Pop stars have always been an important and necessary part of our social fabric, but they are tragically finite beings, suffering from a range of conspicuous and crippling design flaws. They get tired and bitchy from all the touring, practice routines, fan interaction, and off-hours promotional bullshit they have to constantly endure. They get addicted to drugs. They can only be in one place at one time. They get old and fat and bitter, and eventually they die. Which is why the world needs more pop stars like Hatsune Miku.
Hatsune Miku, whose Japanese name roughly means “New Sound of the Future,” is an invention of the Japanese company Crypton Future Media. Several years ago, Crypton premiered Miku as a modest 2-D animated spokesmodel for the software program Vocaloid, an audio synthesizer that translates musical notes and hand-typed lyrics into audio files using a selection of pre-programmed voice packs. Currently, Miku is an international pop star with her own video game, her own manga series, and even www.mikubook.com her own social networking site. She has released several successful Japanese music albums, and – most bizarrely – she gives live performances to crowds of screaming, adoring Japanese fans in the form of a life-size 3-D hologram.
Miku routinely sells out huge stadium venues all over Japan, and when she appeared live in Los Angeles earlier this year in conjunction with Anime Expo, she sold out the Nokia Theatre.
When Vocaloid 2 was launched in 2007, featuring Miku both as a splashy cover image, and an incorporated voice pack, a floodtide of fan-generated content instantly propelled both the Vocaloid software and Miku herself, into the Japanese national spotlight. Like GarageBand, Sonar, and similar digital music programs, Vocaloid was originally designed and marketed as a technical tool for electronic musicians, specifically ones that lacked access to voice talent.
“It was supposed to be a kind of ‘virtual instrument’ for projects that didn’t have the budget to hire a singer,” Crypton CEO Hiroyuki Ito recently informed Geekscape. “An amateur songwriter, for example, could insert a synthetic voice in his home studio to create a demo recording of a song. But since there’s such a rich Anime culture in Japan, we thought maybe by adding some kind of animated character, we could figure out a whole new way of utilizing Vocaloid technology.”
The early proliferation of animated Hatsune Miku fan videos and audio content, posted and shared on sites like Nico Nico Douga (the Japanese equivalent of YouTube), quickly established Vocaloid as an interactive toy for everyday human consumption, rather than merely a specialized tool for professionals. (Incidentally, the software is doing well in a professional capacity, too – electronic musician Mike Oldfield recently experimented with Vocaloid on his album Light + Shade, and Susumu Hirasawa used the software to create the howling, ghostlike vocal chorus that dominated much of the soundtrack for Satoshi Kon’s Paprika.)
A big part of Hatsune Miku’s appeal is her potential for interactive manipulation. Miku sings to live audiences as a full-scale humanoid, but she’s also a cartoon character, and that means fans have an unprecedented ability to vicariously experience her stardom for themselves. She has a devoted Cosplay following, and Sega has featured her in a popular Japanese video game called Project Diva.
“Originally, our company didn’t set up any licensing for Hatsune Miku to be used in gaming or computer software,” Ito recalls, “But since there were so many requests, we expanded the licensing to include computer programming production, which paved the way for things like Miku Miku Dance.” MMD, a limited 3-D animation program featuring several built-in Vocaloid avatars, has become an Internet phenomenon in its own rite, inspiring a ridiculous explosion of content, from strenuously goofy fan videos to obscure Japanese pop culture parodies. It also has its own twice-annual nerd competition called Miku Miku Dance Cup, where MMD aficionado compete to see who can make the fanciest original music video utilizing the software.
Miku now has over 305,000 fans on Facebook, and her crossover into the American cultural arena appears imminent. A year ago, at New York Anime Con, Crypton representatives announced plans to begin pursuing the development of a Vocaloid program for North American consumers. “It’s not that easy, though,” Ito laments. “We still need Ms. Saki Fujita, the voice talent, to master the proper English pronunciation. But we are definitely in the process of developing an English version that will recreate the voice people recognize as Hatsune Miku – not just the sound, but a software component as well.”
Meanwhile, Miku’s visibility in Japan continues to balloon insanely out of control. She’s the official Japanese sponsor for the Toyota Corolla, and her angry, leek-wielding chibi likeness, Hachune Miku, was recently launched into space. Unlike her flesh-and-blood counterparts, Hatsune Miku has no problem being everywhere at once.
The function of the modern entertainer has kept pace with most other developments in new media, in the sense that it has begun to radically redefine itself as a creative platform. The concept of the stage and video performer as a narrowly-defined “talent” is gradually evaporating, replaced by a brash re-conception of the pop star as an unapologetic purveyor of spectacle, the central, magnetic unit in a vast, orbiting network of computerized pyrotechnic and LED displays, meticulously choreographed sound systems, and towering video displays, converging in a looming, perfect synthesis which is then broadcast over a system of networked satellites to a potential audience of millions worldwide. Humans like David Bowie, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and more recently, bizarre experimental pop acts like Lady Gaga have achieved this fragile state of identity through a combination of nuanced showmanship, strategically timed personal reinvention strategies, and a slick balance of innovative weirdness and earthy, classical presentation. Hatsune Miku doesn’t refute any of that – she builds and expands on it. She’s a pop act without any central human figure, just an avatar for the audience to project their own experiences onto. She’s unchanging, unconstrained, and indefatigable. She’ll be around for as long as her public wants her – and if they ever lose interest, she’ll simply evolve.