Jukebox: Reclaiming Idols


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. Last year, we took a look at the perky Kayoko Yoshizawa, who proves that being an adorable singer in Japan doesn’t automatically means you’re classified as an ‘idol’. In this follow-up piece, we explore how the musical load covered by this controversial term has evolved over the past few years… maybe even for the better. Can idols be saved, or have scandals doomed them to live on as a creatively bankrupt, patriarchic relic?

It’s hard to say if idol singers in Japan are more popular than they’ve ever been, but they’re certainly more plentiful. With the omnipresent AKB48 — a pop group with more than 140 members and daily scheduled performances at their own theater in Akihabara, Tokyo — smashing one record after another, several groups are competing to follow in their footsteps. On the Internet, the 2010s have become jokingly known as ‘the age of the idol wars’ (‘idol sengoku jidai‘), and now it seems even the anime industry can’t escape the idol microbe. Only last week, a best-of album by Muse µ’s, the idol group associated with the popular Love Live! franchise, topped the chart with the best-selling albums of the week. It was the first album by anime characters to top the charts since the debut album of Hokago Tea Time, the rock band from the popular K-ON! franchise.

It’s a match made in heaven, really. Both the idol and the anime industries cater primarily towards a niche audience of men in the lucrative 18 to 35 demographic by offering cute, quirky and ‘pure’ girls within reach, and both employ similar tactics to rake in sales disproportionate to their actual popularity. While AKB48 enjoy considerable mainstream exposure, their massive record sales — over 30 million records and 28 million singles as of mid-2014 — can be attributed to their management’s shrewd tactics more than to the actual size of their fanbase. All their albums and singles are released in a plethora of special and limited editions, with sometimes up to six different cover arts, and hardcore fans, or wota, are encouraged to buy them all, and if possible, more than once. Package in a voting ballot for the Senbatsu election or an entry pass for a special handshake event with the idols in question, and you’ve found yourself a one-way-ticket to millions of yen.

They all look like they want to murder me.

Love Live!

As you could expect, the anime industry has happily picked up on this habit. The best-selling anime Blu-Rays are those packed with entry tickets for associated events — usually the only bonus that can make any but the most spend-happy of otaku willing to fork over the usual 7000-ish yen (50$) for a disk with only two episodes on it. It’s no miracle, then, that the best-selling anime Blu-Ray of 2014 was volume 1 of season 2 of Love Live!, which, unsurprisingly, came packed with an event ticket, an exclusive song, and DLC for Love Live! games. It sold more than 80,000 copies, an absolutely monstrous amount for a television anime, and stands as an absolute poster story for the lucrative ways of Japan’s male-oriented entertainment industry — in spite of the various horror stories about the contractual purity and questionable sexualization of idols both real and animated.

A victory for the patriarchy, then? Maybe not. Because unlike their real-life equivalents in AKB48, the ladies of µ’s are quickly gaining a fanbase in a demographic the people who created them seemed to have forgotten all about: women. Contrary to what the often cringeworthy headlines may suggest, girls dig idols, and idols dig girls. Several female artists in Japan are no longer afraid to appropriate the idol moniker out of a fear of being lumped in with dozens of similarly derivative acts and forced to cater to the whims of fanatics until their inevitable decline, which will undoubtedly come sooner than they expect. They’re dedicated to becoming artists on their own right, without having to hide their affection for the ideal of idolhood — a dream that remains strong in many, despite the scandals. In 2015, being an idol can mean whatever you want it to mean.

That is only a very recent phenomenon, obviously. For the longest time Idols weren’t considered to be serious artists by any means. Their goal was to market their easily digestible charisma to as large an audience as possible, not to break creative ground with their artistic expression. Any female artist with any kind of musical ambitions did wisely in distancing themselves from the idol label, and through completely different commercial and creative approaches, the rift between idols and ‘serious’ female artists was quickly established. While singer-songwriters such as Jun Togawa and Ringo Sheena rose to fame in pretty much every genre but j-pop, Ayumi Hamasaki managed to combine mainstream popularity with tight control over her own image and music, vehemently opposing the commercial exploitation of her image and music as a ‘product’ of Avex, her idol-riddled record label. She became one of the best-selling Japanese artists of all time.

