For the uninitiated, it’s natural to assume that modern nerd culture — comic books, video games, TV, anime, etc. — is dominated by superheroes, Jedi Knights, angry dragon queens, and misfit robots. But dig deeper into these massive canons and you’ll find a common, slightly cooler thread: musical superstars. Yes, some of the most beloved fictional properties feature kickass rock bands, super-slick rappers, and cutesy pop singers. Sure, these characters may also attempt to save the world from, say, evil magic zombies, but it’s their artistry that imbues these franchises with a sense of depth and hipness. Here, then, are seven such artists, those acts cooler even than Jon Snow flying the Millennium Falcon into battle against Reavers.
For a generation of ’90s kids, The Beets were the first melding of music and make-believe. The quartet were the heroes of Doug’s titular awkward teen hero, a hippy commune-meets-art school collective amalgamation of The Beatles and Talking Heads, with a dash of The Grateful Dead for extra flavor. Within a show featuring quail-based superheroes and ample beatboxing, the music never had to be good. But lo and behold, jams like “Killer Tofu” were not only uber-catchy, but a keen introduction to psychedelic music and Britpop for a slew of millennials. Also, The Beets had the best merch this side of Hot Topic’s Misfits collection.
PaRappa the Rapper
There are quite a few names that deserve credit for introducing rap to those kids born post-1985: Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, and PaRappa the Rapper. Yes, the rapping dog and star of 1997’s titular rhythm game on the PlayStation has more than earned his place in hip-hop canon. It’s not because of the iffy verses — though Chop Chop Master Onion’s “Kick! Punch! It’s all in the mind!” remains an essential motivation tool — or the wonky beats and production or anime-on-acid aesthetic of the game. Instead, PaRappa demonstrated a central tenet of the culture, showing that individuality and authenticity (no matter how nerdy) is more important than all the bravado in the world. If nothing else, PaRappa is miles cooler than any other musically inclined cartoon dog (looking at you, Poochie).
Dethklok (from Metalocalypse)
Those same kids who loved and adored The Beets eventually grew up into snarky devotees of Dethklok, the doom-metal overlords of Metalocalypse. Say what you will about the show itself and its humor that tended toward slightly derivative, Adult Swim-approved zaniness, but with more guttural screaming and corpse paint. But Dethklok brought the fury, turning songs about coffee and a “Hatredcopter” into pulverizing anthems. In fact, Dethklok were in such high demand that series creator Brendon Small formed a real-life band to play shows and release albums. Still, little else beats the show’s, um, unique take on romance and weddings.
Amazing Joy Buzzards
As a rule, comic books are more interested in capes and tights than drums and bass. But when such a fictional outfit do pop up in comics, the true benchmark is always The Amazing Joy Buzzards. Introduced in Mark Andrew Smith and Dan Hipp’s 2005 series of the same name, AJB are a rock band that battles supernatural foes alongside a luchador/genie named El Campeon. The series succeeds because it stands at the heretofore unknown nexus of Scooby-Doo cartoons, 2000s indie rock, spy novellas, and action flicks. Not only do AJB tow the line between badass and dweeby, but the franchise only ran two limited series, kinda like when a great band drops two classic LPs and saunters into the great cosmic unknown.
Canonically speaking, The Impossibles are among the very first fictional bands featured in cartoons, the under-celebrated progenitors to The Beets and Dethklok. The story’s simple enough: A trio of teen idols form a band to serve as cover for their globe-trotting super-heroics. (There’s Fluid-Man, Multi-Man, and Coil-Man; try hard to guess those superpowers.) Hanna-Barbera made volumes of cheesy cartoons in the ’60s, but this one felt special. It was a powerful commentary (in hindsight, obviously) about obsessive teen culture and what passed for cool in the Swingin’ ’60s. Plus, it aired alongside Frankenstein, Jr., and that show slapped hard.
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Girls Dead Monster (from Angel Beats!)
Unless you live with a tween, you may be unaware of the anime Angel Beats! Here’s everything you need to know: It’s about high school students in limbo/the afterlife, and the band basically are used as a weapon/diversion by a group battling God himself. There’s more to GirlDeMo than just surface insanity, however. The series is a mediation on personal empowerment, overcoming trauma, and the power of friendship. And all that meaning and emotion is packaged alongside surprisingly catchy J-Rock topped with flourishes of Heart and Pat Benatar. But if “all-girl celestial rock band” doesn’t hook you immediately, try sorting your life out.
Sex Bob-Omb (from Scott Pilgrim)
As far as bands who should ride a wormhole into our plane of existence, Sex Bob-Omb are top scorers for certain. Scott Pilgrim’s indie-noise-folk outfit is that ultra-hip midpoint in the Venn diagram between comics, video games, anime, and rock. First appearing in Brian Lee O’Malley’s comics before Edgar Wright’s film version turned them into a real fake band — songs for the film were written by Beck and performed by Broken Social Scene, Metric, and others — the band crossed cultural boundaries in a way few other fictional bands ever could. They were just as essential in getting kids in the aughts to pick up a guitar (and hold onto that 12-sided die) as any “traditional” or “actually existing” group. They are Sex Bob-Omb, and they’re here to make you sad and think about death and stuff.