Sunday, June 2, 2013

Betty Boop and Miku Hatsune ~ How Virtual Idols capture our hearts

It was just a few short years ago that I first stumbled across a captivating creature known as Miku Hatsune.

A CGI "Virtual Idol" from Japan, the young girl is brought to us by a software known as Vocaloid. (Miku is a Vocaloid 2 release to be exact.) The animation of her dancing is usually supplied by the freeware known as MikuMikuDance, but for her video games and many concert appearances, her animation is done by legendary video game software developer, SEGA.

Every so often, Miku is seen in a concert, sometimes joined by other characters from the Vocaloid line, and even more rare, characters from a line known as UTAU.

Fans of all ages love her, though her biggest fan-base is comprised of young men. Fans everywhere dress as her, waive their light up "Leeks" in her honor, and even dress their babies in her image.

Miku's concerts, brought to us by the endlessly cool Pepper's Ghost effect (an effect from the 1800's I might add) over a gigantic screen, are often jam-packed with happy music fans, wanting to see the computer maiden just a little bit closer.

But her fame, and the fame of other Virtual Idols like her does not surprise me. In fact, it just about seems natural to adore a Superstar of animated quality.

Just look at Betty Boop for example.

Betty Boop was the world's first virtual idol, though she wasn't created in the same sense as a Vocaloid. She was the creation of world famous animator Max Fleischer, and she was born as joke on flapper dancers.

She debuted in the cartoon "Dizzy Dishes" on August 9, 1930 as a large poodle and potential love interest for struggling cartoon star, Bimbo. (Pictured.)
Slightly chubby, very oddly drawn, not much thought was originally put into her. But audiences loved her.
Over time, as Bimbo became shorter and more dog-like, Betty gained a name and became more human. Her body would take on a slender yet curvy, more ladylike shape, and her dog ears were replaced by gold hoops. Her body would go on to become taller, nearly anorexic before the end of the 1930's, but ultimately would revert to her small, curvy, healthy frame, seen above in color.

Betty was voiced by many talented women, but eventually, her signature "Boop Boop A Doop" voice came courtesy of the talented Mae Questel, who also voiced Olive Oyl in the Fleischer Studios and Paramount Popeye cartoons.

Similarly, the voice bank for Miku Hatsune was provided by Saki Fujita. To this day, many music fans argue as to whether or not we are listening to Miku and Betty: the animated singers, or to just random, cut up tracks from Mae Questel and Saki Fujita respectively.

Betty Boop was a cartoon made of pen and ink, and yet people the world over loved her and continue to love her as though she were a real, living person.

Of course, no idol, virtual or human, can have a long career without scandal.

In May of 1932, a woman named Helen Kane sued Max Fleischer and Paramount, claiming that Betty was infringing on her baby doll looks, squeaky voice and even the phrase "Boop Boop A Doop". The lawsuit was later thrown out, when it became public knowledge that Helen actually stole her act from a gorgeous, Black starlet, known as Baby Esther. Max Fleischer himself also based some of Betty's mannerisms on the Cotton Club singer, and thus, Ms. Kane's lawsuit was rendered hopeless.

Miku and Betty have also been the target of criticism from various groups, demanding decency.

On July 1, 1934, a production code for cartoons and film was set into motion. Betty, then the target of hate group and self-proclaimed "decency" coalition, The Hayes Commission, set into motion a list of rules in regards to all forms of media. Betty was cartoon enemy #1 to them, and many of her cartoons were called into question. The group calling themselves the National Legion of Decency, also urged the Fleischer brothers to make Betty skinny and dress more like a housewife. This was done to make her appear "less" sexy, not more.

Even now, the biggest problem that both Miku and Betty face, deals with sexuality. Both Idols have been portrayed in many of their songs as being underage teenagers, (both at age 16) yet are still featured in songs dealing with sex, rape, loss of virginity and even songs about drugs and death. (Definitely crossing too many lines.) Many critique how the two are presented to the audience. With their large heads, large eyes, small lips and mostly "unrealistic" and immature body sizes, many feel this glorifies an unhealthy view of the adult female, in that some believe this promotes the "ideal" woman as being a baby-like tween or teen girl.

Both Idols have also appeared in just as many situations as fully grown and legal aged adults, but even there, many people poke and prod at the women, picking them apart for dressing too sexy.

