In defense of Vocaloids Part 5: Niche Music

On Tuesday, December 13, 2011 1 comments

I don’t like pop music. I think that’s pretty well established at this point. However, pop music has one thing going for it: you can dance to it with your friends. In the words of the Nostalgia Chick, “Pop music is the lowest common denominator.” It’s designed to have a very broad appeal, to use whatever passing trends are popular. Maybe Vocaloid songs will one day have that kind of reach. I don’t know, and I’m not going to make unsubstantiated predictions. What I do know is this: the user-generated format means that there will always be room for both popular and niche genres.

By niche, I mean things like narrative songs, techno, electro, and whatever the heck you call the song below. 
Because Vocaloid music is user-generated, they can target any audience they want. All it requires is someone with a song in mind and the courage to try making it. This means that the difference between fan and contributor is negligible. Anyone can make a Vocaloid song, theoretically speaking. The songs they make may suck, but it is very possible.

With such a large source of potential contributors, there is plenty of room for niche genres. Unlike financially-backed productions, an artist doesn’t have to worry about target audience or marketing (granted, it wouldn’t hurt). The target audience will find them.

Right now, Vocaloids are still fairly young, making them a niche genre all on their own. However, as the fandom continues to grow, sub-communities will form. So for now, maybe the only pace you can meet to talk about Vocaloids is VocaloidOtaku or the Vocaloid club on deviantart. However, as the fan base grows, it will splinter and subdivide into more specialized groups focusing on a particular interest. For example, all sci-fi was once lumped into one hazy genre, but nowadays you have subgenres like space opera, post-apocalyptic, steam punk, etc. A person might like Gattaca but hate Star Wars. While some people bemoan a fanbase splintering, it actually streamlines finding people with similar interests. If you know exactly what you like, and have a name for it, then you can find it easier.
Yes, these are both sci-fi. No, they have nothing in common.
While Vocaloid hasn’t reached that critical mass yet, it’s only a matter of time. Mainstream music takes decades to evolve, slowly reacting to new technology and listener tastes, but user-generated songs can change from day-to-day. They define themselves, so they don’t need to adhere to the conventions of a genre. All they have to do is think of a name for what they’re doing, and if people like it, then similar stuff appears. That’s what user-generated content ultimately means: constantly branching out while still leaving room for everyone’s tastes. So if there isn’t Vocaloid music you like yet, give it time. There will be.

This concludes my five part series “In Defense of Vocaloids.” If you like what you heard, check out the Vocaloid music page for more music suggestions. Do you have a suggestion for music I should ad to the page? Let me know! And no, I’m not done talking about Vocaloid, though that isn’t going to be the only focus of this blog. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more nerd analysis!
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In defense of Vocaloids Part 4: User-generated Content

On Thursday, December 8, 2011 2 comments

You guys remember that dandy article I wrote about stupid pop songs? Well, Vocaloid songs aren’t excused from nonsensical lyrics. However, they key difference is that Vocaloid songs are user-generated. That means most of the songs (with the occasional exception of bands like Supercell) are made by one person. Of course some of them are wildly stupid or esoteric. However, it also means that the artist is in charge of their work, and not big record labels.
These are the big name record companies. If you don't get signed with them, you might as well not exist.

Even though some pop stars write their own songs (Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, Taylor Swift, etc.), that doesn’t mean they have total control over their music. They work for record labels, who work for money. No, the record labels don’t dictate what the artist does (this isn’t some crazy conspiracy theory). What they do is good business: they help the artist brand an image they think will sell.
If you don’t have the “sound” the record label wants, then you don’t get sold. In an industry as over-saturated with hopeful musicians as mainstream music, there is no room for what a band wants. It’s what the record label is willing to sign, and if the band and the record label match up, then everything works out. However, the other 99% are left out of the loop. Not necessarily because they’re bad, but just because they aren’t what the industry is looking for.

I’m not trying to demonize record labels (I save my demonizing for publishing houses). It’s not their fault that there are so many more bands than there are slots in the top forty. All they do is make the same decision any rational human being would: pick the bands that are most likely to sell. And not all the artists record labels sign suck. However, neither do all the bands they turn away.

Vocaloid music provides an excellent middle-ground. Yes, if a song makes it big KarenT (the Vocaloid record label)  picks it up for distribution. However, that’s not the only way to find artists. Almost all of my favorite Vocaloid songs were found through old-fashioned browsing the internet. I listen to probably a hundred new songs every week, just clicking through related videos on Youtube or posted by some of the people I subscribe to. And I listen to a lot of crap. However, every time I find a song that rocks my socks, I take a little pride in knowing it was my choice to listen to that song, and not the record company’s.
Behold! A very scientific breakdown of the music I listen to. But it's totally worth it.

