Is Hatsune Miku a Better Pop Star than Justin Bieber? | Today I Learned

Pop stars. We love them so much it hurts. It hurts us. But mostly it hurts them. You know Justin Bieber. A few years back we were all like, “that dude’s
gonna melt down faster than a piece of feta in a fondu pot.” Well, it’s finally happening. And it’s kinda funny. But, it’s mostly tragic. NEWSCASTER: Justin Bieber: Arrested in Miami
Beach for DUIs, street racing, resisting arrest! And all we can say is: “Finally, right?” BIEBER: The fuck did you say? What’d you say? As hard as it is to imagine from a distance,
Justin Bieber is what we like to call a “human being.” Like you, and like me. I get it, like, he’s made his fair share of
bad decisions, but there’s an argument that Justin Bieber’s personality and behavior are
the result of an unusual and unsustainable lifestyle. And Biebs is barely the latest in a long line
of pop stars just like him, whose lives just manage to fall apart. What if it didn’t have to be this way? What if we could have all the joys of a pop
star? We could have them improve our lives without
destroying their own? It’d be pretty great, right? This is Hatsune Miku, one of Japan’s most
beloved pop stars. Her popularity is staggering. Chart-topping video games. A hundred thousand-copy selling albums. A spread in the Japanese playboy. Cosplayers, racecars… she’s been launched
in a rocket. Twice. Remember that unsettling holographic technology
that brought back Tupac? Similar tech helped stage a live Miku concert. She isn’t a human. She isn’t a robot. She isn’t even really a video game character,
not in her truest form. She’s software. You can buy her. “Hi! My name is Miku Hatsune! What’s your name? Nice to meet you!” Miku is a Vocaloid. She’s one of… well. A lot. In 2000, Yamaha began co-development of a
piece of musical composition software that imitated the human voice. They dubbed this software “Vocaloid.” The software samples a collection of real
human vocal recordings, then manipulates them into something entirely new. Early on, Vocaloid software catered to professional
musicians and producers. Its packaging and promotion often felt very
dull, utilitarian even. Krypton, a Japanese music software developer,
had the idea to give its second Vocaloid a face. “I’m Hatsune Miku, from Krypton Future Media.” They hoped a character, like a spokesmodel,
would lure customers into choosing their software over the competition’s. Krypton’s CEO named this character Hatsune
Miku, which translates roughly to “first sound from the future.” She has no backstory, just a body type. She’s sixteen years old, with turquoise pigtails
and a skin-tight bodysuit. She’ll look this way forever. Krypton’s strategy worked. Professionals took interest in Miku immediately. But unexpectedly, so did an enthusiast fanbase. Krypton’s CEO claims that Miku fans were posting
fanart online within the day of release. Why, though? Well, in short, creative freedom. While the software was designed for professionals,
anyone who purchased Krypton’s program could use it to produce and freely distribute their
own Hatsune Miku songs. “Welcome to the Zero-G Vocaloid tutorial. Once you know the basic procedure, creating
vocal tracks in Vocaloid is actually quite easy.” And if fans or professionals wanted to profit
off the music, they had the opportunity to partner with Krypton. And Krypton didn’t simply make the music software
open source. The company made Miku herself available to
the public. Artists and musicians were free to modify,
repurpose, and publish work featuring the character however they liked. So suddenly, the software and the image were
serving as this gateway into real-word careers. For people who had no involvement in the music
industry previously. Within a year, Miku featured in hundreds of
fan-made songs. Within five years, fans had developed software
for choreographing dances, designed a handful of Miku spinoffs, and published thousands
of web videos viewed millions of times. Miku’s fame congealed because a community
of fans produced an amount and variety of music that would be impossible and impractical
to expect from a single person. Here is a year’s worth of music from Justin
Bieber. And here is a year’s worth of music from Hatsune
Miku. Fans are consumers, but in Miku’s case they’re
also collaborators. Okay, let’s compare the creative freedom of
Hatsune Miku with that of Justin Bieber. Producers, agents, managers and monolithic
corporate entities have exclusive control of, and profit from, the “Justin Bieber Project.” Fans can’t make Justin sing their songs, and
they certainly can’t profit off of his music. And Bieber’s image and intellectual property
is fiercely protected by Western laws. But these restrictions feel outdated. And even a little draconian. We are living in the age of participation. We use Twitter, and Tumblr, and Youtube, and
Instagram and Vine (RIP) to criticize, and deconstruct, and improve, and republish and
re-whatever we want with our entertainment. There is a certain co-ownership that we have
with the things we love. The Miku method reflects the way that we expect
to engage with our entertainment. How — the whole world, today. There’s also something sinister and inhuman
about the treatment of human pop stars. While agents, managers and producers might
care about their star and wish the best for him, they also care about what decisions will
most benefit them. For example, Justin Bieber won’t benefit emotionally
from a nasty appearance in a gossip rag. But those around him, those who invested in
the Justin Bieber commodity might gain from that publicity. So it’s no surprise that Bieber, and most
pop stars who are young, or naive or both, and too much trust in those around them eventually
enter an existential tailspin. What makes Miku special is her complete artificiality. She never ages. She’s not going to appear in a gossip rag
after a weeknight bender. She’s not even going to have a weeknight bender,
not unless someone wants to. Her life can’t be ruined, because she doesn’t
have one. And yet Miku’s best attributes — her ubiquity
and her accessibility — set a dangerous precedent. Miku allows fans to go beyond feeling ownership
for who they love to actually having that ownership. She can’t say no to a request — any request. That allows her to be a vessel for fans’ creativity,
but it allows a character designed like a child to be manipulated in unsavory ways. It gets gross. One of the first pieces of software designed
for the Oculus Rift — a virtual reality headset — features Miku. In the first-person simulation users can,
with the help of a motion controller, reach out and touch her. So, is a virtual pop star better than a human
pop star? Or in this case, is Hatsune Miku a better
vessel for celebrity than Justin Bieber? Yeah. In almost every way, virtual pop stars improve
upon their human contemporaries. Vocaloids like Miku topple the barrier between
artist and fan, and do so without endangering the life of a living, breathing person. Now, Miku obviously isn’t going to replace
Biebs any time soon. But there’s still an important lesson to be
learned here. In Miku, we see the extremity of fandom. For the better, for sure, but also for the
worse. Agents, managers and producers, but also we
— the fans — are guilty. Because we idolize, commoditize, sexualize
and aggrandize the people that we love, with a dangerous fervor. We treat pop stars like objects, when what
they need to be treated like is humans.

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