For those who would yet sing

Wherein I engage in another long digressive trip down memory lane while attempting to answer a question.

“In every age, God sends a millennial angel to deliver his message to mankind. But the space between heaven and earth is a terrible void; in passing through it the angel is buffeted about by such forces that it loses its message, its memory, its purpose and finally its shape, until it is vomited forth across the night sky without form or substance knowing only a terrible hunger.” – Slavoj Zizek

Forget Baudrillard

WARNING! Incredibly meandering mess continues beyond the cutline!

You have been warned! Personal digressions, hobby horses and too many vocaloid videos ensue!. Hic sunt dracones!

UPDATE: Oh Snap! The full “live concert” video has been pulled. Below is a partial “live” version that was part of the “evolution” of the exploit.

If a concert video of an 18 foot high cartoon nymphette projected as a hologram and ‘performing “live” to a crowd of enthusiastic Japanese fans does not leave you with a small sense of the shock of the new then you are either in withdrawal from modern mass culture or a completely unfazed hipster netizen. You expect amusing treachery, and await the reveal; the punch-line of an elaborate attention-getting device, and the consumer pitch that must inevitably follow it – or discretely pop-under it.

This is the stuff of modern net culture, and by now we are familiar enough with Baudrillard’s simulacrum, the material analogue to the floating signifier (think cowboy boots used in every other context than herding livestock); the copy without any original, that like new testament demons are legion in modern mass culture. No proper crit-speak discussion of vocaloids can proceed without mentioning Jimbo (and politely tipping the hat to Gibson’s Iduro) but perhaps a bit of a refresher on some of the odder bits of the simulacrum is in order.

Welcome to the desert of the real:

“…The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.”  -Jimbo himself

A block-quote from the wiki might be the quickest way of dealing with it:

” 1. The first stage is a faithful image/copy, where we believe, and it may even be correct, that a sign is a “reflection of a profound reality” (pg 6), this is a good appearance, in what Baudrillard called “the sacramental order”.

2. The second stage is perversion of reality, this is where we come to believe the sign to be an unfaithful copy, which “masks and denatures” reality as an “evil appearance—it is of the order of maleficence”. Here, signs and images do not faithfully reveal reality to us, but can hint at the existence of an obscure reality which the sign itself is incapable of encapsulating.

3. The third stage masks the absence of a profound reality, where the simulacrum pretends to be a faithful copy, but it is a copy with no original. Signs and images claim to represent something real, but no representation is taking place and arbitrary images are merely suggested as things which they have no relationship to. Baudrillard calls this the “order of sorcery”, a regime of semantic algebra where all human meaning is conjured artificially to appear as a reference to the (increasingly) hermetic truth.

4. The fourth stage is pure simulation, in which the simulacrum has no relationship to any reality whatsoever. Here, signs merely reflect other signs and any claim to reality on the part of images or signs is only of the order of other such claims. This is a regime of total equivalency, where cultural products need no longer even pretend to be real in a naive sense, because the experiences of consumers’ lives are so predominantly artificial that even claims to reality are expected to be phrased in artificial, “hyperreal” terms. Any naive pretension to reality as such is perceived as bereft of critical self-awareness, and thus as over-sentimental.”

Wow! This was all such heady stuff 30 years ago! It still gives me a good laugh, as Jimbo first and foremost loved his poetic hyperbole and had a master’s eye for human foibles. Terry Eagleton confirms that he was a closet devourer of high late modern American social science fiction, (Galaxy c.a 1960’s) and if you looked closely, you could see the muddy tracks all over his popular works and critical commentary. When you wanted to see what he truly loved, you read his art criticism pieces in the European art magazine Flash Art (something I had to point out to one of his biographers, back before the interwebs made such oversights less likely) His penchant for provocation and overstatement made plenty of serious folks boil over with rage and dismissal, while many of those who accepted this side of him thought he too often verged on a despairing nihilism (he didn’t – he reserved his nihilism for the ‘unreal’ game of lazy ‘magical thinking’ that underpins so much of mass culture). True heir to the Frankfurt school (another thing I had to point out to one of his biographers,) and far less prone to its characteristic “I’m in Despair! Everything is Shit! No more Epic Poetry” excesses. He was one of a kind and I miss his crazy shit.

He was of course also very Big in Japan. And The Wachowski Brothers thought his stuff was big fun too!

The folks at the wiki share this sense of humour. Note the See Also section in his entry:

See also[edit]

* Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
* Ghost in the Shell
* Laplace’s demon
* Public Opinion
* Simulated reality
* Simulation hypothesis
* The Matrix

Ok, so I have an odd sense of humour too… What Jimbo never set down in simple words was how the sorcerer’s apprentice nature of mass culture promised “power” and agency as if by magic – without ever revealing what a shoddy, dysfunctional, failure-filled and ultimately trivial Faustian bargain such exercises were prone to.

If you can laugh at competing sock puppets run 16 at a time through custom software by paid consultants, filling opposing political blogs’ comment sections with vitriol in order to “change public opinion” you share some of his views (and mine, and’s) on what is funny. Both Baudrillard and Yankee 1960’s sci-fi had heard of the anthropology trope the cargo cult, but Jimbo saw that such magical thinking was far more widespread than generally thought, and deeply embedded in the way we make sense of our complex world.

Back to vocaloids and the above youtube clip: Hatsune Miku, her wranglers and the folks at Crypton Media et al. have never staged a live performance of a cover of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face. Miku only sings “live” in Japanese.

Reveal time: netizen fans used a (probably) bootleg copy of the vocaloid program and painstakingly inputted the phonetics to approximate an English rendition of the song and uploaded it to youtube. (1) Soon after other fans cut and sequenced a “live” Miku performance video to sync it up (enough) to match one’s expectations of what a streaming youtube video of a “live” Hatsune Miku performance thereof would look like.

