Do you know about Hatsune Miku, the virtual Japanese megastar? Well I wrote an article about her recently for the cover of the UK music/fashion magazine Clash, and OMG I have never received such a violent response to anything I’ve written in my entire life. This is even worse than my mother’s reaction after I wrote that cum taste test article back in 2008. The feature, along with the accompanying photoshoot which was conceived and styled by Matthew Josephs, instigated so much rage within the Miku fanbase that there were actually pipe bomb threats to Clash’s London office following its release. Angry fans then hacked into the mag’s website and made it so the page concerning the feature was inaccessible. Both Matthew and I have received personal death threats. One boy, on a Miku fan forum, threatened to give me a “thorough anal stabbing” with a leek until I died. Another person called me a “pretentious faggot” and then went on to say “save that shit for your live journal and your faggy hipster friends.” Like hello, Slutever is not a live journal! I am a real person with a .org now, get it right!
One of the reasons that Miku fans were unhappy was because Matthew chose to use a human model on the mag’s cover, rather than an image of the actual virtual star. However on his blog Matthew was quoted as saying, “It’s my version of a fan art. I am a genuine Miku fan!” Also fans were angry that I referred to Miku as “slutty.” But to be honest I was being facetious, and FYI, I use “slutty” as a term of endearment all the time. Seriously, I didn’t mean any harm! Miku is totally one of my style icons.
*Note the text at the video’s top left [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DTXO7KGHtjI&w=520&h=323]
There have been controversial fashion shoots in the past–Lara Stone painted black in French Vogue, Lea T kissing Kate Moss on the cover of Love, just to name a couple recent examples–however all those shoots did was anger some liberal cultural theorists. They didn’t inspire actual bomb threats. Wait, is this the most controversial fashion story of all time?
Below is the article. Decide for yourselves.
She’s super cute: baby doll smile, impossibly tiny waist, a Rapsunzelian pair of aquamarine pig tails, and a wardrobe just slutty enough for it to still be OK. Her name is Hatsune Miku and she’s a Japanese pop star. Sixteen years old, 5’2’’, 93 lbs. You may not be familiar with Miku yet, but in Japan she’s a megastar. Her voice has been featured on gold records, she’s performed live to crowds of over 25,000 ecstatic fans, she even has her own video game, Project Diva, by Sega. By all means Miku is one of the biggest pop icons in the world. Strangely though, she doesn’t really exist.
Well, she does exist, in a metaphysical sense, but she’s not a living, breathing, conscious human being. Technically speaking, she’s software. Created by Japanese technology firm Crypton Future Media, Hatsune Miku is the most popular avatar in the Vocaloid series. The term Vocaloid describes a singing synthesizer program launched by Yamaha in 2003, which allows users to add synthesized human-esque vocals to their own music by inputting lyrics and a melody—a “singer in a box,” if you will. So Hatsune Miku, the pop star, is not the creation of one man or one corporation. Rather she is the virtual embodiment of a collective idea, a meme in human form. The entirety of her creative output—songs, videos, mythology, personality—are created by her fans. To date Crypton have confirmed little solid information about Miku aside from her age and physical measurements, thus giving her fans the freedom to mould her according to their own personal definitions of pop perfection, internet stardom, and digitopian dream. She is a collective vision, a glimpse into a future that promises, “We can create something perfect, if we just let ourselves imagine.”
It’s seems almost pedestrian that this phenomenon would occur in Japan—a world where almost everything, down to the toilet paper, is advertised with a cutsie cartoon. A country that represents hypermodernism in all its multidimensions, and where the worship of animated idols has long been ingrained in the culture. It’s not weird that the Japanese like “futuristic” things, because in our eyes they’ve been living in the future for years now. What’s fascinating about Hatsune Miku, however, is that her appeal is becoming widespread.
The Miku avatar originated in 2007. Her look combines aspects of anime and manga, and her voice is sampled from Japanese voice actress Saki Fujita. Miku became popular through the website Nico Nico Douga (smile smile video), a Japanese equivalent of YouTube. Users started posting their own music videos of Miku, both lending her voice to existing songs and singing original music. Popular original songs would then generate illustrations, animations, and remixes from other users, making Nico Nico Douga a place for collective collaboration. One particularly popular video of Miku holding a leek and singing “Ievan Polkka” led to Miku now being commonly associated with leeks. Most of Miku’s songs are developed by fans via collaborative sites, and then refined by the people at Crypton.
