The line to get into the sold-out venue for Miku Expo 2016 snaked around the block, and another block. The Bomb Factory labeled the show “all ages,” and the crowd proved it. Confused father and mothers stood with their wide-eyed kids, bearded Dungeon Master types stood in packs of two and three, and androgynous emo men wearing flowing dresses mixed with the throng. Women and girls wore short plaid skirts and long leggings. Representatives from all ages, sexes and ethnicities wore the aqua-blue wigs associated with Miku, the global phenomenon.
Technically, Miku is not an artificial intelligence. She’s an “embodied agent”—a computer program with an avatar built to interact with the physical world. But she’s no mere animation. Because her “voice” is actually programmed like a synthetic instrument, processed and smoothed by algorithms to simulate speech, she is known as a “vocaloid.”
“She started as software, you know,” said 24-year-old Jessica Tuenje, attending the show with her similarly blue-wigged 14-year-old sister. “I’ve been into Miku since 2007. I’d have to look around online just to find the Japanese versions. Now this has blown up worldwide and there are a lot more English songs. It’s come a long way.”
When the Fort Worth resident she says “it,” she doesn’t mean the avatar, she means Miku’s devoted fan base. The real show here is not the 3D anime vixen twirling on stage, but the solidarity of the fan base, which knows every beat, outfit, virtual sidekick and glow stick color change. A 3D animation brought these disparate people together to listen to music with lyrics in a language most can’t understand.
Enthusiasm, mass appeal, razor-sharp marketing and crowd manipulation — this Hatsune Miku is too good for pop entertainment. She should run for president.
Like any epic talent, Miku came from humble beginnings. Her origin story is rooted in music industry software, not talent recruitment.
Yamaha developed the vocaloid concept in the early 2000s. The idea was simple: Instead of paying vocal artists to sing, what if researchers could make a synthesizer that could approximate a human voice? This “singer in a box” could open up new creative venues, especially in the world of synth-pop.
Here’s how it works, more or less. A voice actor provides samples of sounds for a digital library. Users type in the lyrics and melody, and the voice follows along. The reason this doesn’t sound like the computer from WarGames is because the software includes a Synthesis Engine that coverts pitch, manipulates timbre and adjusts timing. The software also adds stress to pronunciations and vibrato, but it can’t approximate a shout. (Grunge is safe from vocaloids. For now.)
Languages are structured differently — you can count the diphones of Japanese and English to see one major difference — which requires different libraries and Synthesis Engines. Not to worry, Miku can now record in Chinese, English and Japanese.
Yamaha licenses the technology to studios that can use it to make music. A studio called Crypton Future Media Corp. used the license to create a female voice, CV-1. In an effort to sell the “singers in a box,” the company attached names and characters to the voices. CV-1 got a new name, Hatsune Miku.
Since her appearance, the voice in a box became a pop icon. The Miku Exo Tour 2016 is hitting major cities in Japan, 10 shows across North America and Taiwan. From Jakarta to Beijing, the crowd’s reception has been the same: adoration, emulation and celebration.
Crypton officials say the company licenses the Hatsune Miku name and image under a modified creative commons agreement. “Anybody is free to attach the name and image of Miku to any creative project as long as it is not for commercial use,” says Riki Tsuji, Crypton’s director of the business development in the U.S. and Europe. “This means that if you create a song utilizing the Hatsune Miku software but you do not feature the Hatsune Miku name or character images, you are free to distribute the song for both commercial and non-commercial use.”
More than 170,000 songs have been released, attracting over 100 million hits on YouTube. Videos, illustrations and porn parodies are ubiquitous. Miku is big enough that people want to write songs for her. Or rather, use her voice to create songs. Crypton Future Media says they selected the songs Miku performs in concert from “thousands of compositions created by a global community of artists."
The tour’s Twitter account has more than 11,000 followers and 2.5 million people like her Facebook page. “All of the posts are by staff and not Miku herself,” Tsuji feels obliged to tell the Observer. “And despite countless constant requests, Miku is yet to grant permission to an interview.”
Of course, we never asked for one — Hatsune Miku doesn’t really exist, remember?
