AKB48 is a Japanese pop act that's less of a group and more an army. Created by producer/director Yasushi Akimoto (who also happens to be the chancellor of the Kyoto University of Art and Design), AKB48, which holds the world record for for being the "pop group with the greatest number of members," has four separate teams and a total of 61 members. That's 61 teenage girls starring in hyper-choreographed stage shows singing over twinkling keyboard patches and beats as well as staring in at least three television shows.
It's the type of in-house idol creation on a massive, overwhelming scale that only Japan can pull off. Recently, AKB48's fan base has been freaking out over the appearance of a new member (how they have such a large lineup memorized, I'll never know), Aimi Eguchi, who, to the bafflement of fans, is no more than a composted CGI of all 61 members of AKB48. Developed, not surprisingly, as part of a marketing campaign for the Japanese confectionary company, Ezaki Glico, makers of that goofy stick candy, Pocky.
Aimi Eguchi makes her world premier. Try to guess which one she is.
Tricking some of the most obsessed and tech-savvy fans on the planet seems like the perfect proof of concept for a completely virtual pop star. Without a need for sleep, drugs, or ridiculous concert riders – simply put, absolute control – it's a record exec's dream. The question is, how long before we see another one of these tricky artificial pop stars?
Well, it seems we already have. Last year, Hatsune Miku was selling out concerts all over Japan, despite being a hologram. A really cartoony hologram, I might add. Crypton Future Media, the puppeteers behind Miku, sold the avatar to people wanting a little cartoon singer on their desktop. She's powered by Yamaha's Vocoloid software, a superpowered vocoder (read: "autotune") that whips spoken word into the kind of obscenely synthetic voice a robot in a '90s sci-fi B movie might have. Still, people went bonkers over Hatsune Miku and save the price of development, helped rake in boat loads of money for Crypton Future Media.
Welcome to the future.
It comes to the point where it's tough to pinpoint how much fans actually care about the person behind the music. Rules and codes of various music scenes aside, a good song is a good song no matter who or what the artist, especially in pop. Ghostwriting has been integral to the Top 40 industry for decades, and only occasionally does someone get worked up about it (Jay-Z writing "Still D.R.E.", anyone? How about Nas writing "Gettin' Jiggy wit It?"). Once you've got someone to write a good track, it's simply a matter of finding a face that can sing.
With Autotune, Vocoloid and numerous other bits of studio magic, the face doesn't even have to sing all that well. Plenty of people made fun of T-Pain, but he's got five platinum singles (two of which went triple platinum) and a pair of Grammys. For the studio, it's a matter of finding someone who has the potential and willingness to be molded into the right image. Indie labels have always made money developing smaller artists and selling their contract rights to the big guys, but now studios themselves have talent development at the core of their business plan. ARK Music Factory, the evil geniuses responsible for Rebecca Black, squeezes two to four grand out of L.A. parents in exchange for helping make their kids famous, handling the production and promotion of their adorable little artistic efforts. This is the type of hype-building that goes all the way back to Elvis getting rich off Motown house bands.
Vocoloid has its own community. It's even weirder than that noise band you occasionally mention to your hip friends.
While most of this comes as no surprise to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the industry, the real lunacy is in how sane the idea of a virtual star really is. Cartoon musicals have been successful for decades, and a large portion of the people behind the music of those are completely unknown. Aspiring pop stars are literally being wed into careers, because a single blurb with a headshot is enough to propel someone's face above the others. There will always be people to support independent, unpopular and ridiculous music, but when the big business of pop is ruthlessly run as such, how much fan backlash can there be to studio's efforts to increase the bottom line when the studios themselves control all the product?
The crux of the whole thing is in figuring out how much fans' approval is based upon the music, the image, or the person behind it. Unlike smaller artists, in the pop world those three things are often vastly different. Although we're not exactly in a William Gibson-style future, where fans get piped into virtual versions of their favorite stars, there isn't a reason technology is holding us back from the era of computerized divas, as Hatsune Miku shows.
With YouTube being such a driver of what's popular in music, it's tough to tell who's real anyway. It's not like we've got Carson Daly around to tell us anymore. The craziest thing is that fans are still supporting AKB48's Aimi Eguchi, despite her obvious limitations. The precedent for the success of quite literally fake stars is there. It's just a matter of time until it's standard.