J-Popularity: How a fictional pop star is challenging American standards

DUBUQUE — Last week, the Late Show with David Letterman played host to a new kind of pop star — at least by American standards. Japanese pop star Hatsune Miku took to the stage with a performance of her original song, “Sharing the World.” The band was excited, the crowd was cheering, but David Letterman was a tad perplexed. Why?

Because Hatsune Miku doesn’t exist.

Hatsune Miku is what the industry refers to as a vocaloid – a singing voice synthesizer. When Crypton Future Media created a singing synthesizer program, they decided that the best way of marketing the software would be to give it a human face. The result was Hatsune Miku, a 16-year-old girl with long turquoise pigtails. The pop icon quickly caught on, with professional and amateur musicians alike using the software to create original music. Because Crypton allowed Hatsune’s image to become usable by the public, music videos and fan art of the fictional artist became commonplace in Japanese pop culture. Her appearance on David Letterman’s show was done with a live band and the same holographic technology that allowed producers to bring Tupac back for one last show. The performance also marked her first United States appearance in preparation for an Expo taking place in Los Angles and New York this month.

So why all the hype for the animated pop star? As Chris Plante, editor for Polygon, points out, Hatsune Miku is the perfect pop star. He contrasts her with Justin Bieber, whose frequent screw-ups in the public eye serve as proof that a celebrity’s fame doesn’t come without a price. They slowly crumble under the weight and expectations of their fans, pulling and pushing until they snap altogether. But Hatsune can’t and won’t snap because she doesn’t exist. She can sing anything from J-Pop to country to rap because millions of fans are pulling the strings. Her name an image have sparked clothing and toy designs. And yes, because she’s an open-source persona, there are some who would design less-than-appropriate interpretations.

Then there’s the music. An artist like Justin Bieber might release an album once a year, if even. If you do a search for Hatsune Miku, you’ll find dozens of albums – released in the last year alone. Even better, most of these albums are free (and not horrible!). Granted, most of them are Japanese, so you might not understand the lyrics. But the implications Hatsune Miku has for our idea of the perfect pop star may raise questions about what we value in society. Hatsune is essentially everything good about a celebrity, minus the mental meltdown.

It’s true that Hatsune Miku might not be for everyone, but no one can argue with the standards she redefines. The world isn’t expected to stop their worship of pop stars–that’s something that will go on forever at this rate. But handing over the rights to a fictional character to the public and letting them run free with their imaginations can have a powerful impact.

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