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My plastic idols

This whole Hatsune Miku thing fascinates me.

Not that this personification of (essentially) a mascot for a brand – branding, in human form – is particularly new to the anime community. The best example I can think of is Di Gi Charat, where the mascots of the Gamers store were beloved to the point where they were given an anime series.
I think what bothers me so much about it  – and I’ll say it again, for emphasis – is the fact that this is the personification of a brand. The idea of a brand, or design, being as evolutionary and participatory is an emerging trend in graphic and identity design. An exemplary example of this ‘generative’ product identity design is the MIT Media Lab’s new identity design.

For the uninitiated (most of you, I assume) the phrase “identity design” refers to the generation of a graphic identity for a client. The identity can be as simple as a logo, and can be as extensive as the creation of an entire typeface. In the case of MIT Media Lab, the designers generated 40 000 permutations of the ‘logo’ – responding to the idea that the MIT Media Lab, MIT’s fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants creative wing’s ever-evolving mission. Any one person can ‘claim’ their own permutation of the logo.
Hatsune Miku has a similar appeal. We can endlessly adorn her with our dreams. She’s the most relatable brand, and most relatable pop idol ever. The very idea of a Vocaloid – “here’s a voice, go make music” – exists for us to infinitely write with. The reason she’s become so popular is because she’s a blank slate, and always will be.
It’s a bit disturbing that a brand can penetrate so deeply, however. And I wonder what it is about the otaku culture that seems to respond so deeply to this personification and characterization of products? Is it an alienation from traditional branding – the ability of a (usually) pretty smart crowd of people to call a graphic designer’s bullshit? That said, I doubt most anime fans have the visual literacy to be able to decode the subtleties of marketing. I think it has more to do with the subculture: the idea that we ‘understand’ a brand, or a product, or a Gamers shop in a way that most others don’t – the character and the nuances of whatever it is we like.
Miku isn’t a new phenomena. We’ve tread this ground before, but it was imperfect. I’m talking about Britney Spears, the Spice Girls, and the Backstreet Boys. Even more so, the new generation of pop stars in America, Hannah Montana and Mylie Cyrus.
The generation coming into adulthood now, and the generation just after us have lived in a word of autotuned, manufactured, branded pop idols for quite some time. Do you know what Britney Spears sings like, naturally? I don’t. I’ve never heard her. I’ve watched her entire career, incidentally, throughout my life; her transformation, her breast implants, her somewhat tragic and embarrassing fall from fame. Britney Spears was a brand more than a singer, and we were reminded of this fact every time we heard her lipsync someone else’s song on stage.
The point is, we only gave a shit when she screwed up. She was rich and famous and dating Justin Timberlake. We wanted her life, and we didn’t care too much about the fact that her music was ‘fake’. We were interested in the brand of Britney Spears: the blanker a canvas she was, the more we could project ourselves onto her.  Unfortunately, Britney is human, and humans are flawed. No one wants that. We rejected this flawed creature.
Hatsune Miku is better than this. Hatsune Miku will never be caught in a Wal-mart. Hatsune Miku will never have feuds with her friends from before her fame. Hatsune Miku will never grow old, never make bad mistakes. Hatsune’s lipflaps will never be out of sync with the music. She follows the ebb and flow of her fans, and is whatever she’s needed to be: a sex symbol, a little sister, a singing, dancing pop idol, or the main character in a fantasy world. We’re okay with the computerized voice glitches. We’ve heard it all before, anyways.

11 replies on “My plastic idols”

I wonder if people who love a product have a natural urge to personify it. Their interest becomes so strong; the difference between brands conjures up personalities. That social media image above is one example. I’m assuming it was not commissioned but the work of a fanboy/girl. I saw another which depicted Linux distros as magical girls.
I’ve become fascinated by Hatsune Miku myself, even though I don’t really care for the songs. I somehow found myself watching a simulcast stream of the AnimeExpo concert, including a part where she (yes, she) introduced the band members and waved to each one. And I have listened to her (yes, her) sing old songs by Yes and King Crimson.

I wonder if people who love a product have a natural urge to personify it. Their interest becomes so strong; the difference between brands conjures up personalities.
What you describe sounds an awful lot like Objectophilia – the romantic and emotional love of objects. I think this is a different syndrome, in the sense that, from the beginning with the Vocaloid software, there’s been a face attached – all we had to do was fill it with a personality.

