A Lukewarm Take On Miku’s Lukewarm “Letterman” Performance

An appearance that changed the game by simply occurring, but for no other reason.

Last night, underground pop sensation Hatsune Miku drew her biggest audience yet.  While the Ed Sullivan Theater she performed in only held 400 people, there were also around 1.5 million people or more (based on recent ratings) watching at home, either knowingly or unknowingly watching a likely historic episode of Late Night With David Letterman.

The appearance itself went about the same as every other Letterman musical guest. The last segment of the night belongs to the performer, who does their thing and then the credits roll. Part of me was surprised that this was part of the Late Show‘s live-to-tape process (the show tapes earlier in the day)–I mostly expected it to be recorded separately from the rest of the show. While Miku being on Letterman was a bit of a stunt (in addition to the usual “LOOK AT MY THING” promotion that these performances are meant to do), it didn’t seem as out of place as you think.  Other guests from the recent season include Bleachers, Delta Spirit, Kandace Springs, and will later have Rival Sons before a week of Foo Fighters.  Miku is in the same alternative vein, just a bit more colorful.

As for the performance itself, I was left underwhelmed.  I may have mentioned this before, but I used to write for a Vocaloid fan blog, though it’s been years since I paid close attention. The choice of song felt very safe, choosing not to push boundaries of what Vocaloids can do. While the visuals looked great and smooth on my CRT TV (I can only imagine what it looked like on giant flatscreen with a high refresh rate) there was nothing special really added in. There was one or two CG effects sprinkled in for flavor, but most of the performance was watching a cartoon character in a vivid-yet-muted blue-green color scheme sing and dance behind a guitarist and drums.

The entire thing, to me, reminded me of a stereotypical launch title for a new console; it was pretty to look at, but once you got past the visuals, there was no real substance to be found. This is understandable with video games, as a new console normally has a new learning curve in regards to programming for it, but live Miku performances have been happening since 2009(?!), so there’s no newness to hide behind.  Perhaps the choice was to not do something too exotic for risk of alienating an audience who was likely already confused (I snarked on Facebook that Miku was a great lead-in for Craig Ferguson, and if you’ve watched The Late Late Show, you probably can figure out why) and instead doing something safe and relying on the performance’s inherent novelty to propel interest.

If that was truly the goal, the Miku wranglers were spot-on. In addition to the usual suspects, sites like Buzzfeed and The Verge are now producing intro articles about Vocaloid fandom, while fansites are trying to unpack what just happened and what it means for the future. Miku’s performance has earned a spot in the current news cycle, but only because it happened. Far more exciting things happened on Letterman last night, and maybe that’s okay.  Perhaps this was art to be viewed for art’s sake, but there was a missed opportunity to do something more impactful and moving, the way all music can be. For one night, Hatsune Miku was a girl with weight, but she could’ve also had a heart.