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One of Japan’s most beloved pop stars is a hologram

Hatsune Miku has released 100,000 songs — all created by her fans.

By Tony Rehagen

By almost any measure, Hatsune Miku is a worldwide pop music megastar. Over a 14-year career, the Japanese diva has uploaded 170,000 YouTube music videos for 1.55 million subscribers, amassed more than 2.3 million followers on Facebook, and released a staggering 100,000 songs. She has collaborated with Pharrell Williams and opened for Lady Gaga. She has hosted her own sold-out concerts in venues from Tokyo to Europe to New York to Los Angeles. She was slated to appear at the 2020 Coachella before it was scrubbed due to COVID-19. Miku’s iconic turquoise pigtails are part of a distinctive look that has inspired artists and fashion designers to create everything from apparel to music videos. And she’s only 16.

Wait. Didn’t we say that Miku has been performing for 14 years? How can she only be 16 years old?

The simple explanation is that Miku was never born. She was created in 2007 by the Sapporo, Japan-based company Crypton Future Media, as a character to promote its vocal synthesizer music software, known as vocaloid software. More than just a face on the box, however, Miku is the program, a databank of voice samples that can be manipulated to sing user-composed lyrics over homemade beats, riffs, and hooks. Every song she plays live and releases on the web, every music video, and every outfit is written or designed by a fan. Her concerts consist of a live band playing around a 3-D anime image cast onto a transparent screen by an array of high-powered projectors. Essentially, she’s a hologram.

But that doesn’t mean she’s not real to the tens of thousands of fans who commune at her concerts, and to the millions of amateur musicians, artists, and designers who have realized their nascent visions through her platform. A handful of users have even parlayed the popularity of their homespun creations into actual careers in the industry.

“Miku is very much a crowd-sourced pop star,” says Riki Tsuji, part of Crypton Future Media’s international marketing team. “Anyone can buy the software and start creating music. Anyone can make fan art or a music video. As more and more people pick up the software and start creating, we’re finding communities of creators we never knew existed. She’s really more a conduit for expression.”

In other words, Hatsune Miku is more than just the physical projection dancing onstage and on computer screens — she’s also an image upon which fans and creative people can project themselves.

One night in 2016, Nik Greenwald went to bed in his dorm on Northeastern University’s Boston campus as a freshman majoring in chemical engineering. The next morning, he woke up, checked his computer, and suddenly realized he was an Internet sensation and international hitmaker for Hatsune Miku.

Greenwald never liked his own singing voice, and violin lessons at age 8 quickly made him realize he wasn’t much of an instrumentalist. But he always had music inside of him, and he taught himself how to write and arrange original songs on sheet music. When he was around 11, Greenwald’s older brother showed him some YouTube videos of vocaloid stars, including Miku. “I love it because it’s completely impressionable,” says Greenwald. “You can take whatever musical thought you have in your head and push it through the software — even things that humans can’t cover, like 16th-note triplets at 300 bpm [beats per minute]. It’s vocal music in a previously unimagined way. I loved it.”

The Internet is flooded with hours of user-created Miku music, as well as fan-made music videos, clothing designs, fan art, fan fiction, and manga comics.

Computers have been able to “sing” since the Bell Labs programmed an IBM to eke out “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)” in 1961. But the modern vocaloids took root in the early 2000s. Even so, they were largely seen as novelty instruments, akin to the keytar or Auto-Tune and known primarily by music industry insiders and computer geeks.

Then Crypton came up with the idea of producing vocaloids with distinct personalities marketed to a mass audience. Miku was one of the first of these personas. Her voice bank was recorded by anime actress Saki Fujita; each of the more than 1,000 samples contains one Japanese phonic that can be part of a full lyric or phrase. (An English vocal library was released with the third edition of Miku in 2013, and there is also an official Chinese voice bank. Fans have also been able to stretch the sounds into other languages, so she has also performed in Spanish, Malay, and Indonesian.)

However, to encourage creative freedom, Crypton’s designers deliberately stopped short of fleshing out the character. They commissioned a two-dimensional anime avatar who was given a name (Hatsune Miku translates roughly to “first sound of the future”), age, height (158 centimeters, or roughly 5 feet, 2 inches), weight (42 kilograms, or 92 pounds), favorite music genre (Dance-Pops and J-Pops, short for Japanese pop), and preferred tempo (between 70 and 150 bpm). They drew two full-body-length turquoise pigtails on her and sent her out into the world with a modified creative license. Essentially, anyone was free to use her name and image for non-commercial purposes.

