The 16-year-old Japanese pop star Hatsune Miku, who just finished her most expansive headlining tour in North America, doesn’t have a tour bus. She travels in a giant 18-wheeler full of miscellaneous stage equipment. That’s because she is equipment: Miku isn’t a real person, she’s a Vocaloid, or a virtual musician, whose music is created by "singing synthesizer" technology that mimics a human voice. (Her voice is sampled from the Japanese actress Saki Fujita and can produce several tones used to make music.)
But what band could be worthy of opening for a virtual pop star’s tour across the Pacific? Anamanaguchi, the New York City band that has been making computerized chiptune music for more than a decade, seemed destined for the gig. And to commemorate the tour, they released "Miku," a song they wrote for their headliner to perform. (The song is just one of more than 100,000 written for Miku, according to her parent company Crypton Future Media.) Anamanaguchi’s single, a bouncy pop track, is the closest thing Miku has to a theme song so far: "You can call me Miku / Blue hair, blue tie / Hiding in your Wi-Fi / Open secrets / Anyone can find me." This is one of the three Miku tracks Anamanaguchi played live on Miku’s tour this year (the other two are "Sharing the World" and "Sankyuu").
When I spoke with Anamanaguchi’s Peter Berkman last week, one day before their final show with Miku in NYC, he emphasized how different this tour was from anything the band had done before. This makes sense, of course, because Miku is unlike any artist they’ve previously opened for. The shows start early and end early; he says the vibe is more "like an amusement park" than a pop concert.
More like an amusement park than a pop concert
Berkman is convinced that artists like Miku, who was officially released in 2013, will only continue to get more popular. But while Miku has had some success in the States, she’s not been as fully embraced as other virtual performers. "When [the US has] the technology to do these things, we resurrect dead people and put them on stage without their agency," Berkman says, alluding to hologram recreations of Tupac Shakur and Michael Jackson that have played major festival stages and award shows.
It may be a while until Miku headlines Coachella, but Vocaloids are already deeply woven into internet culture. I spoke to Berkman about the band’s recent tour, traveling with a virtual pop star, and what happens when the power goes out.
How did you get involved with Hatsune Miku?
It started while we were playing at Anime Expo in Los Angeles. Apparently a bunch of people from Miku’s staff were there but we actually didn’t meet that night. We were trying to meet, but didn’t. In my honest opinion, I feel like there was shyness both ways. We respect Miku so much, and… it’s funny. We ended up doing a lot of Skype meetings and stuff, and they were really into what we did. I think it started off like, they asked us, "Do you guys want to remix a Miku song?" And we were like, "We want to write a Miku song, and tour with Miku." [laughs] And then they were like, "Oh we wanted to ask you but we were too shy." But it was basically just a mutually agreed-upon idea.
So you guys had known for a while that you wanted to work with Miku?
Oh yeah, absolutely. All of us were fascinated by Miku as a pop icon and what she represents for the shape of culture. And the agency that it gives an average person. The fact that that software is really available is an inherently different structure from the way that pop music has been organized.
Can you talk a little bit about the process of writing "Miku"?
We started in a basement in Chinatown — our friend has an art studio there. It’s kind of a makeshift studio. We set up our monitors there and wrote the track and wound up finishing it in Tokyo in this really nice studio. Along the process, we were dealing directly with Crypton, and of course, the choreography has to go through Sega. They have a model that performs the songs live, so we had to arrange choreography with their model. Between that and the software coming from Yamaha, and the expectations of Miku’s audience, it was all just collaborating with everyone.
I didn’t realize that you guys worked on the choreography, too.
Oh yeah, it was amazing. What’s cool about Miku is that anyone with a clear vision can really make Miku do whatever they want, within reason. Which the song is definitely about.
When you went into creating the live show, was there anything specific you wanted to accomplish?
At the Miku Expo we’re really playing for her audience, which is thousands of people very well-versed in all the slight details of her compositions and of her choreography and everything that has to do with the Miku experience. And we wanted to be as much of a part of that as possible. Respecting Miku’s tradition while adding something new to the mix. And so a lot of that came in through the song, which we’re performing live alongside two of Miku’s most loved songs, which her team has allowed us to perform with her: "Sharing the World" and "Sankyuu," which is the Japanese word for 3 and 9. Being able to go through all the moods that those songs represent, from euphoria to confusion to adoration, it’s a fun ride.
"Miku is very much a reflection of the audience"
How is performing with Miku different from your normal live shows?
Well, Miku is very much a reflection of the audience. At a typical show, you don’t really know where everyone is coming from. Everyone has their own point of view. But here, performing with Miku, it’s a thing where people... are willing to sit back and enjoy the show. The involvement is much more internal and agreed upon communally, than say like, everyone walking out of the show with their own unique sharp judgement of what had just happened. It’s wild stuff, it’s a trip. Everyone comes to the shows with glo-sticks, or is given them, if they didn’t bring them. Because of that, there are thousands of points of light directing toward Miku. It’s a light show unlike anything else.
Do the fans have choreographed responses to different parts of the songs?
Yeah, absolutely. There seems to be a sort of informal understanding of the fan’s choreography. In Los Angeles, I was sitting with a friend who’s from Japan, and he’s a bit more well-versed in Miku’s canon and he was looking at the Jumbotron screen, and he was like, "If you look you can see the ones that know the choreography and which ones are kind of lagging behind, learning as they go." It looks like the US is just learning. I think Toronto had the most, what I heard from Miku’s team, was the most like the Japanese response.
Are there backup versions of Miku if anything goes wrong?
I’m actually not sure. But when we were sound-checking in Los Angeles, the power for the entire block went out. It felt a lot like Miku had left the building. It was amazing. We all just sat in the dark and waited for Miku to return. I feel like Miku probably just had to do something somewhere else.
"It felt a lot like Miku had left the building."
How do you feel about Vocaloids as a medium?
I think it’s inevitable that it grows into something bigger. Between the Vocaloid and the potential of pop stars and icons that aren’t attached to physical bodies, the potential is infinitely larger and is only just getting to be explored. And we’re very excited to be able to participate in that and that discussion, and that shaping of the future. Or the present.
"it’s difficult to learn a new language when you’re very attached to your old one"
I know there’s an American Vocaloid called Cyber Diva.
Yeah, I think the taste of American culture is very different from the taste of Japanese culture, but I think America is learning a lot, in a lot of ways, from Japan.I think [Vocaloid performances] will look a lot different than they do in Japan when they come to the US though. When it comes to the virtual pop stars here in the US, they come with almost the disadvantage of having been seeped in such tradition with our very elaborate pop culture structure, where, when we have the technology to do these things, we resurrect dead people and put them on stage without their agency. Miku represents a very different side of that. It’s a lot like learning a new language, and it’s difficult to learn a new language when you’re very attached to your old one.