People rarely geek out over the 10-year anniversary of a specific instrument, but Hatsune Miku isn’t your usual music store purchase.
The aqua-haired singer serves as the most famous avatar for Crypton Future Media’s line of Vocaloid singing-synthesizer software, a program developed by Yamaha that generates human-like vocals via computer. She debuted on Aug. 31, 2007, transforming a piece of software that had sold few units since landing on shelves in 2003 to a phenomenon that can’t be kept in stock. In the decade since, she has been one of Japan’s most important musical influences, and one still shaping sounds on both sides of the Pacific.
However, Miku has generally gotten attention overseas as one of this century’s cornerstones of the “weird Japan” narrative. News reports about concerts starring her — in hologram form — aired on U.S. news shows (thanks Mom, for forwarding those to me) and even her 2014 appearance on “The Tonight Show” found host David Letterman cracking about it “like being on Willie Nelson’s bus.”
Miku’s ascendance in Japan was far from a hallucinatory haze. Rather, it predicted the direction a lot of music would go in. Users flocked to Vocaloid because of the cartoon character on the box, but many then went on to create their own pop music universe offering an alternative to the J-pop of the day. Video website Nico Nico Douga (now Niconico) became the hub for this scene, housing user-made songs and videos starring Miku and her digi warble.
The rise of Vocaloid music via Miku signaled the start of a time when an artist could do everything from a computer. This brave new world was hinted at a few months before Miku arrived, by electro-pop trio Perfume’s breakthrough into the J-pop mainstream. The group’s sound, with vocals dunked in Auto-tune, was created by Yasutaka Nakata, a producer who managed everything from his home studio. Vocaloid gave that power to anyone who could afford the software, while video sharing sites gave them a platform to share their creations.
Miku and Vocaloid remain highly popular in Japan, and overseas she’s popping up more, too. So far this year, electronic artist Laurel Halo and rapper Big Boi have utilized her computerized voice in songs. This February, Bandcamp Daily’s Mariana Timony reported on a burgeoning Vocaloid music scene happening primarily beyond the country it was created in.
One of Miku’s greatest legacies, though, is only just now becoming clear. There’s a whole generation of new artists whose introduction to music making came via Vocaloid. They include EDM-leaning pop artist Reol and the singer-songwriter Kenshi Yonezu. The latter started writing music using Vocaloid software in 2009 under the name Hachi, but in recent years has become known for songs featuring his own voice. Fittingly, he made the theme song to Miku’s upcoming three-day concert series, Magical Mirai, at Chiba’s Makuhari Messe, which starts Sept. 1.