This week I met a pop star who doesn’t exist. At least not in the real world!
Polar may be a rising star on social media with 1.6 million followers tik tok and millions of views on YouTube, but to “meet” it, you have to step into the metaverse – or rather, my ultra-realistic digital avatar – Bernard 2.0 she did.
The real one, analog, had to just talk to one of Polar’s creators — Patrick Wilkins, vice president of operations at TheSoul — the agency responsible for creating the newest virtual pop star likely to top the charts.
Virtual pop stars are not a new phenomenon. What is new is the ways we now have to interact with them. To me, the most interesting aspect of the metaverse – a term that really refers to the “next level” of the Internet, which is more immersive and experimental than the flat, 2D web we’re used to – is the blurring of the 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 come 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 early cartoon singers and artists who came out of film and television to release “real-world” recordings over the past century.
Some of the first examples were Arches – Cartoon band inspired by The Monkees – who were actually themselves a made-for-television band inspired by the Beatles! When they released their record Sugar, Sugar, it knocked the Rolling Stones out of number one on the chart and made them, as far as I know, their first “virtual band”.
Other bands born in cartoons in the same period also went on to achieve chart success in the real world, effectively making them “meta” – a term that at its roots refers to something “beyond” or “transcendent”. They include the likes of Alvin and the Chipmunks and Nutty and Mania.
Skip ahead a few decades, and we get to Gorillaz—a musical and artistic collaboration between Blur singer Damon Albarn and Tank Girl photographer Jimmy Hewlett. The Gorillaz was promoted as the world’s first virtual band, and their primary innovation was that they presented realistic performances, with characters projected in 3D in front of a live audience.
The era of virtual influencers
Gorillaz arrived at the dawn of the internet age, shortly before the arrival of social media and influencer culture, which spawned a whole new breed of digital celebrity.
These include proverbs Hatsune Miku – a virtual Japanese idol created as the embodiment of a software voice synthesizer, Kizuna AIcredited as the most successful virtual YouTuber ever, Lou de Magalouvirtual anchor for YouTube TV created by Brazilian retail magazine Luiza, and Lil Miquela, who has collaborated with brands including Samsung and Prada and has appeared in Vogue.
Which brings us to today and to Polar. Polar – Its creators say they were inspired by, among other virtual works, the latter Apa Voyage A show featuring 3D representations of Swedish stars in their prime – more than just a virtual or influential pop star – it’s a metafictional star.
Its creators told me in our recent tutorial webinar that they’re teaming up with another virtual pop star to release a musical collaboration, and also soon appearing as a character in an upcoming major video game (exact details of both remain confidential).
What’s new in the metaverse pop stars is that, other than just watching their videos or following them on social media, fans can meet and interact with them in the myriad of immersive 3D worlds that make up the metaverse. When Bernard 2.0 spoke with Polar, she told me (virtually) how much she enjoyed meeting and dancing with fans while she performed at the recent Solar Sounds. metaverse music festival. Polar also chose the platform on which Solar Sounds – the mobile game Avakin Life – was staged, to release its first single, Close To You.
It’s easy to see why virtual pop stars and statuses are so attractive now, both to fans and to record producers and companies that use them to sell music and influence. First, it can be programmed to behave exactly as its makers want it to – there is no chance of generating bad publicity through bad behavior as real pop stars are known from time to time.
In fact, part of the reason for creating the first virtual pop stars – The Archies – is due to record producer Don Kirchner declaring, “Screw the Monkees, I want a band that will never speak again!”
They never grow old, never get tired of constantly wandering and promoting records, developing drug-taking habits or their excessive demands for private jets and five-star hotels.
It can also be algorithmically engineered to provide everything 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 feature Wilkins tells me he loves about Polar is that she was recently able to perform in Latvia while simultaneously recording tracks for her debut album in London!
Should we be afraid though?
Of course, as with all new technologies, the increasingly prominent role of metaverse influencers and pop stars must be approached with a touch of caution.
For a start, we can assume that since AI computers are already capable of writing songsIt won’t be long before virtual pop stars become little more than horns for songs created by humans. At this point, we have to ask if art created by machines is actually art at all? After all, only about the only answer that has ever been accepted to the question “What is art?” It is “something made by an artist”. And can a robot or a machine really be considered an artist?
Second, would this kind of virtual or existing artists (if they were artists at all) be able to create anything really challenging or valuable? Most of what we’ve seen involves corporate activity such as promotion, selling, and influence. Is this aspect of virtual culture capable of eliciting the hypothetical equivalent of, say, sex pistols or the public enemy? Actions that go against the “establishment” direction, and in doing so create something uniquely progressive? So far, I’ll argue, we haven’t seen much to suggest that.
Finally, another cultural question arises due to the possibility of virtual celebrities being used as proxies by the people who created them. For example, the creators of the African female supermodel shodo – they are themselves white men – who have been criticized for effectively adopting a high-tech form of “black face” – enabling them 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 undoubtedly find answers to as the metaverse becomes increasingly a part of our lives over the next decade, and the boundaries between the real world and real, celebrity and virtual influencers become increasingly blurred.
Personally, I feel that virtual celebrities, artists, and musicians will never fully replace the “real” in terms of the broader culture. They will coexist alongside real-world artists and influencers, creating a digital extension of real-world people as well as fully synthetic digital alternatives.
One thing is for sure: 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 younger digital native generations who will shape the citizens of the virtual world.
You can watch my full interview with pop star metaverse Polar, as well as one of her co-authors, Patrik Wilens, Vice President of Operations at TheSoul, over here.
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