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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.

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”.

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. 

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in Black Panther
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Marvel’s Black Panther and the politics of diverse superheroes

For a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, the film will be a seminal moment.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved superheroes. I’m not sure what came first: the animated adventures of Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men or Superman. But it was the X-Men – humans who have evolved to have superpowers – that I fell in love with. The first film I saw multiple times in cinemas was X-Men 2, and the first comic book I ever bought, aged 14, was Astonishing X-Men.

The opening roster: Cyclops (white), Emma Frost (white), Kitty Pryde (white), Wolverine (white), Colossus (white) and Beast (blue). It never particularly bothered me that none of them were black. What I liked about the X-Men was that I recognised something of myself in them. They were social outcasts, feared and distrusted by humanity – the superhero community’s equivalent to the chess club in a school full of all-star athletes.

Perhaps that was why I never particularly cared for the adventures of T’Challa. A rare black superhero, by day he was the ruler of the secluded and hyper-sophisticated African country of Wakanda, and by night he protected his nation from its enemies as Black Panther. Empowered not by mutation but by magic, and aided by his vast wealth and martial arts training, T’Challa is as far from a social outcast as it is possible to be.

Unlike the X-Men, who tended to have an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the Marvel universe, T’Challa is a power player. Just two years after his introduction in 1966, he had joined the Avengers series, Marvel’s line-up of the world’s mightiest defenders, formed to defeat threats that no hero could tackle alone. In the 1970s, he was even asked to join the Illuminati, the secret cabal of Earth’s most influential superhumans, but declined. He is Wakanda’s defender, and his opponents operate on a global scale. In one memorable scene during Christopher Priest’s 1998 tenure of the title, the Black Panther saw off the full force of the American government, including its superheroes. I first encountered him in a gentler 2005 storyline, in which he briefly married the X-Men’s Storm. (It didn’t last. Marriage, rather like death, is only ever temporary in the world of Marvel Comics.)

Perhaps if I had been raised somewhere different, T’Challa would have excited me more. But in the hyper-diverse part of London where I grew up, being “black” was never rare or interesting enough to form part of my identity. If someone had been asked to find me at school, describing me as “black” would have been only marginally more useful than picking me out as having two arms and two legs. Instead, my identity came from the things that set me apart, and defined my friendships: a love of indie music, video games and science fiction, all of which put me firmly in the “social outcast” category along with my beloved X-Men.

For me, blackness was incidental; for T’Challa, it was essential, even though his creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were both white. Part of Lee and Kirby’s genius was that they were continually borrowing from other places and ideas in a bid to keep the Marvel readership growing and to see off threats before they arrived. They already had a large nerdy and predominantly white readership: they wanted to reach out to a new audience, and so the first black superhero in mainstream comics was born.

The Black Panther name came from an African-American tank battalion that fought during the Second World War. In an astonishingly poor piece of timing, Black Panther appeared in stores in July 1966, and in October 1966 Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panthers, a far-left black nationalist political party, in Oakland, California. In the 1970s T’Challa’s alter-ego was briefly changed to the Black Leopard to avoid the association, but the rebrand didn’t stick.

As a result, T’Challa is one of just four Marvel heroes whose character is inextricably bound up with his race. (The other three are Captain America, an ordinary, white Second World War soldier given extraordinary powers; Patriot, the black present-day teenager who adored him; and Magneto, the X-Men’s greatest opponent, whose experience as a Jew during the Holocaust convinced him that humans would never accept mutants such as him as equals.) To my teenaged self, all of that bored me: better to save my money and spend it on X-Men.

So why am I so excited that Black Panther is the latest Marvel superhero to make his way from the comics to the big screen? Partly because the year I turned 18, two important things happened to me: the first was that I went away to university, and the second, not-unconnected thing was that I spent what at the time seemed an extravagant amount of money on a Batman costume. 

People often talk about their time at university in a series of clichés – I learned how to think, I found myself and so on – and here’s mine: I became black at university. Not because I experienced any racism worth talking about but simply because for the first time in my life, anyone describing me could mostly get away with “black”. At the same time, liking indie music and science fiction stopped being a distinguishing feature and became almost as everyday as my blackness had been.

As to the Batman costume, so desperate was I to ensure I got my money’s worth that I actively sought out fancy-dress parties and wore it under the thinnest of pretexts, adding the cheapest of modifications to make it fit the theme. At one point, I donned a Hawaiian lei and attended a holiday-themed party as “Batman on vacation”.

During that time, I discovered two things: the first, happily, was that a surprising number of people had a thing for Batman. The second, less happily, was that a surprising number of people felt very strongly that a black man couldn’t be Batman. Up until that point, I had seen Black Panther as an essentially dull character enlivened by a series of writers – Christopher Priest, a legendary graphic novelist, and the television producer Reginald Hudlin – who, much to my surprise, chose to slum it on the title. But as a student I began to understand why these two talented black writers found Black Panther so appealing. (Since then, the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken over the title, foregrounding the political question of whether T’Challa has a right to rule.)

The appeal of Black Panther only grew after I exchanged one crumbling and largely white Victorian institution for another in Westminster. The recent commercial success of Hidden Figures, a Hollywood feel-good film with a largely African-American cast, and the critical achievement of Moonlight, an art-house film about a black gay man, have begun to change the landscape.

If Black Panther, which not only has a black lead but a majority black cast, succeeds, my dream of seeing a screen superhero who is incidentally black – an X-Men film with a black lead; a reimagined Tony Stark/Iron Man; or perhaps even a mainstream Miles Morales, the young black teenager who in 2011 replaced Peter Parker as Spider-Man in one segment of the Marvel Universe – might get a little bit closer.

But I appreciate now that for a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, Black Panther will be a seminal moment not because of what it might portend, but because of what it is. 

“Black Panther” is in cinemas now

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist