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Crowd-sourced pop singer Hatsune Miku reveals the true nature of stardom

Does it matter if a celebrity is “real”? After all: all show business is myth-making.

By Yo Zushi

Between 1939 and 1994, Frank Sinatra released recordings of more than 1,200 songs. The Greek singer Nana Mouskouri, born in 1934 and still active as a performer, has at least 200 albums to her name, spanning lullabies, film music, Europop, country and folk. “Music has so many faces,” she once said, and it seems that, over the past half-century or so, she has tried on most of them.

Yet the Japanese idol Hatsune Miku, whose career began in 2007, has already eclipsed both singers in terms of sheer quantity of music, if not quality. Her repertoire consists of about 100,000 songs, and her videos have had millions of views on the streaming website Nico Nico Douga. She first rose to the top of Japan’s album charts in 2010, a few months before the country’s space agency sent images of her hurtling towards Venus aboard its Akatsuki probe.

Miku was 16 years old in 2007 and is still 16 today. She cannot age because she doesn’t exist in the flesh. The singer is a virtual pop star, developed as a voice synthesiser (or “Vocaloid”) by Crypton Future Media, and everything about her – from her dance moves to her long, cartoony pigtails – seems confected to appeal to a domestic audience raised on anime and sugar-coated J-pop.

This audience, however, doesn’t merely watch and listen to Hatsune Miku. It controls her. She is perhaps the world’s first crowdsourced star: her songs are composed by her fans, who also program her stage routines using software called MikuMikuDance. (Live performances are facilitated by a semi-transparent screen, which allows the digitally rendered idol to appear among human musicians.) “Keep on pulling my strings as you wish,” goes one of her songs. Her admirers oblige.

“Hatsune Miku takes on the personalities that fans think she ought to possess,” the artist Mari Matsutoya tells me. In the film and performance piece Still Be Here, which I saw recently at the Barbican in London, Matsutoya and her collaborators pull apart the Miku phenomenon and expose a curious hollowness at its core. The singer serves as an empty vessel for the audience’s fantasies – and this, Matsutoya says, “renders the notion of a ‘real’ Miku obsolete”.

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But stars are rarely “real” in the conventional sense. What we engage with is an elaborate fiction, because the image of any actor, singer or model is tightly controlled. In the 2016 movie Hail, Caesar! a Hollywood studio “fixer” called Eddie Mannix struggles to shield actors from harmful press (such as allegations of homosexuality and inconvenient political leanings). Although it’s a satire, the film’s depiction of an industry working tirelessly to construct and defend the myths around its stars is largely accurate: the Mannix character is based on a real fixer of the same name, and others in the profession were as busy as he was when, say, Ava Gardner and Sinatra drunkenly drove into a small town in the late 1940s and fired a gun at shop windows.

This sort of brand protection is not always benign. In 2013 the Japanese singer Minami Minegishi appeared on the YouTube channel of her pop group, AKB48, with her head freshly shaved. She apologised for a “scandal” in which she had been caught leaving her boyfriend’s apartment. She had done nothing wrong – except flout the rules of AKB48’s management, which insisted on members maintaining a “pure” image. In Japan, the fantasy of a pop singer’s innocence can trump her right to a love life.

Today, stars across the world are increasingly shunning such media management in favour of a more direct engagement with their fans online. Yet this directness can come at a price. Last year, Taylor Swift and Kanye West fought on Twitter over lines in the latter’s song “Famous” (“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex./Why? I made that bitch famous”). Before their handlers could intervene, social media users had witnessed their spat in real time. It was embarrassing for both musicians and, for fans, the sheen of stardom was sullied by the fallibility it exposed.

Social networks “prevent people from dreaming any more about stars”, the actress Catherine Deneuve lamented in 2015. But I think fans will carry on dreaming, even in this age of online overexposure. Our fantasies may have changed, but celebrities remain shrouded in fiction: after all, there’s a good chance that those social media posts aren’t as “transparent” as they seem. In 2009, West said that he employs staff to update his blogs, and 50 Cent’s online director also admitted that the rapper “doesn’t actually use Twitter”.

It’s show business, and show business is all myth-making. Maybe Hatsune Miku is as real as the rest of them. 

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This article appears in the 15 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain