“How are they all moving their glowsticks together like that?” my friend shouts during a break in the show.
The belly of the ~7,000-seat Microsoft Theater is lit up with little slices of light, sometimes all one color, sometimes smattered throughout with differing neon yellows, oranges, greens, blues, and reds. Like automatons, many of the people standing in the orchestra pit are moving their glowsticks together in coordinated harmony: lifting them to the beat, or waving them side to side, or simply shaking them with their arms outstretched. Seen together, it’s easy to read these coordinated motions as a ritual, an offering, directed toward the person on stage, who isn’t a person at all.
Hatsune Miku is a hologram, but unlike Tupac and Selena and all the other digital musician revivals that have been enacted and announced in the past several years, Miku is a completely fictional character. She, as well as Meiko, Kaito, the Kagamine twins Rin and Len, and Megurine Luka are stylized anime representations of Vocaloid software, which lets you create melodies and arrangements based on a fully Auto-Tuned voice. The songs created using Vocaloid (and the videos custom-animated to go along with them), oftentimes simply by savvy and creative users, are a genre unto themselves. And, while the rise of both the software and the songs created by it mirror the overall music industry paradigm shift toward celebrating producers, particularly electronic music ones, they also represent something else: a new kind of artist-idol worship, one that’s both incredibly similar to and eerily apart from the celebrity worship that dominates pop culture around the world.
As part of the Hatsune Miku Expo, which showcases the most famous Vocaloid of all, the permanently 16-year-old digital gal with the long turquoise pigtails put on a performance at the Microsoft Theater, part of the LA Live complex that also includes the Staples Center (where the Lakers and Clippers and Kings play). The stage’s setup, a glass screen flanked by instruments, reminded me of another famous fictional musical act: Gorillaz. In their case, there were four characters serving as visual avatars for real musicians. In Miku and the other Vocaloids’ cases, there was indeed still a live music component; a human drummer, bassist, keyboardist, and guitarist performed the songs, which riff off of effervescent (and distinct) J-pop melodies, but which take on an industrial/metal edge in the live. Every song performed by Miku or her compatriots sounded like it could easily be remixed for Dance Dance Revolution, or used as a particularly cheerful anime’s opening song. But unlike Gorillaz, unlike Tupac, the Vocaloid voice isn’t aiming for some sort of human verisimilitude; there is no flesh inside the machine, no strain or stress on the peerless, pure, programmed vocals.
Hatsune Miku dissolves, steps off of, and floats down into a digital glass screen. In person, it’s obvious that she is moving in a flat expanse, but in photos and videos, she is alive, glowing at the edges but present nonetheless. Judging by the screaming, dancing, and cheering in the venue, “she” could literally be anyone. Not that it takes away from the feeling of the fans in the room: that she is real, she is there, and she is theirs.
As someone who’s faked or exaggerated fandom before, I suspected that I’d have to draw on those reserves of false, performative cheer for this show. I am an anime fan, but Vocaloid is something else, and the aspects of anime I don’t like are reflected in Miku and, well, the other female-coded Vocaloids. To underscore that point, the friend who went with me to the show turned up in a Lolita t-shirt: “I tried to look for more information about her personality, but all I could really find out was her age.”
It’s easy for people outside of anime and anime-adjacent scenes to dismiss adult fans of teenage girl characters as a certain kind of person. This is usually a cop-out, a means of preemptively dismissing the desires and intentions of the particular, quirky demographic that performs their still oft-marginalized fandom IRL: the crowd gathered for Miku was easily one of the most diverse, in every way, concert crowds I’ve been in, ever, even in Los Angeles. Girls (and presumably some guys) in pigtail wigs and various iconic Miku costumes adjusted their outfits and makeup in the bathroom mirrors, while people in bright blue sweatshirts or homemade t-shirts bought posters and gear of their idol. (My favorite homemade t-shirt slogan: “VOCALOID IS LOVE, VOCALOID IS LIFE.”) Adults brought beers and cups of wine into the auditorium while kids tugged at their parents’ sleeves to enter the theater before the show started. The atmosphere was more casual than that of, say, an anime convention; still, the anticipation hung in the air like a fog. Glowstick-less, we took our seats right before it all began.
And when the crowd began to chant and sing along in a communal chorus, in sync both vocally and physically with their perpetually cheerful leader, I got chills. There is something terrifying, beautiful, about seeing a large group of people do anything in unison. It’s a feeling I’m intimately familiar with — I was a member of my massive college marching band, and the energy that collective, unison action produces could burn away the sun. But instead of roaring at some sporting rival, the crowd’s chant was that of celebrity-fueled desire: “Mi-ku! Mi-ku!” Their idol arrived, in glittery digital dust. A kingdom for a program designed to be your god, wearing a skirt that will never flip one inappropriate millimeter up its wearer’s pixellated thighs.
