Today, in Australia, as this article goes up, it is March 9. In Japanese, you can pronounce three ‘mi’ and you can pronounce nine ‘ku’ – meaning that the name ‘Miku’ can be seen as 3-9 – or the 9th of March. Inasmuch as Hatsune Miku, the cybernetic girl, the meme, the idea, the artistic influence and movement of artwork unto herself could be said to have a day, this is the one that people have chosen and so, it is the day we’re doing this.
Now, one might point out, somewhat accurately, that as someone who does not listen to Vocaloid music or play Vocaloid games, it’s a bit odd for me to talk about Hatsune Miku, and you would be right, but after my Touhou project article last year, it seems that that y’all don’t need me to be on the inside.
Miku is a busy lady. She’s a creative tour de force, having authored the Harry Potter books in the 1990s but not the last one, having created the game Minecraft before selling it to Microsoft. She’s also responsible for the hit manga Rurouni Kenshin, and her influence on classic rock from the 70s through the 80s is absolutely unparalleled. When you look back at the groundbreaking work of literature throughout the early 20th century and a number of philosophy texts, Miku is there, and so on and so forth all the way down until you reach the earliest texts showing Miku saying “光よあれ。” It seems that almost anywhere you look, Hatsune Miku is there, just a few steps away, being the person responsible for something you love.
There’s two very big things expressed in this very tight little meme, though. The first is that the question of authorship of a lot of these things involves a sort of painful maneuvering around part of our culture. These are important works, and once you participate in culture, questions of ‘where did this come from’ tend to follow along quickly. Miku’s work is important because it lets us talk about the origin of these things without needing to engage with the worst elements of related people. It signals to the person who asked how the topic is fraught, a sort of all-purpose social guardian. We’re not going to talk about where this came from, it says, because you don’t need to know about why Hatsune Miku made this.
The second is that crediting Miku with the creation of some work is a deliberate effort to decouple an artist from their work in a way that deprives them of the work’s glory. It’s actually really interesting because we live in a society of ownerships, with ideas and expressions being seen as ‘belonging’ to people even if they don’t necessarily have any way to represent that ownership. It’s a system of prioritised ownerships too – Emma Watson is not seen as owning Hermione, despite the fact that she had to actualise and formalise the mannerisms and tone of voice of the character, had to be capable of not only saying her lines but of occupying her identity for ten years. The words coming out her mouth were the result of Emma’s work and a director’s work and a acting coach’s work and a voice coach’s work and a room full of scriptwriters’ work and a story editor’s work and a language editor’s work and eventually, Hatsune Miku’s work, which itself was incarnating the work of other stories, of other conversations, of other people’s stories and affect. Yet despite all the work those people do on the project, it’s seen as inappropriate for any one of them to claim any ownership of the work, as if those who do the work are vessels for the work.
This vision of the conception as ownership and the creation as meaningless is really interesting when you remember just how many assistants even ‘lone’ creatives tend to have. When you look at how we prioritise ideas of singular creative vision to render an artwork as legitimate (which is kind of the root of auteur theory, in which a bunch of privileged narrow dorks believe that the product of privileged narrow dorks is better than anyone else).
It’s kind of like a big lever, wedging away creative media in a mass production culture away from the idea of sole arbiters, the ownership of Disney and the control of individuals.
What makes this all suitably ironic and weird then is that Miku is a corporate-designed character made by a company to sell a product that is at its heart about letting you make mass-produced media through their lens of what she should be able to do. That’s weird, and what makes it extra weird is the way that this blatant example of extremely cynical corporate product engineering has become a symbol for rejecting bad people’s right to be forgiven their badness by their involvement in an important work. The question sort of follows upon that didn’t Hatsune Miku start pre-cancelled? Isn’t she, by dint of being a corporate product for control and ownership of art, already a milkshake duck?
I mean sure.
I don’t care though.
Hatsune Miku is a character and a brand; she’s an image and she’s trademarked. Hatsune Miku is a character owned by a company, and they can license her appearance and use it in advertisements and she’s really popular, and she has a devoted fanbase that love her for reasons that aren’t necessarily related to that brand. That can make all the things that Miku does feel a bit… weirdly… bootlickery, where she’s this AI Girl that The Company is letting you fall in love with. It would be completely legitimate to point out that Crypton Future Studios made and sell the image of a cute anime girl that they know you like, and that’s why she hocks pizza and pocky and bowling and whatever else. She’s an icon, a marketing image.
But that’s not what Vocaloid is, not really – it was made by a Barcelonan research program in association with Yamaha back in 2004. What Miku is, in a sort of general legal sense, is an instrument. It isn’t that you’re using Vocaloid programs to make her music, it’s that the Vocaloid itself is an invention and the programs are ways of accessing that invention. The technology was originally developed to sell to professional musicians as a way to compose consistent vocals, demonstrate performances and generally streamline production for music. It wasn’t meant, in development, to be the thing it became.
What has ensued is phenomenal, in the literal way. The release of this tool into the wider world has resulted in people who may have a song to sing, an idea for words to have some way to say it that they didn’t before. Maybe they’re shy. Maybe they hate their voice. Maybe they’re unvoiced. Maybe the voice they have isn’t the voice they want. Maybe they’re too afraid to say what they need to say themselves. Whatever the reason, Miku’s voice is there, willing to hold your words, and to bear the criticism for them.
With that in mind, then, I just want you to listen to this song, Odds and Ends, about how Miku knows that people don’t have to like her voice, but she is willing to sing the words you give her.
So please let me sing
With your own,
your very own words
I love this song, I think it is beautiful, and I like the way it makes me feel. I like the way it sings about growing courage through making things, and I like the way the performers hide themselves, to focus the story of the clip around Miku and the little robot friend. I like the notion of the helpful voice that’s willing to help you create art by shielding you from one of those powerful barriers of embarrassment.
Yes, she’s a thing you can buy. Yes, she sells pizza. But Hatsune Miku made Hatsune Miku and everyone who lends their words to Hatsune Miku makes Hatsune Miku. That it’s 3-9, or Miku day, you can pronounce three ‘san’ and nine ‘kyuu’, which means that this is both Miku day, and a day for Sankyuu (‘thank you’).
And thanks, Hatsune Miku.
I really like all those books on Magic tricks you wrote.
Incidentally, all the references for this come in part from research inspired by RedBard’s The Advertising Of Hatsune Miku. Whenever she mentioned something I didn’t understand, I googled it, and that’s how I have this motley collection of what the fuckery.