When Hatsune Miku comes on stage, she can’t hear the crowd cheering. Nor can she see her fans swinging their green glowsticks to the beat. That’s because Hatsune Miku isn’t a person; she’s an animated character.
Despite the Japanese superstar’s lack of humanity, the crowd reacts to “her” like any of the other (human) acts that come through New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom. The audience, a mixture of teenagers and middle-aged men in plaid shorts, sings along, squeals at the first notes of their favorite tunes, and dances to Hatsune Miku’s movements, which are about as complex as a bar mitzvah line dance, thanks to the fact that she’s projected onto a screen. The electric-blue pigtailed 16-year-old–yes, she has an official height, weight, and age–can work a crowd, nevertheless. Check out this call and response at a 2011 performance in Tokyo.
At one point a girl to my right bounced in her seat and buried her face in her hands at the site of Kaito, another animated performer. (A Hatsune Miku show has a rotating cast of animations that come on stage throughout the evening.)
“It’s not just celebrating the idol; the fans are celebrating themselves,” said Cosima Oka-Doerge, the global marketing manager at Crypton, the company behind Hatsune Miku and the various other animated characters on tour with her. The songs performed by Hatsune Miku and friends are crowdsourced from people using Crytpon’s software. That’s the genius of her empire and why, per Oka-Doerge, people get so into a performance of something that can’t actually be “live.”
Created by Crypton CEO Hiroyuki Itoh, Hatsune Miku was “born” August 31, 2007. Itoh envisioned her as an avatar for Crypton’s voice synthesis software, which he built using Yamaha’s Vocaloid 2 program. He commissioned an illustrator to make something “cute but also slightly edgy.” Inspired by Yamaha’s DX7 synthesizer, which has blue LEDs across the top, the result was the leggy Hatsune Miku, with big, round crystal-blue eyes and hair to match.
Although one might describe her as anime or manga, she is not, Oka-Doerge insists. “There are different connotations when you create a manga,” she said. “You want it to have a certain background, you want it to have a certain personality.” Hatsune Miku, on the other hand, is a blank slate. Her only characteristics are visual. That leaves room for creativity. The fans get to make up any lyrics to music of any genre. There are no constraints.
The day Itoh put her online, he knew she would succeed. That morning, fans started creating their own illustrations and he saw people asking to collaborate on music videos. Now, there are over 100,000 tailor-made for just Hatsune Miku, not to mention the other avatars. Her first concert came a couple of years later, in August 2009. She’s a veritable teen idol in Japan. “She’s rather more like a goddess: She has human parts, but she transcends human limitations. She’s the great posthuman pop star,” reads one fansite, per Wired.
Watching fans watch Hatsune Miku is like watching someone play Dance Dance Revolution, if you’ve never played DDR. She’s not technically a hologram, but a 3-D computer graphic projected onto a screen, the outline of which is visible from balcony level seats. Her likeness isn’t towering. But a 5’2″ human pop star doesn’t look like a giant on stage, either. At times, unlike a person, her body fades because of the angle and lighting.
After the opening riff of a given song, Hatsune Miku (or one of her friends) flickers into being. She can only move laterally, because she’s not actually on stage, but on the flat plane of the screen. Graphics that look like Windows 95 screen savers flash behind her. While her dance moves aren’t awe inspiring, she can do superhuman things like explode into sparkles at the end of a song. One of the other performers expanded into five versions of himself.
Meanwhile, the audience acts like there is nothing weird about applauding an inanimate object. (To be fair, there are actual, live musicians on stage that accompany the virtual singers.) The Hatsune Miku Expo, to the fans, is like seeing any other show: A blown-up version of watching an hour and a half of music videos on YouTube.
“All I can say is that they were everything this Miku Fanatic had hoped for and more!” writes one fan who went to both shows in New York City last weekend. “The sound and visuals were perfect from the floor, and the view from the balcony let us take the whole thing in at once.”
And, really, is it any different than going to a super-produced Taylor Swift show? People go to sing and dance along to familiar songs played really loud among other people who also love those songs, not to hear the “live version” of Shake It Off—which wouldn’t be very good anyway without the aid of backup tracks and electronic instruments and the like. Technology already does most of the work; Hatsune Miku just takes it to the next level.