No biggie. So what if they did it all for free, out of love and for the Lulz / For The Win. Yawn, typical net shenanigans, and yet as good or bad as any “original” (whats that?) Hatsune Miku “live” performance video on youtube.

Gotta give the virtual girl some slack, she’s still learning/ getting better hardware/ software. She get by with a little help from her friends.

Follow the steps back, like a viewer using Damon Knight’s time & distance viewer from “I See You“. Caution! Do not adjust the time control!




Bonus state-of-the-art report:

Lets try to do the holo projection for our little fan convention, on the cheap! (disambiguation time: this is a vocaloidization of a Japanese tune of the same name, not a Gaga cover)


Mwhaaa Haaa Haaa! 

Great is our power! We have tamed the lightning and taught the sand to sing!

Mwhaaa Haaa Haaa!  (2)

A whole lot of fans pool their efforts to see their faves doing stuff that the copyright owners avoid. Just like dojinshis, fanzines, slash, fanfiction and all the other messy secondary cultural production that we have come to expect from global interwebbed mass culture v2.0.  More goodies here and here.

And then there is the fun of picking on the slow kid in the class: MS SAM does Miku’s signature song:


Hey! No fair! You aren’t trying hard enough!

The vocaloid is not a new thing: see this review for the 2003 advent of the vocaloid:

All this fun and nonsense is easy to dismiss as loser-dog Otaku enjoying a typically otaku-ish dry-hump of a thrill…

“Most men around the world are not wracked by such deep status insecurity that they want to live in a world where chesty two-dimensional 12 year-old girls grovel at their feet and call them big brother.” –

Is that all there is to it?

But wait – there’s more! Order today and we’ll send you the female counterpart to this supposedly atavistic Japanese male Otaku desire, at NO EXTRA COST! And it has a lot more theory moe stuck to it!

“”Let me try [to do here] what still can’t be done in academic writing. Let me say outright: I have fallen for the Vocaloid virtual idol Hatsune Miku. Something about her, as a virtual idol who is made to express in song what she can’t feel even as she may “feel” things we have no way to express, has caught my imagination. Rationally, critically, “I” know she’s nothing more than a mascot for a Yamaha product playing to Otaku tastes. But emotionally, she moves “me” more than should be possible or reasonable. Is it just that she’s a transitional object, a means for me to move from reality to (my own) fantasies? Yes, but…what kind of relation is this?

Ah, no, it’s no use, I can’t do it even here. What Hatsune Miku makes me feel still unspeakable, though I keep trying. The desperate problem of fan studies is not just that there are these divides between academic and fan, or between rational and emotional, but that there are still strong social sanctions embedded in the language around what can be said about feeling and what can’t.”
–  Words That We Couldn’t Say, For me, there’s something unspeakable about fandom.


“This paper explores the intersections between “kyara,” desire, and fan production by reading the Vocaloid idol Hatsune Miku through Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s theory of the “Body without Organs” (BwO).

The first section explains the elusive BwO through three keywords: desire, intensity, and (de)stratification. It shows how Deleuze and Guattari understand desire not as a lack but as an immanent creative force, generating freely-circulating intensities. In contrast to criticisms of the BwO as apolitical abstraction, however, I bring out the vital social implications that arise when the BwO is organized or stratified in embodied practice.

To illustrate a BwO in practice, I turn next to the example of the kyara or character in anime, manga, light novels and related media. Here I discuss the difference between the kyara of the media-mix industry and the traditional “I” of the Japanese “I-novel,” comparing their modes of subjectivity and desire, their media temporalities, and the ways they build up or break down strata of identity and social hierarchy.

Finally, as a concrete case study, I consider the virtual idol singer Hatsune Miku and the uses she is put to by major corporations and fan collectives. In asking “What Can a Vocaloid Do?”, my paper reformulates Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the BwO in light of today’s media environment, and provides a more complex perspective on the Vocaloid phenomenon, beyond the easy celebrations of user empowerment touted by the media giants themselves.”
– What can a Vocaloid do?

Merin-chan is (the recently Phd’d) Dr. Sandra Annett. I await her paper: “What can a Vocaloid Do? The Kyara as Body Without Organs” which should pop up in some issue of Mechademia soon. (Later: it is in to Mechademia by mid 2014, and corrected a typo in her name – jeesh I fail!) It promises to cover some of this stuff with much more elegant recourse to theory. It would be even better if she just posted it on her blog in full. Mechademia is getting a bit expensive and tedious lately but what know I of academic publishing?

But when I first read it, it hit me like a gut-punch because I had suffered a similar affliction some 15 years ago. So I left a long rambling response to her post and got a reply, in part below:

“As for Miku…well, she’s something else for me, more than a musical instrument. She sets off some kind of desiring for an inhuman or post-human body I have and don’t have, for the virtuality of my body. I guess that’s why I went into D&G territory.”

I guess the need for making a computer sing and then sticking the result up on the internet, can be traced back to the allure of the phonograph record, the crystal radio, and even the wax cylinder that compelled Edison to intone “Mary had a little lamb” into the cone for the ages. A vocal act that lives long after its creation and circulates freely through culture over time. And a computer voiced song loose on the archives of the web (and circulating among friends on home-brew CDs) is a bit more (and was a lot more in 1999, when there was no youtube and CD burners were rare, expensive toys). But when a cartoon avatar or better, an animated holographic one is matched to the voice, the lure of such a creation increases exponentially.

Holy Mary Shelly, Batman!

Elements of drag, puppetry, transcendence and power jostle with other un-articulated and formless longings.