Miku played her first live gig in Saitama, Japan in August of 2009, projected to the audience as a giant 3D hologram. She ‘sings’ while a live band plays behind to her. Since then she’s played a number of sold out gigs in Japan, has traveled to Singapore to perform, and in September 2010 played her first show in American, performing at the J-Pop Summit Festival in San Francisco. Her concerts are epic events, with many of her fans showing up in cosplay Miku costumes, and with the remaining thousands screaming hysterically, frantically waving glow sticks in thrall of her towering figure. The whole scene is something straight out of a science fiction novel. Literally…
In 1996, acclaimed sci-fi writer William Gibson—author of Neuromancer and the man who coined the phrase ‘cyberspace’—wrote the book Idoru. Set in Tokyo in an early 21st century future, the book examines the relationship between artificial life and humanity, featuring an idolized Japanese virtual singer named Rei Toei. In many ways, Gibson’s vision has come to life in Hatsune Miku.
Rei Toei and Hatsune Miku are not exactly the same, though they are very similar. Gibson’s Rei Toei is a self-actualizing adaptive composite intelligence, meaning that she represents an actual artificial intelligence that can make independent decisions, respond to human interaction, and converse freely. The way Rei Toei works is that there are as many versions of her as there are fans, each fan building his or her own songs, videos, and pictures of Toei based on particular preference. When Toei performs in public, her style represents an averaging of the individual preferences of the fans in the audience. Like Toei, Hatsune Miku is a composite character; her fans can create and consume their own concept of her based on what appeals to them. Where the difference lies is that Rei Toei’s actions are strictly overseen by her owners, i.e. they provide her with songs and control what she can and can’t do. Much of Idoru focuses on Toei’s attempts to break free from the restrictions put on her by the mega-corporation. But Hatsune Miku is already free. Crypton Future Media do not place boundaries on the ways in which Miku can be expressed. In essence she can do anything, so long as someone tells her to do it.
Recently, Gibson expressed a dislike of Miku when he tweeted, “Hatsune Miku doesn’t really rock me. I want higher rez, less anime.” This, in turn, pissed off a bunch of Miku fankids, which led to him being harassed on Twitter. He eventually tweeted a follow-up message, saying, “Hatsune Miku is clearly a more complex phenomenon than I initially assumed. Requires further study.” Whether or not he said this just to get Miku’s fans to chill is unsure. However the phrase “complex phenomenon” is pretty spot on.
It must be acknowledged that Miku is not the first virtual pop star. Technically, virtual idols have existed since the 1950s, the first being Alvin and the Chipmunks, who used a sped up version of creator Ross Bagdasarian’s voice for their vocals. Another example is the virtual metal band Dethklok. Created by Brendon Small and Tommy Blacha, Dethklok have released two studio albums, gone on tour, and have their own show on Adult Swim called Metalocaplypse. And we can all remember back to the early 2000s when Gorillaz—the musical project of Blur’s Damon Albarn and his various collaborators—first came to be. A band of virtual cartoon characters, Gorillaz’ 2001 debut album sold over seven million copies and earned them an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the Most Successful Virtual Band. They too performed live, however they were projected onto a back screen in 2D, rather than in three dimensions like Miku. But what connects these previous virtual artists is that they are all the creative output of one person, or a small group of people. And as we know, Miku’s existence reaches far beyond those boundaries.
Whether the appeal of Hatsune Miku is just a novelty, only time will tell. However her success is a testimony to the power of idealism, and the seduction of fantasy. In his book TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information, American writer and social historian Erik Davis poses the questions, “What is it about virtual reality that can stoke such imaginings?” He then goes on to say that, “The concept is absolute simulation: a medium so powerful that it transcends mediation, building worlds that can stand on their own two feet. The belief that VR constructs a world, a simulacrum powerful enough to temporarily overwrite our material one.”
Our celebrities are carefully constructed: PR, personal trainers, stylists, Photoshop. It requires a team of people and a kaleidoscope of smoke and mirrors to groom someone into an icon. So in theory, shouldn’t letting fans have total creative control over the process result in the ultimate form of idol creation? Well, maybe. But it’s also kinda like, wave pools are fun, partly because of their artificiality, but they will never be the ocean. And virtual idols, no matter how advanced, will never have what us real people have–things like character, ideas, emotions, and the ability to love. But presumably our virtual counterparts provide us with something different, something that real, aging, sweaty, addicted, flawed pop stars can’t: the possibility of perfection.