June 2012

I Sing the Body Electric

Teen Japanese-pop sensation Hatsune Miku proves corporeal reality isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for fame

MARGARET
WAPPLER

At this year’s Coachella music festival, slain rapper Tupac Shakur was resurrected for a performance with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Projected as a two-dimensional image, abs still ripped in the pixilated afterlife, Virtual ’Pac alternately dazzled and freaked out the crowd 15 years after his shooting. Forget keeping it real; thug life just got surreal.

Kind of creepy but not exactly cutting-edge: Hologram Tupac was actually a 19th-century magic trick called Pepper’s Ghost, an image projected onto glass tilted 45 degrees. Pepper’s Gangsta, if you will, was flashed in high definition on Mylar, but it’s basically the same wizardry used by local community theaters for spectral castmembers. Which prompts the question: Who’s more street—Jacob Marley’s ghost or Tupac Shakur?

’Pac might be the baddest projection out there, but he’s neither the first nor the most audaciously futuristic. The latter distinction belongs to Japan’s virtual pop star Hatsune Miku, a digital-android pixie in aquamarine pigtails and knee-high boots. She performs via basically the same technology as Tupac, with flesh-and-blood musicians as her backup band.

Since 2009, the Japanese-pop divatar has performed shows in her native land, as well as a Los Angeles debut at the Nokia Theater during the 2011 Anime Expo. In March, she sold 10,000 tickets for $76 a pop in Tokyo. Her most viewed clip on YouTube, in which she sings her megahit “World Is Mine,” has gotten more than 15 million hits.

Indeed, avatars, cartoons and holograms are nothing new to pop: to wit, the Gorillaz (joined at the 2006 Grammys by a holographic Madonna), the Archies (whose “Sugar, Sugar” went to number one in the late ’60s). And let’s not forget those perennial Christmas favorites Alvin and the Chipmunks. But to consider Miku just another cartoon act would be selling her—and her fanbase—woefully short.

Created by Crypton Future Media, Miku is the most popular avatar created to sell Vocaloid 2, the singing synthesizer application originally developed by Yamaha. In Japan, it is common to create a character associated with software, and at first glance, Miku may seem like little more than an animated mascot, not unlike the Pillsbury Doughboy or the Snuggle fabric softener bear. But Miku inspires an unparalleled creativity.

Instead of passively worshipping her, fans have mobilized into an interactive artistic community. Using Vocaloid 2, they write melodies and lyrics, sharing their songs on YouTube or the Japanese equivalent, niconico (“smilesmile”). Since Miku’s “birth” in August 2007, amateurs have used her likeness in hundreds of thousands of songs, illustrations, videos, games, animations—and one rather creepy, dead-looking Miku robot. She’s a cosplay (costume role play) favorite at anime conventions and elsewhere.

In addition to having a video-game series—Project DIVA, which has sold more than a million units in Japan—Miku has appeared in commercials for Toyota Corolla, which ran in Asian outlets in the States, and Google Chrome, in her home country. The latter spot has been played on YouTube nearly a million more times than Justin Bieber’s U.S. Chrome ad, a point Miku fans gleefully point out to Beliebers. In fact, the two factions stage virtual throwdowns on the Internet.

Yet it’s not all squeaky clean: You wouldn’t want to meet all Miku lovers in a dark digital alley. In February 2011, Karley Sciortino described the singer’s attire as “slutty” in the English music mag Clash. “There were actually pipe-bomb threats to Clash’s London office,” she wrote on her blog following the story’s publication.

Extreme examples aside, Miku fans mostly just want recognition for their beloved bundle of electrons. A recent poll on the website Top Tens asked who should sing at the London Olympics Opening Ceremony. Miku was topping the list, then she was mysteriously removed from the running. Some acolytes speculated she’d been sabotaged by competitive Korean-pop fans or those darn Bieberites.

But it turned out to be simpler than that: The Top Tens administrators, based in the U.S., didn’t fully understand that the pixilated princess was a legitimate performer. After receiving angry missives from Miku fans, including Palm Desert resident John Harbort, the main blogger at mikufan.com, Top Tens reinstated Miku, and she won the vote.

“Miku has evolved because of all of us, her fans,” Harbort says. “We all feel we have contributed to getting her here.” He recently wrote a widely shared post titled “Stop Posting ‘Save Miku’ Topics and Videos,” in response to fans fretting that the Top Tens incident, as well as her videos getting temporarily yanked from YouTube, was a harbinger of Miku’s virtual death.

After her sold-out shows in March, Reuters reported she might retire from live performance, but after a flurry of questioning, Crypton clarified that the singer was simply taking a break (cyber-exhaustion, perhaps?). Fans have always been paranoid Miku would vanish as easily as she was born, a theme touched upon in “The Disappearance of Hatsune Miku,” a popular song by the composer cosMo.

Some biographical facts about Miku: Her name translates to “first sound of the future.” She’s five-two and 93 pounds. She has siblings, in a sense: Vocaloid 2 characters Kagamine Rin and Len, who often join her in concert. Last year, she even merged with Hello Kitty to make Miku-Kitty, which nearly destroyed the world with cuteness. Her airy voice is based off samples from Japanese actress Saki Fujita. In April 2010, Crypton added some new shades to her singing voice: “soft,” “dark,” “solid,” “vivid,” “sweet” and “light” (but alas, no “umami”).

So, in the age of highly digitized robopop, is Miku the next logical step? How long have we been hurtling toward an entirely synthetic pop persona? As science-fiction writer William Gibson puts it, “Hatsune Miku’s Wikipedia entry is like some impossibly cool lost artifact of mid-’80s science fiction.”

