Can the Japanese Digital Pop Star Hatsune Miku Cross Over in the West?
Earlier this week, a collaborative video between Pharrell and Japanese graphic designer Takashi Murakami appeared online. The mind behind “Happy” remixed “Last Night, Good Night,” the theme to Murakami’s debut full-length film Jellyfish Eyes, which is currently touring the United States, and Murakami made an animated clip for the song featuring characters from his film dancing alongside a cartoon version of Pharrell. Predictably, most of the media attention around the clip has focused on Anime Pharrell.
But there’s another star in this video—and she isn’t human. The turquoise-haired woman commanding much of the video’s attention (and whose electronic-dripped vocals are featured in the song) is Hatsune Miku, a digital pop star and one of the most popular performers in Japan today. The Pharrell song is only the latest in her recent string of international collaborations.
Miku serves as the anime avatar for Vocaloid, a singing-synthesizer software allowing users to generate vocals without a human singer, pulling instead from a pre-recorded sound bank. Vocaloid (“vocals plus android”) programs have been commercially available in Japan since 2004, but sales skyrocketed in 2007 after Crypton Future Media unveiled Miku as the first in their “character vocal series.” Propelled forward by a strong fan community on the Japanese equivalent to YouTube, Miku and the artists using her voice became mainstream fixtures in Japanese pop culture. Today, Miku appears everywhere from chart-topping albums to awkward pizza commercials, and is one of the nation’s most recognizable pop stars.
Outside of her home country, however, Miku has mostly been a go-to example for “weird Japan” stories. Long before Holgraphic Tupac and an increased awareness of the technology behind it, American media reports about Miku’s first Japanese concerts held in 2010 portrayed the events as something to gawk at. The internet allowed non-Japanese fans of Miku and Vocaloid music to connect, but beyond the web these artistic communities usually only appeared at anime conventions (Miku’s first American show happened at the 2011 Anime Expo in Los Angeles). Save for a small American ad campaign with Toyota, Miku and the culture surrounding her has been mostly filed away as nerdy. Her most notable achievement in America is probably being the voice of Nyan Cat.
The first major musical crossover between Miku and a non-Japanese artist came last year, when EDM wunderkid Zedd included a remix of his single “Spectrum” swapping out singer Matthew Koma’s voice for Miku on the Japanese version of his album Clarity. Arranged by the Japanese producer Livetune, the song has racked up thousands of views on YouTube and piqued Zedd’s interest in the technology.
More Western artists have been fiddling around with Vocaloid software and music since that remix emerged. Canadian producer Ryan Hemsworth remixed a Miku-centric song from Japan’s Hachioji P, while a Vocaloid voice pops up at the end of Default Gender’s “Stop Pretending”. Just this week, rising North Caroline EDM-maker Porter Robinson unveiled a new track called “Sad Machine”, heavily leaning on Vocaloid, which he says will appear multiple times on his forthcoming debut album Worlds.
The biggest Vocaloid collaboration in America thus far came when Lady Gaga (who many thought took style inspiration from the character) announced that Miku would open a handful of dates on her current ArtRave tour, including this past week’s stop at Madison Square Garden. It’s a logical choice for an artist who loves spectacle—of course Lady Gaga would love the idea of a hologram opening for her in concert—but it will expose Miku to her largest audience outside of Japan yet. Pharrell’s Miku-related work further makes working with a synthetic pop star seem like business as usual.
Why have artists outside Japan finally started to show interest in Hatsune Miku? For one thing, the Japanese government is doing everything it can right now to spread a “cool” image of Japan, so pushing for projects with someone like Pharrell makes sense. But there’s another factor: It’s also far easier to work with Miku than a living, breathing pop star, given that she exists as either software or a hologram. Artists can do whatever they want with Miku. Crypton deliberately left Miku’s personality vague so fans wouldn’t feel restricted in how they could utilize her; in Japan, her voice has appeared in pop, rock, death metal, and techno songs—even convenience-store jingles.
But the recent embrace of Miku might also have to do with a shift in how Japanese pop culture is seen abroad. It might be that kids who grew up with Pokemon and Sailor Moon have come of age or that it just happens to be trendy at the moment, but elements of Japanese culture once deemed geeky are finally being celebrated by Western artists and fans. Whether it’s Frank Ocean singingabout Dragonball characters or Grimes gushing about Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Japanese pop culture’s reputation is changing—which means that it’s the perfect time for Miku’s crossover.