If you thought modern-day pop singers like Katy Perry or Rihanna showed up on the scene pre-packaged and image-conscious, you should take a look at Japan's latest 16-year-old superstar, Hatsune Miku.
Of course, you'd have to turn on the holographic projector first.
That's because the singer is only a "Vocaloid," a digital cypher created by software developer Crypton Future Media in 2007. And you thought Ke$ha sounded engineered.
But don't think the fact that she doesn't exist has kept Hatsune off the stage. She's the hottest thing in J-Pop, rising from her humble beginnings as an oddity posted on Japan's YouTube equivalent, Nico Nico Douga, to full-fledged stage shows, complete with a band and thousands of fans swinging glow sticks.
This should be no surprise to a generation weaned on video games. Our heroes these days are all computer-generated: Mario, Master Chief and Mega Man are so ingrained in popular culture, it's perfectly normal to instantly recognize these characters in any medium, from books to action figures to Halloween costumes.
The difference in this case is that while prior game characters brought to life — think Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft from Tomb Raider or Jake Gyllenhall in Prince of Persia — Hatsune is personified only by the code written by the software engineers who created her. Sure, she appeared in a few Japanese video games and anime prior to her first "live" concert in Saitama City in August 2009, but it wasn't until throngs of rabid fans shelled out real yen to see a piece of software sing with voice actress Saki Fujita's sampled vocals that Hatsune proved digital media had turned a corner.
She is not like virtual music superstars Gorillaz, the Damon Albarn-led project currently on tour in Asia. That cartoon band has always acknowledged its four members are mere avatars of its ever-rotating roster of all-star musicians. While Gorillaz concerts project artist Jamie Hewlett's drawings on a screen during shows, there's no mistaking that the likes of Albarn, De La Soul and Bobby Womack are the main attraction. Not so with Hatsune; she's a holographic representation of the actual, virtual performer the Japanese fell in love with.
The acceptance of this creation as being as close to real as possible could only come from years of familiarity with virtual characters. What else could lead to people spending hard-earned cash for a software program that, when installed on a PC, will show an avatar singing and dancing to whatever song you wished (or wrote yourself)?
While video games inch closer and closer to becoming so immersive it will be difficult to distinguish them from reality, so, too, has Hatsune brought us closer to a reality in which pop stars are no longer coached, coaxed and preened into whatever image record labels want. One day, your average Top 40 singer will have been literally engineered to stardom.
Of course, in Japan, that day has passed. And be warned, Britney; Hatsune's vocal synthesizer will offer English as an option very soon.
Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt* Feel free to challenge his opinions at firstname.lastname@example.org.