Vocaloid as Artistic Expression

Japes, our Anime Today columnist, has written a number of articles about the intersection of Christianity and anime for his other blog, Japesland.  He is editing and resposting a number of these entries, including the one below, to Beneath the Tangles.

Right off the bat, I feel compelled to say that Vocaloid is an enormous passion of mine. From Hatsune Miku to Megpoid, from Supercell to Jin, I adore what the Vocaloid movement has become since its pick-up in 2007.

In case you are unsure of what Vocaloid is exactly, Vocaloid is a voice synthesis engine created by Yamaha that has, over the last several years, been used to produce music sung by fictional animated characters (this was not the original intent of Vocaloid software, and I could probably write an entire post on the history of Vocaloid alone considering I have done an hour-long lecture on the same topic, but considering this is the Internet it would probably just be easier for you to look here than to read a long post by me, though perhaps I will consider writing such a piece in the future, and while I’m doing this I might as well add a few more commas and make this sentence as long as possible,,,,). For an example of Vocaloid in action, see the clip below from a relatively recent live concert featuring the most popular of the Vocaloid characters, Hatsune Miku.

What I would like to address here, however, is not the origin of Vocaloid, but its validity as an artistic expression. What do I mean by that, you ask. Why, thanks for asking, I’ll tell you exactly what I mean!

Although we could get into the semantics of what exactly the phrase “artistic expression” means, for the sake of this post, I would like to spend the next several paragraphs giving my answers to the following situation. When introducing Vocaloid to some of my friends and acquaintances who are not familiar with it, the usual responses I get are: (if what I am showing is only audio) “why is it so auto-tuned,” and (if what I am showing is video) “why did all these people come to see a fake person sing and dance?” Then, after I follow-up with a brief explanation of what Vocaloid is, the general retort is, “this is weird, isn’t it going to put living, breathing artists out of work?”

The first question is easy to answer. It is simply not a human voice. The reason it sounds auto-tuned is that the same basic concept of digital voice manipulation is being applied, which sometimes gives it that sound. (The counter-point I would have to give here, though, is that not all Vocaloid music sounds auto-tuned. Listen to this song if you don’t believe me. On the other hand, songs like this one take the auto-tune sound that is often present and roll with it, using the digital sound to its advantage. However, this is beside the point.)

The second question deserves a slightly more complex answer, which I will try to explain (bear with me, though, for I am sure I will not be able to answer it in its entirety). First, the obvious answer is that every person has different passions and interests (I have not mentioned Christianity as of yet, but here is where the concept of “Christian liberties” would come into play). To judge an interest like this at face value, particularly one as harmless as this, is simply destructive and serves no purpose whatsoever. It is much like ostracizing “Bronies” for no reason but to attempt to validate your own interests. However, if you would like more of an explanation as to the “why,” the best I can give comes down to what I have gained from my conversations and observations. It seems to me that the popularity of Vocaloid arises from several different avenues.

(1) Vocaloid is different:
In otaku culture, or at least the sub-culture with which I am acquainted within it, little is placed of more value than being different from the “outside world”. In terms of the music scene, when genres like K-Pop are picking up steam in what would be considered mainstream (thanks Gangnam Style!), niche genres can sometimes be more difficult to come by. Now, that is not to say that niche genres are difficult to find, since you could simply find any unpopular band or genre and call them niche by your own definition, but the fact that Vocaloid has gained so much turf within the otaku scene gives it an edge that few genres of music can claim. To be able to love and enjoy something that you can not only call unique from the rest of the world, but that also has the support of numerous people with overlapping interests, is something that many value highly (myself included).

(2) Vocaloid encourages creativity: Well, sure it encourages creativity, but how? Isn’t creativity an extremely broad term? Why, thanks for bringing that up! Indeed, creativity is a quite broad term, which is exactly why I used it here. The existence of Vocaloid and Vocaloid culture has been able to cultivate a vast field of creation that has not had the opportunity to exist in history up until this point, in several ways. First, writers do not have to rely on a talented vocalist. Often in music, the vocalist does most of the writing, or at least shapes the writing in some way. This is not to say that such is a bad thing, because (in most cases) it is not negative at all! In standard music, the vocalist expresses his or her creativity in a way that should be appreciated. However, in Vocaloid, writers are given the opportunity to express themselves exactly how they want, regardless of vocal talent. There is no vocalist involved to change the lyrics or the expression of the music, there is simply what the writer intends, and thanks to Vocaloid software, even the minute details of the voice can be changed to fit exactly what the writer wants to convey with his or her music.

Hatsune Miku
Hatsune Miku at…the Vatican?! (Art by silverwing | ID 869711823)

Second, Vocaloid allows for everyone to be given the same materials with which to work. Because Vocaloid software is available to anyone with the money to purchase it, absolutely anyone can use any Vocaloid voice to write any song they want about anything (any, any, any, any…)! Just hop on NicoNicoDouga or Youtube and listen to every Vocaloid song you can find. I guarantee you will not be able to finish. In fact, I would be willing to bet you will never be able to finish, because hundreds of people are writing new pieces every day, and thanks to Vocaloid culture, they are uploading them online to share with the world once they finish them! Now, sure, there are some extremely popular Vocaloid artists (Supercell has written a number of hits) that monopolize most of the popularity, but the fact remains that the opportunity is available to everyone, not just the popular artists!

