Hatsune Miku live in London: the virtual pop idol takes over Brixton in a celebration of her vast online community

London, O2 Academy Brixton, January 11, 2020

The idea of a virtual pop star is something western culture has only recently begun flirting with, and often does so with an air of cynicism. Miley Cyrus played a singer whose manager created a hologram version of her when she fell into a coma in Black Mirror. Lil Miquela is a “robot” who started making music and modelling on Instagram after being “re-programmed”. Poppy – a living, breathing human – insisted she was not like the rest of us, but a sentient AI being. The closest we’ve got to the real thing is dead artists being resurrected as holograms with varying degrees of quality.

In Japan, the digital pop world is much more advanced as tonight’s MIKU EXPO at London’s O2 Academy Brixton shows. It’s centred around Hatsune Miku, an anime character of a 16-year-old girl with long turquoise pigtails who was first created as the face of Yamaha’s Vocaloid software. According to Crypton – the company behind her – she has featured on over 100,000 songs, some created by the team who made her, others by fans themselves.

Across the night, some 25 of those tracks make the setlist. She twirls her way through the hurried, bouncing piano intro to ‘Rolling Girl’, pigtails flying around her as the crowd chants to the beat as if they’re egging on a real human. On ‘Blue Star’, her already synthetic voice gets put through thick layers of processing and ends up sounding like something that would be deemed ultra-cool if PC Music put it out. ‘Hyper Reality Show’, meanwhile, is better yet – a roaring metal juggernaut overlaid with Miku’s sweet vocals, giant plumes of dry ice blasted into the air with when things get really headbang worthy.

She might be the star of the show, but the night isn’t just about Miku. She’s joined by a host of other characters, some who beam in for their own solos and disappear again, others who duet with Miku or with other members of her crew. For ‘Jump For Joy’, she’s joined by Luka to turn out some choreography that would take mere mortals a lot of practice to nail, while earlier in the night blonde duo Rin and Len Kagamine appear in green and red jumpsuits like digital pop Power Rangers on ‘8Hit’.

Not everything about MIKU EXPO is programmed by computers. The setlist is driven by a four-piece human band who aren’t given the luxury of the usual breaks between songs for a singer to catch their breath or talk to the crowd. They power through two hours with barely a pause, hidden in the shadows as the holograms spin, cartwheel and bounce in front of the large mirror that adorns the back of the stage (holograms don’t have reflections, in case you were wondering). It looks exhausting but when they’re introduced towards the end of the night, they’re all smiles and intense focus.

Watching Miku and her friends is an experience like no other, if you can suspend your scepticism and appreciate it for what it is – an online community coming together IRL to celebrate a pop star who is built on collaboration. It’s not, as ‘Hyper Reality Show’ might suggest, “the greatest show on earth” – it lacks the impact of a physical gig, even with her human band flanking her – but it is a mostly heartwarming, unique night out.