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date: 04 June 2020

(p. 97) Vocaloids, Holograms, and Virtual Pop Stars

Part One’s investigation into how digital virtuality is only the latest incarnation of the virtual continues into Part Two with Jackson and Dines’s research into “Vocaloids and Japanese Virtual Vocal Performance: The Cultural Heritage and Technological Futures of Vocal Puppetry” (Chapter 6), which reveals that the fascination with illusion and the fantasy worlds associated with vocaloid performance is anticipated in the Japanese culture of Bunraku. More specifically, they examine “the use and conceptualization of puppet theater (Bunraku) to raise questions about the cultural location of vocaloid software and the emergence of the ‘virtual’ voice/artist,” while revealing that “notions of illusion are an inherent part of traditional theatrical practice and experience of Japan.” As they point out, “Although centuries old, one must not underestimate the cultural and aesthetic importance of Bunraku in unraveling the complexities and idiosyncrasies of modern-day vocaloids. Indeed, what remains fundamental within this study is the placement of both Bunraku and vocaloids as parallel art forms in problematizing human, and in the latter case technological, emotions and sentiment. As a Bunraku play such as Chushingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers (first performed 1748) mixes fact and fiction to create a “fictional” work of complex heroics and revenge, vocaloids too combine the real and illusory to explore Japan’s increasing fascination with technology.” As Jackson and Dines conclude, “Bunraku fuses … the theatrical and the live, realizing both conditions simultaneously; and this tradition is continued through the technological ingenuity of vocaloids,” albeit that the latter “provide a more complex set (p. 98) of cultural mores and values to realize its import.” It would seem, then, “that vocaloids have a double significance. If an understanding of vocaloids can be drawn from the cultural and aesthetic realm of the Bunraku, then the vocaloid can also furnish an aesthetic framework in which to unravel the relationship between Japan in the present and its relationship with technology.”

Like vocaloids, “Bunraku dares us to disbelieve, but we refuse. We continue to cling to the unreality, as if it were real, despite the blatant evidence to the contrary.” Rafal Zaborowski’s research (Chapter 7) into “Hatsune Miku and Japanese Virtual Idols” comes to a similar conclusion: “Hatsune Miku is real because the audiences expect her to be.” For a reader not already familiar with Hatsune Miku, Zaborowski accomplishes the double feat of introducing her and offering an explanation as to why the fans’ accounts of media engagements are necessary for an understanding of the complex and dynamic relation in all elements of the circuit of music. Drawing from the tradition of empirical audience research, his discussion is contextualized within a range of socioeconomic, cultural, and technological factors and their consequences for domestic and global audiences. As his research demonstrates, “The nature of dynamic cultural exchanges between vocaloid producers and audiences is coevolutionary. The underresearched fan expectations and pleasures derived from engagements with particular elements of Hatsune Miku—the voice, the lyrical content, the production model, the ‘reality’ aspect—both play into and are affected by other moments in which meaning is circulated.” As such, Hatsune Miku is realized as “a dynamic product of virtual collaboration by fans, who imagine and create on message boards, video channels, and online music platforms.” His conclusion is intriguing and presents the reader with an underlying paradox: “Whereas teenage girl and boy idols play carefully defined roles in order to appeal to mainstream ideals, in vocaloid there is no pretense, no fabrication…. Based on a pop-cultural history of machine-enhanced singers, the audiences make her real, because she sings about things that matter to them. Finally, she is real, because she represents a bottom-up, collective model, where access and participation are potentially unlimited.” In the battle between holograms and teenage pop idols, it is, then, the latter that are considered virtual!