Third, Vocaloid encourages the artistic expression of drawing and animating artists. Again, thanks to otaku culture, most Vocaloid pieces are not written simply as pieces of music themselves, but as music to accompany an AMV (Animated Music Video). This presents a chance for music writers to cooperate with animators in a huge way (not something that has never been done before, to be sure, but something that has definitely increased in popularity thanks to Vocaloid). Jin, one of my favorite Vocaloid producers, has written a number of songs using one of my favorite Vocaloid voice banks (ie: characters) named IA. Each of his songs tells a story that is greatly accentuated by the visuals that accompany it. It is difficult to translate into words how this all comes together, so if you would like to experience if for yourself, check out the following three songs:

Imagination Forest
Kisaragi Attention
World Calling (Okay, so this one isn’t that deep, but the video definitely makes the song. Also, kawaii~)

(3) Vocaloid provides an star with which the otaku can more easily connect
Perhaps I am speaking past my authority here, but one main reason I see that people enjoy Vocaloid music is the very nature of the characters themselves (particularly Hatsune Miku). Let’s be honest here, most otaku struggle in the social aspect of their lives (I include myself in this statement, but also recognize that not all otaku fit in this category). I know that in my personal experience, one reason I found myself so enveloped by anime culture was that I had a difficult time relating to other people in the first place. Anime provided an area of my life where I truly felt that I could connect with the “people” I was seeing (by being able to “share” many of their experiences over the course of a season, a volume, a visual novel, or a video game). Vocaloid presents the chance for people to be able to have that same experience, only now with music! Again, I cannot say that this is an all-applicable characteristic of otaku or Vocaloid fans, but for me, putting my interest in a pop star that has the relatability of at least existing in the same art form as my primary interests, as opposed to the staged, faux reality of mainstream pop stars like Justin Bieber, puts me in a position to hold more coherent and sensible (in my mind) hobbies.

Vocaloid AI
Vocaloid IA (Art by おまる | Pixiv ID 35071966)

Finally, after a lengthy answer to the second question in several parts, I am brought to the point of how Vocaloid could potentially put people out of work were it to gain popularity. At the risk of sounding pretentious, this question makes me audibly laugh. It is that silly to me. Those who ask this question obviously are not familiar with the nature of mainstream pop music. In pop culture, the main artist provides a voice, but more importantly, an image. This voice and image are then accompanied by hundreds of people who write the music, write the lyrics, book the shows, run the live technology, market the music, the list goes on and on. Now replace that vocalist with something like Hatsune Miku (as you may have seen in that live clip I linked at the beginning of the post). Who is gone? Well that vocalist (that single vocalist) is gone. Who else? Well, you could argue that the make-up and costume artists for the live shows are gone. Okay, so they are now replaced with 3D modelers and animators. For the most part, the rest of the positions remain. You still have people writing the music, writing the lyrics, booking the shows, running the live technology, marketing the music, and so on and so forth. Essentially, no position is lost, just different people have been given opportunities to use their talents in the music industry! This is especially true considering that Vocaloid is not attempting to replace real vocalists, merely to augment their presence with a new genre.

I could rant on and on and on (and on and on and on and on), but I believe by now you can clearly see at least one perspective as to the validity of Vocaloid as an avenue of artistic expression (though I hope I did not convey that I see it as superior to other art forms, for that judgement is entirely subjective). I, and I am sure others, greatly enjoy much of Vocaloid music for its simple driving beat and often happy electronic sound, but I also love the uniqueness it makes me feel, the amount of people it involves and the way it allows them to share exactly how they want to share, its animated nature, and the possibilities it creates. Past all of this though, I just love Vocaloid for being Vocaloid. The culture it has produced simply makes me happy.

I know I have mentioned my Christian faith in this but once, and only in passing, but Vocaloid is another example where I truly, deeply praise God for what he has created. As in Genesis 1, God created us in His image, meaning we reflect the intrinsic creativity that He used in our creation (though to a lesser extent).

I love God.

I love otaku.

And I love Vocaloid.

5 thoughts on “Vocaloid as Artistic Expression

  1. Great read! I really feel your passion. It’s from posts like this that I can appreciate the Vocaloid movement as a whole despite not being a regular fan of it. I can draw many parallels to my love of Touhou Project, of which fan-made music also plays a big role.

    I think a good way to answer many of those initial reactions to Vocaloid is to frame it as an extension of the synthesizers that first gained popularity 50 years ago. Will they become more sophisticated and widely used in music? Yes. Will they make music production more accessible to the general public and lead to further democratization of the music industry? Yes, though that has its pros and cons. Will acoustic musicians (i.e. vocalists) be out of work? No, of course not!

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