Hatsune Miku: the ‘nonexistent’ pop star


My 2015 kicked off with a January concert by Hatsune Miku, Japan’s digital pop star, in Las Vegas. It is winding down with a visit to Miku’s creator, Hiroyuki Itoh, at his company’s head office in Sapporo, Hokkaido.

I’ve long learned to temper my skepticism toward Japan’s cultural presence in the United States. As a half-Japanese American kid, I never thought I’d see sushi in supermarket aisles, manga in malls, or Pikachu and Hello Kitty balloons soaring over Manhattan in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, as they did again last month in that distinctly American matsuri (festival).

I also never imagined that a Japanese virtual singer (Miku) would be the featured musical act on an iconic American TV talk show (“Late Show with David Letterman” in 2014).

Now the resilient Miku, an 8-year-old piece of musical software whose content is user-generated, is about to headline her first North American tour. After appearing on the “Late Show” as a 3-D screen projection (the second most-viewed musical performance on the program’s web site), opening for Lady Gaga, and performing four shows in Los Angeles and New York last year, Miku will tour seven North American cities starting in April, including for the first time venues as far flung as Seattle, San Francisco, Dallas, Toronto and Mexico City.

Tickets are selling faster than they have for Miku’s domestic shows, says Kanae Muraki, head of U.S. marketing, even though the venues are larger. Two shows in Mexico City are already sold out, the first having done so in 24 hours.

“Our sales in Dallas, Seattle and Toronto are total surprises,” she adds. “These are places we’ve never visited before. We’ve actually had to decline offers from other cities because it’s too much for us to handle.”

Muraki’s employer, Crypton Future Media, celebrated its 20th anniversary this past summer. Founded in Sapporo by Hokkaido-native Itoh, a rock and jazz guitarist, Crypton is Japan’s top music-software distributor, dedicated to enabling users to explore, enhance and disseminate musical creativity. Its key achievement has been to use the Vocaloid singing synthesis engine, developed by the Yamaha Corporation, to transform anybody and everybody into songwriters. Its singular sensation, among six illustrated characters that serve as visual pop star platforms for user-generated content, is Miku, whose name roughly translates as “first sound from the future.”

“This is the 10th anniversary of Kaito, our first Vocaloid character,” Itoh tells me. “It’s our eighth for Miku, which was our third. I never expected to be celebrating the anniversary of either one when we created them, let alone that one would be going on an overseas tour.”

Itoh is at pains to emphasize a philosophical distinction between Miku and any other pop idol: Miku never sings on her own. In fact, he says, she doesn’t exist. Miku is a characterized piece of software, a platform for others to produce content that she performs via Crypton’s Piapro software (available in Japanese and English), to engage in the “creative commons” of mutual ingenuity and consumerism. It is more useful to think of her as a musical version of Twitter or Facebook — blank slates for user-created and shared content — than Korea’s Psy or Girls’ Generation. Itoh says that Miku has at least 100,000 composers of her repertoire, and that over 100,000 users illustrate the character for public sharing.

All of which leads us to ask: Of Crypton’s six Vocaloid characters, why is Miku the only one to enchant a global audience? What is it about the turquoise-pigtailed, skirted schoolgirl Miku design that makes her image a perennial cosplay favorite worldwide?

Itoh’s take is pedestrian. Unlike her predecessors, Miku debuted shortly after the advent of file-sharing sites YouTube and Nico Nico Douga. Her character and content could be posted and disseminated instantly. “She was the first one to benefit from the (file-sharing) technology that is now everywhere,” he says.

As the cult of Miku spread, so did the demand for an English-language version of the Piapro software. But creating it wasn’t easy. Crypton staffer Cosima Doerge coached five Japanese voice actors in the proper pronunciation of English consonants and vowels. While Miku’s fastest growing market is in China, Itoh says it will be a long time before the software and actresses can be trained in Chinese. “There are a lot more pronunciations in that language,” he says, smiling. “I’m afraid we don’t have time for that.”

And taking Miku on the road is onerous and expensive. Up to 20 staff, including support musicians, sound engineers and a cadre of programmers, will fly next year to and around three North American countries with heaps of pricey projection equipment. To help defray costs, Crypton has turned to PledgeMusic, a Kickstarter-like direct-to-fan fundraising platform.

Nevertheless, Itoh insists that he never wants Miku to have a global hit single a la Beyonce or Adele; her music is purely democratic, made by fans for fans. He hopes that improvements in technology will one day enhance that experience — expanding Miku’s dance moves and singing languages — but for now, “she’s one of a kind,” he says. “Some kind of epoch-making thing.”

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.

  • thedudeabidez

    In describing Miku as a “creative commons” work, Mr. Kelts displays his misunderstanding of the term. Creative Commons, as championed by people like Lawrence Lessig and others, involves releasing material free from the restrictions of traditional copyright. That is certainly not the case with Hatsune Miku, which is the very opposite of creative commons: for sale, commercial, copyright-protected software. You pay to play; this information is not “free”. Yes, anyone can use this tool and interact with others in making creations with it, but if it were not for the copyright protection the designers of the software enjoy, they would not be able to financially benefit from it and to continue producing more labor-intensive products like it.

