I was introduced to this band (?) by my teenager, who is into J-Pop and K-Pop (that’s Japanese and Korean pop for all you ignoramuses out there). After I complained that the voice sounded just like those on some of the other bands he enjoys, he enlightened me that there was no actual person behind the song (or the others). Hatsune Miku is an artificial singing voice created by a company called Crypton Fusion Media, using a voice synthesizer technology called Vocaloid created by Yamaha. Anyone can buy the “voice” and use it to sing their music.
To help sell the artificial voice, the creators gave Hatsune Miku a persona, and later even introduced versions of Miku like “Sweet,” “Soft,” and “Light.”
“How do they play concerts then?” I asked. He pointed me to this video.
Hatsune Miku, as you can see from this video of one of the most popular songs in this genre, is a vision of Japanese fantasy beauty, with very manga-like teal pigtails, projected as a hologram or a projection on screen.
Many other composers use this Vocaloid and others to showcase their compositions, and these songs have a very legitimate place in the world of music. But they beg the question – what about the connection between the audience and the singer?
I guess that’s a pretty naive question these days. Increasingly, our communication with others is over the internet or the phone. Sometimes a photo next to someone’s FB status helps me form that connection, especially for people who I am very fond of and have never met. So it is obvious that we can achieve a fair degree of interpersonal connection without having had any face-to-face contact. The story of Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame linebacker who carried on a deeply emotional relationship with a woman who only existed online (and was discovered later to have been created by a disturbed young man name Ronaiah Tuiasosopo) perhaps illustrates this best.
Do we enjoy these artificial, infinite-distance relationships so much because they are perfect in a way real relationships can never be? Lennay Kekua, Te’o's virtual girlfriend, never complained about not spending enough time with him, or that he forgot Valnetine’s Day, or that he was flirting with another girl. Even on her deathbed, she spoke words of encouragement and hope where a real girl hurting from chemo and radiation would have been bitchy and mean.
Hatsune Miku will never have an off day, never cancel a show because of laryngitis, and will never embarrass her fans by exiting a car without underwear. She will never go old and saggy. Her voice will always be sweet perfection. And in her perfectly endowed persona, she will go on entertaining even as her aging fans are replaced by their next generation. She is an idealized version of a real voice is a way we are idealized versions of ourselves online, having perfect weekends and vacations with smiling teens and loving spouses.
That promise of perfection is seductive, but give me the real thing any day. Perhaps I write this from the perspective of a cellulite-ridden, graying, over the hill middle-aged woman, but when Asha Bhosle’s voice cracked on a particularly high note singing “Piya Tu Ab Toh Aaja” during a concert at Cow Palace in San Francisco, and she sweetly apologized to her adoring fans, she established a connection far more powerful than singing those notes perfectly would have.
And yesterday I shelled out a small fortune to watch Steffi Graf play an exhibition match at the SAP Open in San Jose. The musculature was gone, the wicked cross-court drives blunted, and most of the serves hit the net. But it was such a thrill to be breathing the same air as this amazing lady who gave me so much joy for so many years with her talent and style.
There is a place for the Hatsune Mikus of the world – her success and the success of similar Vocaloid creations is testimony to that. And there will be CGI Gollums and hologram Tupacs and more and more virtual heroes and idols. But it would be wise to remember that Miku’s artificial voice has been built from samples of voice actress Saki Fujita. Gollum was voiced and performed by the very talented actor Andy Serkis. And Tupac’s hologram needed a real Tupac to exist to have the impact it did. It is painless to interact with perfection, but it is also ephemeral. Our imperfections need the friction of other imperfections to cling to – warts, farts, and all.