This 16-Year-Old J-Pop Star is Drawing Legions of Fans—Oh, and She's a Hologram, and It's Really Creeping Me Out

Dubbed a “virtual instrument” by its creators and users, this 16-year-old avatar is robotic and unnervingly sexy— just like too many “real” celebrity musicians.
Publish date:
December 8, 2015
music, hologram, J-pop

It’s supposed to be the North American tour of 2016. Tickets are being gobbled up in a frenzy. Little girls are squealing at the chance to finally see their idol in person. Grown men are slobbering to get a glimpse of their favorite pop tart. She’s made a splash by keeping the company of fellow innovator Lady Gaga and fraternizing with late-night legend David Letterman. Her vocals are wooing legions of electronic dance music fans, and word on the street is that she was considered for a Grammy nomination. She’s a fashion icon, entrepreneur, sex symbol and international star, at the tender age of 16.

Oh, and she’s a hologram.

The aqua-haired sprite Hatsune Miku has been wowing the world since 2007 when she became the queen of the “Vocaloids”— musical technologies created by Crypton Future Media that eerily mimic the human voice. They’re similar to T-Pain’s weapon of choice, Auto-Tune, but these digital characters require no organic input at all. Unless you count the one-time contribution of singer Saki Fujita, who gave Miku her tone and timbre.

There has already been plenty of commentary on Miku’s existence signaling the Rise of the Machines and the phasing out of real performers. Cultural enthusiast Sean CW Korsgaard, however, made a good point about just how “organic” music isn’t these days:

As much as we claim to care about the musician, a few singers like Lady Gaga or Adele aside, your average pop star owes more to the fifty or sixty people in sound engineering and the marketing boardroom than the pretty face supposedly singing it. We may not use holograms, but make no mistake, many pop stars are no less artificial than Hatsune Miku.

In fact, it was Gaga who introduced the bubbly avatar to the greater American public. Miku opened for her in 2014 on select dates of the artRAVE: The ARTPOP Ball tour, presenting as a dazzling, giggly projection. She was Hannah Montana pre-twerk, Sailor Moon with a sort-of-sultry side. This tour and a notoriously awkward appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman were the litmus tests to see if Miku could conquer the West and live up to the title of her coquettish song “World Is Mine.”

Now “she” is embarking on a full-scale expo tour in 2016 with flesh-and-blood backing musicians rocking out onstage with her animated visage. Tickets are going for upward of $150 apiece— though the experience amounts to a Pink Floyd laser show without the hallucinogenic drugs. There are VIP packages, but it’s not as though they could include meet-and-greets with fans. Saki Fujita will not be on hand to pose for selfies, and as far as we know, a Disney princess version of Miku will not be scooping up wide-eyed children and serenading them with her popular songs.

Miku is not unlike the holographic Tupac Shakur at Coachella 2012 or the “resurrected” Michael Jackson at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards. All use a 150-year-old illusion called Pepper’s Ghost to bring these reflections to life.

But unlike fallen icons Shakur and Jackson, Miku is fictitious and utterly submissive to the whims of her creators. Making Pac croon along to, say, Frozen’s “Let It Go” would be blasphemous and would probably result in a lawsuit. Making Miku sing it is kawaii (“cute” in Japanese) and easily done with the Yamaha Vocaloid software series ($149 for the English version).

Her overt cuteness paired with her sly sexiness is what makes Miku so unsettling. Like many female anime characters, her youth and coyness is juxtaposed with sky-high skirts; fetishistic, bosom-exposing tops; and shiny go-go boots. Official marketing for Miku emphasizes her height (a petite 5-foot-2) and her weight (feather-light 92 pounds), making her innocence and frailty as hot of commodities as her voice.

The lyrics to “World Is Mine” suggest she’ll endure physical and emotional abuse as long as her beau gives her yummy treats and compliments her clothes. And yes, thousands of porn hits pop up when one Googles Hatsune Miku. Again, she’s 16. Sure, she’s a cartoon, but that doesn’t justify such leering.

“Shake it, baby,” an old man, nearly drooling, told the animation in the YouTube video "Elders React to Vocaloids." He might have been saying that in jest, but his reaction is precisely what’s wrong with the concept of Miku: She is, in essence, a sex slave.

You can “program” her to sound like whatever you want, with pitches varying from “sweet” to “dark.” This little girl can be your sugar baby or your dominatrix. Artist Ricardo Padua featured her vocals on the majority of his Electronic Heartbeat album this year, showcasing her “range.” The music itself is catchy, but with the avatar begging digitally for the listener to come away with me in the title track, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

“I want to live forever in your eyes,” she squeaks in Padua’s “2night.” Romantic lyrics turn into an Ex Machina nightmare when sung by a Vocaloid. Miku doesn’t yet ace the Turing test – which determines whether a robot successfully passes as human – but too many salivating men like the senior mentioned above probably don’t care.

Maybe she’s even better than the real thing. She’ll sing for you, seduce you and then order you a pizza. (Her partnership with Domino’s in Japan essentially encourages one to play with his food. Miku is further treated as consumable in this way.) Korg even developed a Miku guitar pedal that changes tones when you stomp on it with your foot. Step on the plaything and she’ll still giggle for you.

The biggest issue with Hatsune Miku is that once you anthropomorphize an instrument, it’s no longer simply a tool. It is one thing to consider a guitar or bass an extension of male anatomy, but Miku and other Vocaloids are receptacles and parrots of emotion. With great technology comes great responsibility. It might be funny to force her, iPhone’s Siri and other interactive programs to say and sing salacious things, but there are consequences to playing a perverse god. When we manipulate machines made to remind us of underage pop musicians, we lose our humanity.