Vocaloids put the power back into the hands of the people who generate the songs. The whole Vocaloid fandom is one made by fans, for fans. Everything from the PVs to the songs to those silly little fanarts you find on the web. It’s a community that decides for itself what will be popular. That’s a kind of power that’s worth viewing a few crappy videos for.

What do you think? How does user-generated content affect the way media is marketed and made? Is having an interactive community important to enjoying something? Let me know!
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In defense of Vocaloids Part 3: Tell me a story

On Monday, December 5, 2011 1 comments

I love stories. At heart, I’m still a little kid wanting my mom to read just one more book before bedtime. If something attempts to make a narrative, no matter how sloppy it is, I’m automatically more inclined to like it. Stories have more meaning. In fact, there is a possibility that stories are stored in a different part of our brain that other, abstract facts. This is because stories are a uniquely human experience. Our minds are designed to frame things in terms of our own experience, which translates into narratives. We can relate and care about fictional characters because we can take their stories and relate them to the narrative of our own life.


The song "Daughter of Evil" had such a strong narrative that it got its own theater production based off of it.

How is this relevant? Well, one of the most beautiful things about the Vocaloid fandom is that many of the songs are narrative. As already stated in my previous post, you don’t need to understand the lyrics to appreciate a song. I would contend that the same is true for stories. When the notes and composition are tight, you can create feeling and conflict without retreating to words. Take opera as an example. Many of the most beautiful memorable operas are in foreign languages, like Wagner’s Ring Cycle or Madama Butterfly
Even if you don’t speak the language, you can still appreciate the story. Of course, having actors and translated lyrics certainly helps.

Fortunately, thanks to the magic of the internet and bilingual, artistic nerds, many Vocaloid songs have a new-age equivalent. Several songs are subtitled, and they come complete with animated music videos. These are called PVs, and they vary wildly in quality, but they help illustrate the story. Take a gander at one of my all-time favorite songs and see. 
With the internet, it really isn’t that hard to find the translated lyrics to a song. And while songs should stand by themselves, it’s amazing the kind of awesome sagas people make with singing software. There is mothy, one of my favorite producers, who weaves some of the most delightful dramas about the damned, or Machigerita’s creepy Dark Woods Circus series, or Kokoro. The list could go on forever.
How many mainstream songs make the effort to tell a cohesive story? Not very many. And with many modern music videos shifting to pointless post-modernism over actual content, PVs are a refreshing break. They aren’t over-glitzed, senseless spectacle (most of them, anyway). Instead, the stories they tell add an extra dimension to the songs.
Remember when Lady Gaga made a narrative music video? Remember how it made no sense, and the only reason people watched it was to see her strip?

What do you think? Are there any mainstream songs that tell stories that I’ve overlooked? Because I’d love to hear about them!

Part 4:
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In defense of Vocaloids Part 2: How important are lyrics?

On Saturday, December 3, 2011 4 comments

“Do you understand what they’re saying?” This is question #2 people ask when they learn I listen to Vocaloid. The majority of Vocaloid music is in Japanese (and even the stuff that is in English is kinda…indecipherable). Except for a few useless stock phrases, I don’t speak Japanese.

So why listen to music if you can’t understand the lyrics? The irrelevancy of this question makes me giggle. Let’s face it: there is absolutely no correlation between the profoundness of a song’s lyrics and its popularity. For evidence, observe exhibit 1:
No one’s going to dispute the sheer stupidity of Rebecca Black’s lyrics, but she isn’t the only offender. Pop songs are infamous for their nonsensical, silly lyrics. Here’s a few gems in recent years:
  • And now the dudes are lining up 'Cause they hear we got swagger/ But we kick 'em to the curb unless they look like Mick Jagger (Tik Tok by Ke$ha) 
  • I won't tell you that I love you/ Kiss or hug you/ Cause I'm bluffin' with my muffin/ I'm not lying I'm just stunnin' with my love-glue-gunning (Poker Face by Lady Gaga) 
  • Do you ever feel like a plastic bag,/ drifting through the wind wanting to start again? (Fireworks by Katy Perry) 
  • And this unforgettable gem of Socrates-worthy contemplation: Baby, baby, baby oooh/ Like baby, baby, baby nooo/ Like baby, baby, baby oooh (Baby by Justin Bieber).

They may have the same hair style, but only one of these singers has a personality (hint: it's KAITO)
My point isn’t to trash pop music (although I admit I enjoy doing it). My point is that there is more to music than lyrics. These songs are popular for the feel they have, for the combination of beat and rhythm and harmony. Lyrics are not necessary to make a song great. After all, many classical pieces (Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Canon in D, In the Hall of the Mountain King, the list goes on) do not need words to convey emotion.

