Hatsune Miku is a Japanese pop star, and she certainly looks the part. Standing just under 5'2" tall, with teal-colored hair that whips down to her knees, she's frequently spotted in thigh-high stockings and a bum-grazing schoolgirl skirt. Over the past 12 months, Miku has enjoyed remarkable crossover success, confounding David Letterman when she recently appeared on his show, opening for Lady Gaga's ARTPOP Ball tour earlier this year, and headlining live shows in New York and Los Angeles.
Here's the catch: Hatsune Miku is a hologram.
Miku's lack of a warm, fleshy body, however, did nothing to deter the fans who thronged into Hammerstein Ballroom for her New York debut last week. (Or slowed down the 2.5 million likes that her Facebook page has accrued so far.) Some of them had been waiting in line since 8am, hoping to stand as close as possible to her display. Even before the house lights dimmed, thousands of green glowsticks waved in the air to the sparkling synths of cheery J-pop, turning the music hall into a kind of futuristic cornfield. When Miku finally blazed on stage in a ball of blue light, the crowd's roar rivaled those of Roman warriors charging into battle.
"Good evening everyone! Thank you for coming!" Miku chirped in Japanese, waving her pale arm slightly robotically. Then she launched into a series of universally appealing pop songs, joined by a human drummer, guitarist, bassist, and keyboardist who doubled as a DJ (or "manipulator," as the adorably mistranslated label that flashed on screen called him). Her girlish voice, unapologetically computerized, hit her notes flawlessly. Her dance moves ranged from cute to space-time continuum-challenging—as she twirled, go-go danced, and split into three versions of herself at once. Occasionally, Miku would flicker away completely, replaced by another hologram personality. But there was never any doubt who the real star of the show was.
Miku is actually the visual interface for vocal synthesizer—software that allows a computerized voice to "sing" vocals that can be modified according to things like vibrato and dynamics. All of the songs she sings are dictated by her massive fanbase, who write songs for her under an open-source framework. The most popular tracks on Nico Nico Douga (Japan's equivalent on YouTube) are picked up and woven into her live set, which she performs via hologram. In a sense, she is the most relevant pop star in the world.
Hatsune Miku was developed in 2007 by Crypton Future Media, an appropriately sci-fi-sounding tech company based in Sapporo. When I meet Crypton CEO Hiroyuki Itoh backstage at Hammerstein a few hours before the show, he tells me that Hatsune Miku was developed alongside a content-sharing platform called Piapro.jp.
"[In 2007], new services like YouTube, that had not only audio but also visuals, were becoming really popular," says Itoh, who speaks in a gentle and friendly manner. He's dressed in jeans and a floral print shirt, with a fanny pack around his waist for good measure. Itoh explains that Piapro.jp was one of the first platforms where users could upload music, illustrations, videos, and lyrics for free—and find collaborators to make new content. "Until then, there was a lot of trouble with copyright, and people accusing others of copying them without permission. So we wanted to make a structure for that, and Miku became an icon for that community. They could use the character and music to thank each other and establish basic rules on how to use that content."
Miku quickly grew into something much more than a vocal synthesizer. She was an extremely cute interface for all kinds of creative expression, and more importantly, a hub for interpersonal connection—something that Itoh says "was missing on the anonymous Internet where no one had a place to go."
Today, Miku has spawned a bona-fide online culture, which includes fan-made illustrations, CGI videos, 3D-modeled toys, cell phone games, and cartoon animations. There is a YouTube phenomenon called the Miku Miku Dance, where fans compete to create the best videos of Miku dancing. There are limited-edition toys that become collector's items. There was even a pop-up café in Tokyo with a range of Miku-themed food, including Miku pita sandwiches. All things considered, calling Hatusune Miku a "hologram pop star" kind of misses the point.
In fact, when I ask a group of costumed superfans what they love most about Miku, it is not her catchy songs that they reference first, but the collaborative culture that surrounds her. "They don't charge for a trademark," says Victor, who is wearing a homemade jacket with Miku's face drawn in marker on the back. "Unlike Disney, they're not going to chase you down." He smiles and waves Miku's trademark leek prop. "Plus, she's so damn cute," adds an older guy in a denim jacket stuffed with Miku dolls.
Victor and his friends tell me the story of "Black Rock Shooter," one of the most popular Hatsune Miku songs of all time, to illustrate their point. "Black Rock Shooter" started as a drawing posted on a blog, which inspired a member of J-pop group Supercell to write a song using vocals from the Hatsune Miku synthesizer. The song became extremely successful, and spawned a 50-minute anime based on it. That anime became popular in turn, and spawned an eight-episode series and video game. Thus, the world of Hatsune Miku is a generative and collaborative world, where one spark of creativity sets off many others.
By serving as a conduit for her fans imaginations, desires, and dreams, Hatsune Miku is not so different from the Britneys, Katy Perrys, and other perfectly packaged pop stars of the world. Itoh says he purposely programmed her with as few defining characteristics as possible—so that she can function as a blank canvas for other people's creativity. But Miku takes the idea of "pop star as blank canvas" one giant leap further—because she lacks a physical self, Miku only exists through other people. In fact, "if you have 10,000 people making music for Hatsune Miku, you have 10,000 versions of Hatsune Miku," says Itoh.
Itoh thinks that Miku represents the future, where the "copy, paste, and share" spirit of the Internet will create a new kind of music industry. The power structure will be bottom-up, instead of top-down. "People want to participate and use the Internet to express themselves," Itoh insists. "Instead of a receiving audience, you will have a sharing and creating audience."
"We've been asked, 'Don't you think it's weird that people are cheering to something virtual?' But that's not really true. Hatsune Miku is the shared expression of everyone—she's just the next step," Itoh says. Thus, when the thousands of fans cheer for Miku as she dances on stage, singing their songs, they're really cheering for themselves.
Michelle Lhooq is the Features Editor of THUMP - @MichelleLhooq