Nothing could have prepared me for seeing Hatsune Miku live. The line to get in wrapped around an entire block. The scalpers of east London were selling merch adorned with anime idols. I'd unwittingly stumbled into the biggest vocaloid sensation on the planet.
I didn't really know what I expected the crowd to be like at a Hatsune Miku concert, but full cosplay gear was on the list somewhere. People were decked out in all sorts of fancy outfits from what I can only assume were from the Miku-verse, with huge floating dresses, exaggerated headpieces, and flowing pale green wigs. And then there was me, feeling incredibly out of place in jeans and a jacket.
I'd ventured out to Hatsune Miku in Brixton on the invite of Sega, the developer and publisher of the Miku-headlined Project Diva rhythm game series. I think I read back the email invite about three times before I actually caught on to what I was being invited to. It was like telling your grandparents that you were going out to see a digital popstar sing a couple songs in Brixton (and I would later have this pleasure myself).
Hatsune Miku is the biggest vocaloid sensation on the planet, but she wasn't the first of her kind. Kaito and Meiko (we'll get onto these two later) actually preceded Miku as vocaloids from Yamaha, the company that backed the development of the voice synthesizing software in 2000, that would go on to be used for vocaloids. The software itself enables the program to sing by typing in rhythms and melodies. Imagine if Siri or Alexa turned into popstars, and you're there.
If you're reading this, you've likely heard of Hatsune Miku through her rhythm video games, or maybe her actual music. Maybe you didn't even know that Hatsune Miku did live shows—I sure as hell didn't—but the entire thing is like nothing I've ever experienced, and goes far beyond Miku as just a piece of software or a video game character.
What initially surprised me was just how incredibly chill everything was. My anxiety usually does backflips in crowded spaces like the Brixton Academy, probably because the bands I typically see draw in crowds of people way bigger and tougher than me. For Miku, everyone was just there to relax, unwind, and watch a group of vocaloids take to the stage. It's quite a testament to the atmosphere that my mind didn't unravel over the course of the show.
Going into a gig, you usually know what sort of crowd to expect. If it's something like Bring Me the Horizon you expect lanky metalheads in skinny jeans, hair straightened down to their shoulders (I know this to be true because I was once this exact person). With Hatsune Miku I had literally no idea what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised: There were people of all ages, races, and genders spread throughout the crowd. There were people way younger than me, and people way, way older than me. People from all backgrounds and walks of life united under one common banner: Hatsune Miku.
If I told you that glowsticks synced up to the color theme of songs were selling for £35 (about $45), you probably wouldn't expect to see them literally everywhere on the show floor. Wrong. They were so high in demand you had to pre-order one of the special sticks that changed color depending on the song, and in hindsight I'm actually incredibly jealous I didn't have one of the flashy things to wave about.
That feeling of jealousy neatly sums up the entire experience: I was jealous I hadn't got in on this sooner. There's a countdown to kick off the concert, followed by an introduction to each of the characters accompanying Miku on tour. Appearing on stage are Kagamine Rin and Kagamine Len (twins, I think), Megurine Luka, Kaito, Meiko, and Hatsune Miku herself. There were progressively bigger and louder roars for each character whose name flashed up on screen, for each of which I had to turn to the person next to me and go "who?"
At the end of the countdown, Hatsune Miku's title card flashes up on the screen, and the fans' screams bring the place alive. There's a short animated sequence on the screen in the middle of the stage, the backing band takes their positions to either side of the screen, and in a flash of light, she's there: the biggest vocaloid sensation in the world blinks into life in a split second.
The chill crowd suddenly explodes with energy while also remaining, somehow, chill. Everyone screams, but nobody moves. The place vibrates, but everyone's still enraptured in a blissful sense of calm. Miku hits the ground running-the second she appears on screen, it's to 2017's "Teo," an incredibly high-tempo synthy track that has the crowd putting the (expensive) glow sticks to good use.
All the sudden Miku vanishes. The second "Teo" concludes, the teenage idol's off in a flash, quickly replaced by someone with electric pink hair. I've never felt more out of touch in my life. Turns out this new person is still Hatsune Miku, but now she's got a fresh new trim. That's the thing about vocaloids: There's the potential for so much more in a live show because they're not bound by physical costume changes and breaks in a setlist. You want to change Miku's entire costume and hairstyle in one second? You got it.