More (block-quote warning!) from Merin-chan:

“There’s a particular feeling to becoming a fan of something: a catch, a kindling. It’s as if you’re walking with a soft, trailing knit blanket around your shoulders and suddenly feel a tug at the hem, something caught in the fibers. Pick it up. What is it? Something fascinating, something new. Just a little thing, maybe a single image from a program or the riff of a song, compact as a burr. Can you open it out? Has anyone else seen this thing? It’s sticky burr-hooks are caught in your fabric now. But why keep *this* one, and not everything else you may brush against or cast for with the blanket of your attention, like a net? Why do some things fall through the field of what matters to you, and others adhere?

It could be a psychological thing. Several very good recent books on fan studies, like Matt Hills’ Fan Cultures and Steve Bailey’s Media Audiences and Identity: Self-Construction in the Fan Experience, use different psychological models of subjectivity to explain why we do what we do.

Hills, for instance, draws on psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s theory of the “transitional object,” a physical object a child plays with which “forms part of the young child’s initial separation of subjective and objective spheres, being the first me and not-me object” (104). It isn’t that this thing is just a material object that’s outside the child: it’s that through it, “the child jumps from a perceived world to a self-created world,” recreating the object into a means of imaginative play. With the transitional object, “both these things are true: the infant created it and the world provided it” (105).

The texts fans focus on, Hills argues, act like transitional objects in that they let fans “play with (and across) the boundaries between ‘fantasy’ and ‘reality'” (106). Hills goes on to complicate this with “secondary transitional objects” and the like, trying to avoid accusations that psychoanalytic accounts like Winnicott’s are universalizing (do all children in all cultures at all times act the same way, namely, the way European psychoanalysts say they do?) But the idea is that certain things catch our interest not because of their content, but because we use them to transition between the objective and the subjective, between “what this is” and “what it makes me feel.”

Bailey is also very concerned to get at fan subjectivity. For Bailey, the problem is that there’s a split in academic criticism between the critical, active fan as agent and the feeling fan who “just likes” something and whose emotions are like a black box. Bailey wants to argue for a kind of fan subjectivity that is both affectively engaged and critically aware. To do this, he draws on the theories of philosopher and sociologist George Herbert Mead, who describes the social subject as made up of the conventional, habitual “me” and the self-reflexive “I.” The important thing is that the “me” and the “I” aren’t split into independent capacities, but are “part of a mutually enabling pair” (31), just as fans can be both emotional and rational in their fan subjectivity.

There is a lot I like about these accounts, especially how they deconstruct oppositions of real/fantasy and active/passive. But the problem is, they’re still accounts of how anything might appeal to anyone. Hill’s “transitional object,” no matter how he nuances it to avoid universalism, is still a developmental model, premising “the fan’s” present behaviour on ideas of what “people” do as children. Any fan, any people. Bailey’s case studies of fandom range from an avant-garde film festival to Kiss fandom to Futurama websites. In academia (as Hills is well aware) you need to create models that apply widely, or otherwise you’re just navel-gazing. But at heart, I don’t really want to know how anyone might like anything in a theoretical and objective way. I want to know, subjectively: why this thing, why me, why now?”
– Ibid. What can a Vocaloid do?

Forget Kristeva

Why indeed!

At some point I had found myself reading Julia Kristeva; first the Powers of Horror (swipe a copy here and make your brain hurt ), then some of her shorter art criticism pieces, and then something about Marguerite Duras. Then I gave up, as the philosophy got in the way of the poetics and the psychology got a bit too complicatedly circuitous for me to follow. But along the way I stumbled upon her iteration of the concept of the chora/ kora/ khôra:

As the wiki so elegantly states:

“The concept of the chora, distinguished by its elusive properties, would have become a physical reality had the project been realized. Following Derrida, John Caputo describes khôra as: neither present nor absent, active or passive, the good nor evil, living nor nonliving – but rather atheological and nonhuman – khôra is not even a receptacle. Khôra has no meaning or essence, no identity to fall back upon. She/it receives all without becoming anything, which is why she/it can become the subject of neither a philosopheme nor mytheme. In short, the khôra is tout autre [fully other].”

And the fully other is a dangerous thing indeed. Besides, even though it had nothing to do with choruses, it sounded like it should

So I decided to build one.

It was 1999, and fortunately I was very unemployed at the time. Between scrambling for freelance tech work, or an entry grade art grant, I had plenty of time to crawl, (and I mean crawl – as in dial-up) the internet as it was available to mortals in 1999. I may have previously mentioned usenet groups (nothing like today’s usenet group download come-ons by net-scum) and certain sections of the alt.binaries heirarchies. I soon had access to all the early pc electronic music and sound manipulation software I could ever run on my lowly Pentium 133 desktop machine.

A few years before I had snagged a somewhat functional CD burner. It was the size of a small suitcase, temperamental as all heck and ready to wreck $2 CD blanks at every glitch – yet almost reliable enough to spit out my own home-mastered music CDs once I came up with a dos batch file to run it. Don’t laugh, a CD burner could run over $800 back then. Windows 95/98 and SCSI took forever to learn to get along, but the burner was happy in dos, once I begged an update rom file from a tech at Disney World (another usenet group foray), bought an eprom burner and a UV light, and took a hammer to a junked IBM electronic typewriter for the needed eprom chip.

Did I mention desire ???

Only one little problem remained: I have no musical aptitude whatsoever. Perhaps your parents sent you to music lessons when you were young and something stuck. Perhaps it didn’t but later you picked up a guitar and worked out a few tunes to amuse yourself. Same with me, except for the stuck part. Nothing stuck. Nothing. Ever! A howling big nadda!

This was (and remains) a bit frustrating.