For the record, I've yet to meet a cartoon character who was able to draw herself, nor a CGI model who was able to create her own fashions, so it seems rather stupid to blame a fictitious character for how she was "born". As Disney starlet Jessica Rabbit once said, "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way". This is by no means an excuse for the questionable songs, but in this rare instance, the phrase "get a life" springs to mind.

Still, both Idols (as adults) are still viewed as sex symbols to many fans of music and animation, and there is no scandal big enough to squash a pair of Idols with the entire world behind them. No matter how big the problem is, Betty and Miku's fans are always front and center, waiting to defend their beloved Idols from detractors everywhere. Even human musicians are hard-pressed to find the rabid loyalty these two have.

Since August 9th, 1930, Betty Boop has appeared in more than 110 cartoons, comic strips, specials, commercials and movies, and has appeared on everything from cars and toys, to apparel and home goods. Parents take their baby daughters to festivals in Betty's honor, sending their little ones into (questionable) Betty-alike contests, while young ladies snap up everything Betty Boop, to emulate their most cherished Idol. A love of Betty Boop has never been one of a passing fad, despite changing times. Instead, a love of her is life long, non-stop, and ever expanding.

On August 31, 2007, just 77 years and 22 days after Betty Boop's debut, Miku Hatsune hit the scene, with her own high-pitched voice. Just as Betty before her, people of all ages the world over love her as if she was their very own family, with people showing their respects online by calling her by the very personal "Miku-chan".

Betty Boop and Miku Hatsune right at the start of their official days as Virtual Idols, have been sold to us as the perfect celebrities. Marketed to be eternally beautiful, cute, charming, young. Never aging. Always able to change back if they've changed too much. Always perfect, and yet still very smart, strong and opinionated. Neither are afraid to fight for themselves, neither are truthfully passive, and yet both can dive deep into the most gut wrenching emotions when trouble does arise. For CGI and cartoon, no two starlets in the music world have ever appeared more human or more infallible, to countless generations worldwide.

Aside from having an image and song list based in the often "taboo" subject of sex, both Virtual Idols sing about the very same day-to-day struggles we face even now. Songs about working, overcoming poverty, and keeping the world full of pep and cheer. They sing happy songs, thrilling songs, sad songs, angry songs, and both can emulate every human need and emotion you have within you.

The cartoon and CGI girls respectively sing to the human soul, and just as many of us love our role-play avatars, our "Selfies", action figures and dolls, so too are we conditioned to love and appreciate these tiny, humanoid sensations. Some even love them as if they were their own children, others love them as a part of themselves. Like a little voice in the dark, representing a fantasy that may even be seen as a side of innocent love.

We as humans have always loved tiny, at times deformed versions of our species, whether it's in the form of dolls, drawings, statues or any other multitude of products and art. Our museums are overrun with them! We subconsciously try to protect them, nurture them. We gaze at their little movements with the same awe as a child with a music box. We are endlessly captivated and inspired by these minuscule dancers, and even dating to the days of the world's first figurine merchant, we really are not conditioned to care if someone tries to exploit this human trait of ours for money. If it means having our small idols, we have no problem forking over a little cash. We stay up at night, making our avatars, our CGI models, cartoons, dolls, figures, and as humans, we see nothing but joy from this.

Like Hello Kitty (another cartoon/anime ambassador) both often go on Goodwill tours. Miku Hatsune brings her closest Idols with her to America on occasion, to introduce new fans to her computerized music:
While not to be outdone, Betty Boop made a 1935 trip to Japan, to greet a generous crowd, who was already waiting to love her:
And yes, that really is her singing in Japanese.

Both Miku and Betty have become icons, transcending basic animation and pop music fads, and becoming part of humanity's fiber. We see them as Americana, art, a link to the past and a vision of the future. We no longer even bat an eyelash when they are shown to us as eternally young, female celebrities, nor do we poke and prod at the fashions. We see their career-minded, self assured and youthful antics as empowering. And more and more, men, women and children, have become less afraid to admit publicly that their favorite stars are not even flesh and blood.

We love all sides of them. And as humans, we will only continue to love Virtual Idols as much as we love ourselves. If we could just harness this same love for our fellow humans, who knows what we could do? But it seems that no matter what the odds are, these two have found a permanent spot in world history.

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