Hatsune Miku: Live In Sapporo

Disclaimer: I spent a lot of time in high school and college watching anime. I loved it and even now, I get a little giddy thinking about Hayao Miyazaki‘s next film. So when SCR passed around a flyer that read, “Meet the world’s first virtual pop diva: vocaloid-drive digital female avatar and international music sensation Hatsune Miku,” memories of the iconic virtual pop singer Sharon Apple swirled around my head. I had to attend this concert.

I expected a lot out of this experience: multiple holographic projectors, lasers, possibly some cosplay, and definitely a live band. You’d imagine my disappointment in finding out that this wasn’t a real concert, but rather a recording of a concert performed in Sapporo. Probably should have read the flyer more carefully…or beyond the first line.

From the start, I knew that this would not be about the music, but a performance piece based on the spectacle of watching a completely synthetic pop diva. Hatsune Miku, whose name apparently means “first sound of the future,” isn’t an avatar for an existing artist in the manner of the Gorillaz, but is actually completely driven by software. That means no prerecorded tracks, mic checks, or guitar techs; someone simply loads up the song, and you’re off.

Considering the massive production costs needed to bump Taylor Swift’s talent beyond the level of “high school talent show winner” to pop-country superstar, it’s easy to see why people would consider skipping the whole “we need a human being” aspect of music. Certainly the audience believed this to be the case, as the theater was three-quarters full — a turnout that has trumped more than a few “human” concerts I’ve attended.

The perception of this audience, both in the US and their Japanese counterparts, isn’t the best. While I can’t speak on the accuracy of these perceptions, I can say that outside of the venue, the audience was no different than any other concert audience. There was a sense of anticipation as attendees began to recognize the introductions to each song. Fans all sang along (no easy feat, considering it’s all in Japanese) and waited in anticipation for their favorites. As with all artists, fans participated in their own unique way: the rhythmic swinging of glow sticks. That might not be as exciting as dancing onstage with The Dismemberment Plan or as elaborate as the outfits of the KISS Army, but it certainly something I don’t think I’d see outside of this setting. So if the audience wasn’t different, was the performance? In many ways — some good, but mostly bad — yes.

Because Hatsune Miku is not confined by the constrictions of being human, you’d expect some fantastic visuals. Well, you’d be wrong. Rather than being confined by flesh and blood, she was confined by two projection screens which gave 30 feet of lateral movement but no ability to move forward. Sure that sounds like nitpicking, but it was part of the experience that kept it from being truly engaging. You’d expect the programmers to do something visually amazing with Hatsune, possibly attempt something that’s impossible with human performers.

However, the dance moves were repetitive and contrived: how is it that Michael Jackson created the anti-gravity lean, but Hatsune couldn’t muster anything beyond a few hand gestures? Other visual aspects, including a few quick costume transformation sequences, couldn’t keep the performance from being visually stale. When it comes to pure spectacle, Lady Gaga has Hatsune beat. Hell, even Coldplay has Hatsune beat.

The voice of Hatsune Miku, which was sampled using tones of actress Saki Fujita, was intentionally or unintentionally artificial. Pitches were too perfect. Tone never strained across her vocal range. Never mind that the music is exactly what you’d expect from an anime pop star, Hatsune Miku’s voice was too pure, too sterile, and too soulless. Like the visuals, it was a constant reminder that Hatsune was dictated by a preconceived set of rules.

Hatsune Miku was designed to be the typical cutesy anime teen, and she maintained that persona throughout the performance. When combined with a mouth that’s far too small to be expressive (or sync properly with the words) and eyes far too big to be evocative, you’re again left with something cold and mechanical. Is it inaccurate to describe a program as stiff or robotic? When considering the goal of a musician, I don’t think so.

Compare Hatsune’s performance against her human counterparts: you can see the creativity of Lady Gaga or the emotion in the face of Katy Perry. Kelly Clarkson gives 100% on every song, and you’re somehow able to feel the soul of Adele. For Hatsune, it’s too easy: she’s programed to sing.

Sure, it’s ridiculous to say that a program should have soul, but good music is the expression of the soul. For me, that’s the problem with Hatsune Miku. All these criticisms can be fixed, but until a Hatsune Miku is able to engage the soul, in the way all good music does, I’ll constantly be reminded that I’m watching software and not a performer. END

Live review by . Live review posted Friday, November 11th, 2011. Filed under Live Reviews.

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