Billie JD Porter On Her Major New Music Documentary Series

Billie JD Porter meets game-changing musicians and tells The Debrief about the importance of telling underground stories

Billie JD Porter On Her Major New Music Documentary Series

by Sophie Wilkinson |
Published on

Hatsune Miku has got blue hair to match the tie on her black and white school uniform and sings in Japanese and English. The 16-year-old schoolgirl, known as Miku, has fans all over the world and recently played a show at London’s Barbican Centre. The thing is, she played it, like all gigs she performs via hologram. That’s not because there’s a real version of her somewhere out there that’s, say, meant to be at school right now, or has had to pull out of a tour because of exhaustion or, um, death. It’s because Miku is a computer programme.

In the third episode of Billie JD Porter’s Sound and Vision Channel 4 music series, she explores the genre-defying Vocaloid, a Japanese technology that provided the public with every syllable they could ever need to give voice to Miku. But it’s so much more than that; everything she does is created by fans, and it’s made her a superstar. She is a constant mainstream Japanese pop culture reference, has a proliferation of endorsement deals and there are even porn mock-ups of her doing the rounds online.

During the episode, presenter and executive producer Billie meets the UK’s Miku fans, a German maths teacher called Rudolph who likes to cosplay as Miku, and tries out new technology which helps her to literally embody Miku. The episode is more than just gawping at strange Japanese tech-culture trends. It’s about the ethics of manufactured pop, and the way its stars are manipulated by fans and music bosses alike.

The Debrief caught up with Billie to talk all about it:

Hi Billie, I love the show. Do you think the way people project their ideas onto Miku is that far from how we all project our feelings and emotions onto popstars?

There are so many parallels, it raises a lot of questions, like, how much more marketable can you make real life pop stars? I asked one Miku fan who were favourite real life pop singers are and she said Ed Sheeran. I asked her if she could download a programme to make Ed Sheeran serenade her with a ballad in her bedroom, would she? She didn’t quite answer me, but imagine if we could use this technology to make living manufactured pop stars appear in a million different places at once?

And that’s so notable; Ed Sheeran recently left Twitter because of the flack he gets on there, and it shows that his humanity is still an obstacle to him being every single facet of what it means to be a pop star in 2017.

It’s so crazy. I have this conversation with Darren Johnston [a choreographer who works on the Barbican’s Miku show] and he says that, ethically and morally, maybe virtual pop stars are better, because all of the biggest manufactured pop stars do crumble under the pressure. There’s enough history for us to look back on and say ‘Ok, maybe a 15-year-old can’t consent to never having any privacy again in their entire life. Maybe it’s not the best thing in the world to recreate Justin Bieber [who, on the day of our interview has cancelled 15 remaining dates on his world tour due to ‘unforeseen circumstances’] and Britney Spears [who famously had a public breakdown in 2007 that is still memed and joked about to this day]. Hatsune Miku is this immortal, ageless thing that everyone can imprint their own meaning onto. It does mean she ends up in VR [virtual reality] porn…

Yes, though Miku’s existence takes the pressure off being a pop star off of a human, people still treat Miku like a human; they worship her and exploit her. Do you think the porn of Miku [there are endless images of her propped up in infinite positions with myriad partners/objects/leeks] is a sign of how badly we treat pop stars?

I don’t know…there are sex scandals for everyone, whether you’re living or virtual. As soon as you exist in the public eye, you can’t fully sign up to not being wanked over. There are people leaking nudes or hiring lookalike porn stars…there’s an album online of my feet on a foot fetish site. I saw it and I was like ‘Oh nooooo!’ My feet are really gross mangled and buniony, like little trotters, I think that’s why they like them.

But with Miku, because her entire existence is fan-made when a ‘fan’ makes porn of her, it’s got the same level of legitimacy as, say, a kid making a song for her.

Her image is owned by everyone and no one at the same time, and there are guidelines how she’s supposed to be portrayed, but it’s difficult to police that. The artists who put on the Barbican show broke the fourth wall and in the songs she was really aware that she wasn’t real, she was singing that she’d never meet her maker, that she was trapped behind the screen. At the Q+A at the end, some die hard Miku fans were fuming - I wonder how angry they get about the porn - but they said ‘Miku is a 16-year-old Japanese schoolgirl and that’s how we make believe for her, you’ve ruined the magic.’ They didn’t like that she’d been put in a different context, by people who weren’t fans.

So the artists were looking at it as a phenomenon, rather than getting thoroughly involved. And there’s not the space for regular face-value enjoyment of Vocaloid in the UK, is there?

Nope. Music venues in general closing won’t just impact London but the whole country, and it’s a cliché to say it but it will send us further into the rabbit hole of Instagram and the internet when there are fewer opportunities for us to identify with other people or tribes in real life. But it feels like subculture, in general, is ceasing to exist. When I was younger, I used to live and breathe all the artists I loved, I memorised all the lyrics and I’d cover my wall in posters. But now, being a music fan is so non-committal, streaming means you can listen to everything, it’s all so much broader. And from a promoters’ point of view, catering for specific groups in a climate where everything is mixing up could close off business for them.

Did you find there were similar obstacles to doing a show about such niche music?

This took a long time to get off the ground and there were some very stressful and upsetting issues with someone I was working with on it early on who messed up with funding. meaning the series was only half of what was intended. Maybe if I’d done something more mainstream like a sit-down interview with James Arthur, it could have been sponsored by an alcohol brand or something. But when we approached people for funding for this, they wanted to know how it would rate, what visibility it would get. It’s ironic because the artists I chose t feature really deserve to have their stories told to a broad audience, but 'niche' music on TV doesn't tend to rate well or get a good time slot It's ironic, the whole first episode [with queer rapper Mykki Blanco] is about visibility. But I’m so happy and grateful that Channel 4’s commissioner believes in my vision. He took a gamble.

As a young female filmmaker, what are the biggest obstacles to you getting your work out there?

It's this age old thing of not really being able to assert yourself or your opinions as a young female without people reacting in a way that implies you're being difficult. It’s happened to me for years, people suggesting I’m a diva because I’m a woman on set raising my voice or making a suggestion. I was very lucky to work with an amazing team on Sound & Vision, though, it was one of the most positive dynamics I've ever experienced.

I think there's also a disconnect in people's minds about me working as a 'host' and going to fashion events and whatver, it makes people assume I don't have much input in what I do. The thing is, what I do is not glamorous, I don’t earn much money and most of my work is done off-camera. I'm up early and in bed very late, working most of the time. My social life is no longer a priority. But I think there’s this assumption about me. I’ll do something on TV that I’ve put my heart and soul into but will just get tweets telling me how posh I sound.

Can you relate to Miku like that?

Oh, I’m fine, really. I’d quite like to see some VR porn of myself!

Sound and Vision is on All4 now

Image courtesy of Channel 4

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Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophwilkinson

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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