Hatsune Miku and the Digital Future of Pop Stardom
Did any of you happen to watch David Letterman last night? If so, you may have borne witness to an event that years from now, we will look back on as a watershed moment in pop culture on par with the Beatles performing on Ed Sullivan.
I am of course, referring to Hatsune Miku, a Japanese vocaloid program and all digital program performing via hologram on David Letterman, and staying for a brief (and awkward) interview afterwards. This is the first step in an expo in New York which is to be her unofficial debut in the United States, though Hatsune Miku had done concerts before, and even opened for Lady Gaga earlier this summer.
You don’t even need to watch the video to realize the implications of this – a holographic projection of a computer program not only could be considered a pop star, but has been successful to the point of opening for Lady Gaga and appearing on David Letterman. Mark my words, this is more than just a big moment for Hatsune Miku – for pop culture and pop music, this could be a game changer.
For the uninitiated, Hatsune Miku is a vocaloid – that is to say a computer program that sings by processing and synthesizing audio and lyrics – one of several created by Cryton Future Media, and along with the other vocaloid programs have become bonafide pop stars and icons in Japan, as these same fans used the program to create an astonishingly diverse volume of music. Some of the bigger hits include “World is Mine”:
“Love is War”:
And even covers of songs like “Let it Go” from Frozen:
The combination of the ability to literally have her sing anything, the anime avatar persona, and a pervasive cultural presence everywhere from video games to car commercials and even the Nyan Cat has seen Hatsune Miku become a pop star in every sense of the word, complete with number one singles, sold out concerts and legions of devoted fans.
Despite this, some of you may be asking why Hatsune Miku should matter. ‘So what Korsgaard? It’s Japan – the same place that gave the world used panties in vending machines and tentacle hentai. Japan may go for hologram pop stars, but a computer program could never succeed here in the USA.’
To which I counter that they already have. As I hope to make clear, the reason why Hatsune Miku may prove to be a watershed moment isn’t just because of any trends or success on her (its?) part, but because in many ways, something like Hatsune Miku is the natural result of a number of other trends in pop music.
Hatsune Miku may be a digital diva designed by a corporation, but pop music today is largely digital and dominated by corporate influence anyway, in many ways making Miku almost perfectly tailored to succeed in such an environment. As much as we claim to care about the musician, a few singers like Lady Gaga or Adele aside, your average pop star owes more to the fifty or sixty people in sound engineering and the marketing boardroom than the pretty face supposedly singing it. We may not use holograms, but make no mistake, many pop stars are no less artificial than Hatsune Miku.
To use an example, take Katy Perry. If she didn’t exist in the era of autotune and mass marketing, she wouldn’t have a career. That’s not just hyperbole either – it’s why her career as Katy Hudson went nowhere, and it wasn’t until the label revamped her, and completely overhauled her music that her career went anywhere. There’s a reason she’s earned a reputation as an awful live singer – nearly her entire discography is impossible for even a talented singer to produce, and couldn’t exist at all without autotune and sound-design.
She’s hardly alone, as that slick, auto-tuned sound has become the dominant sound of modern pop music – it might even be why singers like Adele or Lorde get press for being talented singers, because a pop star who actually sings is actually fairly rare these days.
Which brings us back to Hatsune Miku – with so much of the Top 100 already essentially created by computers and then matched to a face, where Miku could prove to be a game changer is that she’s proof of concept for doing away with the human face altogether and just selling the music as a product.
Lest you think it’s crazy, the idea not without precedent – the concept of the virtual band is decades old, with examples ranging from The Archies to The Gorillaz to Dethklock, and vocaloids like Hatsune Miku could be the point where they become the rule rather than the exception.
Pop music is already largely mass-produced – in many ways, Hatsune Miku is a more honest admission of that, certainly more than pretending Katy Perry isn’t lip-synching to whichever exchangeable number of hers just got cranked out. From a production stand point, it’s fairly brilliant – you no longer need to find some pretty face to sell as a product with the music if you already have a product selling it, and a vocaloid never gets paid, takes a day off, has to go to rehab, flubs a song, drops a note, quits, or for that matter, dies.
So long as something like Hatsune Miku can be successful, Miku can keep touring and making music for decades – hell, if something like the Tupac hologram is any sign, we may see greats like Elvis or Michael Jackson on stage once more. Add in fact that anyone can own a vocaloid, and as we’ve already seen from the hundreds of songs from Hatsune Miku and her ilk, and you can have a discography more diverse than nearly any real artist could produce. It may be a sign of how mass produced pop music has become, but it also allows for anyone to be a pop star, or at least to create one.
Hatsune Miku is modern pop music at both its most cynical and its most creative, and it has and will make waves. Maybe Hatsune Miku will be the first truly digital pop star to be successful in the USA, or maybe just prove to be the inspiration behind the creation of dozens that will be, but the age of the digital pop star has arrived, and it’s the biggest fresh air to hit pop music in years.