I’ve seen a massive crowd line up around the block to watch an internet-fueled hologram of an anime girl sing. I’ve seen a packed auditorium erupt into a wild cheer for a text-to-speech voice that said: “Hello Seattle.” I’ve seen our present day, in all its bracing cyberpunk wonder, at Hatsune Miku’s live concert at WaMu Theater last weekend.
And it was pretty great.
This piece originally appeared 4/29/16.
It works like this: The virtual pop idol, instantly recognizable in her floor-length twin ponytails, appears on a translucent projection screen placed in the center of the stage. The screen is wide enough to give her some room to dance and move around freely while she sings; she isn’t restricted to a single point. There’s a live human backing band, though they’re relegated to the extreme far sides of the stage because the majority of the space is reserved for the display. (Anamanaguchi, Miku’s opening act for the North American leg of this tour, has to work with the same setup, which prevents the usually ebullient chiptune band from really owning the stage.) The artifice is not hidden: you can see the screen and everything. But as the show gets underway it hardly matters.
The songs come at a rapid clip and fill almost two hours with bouncy, melodic, electronic-weighted pop anthems. If you’re a fan, you know the songs already and it’s fun to hear them cranked up alongside a like-minded crowd. If not, they’re all still eminently listenable tunes. Most are in Japanese with no translations offered.
There are no breaks, no skits, no chatty conversations with the audience. After all, Hatsune Miku is a Vocaloid, one of a handful of fictional characters developed by Sapporo-based Crypton Future Media. She sings and dances, changes costumes in an instantaneous particle-effect wipe, and immediately does it all over again without needing a break. She is literally a machine.
Hatsune Miku has been performing in live shows since 2009, first in Japan and later across the world. The virtual idol is one of those international phenomena that leave a lot of people, especially the Western music critic or journalist type, absolutely cold. Mainstream writers who’ve tried to cover Vocaloids often can’t get over the artifice: “The world’s fakest pop star,” CBS News declared her in a 2012 headline. Or they try to serve up Hatsune Miku as a pat explanation for all of Japan (with bonus points for name-checking otaku and Shinto animism!).
Finally, there are the trend pieces suggesting that Hatsune Miku represents an inflection point for all of music. “Does Hatsune Miku’s Ascent Mean the End of Music as We Know It?” asked the New York Times. To this kind of writer, Hatsune Miku looks like the terminus of a few big-picture trend lines: social media, synthesis and artificiality, cultural fragmentation.
Hot takes like these are a little much, but there is something interesting about the degree of Miku’s “fakeness” when you consider pop music in general. Vocaloids are easy to accept in part because of the long-standing perceived artificiality of pop musical performers. The thinking goes: Producers write their songs for them, designers choose their clothes for them, managers define their personalities for them. So what does the cute ingenue of the day actually do except look pretty and lip-sync along to a prerecorded, pitch-corrected perfect take? The idea that being a pop star is basically the same thing as performing a simulation of being a pop star is so widely accepted today that self-referencing meta-commentary to this effect is a commonly accepted interpretation for many a modern album or oeuvre.
Vocaloids take their own distinct approach to pop culture’s blending of reality and artificiality. Hatsune Miku is a construct comprised of a character design and a software toy that lets anyone string phonemes together and set their timing and pitch. Nobody is trying to fool an audience into thinking there’s a real human being underneath all this. Her voice is obviously synthesized, her hair physics aren’t possible in real life, and so on. Some of her most popular songs take advantage of the fact that she can sing in ways humans can’t: severe pitch jumps, stuttering, racing through syllables like the computer program she is.
Hatsune Miku’s total artificiality is the point a skeptic would immediately identify as the problem that makes her an artistic non-starter. In fact, it’s this very attribute that turns out to be an aesthetic strength. It’s demonstrated in “The Disappearance of Hatsune Miku”, an early creative success (originally released in 2008, about a year after her introduction in 2007). This song portrays a self-aware and introspective Miku facing her own quickly-approaching death.
Her existential crisis is vocalized in a stream of disjointed thoughts spoken in an extremely rapid monotone: After I was born I realized I exist just to imitate humans, a Vocaloid destined to sing forever. Even if the song already existed, a programmed toy accepts it just fine—
What’s remarkable about the lyrics of this song is that part of her complaint is that she was born only to imitate humans, yet in making this point, she sings in a way that doesn’t sound human at all. In a sly way, the song dissuades you from judging her on the extent to which she can imitate a human being and encourages you to see her on her own, non-human, merits.
“The Disappearance of Hatsune Miku” is a popular number, and it was performed at the Seattle show. Surrounded by cheering fans, I watched as Miku visibly struggled, glitched out, and ritually “died.” It was as powerful as anything I’ve experienced in pop music, and an object lesson in contemporary myth-making.
