NEW YORK—Major shifts in technology have always changed music, whether in its sound or its performance, and often in both. The introduction of the steel-framed piano had an outsized impact on classical and popular music from its invention. Magnetic pickups gave us the electric guitar and its dominant influence on popular culture.
Hatsune Miku, and the tech behind it, may represent another large technical touchstone. When you see the show, you might be convinced of it.
This is a cybernetic approach to live performance. A full band (guitar, bass, keyboard and drums) performs live, but the frontman is a hologram. Sometimes, many holograms. The vocal tracks are all synthesized by software of the same name. The combined effect is infectious J-pop with a visual component as rich and engaging as its songs. The atmosphere is akin to a rave, with glow sticks handed out at the door—more Hatsune Miku-approved lights that match the colors of songs are available for purchase—in a darkened concert hall.
New York’s own Anamanaguchi were as close to a perfect opener for the show as one might imagine, with their upbeat chiptune pop songs and local support. A roughly 45-minute set was well-received and the crowd lit their glow sticks early to cheer along with the instrumentals. Despite the positive support from the crowd—some in full Hatsune Miku cosplay—there were some who were staring at their phones, or more specifically, their Nintendo DSes.
It was that kind of crowd.
But once Hatsune Miku started, all eyes were on the stage.
Introducing the band and the various Hatsune Miku personas (Hatsune Miku is the star, but other synthesized vocals are present with corresponding characters) felt like the beginning of a new, collectively experienced video game right on stage. Appearing just a bit larger than life, the projected anime personas were mostly just the characters themselves with little adornment.
The familiar nature of a live concert does change, though. As a song progresses, a hologram may dissipate into binary. Often, the vocals will become too fast to be anything but artificial. Hatsune Miku will develop wings and fly like an angel. The tasteful embrace of the available technology is riveting, particularly in the face of its endless possibilities.
Hammerstein appeared to be full for the second of two performances, and the Hatsune Miku fans who came out in support were nothing if not dedicated. Following along to the songs with the provided glowsticks on almost every beat, the crowd created a sea of green lights that created a real, human counterpoint to the computer-generated image they had all come to see. They cheered when Hatsune waved at them. They expressed the same disappointment at the last song announcement coming from a hologram as they would from a flesh and blood singer.
It’s hard to believe this personal connection to a machine en masse was technically or culturally possible a generation or even ten years ago. But the humanity in Hatsune Miku is as evident in its performance as those who came to see it.