Our Cybernetic Music, Ourselves (or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ‘Vocaloid’)

I can’t deny it any longer. I woke up yesterday evening after a much-needed post-work nap with a set of garbage-compacted Japanese vocal samples playing in my head, and I liked it.

I’ve always appreciated Vocaloid more as a phenomenon than a thing. An ex introduced it to me around the same time as my first, frankly confused exposure to Axis Powers Hetalia, which caused me by and large to give in and accept that people will narrativize anything. In light of that, I actually found it rather interesting, especially the Black Rock Shooter spinoff. Fans were taking what I would consider quite impoverished starting materials and creating incredibly dense fan lore and original characters. I could respect that from an intellectual distance, even if the music (fan- and officially-produced) tended to do actual injury to my hearing.

(It helps that they put on giant holographic concerts that are steeped so far in the Uncanny Valley I have no word for it. Really, you just have to respect how willingly Vocaloid fandom embraces stuff that seems straight out of a William Gibson novel.)

Then I discovered Megurine Luka. Luka’s voicebanks are intended for (what I consider, at least) a more naturally human register than the more recognizable Hatsune Miku, whose most famous songs are so deliberately robotic I can’t stomach them in the slightest. That said, Luka is really no less artificial sounding–her samples all sound clipped and distorted, just like that of other Vocaloids, which serves if nothing else to illustrate how little the software is concerned with replicating a natural sounding voice. But I don’t know… I just find her stuff more listenable.

Which in itself is a problematic statement, as I’ve just assigned a gender, a name, a vague personality and an appearance to an inert bank of voice samples. That the concerts should go the route of displaying a holographic performer instead of, say, a hired actress lip-syncing in cosplay is only too appropriate and, I think, rather self-aware of the concerts’ organizers. It’s an all-new genre: holographic music. 100% database.

“What are you getting so cynical about?” I asked myself as I loaded some Megurine Luka mp3s onto my iPod. “Your favorite character on Star Trek is Data.”

Yep. And I also have a fondness for Metal Gear‘s cyborg ninjas (especially Kyle Schneider– poor, poor Kyle Schneider), and the tachikoma of Ghost in the Shell, and Autobots, and Daft Punk, and Terminators. I’ve routinely joked that, like Lain from the titular Serial Experiments, I’m actually a program which lives on the net, while my meatspace body is a clever hologram. I’ve likened my failing body to a car in the process of breaking down. I consider my 20th year “the year my extended warranty expired,” just based on how many health problems I managed to contract in a short span of time. And I’m fascinated with body horror, the more machinic the better. (I credit watching Tetsuo’s bloody dismemberment in Akira at a young age for that one.)

None of that is to say my perspective is wholly original. There is a great deal of literature on the cyborg as castrated human, of the android/gynoid as eunuch aspiring to humanity, of extending the metaphor of our bodies and minds as organic machines, and of reflecting our own insecurities and perceived deficiencies next to a socially-constructed, neurotypical human ideal. That’s why Data is so great on Next Generation. He’s not just striving for “humanity,” he’s completely cognizant that it’s an impossible goal, and that it’s the struggle itself that’s important. (Let’s just forget the movies exist for the moment, hm?)

When I brought this up with an acquaintance, she suggested I was drawn to mechanized subjects because I’d grown up feeling outcast. Of course I’d fall in love with the social outsiders, the misfits, the emotionally amputated. Perhaps it’s a fair point– she knows me pretty well. But I don’t know, I doubt that my interests in the synthetic have simply to do with my particular circumstances, or why would these images be so prevalent? If it bears out of trauma, it’s probably a more widespread, generalized variety having to do with our relationship to our bodies, our worlds, and the order of things. We live in a day-to-day where basically everything is machinic, from the way our media is engineered to all our many service industry jobs and how we relate to our own embodiment. (I like to tell my mom she’s a cyborg already–she has an artificial hip, doesn’t she?)

The Vocaloid concerts, in my mind, just serve as a reminder of the full scale of artifice to it all. They don’t try for verisimilitude. Hatsune Miku’s voicebanks and conventional pitch might sound to me about as pleasant as nails on a chalkboard but they’re no more or less a confrontation than Megurine Luka’s more normalized synthetic J-Pop. Come to that, to musically trained ears (mine are not), most pop no doubt comes across as the aural equivalent of processed foodstuffs (which brings up yet further considerations I’m unable to get into here about class and access– but anyway).

So I guess I’m okay with having it on my playlist, inasmuch as I try not to judge myself too harshly for the other crap I like. To quote a friend, “I for one welcome our new holographic overlords.”

...Yes, Vocaloids. By all means, continue fighting for post-apocalyptic humanity.

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