I Have Seen The Future, and It Sings
My Evening at Miku Expo 2016 in Houston
One of Japan’s biggest pop stars is not a human being but rather a character created by a software company. They call her an android diva from the near future where all songs are lost. She has tons of devoted fans and performs concerts in the form of a 3D hologram.
If that sounds like something from a science fiction novel, that’s because it almost is. But the point I’m trying to make is that it exists in the real world. Her name is Hatsune Miku, and I went to see her live on her largest North America tour yet.
Let me tell you a little bit more about Hatsune Miku. As I said before, she isn’t a real person. Miku is a Vocaloid, which is a singing synthesizer software. There are plenty of other Vocaloids, some of which came on tour with her, but Miku is the most popular. Because she is, at her most basic level, software, anyone can make music for her. That means her entire career is dependent on her fans, who also make art of her and design her outfits and hairstyles, effectively making her a crowdsourced pop-star. As a result, she has over 500,000 songs and an incredible fan base in Japan and around the world that’s large enough to where she can have sold-out concerts in multiple countries. During her past visits to America, Miku has opened for Lady Gaga, performed at concerts of her own in New York and Los Angeles, and even made an appearance on the Late Show in 2014.
I’ve been a Vocaloid fan since high school, so I’ve been waiting a really long time for something like this. I’m such a huge fan that I bought the VIP package for this concert. So why wouldn’t I write a blog post about this?
I got to NRG Arena at around 12:45. That sounds crazy, since the doors didn’t open until 6:30, but they started selling the merchandise early and I wanted a spot in front for the show. It was a long time to wait, so everyone in line got to know each other. The majority of the people I met went to Miku’s show in Dallas the previous weekend. Some had even seen her concerts in Japan. For some, this was their first concert ever. But regardless of experience, everyone dressed for the occasion. Most of them, like me, kept it simple and just wore a Miku T-shirt. Others went a bit further with hair dyed to match hers. Some even brought their Miku plush dolls with them. There wasn’t as much cosplay as I had expected, but their outfits were very well done.
The Glow Sticks
A staple at J-pop concerts, the fans light up the arena with glow sticks, moving them in unison. The hardcore fans bought their own battery-powered ones with multiple colors that represent the different Vocaloids. Had I known I would be going when the tour was announced back in November, I would’ve pre-ordered one, but the Houston date was added in March, and by then it was too late, so I went with the standard-issue green glow sticks they gave out at the door.
Waving a glow stick around is practically an art at these concerts. Normally, if you don’t know what to do, you would just do what everyone else in front of you is doing, and the people behind you would follow along. However, since I was in the front, I wasn’t able to do that. In fact, everyone in the front row shared the responsibility of doing the right movements so that the rest of the crowd would follow along and be synchronized. Luckily, I was standing near some Miku concert veterans who knew exactly what moves to do at each part of every song. Whatever they did, the people next to them would do the same, and it would ripple across the audience until everyone was in sync.
The Show Itself
The setlist had a variety of different music. Miku sang everything from slow, romantic songs to intense J-rock and pop. The other 4 Vocaloids had one song each, along with a few duets. I was familiar with about half of the songs, and the ones I had never heard before were pretty good.
The hologram technology went beyond my expectations. If you watch Vocaloid concert videos on YouTube, it might look impressive. In person, however, the movement is much smoother and more realistic with a refresh rate of at least a 120 FPS. Most of the time, Miku and friends danced around like normal human beings. But because the virtual space isn’t bound by a lot of the restrictions of the real world, it can be used to create some really neat effects. Before each song, Miku or one of the other Vocaloids would materialize onto the stage, whether it be through bubbles, static, or 0s and 1s; at the end, they would exit in the same fashion. During one song, Miku grew wings and started floating. And Rin and Len’s performance of “Remote Control” featured text flying around the stage. The lighting also added more depth to the show; colors and images reflected off the Tesla coil-style frame around the stage along with a background that resembled a circuit board.
Most of Miku’s music is in Japanese, and while some of her American fans can’t understand it, they do know the English lyrics to most of the songs. Miku does have an English voice, and there were 3 English songs on the setlist. For some of them, like “Glass Wall”, her voice was pretty clear; but sometimes it was a little hard to understand what she was saying. Miku’s English voice is only a few years old, so it’s not perfect, and I’m hoping it will improve.
Perhaps the moment that left the biggest impression on me was the final song of the night. After the lights went out and the band left the stage while the crowd chanted “Mou ikkai” (“One more time” in Japanese), Miku reappeared with a keyboard beside her and started playing “Star Fragment”, a full version of the first demo song ever made with the Hatsune Miku software. It was a relaxing end to an intense show, but it also served as a reminder of Miku’s humble beginnings. When she started out, she was nothing more than software with a face. Her creators had never imagined she would be performing live in front of thousands of fans, let alone become a worldwide phenomenon. And here she is, closing out yet another concert in front of thousands of adoring fans, some of which can’t even understand her, playing the first song she ever sang.
Hatsune Miku and Vocaloid technology are the future of music. A future where individual creators have control over the artist and hologram technology produces spectacular shows. Will it replace flesh-and-blood pop stars for good? I hope not. But at least for now, I don’t think any show I’ll ever see will even come close to being as exciting as a Hatsune Miku concert.