My sense of beat is patchy, and massively off. I have a tin ear, or at least an indifferent one; a friend who is a musical prodigy once spent time with me and convinced me that my music teachers had really messed up, and I could nail a few notes easily within a semitone or better before a curious “drift” kicks in.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum

But the damage from my youth was firmly in place and it made any later-in-life guitar-learning epiphany a remote dream. You know all that Do RE Mi singing stuff? What spawn of Satan dreamed that up that cruel joke? It all sounds pretty well the same! And how in the effing name of all the devils in seven hells does it match up with A b flat C D E F G scales? Some stupid nun with a big stick would then lay a John Belushi getting done in by Sister Mary Penguin scene on me for not instantly sensing the connection. Yup, lets hear it for Catholic early childhood music lessons. I’m not really bitter about this (much); these same good sisters or at least one of them once announced to our 6th grade class that her retirement plan was to go convert “savages” in Africa, “even if it meant martyrdom”. I shit thee not !!!

If I want music, I’ll turn on a radio.

Then there was (and remains) the problem with musicians: A non-musician should never hang out with the musically gifted – it only leads to heartbreak, and the bitter realization that even if you “like” music, you can count on any group of musicians to ruin it for you when they start showing off to each other and playing what they like. You think you are going to get some great secret jazz improv session – fat chance!

Myself, I became a fan of garage bands, early punk rock and anti-music because the emotion behind the screams of rage and disdain for all of it was far more resonant and important to me than whether or not the idiot on stage had their guitar tuned right. By 1990-1999, I only listened to select area bands live, those that played in a sub-genre that might now be known as “fail-core”. When they played you could hear the elder gods laugh out loud. Innocent bystanders considered these bands a crude form of painful comedy routine. Forget the guitar smashing climax, A fire ax taken to a full-sized wheezer organ is far more cathartic, and the damn thing makes more noise as it is laid into. You also can do amazing things with a lawn mower and a bank of effect boxes, especially if a local art gallery is foolish enough to let you fill their 3rd floor atrium with lawn mowers and honking big amps and speakers.

There are two kinds of people who listen to music in the world: Those who get this:

and those who can’t

These guys get it:

Their childhood music lessons must have been even more stupid than mine.

Paranoia Agents

I had decided that it would be a really good thing ™ to spend a few weeks making my desktop computer sing like a robot girl chorus, then put some music behind it and make a song. Because I just didn’t want to imitate something else, I decided that it would be an original song. Because I was well aware of the perils of painfully naive first efforts that carry much too much personal and/ or cultural baggage (the song lyric as equivalent to a Mary Sue fic?) I decided that the “song” would have nonsense lyrics, and algorithmically randomized melodies.

From the net, I scored a short text that would serve as a lyric: an engineering joke about pipe specifications. I would have preferred some nonsense in another language, because – let’s face it, mawkish lyrics often ruin a song, but a language I barely understood would be even harder to turn into plainsong.

I already had a copy of Microsoft’s Talk it; a kids’ front end for its built-into Windows MSAGENT voice banks. More voices, European ones, and some custom mods to the same, were tracked down. Other text-to-speech programs were sought out. Most were too limited to be of much use, but I persevered. The problem was not the voices, but the control layer.

Around that time one anonymous wag had cobbled together a simple desktop panel with buttons that could be clicked to invoke pre-entered phrases. To this was added a sing-song toggle, and minor pitch adjustments and the mess was deployed onto the interwebs of the late 1990’s as Shit-Talker. This simple program was supposed to be used for prank calling people and seeing how long you could get your victim to carry on a conversation with your robot-voiced puppet! (3)

A Mechanical Turk version of Eliza the turing-test joke! A lot of folks had too much time on their hands! As a bonus, it could be set to do something close to singing. I ended up using shit-talker’s control of the MSAGENT voices a lot. Here is a youtube demo of a simpler control panel, but it gives some idea of the voices you could play with


There was something about the sing-song setting in these early text to speech engines that appealed to me.

Having a lot of time on my hands also meant that I had started reading some of the classics that i had managed to miss during my long and varied academic life. The Penguin edition of The Orestia by Aeschylus was a whole lot of fun. Finally, The Merchant of Venice made sense, but what had stuck in my mind was the pursuing furies of the third play; almost mindless elder demigods of vengeance that replied to all reason and argument with a refrain of:

“Blood for blood! Blood calls for Blood!”

As quasi-divine agents of retribution, they were the enforcers of the curse placed upon the house of Atrius. Son kills father, Father kills daughter, wife kills husband, son kills mother, on and on and on. Even Apollo, who started the curse on a whim is powerless to stop it once the furies are involved. Only Athena can divert them, and the strong impression is given that she was out to turn them right from the get-go and that buddy boy made for a convenient opportunity. To make a long story short, she tricks them with offers of a regular salary, benefits, a pension plan and proper uniforms and then enlists the furies as cops.

To me the furies seemed to share a lot of the characteristics of kora of psychoanalytic-bent critical theory in that they were posited as neither / or subjects/ objects and were immensely powerful and unreasonably bent on the reality of their being, as purpose. They were as close to the Lacanian incomprehensible real and complete other (tout autre) as could be imagined. Not even the gods of Olympus or their predecessors the Titans could stop them, yet they were not really deities per say. They seemed to be called from raw existence itself by the blood of murder. Gravity, Electromagnetism and Vengeance. Ancient Greek variants of Hell Girl. As chthonic forces, they were also considered to be somewhat female, situating themselves further out of the realms of patriarchal power and reason, while being associated with death, decay, rot, and all manner of naturally gross yet ultimately fertile things.

My MSAGENT voices weren’t dead, but they had never been alive either. Unlike their later vocaloid sisters, they were not sampled from a singer or a seiyu. They had just sprung from the chthonic depths of Microsoft.

A chorus of singing Robot-Zombie-gods of vengeance! This was better than AKB48!