As the leader of the, erm, vocaloid ensemble in this Brixton Academy, Miku resembles the prototypical J-Pop idol. A dance move that regularly appears in any idol's performance is to reach out to the audience and almost motion them close to you in one big sweeping movement. You see this everywhere in games like Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, and even Miku's own games. Hatsune Miku's live performance has these big sweeping movements perpetuating every song of hers, with Miku filling the expected role of the idol so that the rest of the cast can go in different directions.
One of these cast members is Kagamine Len. Miku disappears right after her fourth track, and Len blends into life on the screen, distorted images slowly taking shape into one humanoid boy. Kagamine Len is immediately more energetic than Miku. That's not to say Miku was downbeat at all, but Len really plays into his childish character by constantly moving back and forth across the entire diameter of the screen in an attempt to whip up the audience.
Len's not alone for long. His counterpart/twin/clone Kagamine Rin materializes alongside him on stage, and the two perform a duo song together. You'd think two vocaloids performing together would be perfectly synced up to each other's movements by the split second, but they're not. There's times where Rin is just ahead of Len in duo movements, and vice versa. It's a little eye-catching at first, but it goes a weirdly long way toward selling you on the actual nature of the performance, detracting from the computer-driven nature of the show and bringing both characters to life.
But it's not all jazzy synth movements. Emotional piano notes welcome Kaito onstage, who I'm reliably informed by screams from the crowd is one of the more popular members of the Miku entourage. Kaito's song dials down the pace of the show, slowing it right down to the beat of a piano song you can imagine someone singing at a karaoke dive bar in any one of the Yakuza games. Glow sticks everywhere start swaying back and forth in rhythm with Kaito's melody, letting the hectic energy around the performance cool off a little bit. It's a pleasant break—you almost forget for a moment that it's a computer singing.
A couple tracks later and the headline act is back on stage. A unique thing about Miku, aside from being an digital idol, is that literally anyone can write a song for her. She's not bound to one genre of music because she's not a physical entity like a band or a singer; anyone from a metalhead to a popstar can put together a song for her. Now I'm not saying Hatsune Miku turned to the crowd and shouted, "Open this pit up!", but the rock-influenced tracks peppered throughout the setlist were definitely a pleasant surprise.
MIKU EXPO 2020 EUツアー初日、ロンドン公演でした。すごい盛り上がりで気持ちたっぷり入りました！憧れのロンドンで演奏出来て嬉しかったー！Thank you London！次はパリにゆきますえʕ•ᴥ•ʔ pic.twitter.com/XzWtcEhJiq- camacho (@camacho_drums) January 11, 2020
Miku's creators also aren't afraid to utilize the onstage screen. One instance had a massive tribal drum appearing behind Miku, with her banging away a rhythm on it to introduce all the supporting members onstage. It's a nice touch to think outside the box of just Hatsune Miku on the screen, pulling in other things out of leftfield.
If there's any testament to the quality of a show, it's how loudly people demand an encore. And demand an encore they did, as the entire venue stood there shouting for more Miku for several long minutes after the main setlist had concluded with "Tell Your World." It's a weird situation to be caught in the midst of—Miku can't exactly do anything spontaneous like walk out of the venue or decide she doesn't actually want to do an encore. But inevitable as the encore was, standing in the middle of a crowd still hungry for more after a 22 track performance was a fantastic note to close out a concert on.
I never could have predicted my reaction to seeing Hatsune Miku live. I knew absolutely nothing about the vocaloid megastar going in, and I'm glad I kept it that way. There's an incredible feeling of joy in discovering something new while surrounded by hundreds of people who already adore it; a feeling of being simultaneously overwhelmed and welcomed as you embrace the thing that had previously been alien to you.
I began Hatsune Miku's concert cautiously optimistic. I ended the concert entirely enraptured and won over by vocaloids. They're weird by nature, and I love that Hatsune Miku and company totally own their weirdness. There's the costume and hair changes in the blink of an eye, rock covers, and disco balls descending from the ceiling during emotional piano solos. The entire thing is very over the top and extremely extra, and I wouldn't have it any other way.