The same goes for Vocaloid songs. Even if you can’t understand the words, the songs do a great job of creating mood. For example, listen to the somber yearning of AVTechNO!’s Darkness Six: 

Or check out the strength and unity in The Pair Tree Wither-er:  
These songs convey emotion whether you understand the words or not. Just like fans of techno or dubstep, Vocaloid otaku don’t need corny lyrics to enjoy a song. Real music should be felt through the notes.

Of course, that’s not to say that lyrics aren’t important. Many Vocaloid songs are narrative, telling captivating and meaningful stories. That’s for the next post, though. Until then, get out there and listen to your music, wordless, foreign, or otherwise.

What do you think? How important are lyrics in a song? Would you rather have meaningful lyrics or powerful melodies? Let me know!

Part 3
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In defense of Vocaloids: What is artificial?

On Friday, December 2, 2011 4 comments

“Why do you listen to artificial singers? Why not just listen to real singers?” I get asked this question every time I explain to people exactly what my bizarre, hipster, fruit-for-loops music is. I listen to Vocaloids. Vocaloids are computer programs that sing (for more info, check this out). People are usually confused about why I would listen to a song sung by a computer program instead of a human. I’ve been told that artificial music can never be as good as “real” music. There’s just one problem with this analysis.

Most pop songs are every bit as artificial as Vocaloids. Time Magazine wrote an excellent article (found here) on how the industry isn’t ashamed to use auto-tune to correct sour notes. Practically every commercially released song uses auto-tune to enhance the vocals. However, even disregarding the debate about lazy singers correcting their voices, music recordings are still artificial. All of them. Your CDs and mp3s, the music you hear over the radio, everything except live performances rely on sampling and compression. 

T-pain isn't afraid to flaunt his auto-tuned vocals. In fact, he uses them to create a signature sound.

“Sampling” is the process of translating notes and sounds into code that a computer can read. “Compression” is when your computer gets rid of unnecessary info by taking a string of tiny pieces of data that are very similar and replacing them with a bigger chunk of data. That way, there are less individual pieces for the computer to remember, so the file takes up less space. What this means is that mp3s are not a “true” reflection of a song, because the computer has replaced some tiny, imperceptible fluctuations in order to make the file smaller. You can read more by clicking here.

This is a image that has been (purposely) compressed beyond recognition. The computer took large chunks of grey that were almost-but-not-quite the same shade, and replaced it with one shade. The same thing can be done with music.

What this means is that, with the exception of live performances, all music is artificial. Actually, the definition of artificial is something “made or produced by human beings rather than occurring naturally," so even live music could be considered synthetic. That means judging music by whether it is artificial or not is an ignorant stance to take.

Of course, there are other reasons why people like or dislike Vocaloids. I’ll tackle those questions in future posts. For now, get out there and tell your grandma to stop hatin’ on all this new-age music.

What do you think? What is your definition of artificial music, and is artificial music inferior to natural performances? Let me know!
Part 2: 
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Shounen: Soft-core porn for girls

On Thursday, December 1, 2011 1 comments

Have you ever noticed that there are a ton of squeaky fangirls in love with shounen series like Naruto, Bleach, and Ao no Exorcist? In fact, there are more pubescent girl rooting for team SasuNaru than team Kyo nowadays. According to Google search, SasuNaru generates 2,610,000 hits while everyone’s favorite anime ginger only has 2,300,000 hits.

Why is this? Because shounen is soft-core porn for girls. You have a bunch of bishounen getting all sweaty and (accidentally) ripping each other’s clothes off. You have heart-rending oaths of revenge, manly tears, anguished declarations of resolve. And don’t forget the heavy bromance (you see two guys hanging out, a fangirl sees undercover-lovers). Shounen perfectly caters to what girls want in their anime.
To a girl, this is a buffet of bishounen beauty

I’ve met more giggle-happy girls infatuated with shounen that shoujo. How does that make sense? Shoujo is marketed towards girls. And therein lies the problem. You see, most shoujo anime makes one fatal flaw: they have a female protagonist. It’s not that the chick has the spotlight; it’s that the chick is generic, uninteresting and aggravating. Much like harem-anime and H-games, the lead in shoujo romances is there as an audience surrogate. She’s supposed to have as little personality or influence as possible so that the women watching can filter her out and insert themselves in.

Most girls are intelligent enough to intuitively understand that shounen skips that annoying middle step. They can ogle all the swirly-haired boy-goodness they want without putting up with a worthless protagonist.
Pop quiz: why do you think girls watch this show? If you guessed the bland girl in the middle, you are wrong.

So here is my challenge to the anime industry: come up with main characters who don’t suck. If you’re going to make a romance story, then make your lead an actual person. You know, someone who influences the plot and has strengths and weaknesses and all that. The key to romance is chemistry, and you can’t have chemistry with a cardboard cutout.

What do you think? Would you rather watch a strong romance between two interesting characters, or a harem-style anime where the main character is a place-holder for the audience’s imagination? Let me know!
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