Tell me how you felt when you saw it
Tell me why it made you so happy
Tell me now what is on your mind
I’m still gonna listen to you
Hatsune Miku will never, ever put on a bad show. Every night, her pigtails will cascade flawlessly into four-foot azure foxtails. Every night, her choreographed steps will come down perfectly in place. Every night, her voice will align with the pitch, her internal tempo will fall in lockstep with the beat. As a Vocaloid—a computer-generated ”vocal android”—Miku is incapable of screwing up. Perfection is in her programming. As a pop star, she is infallible.
There’s something immediately captivating about perfection; a certain awe-inspiring brilliance that overrides everything in its immediate vicinity. It’s is what triggers the urge to break down in tears when David Byrne pleads “My God, what have I done,” the sublime comfort that Lou Reed evokes in the final moments of “Satellite of Love.” The sky could be falling, and “Satellite”’s effervescent crescendo would still feel like all the cozy refuge one could ever ask for. The caveat is to this, of course, is that nothing’s actually perfect—at least not in an objective sense. A lot of people hate Lou Reed.
But you can’t argue Hatsune Miku’s perfection, and maybe that’s why it feels so unsettling when she looks into the camera, tilts her head to the side and winks right at you. It’s such a human gesture, attached to a flawless adolescent homunculus. Hatsune Miku’s perfection is unachievable, the uncanny valley of popular music, and yet there she is, cooing at you in her English theme song “Sharing the World:” I’m still gonna listen to you.
It already takes some major mental bargaining to warm up to Miku’s jarring perfection, and it can feel downright impossible to try and explain her to another person. Even though “she’s” technically a hologram, it feels a little reductionist to introduce her that way.
David Letterman ran into the same problem as he struggled to introduce Miku on his show last week. Looking absolutely baffled, Letterman (or at least his writers) decided to characterize Miku, introducing her as a “computer-generated Vocaloid personality from Japan.”
For all the great publicity Miku’s gotten since her stateside arrival, she’s also been met with hesitant skepticism to match. On an emotional level, there’s really no mistaking why she makes such a challenging first impression: She’s a Japanese anime character come to life, she’s upsettingly perfect, she’s inhuman. But Hatsune Miku is not the first of her kind, and she certainly won’t be the last.
We’re everyday robots in control
Or in the process of being sold
Driving in adjacent cars
‘Til you press restart
For a guy whose last band was fronted by a group of virtual primates, it seems odd that Damon Albarn’s first ever solo album, which came out earlier this year, should release under the title of Everyday Robots. Can’t the guy give himself some credit beyond some robotic cover? His time as the frontman of Blur may have already given him a lifetime’s worth of attention, but he’s gotta have some reason for sticking so tightly to his transhumanist guns.
To coincide with the release of Everyday Robots, Albarn played an intimate set at Tokyo’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. In attendance at this museum show were Otonaroid and Teleroid, two noticeably creepy animatronic androids who blinked and smiled in silence throughout his set. As it turns out, Albarn’s not just using robots as a front: These things actually drive his art.
“For us to really engage with them, they have to look like us,” said Albarn in an interview after the show. “It’s terrifying and very inspiring.”
It’s easy to grasp the terrifying part, but much more difficult to buy into the idea of empty, unfeeling androids as a source of inspiration. Still, if there’s one authority on channeling art through animatronics, it’s Damon Albarn, the guy whose cartoon-fronted side project Gorillaz would eventually became his definitive statement. Since the launch of their self-titled debut, the Gorillaz themselves seem to have taken on lives of their own. They’ve shown up on MTV Cribs (sorta), they’ve accepted awards, they’ve flipped out in dressing rooms.
But Gorillaz were never bona fide androids. Even at their spectacular live shows, it was always clear that somebody was behind the curtain. If you knew about Blur, you could probably tell it was Albarn by his throaty tenor alone.
Even the Gorillaz songs that didn’t hoist Albarn up as the melancholic frontman had a tendency to replace him with some other established, respected artist. Whether it was Bobby Womack, Del the Funky Homosapien, or pre-Sam Smith vocal wunderkind Daley, there’s always been some kind of face—beyond Jamie Hewlett’s sketchbook caricatures—to attach Gorillaz’ artistic sentiments to.