How much does someone’s talent (or rather, “talent”) actually matter in relation to their celebrity? The answer, these days, seems to perhaps not be so much. The very technologies that gave birth to digital entities like Hatsune Miku are now applied, lightly or otherwise, to every piece of vocal music that gets pushed out, whether it be on radio or Soundcloud.
The growth of the music production machine has come to be defined by a deeper producer/featured artist disparity, and this disparity disproportionately favors producing men and featured women; the latter’s images (read: bodies) are generally perceived to be as important to their music as are their voices, whether they actively want that to be the case or not. This phenomenon isn’t just limited to the music industry, but it’s especially potent there: for every one-hit male wonder, there are five female ingenues with a hit feature and not much else to their name.
Hatsune Miku is, in theory, the apotheosis of this. Forget having to pretend a woman matters at all; you can replicate the allure of the female-coded voice (and body) without having to actually deal with a person. But out of this cynical thought blooms Miku’s reality: that of a blank slate for unadulterated fandom. How many celebrities have been stalked and slandered for misstepping out of their prescribed public image? (This calls to mind Satoshi Kon’s manic masterpiece Perfect Blue.) Hatsune Miku’s talent may only ever be orchestrated by outside creators, but she and the other Vocaloid idols are perfect repositories of fandom love. Justin Bieber cancelled meet-and-greets because they add a layer of stress this already highly-scrutinized young man cannot bear; you literally can’t shake Hatsune Miku’s hand, and well, you can’t be mad about that. You can indeed mold her to suit whatever fantasies or desire you have, “healthy” or not. Whatever you feel, whatever you do, you cannot hurt her, the locus of your adulation. But why would you, because she is everything you want — and if she’s not, well, there are other Vocaloids.
Of course, there can and will be exceptions to that relatively innocent view, and these exceptions are born out of repression, rage, non-acceptance even in this very accepting part of the world. But if you wanted to stalk Harry Styles, you could do that. Hatsune Miku is untraceable, a collection of images summoned from thin air and pre-recorded sounds.
I observed the orchestra pit crowd for the entirety of the show, trying to figure out how this mass of people was coordinating their movements together. The color changes were probably programmed into a selection of pit-distributed glowsticks (most of the non-pit glowsticks didn’t change from a neon blue-green), but the movements themselves. Did these fans study recorded movements from previous live performance footage? Was there a screen somewhere below the stage showing fans how to move?
After some observation, the answer was neither: a selection of the crowd would dictate how the rest would move. Most people caught on quickly (think of how quickly an audience begins to clap along to a song, once a sliver of the crowd begins the motion), but there were a few people dotted throughout who kept to one motion, or otherwise bucked the tacit instructions completely. I was particularly drawn to a couple in the back of the crowd who only ever raised their glowsticks up and down to the beat. The looks on their faces were those of rapture, people seeing exactly what they need to see, hearing exactly what they need to hear. I felt like a sinner in the church of Vocaloid, for being there with anything but adoration in my bitter heart, surrounded by a crush of devotees performing their excited, ecstatic love.
Of course, the real reason why Vocaloids have caught on isn’t just because of their cutely tailored aesthetics. It’s because the music that’s made around them (their voices, their personas, their “preferred” music genres) is also really good. (After all, J-pop is the ur-poptimist sound aesthetic.) The show was also very good about highlighting the incredible technical prowess of the humans on stage, and the crowd cheered for them almost as loudly as they screamed for Miku. One of my notes from the show is “Electronic Nickelback,” but this isn’t a diss. The beats always hit where they’re supposed to, but the modulations and chord changes, cheesy in just about any other genre, are to this fizzy kind of hyper-pop as drops are to Big DJ EDM.
Multiple times, I turned to my friend in a state of shock: the music was going deeper and further, opening up to yet another key or taking a dizzying tone turn. (Vocaloids, after all, are not limited by things like range and fatigue.) The people in the row ahead of us danced like rubberbands, the pit began to congeal into a hynotizing whirl, and caught up in their excitement and the rush of the crowd around, I found myself unselfconsciously laughing, jamming out to the sparkling sound and the pounding of my heart. A few times, I checked in on myself: was I actually enjoying this, or was I drinking the neon blue Kool-Aid? And each time, my body hollered back, “THIS IS THE SUREST THING. GIVE IN.”
I did, and disappeared into a world existing on the fringe of reality, giving myself over to, at its synthetic core, a voice. It asked us to believe; I don’t know if I still do, outside of the stadium space, but wasn’t it magical to pretend? That we could live for a moment in a world as pure as a clear, unwavering note, sung not by a fallible human but by a facsimile of joy?
Photo Credit: Via Muraki Kanae (Crypton)