From an online midi score collection (some university student’s ftp folder, no forums back then) I grabbed a fairly catchy latin beat sequence and fed it through inverter/ polyphony midi manipulation programs until I had something different that worked as a repeating tune. (Hmmm, did you ever wonder why the accompany-ment section of the old Atari Cubase sequencer always sounded like Phillip Glass? I wonder which came first?) The next step was to use a bootleg beta of autotune to rudely jack these voices into some form of scale-following tune that worked with the melody. Along the way, I read the long engineering notes that came with the autotune beta Direct X plug-in and was blown away by the simple engineering based explanation of scales, frequencies and music. That tech paper stuck in with an odd little program really helped a lot. So did the various gray-sourced editors, multitrack mixers programs and other toys that I used to add, subtract, back up, try again, go back, lose this, put that back in, etc as the evenings faded into long nights.

There were also piles of inelegant audio-to-midi conversion utilities about that all failed wonderfully at reproducing the original tune. Failure was something I could use. Failure could be “fixed” into “new” with the right combination of borrowed midi processing algorithms…

It all became a bit obsessive.

Making an ancient pc on my kitchen table sing like a girl (actually three girls, in plainsong rondeau, with a tuned percussion backing) was not the worst of my creative crimes. Plenty of idiots have played with computer generated poetry, but I had an ace up my sleeve: A random-word generator program made by the legendary Finnish programmer Kai Risku. I had stumbled across it while hanging out on a SCSI usenet forum, looking for tip on how to get a certain evil CD burner working. While there I ended up begging a copy of his legendary program Text Frogger, which digested a source text file into a probability table of which word followed the other and then spat out sentences accordingly.

Such an approach was language-neutral and very very susceptible to strong patterns in texts with a poetic style. (Leonard Cohen Vs TS Elliot could be a real knockdown, drag-out fight!) It was also written for use in MSDOS, which was really good, because dos batch file trickery was about all the programming I could muster at the time. Other dos text manipulation programs abounded at the time; small utilities that would translate your text into pirate-speak or hillbilly speak. There were also a few primitive text-to-speech programs that ran off speaker ports and used backing tones just like bagpipe drones to get additive frequencies from low-bit outputs.

The old testament book of proverbs redone by text frogger and “piped” to jethro the hillbilly translation program to text to speech equals a robot suth’urn preacher running on a dumpster-dived 486.

Usenet erotica writing forum text dump randomized by text frogger “piped” to text to speech and down a wire to a wall telephone made for a robo-porn chat line joke sculpture (this one got a paying gig in a gallery – folks lined up to listen and giggle at what was in effect naughty words being dice-thrown – they could watch the screen of the 486 some 10 feet away “composing” the stuff.) At one point, I tried ripping off Goddard’s Alphaville by looping a breathing track in with the voice, but it overdid the joke. Heavy breathing distracted from the “no subject or agency here, move along!” punch line.

Aside: You would think that girly robot voices and usenet erotica based random pr0n would be some kind of perversely enjoyable artifact – you would be wrong. Knowing that the voices are robots, and that the content is a pure dice throw pile of naughty words is a sure buzz kill. I guess someone might find it enjoyable, hey A chacun son… But a phone book would make a sexier script. 

Some of you reading this might be catching the overarching theme here: singers that are not, but almost. Lyrics that are not, but almost, poetry that isn’t quite, but almost, melodies and rhythms that sound almost composed, but are not.

I was working overtime to erase the subject, meaning and agency behind the presented “almost-subject” creations, leaving little beyond their existence, their “need” to “speak” and what the listener believed they heard out of the whirlwind.

There was no here here – so what was left?

The robo-cracker-preacher wasn’t programmed to put subject next to verb and/ or whatever to create a meaningful sentence; it simply spat out words that had a certain weighted probability of following each other in the original source, according to endless virtual throws of the dice. The robo-porn was similarly composed, yet both bore an uncanny resemblance to their original forms and presented a fake, initially convincing impression of real meaning. You didn’t need a lot of “intelligence” to fake artificial intelligence – just codified habit/ convention expressed as structure was enough to approximate grammar, and therefore suggest the on-the-fly creation of meaning.

Perhaps the appearance/ presentation of the modern/ modernist subject has less to do with active, instrumental reason and more to do with structure, habit and convention than we normally flatter ourselves into believing.

This might be a bad place to go. It gets harder to sit through important real-life meetings that one’s livelyhood depends on, after one listens to enough robo-babble.

Forget Lacan

In her 1996 The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age Allucquere Rosanne (Sandy) Stone gave the reader a guided tour into the emerging circles of novelty heck that nascent information technologies and networking afforded the bored and the adventurous, all while playing with how these same were accelerating the fraying of the cloth of an already unraveling modernist subject. This kind of talk would soon develop into what became known as post-human, then trans-human discourse, and it picked up a lot of clumpy baggage like cyberpunk and singularity before it settled down into ho-hum net-sociology in the mid decade of the new millennium. Today it is the tedious commonplace of trolling, chat lines, forums and 4chan-ish anonymous image boards, MMOGS, Xbox games, identity theft, phishing, malware, sock puppets, youtube mashups, deviantart albums, fanfiction accounts, scanlation, porn sites, bittorrent streams, tracking cookies, netflix, NSA keyloggers and Ghost In the Shell SAC episodes streamed from dodgy video sites.

It still holds great charm, and even though I couldn’t swipe a pdf of it online or download it as a 99cent ebook (drm-free or not), I was able to buy a dead-tree version of it on Amazon for 1 cent plus $CA 6.99 shipping and handling from some warehouse near West Sussex, UK. (Ghost Pain: I feel like I have done something bad to the planet in this, but the feeling will pass.) As I have previously posted, I am a big fan of Sandy Stone; I caught two of her live presentations of some of the material that went on to become this book in the early 1990’s and was hooked. Angry critics might venture that the BS level in her talks could submerge a city, but this is of little consequence, since it was such high quality, entertaining and thought-provoking BS that one had to admire it as a work of high poetics and wise metaphor (even if she was in the habit of filing the serial numbers off a scene from “When Harry Met Sally…” and presenting it as a discourse on the post-human).

