Hatsune Miku, one of Japan’s most famous pop stars, has been 16 for the past seven years. She wears her cascading aquamarine hair in pigtails that skim the ground when she dances, and according to stats offered up on her record company’s website, she stands five-two and weighs about 93 pounds. She has opened for Lady Gaga, collaborated with Pharrell, and sung more than 100,000 songs, dabbling quite literally in every genre imaginable. If you’ve heard of her, you’ve probably heard her described as a “hologram”; maybe you’ve also heard people say she doesn’t exist. But both of these are the kind of misnomers that are liable to send her legions of die-hard fans — and there are 2.5 million of them on Facebook — into cardiac arrest. (Don’t even think about calling her a cartoon.) She is, depending on whom you ask, a harbinger of a radically collaborative future in pop music or a holographic horsewoman of the apocalypse. Indeed, last month, shortly after she made her much-discussed American-network debut on The Late Show With David Letterman and shortly before her two headlining shows at the Hammerstein Ballroom, a New York Times headline wondered, “Does Hatsune Miku’s Ascent Mean the End of Music As We Know It?”
Miku is what’s known as a Vocaloid, an avatar of voice-synthesizing software (also called Vocaloid) — roughly, Siri–meets–GarageBand. One fan-written history of Vocaloid explains: “Human voices are recorded in short samples, and these samples are stored in a database which becomes a software for songwriters and producers to use as an alternative [to] a singing voice.” Cutting edge as it sounds, this technology is actually not that new. In 1962, Bell Labs’ IBM 704 became “the first computer to sing” when it performed a very proto-Kraftwerk-sounding rendition of “Daisy Bell” (to which Stanley Kubrick paid chilling homage a few years later in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Modern Vocaloid technology dates back to 2000, when development for commercial use began, although in its early days it was still a niche concern appealing only to music producers and software engineers. Then a Sapporo, Japan–based music-software company with a name straight out of a William Gibson novel, Crypton Future Media, had an idea: What if you could market Vocaloid to a mass audience? In 2004 it released its first Vocaloid voice-in-a-box: Meiko, a brunette pixie in a red pleather two-piece; in 2006 came Kaito, a brooding, blue-haired misterioso in a long white trench. For about $170, anyone with a personal computer could write a song using Meiko or Kaito’s voice.
It wasn’t until 2007, though, that Crypton released Hatsune Miku (her name means “first sound of the future”), a highly stylized Vocaloid specifically designed to appeal to anime fans. (Her voice bank was recorded by the anime actress Saki Fujita.) Crypton CEO Hiroyuki Itoh hoped that Miku would take off, but he says he was “astonished” by what happened next — not only a surge in sales (40,000 copies sold that year) but a sudden outpouring of Miku fan art. She was an instant star.
Miku had perfect timing, hitting just as social media was beginning to democratize music production and distribution. The response was so overwhelming that within three months of her release, Crypton created Piapro.jp, a free social-media platform on which Miku enthusiasts could upload their creations and connect with other fans. As Itoh tells me through a translator over Skype, it quickly grew into a conduit for collaboration: “Someone says, ‘Okay, I like to write lyrics, but I can’t program Hatsune Miku’s voice.’ The other person says, ‘Oh, okay, I can play piano.’ So you have clusters of fans finding each other through the platform.” This is pop-culture crowdsourcing at a new level, and evidence that, rather than an ending, Miku represents a beginning.
“You know she can’t do interviews, right?” Miku’s publicist asks me early in our first phone conversation. Of course Miku has a publicist — seven years after her release, she is now a full-fledged global phenomenon. She has launched the careers of now-popular artists who got their start writing songs for her (like the Japanese alt-rock band Supercell and the electro-pop act livetune). Technology that projects her 3-D image onto a screen has allowed Miku to perform live around the world and even star in an all-Vocaloid opera, for which her outfit was designed by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton. She is a household name in her home country — a Crypton employee tells me that “there is almost no one in Japan between the ages of 5 and 25 who doesn’t know who she is.”
