The Future of Music Might Be a Crowdsourced, Holographic J-Pop Star
The drummer is real but the singer is not.
Crypton Future Media, Inc.
May 6, 2016
A Hatsune Miku concert is a surreal experience. Just when you think you might be kind of used to the fact that apparently the Disney Channel movie Pixel Perfect is real, and it is fully possible to program the perfect lead singer for your band, she does something like appear with red eyes and wings and start flying away.
A primer, for the uninitiated: Hatsune Miku is a vocaloid, or what would happen if you downloaded a program that makes Siri sing. When she performs in concerts, she appears via hologram, projected onstage and surrounded by a live band.
All of Miku’s songs are written and created by fans around the world, who use Yamaha’s Vocaloid program to make music. Like any contemporary pop star, she’s the product of a disparate group of talented producers, though a glance through the set list reveals a few recurring names. Of course, the Internet being the Internet, users have had a lot of fun making Miku sing whatever they want her to sing; perplexingly, her most-viewed video on YouTube is a 2½-minute clip of her singing a Finnish polka and holding a leek (a nod to an anime meme from 2006).
Because she’s not a human, Miku isn’t bound by conventions like genre, vocal range or even speed. She hops from deep house to rock anthems and slow jams effortlessly, and leaps across octaves within the same song. On some songs, like “The Disappearance of Hatsune Miku,” she sings so quickly that she makes Daveed Diggs sound like he’s performing dirges. At times, she gets so frantic that the pixels of her projection can’t keep up with her, and they go on the fritz.
The concert experience plays with reality in an interesting way. Presumably, everyone knows that Miku isn’t real; she flickers and fades into the void at the end of each song, and when she dances, she hits each beat with military precision (a phenomenon that is particularly noticeable when she’s dancing with another vocaloid — it’s eerie to watch two holograms in perfect synchronization). But there’s a purposeful attention to detail in her stage presence. She’s outfitted with a headset to sing into, and occasionally sings into a hand mic, as if to make the audience forget that everything about her presence is computer-generated. She frolics onstage, resting a fake foot on the (real) amps. For a spell in the middle of the set, she disappears, and other vocaloids take guest star turns, presumably because all of this performing is tiring on poor Miku. Except, wait, no it’s not. She’s a computer program! Fatigue is not an issue.
Interestingly, the best song of the concert isn’t one of Miku’s; it’s a video game–themed ditty called “Remote Control,” performed by Kagamine Rin and Len. It’s catchy, even if the English lyrics don’t make much sense. The number also provides the concert’s most meta moment when Len — who is, like all vocaloids, sort of a holographic robot — does the dance move the Robot.
Miku and her friends are entrancing. The crowd, who are all outfitted with official Miku Expo glowsticks that change color to match the stage lighting, wave their arms in unison, as if they all know the choreography. It’s astounding to look around the 7,000-seat Microsoft Theater and see a glowing ocean, moving as one. People love Miku, especially the drunk group in front of me, who are very into the show.
But there is the troubling matter of the sexualization of the female vocaloids. Miku and most of her friends are girls, and they all wear revealing clothing and dance provocatively, while the two male vocaloids are much more tame, both in their dress and movement. When Miku speaks, she sounds like a prepubescent Japanese Stephen Hawking (she’s supposed to be 16, which makes it ever less acceptable to sexualize her). It’s alarming to hear grown men in the audience cry out, “I want my Miku!” — she may not be real, but it’s hard not to feel like a pedophile just watching her and the reactions she’s eliciting.
Yep, Miku sprouted wings and flew away at one point, because why not?
Unfortunately, at least for a vocaloid novice like myself, the novelty of the whole thing starts to wear thin after about an hour. But the set clocks in at nearly two hours, including a three-song encore with the openers, an video game–themed electronic band from New York called Anamanaguchi. Still, it’s surprisingly easy to accept our Brave New World fate, wherein Miku and her friends are our technological overlords, here to give us music that’s programmed to give us maximum joy. But these bots are a little too perfect. At least Taylor Swift’s hair gets caught in her lip gloss sometimes.
The concert’s most human moment is actually the last song, “Hoshi no Kakera,” which comes in the second encore. It’s just Miku and a (holographic) piano. She sounds as T-Pain–y as she always does, but the piano is either an impeccable facsimile or actually a recording of a real person, playing expressively in a way that sounds sincere and heartfelt — two emotions Miku herself can’t evoke. At least not yet.
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