This is a opinion piece about how internet culture and society interacts. It questions who we, as a society, looks at as being worthy of the title of being an pop idol in the current age.
When thinking about who could possibly be the worlds most recorded artist/singer in history, your mind might wonder to some logical conclusions: Perhaps a backing singer or a long standing performer. Indeed, the top reported singer Pulapaka Susheela Mohan, is a Indian singer who has been active since the 1950s. In 2016 she was awarded the Guinness World Record for the most studio recordings (singles & albums combined) in 2016 for recording 17,695 songs. This title, however, is challenged by fellow Indian K. J. Yesudas, who has a reported recording figure of over 80,000 songs over five decades.
However, I argue that the true artist with the largest number of credits as a singer is a 16-year-old girl named Hatsune Miku from Sapporo City, Japan. She’s described as being 5ft 2inches tall, with long turquoise pig tails, and a sweet voice perfect for major song hooks especially in J-pop and Dance-pop tracks. Since her début in 2007, she’s appeared in a reported one-hundred-thousand songs according to her manager. Easily beating the Guinness World Record or even K. J. Yesudas’s 80,000 titles. Miku also has a massive online fan club, with numerous YouTube videos, and fan based artwork based on her image. On deviantART, an online artwork gallery and community, there are between 320,00 and 680,00 pieces of fan art dedicated to her.
She’s certainly more popular in Eastern Asia, especially in Japan where she has reached number-one on the Oricon Album charts. But that isn’t to say she has been ignored in the cultural west. She has previously worked with Pharrell Williams when he remixed the song “Last night, Good night” featuring Hatsune Miku”. In 2014 she performed on the Late Night Show with David Letterman on CBS. Miku has also opened for Lady Gaga on tour. She is of-course popular with those who are fans of Japanese culture, and she has performed live in the LA Anime Expo in Los Angeles. In a limited way, she has managed to break into the west through the niche cultural elements on the internet that keep in tune to Japanese culture.
If you’ve been on the internet in any time since 2010, you might have seen the Nyan Cat meme – Yeah she sung that too, or at least the song it was based on, ‘Nyanyanyanyanyanyanya!’.
Why isn’t Miku formally recognised?
But here is the problem. Hatsune Miku despite her titles, major performances, and fan club, isn’t real. She’s an anthropomorphism of a vocal synthesizer released by Crypton. She’s effectively a program that you can type in some lyrics, decide what pitch, and the program will sing it for you. The program is actually based on 34-year-old Japanese voice actress and singer Saki Fujita.
As part of the marketing for the program they decided to sell Miku as not a voice synth program, but as a virtual idol. Everything from her dance moves to her fashion choices are a carefully articulated creation. She’s a megastar who is a myth. Carefully designed for a space in the music industry – a program for music artists who not only wanted a cheap vocal artist, but also wanted the same level of fandom injected into songs when they feature any other pop icon.
Cosima Oka-Dorge, the US/EU Marketing Manager for the company that designed Miku, even stated that her character was about opening the software to a larger market:
with the character illustration, and actually giving the voice of the software a face, we hoped to give the software a broader audience, which really worked out and enabled users to get inspired and to create new artworks around Hatsune Miku.
Cosima Oka-Doerge speaking to ShutterStock, Oct 2014
Should Miku be recognised?
The argument that Miku is undeserving of attention, or to be recognised in the world record books is simple: Miku is a program, a machine, not an artist. She’s fake.
But aren’t all artists?
When we look at who is at the forefront of the music charts right now, especially in pop, you’re going to see a lot of people who have had their persona created for them based of what will sell the most albums or tour tickets. While Miku doesn’t have her own personality, many artists don’t either.
We are now in a situation where artists have been posthumously creating new content, controlled by everyone else but the original artists. There have been releases of new records, either from mashups of old studio time, or songs that the original artist didn’t want releasing. Music companies have evan imagined to get the dead to perform on stage once again though the use of holographic images of Tupac Shakur and Elvis to tour live. If this is real, then why is Miku not?
In some ways, Miku is more honest than ‘real artists’. The back story behind Miku isn’t hidden. In fact the company openly talk about her as not a person, but as a designed character. To a certain level, that a lot more honesty than you’ll find with many pop-stars. Music icons are told how to dress, how to talk, and who to be friends with. The obvious case of this is Taylor Swift, where her marketing team have created feuds that are nothing more than publicity stunts. You could also give mention to the ‘dark side of K-POP’. Where one artist was sacked for entering a relationship because it would ruin the artists image as being romantically available for the audience.
So to you, the end listener, what’s the difference between the likes of Miku or other related acts such as the Gorillaz to ‘real’ pop artists? At the end of the day, you’re still buying into an image curated by a multitude of people, with songs written by others, the only constant is the voice they use to sing and their general likeness.
How is Miku different?
Ppost-human idols are defined as those who are ‘… artificially produced identities and bodies’ (Richard & Kruger, 2006:305). They can be real people, but at the same type the majority of their substance is constructed. The same paper goes onto compare Madonna and Michael Jackson as post-human. So it’s quite clear that Miku is somewhat different to these two mentioned artists. So how does she differ?
Miku is an artist who has democratised who controls her image. She is a character whose voice is a combination of many music creators. And in some way she represents all of them on stage. She also brings fan interaction to a new level. You might never meet her, but you can use her voice. The company that owns Miku even lets fan use her image and voice for free provided it’s not for profit. Try doing that with any other artist and see how many take down requests or cease and desist letters you get.
A post-human pop star. She’s the construct of a thousand people, not a record label. Doesn’t that make her as real as many of the songs we currently see in popular culture? The only difference is that the main character isn’t a human being told what do to, instead it’s a digital body.
Miku may not be real. But her music is. The perception she has is the result of the constructs and values that her fans have put on her, and is no different to the constructs and values placed on current pop-idols.
So the question is this: Why do we recognise one social construct but not another?