There are a lot of different aspects to consider when it comes to Hatsune Miku. A wildly popular virtual Japanese pop star whose material is created by her fans in a process that’s half music software, half social network, she is something of a massive collective art project. Her concerts, dubbed “Expos,” are put on by Crypton Future Media, the same company that sells the software that allows Miku’s fans to make her music, might symbolize a radical new strategy when it comes to the question of how to make money in an industry where the actual music is essentially free. Equally impressive is that live, Miku sidesteps many of the major concerns associated with so-called “hologram performances”—there’s no icky sense of corpse-desecration that comes with, say, a Tupac hologram, and unlike Chief Keef’s attempt at a virtual tour there’s no possibility of feeling short-changed by the performer not actually showing up—which opens up the possibility that she’s a harbinger of a new era of the concert experience. Or, given that many of her fans are grown men with neckbeards who are obsessed with a make-believe anime teen in a schoolgirl outfit, she might just be a sign that there are a lot of weird, pervy dudes out there—which is something we knew already. The only thing I can say for certain is that last night, she had Los Angeles’ Microsoft Theater hanging on her every one of her digitized words.
The Hatsune Miku live experience is quite unlike anything else out there. Backed by a live band that was often shrouded in darkness, the computer-animated Miku “performed” as a projection on a translucent glass screen, her seapunk-turquoise hair bouncing as she frolicked. Her dance moves were both elaborate and cheeky—at one point she did the robot, which given that she’s a virtual performer, is the height of irony. After her first song, she knelt down, her body dissolving into a cloud of Martix-y code, cohering back into existence once the band picked back up for the next song. Unfettered by the constraints of the physical form, her vocals often blipped by at hyperspeed, which, when matched with the blast-beats of her two drummers and the frantic guitar work, made many of her songs feel like ultra-kawaii black metal. Though Miku was the main attraction, she was periodically replaced by an array of performers, including a redhead named Meiko, a guy with blue hair named Kaito, and a pair of blonde twins named Lin and Ren.
Photos via the author
Much of the crowd, meanwhile, seemed completely prepared for the show. Miku’s fanbase overlaps heavily with the Japanese culture-obsessed otaku community, and many of them, wearing costumes with varying degrees of intensity, wouldn’t have looked out of place at an anime convention (while I was waiting for Miku to go on, I actually heard someone behind me gush to his friend, “You can never watch enough anime, man!”). That same dedication to fandom extended to the performance itself, where the audience were armed with venue-supplied glow sticks that added an unexpected element to the performance. They chanted “Hey! Hey! Hey!” in rigid time along to the songs, waving their glow sticks in unison as if they’d received specific instructions beforehand. Those in the pit got fancier glow sticks, which automatically changed colors to match the hair of whichever avatar happened to be onstage. The point of this is to mirror the crowd-sourced nature of the characters themselves, whose songs and dances are both composed by fans using Crypton’s software.
Miku and her friends are like Wikipedia pages in a way—it takes a community in order for them to function at their peak, and to attend the show is to take part in that collaboration in real time. As I watched the glow sticks reflect off of Miku’s screen to create an almost rain-like background, I had a moment of panic when I realized I was literally the only person in the crowd not holding one. Just then, the guy to my left handed me an extra, and as I joined in the swaying and chanting, I felt genuinely connected to everyone else in the room.
Between the freneticism of her songs, the elaborate light show behind her, and the sheer volume of both the music and the crowd’s cheers combined, the show was an overwhelming, disorienting experience. Halfway through the nearly two-hour set the whole thing made me feel like I was going to throw up, but that sort of seemed like the point. Hatsune Miku isn’t real, and in order to get on her level you need to feel like you’re not real either. It was the closest to being on drugs I’ve ever been without actually being on drugs.
People my age will never be able to experience the transformative, groundbreaking live shows that acts such as Pink Floyd, Prince, or Funkadelic delivered in their primes, but watching a non-existent, nausea-inducing anime teen definitely feels like a step forward into a bold new direction that’s at least as improbable as Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire.
With albums sales flagging, it’s increasingly more lucrative for an artist to establish themselves as a brand rather than someone who puts out records. Chance the Rapper has excelled in this endeavor—despite his considerable popularity, he still hasn’t signed a record deal or released a proper album. He’s free to release mixtapes and build his fanbase without the pressure of having to put up sales numbers, which increases his draw as a live performer. Crypton, meanwhile, allows creators of Hatsune Miku-fronted songs to retain all the rights to the compositions, which indicates they’ve doubled down on this same idea. Miku is monetized through Crypton selling the software that allows one to make her music, as well as offering up the opportunity to see her live, or buying into her fandom through purchasing her merchandise, or even by having her face emblazoned on a racecar.
If nothing else, the Hatsune Miku phenomenon is a reflection of the music industry’s inherent artifice, drawn out to its most logical extreme. While watching Lin and Ren perform martial arts while singing I remembered a conversation I’d had with a rapper friend who was telling me he’d secured a beat by a renowned producer for his album, only to have his label at the last minute deny him the funds to actually buy the thing. “It’s fine, though,” he told me, “I can still use the beat, I just have to say it was produced by the guy who actually produced it.” The implication is that big names in music are mostly marketing ploys—in a sense, Drake selling a verse written by Quentin Miller for tens of thousands of dollars is no different than Supreme slapping their logo on another brand’s goods and upcharging consumers for the privilege of buying it. Similarly, an unknown band can create a song using the Hatsune Miku software, and there is a distinct possibility that that song will become a hit in Japan, where Miku-fronted songs regularly enter the pop charts. The brilliance of Hatsune Miku is that it turns the music industry’s inherent phoniness into an enormous cosplay endeavor.
After Hatsune Miku bid her fans adieu and evaporated from the stage, not a single one of them left the room, instead they chanted her name and waved their glow sticks as if compelled by unknown forces. Can virtual pop stars grant their audience an encore? It turns out they can—she returned after a few minutes, this time backed by her openers Anamanaguchi, an American electronic band whose songs zip with Miku-esque zest and who have found success through bucking the industry’s conventions. Anamanaguchi were clearly psyched to be able to perform with Miku, and the audience ate it up. As the band struck their final notes, cannons shot Miku-branded streamers into the crowd, only adding to the giddy absurdity of the moment.
But that wasn’t quite all. Hatsune Miku took the stage for one final song, this time unaccompanied at a piano. As the crowd watched her prepare to play, they went silent, appreciating what was clearly meant to be the evening’s lone moment of solemnity. The anticipation was too much for a few people, who broke into cheers. These dissenters were quickly silenced by a wave of shushes which easily overpowered the overeager fans. This—the willful preservation of an obvious illusion—was the most human moment in a night dedicated to transcending humanity itself.
Drew Millard is a convert and he’s on Twitter.