Sing for me, cyberangel of music

By Kenny Chee

I have seen my share of diehard supporters at concerts but nothing beats seeing screaming fans at a performance with singers that aren't even real.

Last Saturday evening, curiosity got the better of me and I attended my first concert featuring the synthesised voices of virtual pop stars like Luka Megurine and Miku Hatsune (better known as Hatsune Miku).

You might probably be thinking: Why waste money on fake artistes?

Well, it didn't cost me an arm and a leg: I paid $10 for the entrance fee to the Singapore Toy, Game and Comic Convention which granted access to the concert at Suntec Singapore.

But after entering the performance venue, the allure of the digital became clearer to me. Among the 1,000 teens and young adults who attended, at least 200 people stayed on throughout the nearly 90-minute concert.

While I had seen how crazy fans in Japan and the United States could get over anime- styled Miku and her digital friends from YouTube videos of their "live" hologram performances, I wasn't quite expecting the reaction from fans here.

There were tweens around 10 years of age bobbing to Miku's high-pitched digitised warbling, as well as grown men in their 30s screaming their hearts out. Many female supporters also waved their hands in the air and clapped spiritedly to the beat.

But the thing is, Miku and friends existed only as computer code transmitted into audio that was mixed by a disc jockey from the Japanese band, Zaneeds.

And Miku's likeness, in animestyled cartoons and computer-generated animations, would only occasionally appear alongside visuals by a video jockey from the band.

So why were these Singaporeans going nuts over bits and bytes that supposedly depict a 16-year-old android diva from the future with Sailor Moon-like green tresses and outfit?

Sure enough, I realised that these attributes of Miku are precisely why she and other virtual singers are such a hit.

Miku is actually one of several vocal samples from Yamaha's Vocaloid music-making software commercially available since 2007. The Miku voice sample "sings" to text and notes you input into the program.

She was also given an anime inspired design and has since won the hearts of many geeks, going by how her singles (composed by fans, no less) topped Japan's Oricon charts, sold out Japan and America concerts, and YouTube videos that have garnered millions of views.

She's not the first and only digital singer, though. There's Kyoko Date, a computer-generated woman from the mid-1990s and boyish Korean cybersinger Adam from the early 2000s.

Today, we have Japanese girl band AKB48's virtual member, Aimi Eguchi (made up of features from real-life members) and J-pop group Genki Rockets' lead singer Lumi (a time-travelling lass born in space).

The appeal of these stars is broad. Ms Stephanie Loh, president of the Singapore Cosplay Club, said that Miku is so popular first and foremost because her songs "are very nice". "Her character design is also very appealing and cute," she added.

Another reason, she explained, is that unlike real stars plagued by scandals and real- life issues, Miku and other virtual singers are devoid of these, which appeals to some people. And Miku never ages, which is a plus.

A 14-year-old fan told me that he likes two of Miku's friends, a pair of twins called Rin and Len, because they sing inspiring songs about the importance of family.

As a minor fan of virtual songstress Lumi myself, these cybersingers, like real celebrities, embody ideals and qualities that are hard to find in real life, like their looks and disposition.

But what sets them apart from Taylor Swift or J. J. Lin is that their digital origins and vague backgrounds lend them an aura of mystery that allows fans to come up with their own interpretations of what they think their idol should be.

But whether this sense of ownership and other qualities of virtual singers can one day allow them to replace real artistes, you'd have to ask Miku about that.


For more my paper stories click here.