Hatsune Miku is a singing synthesiser. Born in 2007 as a cutting-edge piece of technology, she combines a voice synthesiser program with an anime girl shell. Allowing anyone, be they a budding songwriter or a big-name producer, to collaborate with their very own virtual pop star. The strategy is genius. A character with enough edges to make her solid, but enough mystery for infinite exploration.
Since her creation Miku has gone on to become a cultural phenomenon in both her home of Japan and the world at large. Propelled through the Internet, her brand now spans a countless and constantly growing number of albums, EPs and singles. With genres ranging from Rock and Pop, to Dance, Metal and beyond. Branding endorsements, figures, anime, clothes, leeks, everything can be Miku. Her stable of collaborators has also grown, with the Vocaloid range now boasting numerous official and bootleg partners for Miku. Each one catering to a different vocal range and visual style. Evolving ever more niche, in the way that anime culture is so expert at.
Miku also performs live shows, and I was able to catch her most recent stop in the UK . The gig was part of Miku Expo, a string of New Year’s concerts throughout Europe, taking in Spain, France, Germany, The Netherlands and the UK. I’d also been to see her during her 2019 London show, with her yearly visits becoming something of a tradition.
The Miku Expo structure, wherein Miku performs a select number of shows across the globe each year, is a great example of artful artificial scarcity. Highlighting some of the contradictions that come from her virtual pop-stardom. Miku is present on stage in hologram form- singing, dancing, switching costumes and even thanking the crowd in their native language. Backed by a well-drilled live band and a simple but effective stage rig. Which leaves it to be noted that, bar this specific lineup of live band, Miku could be performing live on an almost constant basis. She could be on tour in Japan every month, with different band members tag-teaming in and out across different cities. Then take the show on the road and have her performing in different parts of the world simultaneously, from Hong Kong to Moscow to Brazil. Do to her live show what the internet has done to her music. She’s a hologram, there’s literally nothing to stop her.
But Miku doesn’t tour like this. She tours like a traditional pop star. Yearly tours across the globe taking in the largest countries and cities, and an annual Magical Mirai event in her home country of Japan. Because the truth is that Miku, for all her virtual nature, is a an existent character to her fans. Through the endless kaleidoscope of videos, fanart and songs, her character has been built up by thousands of different creatives. The divergent visual and musical styles enhancing, rather than shattering her realness. The Miku that appears in the iconic World is Mine video is the same as the one fading away in the tragic Disappearance video, or her collab with Anamanaguchi or the meme machine Po Pi Po. In order to tie all these Mikus together, to conjure her into a single essence at a particular place and time. To pull her from the internet into the real world, her appearances have to be limited, special. They to have grandeur.
That’s reflected by the feeling in the room. This was a crowd who had waited fervently for this event, this once-a-year chance to glorify their idol.
Miku delivered in full force at Brixton. Her lightshow was excellent. The live band were beyond reproach, adding a little frisson of organic energy into the otherwise digital proceedings. Miku’s support squad of Vocaloids (Len and Rin being the most impressive consorts) added a mix of varied colours to the proceedings. Quite literally in fact, as the obligatory glowsticks wielded by the crowd can turn into their respective colours depending on the Vocaloid singing. Blended green for Miku, red for Meiko, purple for Luka and so on. Unified waving of these coloured sticks, in time to the beats and waves of the songs, allows the crowd to become part of the live show. Huge seas of synchronised light being reflected back at their hologram star. An interesting half-contrast to the moshing, dancing, singing and lighters-in-the-air seen at a rock concert. Miku crowds like to project energy as a unified whole, which both empowers each member, but also surrenders them to the group…Woe to the person waving a blue glowstick during the yellow and orange twins’ duet.
I remember once having an argument at University with some friends who claimed that synthetic Vocaloid-style musicians would one day take over the world. They claimed that within a decade all music would be made by algorithm and sung by machine. That the technology which powered Miku was going to improve exponentially, and nothing could stop it. The objective pleasure and perfection of the software was going to drive humans out of the arena. As of 2020 they were clearly overly optimistic in their predictions, but I’m sure they’ll be proven right eventually. While English-language voice synthesisers haven’t caught on massively (and indeed due to the more haphazard structure of the language, simply don’t work as well as Japanese counterparts) the clock is ticking.
Yet I don’t think it’ll ever be a rout. There’ll always be space for a Tom Waits or an Iron & Wine in music, people are too messy, and their emotions too needy to leave behind warbling human imperfection. In the same way that her fans reflect light back at Miku, sometimes we need raw human empathy reacted back to us. But while the old pillars will still stand, they’ll be buttressed by some of the most amazing light, smoke and Electro performances you’ve ever seen.