The First Sound from the Future

Hatsune Miku is a name that’s been snowballing for quite some time now, and with recent overseas interest renewed in her due to a series of impressive “3D concerts” – live shows that feature a hologram form of the pop-star herself – there doesn’t seem to be any sign of her slowing down.

Miku is one of the avatars of a program called VOCALOID, a ‘singing voice synthesizer’ created by the company Crypton Future Media that can be bought for just under £100. Unlike previous singing voice synthesizers designed solely for professional music producers, the software was marketed as a commercial, easy-to-use program, making it immensely successful in Japan. She has sung on over 100,000 songs since 2007, dwarfing the career-spanning output of any pop-star by dizzying magnitudes. We can say that Miku is composed of two components: the performer (visual representation, persona), and the program (code, interface). But this alone doesn’t explain her monumental success; the final ingredient is the relationship with her fanbase.

Miku’s fans have a massive role to play in bringing her to life. As opposed to Miku’s content being distributed by a single authentic source, anyone can create a song using Miku’s vocals and upload it to Niconico (Japan’s otaku-orientated YouTube). Her content is crowd-sourced, curated and produced by the very fanbase that consumes her, bringing the phrase ‘listening to the fans’ to a whole new level. This sort of phenomena is not uncommon within Japan’s otaku (die-hard fans of anime, manga and video games) subculture – the producers closely follow the fans and vice versa, so much so that at times the distinction hardly seems relevant. This results in products that are formed over time through a decentralised network of people, where the difference between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ reproduction has a lot less importance than it does in Western societies. Hiroki Azuma, a prominent Japanese cultural critic, says that in otaku culture, ‘originals and derivative works are produced as if they were of “equal value.”’ This is not to say that the qualitative value of the works is glazed over, it simply means that instead of a limited, hegemonic narrative there is a vast database of varied content that fans can reproduce, consume and discuss over.

An example of this fan-informed production was when a video of a “super-deformed” version of Miku covering a Finnish folk song called Ievan Pollka appeared on Niconico, and was so popular that Crypton-licensed figurines and plush dolls have since been produced in the super-deformed likeness.

With all this in mind, it makes it somewhat fruitless to argue the case of an ‘official’ version of Miku, or to attempt to compile a discography of her work. Even the attribution of songs to Miku-as-performer seems peculiar, since Miku-as-program is more an instrument than a creator. A friend of mine said that she felt strange referring to Miku with female pronouns, presumably for this reason. Within a Western, modernist framework, Miku-as-performer is a total blasphemy and sham; she somehow performs despite an absolute lack of autonomy that would be required of a ‘legitimate’ musician (this perhaps explains why Japanese people, exposed to romanticist ideals only for a relatively miniscule part of their historic culture, are more receptive of Miku than Western audiences). With the same troublesome logic we could go one step further and say it would also be required for a legitimate female. Perhaps the refusal of Miku as a legitimate female has correlatives with transmisogyny, and may be a precursor for the seemingly inevitable discrimination against the transhuman’s ‘illegitimate’ body, or the refusal of androids as having equal rights.

Interestingly, Crypton stated that the initial concept for Miku was an “android diva in the near-future world where songs are lost.” Maybe in this dystopian future, the debate over whether or not certain people or androids are authentic has drowned out all the music. Perhaps Miku was sent from the future in order to prevent this and get us accustomed to the idea of androids having something to express for themselves.

Miku disrupts conventional pop-music by making too palpable the idea that music no longer needs humans to convey meaning. Perhaps this is why people sneer at the thousands of people who turn up to Miku’s concerts and cheer at their favourite hologram idol. These detractors miss the point, since she isn’t meant to be a stand-in for a ‘real’ pop-star. In fact, real pop-stars should be worried that she’ll outperform them. If there’s anything to learn from the avid concert-goers of Hatsune Miku, it’s that there’s a party to be had on the graveyard of authenticity.

WRITTEN BY Orion Facey