This week I met a pop star who doesn’t exist. At least, not in the real world!
Polar may be a rising star of social media with 1.6 million followers on TikTok and millions of views on YouTube, but to “meet” her, you have to step into the metaverse – or rather, my own hyperreal digital avatar – Bernard 2.0 did.
The real, analog me, had to make do with speaking to one of Polar’s creators – Patrik Wilkens, VP of Operations at TheSoul – the agency responsible for creating the latest potentially chart-topping virtual pop star.
Virtual pop stars are not a new phenomenon. What is new is the avenues that are now available for us to interact with them. For me, the most interesting aspect of the metaverse – a term which really just refers to the “next level” of the internet, far more immersive and experiential than the flat, 2D web we have become accustomed to – is the blurring of boundaries between the real and the virtual.
So, in this article, I want to take a look at the phenomenon of virtual pop stars and influencers, where they came from, and what they tell us about the way we will look for entertainment and even art in the digital worlds of the future.
What are virtual pop stars?
Today’s virtual pop stars – like Polar – can trace their lineage back to the earliest cartoon singers and entertainers that stepped out of cinema and television to release records in the “real world” during the last century.
Some of the first examples were The Archies – a cartoon band inspired by The Monkees – who were themselves actually a manufactured-for-TV band inspired by The Beatles! When they released their record Sugar, Sugar, it both knocked the Rolling Stones off the number one chart spot and made them, as far as I know, the first “virtual band.”
Other bands born in cartoons around the same period also went on to have chart success in the real world, effectively making them “meta” – a term which at its root refers to something which is “beyond” or “transcending.” They include the likes of Alvin and the Chipmunks and Josie and the Pussycats.
Skip forward a few decades, and we arrive at Gorillaz – a music and art collaboration between Blur singer Damon Albarn and Tank Girl illustrator Jamie Hewlett. Gorillaz were promoted as the world’s first virtual band, and their primary innovation was that they played real-life shows, with the characters projected as holograms in front of a live audience.
The era of virtual influencers
Gorillaz arrived at the dawn of the internet age, a little while before the arrival of social media and influencer culture, which spawned a whole new breed of digital celebrities.
These include the likes of Hatsune Miku – a Japanese virtual idol who was created as the personification of a software vocal synthesizer, Kizuna AI, credited as being the most successful virtual Youtuber of all time, Lu do Magalu, a virtual anchor for the YouTube TV show created by Brazilian retailer Magazine Luiza, and Lil Miquela, who has collaborated with brands including Samsung and Prada and appeared in Vogue magazine.
Which brings us to today, and to Polar. Polar – whose creators say they were inspired by, among other virtual acts, the recent Abba Voyage show featuring holographic representations of the Swedish superstars in their prime – is more than a virtual popstar or influencer – she is a metaverse star.
Her creators tell me in our recent webinar that she is teaming up with another virtual pop star to release a musical collaboration, and will also soon feature as a character in a major forthcoming video game (the exact details of both of these are still under wraps).
What’s new about metaverse pop stars is that, beyond simply watching their videos or following them on social media, fans can meet and interact with them in the myriad of 3D, immersive worlds that make up the metaverse. When Bernard 2.0 chatted to Polar, she told (virtual) me how much she had enjoyed meeting and dancing with fans during her performance at the recent Solar Sounds metaverse music festival. Polar also chose the platform where Solar Sounds took place – the mobile game Avakin Life – to debut her first single, Close To You.
It’s easy to see why first virtual and now metaverse pop stars are attractive, both to fans and to the record producers and businesses that use them to sell music and influence. Firstly, they can be programmed to behave exactly as their makers want them to – there’s no chance of them generating bad publicity through bad behavior as real pop stars have been known to do from time to time.
In fact, part of the reason that the first virtual pop stars – The Archies – were created is reportedly down to record producer Don Kirshner declaring, “screw The Monkees, I want a band that won’t talk back!”
They never age, get tired of constantly touring and promoting records, develop drug habits or make excessive demands for private jets and five-star hotels.
They can also be designed algorithmically to provide everything that fans want – by collecting and analyzing behavioral data in order to create the “perfect pop star.”
They can also be in many places at the same time – one of the features that Wilkens tells me he likes about Polar is that she was recently able to perform a concert in Latvia while simultaneously recording music tracks for her debut album in London!
Should we be scared, though?
Of course, as with all new technologies, the increasingly prominent role of metaverse influencers and pop stars has to be treated with a touch of caution.
For a start, we can assume that as computers powered by AI are already capable of writing songs, it won’t be long before virtual pop stars are more than just animated mouthpieces for songs created by humans. At that point, we have to ask whether art created by machines is actually art at all? After all, just about the only answer that’s ever been accepted for the question “what is art?” is “something created by an artist.” And can a robot or a machine truly be considered an artist?
Secondly, will this type of virtual or metaverse artist (if they are artists at all) be capable of creating anything truly challenging or valuable? Most of what we have seen involves corporate activity such as promoting, selling, and influencing. Is this aspect of virtual culture capable of giving rise to a virtual equivalent of, say, the Sex Pistols or Public Enemy? Acts that go against the grain of “the establishment” and, in doing so, create something uniquely progressive? So far, I would argue, we haven’t seen much that suggests so.
Lastly, another cultural question arises due to the potential for virtual celebrities to be used as proxies by the people who created them. As an example, the creators of the female African virtual supermodel Shudu – themselves white men – have been criticized for effectively adopting a high-tech form of “blackface”- enabling themselves to benefit from building relationships with brands and winning sponsorship deals in the guise of a (non-existent) woman of color.
These are questions that society will no doubt find answers to as the metaverse increasingly becomes a part of our lives over the course of the next decade, and the boundaries between the real world, real influencers and celebrities, and the virtual become increasingly blurred.
Personally, my feeling is that virtual celebrities, entertainers, and musicians will never completely replace “real” ones as far as wider culture goes. They will co-exist alongside real-world artists and influencers, creating a digital extension of real-world people as well as completely synthetic digital alternatives.
One thing is certain: just like the metaverse itself, virtual pop stars and influencers will be a powerful marketing tool for brands looking to build new bridges with customers, particularly the young, digital-native generations that will make up the citizens of the virtual world.
You can watch my full interview with metaverse pop star Polar, as well as one of her creators, Patrik Wilens, VP of operations at TheSoul, here.
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