Last October, Lee Soo Man, founder of K-Pop agency SM Entertainment, announced that they were debuting a new eight-member girl group, composed of 4 real members and their virtual counterparts. Lee also revealed the agency’s plans to create “customized avatars” that fans could “co-exist with”, “like a person or a friend.”
LEE SOOMAN IS PLANNING TO USE ADVANCED INTELLIGENCE TO CREATE IDOL AVATARS FOR US TO OWN pic.twitter.com/FOaTuD5Pjf— ♡Wanziᵛ∞①₁₂₇↔️🌹 (@Wanzi_G) October 28, 2020
The announcement lit K-Pop stan Twitter on fire, with many calling Lee out for furthering the “They’re made up of robots” agenda that the global West constantly pushes on Asian idols.
However, this concept of virtual celebrities isn’t anything new in Japanese culture. Those familiar with Vocaloid and its poster girl Hatsune Miku know that virtual, albeit more fictional versions of these AI idols have been around for years.
It’s this fact that served as a great starting point for our very first Doghouse Live! Discord discussion. Underdog called in experts in the field, i.e. longtime fans of virtual celebrities and personalities to weigh in on their faves.
We invited illustrator Marian Hukom, who previously emailed Underdog with a love letter to Vocaloid that detailed how she ended up “trapped in a mechanical singing hell”. We also had on Gia Canta, who went ham on Vtubers with her boyfriend Zeon Gomez (who has distant dreams of becoming a VTuber in the future).
Many points were made during the course of our two-hour long Discord call. We summarize them below.
For Marian, the rise of Hatsune Miku is proof enough that virtual is mainstream. Zeon mentioned that the concept of having virtual avatars taking over entertainment might only seem strange from the lens of someone who isn’t as familiar with Japanese culture.
Gia used the utaite as an example. Utaite are Japanese cover singers represented by 2D avatars who cover songs (usually Vocaloid). In recent years, they’ve expanded to activities typical of YouTube streamers, including Let’s Plays and collaborations.
Since Vocaloid and plenty of the ‘mainstream’ Vtubers (see: Hololive) are anime adjacent, there’s a general misconception that these artists can only occupy those spaces. Lately, we’ve been moving away from that idea because it’s definitely not a new thing in Japan, where you have Vtubers like Kizuna AI gracing major ad campaigns.
Gia and Zeon explained that Vtubers allow for anonymity and take away the focus from your physical self. In this way, the technology just makes things more inclusive.
“It’s really toxic to stream as a female streamer,” said Gia about the way viewers tend to nitpick and criticize the way streamers look. “As a Vtuber, you don’t have that. What are you gonna say? They’re not drawn nice?”
People who are quick to criticize Vtubers as “Black Mirror-esque” fail to see that there is a person behind these personas. “It’s just a person with an avatar,” added Gia. “When Vtubers talk about their real lives, sometimes they even cry when they talk about their problems. Some are in an agency but some of them are just them with no corporation backing them.” In that sense, being a Vtuber is really not different from being a regular YouTuber.
Creating these virtual personalities takes more time and effort than if you were to start your own real-life streaming channel, and much like “regular” streamers, it’s normal for them to seek out ways to earn cash to sustain their content. “Everything that starts out sincere can end up being capitalized. You can’t just 3D render and not make any money off of it,” said Zeon.
Regardless of whether or not you think everyone is capitalizing on the phenomenon, it’s fair to say that the involvement of bigger corporations can bring up the question of authenticity in these virtual avatars. Authenticity really depends on the creators themselves.
Miku, Seraphine, and K/Da are all fictional characters created by big corporations. Created by Riot Games, K/Da started out as a project to sell some League of Legends skins. Meanwhile, Seraphine’s Twitter airs out her company workshopped mental issues that make people sympathize with her character.
We also see virtual influencers like Lil Miquela (who was originally an art project and social experiment) now endorsing some of the biggest brands. And while there are VTuber agencies backing virtual personalities, many in the same spectrum of entertainment remain independent streamers.
The general consensus is that yes, eventually the idea of virtual celebrities will move on from the anime niche to more mainstream spaces. K/DA and aespa are just some examples of an attempt to bring the concept to larger audiences, riding on the popularity of K-Pop.
Hatsune Miku concerts are always sold out, and she’s even gone on a world tour. As Gia said, “It’s already happening, and it’s still happening. Been around for 10 years, it seems like the natural progression of things. Nothing to be scared of. The future is now.”
Doghouse Live! happens once a month on the Underdog Discord, streamed live on Facebook. Got a topic you wanna talk about at our next discussion? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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