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The Future of Celebrity Is a Japanese Hologram Named Hatsune Miku

At a time when beloved performers are imploding by the score, her cheerful emptiness is a virtue

Illustrations: Nicole Ginelli

1.1. The singer, who is unreal, takes a break after the third song to greet her fans, just like a singer at a show. “Hello, New York!” she shouts, with a slightly raised timbre, a voice modulated to convey excitement. “Are you having a good time?” The capacity crowd howls its answer, a massive and adoring yes. “I can’t hear you,” she teases, or at least it almost sounds like she’s teasing. The crowd howls louder, waving their LED glow sticks over their heads in a frenzy. From the back, a man’s voice shouts, “We love you, Miku!” All of this is exactly like any other live show. It checks all the boxes in the what-a-live-show-should-look-like list. Except the singer in question is not a person.

Her name is Hatsune Miku. She is a piece of software. Tonight, in the final show of her American tour, she is appearing in the form of a hologram at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City. The crowd is shouting their mass adoration to the shape of a human with no substance, to a flickering light projected onto a series of screens. They want an emptiness to know that they love her.

2.2. Miku is permanently 16 years old, but she’s 11 now. She was created in 2007 by Crypton Future Media, a software firm based out of Sapporo, Japan, on the northern island of Hokkaido. At the beginning, she was nothing more than a mascot for a version of Yamaha’s Vocaloid software, which allowed users to sing from their computers by typing in lyrics and adjusting the pitch and timbre of the digital voice. There was a girl on the box cover, with aquamarine hair in two body-length pigtails. The voice and the face together were the whole of Miku. She had no family. She had no personality. She had no history or politics. Her face had big eyes and a tiny mouth — standard anime, with the emotional range of an emoji set. Her voice was high and poppy, smooth and clear. The face suited the voice.

Just like a human, her future proved unpredictable. At the core of the Miku culture is a series of Crypton products: the software and its updates, a video game collaboration with Sega. But the company also opened her to a Creative Commons public license. She’s not Mickey Mouse, where every possible representation is jealously guarded by the master company. Crypton monetizes but does not control. If you want to draw Miku’s picture and share it with your friends, the company encourages you to do so and does not charge for the use of her image. That was the point from the beginning: Miku can be whoever you want her to be.

And so she is. People started using her voice to make covers of their favorite songs and their own songs. They started to make their own drawings. They started making their own Miku music videos on YouTube and its Japanese equivalent, NicoNicoDouga. They started getting Miku tattoos of their own design. In Los Angeles, you can take classes in Miku-themed chigiri-e, the traditional Japanese art of constructing images out of shreds of ripped paper. The results are as diffuse and bizarre as human imagination itself. “It’s been out of the company’s hands since the beginning,” says Guillaume Devigne, an engineer by training who runs Miku concerts outside of Japan for Crypton.

As a result, the company is in a constant state of playing catch-up with what users do with its product — though at this point in her career, it would be wrong to describe Miku simply as a product. She is a means of dissemination for any number of products. She’s not a viral video but an occasion for virality, a format for virality of all kinds. Everything Miku does, everything she is, comes from the users. “None of the music is made by us,” Devigne says. “It does go in weird directions.”

“The music is quite banal, yet it is the most original concert I have ever attended.”

It goes in weird directions, and it goes everywhere. The concerts have proven enormously popular. Already there are massive expos devoted to all manner of Miku-related creativity throughout Asia. In 2014, Miku opened for Lady Gaga. She has played with the Tokyo symphony orchestra. After New York, Miku will head to Europe.

There have been other vocaloids — in fact, a couple of them appear as special guests alongside Miku at the show — but none comes near her success. She is easily the most popular virtual idol in the world. More than 100,000 songs have been written with or for her. In Japan, she’s like any flesh celebrity, appearing on billboards and in commercials. Her 2010 album was the first vocaloid album to top the Oricon charts. New releases of her video game regularly appear on bestseller lists there.

Crypton Media released Meiko software in 2004 and Kaito software in 2006, both of which were based on real people, performers whose names are Meiko and Kaito. Like them, the voice of Hatsune Miku belonged, originally, to Saki Fujita, a 33-year-old voice actor and singer from Japan. But Saki Fujita is not Hatsune Miku, and Hatsune Miku is not Saki Fujita. That seemingly minor distinction makes all the difference. When you create a Hatsune Miku song or video, you are not pretending to be any real body. By separating the voice from the person, Crypton accidentally broke open an ever-expanding space of play, a deep reservoir of gleeful creativity.

