When Japanese pop idol Hatsune Miku makes her Washington debut at the Anthem on Thursday, fans will be asked to use the official glow sticks for sale at the show instead of the regular brighter ones. The thing is, if too much light shines from the audience, Miku might simply disappear.
That’s because Miku is a hologram — at least when she performs in concert, backed by a quartet of flesh-and-blood musicians. She’s also an anime character, a video-game avatar, a bundle of sophisticated “vocaloid” code and a fascinating experiment in crowd-sourced pop art.
“She can be anything. She’s like the world’s Barbie doll. People can dress her up however they want, and that can be their version of Miku,” says Cien Miller, a Vienna woman who is more than just a Miku fan. She’s also one of the most successful “creators” to compose songs for the turquoise-haired virtual vocalist and post them on YouTube.
Created by Sapporo-based Crypton Future Media and released to the public in 2007, Miku uses vocaloid engines devised by Yamaha. (That explains the hair: Turquoise is Yamaha’s trademark color.) Miku’s musical abilities and sexy-cute likeness (designed by manga artist Kei Garo) were made available to the Internet’s Japan-smitten masses under a creative commons license.
“Hatsune Miku is, first and foremost, a software for making music,” says Riki Tsuji, Miku’s live-concert coordinator. “Anybody can buy Hatsune Miku software, and using that software, they just type in lyrics, punch in a melody, and the software will sing the song. When the software was released, people started making their original songs using the Hatsune Miku voice, uploading to music-sharing sites. It started this chain reaction of creativity.”
Miku wasn’t the first vocaloid, Miller says, but she “was different because of the copyright rules. You can use her image and her voice for your music without fear of breaking any rules. It was the perfect formula, because people loved Miku, and if you used Miku, people would be interested in what you were making.”
People are quite interested in the synth-pop songs Miller has created for Miku, which are posted online under the name Crusher-P (P stands for producer). Her breakthrough, “Echo,” recently hit 25 million views on YouTube. “It is the most successful English vocaloid song of all time,” says Miller, who, at 23, is a full-time composer of songs and video game music, thanks in large part to Miku, whom Miller first encountered when she was 12.
Hatsune Miku translates roughly as “first sound of the future.” Don’t look for “miku” in a Japanese-English dictionary, though. It’s a nonstandard reading of a word more commonly rendered as “mirai.” That’s the pronunciation used in the names of products such as “Hatsune Miku and Future Stars: Project Mirai,” a Sega video game that stars a more childlike version of the idol whose concert persona is perpetually 16.
The holographic Miku made her solo concert debut in Tokyo in 2010 and has toured major cities in Asia. She’s now on her third North American jaunt, and is scheduled to make her European bow at the end of the year.
The production crew always compiles a set list that includes songs in the local language, along with new numbers and old favorites. A December show in Malaysia, Tsuji recalls, featured tunes in English, Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian and Malay.
It’s not as though Miku is wanting for material in just about any language. YouTube and its Japanese counterpart, Nico Nico, contain more than 100,000 songs written for her by amateurs and fledgling professionals.
“That’s just what we can keep track of,” Tsuji says. “The Internet’s so big that it’s pretty much impossible for us to keep track of every single song that’s ever been uploaded that uses the Hatsune Miku voice.”
Miku’s management doesn’t have to pay close attention. Internet music and video sites are quite good at determining the most-heard songs and most-watched clips, and Miku fans make their picks with likes and hashtags. “Whenever something rises up and gets more popular and hits our radar, we’ll be checking them out,” Tsuji says.
The current tour was promoted with a songwriting contest, and Miku will perform the winning entry every night. The other tunes she’ll sing were written by individuals with no direct tie to Crypton Future Media. “We just contact the creators and say, ‘Hey, can we use this song?’ ” Tsuji says.
Other parts of the show, such as the four-piece band, are more traditional. “We try to make the experience as close to an actual pop-singer performance as possible,” Tsuji says. “Having those live musicians on the stage really helps bring the illusion to life. We try to avoid the sense that you’re watching a video presentation.”
Of course, Miku can’t improvise, revise the script or even flub a note. But that doesn’t make her much different from many of today’s mainstream pop stars, who rely on elaborate choreography and, sometimes, prerecorded vocals. And Miku has the advantage of embodying not only the dreams of her followers, but also their creative skills.
Miller plans to attend Miku’s show at the Anthem, even though she mostly writes songs for another vocaloid, Gumi. (She says she prefers Gumi’s vocal timbre and English delivery.) Miller has visited Japan twice, and even met with Miku’s creators, but she has never been in the singer’s holographic presence.
“I’m very excited,” she says. “I love her to death, and I always will.”
Hatsune Miku will appear at the Anthem on July 12 at 8 p.m. Tickets: $50-$155. theanthemdc.com.