One of the fun things she brings up is how the “prosthetics” afforded by web 2,0 (or even web 1.1) afford all kinds of opportunities for multiple presentation, the creation of identities and avatars, and the general fragmenting of the subject for fun, distraction and profit. This goes beyond drag and puppetry to other strange places that are hard to get a handle on without a lot of imprecise psychobabble and crit theory models but the fact is that they are out there and are the result of real-life desires and their application to strange new situations.

Her book touches on, among other things a digression into Multiple Personality Disorders, and the work of one psychologist who posits a Osiris/ Isis complex model instead of the Freudian Oedipus/ Electra narrative. (OOOhhhh! Gooodie! Looks like someone did try to make some psych-theory out of the works of J.G.Frazer after all!) Osiris was chopped up, but the bits were sought out and reassembled by Isis, and when he was reborn he became even more powerful.


With the perpetual 400 channel carnival that is the interwebs and social media, a little bit of subject fragmentation, or at least displacement is a rite of passage for us. One face for Facebook, blow off some steam on an anonymous image board like 4chan, reg up an extra email address as a spam-dump, spend some time online gaming, make sure to clear your browser cache and try to remember which mask you are wearing at any particular time, and the persona that goes with it. From “be all that you can be” to “be everyone that you can be”. Add to this a culture of monetizing personal data and stir in 5 different flavors of security paranoia and everyone is getting a bit blurred about their online edges.  It can be fun, but it soon gets tiresome.

Before the fun with the interwebs, one’s less than well-socialized impulses could get loose in the real-world and corrupt the delicate personal operating system that we know as the self into a near lock-up condition sometimes referred to as abjection. According to Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, one’s odder obsessions, fears and hatreds sometimes don’t mesh well with what monsieur- the- good- doctor’s public persona should be. In the ensuing battle to make all the lumpy bits fit, sometimes things go PROING(!) in the most interesting if unpleasant ways.

From Monsieur Wiki:

Drawing on the French tradition of interest in the monstrous (e.g., novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline), and of the subject as grounded in filth (e.g., psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan), Julia Kristeva developed the idea of the abject as that which is rejected by/disturbs social reason – the communal consensus that underpins a social order. The “abject” exists accordingly somewhere between the concept of an object and the concept of the subject, representing taboo elements of the self barely separated off in a liminal space.

Of course, being Lacanian, Kristeva stuck Mom into the mix, muddling the concept (or perhaps bringing it back towards some mythic roots?) Fortunately no one in the crit theory world takes any Freud/ Lacan derived stuff as serious orthodox method. It is all best used for bricolage and what-if experiments, and perhaps a few Haiku verses. Lacan was notorious for forgetting what he meant by his pet theory terms at any point in time, so we must follow sensei’s example when playing with his concepts. Still, one gets the gist of the argument, if only in a “needs to blow off steam before things go -pop-” sense.

Of course this is of scant comfort to those who get caught up in online flame-wars and suffer real-world despair, or those who adopt extremist online narratives and build their real life identities upon echo-chamber sand. Shit happens, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline didn’t need net forums to become a virulent anti-Semitic pile of hate.

Most netizens simply play with the anonymity and multiple opportunities for acting out and “presenting” that all our new toys allow and encourage.

Others stare a bit too long into the pit, hoping it will stare back.

Once more with feeling:

“The pit does not stare back, but sometimes it glances provocatively over its shoulder and winks”

Vocaloid voices and their avatars at first look like they are only good for continuously re-doing the mild joke that there is not even a character behind their character. They are at the same time less than a fictional “being” born out of a pop culture narrative and more than her (or him), as they are not tied to any limiting narrative. They exist only as free-floating voices, vessels of unlimited unspoken/ yet-to-be-spoken desires. They are avatar, creation, mask, novelty, body-without-organs, howling whirlwind and lame troll all at once, and a thousand other similar things.

“I want to be a machine”
– Andy Warhol quoting Oscar Wilde

This leads to a further odd thing about vocaloids: if you go through too many youtube vocaloid song posts you are going to find a few “fake” ones; created by someone singing along to a backing tune karaoke style and then processing the vocal track through fuzzifying/ vocoder and autotune effects. Some of these folks are under the odd impression that “vocaloid” is a style of mash-up, not limited to an artificial voice produced with the Yamaha software. Others want to suggest that their ability to sequence out a song with the software is so advanced that their efforts sound more “real” – which is sad because these efforts invariably sound worse! But a few of them must want to “be” a vocaloid, if only for one song.

Around this point the falling angel is passing the rising tachikoma and too many somethings are trying to speak to Job out of the whirlwind, but they aren’t making much sense and they are all talking at once.

.Much Later, another digression:

…Perhaps all of us electronic music and noise geeks were just seduced by the promise, or faustian bargain offered to us decades before, as in this excerpt from a 1974 bit of pop-rock cheese:

POTP(1974) excerpt

Forget, forget, forget, forget…

“He who does not perceive his calling, knows not true happiness.”

It is not a chance event the birth of the post-human subject in film narrative took place on a planet that circled the star-sun Altair in 1956, with William Shakespeare in attendance as fairy godfather.

Walter Benjamin once advanced the notion that the birth of the modern Euro-ethnic subject in narrative (and therefore as ideal in real life) took place in the pages of Cervantes’ Quixote and on the stage of the Globe Theatre in Elizabethan London. Hamlet and finally The Tempest rounded off his arguments, but the Tempest of Forbidden Planet is a slightly different beast. In the original, the young prince is tested and found suitable to woo Prospero’s daughter. When re-staged in space-opera drag, Prospero has a daughter complex that just won’t let go, and planet-wide caverns full of mind-reading, matter creating alien technology that can summon up anything his better angels or inner demons desire.

