Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on August 2011

Courtesy of Crypton Future Media

At sweet sixteen, Japanese pop phenomenon Hatsune Miku has her whole life ahead of her. In fact, she may have an eternity, because unlike her rivals she hasn’t aged a bit since her 2007 debut. And there are no tantrums or tiaras either, despite a number-one album. This teen only needs electricity.

With her trademark cyan pigtails, tomboy necktie and thigh-high boots, Miku’s faultless performances defy her youth. But then, as a hologram, it’s not her lack of faults that has garnered legions of glowstick-waving fans, it’s how very lifelike she—and the rise of digital pop stars—has become.

One of a host of digital creations from Sapporo’s Crypton Future Media, Miku’s name translates as “first sound of the future.” She was born out of Vocaloid voice synthesizer software first developed by Yamaha.

In an age of increasing consumer participation, real-life pop is allowing users to vote on the next big star via TV talent shows. With Crypton’s application this goes one step further, allowing the public to write songs and create videos for Miku; and even shape her personality and career to their own taste. Crypton decided Miku’s age, height and weight but users can determine her other traits.
Miku’s vocals are provided by just one person: 26-year-old voice actress Saki Fujita. Samples of Fujita singing are strung together to create full words and phrases, with the pitch altered by Yamaha’s Vocaloid synthesizer engine and played out via a keyboard.

With additional software called Miku Append, her voice becomes enriched with six tones: Soft (gentle, delicate voice), Sweet (young, childlike voice), Dark (mature, heartbroken voice), Vivid (bright, cheerful voice), Solid (loud, clear voice), and Light (innocent, heavenly voice).

A wide variety of Hatsune Mikus have already debuted, from the cute and child-like to sexy adult versions. Her future depends on which the fans accept.

Since her creation, the animated starlet has inspired not only fans, but artists, digital creators and even fashion trends, featuring on the cover of UK magazine Clash with a real-life model. Her first solo live show in August 2009 wowed a Tokyo audience and YouTube watchers alike, with the video for “World Is Mine” attracting millions of hits.

Miku recently stepped into the wider world in a July 2 performance at the 2011 Anime Expo in Los Angeles. Described by the LA Times as the “biggest guest,” she stole the show from real-life J-pop groups Nirgilis and Kalafina. The Times went on to say that “[Miku] perfectly embodies the fantastic creations the convention celebrates.”

3-D holographic live performances have been seen before in the shape of British unit Gorillaz, but Crypton believes the possibilities of merging music, anime and technology are far wider than Damon Albarn’s group might first have thought. While Gorillaz are actual artists, Hatsune Miku and her followers put the artistry in the hands of the masses.

Crypton thinks of it as a democracy they enjoy governing. Their most recent development is mikubook.com, a community where fans can recommend their favorite videos and develop future digital stars, some of whom have already joined Miku on stage.

The site is in English, highlighting a growing interest in Japan’s latest hi-tech cultural export. Crypton President Hiroyuki Itoh says that over 100,000 people have designed visuals and videos for Miku, and over 10,000 have written songs for her.

A computer software company managing a successful pop star is likely more of a surprise for the public than the music industry. Crypton has been selling music production software since 1995. “We create products or services for creators,” says Itoh. “We call ourselves a ‘meta creator.’”

An English version of the Hatsune Miku software is due soon, at which point the sound of the future will have fully arrived on the world stage.