To begin, let’s make it clear that robot isn’t the right word here. These musicians go deeper than metallic parts and mere computer programming. They are talented. They are robots not in their make-up, but rather in the sense that they walk the brink of humanity. Too real to be defined by a computer, walking slowly into the fabrics of everyday life. A better term to adopt would be humanoid, defined as “a being resembling a human in its shape.”
To begin, let’s look at Lil Miquela. She’s a robot–or rather, she says she’s one. Well, she doesn’t ‘say’ anything often, to be fair. Miquela captions posts and leaves comments across the various social media platforms she dominates. She does speak, with all the casual vernacular of a typical 19-year-old, but those rare moments are merely special additions to the social influence a mere photo of her has. Miquela boasts 1.6 million Instagram followers. A single photo of her amasses tens of thousands of likes. In each, she makes it a habit to wear brands like Prada, Louis Vitton, off white, Calvin Klein, and more. Additionally, the occasional photos feature celebrities, seemingly plucked from all branches of fame; J. Balvin, Princess Nokia, Toro y Moi, Bella Hadid, and Roasalia have all posed alongside the eternally-teen robot.
Yet, she’s also just not simply a picture. She posts videos of herself interviewing musicians like King Princess, she’s started her own clothing line, and her presence, while digital, spans far beyond the screen. Her Instagram posts tout locations that span across Los Angeles, giving her as much range as any other influencer. However, it’s not necessarily the brands, the people, or the locations that give this ‘robot’ the star power to acquire so many followers. Each photo, each glimspe of Miquela, presents itself like a puzzle. She looks perfectly human at first, perhaps only with better skin than most of us. Yet, another look asks, “Is this entire thing photoshopped?” The next hesitant look wonders, “Could she, potentially, be the robot she says she is?”
While that conclusion is doubtful, there’s no official way to know that what ‘Miquela’ is saying isn’t the truth. She’s never admitted to being anything more than a robot, and even that confession was a long time coming; she only revealed the ‘truth’ after being hacked by another humanoid Instagram influencer named Bermuda who refused to give the account back until Miquela opened up to her followers. Nowadays, Miquela and Bermuda have made up and are managed by the same tightlipped company called Brud who, apparently, created Miquela and her brother Blawco. This trio’s dramas go much deeper, creating a digital narrative told through three Instagrams and various other medias, each providing a new detail into the lives we are all attempting to decipher.
All of this background is necessary to engage with the music Miquela is creating. Her songs have millions of plays and are easily digestible with playful beats and catchy choruses. Her voice sounds autotuned, but no more autotuned than any other pop artist. There’s a decent chance you’ve heard her songs without knowing her story. If you’re a fan, you may have wondered when Miquela was going to perform live near you before realizing that may never be a possibility.
Miquela’s success in music, in Instagram, and in ‘life’ might seem improbable. How can a humanoid achieve fame? How can a humanoid be admired? Better question: How can a human? Miquela, as a humanoid, can have flawless skin, a voice to dream of, and better style than any of us. As something crafted, it makes sense that she can succeed so easily in mediums that call for curation. Where the majority of people, influencers, and musicians, fall short their physical and mental capabilities to achieve ‘perfection,’ a humanoid has none of those restrictions.
At first, the endless potential of humanoids might seem scary, but there’s more to it than that. In actuality, the infinite capacity of a humanoid can be used to shed light on the fakeness that radiates through the music industry far beyond them. Miquela, with every post, makes us wonder where reality lays. Typical stars, meanwhile, might photoshop their posts just as much as the (seemingly) digitally-rendered Miquela, and we’d never know it. The humanoid in this scenario becomes less scary, because its falsehoods are apparent and easily analyzed. Their extensive curation, rather than being a learned feature of an industry, is their only means of existence.
Another star, Poppy, emerged into the industry in the meticulous state she has maintained ever since. Poppy has self-described as an alien, a computer, and a pet. For our purposes, she is a humanoid like Miquela, although her path to that status is entirely unique. She began her steady crawl to internet fame on Youtube with a video comprised solely of her eating cotton candy for one minute and 22 seconds. Other content includes a video of her repeating “I’m Poppy” in a voice that doesn’t quite sound real, a video of her interviewing a plant, and a video of her exclaiming that it is 3:36. These videos have millions of views and, while theoretically boring, entrance their watcher with the simple question of “why?”
Let’s also note that Poppy is a pop star. Her most popular song, “Lowlife,” has an absurd 22,000,000 plays. Her music videos are productions. She’s toured across the world. She is not a force to be doubted. Her music teeters between glaringly cheerful and aggressively dark. On one of her newest songs, “Scary Mask,” she sings forlornly “I wear my scary mask/When I’m afraid/I don’t belong/You can’t read my brain/Until it’s off/Not comin’ off,” before the track descends into heavy metal-esque guitar and shouting. Poppy is a mask: a mask in part created by Titanic Sinclair, her closest collaborator and director. It is a mask worn by her ‘actress’ Moriah Rose Pereira.Pereira’s identity was entirely severed from Poppy’s for years, with Poppy truly appearing born into the internet, until fans finally dug deep enough to find Pereira. Yet, Pereira’s life still feels severed from Poppy’s. Poppy’s actions, whatever they may be, don’t feel decided by Pereira. Poppy remains a mask that is donned and a personality that is separate, larger than any one person.
