Polar may be an increasing social media star with 1.6 million followers on TikTok and lot of views on YouTube, but to “meet” her, you have to step into the metaverse, which is what my own hyperreal digital avatar, Bernard 2.0, did.
The real, analog me had to settle for talking to one of Polar’s creators, Patrik Wilkens, VP of Operations at TheSoul, the company that made the latest virtual pop star, who might be the next big thing on the charts.
Virtual pop stars have been around for a long time. What’s new is that there are now more ways for us to connect to them. For me, the most interesting thing about the metaverse, which is just a fancy word for the “next level” of the internet, which is much more immersive and real-life-like than the flat, 2D web we’re used to, is how the lines between the real and the virtual are blurred.
What do “virtual pop stars” mean?
Virtual pop stars such as Polar can trace their roots back to the first cartoon singers and entertainers who left movies and TV to make records in the “real world” in the early 20th century. The Archies, a cartoon band based on The Monkees, were one of the first examples. The Monkees, in turn, were a made-for-TV band based on The Beatles. When they put out Sugar, it knocked the Rolling Stones off the top of the charts and, as far as I know, made them the first “virtual band.”
Around the same time, other bands that started out in cartoons went on to do well on the charts in the real world. This made them “meta,” which is a word that means “beyond” or “transcending.” The approves of Alvin and the Chipmunks and Josie and the Pussycats are among them. A few decades later, Blur’s Damon Albarn and Tank Girl’s Jamie Hewlett made Gorillaz, a group that makes music and art together. Gorillaz were billed as the world’s first virtual band, and their main innovation was playing real-life shows with the characters shown as holograms in front of a live audience.
The duration of virtual “influencers”
Gorillaz came out at the start of the internet age, just before social media and influencer culture, which gave rise to a whole new group of digital influencers. Hatsune Miku is a Japanese virtual idol made out of a software vocal synthesizer. Kizuna AI is said to be the most successful virtual YouTuber of all time. Lu do Magalu is a virtual anchor for a YouTube TV show made by the Brazilian retailer Magazine Luiza. And Lil Miquela has worked with brands like Samsung and Prada and been featured in Vogue.
The next step
So, here we are today, and at Polar. Polar’s creators say that the latest Abba Voyage show with holograms of the Swedish superstars in their prime was one of the virtual acts that inspired them. Polar is more than a virtual popstar or influencer; she is a metaverse star.
In a latest webinar, her creators told that she is collaborating with another virtual pop star on a song, and that she will soon be a character in a big upcoming video game.
The new thing about metaverse pop stars is that audiences can meet and interact with them in the many 3D, immersive worlds that make up the metaverse. Before, fans could only watch their videos or follow them on social media. When Bernard 2.0 talked to Polar, she told how much she enjoyed meeting fans and dancing with them at the recent Solar Sounds metaverse music festival, where she was performing. Polar also chose the mobile game Avakin Life, where Solar Sounds took place, to release her first single, Close To You.
It’s easy to see why fans and the record companies and businesses that use them to sell music and gain influence like virtual and now metaverse pop stars. Firstly, they can be programmed to act exactly how their creators want them to. This means that they can’t get bad press by acting badly, like some real pop stars have been known to do.
In fact, record producer Don Kirshner is said to have said, “Screw The Monkees, I want a band that won’t talk back!” This is said to have been one reason why the first virtual pop stars, The Archies, were made.
They don’t get old, become weary of continually touring and promoting recordings, get into drug use, or have unreasonable expectations for things like private jets and five-star hotels. By gathering and examining behavioral data in order to produce the “perfect pop star,” they can also be programmed algorithmically to deliver everything that fans want. They are also capable of being in multiple locations at once; Wilkens tells me his favorite quality of Polar is that she recently managed to record music for her debut album in London while still doing a concert in Latvia!
But should we be alarmed?
Metaverse influncers and pop stars are becoming more important, but as with all new technologies, this should be done with a bit of caution. First of all, we can assume that since AI-powered computers can already write songs, it won’t be long before virtual pop stars are more than just animated mouthpieces for songs made by humans. When that happens, we have to ask if art made by machines is even art. After all, “something produced by an artist” is pretty much the only answer that has ever been accepted to the question “What is art?” And can a machine or robot really be called an artist?
Furthermore, will this kinds of virtual or metaverse artist (if they are artists at all) be able to make anything truly challenging or valuable? Most of what we’ve seen has to do with business, like advertising, selling, and swaying opinion. Is this part of virtual culture likely to lead to something like the Sex Pistols or Public Enemy in the virtual world? Acts that go against “the establishment” and make something new and different?
Last but not least, the possibility that those who established virtual superstars would employ them as proxies raises another cultural query. For instance, the white men who created the female African virtual supermodel Shudu have come under fire for effectively using a high-tech version of “blackface” to gain access to brands and secure sponsorship deals while posing as a (non-existent) woman of color.
In the coming ten years, as the metaverse becomes a bigger part of our life and the lines between the real world, real influencers, and real celebrities, and the virtual world become increasingly blurred, society will undoubtedly come up with solutions to these issues
One thing seems certain: similar to the metaverse itself, virtual pop stars and influencers will be an effective marketing tool for brands that want to reach new customers, especially the young, digital-native generations that will live in the virtual world.