And now — a little over a year since the English version of Miku software was released — a growing number of Americans know her too. Snaking down 34th Street on a mild October Friday evening, the line of thousands outside the Hammerstein Ballroom is noticeably diverse: costumed kids accompanied by plainclothes parents, huddles of giggling teens, adults who seem like they’d be able to point you in the direction of the nearest comic-book store. At least half of the crowd is sporting some kind of Miku swag (a group of teens wear matching T-shirts of four Vocaloid characters crossing Abbey Road, purchased at Hot Topic), and about a third are in cosplay gear. I witness a Vocaloid meet-cute when a teen girl dressed as the blonde Vocaloid Rin spots a stranger dressed as her male counterpart, Len, and cries, “Let’s take a selfie!”
As I make my way inside the venue, I’m armed with questions similar to that Times headline. Big questions. If Miku’s ascent continues, will virtual pop stars eventually become a viable alternative to human ones? Does a cyborg Justin Bieber offer a safer return on investment than the actual Justin Bieber? These are not exactly conversation starters, so as I approach a mildly bored-looking dad and his teenage son, I decide to lead with “Uh, where are you from?”
Cincinnati, turns out. They drove here just for the show. The son has been a Miku fanatic for three years, and I can tell he’s regarding me skeptically until I mention that I’ve already seen Miku live, at Madison Square Garden, where she opened Lady Gaga’s ArtRave tour this past spring. He caught the show in Ohio, and we both admit we found Miku’s performance a little lackluster. The holographic effect is best when viewed dead-on, so Miku’s setup isn’t made for arenas; from my seat to the far right of the stage, the angles were all wrong. “I mean, yeah,” he says. “But she was also playing to backing tracks. Tonight’s gonna be so much better, because there will be real musicians behind her.” I nod. It will be a few seconds before the irony sinks in.
“When I meet Hatsune Miku fans, we all have this giddy joy, like we made this,” says Tara Knight, a professor at UC San Diego who is working on a documentary about Miku. “We’re part of this thing.”
In America, the “hologram” component of Miku is what’s getting all the buzz, but as you dig deeper into Vocaloid culture, you come to see that this is perhaps the least interesting thing about her. Far more revolutionary is the fact that all her music — including the songs performed in concert — is written by fans, some of whom cannot read music and never felt empowered to write a song before Miku came along. “Miku is seen less as this really special person, like Lady Gaga or somebody,” Knight says, “but rather a conduit through which you can express yourself.” (Crypton has licensed Miku under Creative Commons, so that fans can use her image freely for noncommercial use. And fans retain the copyright on any songs they write, so in some rare cases they can make money off viral hits.)
Knight is exuberant when talking about this stuff, and it’s easy to see why: Miku is a media-studies professor’s dream — a wildly new model of pop stardom that’s both participatory and anti-hierarchical. “It’s totally counter the narrative of what artistic cultural production is right now,” she enthuses. “It’s not the Mick Jagger with this aura of originality. It’s something else. That’s the most radical part of Hatsune. It’s really exploding this idea of authenticity and the solo artist being the highest thing you can be.”
Sure, the whole post-human-pop-star thing sounds pretty weird to some people. But is it really? From magazine covers on which women are Photoshopped into porcelain-skinned cyborgs to CGI-crazed “live action” movies in which, say, Benedict Cumberbatch can transform into a dragon, we’re getting used to a certain kind of augmented reality. In the music world, too, Americans listen to plenty of artists whose persona and output have echoes of Vocaloid, from the rise of the future-Pygmalion “producer as artist” model of EDM superstars Zedd (who has collaborated with Miku), Skrillex, and Avicii, to the kind of synthetic anonymity favored by Daft Punk and Deadmau5.
Vocaloid is also a logical extension of the way digital culture has altered pop stardom by making the fans more visible — think Little Monsters, Beliebers, and Swifties, along with their leaders’ refrains: It’s all about my fans. I only do this for my fans. Miku takes this belief that fans are responsible for their artists’ commercial successes one step further: Fans are responsible for her creative successes, too. You don’t have to wait for her to release her next single. You can write your own. (Or direct the music video, or choreograph a Miku dance, or translate the single into another language.)
