This month saw publication of The Oxford Handbook of Music & Virtuality, containing my chapter, "Hatsune Miku, 2.0Pac and Beyond: Rewinding and Fast-forwarding the Virtual Pop Star."
In it, I survey a history of virtuality in pop music stars, from the Chipmunks and the Archies up to Gorillaz and Dethklok — many of the non-corporeal, animated characters that presaged current virtual pop stars like Hastune Miku and the Tupac resurrection.
What is a hologram?
Dictionaries say one thing, but popular discourse says much more. From its birth as a collage of post-WWII optical sciences through the 1970s, holography was an evolving but fairly easily defined practice. Its products were called holograms — photo-like film images that delivered a more three-dimensional view of the subject.
Then "Star Wars" happened.
This week marks the 30th anniversary of Live Aid. Memory flashes I’m still able to conjure from my aging brain: Paul Young’s flouncy pirate cuffs, the poetic irony of Geldof’s mic failing during his own set, Elvis Costello’s classy choice of "an old northern English folk song," the Pretenders’ playing surprisingly laid-back, of course U2’s career-making set and Queen’s delivery of the world’s quintessential arena-rock performance. Political opinions aside, it was an unequaled day of, let’s say, musical performativity.
The DVD set of the concerts bears a postmark-like stamp that reads, “July 13, 1985: The day the music changed the world.” Thirty years have allowed for much evaluation of nearly all the changes wrought (not all for the better; read this excellent piece about Live Aid’s “corrosive legacy”). What it did change — drawing from research I conducted a few years ago into protest music (or the lack thereof) at Occupy Wall Street events — was the common conception of popular musical protest practice, resituating it from the open street to the ticketed arena, as well as the establishment of celebrity at the very core of such practices.
There's an oft-cited quotation within the circles of popular music. It goes like this: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." It's a succinct summation of the challenge of music criticism — of experiencing the ineffable magic of any art and then using mere words to pin down all that smoke. Throughout my 20 years getting paid to do just that, I recognized the futility of the activity (while counting my lucky stars).
The quote — attributed to a wide variety of sources, though it was most likely a Martin Mull original, according to the fearless and tireless Quote Investigator — usually is bandied about by musicians (commonly by those who have been on the receiving end of some sharp criticism) with the intent of belittling music critics. They wield the statement in order to point out how worthless is the critical pursuit, how beneath their attention. They could be right.
But I'm newly involved in plumbing the depths of performance studies, and it's lead to a not-small revelation about that quotation's very metaphor.
(photo by @notalyce)
It's conference month for me — this time to Theorizing the Web, last weekend in New York City. Specifically, fitting the group's un-conference feel, in a warehouse in Williamsburg.
TtW is a gathering of ridiculously smart people working on projects related to network analysis, social media, human-computer interaction, and all manner of online and infrastructure theory.
Life is great like this: I spent an afternoon this week unpacking the remainder of my library (delayed, as often happens, months after moving in), and basking in the intense comfort of having treasured volumes once again within reach; then, I sat down with a well-earned cocktail and opened Illuminations, a collection of Walter Benjamin essays recently added to my to-read shelf — and what to my wondering eyes should appear but the anthology’s first selection: “Unpacking My Library.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the patron saint of finals weeks. The psyche prof developed the concept of the “flow” state. (Watch his TED about it.) You know it as being “in the zone” — that state of concentration where you become so deeply involved in an activity that you lose time. Csikszentmihalyi described it as being “completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies.” Flow is essentially an intense but positive and creative feeling of presence (Heeter, 2003). If, like me, you’re writing papers right now, flow-ing is where you want to be.
For this writer, background music has become essential to reining in my limbic system and achieving something like Csikszentmihalyi’s flow state. To that end, I’ve found a few resources pretty indispensable this year.
My early days as a rock scribe pre-dated most indoor smoking bans. I used to keep a separate wardrobe of club clothes — stuff I didn’t mind getting infused with ashtray aromas, since even repeated tumbles in the wash didn’t remove the smell completely. I stopped smoking at the dawn of the ’90s, but my transition was made easier by working within the clubs’ secondhand cloud. When I was a critic again in Chicago the last few years, it was always strange to be seeing a band clearly and exiting the club not reeking of cigarettes.
Nathan Jurgenson (he of the smart arguments against dualisms of online-offline, virtual-real, live-mediatized) recently tweeted: “lol-op-ed idea: ‘the rock club’s cigarette-haze has been replaced by screens & now we’re all coughing in the digitality.’” Funny, but true — and perhaps a useful metaphor: the eversion of cyberspace is an exhalation, a long stream of bits billowing into our various environments, from the backrooms of clubs to the backseats of cabs.
The first time I saw Hatsune Miku in concert, I started scribbling notes. “It’s Rei Toei!!” was the first thing I wrote. That was the 2011 Live in Sapporo show, simulcast to movie theaters in nine U.S. cities. Last weekend, celebrating the Japanese digital idol’s sixth birthday (well, her sixth 16th birthday…), Miku’s Magical Mirai concert was broadcast on delay to just two cities here (LA and NYC) — but the show was a remarkable improvement and a blockbuster performance all around. I couldn’t help but scribble more notes, including this possibly more telling one as Miku appeared with a guitar: “Transformation to Madonna complete.”
Hatsune Miku turns 6 this month, the ol’ gal, and she’s celebrating with another global simulcast concert event — the Magical Mirai 2013, a concert at Yokohama Arena broadcast on delay to movie theaters around the world, including Los Angeles and New York. Fans gather in each venue to watch the same show at the same time — a world tour without the performer having to travel. But why is a “hologram” like Miku the only performer regularly doing this?
Because she can, of course. Digitally animated performers like Miku, or 2.0Pac from last year’s Coachella, aren’t actual 3D holograms — but they aspire to be. As such, they’re paving the way for a future (not necessarily the future) of live concerts. They hint at the possibility of one day alleviating the extraordinary stress of touring, for both musicians (oy, the schlepping) and fans (the sound sucks, the sightlines suck, the beer sucks, and would y’all shut up and please put your freaking phones down?). The alternative: intimate shows for those who want to be there, and beaming it into living rooms — seriously beaming it, in 3D — for those who don’t.
I'm THOMAS CONNER, communication researcher and culture journalist.