You know that weird moment when the premise of a Disney Channel movie you crimped your hair and ate Gushers while watching becomes a reality? If you don’t, you’re about to. Dig, if you willl, into the archives of your childhood and recall for me a little number entitled Pixel Perfect–the charming, if relatively low-budget, story of a holographic pop star named Loretta and Phil of the Future’s confused, pubescent longing for the supposedly perfect leading lady he himself created. While the idea of a holographic, routinely performing musician may seem like something reserved to the questionable minds of Disney Channel script writers, the invasion of virtual talent has already begun in earnest in our own reality.
Unsurprisingly, the epicenter of the holographic pop star movement, if it can be dubbed as such, is Japan, a country well-known for both its fixation on the new and now of consumer-driven entertainment and the blurring of lines separating what is authentic and what is virtual. So prevalent and accepted is the idea of the virtual pop star in Japan that there are entire companies that have expanded from producing routine digital media and sound effects, devoting significant time and resources into the production of new voices, songs, and constructed “images” for an entire line-up of various, mostly female, virtual musicians. Internet Co., Ltd or Singer Song Writer (the name of an actual, functioning Japanese company based out of Osaka, not the made up name of an evil corporation you’ll be pitted against in the next first person shooter you plan on buying) is one of the largest and most prominent producers of digital pop stars, giving an entirely new meaning to “electronic music” as they pump out singles—popular, even hit singles mind you—written and performed by computers. The company has created an entire line of pop stars—what they refer to as their VOCALOID product line—all complete and ready made with different personal styles, names, and pre-recorded voices.
Don’t believe me? Take, for example, GUMI, one of the most popular in VOCALOID’s lineup of imagined songstresses. GUMI, like the vast majority of VOCALOID’s products is portrayed as a young, high school aged girl with a signature steampunk style. Her voice is crated using a text-to-speech program from Internet Co., Ltd. which relies on the voice acting of Megumi Nakajima. Listen below to one of GUMI’s most popular songs, “ECHO” and you might be surprised to discover that computer generated music—hell, computer performed music—is pretty damn catchy.
GUMI is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how digital pop stars in Japan are not-so-gently ripping through the barrier between what we perceive as real in entertainment. The true star is Hatsune Miku, a creation of yet another Japanese company thoroughly invested in virtual reality, Crypton Future Media, who actually performs live shows. That’s right. Live. As in there is a holographic anime girl with teal pig tails and a gratuitous headset dancing around on a stage, singing, strutting, and otherwise engaging a concert hall full of paying fans. Miku, like GUMI, relies on synthesizing technologies developed by multiple companies (including Yamaha) to give her a voice. And it is that voice that attracts hundreds and thousands of fans to concerts around the world—concerts that are routinely described as amazing, concerts that are in no way some offshoot of a weird and isolated sub-culture, but an actual, bonafide, selling out tickets phenomenon both at home and abroad.
So yeah, wrap your mind around that. And the next time you feel inclined to criticize an artist for their authenticity, their robotic sound, their constructed look, just keep in mind that someday soon, it may be the virtual norm.