3.3. The crowd at the Hammerstein Ballroom is about as cosmopolitan and diverse a crowd as I have ever seen at a live show. There is an ecstatically happy group of preteen African-American girls watched over by the bored eyes of their father. There are twentysomethings from Wisconsin. There are visitors from Japan. There are middle-aged couples dragging their kids along. There are geeks. There are jocks. There are soccer moms. There are pervs. All in all, a representative slice of New York life and thought.

“She is the perfect celebrity, an icon who reflects the audience’s desires back to them with no distortion.”

A 19-year-old from Florida named Celeste remembers the software like a friend: “With every update, I would get so excited. She grew up with me, in a sense.” A 21-year-old Brooklyn-based producer started using her in the sixth grade. Miku was an access point to an entire community that sustained him. “What makes her real is us. These are our words. These are our songs. These are our lyrics that we hear up there. At the end of the day, more than anything, she is just us up there. We are seeing each other.” She is the perfect celebrity, an icon who reflects the audience’s desires back to them with no distortion.

For the fans, the lack of reality in Hatsune Miku is a feature, not a bug. Celebrities, because they are people, fail. And the failures are painfully consequential when you’ve invested your identity in them. “Miku’s not going to say something racist. She’s not going to break down in the middle of a concert. She’s not going to flake on you or do drugs,” Celeste from Florida tells me. Every twentysomething I talked to specifically mentioned that one of Miku’s greatest advantages was that she wouldn’t be caught saying something racist. She is a way of opting out of cancel culture.

By being unreal, she is an error-proof ideal. And by being the ideal, she represents a liberation from celebrity as much as its fulfillment. A pop singer today is, mostly, a beautiful image of a person who sings other people’s material, and those other people, the creators, are mostly forgotten. “There are plenty of people who can do great music but who will never get on stage because they’re not young, fit, beautiful people,” says Amy Fineshriber, a fan who also occasionally works for Crypton Media.

She has a point. When was the last time you saw a bad-looking pop singer? Hatsune Miku spares the creators the need to have the bodies they cannot have. For the imperfect, the overweight, the shy, the normal kids with regular bodies who just love pop music, Hatsune Miku bears the burden of the perfection demanded from celebrities, so that these kids can make the music they want to hear.

And unlike, say, Ariana Grande fans who love Ariana Grande but have no idea who wrote her music, Hatsune Miku fans know all the creators. “I’m a big fan of Kikuo, who works primarily with Miku. His works are just orchestral,” Mina, 21, tells me, as though Miku were a Stradivarius cello. Other fans are more than eager to share their love for Massa, Mathi, Pinocchio-P, and the latest, greatest contest winner, beat_shobon, a 14-year-old out of Mexicali. These songs percolate up from the fan base; the internet, broadly speaking, is their source, which is just another way of saying they come out of thin air. Kids make them. They throw them up on YouTube or NicoNicoDouga. They pitch their designs for the merch sold at the shows. The market does the rest. Miku is an instrument that is also a character that is also a venue that is also a channel that is also a muse that is also a celebrity that is also a community.

The experience of going to a Hatsune Miku show is, in a way, more real than going to a concert of a flesh celebrity. At an Ariana Grande concert, everybody pretends that the music they’re listening to is hers, that its feelings are her feelings. Such fictions don’t apply to Hatsune Miku. The audience knows they’re projecting. It is literally a projection they are there to see. And they know who made the music they are consuming. In that sense, a Hatsune Miku concert requires less suspension of disbelief than the concerts of many flesh celebrities.

You have to say this for her: Miku may be nothing but a projection, but at least she knows it. As I watch, I remember that David Bowie gave his final live show at the Hammerstein Ballroom. That seems appropriate to me. The world of pop culture and music and celebrity are metamorphosing, moving into the final stages of the process Bowie himself set into motion, leaving behind people for projections. It’s all rather vapid and rather marvelous. The music is banal, but it is the most original concert I have ever attended. I’m sure Bowie would approve.