The crowd was chanting her name before the stage lights even went out. Young girls shrieked and glowsticks blossomed into life. The Expo handed out green glow sticks to all in attendance, but Crypton Media Future sold official, six-colors-in-one battery powered lights on pre-order.
The Miku marketing arm doesn’t miss a beat. Bobbleheads, figurines, albums, film festival tickets and playing cards are on offer through the Expo Guide Book. The epic, serpentine line for T-shirts and other concert merchandise remained through the entire show. There are more ways to make money than selling a vocal synthesizer. The stage was set up like a traditional band, except with the drum kit tucked into the right hand side of the stage. There’s a massive, transparent screen in the center. The band proved itself to be capable, but often labored in darkness. The diva is what people are here to see, and Miku didn’t interact with her bandmates. It was sort of like David Lee Roth in his waning days with Van Halen.
When the lights go dark, the shrieking really starts. Those glowsticks become the key tool of audience participation. The crowd slavishly waves them the entire time — often in unison, synchronized with the music, changing the colors based on the song. Individuals or as a group, the glowstick frenzy never waned. It’s rare to see participation at that level from fans. But these are the “introverted and obsessed,” as one Bomb Factory bartender described them.
The key to the music’s universal appeal is to be simple and dramatic. Both guitarists showed rock and roll range, and Meg.Me delivered a sense of theater on the keyboard. But all of this was standard fare — until Miku sang.
The vocaloid’s voice is something like Alvin (frontman of the Chipmunks) fed through a synthesizer and spray-washed with feedback. It’s feminine and electronic; familiar yet bizarre; sweet but disconcerting; simultaneously human and inhuman. These dichotomies defined the show, and may be the secret to why Miku is so appealing.
Artificial intelligence researchers created a concept they call the “uncanny valley.” They discovered that people like artificial lifeforms if they look like obvious robots or if they look exactly like people. If they look just a little bit too much like us — in the valley between looking like a machine and looking like a person — humans tend to recoil.
Hatsune Miku was not trying to pass for human. The embodied program didn’t walk on stage, she appeared in a cloud of ones, zeros and data packets. When a song ended, she winked out of existence.
In the concert’s best moments, Miku sprouted wings and hovered over the stage, messianic, delivering a particularly emotional ballad in Japanese. (She could have been invoking a Satanic black mass or relating a recipe for katsu; it was still a moving moment.)
But most of time, Hatsune Miku and her fellow vocaloid avatars just danced. Except for a song in which she appeared to be underwater, the 3D tech seemed to be underutilized. But no one there cared; they wanted to see her on stage, capering around like the ageless nymph she is. Upbeat tunes came in a steady stream, perfect to pump glowsticks to. When Miku sang big notes, it was hard to ignore that her tiny mouth couldn’t stretch wide enough to form the sounds.
It’s hard to separate the sex from anime these days. Comic books and TV shows always seem to build their characters to be incredibly endowed sex dolls. Hatsune Miko is certainly sexualized, with her lean frame, short skirts and Gwen Stefani legs. But she’s thin to the point of sexlessness, and having a creepily high electronic voice takes viewers away from these dark thoughts and back to the PG-rated antics and routines. Away from the perverted salarymen of the Akihabara in Tokyo, at an all ages show in Dallas, all of this almost seems normal.
The real show was the crowd. Watching a full house perform unpracticed, synchronized glowstick routines was an unexpected treat. YouTube videos show this same behavior, city by city, performing concert glowstick rituals that each fan must have learned before the show. These Miku fans are like Jimmy Buffet fans who never see the sun and don’t drop acid.
That obvious solidarity is what made this a feel-good event. All the tweens, weirdoes, geeks, avant garde, cross-dressers and misfits in attendance were acting as one, part of something unique, strange and communal.
Combined with her positive message, there’s no way any presidential candidate could stand toe-to-toe with Miku on the campaign trail. If Hillary Clinton had her skills, she wouldn’t have a Bernie Sanders problem and if the GOP had Miku on the ticket, they may not have a Donald Trump problem. People want politicians who can literally speak the words they put in their mouths, and with the vocaloid software, they could.
Who cares if Hatsune Miku wasn't born here? She was never born at all. Write her in, crack a glowstick and let the Supreme Court decide.