Zaborowski’s exploration into the significance of fans and audiences in vocaloid culture is supported by Thomas Conner in his Chapter 8, “Hatsune Miku, 2.0Pac, and Beyond: Rewinding and Fast-Forwarding the Virtual Pop Star.” As he explains, most existing research into virtual reality has addressed the performative experience as an immersive one, with CAVEs and other constructions. Hatsune Miku, and others like her, “bring the digital out of cyberspace, actualizing it within the physical world”: “and that’s before you learn that everything she performs is written by an innovative network of content-providing fans.” For Conner, this intrusion challenges numerous existing visual communication theories and aesthetics. As he reveals, “the first generation of virtual pop stars involved physical objects, from animation cels to Muppets, optimized for mediatized display. A new generation, from Gorillaz and Dethklok to Miku and 2.0Pac, seeks to reverse that polarity and bring the digital out of cyberspace, (p. 99) actualizing it within the physical world.” In each case, the success of the character is directly related to its presentation within the context of a performer narrative, its visual depiction stopping well short of the uncanny valley.1 For these and future virtual pop stars, navigating that precipice is the key to popular acceptance across cultures.

Jackson and Dines’s earlier observation that the rather Western fixation on the authenticity of the human voice (whoever is seen and heard to be singing should be the actual owner of the voice and physically connected to it in some realm of reality) has a curious resonance with Damon Albarn’s live performance in the 2010 gig, “Phase Three.” As Shara Rambarran observes, despite the large projector screen showcasing the images and videos of Gorillaz it was difficult not to focus on Albarn as he was dominating the stage and interacting well with the audience. By performing live in front of an audience, Albarn displays his true identity. No longer the advocate for the virtual group, he is “Gorillaz.” Our final chapter, “ ‘Feel Good’ with Gorillaz and ‘Reject False Icons’: The Fantasy Worlds of the Virtual Group and Their Creators,” explores the underlying agenda of what has been dubbed the “ultimate manufactured pop band.” As Rambarran explains, “The image of a pop artist takes an ironic twist as Gorillaz’ looks are unconventional, and it is the peculiar animated modification of their bodies along with their distinctive personalities” that give the band their appeal. In particular, Rambarran continues the discussion of Japanese virtual performers by focusing on Noodle, the guitarist of Gorillaz, who carries elements of Japanese popular culture (such as anime) and is also presented as a powerful female cyborg. In essence, Gorillaz are a simulation of a pop group: hyperreal. Drawing on Baudrillard (1993, 1994), she argues that the four characters in Gorillaz are “generated as would-be humans through the aid of digital technology”: they are virtual beings who are “neither real or unreal” (Baudrillard 1994, 125), and that it is Damon Albarn who controls the musical and media direction of the group. A detailed discussion of the identity of its four members (Murdoc Niccals, 2D, Russel Hobbs, and Noodle) and the creative world of Kong Studios is given a specific focus in a close analysis of “Feel Good,” the first single from the second Gorillaz album Demon Days (2005). Drawing on Roland Barthes (“The Third Meaning,” 1977), Rambarran reveals that the song and the video provide an insight into Albarn’s personal agenda: his attack on the ideology surrounding the contemporary music industry, finally raising the question as to whether the revelation of his real identity is a form of retrogression.

Note

(1.) The uncanny valley is a term coined by Masahiro Mori (1970). Mori observed that as robots are built to look more humanlike they appear more familiar, until they become indistinguishable from human beings. He argued that this near-humanlike robot would appear strange or creepy, terming it bukimi no tani, which has been translated as the uncanny valley (Vasudevan and MacDorman n.d.).

Books, Articles, and Websites

Barthes, Roland. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press.Find this resource:

Baudrillard, Jean. 1993. Symbolic Exchange and Death. London: Sage.Find this resource:

———. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Find this resource:

Mori, Masahiro. 1970. “The Uncanny Valley.” Energy 7(4): 33–35.Find this resource:

Vasudevan, Sandosh, and Karl F. MacDorman. “Exploring the Uncanny Valley.” https://experiment.informatics.iupui.edu/pages/about (accessed Mar. 7, 2015).

Notes:

(1.) The uncanny valley is a term coined by Masahiro Mori (1970). Mori observed that as robots are built to look more humanlike they appear more familiar, until they become indistinguishable from human beings. He argued that this near-humanlike robot would appear strange or creepy, terming it bukimi no tani, which has been translated as the uncanny valley (Vasudevan and MacDorman n.d.).