    Creative Commons is based on the surrender of copyright, and the idea that the world will work just fine if people who make creative content are not rewarded for it. Might want to ask Mr. Itoh how that would have worked out for Crypton. I doubt they’d be employing anyone if they were giving away their software.

    Musically, Hatsune Miku is the logical conclusion of so much of J and K-pop: completely inhuman, synthetic product, the musical equivalent of rayon. Given the fact that so many of the idol groups are chosen for their cuteness and ability to learn dance moves rather than their ability to sing — which is often nonexistent — these “bands” are forced to rely on vocal autotune, a voice “correction” software that takes “off” notes and places them on one of the right pitches, so to speak The end result is an artificial precision, especially in harmonies, where voices line up with an eerie over- accuracy that does not exist in the human world of real people singing. The richness of a choir, the very result of individual idiosyncracies, is replaced by a flat precision, devoid of the harmonic texture that reults from differing inflections. Autotune also makes it impossible for a singer to engage in intentional slurs, slides, and blue notes, so much of the rich vocabulary of singing that has informed jazz, blues, R&B, bluesgrass and rock. But that’s how most software reliant J-popgirl groups sound, so it’s little surprise that the software itself sounds just as good, and an actual anime girl seems even cuter.

    What Miku does fulfill is the Otaku dream of a singer completely submissive and under their control, with no personality of her own, no idiosyncrasy, Like the karaoke mixes of rock music where cheap Roland synths replace actual guitars and keyboards, orchestras and horns, it is another triumph of convenience and cheapness over quality. it is far easier to program a synthetic vocalist than it is to find one who thinks enough of your project to want to put the time and commitment into being able to perform it well. At the end of the day, Hatsune Miku is to vocalists what a sex doll is to a living breathing lover. It is perhaps no surprise that many Otaku today would prefer the former in both categories.

    • Yuki

      “What Miku does fulfill is the Otaku dream of a singer completely submissive and under their control, with no personality of her own, no idiosyncrasy,”

      I’m not sure whether your views on Otaku or Miku are more inaccurate. Miku DOES have a personality; which is fairly easy to discover. Watch her videos or read her manga.

      And I assure you that most otaku have enough self esteem and respect that we don’t want someone under our complete control.

      • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

        Please, stop! The laughter is painful!

    • Sergio Piery

      I have worked in the U.S. music industry (audio technician — live events) for 20 + years. I guarantee that 99% of the music produced here including jazz, blues, R&B, bluesgrass and rock is AutoTuned/ProTooled. The vast majority of live performances are “tracked”, i.e., you are listening to a recording that took a year or more, with thousands of “takes” to produce. Having worked for many artists from many countries, I can say that the Japanese artists are LESS likely to rely on these production tools (as well as Italian——in this case, probably the influence of opera). As a matter of fact, the only touring groups from Asia that I have worked that use ProTools/AutoTune are the K-Pop groups. The groups from Japan, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand that I worked did not bring the hardware/equipment necessary to run those programs. There are major U.S. acts that you would never expect to be tracked, but rely on it for live performances. EVERY R&B performer that I have worked uses ProTools and AutoTune (think of the biggest names that you can imagine——check the R&B Artist page on Wikipedia….I’ve worked 1/4 to 1/3 of the names on that list). Stevie Wonder was tracked at the opening ceremony for the Special Olympics (as was EVERY OTHER ACT——NO LIVE PERFORMANCES). Every music awards show that you watch on TV is tracked. More and more often, the mic-ing of drum kits, vocalists, guitar and bass amps are just props, and not plugged in. Everything is tracked.

      The idol groups today, are more of an apprenticeship. They must take singing lessons, dance lessons, acting lesson, etc.., in order to advance. If they have the chops to stand on their own, they “graduate”. I think that the backlash against over produced music started in Japan. I believe that the popularity of the vocaloids is evidence. That backlash is spreading, as people discover this “new fangled technology”. After all, is it different listening to Miku Hatsune, a computer generated voice, or Justin Beiber/Miley Cyrus/Britney Spears/et. al.. The only difference is that the vocaloids aren’t tabloid fodder (taking way too much time/resources from “legitimate” news sources).

      Soooo, I guess that this songwriter’s tool is supplanting the “real singer”. I think that this is a good thing. If you look back in history, the composer/songwriter was the primary focus of attention. Now it is some face/personality that can’t carry a tune in a bucket. George Gershwin, Louis Prima, Jimmy Dorsey, Richard Rogers, etc. were all known to the general public. Does anyone know who Lukasz Gottwald is? No, but they know Miley Cyrus (Gottwald was one of the songwriters for ‘Wrecking Ball’— yes, I had to look it up). If singers want to remain relevant, then first, they must have talent. Second, they must WORK AT THEIR CRAFT.

      Anyway, that is my take on the current situation.

  • Yuki

    We’re seeing her in Toronto!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    This will be the concert of a lifetime ^_^

  • AndThusOneMore

    Wasn’t Kaito the second?