Part of the charm of pop star Hatsune Miku is that her worldwide popularity is, in some ways, inexplicable. She is a blue-haired Japanese teenager with the voice of the world's cutest, saddest Game Boy. Her best known music video features her dancing and singing along to Finnish polka. She has guest starred in anime, been featured in her own series of games and was once rocketed into outer space.
Oh, also, Hatsune Miku is not real.
She's a Vocaloid, a synthesized singing application. She serves as an avatar for savvy music makers' creations, offering no agency of her own. She's just a cute face, made up of various outfit changes and a couple different tones of voice.
She is also an act that amasses huge, human audiences at sizeable ballrooms, where tickets go for $90 a pop. That cute face has a fanbase a million people deep, grown bigger thanks to her expansion into games, anime and copious amounts of merch.
How does Miku translate into the physical realm?
I'd always been intrigued by Miku, by her facility with a wide swath of genres and her ability to win over anyone, including the president of Domino's Pizza Japan. So when I heard that her biggest ever North American headlining tour was hitting New York City, I marked my calendar. Despite being the most openly miserly person I know, I ponied up the cash. I was going to see Miku, live.
But how does that even work, since she's, y'know ... virtual? I had zero expectations and negative levels of understanding of how the Miku experience translated into the physical realm. While I think that might be best, I also think that those considering stopping by on a future tour date could benefit from some knowledge of how a Hatsune Miku concert plays out before they drop the dough to see her.
In my experience — my strange, unforgettable experience — this is what you can look forward to when seeing Hatsune Miku live:
You will show up late. This is inevitable and acceptable. Miku's opening act (in this case, chiptune band and Brooklyn natives Anamanaguchi) will play a fun set, to be sure, but it's likely a sober experience compared to what's to come, you'll think. The opener will serve as a satisfying amuse-bouche to Miku's main course, but you will spend most of their time on stage getting annoyed that they have corporeal forms. You did not pay $90 to see physical beings, after all.
In your dazed state, you will begin checking your phone. It will be 8:40, and the opener is wrapping up. You've heard them play maybe six songs, and you'll feel kind of bad about it. You'll notice that the people around you — many of whom are there alone, it seems — are similarly otherwise occupied, however.
You'll then take stock of the crowd, assessing whether they are the Miku faithful or Miku-curious. The majority seem to fall along the lines of the former, even during this first Miku-less hour. You'll see a handful of girls in blue wigs, styled like the Vocaloid idol; boys in Miku Expo shirts from past shows; and men wearing headphones around their necks, hands dug deep into jean pockets, sweat peeking through their graphic tees.
You'll be thankful that you wore a tank top. Proud of your outfit, you will take a selfie or two, featuring the dutiful members of your concert-going party next to you. It will be way too dark to tell if both of your eyes are open in the photo, so don't expect to post that on Instagram later.
Right before 9, the opener will leave the stage. Their very human hands wave goodbye as their very human voices tease the crowd that Miku will be appearing soon. You'll start to get excited about her entrance. Will she just materialize in the middle of the stage? Why stay stuck to the stage if she's just digital, anyway? Maybe Miku will engulf the entire room and perform from the ceiling. Maybe she'll multiply and appear in every corner of the ballroom, which is crowded but not too crowded. Is it worth trying to move to the front, you'll wonder, if Miku won't be limited to the height and stage limitations that confine us mortals?
You'll realize you need to pee.
If you're a woman, you'll never be more thankful than here, in this moment, 10 minutes before Hatsune Miku takes to the stage. Your survey of the crowd will come in handy, as you'll recognize that most of the Miku fans are men. That means that, for the first time in your life, the women's bathroom will have zero line. And it will be palatial: There are mirrors upon mirrors, stalls for days, copious hand towels and room to dance around in and, frankly, you wouldn't be surprised if there were changing rooms, a shower and a cafe somewhere in this restroom.
You will pee, and it will be glorious.
Even Miku will start her set a little late
On your way back out you'll consider patronizing the merch table and the bar. Remember that you'll already have a souvenir, though, thanks the green glowsticks that they handed out at the door. (They'll even say "Miku" on them.) Having already spent what feels like your entire monthly salary on this show, you'll cringe at the thought of spending more money, but when in Vocaloid Rome, do as the be-wigged do. Luckily for your wallet, though, the line for the balcony-level merch booth, which is less crowded than the one on the floor's, will snake toward the door.
You'll be surprised that the bar has a similarly interminable line, but then you'll check yourself. Of course it does: There are a ton of parents here, accompanying their anime-loving tweens. You'll assume that was the compromise the kids made to stay out past their bedtimes: that their parents have to come along for the ride. You'll hope that the bartender will give them a sympathetic discount on what are surely overpriced beverages, but you'll also know that would never happen.
