Hatsune Miku is an anime girl with kiddie-pool sized eyes and flowing teal pigtails. She stars in a new Toyota Corolla commercial aimed at the Asian-American market.
Miku is huge back home in Japan. Originally invented to sell synthesized voice software, the character's featured in a video game, she's released hit pop songs and she sells out live concerts. (If "live" is the right word.)
"They use twelve different projectors to project her in 34D space," explains Justin Sevakis, of the Anime News Network. "She towers. She's a good twenty feet tall in those concerts."
Miku's performing in Los Angeles for the first time this weekend. Her shows have completely sold out. Cartoon bands for kids are nothing new, but Japanese anime has taken them to slick, sophisticated new levels— and created adult demand for them.
They bear little resemblance to animated bands you might remember from the 1960s and '70s, like Alvin and the Chipmunks, Josie and the Pussycats, or the Archies.
"The Archies were born because the Monkees didn't want to sing 'Sugar Sugar'," says Ben Greenman, music editor of The New Yorker, "It was offered to the Monkees, an artificial band; The Monkees rejected it, so it went and helped create this artificial band, The Archies."
"Sugar Sugar" famously became a number one hit single. But the animation was, Greenman says, almost sub-Scooby Doo. So were many other cartoon bands until about ten years ago, when Gorillaz came along. As much innovative pop art project as anything else, Gorillaz proved that animated bands could be multimedia pioneers, combining music, technology, art, video, even comedy.
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Since then other animated bands have experimented with image, artifice and theatricality, all qualities vascular to pop. Greenman is partial to a Cartoon Network band called Dethklok, so successful they got on real pop charts a few years ago.
Another animated band called Studio Killers is finding a following with a cheeky music video called "Ode To The Bouncer" about fruitless attempts to get into nightclubs. Studio Killers is a shadowy international collective of artists, and virtual bands are actually a great way for people who don't live in the same country to collaborate.
Cartoon bands also make a certain harsh economic sense in a crumbling music industry. Producers can swap out voices or even use machines— and how convenient to have pop stars who never get fat, never throw tantrums, and never get old.