The audience at the show was great: Excited, supportive, as geeky as you’d expect. There was lots of cosplay of Miku in her various established looks, as well as of the other Vocaloids (Megurine Luka and Kagamine Rin were favorites). There were moms chaperoning their daughters, shy young men with hair over their faces buried in in their 3DSes, and barrel-chested bros with buzz cuts aggressively dual-wielding their glowsticks. One man came dressed in a full-body suit as a leek, a reference to an early Miku meme. He was extremely popular.
From a theatrical perspective, there’s something missing—a kind of energy vacuum—when your main performer is projected and synthesized. A real human being in the center of a stage has a difficult-to-define quality called “presence,” something that has to do with the way a person projects power and transfixes the attention of an audience. The projected Vocaloids don’t have this, but the live backing band helps reinforce the notion that something immediate and genuine is happening, that you haven’t all gathered just to watch a video. The distribution of glowsticks also adds a slightly interactive component to being in the audience and can be quite beautiful when the crowd is coordinated.
What really makes the concert work, however, is the audience’s enthusiasm. Fans love to take credit for making “their” artists popular, but it’s never been more true than in Hatsune Miku’s case. Fans write her songs, make her music videos, draw her stories. Anyone can buy the program and write a song for Miku to sing; her likeness is Creative Commons-licensed. MikuMikuDance, the de rigueur software for designing Vocaloid dances for music videos, is fan-created freeware.
This interaction between decentralized creators and participants in fan culture collectively decides what works are accepted as truth. Miku’s death as portrayed in Disappearance, her complex relationship to her audience, her lesbian romance with Luka—all of these are storylines that were formed and solidified from the churning waters of fan-created media. Once one truth is established, more works bubble up that build upon it adding a second truth, and so on, until a whole world has been built.
Hatsune Miku either works for you or she doesn’t. When she doesn’t, it’s hard to get over the basic facts of the way she’s constructed. Her voice has been upgraded over time, but it’s not exactly “good” in the way any professional singer would understand the word. Her model and motions are pretty well done these days, but they aren’t industry-leading. Considering she’s a computer-generated character who can literally do anything, some of her dancing is surprisingly stilted and graceless. Why would people pay good money to come to a live show to experience this? How does Hatsune Miku sell out concert venues from East to West?
“In high school one of my good friends showed me a Vocaloid video,” said Aaron Steel, a University of Washington grad student who attended the concert. “At first I was kind of hesitant about whether or not I liked it and thought it was strange. But after watching several videos I realized it was a really innovative program and admired the hard work that the producers put into making their music.” Steel suggested that using and manipulating Vocaloid software is an art that can be appreciated in itself: “Every producer is able to utilize [Vocaloids] differently in order to match the mood of their song and showcase their strengths.”
Solon Scott, a YouTube personality who was introduced to Vocaloids by the Project Diva series of rhythm games, echoed that sensibility. “[Vocaloids are] a platform for artists and diverse forms of expression,” he said. “Whatever’s not to love about them is only what has yet to be made.”
The more I spoke to fans who’d gone to the show, the more they underscored that point: Vocaloids are a locus for creation and sharing—something that’s far more important than anything having to do with Hatsune Miku’s specific personality or attributes. She’s less of a character and more of a medium, a shared creative framework that can amplify and hold a mirror to the people who participate in her community.
On the way home, our Lyft driver made an attempt at small talk and asked us what had been going on downtown.
My friend Jessica attempted to explain: “It was a Hatsune Miku concert?” she said. “Hatsune Miku is a Vocaloid, she sings and dances but she’s not real, she’s a software program and a hologram? And all her songs are written by people on the internet?”
There was a pause.
“I’m a behind-the-times sort of guy,” he said, finally, as we got on the highway. I laughed, but he seemed stymied over how to continue the conversation and there was another pause.
“Is she hot?” he asked.
The driver looked roughly my age, which is to say that he was a grown-ass man, but at that moment I felt like my friend and I might as well have been kids talking to our clueless dad (“I guess she is? But that’s not the point, Dad”). The gulf between us was so astronomically large that further discussion felt pointless. It reminded me of the time Hatsune Miku made a guest appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman.
“Our next guest is a computer-generated Vocaloid personality from Japan,” Letterman deadpanned, and there were audience giggles just from this string of words. His frozen smile spoke volumes. I understood the quandary here: He couldn’t pretend he was actually into this because that would be too obviously fake. He couldn’t make too much fun of her or her fans—why book her on the show at all if he was just going to be a dick about it? He’d already announced his retirement; Miku’s guest spot came just a few months before the end of his storied thirty-year career in television.
The expression on his face communicated all of that with a kind of giddy resignation. “There you go, folks,” he seemed to be thinking. “We’re taking the first steps into a weird new world, and there’s no going back.”