So while Gorillaz’ attempt at complete artistic disembodiment was mostly a failure, it was a seminal attempt at stardom by cartoon proxy. Everyone and their mother has heard a Gorillaz track at some point in their lives, but it’s doubtful whether they could actually give you the name of the man behind the microphone. The intent of Gorillaz was never to elevate Albarn as a rock persona; instead, it gave him the wiggle room to explore new genres and to work out some of his dream collaborations.
There’s a moment in Gorillaz’ “Stylo” video where Noodle—the cutest member of the Gorillaz crew who has apparently been replaced by a cyborg replica—can be seen short-circuiting in the backseat of a muscle car. The sequence is an inversion of an inversion: We’re disturbed to see Noodle meet such an unfortunate demise, but only because we feel like we’ve come to know her over the years. This is not the dancing, carefree little Japanese girl from the “Dare” video; In fact, that Noodle was never actually real to begin with. Terrifying and inspiring, no doubt.
Making love with his ego Ziggy sucked up into his mind
Like a leper messiah
When the kids had killed the man
I had to break up the band
Ziggy Stardust was one of the most famous rock stars of the 1970s, and another completely fabricated persona. While the sci-fi alter ego has become somewhat of a trope since David Bowie’s wildly successful character detour, it’s interesting to note Ziggy Stardust’s origins apart from the lore that surrounds him.
Looking back at Ziggy’s formative stages, it’s clear that he was never meant to serve as Bowie’s apotheosis into rock ‘n roll godhood. He was supposed to act like more of a mask, much as Gorillaz did for Albarn.
“I find it extremely hard to write for me,” Bowie said in a 1988 interview. “I did find it much easier, having created this Ziggy, to then write for him… even though it was me doing it.”
Like Murdoc, 2D, Noodle and Russel of Gorillaz, Ziggy Stardust was the proxy for an artist who wanted to explore music through use of an alternate persona. It was an artistic inspiration, a brand new sense of freedom, an outlet to make statements on the grandest scale without fear of repercussion. By adapting Ziggy as his mask, Bowie could scream out in agony to grieve a fictional world that had only five years left. He could commit “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” in front of thousands of loyal fans, and live on the next day as if nothing had changed.
Lots of recent artists have purposely obscured or hidden their identities to let their music do the same kind of thing. The Weeknd, Aphex Twin, Janelle Monáe, Daft Punk, MF DOOM, Nicki Minaj—all have experimented with ways to mask their identities.
While their uses are mostly artist-specific, all of these personas share one common thread: They all function as artistic escape hatches. The Weeknd and WU LYF attempted to escape novelty through mystique. Others, like Del The Funky Homosapien and Janelle Monáe, took the Bowie route, using persona to raise the musical stakes. Beyonce and Nicki Minaj used Sasha Fierce and Roman Zolanski as a means of self-empowerment.
By detaching the music from their own persona, artists can free themselves of their mortal coils, pulling off even the most ambitious statements without sounding all too preachy.
The big downfall of the alter-ego when used this way is that it doesn’t really give a damn about the listener. It’s a fantastic means of artistic self-inflation, but it’s not genuine to the real world; at least not in a way that could possibly sustain itself. And so these alter egos all end up fading off at some point, allowing the artist to once again speak for him or herself. As Bowie wistfully asserted in his 1988 interview: “Most rock characters that one can create only have a short life span. They are one-shots, they are cartoons.”
(Laser) beams from my eyes, missiles from my ears
My heart, communicating with you through telepathy
Antennas that extend, a rainbow-colored UFO
Even for a Japanese pop star, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is a bit of an oddball. Sporting her signature gaudy, candy-coated Harajuku fashion outfits, there’s always something slightly off about the things she decides to wear. The bows in her hair are a tad too big, the shoes a decade too childish. Her music videos take everything a step further, turning up the neon colors and thoroughly demolishing the thin lines between cute and creepy, dream and nightmare.
But I’ll be damned if Kyary doesn’t do kawaii better than anyone else. She lives and breathes Japan’s archetype of cuteness, mixing in just enough eccentricity to give her a mischievous edge. In her recent commercial for the New Nintendo 3DS, she’s positively radiant, changing costume about five times in 30 seconds and happily distributing pastel makeovers for all of Nintendo’s mainstay characters. Mario in gingham, Link in a tux, Bullet Bill in lipstick and goddamn pink-fuschia zigzags: What’s not to love?