Hatsune Miku will never grow old, never make bad mistakes. Hatsune’s lipflaps will never be out of sync with the music.

perhaps more importantly to the otaku set, they will never have to smash her CDs when they learn that she isn’t a virgin…

Unfortunately so. You could also flip that argument around and say that, in being such a fan-created thing her virginity has been dashed to bits as many times as the crowd wants. And, like Hera, she magically regrows it each and every time – if the crowd wants.
I think it’s interesting that music is such a secondary aspect to the whole Vocaloid crowd: she’s voice software, but it’s as much about the mythos created around her (Black Rock Shooter, to an extent her ‘live concerts’/the hologram) that is a draw more than anything.

Absolutely. The appealing thing about a ‘virtual’ idol like Miku (I think the same applies to all the vocaloid characters of course, but Miku is by far the most popular to date) is the fact that all there was to begin with was a voice, a character design and very little else. In the same way that the technical side, the voice synth, is a set of component parts that can be used however you like, a whole personality, backstory and fan following can be built on it. She really is the pop star for the ‘2D complex’ world.
I thought I ‘got’ the Vocaloid thing but it appears that I approached it from the opposite direction to most other people: I probably heard the results this neat piece of software shortly after seeing Miku’s design for the first time, but personally view her as a technical feat first and 2D pin-up second. I’m sure that’s because I’m a music nerd who appreciates how clever the Vocaloid synth technology is, and often get frustrated at how Miku’s voice is so often used for cover songs and novelty numbers. It’s fun for sure, but the use of Vocaloid by songwriters who write their own material is impressive: Ryo of Supercell is the obvious name, but I bought doriko’s Unformed album and was impressed too.
I guess I’m not as impressed with Miku as much as I ought to be because the 16-year-old electropop idol isn’t my thing…Megurine Luka’s voice (and her character design!) is more sophisticated and ‘mature’…I can imagine her voice being used in slowdive or Supercar-style songs, as opposed to the girly pop that Miku’s voice is suited for. But then, the history of popular music in general is littered with examples of unlikely clashes of styles, and equipment that’s not used in the way the designers intended.
I can actually see the Vocaloid thing evolve even further: not only will they sound more lifelike, but I often wonder if A.I. advances will produce a ‘fuller’, more extensive package than the current setup of ‘character design+voice samples taken from a human’. The gulf between what you get from the Miku software package and fictional idols (Rei Toei from William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, or Sharon Apple from Macross Plus) is enormous, but now it’s been proven that people will buy records and go to concerts because of a voice synth, it’s only a matter of time. CG graphics, motion capture, voice synthesisers and PR/marketing are bound to collide eventually!

and [I] often get frustrated at how Miku’s voice is so often used for cover songs and novelty numbers
Like I said to Otou-san above, I think the music is an entirely secondary aspect to Miku’s fame. I mean, looking at the lyrics of even her more musical/better songs (Let’s take “The World is Mine” as an example) leads nothing but vapid self-praise and.. an odd desire of this hologram to eat things. It only degrades into para para paradise music from there, unfortunately. The other thing I’d mention on this note is that creativity is hard, and most people don’t posses enough of it to make a song.
I don’t think that this is so much a misuse of the equipment, however. People are using the Vocaloid software more-or-less how the creators intended it to be used. The unexpected bit of this is the bizarre fandom around the brand/image/personification of the software. As if people were writing stories about the life and times of a Les Paul guitar, and treating them as if these were real.
Also, an interesting note on the evolution of Miss Miku – I agree. Like I said in the post, it’s not like Miku herself didn’t have precedent, it’s simply that she’s just the first fully realized digital idol. Britney Spears was only halfway there, in the sense that she was still tied to her flesh and humanity.
Finally, I agree – I haven’t watched much or heard much, but in the youtube clips I’ve been analysing over the past couple of days, Luka’s voice is considerably more smooth and mature~

People are using the Vocaloid software more-or-less how the creators intended it to be used.

