J-Pop post (kinda, sorta)
In a World of Auto-Tune, Can a Computer Create a Star?
Back at the dawn of the Nineties, platinum-minting producer Maurice Starr made an all-too-candid boast to a reporter for Entertainment Weekly: “I think I can make anybody a star.”
It was hard to argue with him at the time: He’d ignited a pair of pop supernovas — the boy band New Edition, and their color-inverted clones New Kids on the Block — and he was hardly the first Svengali to intimate that his stars were mere channels for his genius. But Starr’s point was blunter than most. Dismissing the role of talent and even looks or charisma, he presented his performers as interchangeable, programmable parts; fancy instruments brought to musical life by the real artist behind them.
It was that attitude that led to the falling out between Starr and his creations, putting The General on the sidelines even as not-so-New Edition and no-longer-kids NKOTB made high-profile returns earlier this year.
Starr might yet find himself vindicated. Last night, fans packed theaters in nine cities across the nation for a special “live” broadcast of a concert featuring Miku Hatsune, the next big Asian pop idol hoping to make a transpacific leap into the U.S. market. The landscape is littered with artists who’ve tried and failed that feat, but that hasn’t given Hatsune pause — mostly because she doesn’t actually exist.
Miku Hatsune is a vocaloid — a software program based on digital synthesizer technology invented by musical instrument giant Yamaha, and brought to 3-D animated life by Japan’s Crypton Future Media. Though she’s depicted in person (in persona?) as a 16-year-old girl with floor-length cerulean ponytails and saucer-sized matching eyes, her real identity is as a library of artfully sampled phonemes — what Crypton calls a “voicebank” — generated by actual-human actress-singer Saki Fujita.
Yamaha’s proprietary code, licensed by Crypton, allows users to input lyrics and melodies of their own choosing and have them automagically synthesized into sung vocals using those samples. The end result sounds a trace tinny and processed — think Alvin and the Chipmunks lightly genespliced with a turn-by-turn GPS guide — but is still far more convincing than any other consumer-grade voice-synthesizer software to date, especially one that costs less than, say, MS Office (which isn’t nearly as kawaii).
And though Crypton hasn’t moved quite as many boxes of Hatsune as Microsoft has of Office just yet, the software has been tremendously popular, making her the first real breakout product in the vocaloid industry. Indeed, in 2009, the first album by Supercell, a fan-band using Hatsune as its vocalist, hit number four on the Japan pop music charts and has since been certified gold. Last year, the all-vocaloid compliation album Vocalogenesis Featuring Miku Hatsune hit number one the day after its release, shouldering aside Justin Bieber (#2) and Lady GaGa (#7). Now Hatsune is nothing less than a full-fledged virtual celebrity, whose sassy animated image is stamped on licensed goods and Super GT racecars; tens of thousands of fans even signed a petition that successfully motivated the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency to place Hatsune’s likeness on its Venus-bound spacecraft Akatsuki.
Hatsune’s winsome avatar is undoubtedly an important factor in her explosive popularity, but it’s not like there aren’t hundreds of other cute blue-haired schoolgirls on the J-pop landscape. According to Crypton CEO Hiroyuki Itoh, the real engine behind the Hatsune phenomenon is crowdsourced creativity. He points to the vast and prolific community that’s grown up around the software, which has been responsible for creating a constant stream of original songs and accompanying hand-drawn or 3-D rendered videos on video sharing sites like Japan’s YouTube analogue Nico Nico Douga and the company’s own Piapro. Indeed, Hatsune’s biggest hits — including her signature song, Supercell’s “The World Is Mine,” were created not by Crypton but by third-party artists, many with no prior professional experience.
“All across Japan and in fact the world, people are using Miku to make songs, and hundreds of new pieces are being released every day — no other artist could release new music at such a pace,” says Itoh. “And not just songs: People are using Miku to make dance, art, fashion. We see Miku as a medium to actualize creativity.”
