If you weren’t aware, Hatsune Miku had her first major, non-Lady Gaga-related American performance on David Letterman’s long-running Late Show the other day. While it’s tough to tell, given the nearly indecipherable nature of Vocaloid lyrics, whether the performane was in English, Japanese, or a mixture of both, it was at least varifiably weird as evidenced by Letterman’s openly nonplussed reaction:
Just how far out of touch with Western ideas of what’s cool and trendy the performance was is easy to describe in a few key moments from the video:
1) Miku waves her hand in the air, from side to side like she “just don’t care”, in a gesture that – while once considered cool – hasn’t been used non-ironically in the U.S. since 1998.
2) The keyboardist at one point attempts to get the crowd involved by pumping his fist in the air for a few moments, to which literally no one in the audience responds.
3) At one point early in the performance (around the :24 mark), the guitarist briefly smiles out at the audience only to quickly go straight-faced again; possibly a reaction to seeing that most of the crowd appeared to be half asleep.
4) David Letterman’s reaction at the end of the performance is a combination of complete bafflement and quiet resignation that this is essentially the sad, underwhelming whimper that is the culmination of both his sterling, decades-long career and the late-night talk show format in general (Conan O’Brien notwithstanding).
5) The crowd’s reaction overall, which Kotaku’s Brian Ashcroft confusingly described as “really into it,” was in fact the exact opposite of that. Watching the crowd reaction shots, one sees literally no head bobbing except for the occasional, slight side-to-side weave as people look around to others to gauge whether their own reaction of complete boredom and confusion is indeed the socially accepted reaction to be having.
Don’t get us wrong: There’s plenty of good pop culture coming out of Japan, from subversive, thought-provoking independent films to everything Haruki Murakami somehow accomplishes without the aid of hallucinogenic drugs, great family-friendly video games, etc. Even anime and manga, which is seen to have long passed its heyday even in Japan, is all well and good for those who are into it, but when it comes to the general, late-night talk show watching public, the performance seemed horribly misguided – a desperate attempt to reclaim the late 90s-to-early-2000s era when people in the west thought Japan was cool.
Since then, tourism numbers have taken an unbelievable dive and anime, manga and J-Pop have become even more niche than they used to be even as former fans of those mediums look more and more to Korea for their fix.
The David Letterman Hatsune Miku performance certainly reeks of the Cool Japan Fund’s influence; an organization that probably started with good intentions but has ended up rudderless, impotent and run by a cabal of old, out of touch Japanese politicians, at least a few of whom are cartoonishly evil, conniving and corrupt.
On the other hand, the likes of Baby Metal have shown us that “Cool Japan” really can be cool when you strip away the pretense and 30-something-at-a-college-party, “Please like me” desperation of producers and government-backed organizations living in a bygone era.
There’s something earnest and non-pretentious about Baby Metal’s incongruous mix of J-Pop, metal and doe-eyed lyrics pleading for kids to stop bullying each other, while Hatsune Miku – a dangerously short-skirted holographic android of indeterminate-but-probably-under-18 age – represents “Crazy Japan” in one convenient package (which is probably why Lady Gaga has taken such a liking to the character).