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Vocaloids pushing pop idols off the charts

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Digital idol Hatsune Miku enthralls her 95-per cent male audience

I was listening to music blaring out of a friend's car one day -- a bland Japanese pop song with nondescript lyrics -- when I noticed something a little off about the singer. 

The girl's voice was incredibly flat, like a Takashi Murakami drawing. No warbling, no screechiness or variation in her singing. It was technically flawless, but creepily devoid of emotion. 

"Hey, this girl sounds just like one of those vocaloids (a computer-synthesized singing software)," I joked. 

"That's because she is," my friend replied with a knowing smile. 

It was a computer, not a teen pop idol, churning out those wistful Japanese pop lyrics to the hum of drums, violin and guitar. Come to think of it, even the guitar and violin in the song sounded synthetic. 

"Maybe one day, human singers will become obsolete," my friend joked. 

Ironically, we'd had a similar conversation many years ago about certain jobs that computers couldn't take away from human beings. Singing and playing music was one of them: a computer had no authentic personality or emotion, so it was virtually impossible (or so we thought) for a computer to have the same kind of artistry and stage presence as a musician in the flesh.

How naive we were back then. 

Vocaloid program Hatune Miku came along in 2007 and turned the "virtual idol" dream from sci-fi into reality. 

The green-haired, pre-pubescent-looking virtual idol captivated millions of fans -- mostly in Japan, but also internationally. With a number one single under her belt, she's become so popular that her product sales dwarf those of most traditional musicians in the country. 

She dazzled fans with a "live" tour last November that was eerily reminiscent of a scene from animated film Macross Plus, in which a virtual idol spellbinds her massive human audience. The fictional idol, Sharon Apple (who actually resembles a giant hard drive offstage), has her emotions provided to her by a real human female, who never appears before her fans because -- well, she's quite boring compared to the surreal beauty of a computerized Venus. 

She's no Amy Winehouse: screenshot from Macross Plus

Hatsune Miku brought her cutesy pop songs to Los Angeles this year, performing "live" at Anime Expo 2011 to enthused fans from across the U.S. After a brilliantly successful performance, Miku is being brought to San Francisco's popular J-pop conference, the J-Pop Summit Festival, along with her "colleagues" Kagamine Rin and Megurine Luka on August 28. The virtual idols will be accompanied by Danceroid, an all-girl dance group that built its fame by dancing and singing exclusively to vocaloid music. 

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