Believe it or not, Japan can make other music aside from peppy pop! It has a vibrant underground music scene, which over the years has developed into an influential force to be reckoned with. In Jukebox, we take a look at the versatility of the Japanese music industry — beyond the realm of anime and other geekery. For the very first installment, the AKB48 “sex scandal” urges us to introduce you to BiS, short for Brand-New Idol Society.
Last week, another storm raged through the teacup that is the Japanese idol industry. Minami Minegishi, founding member of J-pop juggernaut and holder of the Guinness World Record for largest pop group in existence, AKB48, had been spotted leaving her alleged boyfriend’s apartment and as a consequence was promptly sacked from the group’s “main” team. Her tear-filled apology video, in which Minegishi revealed she had shaved her head as punishment for apparently offending the band’s male fans, churned a collective cry of “What the hell, Japan” out of many a Western observer. The Minegishi controversy once again crumbled the façade of the happy-go-lucky idol industry, a world in which purity is sanctified and regular human behaviour must be kept in check to satiate a target audience desperately clinging to a patriarchal ideal.
In Japan, the word ‘idol‘ denotes pretty much any young media personality of transitory fame, whether they be actors, singers, models or presenters. It must be one of the world’s most ungrateful professions. Because Japanese culture defines childish cuteness and innocence as the essence of a female idol’s appeal, managing offices often resort to drastic measures at the slightest threat. Over the years, the idol industry has turned into a breeding farm moulding increasingly younger girls into perfect dream girls, only to ditch them when they reach the unholy age of 25 or have the gall to openly admit that they pursue sexual interests like normal people.
Minegishi is just one extreme example. Only a few months earlier, fellow AKB48 member Yuka Masuda quit the group for the same reasons. Another infamous example is voice actress and singer Aya Hirano, who has been struggling to find roles ever since speaking too openly about her sex life. Last year, the management of Perfume had to assert fans that one of its members was merely bringing a boy medicine. In 2005, the “leader” of idol unit Morning Musume got sacked because of a similar incident. The idol industry does not forgive, yet still it keeps attracting girls who are willing to give it their all for their five minutes of fame every year. It is a job with high risks and high rewards, a galactic soar inevitably leading to a final crash.
It is a strange ambiguity that rules the idol industry, where cuteness is cranked up to an almost pornographic degree. If you think that the adoration for these idols is as incorruptible as they are themselves, you will be quick to change your mind. The target audience for most, if not all idols consists of adult men and many groups thrive on the fans’ unyielding dedication and near-perverse obsession with their members. For every sex scandal, there’s a story about idols being sexually harassed by some of their more fanatic admirers. Nevertheless, any accusation of idols being sexual beings themselves is one too many. This corporate-run chastity belt around every idol’s waist shows that music is not what the mainstream Japanese music industry seems to be about. Modern idols are a lethal cocktail of the Japanese population’s conservative mindset and its desperate need for escapism. As the lost paragons of virtue and innocence, and often the sole consolation in such a demanding and stressful society, idols represent an ideal. An ideal that is about to die.
The killers go by the name of BiS, short for Brand-New Idol Society. Their name may indicate that they are just the latest idol group on the block — even outrageously so — but if you hang around with them for more than a single minute, you would soon find out that BiS would vomit at being compared to the likes of AKB48 or Morning Musume — literally. BiS is a vicious freak off a leash, a group of crazy girls who deliberately break down everything people know and love about idols with a sledgehammer. Armed with a penchant for controversy, a great deal of self-awareness and their trademark brightly coloured spiked baseball bats, BiS is unpredictable and quite unlike anything you’d expect out of a idol group. Nevertheless, they have the cute outfits, the high-pitched voices, the perky members and the catchy melodies. Unlike other artists who wish to cultivate a rebellious image, BiS wears the idol label with pride.
BiS started off in 2010 as a pet project of indie songstress Pour Lui, who wanted to form an idol group to annoy her manager, BiS’ creative director and frequent butt monkey, Junnosuke Watanabe. With his help, she started looking for the craziest people she could find, and quickly assembled three other conspiring partners: Nozomi “Non” Hirano, an ex-shut-in with a never-changing facial expression, Yufu “Yuffie” Terashima, the girl from the “good old days” and Yukiko “UK” Nakayama, proud owner of a tongue piercing. BiS quickly gathered an underground fanbase with their unconventional looks, crazy antics, low-budget music videos and catchy songs. Lovingly dubbed ‘idolcore’, BiS’s songs — written by producer Kenta Matsukuma with lyrics by the girls themselves — combine the traditional, easily consumable cheerfulness of idol songs with the pounding drums and heavy guitars commonly associated with punk. They are raw and powerful, and very frequently miles away from the heavily fabricated, fine-tuned synthpop that makes other idol groups so derivative.