4.4. The farther away you are, the more like a human Miku appears. Up close, you can tell she’s not real. She’s too perfect. Her hair doesn’t tangle when she leaps to punch the air. She runs in too tight a circle. The symmetry of her movements is too complete. From the back of the room, though, she is virtually indistinguishable from a random pop singer. The music, too, is virtually indistinguishable from random pop music. It sounds like music made by anyone. That’s what it is.

There is none of the mostly tedious, sometimes electric business of an artist wanting to play new material, to “grow as a performer,” to explore new ground, to try out their feelings on the audience. The crowd waves their LED glow sticks with precise ritualistic movements, the colors coded to the individual tune and its mood. I find myself, out of habit, applauding at the end of the songs. At first, I’m embarrassed even though everybody else in the crowd is doing the same thing. It feels undignified. Why am I applauding? Who am I applauding?

Part of me believes that applause is supposed to feed the energy of performers, but that’s because I’m historical. For one thing, this audience has given more of their energy and spirit to this performer than any audience ever gave any band. They wrote the music. They designed the T-shirts. And besides, we’re cheering screens all the time. We need to cheer. If we live in a world of projections, so be it: We’ll cheer those.

“At an Ariana Grande concert, everybody pretends that the music they’re listening to is hers, that its feelings are her feelings. Such fictions don’t apply here.”

Ten songs in, I realize there is a band, made up of actual people. The event is a precise inverse of karaoke, a synthesized singer with real musicians. The drummer, I learn later, has a special device that allows him to keep time with the hologram. Miku moves between them like a Pikachu running around a dog park. Despite the triumph of the virtual, the crowd that shows up to a Hatsune Miku concert craves the present and the material. They want a human being even if she is no person. She may be a collective artistic machine, but there must still be someone on the stage receiving the glory, even if that someone is no one.

The old distinctions — phony/authentic, real/fake — don’t apply here. Miku is the virtual saint of the digital marketplace, an icon of pure subservience to the numbers. This is what capitalism wants us to be — frictionless vessels for the will of the marketplace.

And I guess, if you wanted, you could preach here about the emptiness of capitalism, except the company has so little control over what happens to Miku that the forces shaping her cannot be described as the imposed will of any corporation. Besides, the joy is infectious. Listening to two hours of Miku music is a bit like eating an entire packet of Kraft Singles cheese slices: cloyingly addictive.

I grow to find the hologram beautiful in itself. The artistry of the simulation is spectacular. Miku’s head falls exhausted on her shoulder after a strenuous song near the end of her set, a gorgeous little feat of programming. As with any other celebrity, I cannot help imagining what it would be like to be her. What would it be like to be inside Hatsune Miku’s head? Empty of will, empty of all the desires of the flesh, a pure creature of social desirability, made by others, achieving perfectly what the world wants, being nothing but what the world wants you to be, causing nothing but pleasure and identification, your insides matching exactly the outside. It must be nice and terrifying.

5.5. The screen over Miku’s head flashes “LAST SONG.” The crowd moans in disappointment, and after one final song exactly like all the other songs, the lights rise, the band of human musicians who are actual people pumps their fists in the air and leaves the stage. The crowd howls for more. And guess what? They manage to coax Miku back for one more set.

The greatest works of popular culture have many authors, many creators. Hatsune Miku is the embodiment of the art of shared contribution, which must always be unfinished. She is being built, every day, by kids all over the world who go on the internet and share a piece of themselves in the form of a Japanese girl with body-length aquamarine hair and no politics. Nobody understands what she means yet. Not the inventors, who could never have predicted the splurge of engagement. Not the artists, who could never have predicted their own place in her story. She is what she needs to be at any given moment, which is what a future human looks like. She is an instrument that is also a character that is also a venue that is also a channel that is also a muse that is also a celebrity that is also a community. She is a creative machine that serves without limit.

No machine can run forever. After the final encore, the hologram of Hatsune Miku vanishes into a point of light that swirls briefly on screen and flickers away. A subtle sadness descends as the lights go on and the crowd begins to file out of the Hammerstein Ballroom, back to their separate lives.

It’s a feeling I recognize even though it’s transfigured beyond anything I have known: It’s nostalgia. They’re already missing this dream made up of shared memories, memories from childhood, memories of creating and being recognized, memories of being among friends experienced in ecstasy among strangers. And now they have to return to what everybody still insists on calling the real world.

If you miss something, there must have been something to miss.

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