On Saturday, I watched a not-particularly-realistic 2D projection of a teenaged girl in teal pigtails singing in a computer-generated voice mesmerize a concert hall packed with teens. For two hours. And it was actually pretty fucking amazing.
I confess that my hopes for the Hatsune Miku concert at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom were not high. Oh, sure, I figured it would be nutty, worthy of my first introduction to the virtual pop star—this wacky video, featuring the CEO of Dominos in a shining moment in the history of awkward cross-cultural internet WTFery:
Honestly, the whole phenomenon is bananas, the sort of thing that becomes migraine-inducing when you try to explain it to your parents. Hatsune Miku was originally created by Japanese music tech company Crypton Future Media as a kind of mascot/marketing stunt for their voice-approximating software. (They describe her as a "singing voice synthesizer.") She's just a computer program! But—and here's the source of her appeal—she's a computer program you can use to create your very own songs for her to sing (for a small fee, of course). There's no artist ghostwriting Miku's material. It's all the work of fans.
And the fans are extremely enthusiastic. Crypton says they've created over 100,000 songs, 170,000 YouTube videos and more than a million works of fan art. This hologram has sold out concerts in Tokyo, Singapore and Taipei. And I would be remiss if I failed to mention the seamy underside of her popularity: lots of porn. (SFW-ish illustration of grossness available here.) Guess all those guys obsessed with Rei Ayanami from Neon Genesis Evangelion finally found someone even more appealingly blank!
Intellectually fascinating, sure. But as a live act? Questionable. (Also, just describing this makes me feel like an out-of-touch fuddy-duddy.) The Wired journalist who did the first big English-language piece on Hatsune Miku came away from a concert unimpressed. At the end of the day we're basically talking about a YouTube video, right? It's not like she promises some acrobatic dance spectacle like Beyoncé or Britney, either—think standard drunk-girl karaoke moves. In short, I expected to react much like David Letterman did when Miku appeared on his show earlier this month: befuddled, bewildered and slightly annoyed.
Boy oh boy, was I wrong.
Outside the venue, the line was backed up an entire city block. I spotted several teal Miku wigs bobbing in the crowd. General admission tickets for the "Miku Love Zone" sold for $75 a pop, and it was completely packed. The crowd periodically chanted "Miku! Miku! Miku!" and would cheer every time the "Sega" chime rang out from the preroll video. Green glow sticks (dispensed upon arrival) were already out and bopping along to the music.
When the lights went down, the crowd lost its shit. Those glow sticks stayed up for the entire concert. Every time Miku appeared on stage, the roar was deafening. The show itself was full of in-your-face high-tech effects-heavy wizardry. There was a live band accompanying Hatsune Miku, and they were pretty good, too. There were lasers, fireworks, smoke bombs, even an explosion of metallic streamers at one point. The backdrop was a huge digital display that, at various points, became a giant boom box and a pair of cherry trees with sound equipment for trunks.
While the crowd was probably majority dudes (no doubt a couple of whom have hentai-loaded laptops at home), the pitch of the screams suggest it was the girls setting the emotional tone for the show. Several girls were on their feet in the balcony, dancing and singing along. I was sitting next to a tween (accompanied by a rather bored-looking grandmother) who spent the entire show rocking out so hard her hair occasionally slapped my shoulder. For the most high-energy songs, she would hang onto the handrail in front of us, lift herself off her seat and headbang with her glowstick.
It gave me goosebumps, a little, to see that many young people freaking out over anything, much less a hologram with essentially zero personality. Turns out you don't even need to be a flesh-and-blood One Direction to channel the hysterical enthusiasm of being 19! A piece of sponsored content on steroids will do just as well. Maybe better—it's not like Miku will ever want to break from her original persona, Miley-style. She can't go acoustic. She can't do anything her fans don't want, because she IS her fans. She's their creation, a collaborative avatar.
It wasn't Hatsune Miku that was impressive. It was the vibe, the environment—the fans. Concert videos don't even remotely do it justice.
It's tempting to herald Hatsune Miku as the future of pop stardom, the natural outcome of an international generation of kids who've spend grown up remixing and drawing fan art and writing fan fiction and contributing to Kickstarters. Plus, just imagine how happy record execs would be if they could completely eliminate actual artists from the music business entirely! No drug problems, no Twitter meltdowns, no huge bills for destroyed hotel rooms, no demands to make a musically adventurous album that'll obviously flop.
But it's hard to imagine America ever totally embracing "vocaloids," no matter how advanced the technology gets. We love destroying our flesh-and-blood pop stars too much. America needs a Britney to concern-troll, a Justin to call an entitled little shit. The offstage storyline matters every bit as much as the catchiness of the singles, and computers can't cut it when it comes to human sacrifice.
Even so, Hatsune Miku still started ten minutes late.