The unofficial introduction to a nontraditional pop star lays the foundation for a 21st century phenomenon whose debut feels especially prescient in 2020.
The concept of the digitally manufactured popstar once seemed like something out of science fiction, but as so much of reality has seemed to outpace fantasy, such things became real. Damon Albarn shifted from Britpop to alt-rock/trip hop with the formation of Gorillaz in 1998, the same year the animated series “Arthur” imagined Swedish megastars who turn out to be holographs. In both fiction and reality, consumers enjoy and even adore their born-digital performers–like Hatsune Miku. With a name meaning “the first sound of the future,” this 16-year-old, green-pig tailed girl began as a mascot for the Vocaloid software, and users ran with it. Similar to the way Doja Cat’s “Say So” or Benee’s “Supalonely” burst out on TikTok, Miku saw much of her success grow out of fan-made content, particularly through Niconico, a Japanese video service. A month after her official debut, she already had 2,000 hits on the site. Hatsune Miku 1st Song Album, likewise, is the product of not her creators but her supporters.
All of the tracks except for two are cover versions of songs that range from Japanese pop hits to classic video game themes and beyond. The cutesy trance of “The World Must Know Miku,” one of two original tunes, is her very own “Fergalicious.” It bears a resemblance to mid-‘90s dance tracks like “Try Me,” one of the songs that launched Namie Amuro and consequently the dancing element integral to many J-pop acts. Lyrically, it introduces the pop star as your own personal muse: “Play me, break me, make me feel like Superman/ You can do anything you want,” as much a marketing tool as it is a statement of identity.
That said, Hatsune Miku 1st Song Album offers more than just an introduction to the Vocaloid diva. It contains a variety of songs, each a new rabbit hole for one to fall through. Miku’s chipmunk timbre lends itself nicely to the frenetic synths of “Futari No Mojipittan” (“The Two Letters”). Inexplicably, it fits just as well with the calm piano that drives “Anata No Utahime” (“Your Diva”), the other original track on the album. And the finale, “Lemonade Ice Cream,” a terrific alt-rock jam, gains a newfound sense of adventure in Miku’s youthful cadence.
But the compilation’s most interesting tune, “Ievan Polka,” is a cover of a Finnish folk song. Its staccato lyrics perfectly complement Miku’s high-pitched timbre, enhancing the strangeness of the original. Like many tracks, “Lemonade Ice Cream” succeeds because of its original instrumentation. Most covers maintain the original version’s arrangement, with the vocals added by means of the Vocaloid software. This makes the material a bit uninspired, even if it does showcase how vocals can offer new interpretations of music as much as changing an electric guitar to an acoustic. Stretches arts of the album can feel homogeneous, such as the ballad-to-ballad transition from “Melody to Life” to “You.” They’re pretty, but they slow the momentum.
Still, in recent years Miku’s material has traveled to much more fascinating realms, with Anamanaguchi and DECO*27 making excellent use of her talents. But she needed this set to lay the foundations for tracks like 2019’s phenomenal “Android Girl.” She may not be real, but Miku packs a punch many flesh-and-blood performers lack, enough to land a slot in the now in-limbo Coachella 2020.
As virtual concerts become the new normal, Hatsune Miku 1st Song Album reminds us that the medium has long been a vital source of entertainment. More importantly, it foreshadowed the way fans can dictate their interests in the realm of pop music. Whereas most popstars typically offer their interpretation of the world, Hatsune Miku allows fans the chance to see their vision come to life however they see fit. What’s more pop than that?