the general non-experience that was the Gnarls Barkley live show. The goof almost demands imperfections.
Then there’s the bunch of times Cee-lo said “We just fucking” or “We’re gonna fuck around, let’s do it.” It’s weird to see an artist so anxiously denying ownership of his own songs, or at least renouncing responsibility for them by throwing his arms up with a shrug and a smile. “Here’s a trifle!” as Pitchfork’s Sean Fennessey says. Even the quieter rendition of “Transformer” — with lines like “I can transform” and “I’m just being myself” — felt like Cee-Lo’s thinly veiled navel-gazing self-defense against people (rap fans) saying he jumped ship on hip-hop because, it seems, you just don’t do that sort of thing. Gnarls insist they don’t take the project seriously, there’s no more than meets the eye, they’re just two sweet dudes cutting some tracks for fun or whatever. But after the show, I wondered if there isn’t more. I don’t mean there’s some get-rich-quick conspiracy involved here with CL/DM at the helm — there are much better ways to make money than the pop music. But I do mean to say the two have found themselves to be — or have been forced into becoming — a fascinating instance where the publicists and publicity engines and all the mechanisms of the business of music are more artistic than the music itself. The leaked untitled tracks, the MySpace mobilization, the grassroots blog hype, the bizarre press photos — they all contribute to the façade of “totally fun pop, no bad intentions, not too serious and it hits the spot.” It’s a perfect marketing campaign, a true work of art.