Well, I think that could be speculation, beyond the most basic intent of “using the software to add vocals to songs.” But there is no pop culture like this surrounding the non-anime-mascot Vocaloids in the English language market. They have names, and technically “characters,” but they didn’t capture the audience or the creators without the anime mascots. I’m not entirely sure what that says about your core points in the post — it seems very canny on the part of Crypton or whoever to create an enduring anime-style icon to capitalize on what you call the otaku world’s deep response to personification and characterization of products, but I have to think there’s probably a little happy accident element at work here too. I mean, who could have guessed it’d catch on this level?
When you start talking about lyrics and such I think it’s tough to keep on track because ironically, it’s a divergence: the actual musical content is inextricably tied to the phenomenon but, it’s also a different thing. At the end of the day when it comes to content Vocaloids are a tool like any other instrument. But for some reason, you can’t remove Miku from anime culture. Supercell is a perfect example: Ryo is probably one of the more famous Vocaloid music artists, and from day one his “band” has involved more doujin artists than musicians. The story of Black Rock Shooter would be a pretty cool one outside of this context (guy is inspired by a picture to write a song, uses Vocaloid for his performance, musician and artist end up collaborating on multimedia projects in the future) but in its context (while still neat) it makes me shrug a little because it’s all steeped in this anime/otaku pop culture when I think there is potential to be so much more.
Maybe otaku are just the type of people who naturally gravitate to idols anyway, and they finally have “their” idol, for reasons both obvious (she’s a cartoon) and deeper (the sexualizing/desexualizing stuff you talk about in your response to me).
Because of all this I get excited when I hear Martin talk about wanting to use Luka, simply because I would love to hear one of the anime-mascot Vocaloids used in a context that is removed from Nico Nico, Pixiv, anime, etc.

but I have to think there’s probably a little happy accident element at work here too.

For sure there’s more than a bit of this. And maybe the otaku subculture’s “deep need to personify” is a bit of a misstatement; I think it’s more that we wholeheartedly accept it, when presented with it. I’m not sure why – maybe it’s lack of real human interaction.
The reason you can’t remove Miku from anime culture is because she’s encoded in that language. Her eyes are large, her hair is an impossible shade, and her limbs are long and without shape. She simply isn’t Miku without her large anime eyes – what we associate with that ‘voice’ has those eyes.
It’s like if you were to see a picture of me (or I of you) we’d both be taken aback slightly. After all, as far as internet-Celeste is concerned, you look like a deformed yellow cat. If I were to see your icon roaming the streets, I’d think “Otou-san”. Similarly, you must also think I point at my head continually. Unlike Miku, we can divorce our identities from the anime community – however, when we do (ie, when we go take a walk) we cease to be ‘anime bloggers’. We could hunt down Hatsune Miku’s voice actress, and the programmers who wrote the Vocaloid software – the people who really are a concrete manifestation of “Miku” – but those people are meaningless. What has meaning is the image, the idea, and the brand of Hatsune Miku; the green haired anime-eyed girl.

I wrote about Miku last year, and one of the most interesting points I found was how she “belongs” to the fans [in a way that would be completely frowned upon if she were a human]. The idea is that fans/users have manifested much of what drives the Miku-culture; primarily music and art. Her institute isn’t driven by some producers and massive label, instead most of the popularity has been generated internally to the fanbase. Personal, I’ve very little interest in Miku, but the idea that the culture is self-generating is fascinating. Also, it is my opinion that there are various aspect of the cultural demographic (otaku) which are frowned upon, but Miku doesn’t seem to be one of them; otaku should be proud of Miku, and maybe they are.

How much do you think Miku’s popularity is life imitating art? Do we like her because we wanted a real life version of the idol from macross plus? Is this phenomena going to take off amongst main stream music fans in the west?

I certainly think that an anime fan’s desire to identify/empathise with his favourite characters is what makes Miku such a hit with our particular community. As anime fans, we’re trained to give meaning or value to our favourite series; the obvious connection here is fan-fiction, but it’s also worth taking note of the anime blogging community itself, too, which is a fairly unique sub-culture of critical writing enitrely devoted to one country’s animated output. Why? What is it that drives us to interact with specifically anime?
I don’t know how to describe what I’m feeling when I’m watching the Miku concerts; a part of me is fascinated by the media bombarding my every sense, but another feels like I’m seeing something completely new and so completely alien; it’s a weird sensation. I’m almost agreeing with Ryan in that this is something that the anime community should be proud to share, because this really feels like a cognitive step (but whether that’s a step backwards or forwards is why I’m not quite there yet.)

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