Japan’s Hatsune Miku is a worldwide pop star who lacks a single biological molecule. Instead, she is the projection of a million desires—an irresistibly alluring idol, because she is whatever her fans want her to be.
It’s likely that you’ve heard of her. But if you haven’t, she is commonly classified as a Vocaloid, or an avatar attached to a computer application that allows users to splice, shape and synthesize fragments of the human voice to create music. And she’s just one of many Vocaloids popular in Japan right now, although she is certainly the most famous. Contrary to the way that she’s described sometimes, she’s not a hologram. In live performances, she is a two-dimensional projection of a teen girl known for her long, aquamarine pigtails, short-skirted schoolgirl outfit, onion leek “character feature,” and mini-computer on her left arm. Her name means “the first sound of the future.” She’s sixteen, and will remain that age eternally, but she was launched six-and-a-half years ago on August 31, 2007.
From a cynical perspective, Hatsune Miku is a brilliant corporate advertising campaign. She was conceived of and launched by company Crypton Future Media (can you come up with a name more deliciously dystopian?) as a promotion for Yamaha Corporation’s Vocaloid 2 and Vocaloid 3 software. Taking advantage of the obsessive tendencies of otaku culture (or the cultishness of Japanese manga and anime fans) Hatsune Miku has been used to sell software, video games, Google, Toyota cars, and recently, Dominos Pizza in Japan. In March 2013, Dominos launched an iOS app that allowed users to take photos with Miku, listen to exclusive songs written by Dominos employees, and used augmented reality technology to project a dancing Hatsune Miku on top of specially equipped pizza boxes. The Miku-themed pizza boxes sold out in less than a week and led to a uptick of ten times their normal sales.
From an idealistic perspective, Ms. Miku is the world’s most famous crowd-sourced musician. Because her fans are empowered to compose songs for her using Vocaloid software, circulate fan art that enhances her backstory, and project personality traits onto her with their imaginations, Hatsune Miku can even be considered a postmodern grassroots artist. In early 2013, Tokyo Polytechnic University conducted a study on Vocaloid culture and released a statement saying, “Unlike restrictive content tied up by rights [e.g. copyright], this environment is friendly to viewers and to creators who can freely participate in the creation of derivative works … Although not everyone understands music theory, everyone can create and nurture a melody within themselves, express this melody using this new musical language called Vocaloid, and create a song in the process.”
Her admirers feel deep a attachment to her and to each other. Her core fan base obsessively chronicles new developments, shares news and songs, and displays loyalty to “Miku-chan” with the same fervor of other hardcore fan groups like Beyoncé’s BeyHive, Big Bang’s VIPs, and Justin Bieber’s Beliebers. They also have favorite producers that have risen from within their own ranks. Just one example is Mitchie M, a producer known for his realistic vocal manipulation. He has 3,500 fans on Facebook and just released an album featuring Hatsune Miku called Greatest Idol. His YouTube videos have comments on them like “This song is immensely inspirational,” “Your songs are sooooo great Mitchie M!!! Thank you very much!!!” and “For all of us she is a human! <3.”
I spoke with New York-based DJ Venus X, who wrote about Hatsune Miku in a 2011 article in Artforum and asked her about Miku’s appeal. She pointed out how inspirational Miku is for young girls and teens, saying, “Girls lack a unifying pop star. There’s no one making girl power tunes and party anthems about female domination. Even with things like K-pop and Selena Gomez being big—we know about all of the surgeries and the boot camps [reported about K-pop idol groups] and what ends up happening to the Disney stars. Kids can tell the difference between pawns and real artists.”
In the Tokyo Polytechnic study, 40 percent of female respondents aged 12 through 19 liked listening to Vocaloid music, the largest group within the study. Because she can never be corrupted by corporeal temptations like drugs, alcohol, body image issues, and boys, Hatsune Miku can protect young women from growing up too fast along with their idols. This isn’t to say she’s asexual. Ian Condry, a professor at MIT who teaches courses in Japanese pop culture commented in Wired, “For a lot of male fans, it’s clear the short skirt that keeps flipping up is pretty important.” There are those who sexualize Miku, but it’s a niche, not a central facet of the culture surrounding her.