You'll be better off without trying to wait in either line because people will start cheering. These diehards have been around the block a time or two, so they'll know that Miku is raring to get started. You'll check your phone again, for what you think might be the last time before your life changes forever. It is 9:10.
Yes, even Miku will start her set a little late.
Your question about how she'll kick things off will be answered, and it will disappoint you slightly. She'll beam onto the middle of the stage and get right into it. It will strike you as unimpressive, except for the fact that she is an eight-foot-tall virtual pop star who just appeared out of thin air, so, no, it's totally impressive.
More impressive will be the fact that Miku will sing and dance for maybe 10 songs straight without a break. Her music will be varied enough that, even if you are familiar with her back catalogue, each song will feel like a discrete piece. Still, you'll keep dancing straight on through her setlist, which includes electronica, J-Pop, more emotive numbers and plenty of uptempo jams.
Encouraged by the music, you'll try to push your way closer to the front. Yes, you will feel as though you need to. Despite Miku's projection being very tall, she'll still often look like a blue and white blob from where you're standing. You'll be convinced that you need to touch this hologram, and you will endeavor to do so.
Unfortunately, you'll fail. The men around you will be protective of their floor space, even though many of them are wearing headphones around their necks, as if ready to tune out an undesirable number. Also, they've definitely been to more Miku shows than you have, but don't even attempt to argue that point to them. They won't hear it, and you won't get much closer.
You'll actually be able to get a better look at what's going on when Miku (needlessly) takes a break. That's because her tourmates, also Vocaloids, are a bit livelier than her on stage. Miku is a tireless dancer, changing costumes and styles with ease, but she mainly remains fixed in the same one spot at center stage. When she does take a break for a few songs — for what, you'll never know — her friends perform in her stead to dramatic and evocative effect.
Miku takes breaks — for what, you'll never know
You likely won't know their names, so you'll just call them Lightning from Final Fantasy 13, Roxas from Kingdom Hearts 2 and Chie from Persona 4, respectively. Each of them will be excellent performers, moving left and right, pretending to short circuit at times; there's a point where one will spontaneously clone themselves mid-song. Miku's friends are video game-like and wonderful, with their exaggerated styles of dress, cool dance moves and quirky side character charm.
You'll miss them when Miku comes back, although she'll look mature and sassy in a new outfit. You'll begin to realize that the songs you recognize are featured in Project Mirai DX, a Nintendo 3DS game you've always meant to play more of. Miku's video games have found popularity, and for good reason: They're a good time, with challenging rhythm-based gameplay amid a perfect soundtrack. You'll quietly wish that the show resembled the heavily anime-influenced aesthetic of the video games.
Instead, Miku will emerge as a virtual musician with very physical sensibilities. She won't do anything too mind-blowing, other than quick changes, needing to take very few breaks and swapping between genres with ease. Her set pieces will mostly feature some dazzling lights, but nothing too outrageous. She'll spend the show jumping around a bit while clasping a microphone and thinking about how much money she's made tonight. Typical pop star stuff.
Her encore will be the most inhuman thing about her: She will play for another full hour, no holds barred. At one point, she will seemingly die, grow wings and ascend up toward the sky. She'll then reappear mere moments later, reborn. Also, she'll be a pianist all of a sudden.
After dancing for nearly three hours straight, you'll desperately want to sit down. You'll also really, really want some French fries. You'll remember that Miku doesn't eat, because she's just a projection. You'll feel a little bit bad for her, that she won't get to have post-show junk food.
Instead, Miku will disintegrate back into data, ready to explode at the next stop on her tour. It's a curious existence that she leads, one that is defined by a need to dance and sing chirpy, inscrutable jams that are wildly enjoyable. Much of the crowd will remain in great spirits the whole night through, cheering and begging for Miku to come back out, even after she's played for two hours.
Hatsune Miku boils down the concert experience into its most necessary facets: Singing, dancing and fun
It's probably because they know that she can handle it. A digital pop star might seem bizarre, even in our age of virtual reality headsets and smartwatches and Pokémon Go. But Hatsune Miku boils down the concert experience into its most necessary facets: Singing, dancing and fun. Yes, you'll miss the banter — she'll make a brief, awkward attempt at some at the very end — and you'll miss the camaraderie that comes from singing along to your most beloved tracks. Most of all, you'll feel remorse that this experience you're having, memorable and special it may be, will be replicated in the exact same way at the next show.
Those Hatsune Miku memories will be unique in their own way, though. How many other shows have you been to where the teenage pop star grows to 11-feet-tall, soaring into the air while singing flawlessly? None. And you will never go to another one again, if your wallet has anything to say about it. But you'll be very thankful that you did make that impulse purchase all those weeks back, and you'll always keep an eye out for the next time Miku is in town.