As a result, the Internet was soon flooded with hours of user-created Miku music, as well as fan-made music videos, clothing designs, fan art, fan fiction, and manga comics. Once the fervor spilled out of Japan, a global community of creators formed, literally driving the career of this virtual celebrity, and a chorus of vocaloids that followed. Rin & Len Kagamine, a 14-year-old boy-girl tandem, offered two voices, a female and high-pitched male, for the price of one. KAITO was a male vocaloid whose smooth tone bent toward jazz; BIG AL is an English vocaloid with a deeper range that is suited for classic rock.

It was into this community that the teenage Greenwald was welcomed when he got his parents to buy him the vocaloid software. At first, Greenwald toiled in online obscurity. But by the time he was 16, his work was getting enough hits to draw the attention of a French company that paid him to compose demos for their own vocaloid star. Meanwhile, he continued cranking out songs for Miku, taking his hobby to college. And on that morning in his dorm room, he logged on to see that overnight — during the day in Japan — a famous Miku creator had covered a song Greenwald had written, called “Town of Cats.” The rendition had shot to No. 1 on Niconico (the YouTube of Japan), with over 200,000 views. Greenwald’s original had blown up from 7,000 views to 70,000. He was a star — much to the befuddlement of his roommate. “He was a guitar player, and once I’d even asked him to play a riff on a song,” says Greenwald. “But he didn’t know about the software. He had no idea what was going on.”

As with most musical acts, Miku has been pulled off the road due to COVID-19. No more theaters or mid-sized arenas like Boston’s House of Blues or the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, packed with 3,500 glow stick-wielding devotees (and would-be/maybe collaborators), many of whom attend as part of larger surrounding Miku Expo conventions. The ever-young pop diva won’t magically appear in vibrant color on the transparent screen at center stage, or banter with the crowd in the local language — “Hello, Cleveland!” — or bust out moves based on choreographies made by her fans in online “Odottemita” (I tried dancing) videos. For the moment, the world’s most famous virtual pop star is trapped online like the rest of the world.

You might wonder why a virtual pop star needs to tour. Sure, it drives revenue for her Crypton creators. And of course, Miku is a product, the image of which has been licensed to sell software, official merchandise, and even a racing team. This sort of crowd sourcing doubles as a convenient market research tool. But these concerts are a physical manifestation — perhaps the only physical manifestation — of what Miku is really all about: community. “The layer between the icon and the fans is made more permeable,” says Tsuji. “It’s one of the few places where fans can interact in person with other fans and see what they are into with Miku.”

The connections between Miku and her fans and, more importantly, the links among fellow Miku fans are what make vocaloid stars so distinctive. Rather than the singular vision of one artist or band, Miku is a lens through which fans from across continents, backgrounds, and now, even generations can combine and funnel their artistic visions. “It’s a design-thinking mentality,” says Anthony De Ritis, a composer and a music professor at Northeastern University. “If we bring together many people from different cultures and ethnicities and disciplines, everyone will have a new perspective.”

Of course, the roots of the Miku movement are online, where even amid the pandemic, creators continue to collaborate, express themselves, and, in some cases, launch their own careers. In Japan, human pop stars like Yoasobi and Kenshi Yonezu have roots in the Miku community. Countless others have used the software’s from-scratch approach to production as a music-industry crash course. “It’s a full-on experience,” says Greenwald. “As a low-budget musician, you don’t have access to film editors or cameras to make a decent-looking human video. But here you have access to talented young artists, and you can create whatever images and sounds are in your head with relative ease.”

Since his Miku cover blew up, Greenwald — who speaks Japanese — has met and worked with artists all over the world, producing and writing music under the pen names “heart*breaker” and “MawaruP.” He’s written nine other songs for Miku, including “B.B.F.” (Bad Bi**h Federation), a collaboration with Greenwald’s friend KIRA that has scored more than 1.7 million views on YouTube. He’s due to graduate from Northeastern this week with his engineering degree as a backup. But he hopes that his brush with virtual pop stardom might one day help his dream of writing and producing music for a living become reality.

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Tony Rehagen is a writer based in St. Louis. His work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and Pacific Standard.


Top photo by Getty Images

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