I corresponded with Tiara, a Japan-based Vocaloid producer who is known for her ballads laced with romanticism (as opposed to some of Miku’s more dance-oriented songs). She has been composing music since she was a teen and works as an orchestrator for a major record company in Japan. She commented, “With respect to Hatsune Miku, I believe there is a potential to change the currently sluggish Japanese music industry… Recently, there are many people who want to become Vocaloid producers. Vocaloid has become very popular among teens in the past year.” Tiara is known for songs like “Seaholly,” “Umbrella,” and “Balloon,” which is out the struggle that young girls face growing up.
Beyoncé makes a fascinating foil for Miku because they both represent the power of femininity, but from very different angles. With her most recent album Beyoncé set out to firmly answer the question of whether she was down with the feminist cause or not (even though her whole career had been proving that point). The visual album is a proclamation about her embodiment, her lifelong quest to find comfort in her skin, and a call to action for women to join her on their own personal journeys. It’s the most sexually explicit she’s ever been. But Beyoncé also acknowledges the limitations of prioritizing body image. In “Pretty Hurts,” she sings:
“Perfection is a disease of a nation, pretty hurts, pretty hurts
Pretty hurts, we shine the light on whatever’s worse
You’re tryna fix something but you can’t fix what you can’t see
It’s the soul that needs the surgery”
Hatsune Miku’s “Freely Tomorrow” written and produced by Mitchie M, is also about the limitations of the body and the emancipation of the soul. It’s a post-human anthem about only finding the ability to recover a forgotten love after shedding ones human skin, likely through death, and departing the hustle and bustle of daily life. It insinuates that Hatsune Miku has found freedom as a roaming digital spirit:
“The things I’d forgotten swallowed by the noisy crowds
Warmth and tenderness were running through my body…
My whole heart and my entire body are mirages in my memories.
True love has begun flowing out of my fingertips.
If we look up and smile, we’ll have the magic to recover our smiling faces.
With a knock on our heart and a marvelous trick,
we can be reborn freely tomorrow.”
Though she’s a fan of Beyoncé the album, Venus X is wary of her global dominance. Because Beyoncé is so omnipresent, she reinforces the top-down approach to music that Hatsune Miku calls into question. Venus commented, “Imagination is really lacking in the United States, in general. Kids are not seeing the world in 3D like they are in Japan. They don’t have the places to buy clothes, play video games, and hang out in cafes—there aren’t public spaces for people to engage with something like Hatsune. NYC gets rid of the vampire freaks and lolitas and pushes out the things kids need to go build culture.”
In Japan, Vocaloid music is accepted to the extent that composing with the software is even being added to music curriculums in schools. The Hatsune Miku official YouTube channel posted a video last week of their visit to Fujimura Girls Junior and Senior High School where Kuroda Asin, a female Vocaloid composer, guest lectured at the school about using the software. It’s an inspiring and heart-breakingly adorable video where you can physically see the confidence and pride growing on the teens’ faces over the course of the session. By the end, most of the students commented on how they didn’t realize how simple it could be and what a great experience the lesson was. One remarked, “Until now I’ve only been a listener of Vocaloid songs, but today I learned how to make a song and felt Vocaloid closer to myself.”
In order for Hatsune Miku’s post-human girl power to thrive in a place like the United States, young people—teen girls in particular—need to be encouraged to physically occupy their own spaces, not get caught up in body image struggles (#iwokeuplikethis), and nurture their own melodies. And while Beyoncé has been, and is becoming even more of, an empowering figure, Hatsune Miku represents an alternative model for a pop idol. The United States could use this brand of digital-based pop fantasy where teen girls are given the tools, the space, and the software to create music for themselves.
Alexis Stephens (@pm_jawn) is a staff writer at MTV Iggy and is down with “girl power” in all of its forms.