The trouble is, that like the Krell who destroyed themselves with their shiny shiny toy, Morbius isn’t exactly sure of what he wants, or even who he is. The lack of a unified modern subject can be a real problem when it gets loose and destroys everything and everyone in reach. Robbie the Robot makes for a rather weak Ariel, and Caliban has been internalized. There are drawbacks to what Stone has called “falling in love with one’s prosthetics”, when the tech turns out to be unexpectedly powerful. As a bonus joke, Morbius is a professor of Linguistics, the closest thing in McCarthy era America to a critical theory fiend…

The sorcerer’s apprentice:

Forbidden Planet ID monster

J.J. Adams: What is the Id?

Morbius: It’s an obsolete term. Once used to describe the elementary basis of the subconscious mind.

J.J. Adams: Monsters from the Id. Monsters from the subconscious.

The big machine – cubic miles of Klystron relays – enough power for a whole population of creative geniuses operated by remote control. Operated by the electromagnetic impulses of individual Krell brains.

Morbius: To what purpose?

J.J. Adams: In return, that machine would instantaneously project solid matter to any point on the planet, in any shape or color they might imagine … for any purpose! Creation by mere thought.

Morbius: Why haven’t I seen this all along?

J.J. Adams: Like you, the Krell forgot one deadly danger … their own subconscious hate and lust for destruction. The beast. The mindless primitive.

Even the Krell must have evolved from that beginning. And so those mindless beasts of the subconscious had access to a machine that could never be shut down. The secret devil of every soul on the planet all set free at once to loot and maim and take revenge and kill!

Morbius: My poor Krell! After a million years of shining sanity they could hardly have understood what power was destroying them.

Yes, all very convincing but for one obvious fallacy – the last Krell died centuries ago But today, as we all know, there is still at large on this planet a living monster.

J.J. Adams: Your mind refuses to face a conclusion.

Morbius: What do you mean?

J.J. Adams: You still refuse to face the truth.

Morbius: What truth?

J.J. Adams: Morbius, that thing out there – it’s you.

Morbius: You’re insane!

J.J. Adams: We’re all part monsters in our subconscious! So we have laws and religion.

Morbius: Let me go!

J.J. Adams: Here’s where your mind was artificially enlarged. Consciously it still lacked the power to operate the great machine but your subconscious had been made strong enough!

Morbius: I won’t hear you!

J.J. Adams: You’ve got to listen! Twenty years ago, when your comrades voted to return to Earth you sent your secret Id out to murder them! Not quite realizing it, of course, except maybe in your dreams.

Morbius: What man can remember his own dreams?

J.J. Adams: At least when we approached from space, you remembered enough to warn us off. But when you thought we were a threat to your little egomaniac empire your subconscious sent its Id monster out again! More deaths, Morbius. More murder!

Morbius: And now this too? Harm my own daughter?

J.J. Adams: But now she’s defying you, Morbius – and even in you, the loving father, there still exists the mindless primitive … more enraged and more inflamed with each new frustration. So now you’re whistling up your monster again to punish her for her disloyalty and disobedience! And if you don’t do something about it soon it’s going to be coming right through that door.

ID monster at_the_door want IN

Morbius: My evil self is at that door, and I have no power to stop it!”

I break my staff! I drown my books!

Oh well, getting a robot voice to sing your fave theme song from an anime about an angry cyborg woman who fights cyber-crime in a near future Tokyo, while trying to deal with her own identity issues poses little danger, and affords the chance for harmless Lulz. Please continue…

A solid, real-world, somewhat unified modernist subject’s desire is such a fragile thing: plenty of Otaku and geek types, and more than a few theory moe types have “fallen” for, or at least fallen for the idea of vocaloids, just as slews of fan-boys have considered Major Kusanagi hawt.

Myself, I think Ep 15 of GIS SAC with a roomful of Tachikoma discussing free will, The Body without Organs and simulacra has far more moe than the Major. I blame it on her mullet. Gahhh! Roller Derby hair! Cheesecake cyborg body and fanservice outfits… It is very cute however when she goes on (and on and on) about their invented term: “Stand Alone Complex” as a copy without an original. Big in Japan, yup…

Back to Dr Annett’s question: Why a Vocaloid? For me, it was partly the thrill and sense of power of turning MSAGENT voices and a junk computer into an instrument I could play – albeit, not very well – but the genre was very new back then, and I didn’t have 200,000 youtube mash-ups in the back catalog to compare my stuff to. It was like building my own clunky exoskeleton suit and going out and throwing a few cars around. Since those innocent times, the world of pop music has been brutally re-shaped by the ubiquitous musical and audio engineering capabilities available to any desktop or laptop, at any time. Some bars have been raised, other bars have been artificially lowered – The DJ and the mash-up is our dojinshi culture. The live gig, our last castle of face-to-face social exchange.

After recording a few more tunes, and even doing a few “live” performances, the boil was lanced. Done that, got the t-shirt, felt good, time to move on.

Perhaps there was a bit of Dr. Frankenstein in it, but it was more like building one of those light-seeking robotic insectoids that use only a few bits of programmed logic and a solenoid and spring to drag themselves about and act bug-like.

I never imagined the voices as anything else but voices, so I missed out on the Miku-as-virtual-girl-puppet thrill that drives not only her arrangers, but other techie fans to use miku-miku-dance et al. programs to render out low-res cartoon sequences of “her” “performing” in sync with their compositions and stuff them up onto YouTube and nico nico douga. Just to see if I could, I sometimes used deeper more male-sounding voices. One tune I whomped up that featured all the words I could think of that rhymed with “sausages”, recited in a list. Blame a certain catchy dog-treat commercial of the time.