There is, however, a big, pixelated elephant in the room: Miku is made in the image of a gorgeous, impossibly thin, perpetually underage girl whom you can make sing and say and do whatever you want — and for some fans this is undoubtedly part of her appeal. Knight says she’s encountered men for whom Miku is “totally a sexualized thing,” and just as many who view her as “a little sister, something you protect and help.” But the same open-source quality that allows these questionable interpretations also enables more radical Mikus: There’s a thriving online community of lesbian Vocaloid songs (many of which “ship” Miku with other female Vocaloid characters), as well as Fatsune Miku, an alternative take on Miku that rejects her 93-pound frame.
“For women in Japan,” says Knight, “I think there’s a combination of cuteness and empowerment about it. The women who cosplay as Miku in Japan are often the quiet and shy women. So this is a very public way of feeling empowered.”
A screen at the Hammerstein flashes an important safety warning: NO GLOWSTICKS ABOVE 6 INCHES. Thirty seconds into the show, I understand why.
I have never experienced anything quite like the energy in the pit as Miku flashes onto the stage. Everyone is issued a lime-green glow stick upon entry, and a crucial part of the live experience involves everyone waving theirs in the air to the beat. As Miku and her band launch into the opening EDM starburst of “Sharing the World,” flying glow sticks whiz by my head. Before the first song ends, I’ve decided to move to the balcony.
And I’m glad — the view is spectacular. The glow-stick effect is a perfect visual embodiment of the Miku ethos: The fans are celebrating Miku, but also themselves. From the balcony I have the best view of Miku, and she’s dazzling. The fluid sway of her pigtails is hypnotic; the way her feet hit the ground when she jumps is expertly pulled off. Surprisingly, she’s not just a hollow cipher up there. Detractors of Vocaloid often assume that music made without a traditional human singer must be inherently “cold” and emotionless, but at the Miku concert, the opposite is true. Perhaps influenced by the melodrama of anime, Vocaloid songs are often brimming with emotion, like the kiss-off “Just Be Friends” (which is sung at the show by a special guest, the Vocaloid Luka) and Miku’s love song “Glass Wall.” During the encore, the fan-favorite ballad “Starduster,” a few people around me tear up.
By the end of the 27-song set, I’ve abandoned any notion that it is weird to, as the old concert-going complaint goes, “pay money to go stare at a screen for two hours.” After all, at the Gaga show where I had those shitty seats, I spent most of the night staring at the Jumbotron.
Earlier this year, the gaming website Polygon posted a video titled “Is Hatsune Miku a Better Pop Star Than Justin Bieber?” The choice of adversary was not random. A certain kind of Miku fan hates Justin Bieber. Loudly. A Google search of “Hatsune Miku vs. Justin Bieber” yields hundreds of thousands of results, including a meme in which Bieber boasts of his many fans and Miku replies, “Bitch please. I have millions of fans and I don’t even exist.” In certain corners of the Miku-fan community, there is a belief, reinforced by each new tabloid story, that Bieber is our most human, and thus most fallible, pop star — a living argument in favor of virtual idols. In the beginning, he was presented as a new kind of idol: We just found this kid on YouTube, and now he’s a star! But his trajectory has ended up decidedly old-model: Talented youngster grows up in the spotlight’s glare and then cracks. “Hatsune Miku,” on the other hand, yields no search results on TMZ.
Most people would agree that the pressures of pop stardom are inhumane and warping, but should we do a complete overhaul of the music industry and replace human idols with virtual ones? Not so fast. “The virtual singer,” Itoh assures me, “will never replace the human singer.” But, he says, Miku and her descendants will enable their fans “to discover talents that have never surfaced until now.”
So the naysayers living in fear of pop’s supposedly cold, holographic, machine-dominated future are missing the point. In the way she allows us to imagine a new and inclusive model of music production, Miku might just be the most up-with-people pop star of them all.
“This kind of collaborative, creative essence, that’s the part I hope continues as Vocaloids spread,” says Knight. “It’s happening in Japan, and I’m like, ‘Goddamn it, I hope this happens here too!’ ”
*This article appears in the November 17, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.