By Corey Takahashi
This weekend, one of the hottest tickets in Los Angeles was to a concert by a Japanese pop culture icon Hatsune Miku. She's a big persona but not a flesh-and-blood person. And her sold-out show, "Mikunopolis," marked her debut in the US.
Fans came from all over the country and world to see the computer-generated pop star at LA's Nokia Theatre.
16-year-old Elizabeth Lopez made a trek with her family from Chihuahua, Mexico. She's a Miku superfan, and you can tell from her turquoise wig and make-up. It's an homage to Miku's style, a teen trifecta of technology, anime, and Japanese pop lyrics.
"It talks about the Miku falling in love," Lopez says. "I'm the biggest fan!"
Miku has a strong connection to teens and the viral web. It's easy to see why. She's over-the-top, in every way, starting with her trademark turquoise hair, color-coordinated outfits, and voice that sounds like a hyper-caffeinated chipmunk.
But Miku is neither animal nor human. She's a virtual "singer" whose only appearance on stage is as a life-like 3D hologram. She's what you'd call a Vocaloid – basically the consumer-friendly interface for sophisticated voice-synthesizing software.
Another superfan, Bridgette Ramirez, a 20-year-old art student from Pasadena, explains the Vocaloid music style as "like how a singer would use Auto-Tuning – Vocaloid, you just basically, like, write what you want and adjust the settings to where you could make your own character, your own Vocaloid," she said.
Ramirez follows the Vocaloid subculture and its stars, and Miku is her favorite.
"I always, like, listen to Vocaloid music, and I always thought that she was, like, the cutest out of the bunch. Even though there are other characters that I'm in love with, she's the one that stands out more."
Vocaloid was spawned far from the shores of LA. Hideki Kenmochi developed Vocaloid at Yamaha Corp. in Japan; then a host of other companies created characters and voices – like Miku, whose parent is Crypton Future Media – that give Vocaloid technology a more human range.
These are voice libraries and Miku's shot to fame because fans, and even some professional Japanese artists, popularized her sound library by creating their own songs and videos that went viral with the Miku voice.
"In the past, people, or we, needed singer for song," Kenmochi says during a recent visit to LA. "But, using Vocaloid – Hatsune Miku and the other Vocaloid softwares – we don't need singer. So we can perceive the creator's emotion or the creator's music, directly."
The Vocaloid process does for singing what a keyboard synthesizer does for pianos. In the Vocaloid scene, this means a gifted songwriter may not have to rely as much on their own pipes or looks. But despite the sold-out concert in LA, the Vocaloid style is still an acquired taste, most popular among early cultural adopters in Japan.
"According to our research," Kenmochi says, "eight percent of female teenagers listen to only Vocaloid music. That's amazing statistics."
Miku's LA concert – which featured guest appearances from other Vocaloids – wasn't all digital, all the time, though. Her bandmates were human, and the stylish, wardrobe-changing, 3-D Miku was happy to give them intros to the crowd in English.
Saturday's big show was the highlight of this year's related Anime Expo. The Expo's Marc Perez, chairman of the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation, helped bring the concert to America. He's recorded some (unreleased) songs as Miku himself, and he says Vocaloid characters and technology blur the lines between human and digital in art.
"So Miku's really a creation of the fans," Perez says. "The software application that was put out by Yamaha provides a medium or a forum for people to give her life. But it's really the fans, the people that use that software to create songs, and to give her life, that have created who she is and given her a soul."
That may explain why the crowd at the concert wasn't just young anime fanatics, but a multiracial and cross-generational audience – some of whom even seemed to know Miku's Japanese lyrics by heart.
As the show closed to an encore and sea of waving glow sticks, this much was clear: the tech-meets-pop ethos of Miku wasn't just a virtual hit, she was a real one, too.
Imagine partying in a concert-sized video game, lead into the future by a dancing, human-form hologram.