Monday, April 18, 2011

Let's Talk About: The Virtual Band

Good day,

            Let’s leave the poetry behind, shall we? It’s so pompous.

On that note, I’ve noticed that when people of our generation talk about society’s ‘fakes,’ or those who put on personas to attract prestige and money, the word seems to be used very closely to describe people in the music industry. Toss this idea around and one is instantly reminded of Ashlee Simpson and similar artists who lip synch during live performances and adopt characteristics contrary to their real selves.

I’ve already banged on a bit about our species’ tendency towards tribalism, and music buffs are guilty of this as much as anyone else. Go through any music store, forum, or stretch of Youtube comments for any music video, and you’ll see all kinds of fans accusing other fans of following ‘fakes,’ or people who are ‘sell-outs’ or ‘too mainstream.’ Musical styles form entire subcultures, and with those subcultures come rules and norms and laws upheld with near-religious zeal by its followers.

            So what happens when musicians take the idea of “fake” to a different level? What happens when artists transform themselves to become new entities altogether? You get the Virtual Band.

I remember groups like The Archies and Alvin and The Chipmunks from Saturday morning reruns and renting old tapes from video shops that time forgot, but both ‘bands’ were creations meant to tie in with larger franchises. Records and t-shirts needed to be sold, and what better way to squeeze nickels and dimes out of kids’ hands than to flash colourful cartoons having a jam session?

As time wore on, these groups would help to seed the minds that would create concept groups like The Gorillaz or Genki Rockets. The former is a particularly popular U.K. group while the other just has sci-fi J-Pop appeal – and appeal that is big enough for the lead “singer” Lumi to be an icon, particularly in the gaming circuit. There are others coming out of the woodworks that I don’t have space to talk about, but I will very quickly mention a Filipino Christian rock band composed entirely of puppets. It’s a small phenomenon, but more people are quickly latching onto these groups every day.

So why are virtual bands so big? Aside from cartoonish madness, I would say that authenticity in fabrication is a major seller. There’s honesty in a music group comes out says “Yeah, we’re all so fake we don’t even exist” that appeals to the mind. People don’t have to worry about band “members” dying in car crashes or leaving to pursue solo careers. Detachment from the band’s “members” helps one appreciate the music and the idea of the band without slipping into idol worship – that is, until the swarm of homoerotic Gorillaz fanfiction hit the internet, but that's another kettle of fish.

            While we’re on this topic, I’m going to come right out and say something that will no doubt put me at odds with a good thirty percent of the nerd community: I really don’t care for Miku Hatsune, or the whole Vocaloid phenomenon for that matter.

            For those playing the home game and don’t feel like a Google Search, Miku Hatsune was the mascot of a music program where you could add vocals. The program would read musical notes and have a digital voice hit each one accordingly. One of the voices used was Miku, a hyper-cutesy sound cultivated from the pipes of an actress named Saki Fujita. Since then, the program was a hit, especially with so many geeks falling head-over-heels for the candy-coloured creature associated with the Miku program. Mikumania hit like a Texas-sized comet, with the dust cloud spreading across the world and with other Vocaloids spawning from this initial being.

            Oh, yes, and Miku has been over-sexualized too, with custom nudie models and body pillows popping up all over the place. This doesn’t win brownie points with me as I’m not mentally fourteen, but I’m not surprised. Internet creeps will create erotic art of train engines if someone tacks on a voice.

            But that isn’t entirely why I’m not fond of her – er, it. My issue is that the Vocaloids don’t have real voices. Even if Archie, 2D and Lumi aren’t real people, Ron Dante, Damon Albarn, and Rachel Rhodes are. And even though Saki Fujita and many more provided their voices as samples, those are all they are – samples. The soul of the singer is lost, replaced with cold steel and circuitry. In the end, Vocaloids are just synthesizer apps born of digital necromancy. Pressing a button to hit a high note is not the same as hitting it yourself with your own set of pipes.

            Someone once said to me that you have to see a Miku concert like seeing a DJ perform live. It's true; Daft Punk and Deadmau5 have personalities and a unique musical style, and having that makes it easier to enjoy the songs she makes. I think my issue is more than we're bringing Idol Worship into a sub-universe of music that really does not need it.

Plus, you can defend the Vocaloid concept all you like, but I have a far deeper concern. Let me drop two words on you that you’ll perhaps understand: Sharon Apple. For that matter, here’s a third: Superidol. That’s right, kids, Vocaloid is the real Skynet. We’ll see who’s rushing to the side of whom once Miku gets a hold of the launch codes and starts World War Three. Oh yes, I have a tinfoil hat and suitcase full of canned beans prepared for just such an occasion.

See you next time,

-RWI

EDIT: May 20, 2012. Edited! And added a point someone made to me once upon a time.

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