Last Monday in the Taylor Music Center, Professor Jennifer Matsue gave a talk on Japan’s current pop sensation, Hatsune Miku. Hatsune has released over 4000 singles to an expanding global fanbase, appearing on morning talk shows and starring in fashion lines and art exhibits. She is also not a human, or alive.
Hatsune Miku is a vocaloid, essentially a voice-synthesizer software similar to the auto tune, released by Crypton Future Media in 2007. Her name translates to “the first sound from the future.”
The software is described by Crypton as the first example of “equitable music production,” meaning anyone with the software can record and release their own single using Hatsune’s voice outside the meddling of record contracts and production labels.
That is, as long as they aren’t profiting off it. Crypton owns all the rights to the Hatsune avatar and takes a cut of ticket revenues and brand use. Anyone who purchases a Hatsune-branded lunchbox, tank top, or sex toy, Crypton gets a cut.
Hatsune herself is a 16-year old, short-skirted schoolgirl with turquoise pigtails hung down a rail thin frame. She struts onstage as a 10-foot hologram, her spunky dance routine choreographed and operated remotely like a virtual puppet.
She can appear out of thin air, vanish on a whim and make dramatic costume changes in between.
Sometimes she is accompanied by a backup band who play on the sidelines, usually under much dimmer lighting.
In 2012, Hatsune sung towering over a full orchestra, her programmer following the conductor’s movements and cues. Recently, she starred in her own opera in Paris. Once Hatsune opened for Lady Gaga and once she appeared on Late Night with David Letterman.
A recent Domino’s promotion placed a scannable QR code on your receipt which leads you to a private dance performed by Hatsune.
With her peppy teenage spunk and exposed slender legs, Hatsune walks a tightrope between innocent and alluring. She is known in Japan as an “ideal idol,” a mascot that fulfills an emotional need outside what can be provided by close family.
Without user input, Hatsune has no character or personality, and thus can project any of her user’s desires. It is possible to alter her into a male, named Hatsune Mikuo.
Unlike a human pop star, consumers of Hatsune’s products can bring their loving idealization of Hatsune to life just as easily as they program a high note.
While artificial voice synthesization is nothing new, Crypton was the first to put a face to it. Originally voiced by Saki Fujita, Hatsune was created by Crypton and illustrated as a manga character that lived in the program itself. The voice can be edited for pitch and vibrato, and includes a dial that changes the range of Hatsune’s “gender factor,” modulating her squeakiest feminine texture into a coarse, masculine gravel.
On June 6, 2015, Hatsune released a single with Namie Amuro called “B Who I Want to B.” Amuro is as big as you can get in Japan’s music scene, a singer and dancer commonly referred by her high title, “the Queen of J-Pop.”
Their performance is split down the middle between the real and virtual, Amuro singing to match the modulator, Hatsune imitating a human. With text-to-speech reaching new heights of realism it becomes difficult to distinguish what is real and what is programmed. We are living in a world where virtual and human voices exist on a sliding scale, just like vocal range.
While Hatsune Miku may lack a pulse, she is storming the music industry just like any surprise tween up-and-comer. Starting in June, Hatsune will be touring the States across seven major cities.