I suppose if I had been immersed back then in early North American appreciation of manga and anime I might have started imagining the voices as having some annoying cute cartoon representations and then would have slipped into proto-vocaloid fandom. Perhaps, but I don’t think so – I’m not really wired that way. While I might be prone to the usual productive narcissism found in most artistic types, and get a big kick out of successfully finishing a work or a project, I never thought that I had made a statue so perfect that it would come to life and I would fall in love with it – or it with me.

I feel stupid and contagious:

The voices were never “drag”or “costume” or alter-ego for me. During “live” performances, I would set up the various computers, midi keyboards and CD players, get them processing through a chain of pre-programmed semi-random “movements” and when it all meshed up, make a point of stepping out from behind the mess and going to the bar for a drink. My friend the musical prodigy-turned-sour-barkeep would then threaten to dock my puny fee for the gig because I wasn’t “performing”. I would threaten to go back on stage and read a book or do calisthenics. Musicians! They never appreciated the joke about Kraftwerk (a bunch of German guys standing there twiddling some knobs).

What the hell was I doing? Why tell stupid jokes and pointless stories? Around that time I also had a strange affinity for really long-winded shaggy-dog jokes, and the best of them always had really lame punch-lines. The longer it took to tell the joke, the less of a payoff at the end. “Look guys! A talking dog!” Are all vocaloid youtube videos nothing more than elaborate shaggy dog tales? The joke behind the shaggy dog joke is how we share the feeling of fooling ourselves into expecting something after we invest interest in it. But what is the joke behind Hatsune Miku singing ‘the world is mine”?

Perhaps I was making a silly type of foggy fun-house mirror. Saito Ryokuu was not the only wag to warn about mirrors: “As Zeus said to Narcissus – Watch yourself, boy!”

I had another friend at the time, a painter who wondered if herself and me were not both low-level aspies. Again, sorry: I can occasionally manage a good run of fannish obsession, but I am for the most part too lazy and easily distracted to get anywhere near there. If I had been born aspie, I’d be rich, dammit! Women can be too prone to ascribe mild pathology to common guy hobby behaviour. There are however elements of the aspie mythology that I find resonant: the tale of the one veterinary researcher with severe aspergers syndrome who built herself a machine that “hugged” her, pulls at my emotions because of its odd over-the-top heroism. I doubt she fell “in love” with her modified cow-tipping rig. She just recognized that something was missing and set about to remedy the lack. All our new technologies are not just force multipliers for human agency, but multipliers of human desires as well; including desires we have yet to find the words to articulate. A 11th century European peasant could dream of a life without flea-bites… Could they dream of a life without a body that could be bitten by fleas?

One thing I missed in my pre-vocaloid project was the intensely collaborative nature of youtube / niconico vocaloid productions. While I had the help of the good usenet denizens of A.B.S.U., I never tried to enlist them into helping me compose my tunes or tweak the software settings. A full vocaloid song production is still often a solo effort, but the conventions surrounding such efforts encourage collaborative, additive, serial improvements and variations. Voice-bank-settings and song-vocal files can be shared, tried with different voices, tweaked, and refined, all while animations, even live video re-cuts can painstakingly edited in, over time and across great distances. This is clearly fannish secondary production, even if the primary referent is diffuse. Some fans even write original songs for their favourite vocaloids and the studios who produce the “live” holographic shows, as well as some of the voice-banks and the avatar characters have been known to license and perform a select few of the most popular. Gibson must be proud, or pissed off that he doesn’t get any cut from the real-world Idoru industry. Otherwise the vocaloid phenom in Japan is following (and commercial interests are hoping for) a comiket/ dojinshi fan interaction model.  More free content production by fans, please! Some of the attraction must lie in the quasi-band nature of the production, but fans don’t come together and obsess over drum machine set-ups, even if DJs share samples disks all across the grey spaces of the net. The similarities only serve to point out the differences… Can it really be that just glue-ing cartoon girl singers onto the voices pushed the technology to the next level?

Why vocaloids? …and why again.

A demo of autotuned text-to-speech singing; a short, haunting refrain posted on a certain newsgroup was one of the things that prodded me into trying to make my own songs. Unlike the more common Stephen Hawking-esque drone voices or early halting robo-switchboard voices, this voice was bell-like, clear, and cut right through to something deep in my psyche. And there was no way the voice could be mistaken for human.

Only the sound of the songs that I had made, or help make themselves stirred me. The fact remains that I fell in love with the sound of an instrument I had created, and to this day, find it – and the echoes of it I hear in youtube vocaloid postings strangely enjoyable. And perhaps the greater part of the appeal lies in the fact that I know that these voices are not at all human.

They will not wake me, and I shall not drown.

These mermaids sing for me.

I’m home.

Random Endnotes:

(1) Credit for the original VSQ (voice) programming to Youtube user ‘Farter Yang  who made the voice bank setting available to others on his (above)  May 22, 2011 Youtube post. Still available at:

(2) My variation on an older quote. If Google still indexed usenet posts you could figure out where and when i was hanging out way back when…

(3) Folks are still having fun with Shitttalker:

Here is the original D/L page, you can still grab it:

The newest version for $4:

2 thoughts on “For those who would yet sing

  1. thank you for thesis-post! i love the whole transitional object thing: “being the first me, not me object” – and thinking of it in terms of fandom/what adheres speaks to me- it adheres, and i’m fan of the idea. makes me wonder how much of one’s accumulation of transitional objects is an unconscious identity formation/seeking individuality though other/others, and when you introduce simulation on top of this- it’s very ouroboros, in a mirror, projected into the stars. my mind is officially fucked over now. thank you- it’s been awhile!

    ps- love the link to your King Beat Rhythm Box music. Pipe is my all-time favourite!

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