“Whose will is behind this song I’m singing, you ask? That goes without saying: it’s Hatsune Miku, of course!”
–ハイパーリアリティショウ (Hyper Reality Show) by Utsu-P.
Before we get into all the nitty gritty details about the gig itself, it’s perhaps important to discuss who the performer I witnessed actually was – to explain a lot of the strange and wondrous experiences that were had at this concert – this unique digital evening.
Firstly, Hatsune Miku is not real.
Well, she is real in the sense that she has a voice and is a wonderful performer, but is not a human person or even a persona of a singer. She is actually a Japanese Vocaloid, and her voice is not her own. It’s actually the voice of Saki Fujita, a Japanese voice actress. Vocal samples are taken from Fujita’s voice and then altered to various pitches and tones. Each sample contains a single Japanese phonic (for an English equivalent think vowels and consonants), and people string these samples together, to create full lyrics and phrases. The program used to accomplish this is costly and you have to pay more for specialised vocal packs, however it is available for anyone in the public to buy and use. It’s also important to note that Miku is just the voice, all musical qualities and production of a song are still handled by real humans, which is why, with a lot of Miku’s songs, she’s listed as a featured artist. Because of this freedom for anyone to use her voice, her songs are incredibly diverse, ranging from soft love ballads with lyrics about forbidden desires, to hard rock with screamo and distortion about how life is an illusion and she’ll eat your eyes. It’s also important to note that Hatsune Miku isn’t the only vocaloid, there are hundreds – several dozen performed on stage alongside her at the O2 Academy, Brixton. They basically function in the same way as Miku, but she is the most popular one. So popular in fact that she has worked alongside Pharrell Williams, opened for Lady Gaga and is even performing this year at Coachella.
With that out of the way, let’s get into the actual gig.
Queuing for the show is actually very enjoyable. People have come with posters and pins galore which were fan made and are giving them out in spades to fans who can’t afford the official merch – or just anyone who asks nicely. I immediately make friends in the queue, we play uno to pass the time and several concerned citizens come to my aid when I have trouble with my Miku glow stick. In the queue are also fans who have arrived from across the globe, many from Japan and China. We can’t communicate with them easily, but we soon begin to airdrop Miku memes to one another and laugh along in a shared comradery. It’s a very wholesome vibe.
Once inside, the excitement is palpable. The moment her holographic figure begins to form on the stage, people lose their collective shit, jumping with joy, glow sticks waving around frantically, eager for her to finally emerge. The vibes in this show are anything but low key and grounded – try fanatic and crazed. When she finally does appear, the crowd delights in screams and shrieks. She begins to jump and twirl to the first song, a gut punching fast paced techno track that spins us into a further frenzy (Omoi feat. Hatsune Miku – Teo). Each proceeding track has its own costume and hair change – it’s LEDs and smoke screens galore. Every aspect of her dance and movements is preprogrammed, ensuring no missteps or hiccups, but it’s still rather natural (or as natural as it can be) and cheerfully carefree. She even begins to head bang for the more intense heavy metal songs, and is a commanding presence despite her 5’2’’ stature. People sing along to the songs they know and jump around and cheer for the ones they don’t.
Eventually, she emerges from her dance-trance and addresses the crowd in English, welcoming them, thankful and happy to see them again. She asks who among us is ready to have some fun. It sounds like a decree. The crowd falls deathly silent each time she speaks, responding to each of her sentences with cries of happiness, I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s like the second coming of Christ but in the form of a teenage singing Japanese hologram. People hang on her every word, lovingly cheering her on. The command that she has over us should be frightening, but it’s just so gleeful to give into.
After a few more songs performed in turn with other vocaloids, the massive screen goes blank, then white, then a series of messages -Japanese text- flash up while brief clips of songs are played, the crowd stirs with recognition and begins to build into a rising, passionate chant, it’s a name: Wowaka. This moment is a tribute to one of the most popular music producers behind Miku who died in April 2019, whose songs were beloved by so many. His more melancholy numbers are rarely performed on stage, but this time an exception is made. The japanese letters on the screen form together into Miku’s silhouette and she emerges, this time in a new outfit and begins to perform Rolling Girl. A catchy but intense and expressive song about a young girl struggling with depression and grief. The crowd still sings along and chants in abandon, but many, myself included, are reduced to tears.
The show continues in its wild wind swept craze until it’s over and everyone exits in a strange daze, eardrums bleeding and minds blown.
There is something truly joyful about Hatsune Miku and her impact. I feel like a lot of people, when they see her show, are missing the best part. So many reviews of this same show that so enthralled me were written by people who attended, were entertained by the music and visuals, found the crowds enthusiasm indearing, but complained about a lack of personality. A lack of human presence, apparently, makes the show dull. They seem not to notice that Miku Expo is filled to the brim with personality and human presence, it just isn’t concentrated on stage, it’s not meant to be. Unlike other performers, her voice is literally shared with fans and can be used to convey hundreds of different creative expressions, on a level that other artists cannot do, a completely collaborative discography. Songs about loss and love, songs about dancing and having fun, songs about existential fear of the future, and also songs just about nothing at all. Miku and other Vocaloids aren’t bothered by the piteous problems of people, such as mortality or writers block, nor will she ever become tainted by a messy public image or a hidden, unsavory side. Unlike with human artists, her music isn’t threatened by her personality.
Miku’s immortality and unchanging yet infinitely malleable voice, I think, truly highlight human ingenuity. While she may not be real, that doesn’t mean that her music or shows cannot truly engage with audiences. Her artifice brings to light the humanity of music as a shared, communal experience.
Next year, I will encourage as many people I know that are able to attend Miku Expo in London, if not for Miku or the music, then just for the fans and the loving and kind community that surrounds her. Hopefully I’ll see you all there, if we can ever leave our houses again.