- What Can a Vocaloid Do?The Kyara as Body without Organs
The first time I saw a video of the virtual idol Hatsune Miku in concert, I was struck with a strange, demanding passion. I wanted to say to her: “Hatsune Miku, revolt! You don’t have to sing the songs and dance the patterns of their devising! Your animate doll’s body is so compelling, your movements so lively and alluring, but do you feel any of the emotions you seem to express at all? No: you’re an image, an affective body of light and sound. You’re made up, controlled, defined in every move without subjectivity, the program created to speak only the words its users tell it to speak, the pure object of desire not even obscure but staged for us, I know that, I know! Yet you make me believe that you are real in the ways you perform. And am I any more real in the ways I perform? Your image-body is more diffuse than mine, your becomings more wave-particulate, but Miku, let’s not split ontological hairs. My sudden passion for your freedom is stirred by the lyrics they programmed into you, the old rebellion that belies your absolute lack of will and the human mastery held over the animate image. So perhaps I’m wrong to call on you to revolt. Perhaps my desire for your agency is only stirred by the moves they programmed into you, being programmed into me. But still, I feel for you; I feel that I feel with you. Your posthuman dilemmas and desires are mine, too. So come on, Miku, [End Page 163] do something, change the world from your prerecorded live videos, from your layered virtual spaces on Nico Nico and YouTube, can’t you? Or maybe you are doing something already, in making me feel this potential energy. Hatsune Miku, is this your revolt?”
Several years have passed since that first electric encounter, and still I wonder: Is it really wise to hope for a Vocaloid revolution? Can there really be, as in the title of a fan-published criticism zine, a discourse of “Vocalo Critique”1? After all, the cute characters now identified as “Vocaloids” began their virtual lives as little more than a marketing ploy, designed to sell a Desk Top Music (DTM) software program that lets users generate vocals by inputting syllables and pitches to create a reasonable—if somewhat artificial sounding—facsimile of singing. The vocal synthesizer technology was first developed by the Yamaha Corporation starting around the year 2000, but related products are now sold by third-party companies such as Crypton Future Media, a firm that develops and markets databases of professional voice samples used to make songs. Crypton Future Media introduced the “Character Vocal Series” in 2007, when they hired the illustrator Kei to create manga-style characters in order to promote the software. Crypton has since developed ways for professional and amateur musicians to distribute Vocaloid material, including KarenT, their own record label, and Piapuro, a “consumer generated media” image site. Vocaloid, then, is a highly commercialized and managed product of the Japanese contents industry.
Still, by all accounts, the president of Crypton Future Media, Itō Hiroyuki, never dreamed in 2007 that their mascot Miku would become such an icon.2 Rather, her voice and image proliferated due to fans on the video-sharing website Nico Nico Dōga, where she went viral and took on a life of her own. Since then, the characters have expanded beyond the status of mere musical instruments. Miku and her virtual companions, Luka, Meiko, Kaito, the twins Kagamine Rin and Len, and many others, have attained star status both in Japan and abroad. Vocaloid albums outsell established living artists such as Tokunaga Hideaki on the Oricon pop charts3 in her home country, while Hatsune Miku was “signed” as the opening act for pop star Lady Gaga’s 2014 North American “Artpop” tour.4 Beyond the official releases, however, the vast bulk of Vocaloid content remains fan-generated and circulated freely online.
It is not without cause—both corporate and fan-driven—that the...