Gibson, who based his 1996 novel, Idoru, around a virtual media star, sees her as another stage in the evolution of fame. “I think Miku is more about the fundamentally virtual nature of all celebrity, the way in which celebrity has always existed apart from the individual possessing it. One’s celebrity actually lives in others. It’s a profoundly mysterious thing.”

Michael Bourdaghs, associate professor of modern Japanese literature at the University of Chicago and author of Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop, grounds Miku more historically, describing her as a “natural development out of the pop-idol culture that’s been a force in Japanese popular music since at least the 1970s.”

It’s true that Miku is in keeping with Japan’s history of flocking to young, attractive female singers, but this one is baggage free. She has no tumultuous personal life. She has no personal life at all, a fact that comforts Scott Fairbairn, who runs the fansite mikustar.com, based in Ontario, Canada. Looking for distraction during a divorce, he discovered Miku last year and was hooked.

“She doesn’t have an attitude,” he says. “She never asks, only gives, and we know that when the curtain closes, she’s not off at some nightclub snorting cocaine or being arrested for DUI.”

That said, Miku’s creators are smart enough to give her some earthling vulnerabilities. One of Fairbairn’s favorite moments is when Miku was overcome with emotion while performing “When the First Love Ends” at a Tokyo concert last year. Bowing her head and turning away from her adoring audience, she needed several seconds to compose herself. The crowd went nuts.

If only on a musical level, Miku is a glowing gigabyte of perfection. Keyboard player Abe Jun, one of the live musicians who has joined her for a few concerts, including her L.A. outing, attests she “does not make any mistakes during a live performance.” Okay, but is it creepy backing up such robotic excellence? “As you keep playing for Miku,” he says via translated email, “you start to think you are a band member for a human artist…the feeling is very unique.”

Fans are deepening Miku’s image every day with new songs and illustrations—under Crypton’s encouraging but watchful eye. In a translated email, Crypton CEO Hiroyuki Itoh says the company has sold more than 70,000 copies of Miku software in Japan. But with fame can come problems, and Crypton has battled copyright infringements and a media that initially depicted Miku “inaccurately and in an awful way.” Still, he contends the adversity has an upside: “We have overcome many problems, and that is why there is so much affection toward Hatsune Miku. She is the symbol for the freedom of creation.”

In an effort to foster that fluid energy, Crypton has designed an environment to encourage Miku’s amateur songwriters while protecting and benefiting its brand. Piapro is the official Crypton community for Miku lovers to upload their creations. Users have to agree with the company’s licensing system, which stipulates that all works are for “unofficial, noncommercial use only”—rules similar to those on Flickr.

It’s an innovative take on authorship. University of Chicago’s Bourdaghs notes this friendly corporate-consumer relationship is more common in Japan than in the U.S.: “Japanese pop-culture image brands have always been willing to allow fans, artists and others to play around with their characters. Hollywood studios tend to see this as an infringement on their properties, but I think Japanese firms see it as a way of increasing the value of their brands, which ultimately leads to higher profits.”

Of course, Crypton has found a way to promote the most compelling material, signing some of the creators and releasing the works on its record label, KarenT, named for the daughter of Future Shock author Alvin Toffler. Some musicians, notably the collective Supercell, have launched careers writing for Vocaloids. Producer Kurousa-P, also known as WhiteFlame, has penned many tunes. His song “Senbonzakura” is one of the most requested karaoke songs in Japan, according to joysound.com. He says Miku singing his tunes is like pulling the strings on a high school crush: “If there is a girl you like, you would want her to wear pretty clothes and put on cute makeup and sing the songs you created.”

And Miku can sing just about anything. Though Crypton lists J-pop and dance-pop as her favorite genres, she has lent her sopranoid to everything from frenetic dance music to mournful ballads to dystopic pop-metal. “There are thousands of creators,” Kurousa-P says via translated email, “but all of them have their own unique Mikus.”

Tara Knight, assistant professor of digital media at UC San Diego, is making a documentary about Miku that’s set for release in December on her website, mikumentary.com. She originally set out to chronicle the increased presence of holograms in the culture at large but switched her focus when she learned of the holographic idol. “Miku stood out as an example of something that combines several technologies—projection technologies, musicmaking software and Web 2.0 user-generated content—to create something fundamentally new,” she says.

Knight is also fascinated by Miku’s pluralism: “Many fans I’ve talked to believe Miku doesn’t have one fixed, single self—she’s not just one pop icon like Lady Gaga—but that she can take on the characteristics of the person making her at that moment. Somehow, she is everyone, and thus becomes an icon of the self-expressive qualities of her fans. I think it is her very ephemerality, her lack of a physical existence, that allows for a different relationship between audience and performer, between user and creator.”

For some, Miku provokes suspicion. DJ Venus X recently said in Artforum she was fascinated by Miku but wondered if the Japanese star was “just continuing the legacy of empty female vessels in pop music,” echoing an accusation leveled at Britney Spears circa “Baby One More Time.” In a Huffington Post blog, Nicholas Graham only half jokingly described Miku as “a terrible omen not only for musicians but the continued existence of the world as we know it.”

No matter what fears it may inspire, the Miku phenomenon is growing. It’s hard to predict if she’ll ever cross over to the U.S., but Crypton is working on an English-language version of the software, due for summer release. And she’s set for more shows in 2013. Keyboard player Jun has noticed a change in the crowds at concerts. “At first, there were mainly ‘otaku’ [geek] male fans,” he says, “but gradually the females increased, and now we have a wide range.”

And since Miku lives primarily through her fans, the more of them there are, the brighter her projection shines.

MARGARET WAPPLER is a carbon-based life-form whose writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, the Believer and Black Clock.


IMAGE: Courtesy Crypton Future Media