While the traditional idol image is all about incorruptible cuteness, BiS searches for cuteness in corruption. Their music videos are ridden with grievous bodily harm and all other kinds of controversy, yet still strangely adorable. Their debut video, “My Ixxx”, has Pour Lui and co. prancing around seemingly naked, “Primal” explores the inside of the girls’ mouths with endoscopy cameras and “Remember t.A.T.u” replicates the same lesbian shtick that catapulted the song’s namesake to world fame a decade earlier. Nevertheless, this musical style and attitude that went against everything idols traditionally stand for was met with nothing but enthusiasm. BiS easily forced its way out of the traditional, conservative idol paradigm by making it very clear they didn’t take themselves seriously from the very beginning. Whoever is in charge of BiS’ image knows the controversy handbook by heart, but the quirky self-awareness of their early videos proved both genuine and extremely effective. Pour Lui and her merry women gave the idol industry what it to deserved to have slammed in its face for years.
Even off camera, BiS would kick the industry in the nuts. Their barely-rehearsed dance routines made fun of the robotic synchronisation exposed by other idol groups. Their performances would often see the same song being performed four times in a row, because idol sons are all the same anyways. One day, BiS even declared war on fellow idols Momoiro Clover Z by performing in front of the crowd waiting in line for the other group’s concert. Despite their subversive behaviour, the Society’s infamy spread quickly and considerably, all the way up to Avex Trax, a Japanese pop music label responsible for the marketing and distribution of acts like Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and Korean pop juggernauts 2NE1. After Yukiko’s departure in April 2012, BiS signed with Avex Trax and conspired with their manager for another prank. Watanabe announced parting ways with BiS and announced a new direction for the group, including a promo video that saw the girls singing a cheerful song in cute outfits. Evidently, fans were not pleased, though once again BiS had managed to draw attention by doing the unexpected.
A few days later, however, they launched the morbid music video for “Idol”, the single promoted with the cutesy promo video. It immediately made clear that Watanabe and his “creative direction” were not going anywhere. “Idol” marked the beginning of the group’s crazy descent into straight up metal territory, with crushing double kick drums, distorted guitars and visceral screamed vocals. Portraying idols as a succubi dressed in black, humiliating writhing half-naked men and being carried through the streets of Tokyo tied to crosses, the ridiculously over-indulgent music video is not short on symbolism and — quite literally — initiated BiS’s open crusade against the traditional idol, which culminated with the release of their major label debut album, aptly titled “Idol is Dead”.
Signing with Avex Trax, who promptly added two new members to the outfit — Rio “Mitchel” Michibayashi and Yurika “Wacky” Wakisaki — did not harm Brand-New Idol Society’s image in any way. Despite the label’s mainstream image, Pour Lui and co. kept beating, eating, kissing and stripping without any compromises. For their Avex debut single, “PPCC”, the girls started donning outfits suspiciously reminiscent of Japanese school uniform swimsuits, held a 24-hour long marathon performance and went toe-to-toe with a whole army of stereotypical gangsters with their now trademark spiked bats. In a recent interview with MTV81, Pour Lui taunted the industry by stating they would “kill all idols”, starting with AKB48. In the same interview, she also joked about the “fake friendship” other idol groups try to convince their audiences of: “We don’t like each other. Idol groups always pretend they’re really good friends, but we admit that we don’t like each other. We’re just business partners.” If that’s true, it must be said that they are very good at hiding it.
The story of Brand-New Idol Society is a thoroughly crazy one, and it will be interesting to see what the girls pull out of their top hats next. They stand out and rebel without becoming too self-indulgent for their own good, and despite their heavy focus on visual shock, BiS’s music remains just as interesting as the shenanigans surrounding it. Where BiS averts the idol concept in the most genuine and sublime way however, is how they remain steadfast in their desire to do whatever they want. While their mockeries of the industry as a whole are far from subtle, Pour Lui ultimately succeeded in her attempts to prove that there truly is a place for a group that deliberately embodies everything the mainstream Japanese pop scene despises. In a way, BiS is even more of a ideal come to life than most other idol groups are, but unlike AKB48 and consorts, BiS is an ideal I would happily pursue.
Take note: People who think Babymetal are a bit too underaged.
Take cover: People who have a shrine dedicated to AKB48 in their homes.
Essential tracks: “My Ixxx”, “Idol”, “PPCC”