With this mask, the odd world of internet fame becomes easy to navigate. Poppy and Titanic have analyzed fame and, accordingly, created a character that could acquire a near cult of followers simply by wearing frilly dresses while simultaneously alluding to darker undertones in everything she does. Just like people capitalize on the algorithms of Youtube, Facebook, or Instagram, Titanic and Poppy have discovered and capitalized on the algorithm of fame. An audience becomes obsessed with the possibility of what could be hidden in content that bases itself equally in poignant criticisms and mindless videos presented by a seemingly ever-cheerful platinum blonde girl. However, unlike with most artists, there is never a fear of a fanbase digging too deep because, with Poppy, every twisted secret is meant, eventually to be found.
Poppy, while smiling, does not shy away from the dark underbelly of entertainment. Even as she actively engages with world tours, social media, and album releases, she notes the inherent creepiness in it all. In one video on Instagram, posed in a seemingly celestial-inspired dress, she discusses the possibility of Instagram removing likes. She says, “Likes give my life meaning and purpose…My posts are my heartbeat. My followers are my soul.” In another, she shows two plants and introduces one of them as “an industry plant.” Here, she says, “This industry plant is a miracle…Most people just want an industry plant: a plastic lifeless homogenization of what people crave.”
In truth, it is her unique positioning as a humanoid figure that allows her deadpan, auto-tuned voice to craft messages that resonate. While she may say these things fully serious, it is the larger nature of Poppy that gives everything she does a lens of criticism. It is her own inauthenticity that lets her expose the larger *fake* culture that surrounds fame.
As any Poppy fan knows, genuineness is hidden beneath the “scary mask” cast upon her which, as she sings, is “not comin’ off.” What the larger audience of music doesn’t know is that these scary masks are also on the faces of everyone else in the industry who refuse to reveal their falsity in the same way Poppy does. Poppy, ultimately, is able to critique the industry better by succeeding within it and aggressively revealing her active participation. Non-humanoid stars, with their true face being directly tied to their scary mask, have none of this power.
Of course, at this point, it becomes easy to dismiss these humanoids as successful simply because of how closely they can mimic ‘real’ human behavior. However, it might be truer that *real* people are impressive because of how close they can come to losing their own human identity. As in, how closely they can come to losing the potential of imperfection and how seamlessly they can fake ease in their well-oiled machine of continued fame. It’s not atypical for stars to burn out, shaving their heads or otherwise rebelling against mainstream popularity when the pressure of the operation becomes too much. Humanoids, meanwhile, lost the capability to fail. More and more, it seems that audiences are preferring and demanding these types of stars who, literally, can not fail them.
Hatsune Miku was first a computer program. She was created by Japanese technology firm Crypton Future Media as a system that the public could buy and program their music into. The songs would be sung in her voice, accompanied by her avatar: a teenage girl with long bright blue hair and two ponytails. The program, from a societal standpoint, makes sense; it aides people without exceptional vocal skills to still learn and practice music production. The program’s popularity understandably skyrocketed. And in addition to the program becoming popular, the girl that never existed became a pop icon.
The public began to worship the avatar, converting her from a piece of branding to a legitimate person. Her rise to fame didn’t stop with the thousands of cosplays of her, the millions of views of her songs on Youtube and Spotify, or the continued creation of content she inspired. Instead, her creators took her to the next level and gave the now-famous singer a world tour.
The tour happened through the use of the latest hologram technology and the compiling of the most popular Hatsune Miku songs on the internet, all created by fans through the initial program. If you think that seeing a hologram of a nonexistent star perform crowdsourced songs would deter a potential audience, you’d be wrong. The entire tour was sold out and, as told by people who made it to the shows, the audience seemed to know the songs word-for-word.
She’s also interacted with some of America’s most famous stars as well; she’s been a guest on late-night television with David Letterman (the first hologram to be on late-night TV) and has opened for Lady Gaga. However, more telling than these interactions with celebrities, she has her own Hatsune Miku Expo. She also has images of herself floating in space after a 14,000 signature petition demanded it. Hatsune Miku’s audience first crafted the star, but then they went a step further. They made her an icon, reaching the level of the most successful stars in the business.
It might be a hard reality to handle, but the public might not actually care too much about how ‘real’ their favorite stars actually are. In fact, these humanoid stars are actively sought for and created by a public that’s eager for them. With a social landscape defined by quests for perfection and stars considered idols of this perfection, it makes sense that the public is moving to a place of adoration for humanoid robot stars. Unlike people, their only option is to be perfect.
This might sound terrifying. Yet, these humanoids aren’t completely shielded by their fake realism. As of yet, there is no option to ‘pass’ as entirely human. This area creates a window where these stars in a human industry can reveal a more genuine picture of the music landscape than any person ever could. This is because these humanoids, while close to human, don’t aggressively hide their falsehoods and, additionally, allow it to be known that their inauthenticity is what allows them to appear perfect. Meanwhile, ‘real’ stars are attempting to achieve the same level of perfection but without any of the indication of how they’re getting there; plastic surgery, autotune, expensive clothes, and professional styling and creative teams are all used behind the scenes to the same effect of what humanoid pop stars are doing.
Humanoid stars, instead of corrupting the industry, are steadily revealing it. Their improbable success is emphasizing how much of an algorithm fame is. In the future, it is likely that human stars will be asked to match the honesty of their humanoid counterparts, showing off the metal parts and circuit boards within it all.