Producer Clarence Jey agrees. He sees vocaloids like Hatsune as opening the floodgates for a new generation of creative gurus. “I think they have the potential to revolutionize music,” he says. “Vocaloids could give producers access to a totally different set of options. They’ll let us conceptualize a look and matching identity to go along with our music; we’d get control over the whole product, allowing us to build the visual brand around the song. And the product is one that won’t need a plane to get from place to place — in fact, it can be everywhere at once. And it’ll be able to work 24 hours a day, and it’ll never lose its voice right before a concert tour.”
It’d also never take its creators to court, something Jey has experienced firsthand: As cofounder of Ark Music Factory, he wrote and produced the song “Friday,” which along with its brain-melting video unleashed a staggering Internet love-hate-hate-hate firestorm earlier this year. The viral success of “Friday” turned wannabe songstress Rebecca Black into a household name, prompting Black to sue Jey and his partner Patrice Wilson for control over the track. Though the parties ultimately settled the suit — Jey, now flying solo, retains publishing rights — you could see how he might find the idea of a pop star that can be turned off after a performance appealing.
And the fact is, the difference between Black and Hatsune is simply a matter of source material. Auto-tune, the digital processing technology that allows producers to put any sound into perfect musical register, made Black’s eerily robotic (but totally on-key) performance possible. Miku Hatsune is basically just auto-tune taken to its logical conclusion.
Of course, the end result doesn’t sound quite human — yet. But that’s just a matter of time. “As with computer graphics, someday soon, vocaloid technologies will be able to produce a result that’s indistinguishable from an actual person,” promises Crypton’s Itoh. That said, Hatsune is plenty human enough for her Japanese fans even in her current silicon-chipmunk, 3-D rendered form. They’ve created an elaborate fictional backstory for the virtual idol, fleshing out the loose identity originally provided by Crypton (basically consisting of her age, height and measurements). There are gossipy magazines and fansites discussing her imagined rivalries and romances with other vocaloids — and not always just vocaloids. “We have received some marriage proposals,” admits Itoh, who adds that he is fairly certain they are just jokes.
But then again, who knows? “In Japan, robots are heroes,” says Itoh. “They’re something we treat with affection and see with positive feelings. We traditionally believe that god dwells in everything, whether natural or man-made.”
He notes that in the monotheistic West, by contrast, robots are seen somewhat negatively, as Frankensteinian attempts by man to challenge the cosmic order — and that might presumably serve as a barrier to duplicating Hatsune’s success in the U.S..
A more primordial obstacle, however, is language: Hatsune’s voicebanks are currently not suitable for singing in English, which has a much broader array of sound combinations (over 2500, compared to the 500 used in Japanese). Hatsune’s carbon-based counterpart, Saki Fujita, is in the process of recording that English-localized version of the software now.
Meanwhile, the path to Miku-chan’s conquest of America is already being laid. Her first “live” concert in the U.S., at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles this past August, sold out within days of being announced. Similar throngs attended last night’s nine-city simulcast concert. Upon being released on iTunes, her Japanese-language single “The World Is Mine” shot to #7 on the service’s world music charts. She’s even been signed as a celebrity spokesmodel for the Toyota Corolla, appearing in a series of cryptic but extremely popular commercials.
And Clarence Jey thinks that’s just the beginning. “I could see her doing a duet with someone like Kanye West,” he says. “I’d be happy to write it for her.” All she really needs, he points out, is someone to package her appropriately. “How she’s marketed will play a critical role. She shouldn’t be doing these one-off concerts — she should be on tour, she should have release parties, sponsorships and endorsements — she should do a simulcast concert available in every living room in America. You can have an amazing product with great hooks, but at the end it comes down to how you deliver it to the masses.”
That takes a kind of genius that currently doesn’t exist in software. In short, Hatsune Miku’s conquest of America could use The General. Maurice Starr, are you listening?
Hmmm, interesting article. TBH, Miku and the Vocaloids' output in general is really not my usual kind of music, and I really disdain the use of Auto-Tune as a pitch corrector device or abusing it as a means of dusguising the fact that the good looking artist really can't sing. But I actually like this stuff, mostly since it's more for a creative purpose and it is actually fairly catchy. As for those curious, here's a song from Miku Hatsune to see her for yourself.