A quick Wiki search tells you that Kyary’s real name is Takemura Kiriko, but identity plays a minimal role in understanding her work. Like her flashy garb and off-the-wall TV appearances, Kyary’s music is only superficially grounded in reality, opting instead for a challenging, surreal, captivating cuteness.
Rainbow-colored UFOs, telepathic hearts, laser eyeballs: No lyrical image is too decadent for Kyary’s saccharine art. Every song she records is a perfectly stitched tapestry of kawaii, terrifying, catchy escapism that earworms itself into the consciousness on first listen. But even though it’s easy to criticize her music for its indulgences, it’s actually pretty impressive that Kyary’s songs never feel annoying, even after twentieth or thirtieth listen. In their review of Kyary’s most recent album Pika Pika Fantajin, Tiny Mix Tapes does a great job of dissecting why this might be:
“Rather than make any attempt at resembling reality, KPP makes escapes about escapism, and in so doing, she touches much deeper than stars who adopt the weight of real-world relevance into their performance identities.”
Kyary’s glistening brand of Harajuku pop shows us that music can actually feel benevolent when it’s detached from the caveats of commercialized pop stardom. Although Kyary is sure to have her share of real-life flaws, her music comes across as spotless, intravenously delivered with a high dosage of something that feels like genuine innocence. It’s all there for you to enjoy, untainted by the strange baggage of persona.
For some, identity and music are inextricably tied. To these people, pop culture itself is an escape. But Kyary Pamyu Pamyu keeps the identity focus to an absolute minimum. She says screw pop, and screw bubblegum. Instead, she hands you a mile-high chocolate sprinkle-cake. You eat it and feel great. The cake is calorie free.
Sharing your sound
We’re sharing an endless love
Can’t you see this future is right now
Cause my voice is always going around
If we look at Ziggy Stardust as the prime example of an artist escaping into persona, and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s candy-coated pop as the epitome of music sans persona, then behind the uncanny wink of Hatsune Miku we find both in perfect co-existence.
Hatsune Miku is both a frontwoman and an instrument—a synthesized voice that Crypton Future Media tacked a name onto and successfully sold as a popstar. Anyone can write a song for Hatsune Miku and have it become famous independent of the artist’s name or obscurity.
Much like The Weeknd or WU LYF, supercell were relative nobodies when they released their Miku-fronted debut album. But with the popularity of their hit Miku song “Melt,” they leapt from Japan’s video sharing sites into a straight-up record deal with Sony Music Entertainment Japan. They’re no longer fronted by Miku, but there’s no doubting that the vocaloid—and the malleable identity that accompanies her—played a major role in their success.
For her appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman, Hatsune Miku performed “Sharing the World,” a four-on-the-floor neon halo of a song that describes a new future of endless love, collective happiness and shared beauty. While many have criticized the song selection (Miku’s English voice kit is still decidedly unrefined), it served its purpose as a charming manifesto for crowd-sourced pop.
It doesn’t matter if you’re an aspiring teenage producer with a jerry-rigged audio workstation; Hatsune Miku will sing literally anything you write. Even if it’s a song about a waffle. If you fancy yourself a lyricist, you don’t have to worry about Miku’s reputation eclipsing your original message because, well, Miku has no set personality. There’s nothing to “read into.” The medium is the message, and there’s nothing in between.
Human-fronted music comes with a ton of baggage. Does Taylor Swift really have that many guy problems, or is she embellishing heartbreak to inflate her own appeal? Can I ever listen to Back to Mono the same way again? Why do I love Lil B so much?
When you watch and listen to Hatsune Miku, you don’t have to worry about that baggage because you’re not getting a person, you’re getting a collective entity. You’re getting the songwriter who penned the lyrics about connection and positivity. You’re getting the composer, whose hooks you’re still humming along to. You’re getting the animator, the choreographer, the band, the software developer. There may not be a persona behind Hatsune Miku’s ineffable wink, but there are people, and they all want you to have a good time.
Miku is a holographic new skin for the pop music leviathan, an animated and interactive avatar that democratizes pop music while dissociating it from whatever dark influences threaten to drag it down.
If that still sounds scary to you, well, you’re not without justification. Miku, along with the growing numbers of popstar avatars of her kind, ring in the ego death of pop music. Is it jarring? Absolutely. But if you’re willing to ditch the specter of pop stardom, you may find yourself completely liberated. Hatsune Miku might be fake, but at least you know she has nothing to hide.
Image via Flickr