Consequently, the ‘idol’ moniker is more than about just being popular, making easily digestible music or being signed to a major label. One of the most popular girl groups to successfully break away from the idol stigma is Perfume, who in spite of their soft vocals, conventionally attractive looks and instantly appealing electro-pop gained an image very different from that of AKB48 and the like. Like idols, Perfume propagate an ideal, but the refined, mature perfection promised by their impeccable choreographies, high fashion and fine-tuned pop songs — a prime characteristic of Perfume’s music is that the voices of all three members are often ‘fused’ into one, with some help from AutoTune and other voice processors — is a far cry from the pastel-colored purity and often intentional awkwardness of idols.

Though they may be worshipped like goddesses, most idols owe their popularity to how ‘normal’ they are. Their dance routines are simplistic, their vocal performances pedestrian and their manners often somewhat amateurish, but that’s how the fans like it. The main appeal of wota fandom lies in cheering on the ‘girl next door’ to become an absolute superstar — at least as long as she remains beautiful and ‘pure’ enough to perpetuate the delusion that she is sexually available to her adoring fans. Those scare quotes around ‘normal’ are there for a reason. The ideal perpetuated by idols is not one of perfection, but of innocence and virginity, and as a result, cognitive dissonance reigns supreme in the fandom. Through revealing outfits, swimwear photoshoots and suggestive lyrics, the idol is presented as sexual ideal, but herself expected to be completely asexual. According to the idol industry, and to idol fans, a proper idol — and by extension, a proper woman — should be sexual, but innocently unaware of her own sexuality.

The distinction seems clear: Sales or labels have little to do with what it means to be an ‘idol’. Singers like Ringo Shiina or Perfume are the women other girls want to be. Idols, on the other hand, are the girls men want women to be. Nevertheless, the reality is oddly enough more nuanced than that. While AKB48 are obviously marketed predominantly towards men, they have do have a sizable female fanbase who interpret the idol as a paragon of unapologetic girliness — perhaps most exemplarily displayed by their controversial music video for “Heavy Rotation” — more than as a norm of what women should act like. Similarly, many people have somewhat jokingly noticed that the Love Live! fanbase seems to consist primarily of LGBT women, who seem to adore the relatable characters and the relationships between them more than its otherwise completely played-straight, male-oriented idol tropes.

It’s hardly a miracle that LGBT women can relate to idols. Lesbian subtext is an idol staple — case in point: “Heavy Rotation” — as Japan’s rather patriarchal society somewhat expects young girls to be physically intimate with their friends in order to ‘rehearse’ how to show their future husbands proper affection. Idols remain ‘pure’ if they’re touchy-feely with each other and there is no man in sight, but of course, their relationships are to remain platonic at all times. Idol groups often exploit their ‘sheltered all-girls school’ image for all it is worth, but its the fans who have the last laugh. Romantic relationships between characters are all but universally accepted within the Love Live! fandom and what is intended as saucy fan service is often quickly reclaimed as a sign of female and/or lesbian empowerment. It shows that the once very clear distinction between idols and ‘serious’ female artists is starting to blur: women are taking back idols, and it shows that their definition of the term is a lot more open than the traditional, male-oriented one.

Considerable amounts of ink have already been spilled on BiS (Brand-new Idol Society), for example, an idol group that thrived on disturbingly un-idol like behaviour — including on this very site. De facto band leader and prime troublemaker Pour Lui, a longtime fan of idol groups, realized that there would be no place for a free-spirited loudmouth such as herself in any existing idol group and subsequently decided to make her own. Though still bearing the formal characteristics of an idol band, getting by on charisma more than on talent and releasing singles with five different covers, BiS soon rose to infamy with their confrontational, self-penned lyrics and gratuitously family-unfriendly music videos. A bit over-the-top, maybe, but the message was clear: BiS loved being idols, but they were laying down the law themselves, taking full responsibility for their own reputation and creative output. Though the few mainstream wota who had even heard of BiS despised them, their unique attitude quickly made them underground darlings, gaining fans in high places — including fashion designer Nigo, noise music pioneers Hojikaidan and Hisashi Tonomura of million-selling rock band Glay.

After BiS’s split — because of course they split at the height of their career — the former members continued to look for ways to bridge the gap between their own creative expression and the idealized iconicity of idolhood: Nozomi Hirano and First Summer Uika, with the support of Nigo, created Billie Idle, a new-wave-inspired ‘not idol’ group, while Tentenko dove back into the underground as a DJ and avant-garde performer, all the while making the most of the iconic status she achieved as an idol by releasing zines and other ironically outdated merchandising. Whether BiS deserve all the credit for the recent influx in similar, ‘alternative’ idol acts is questionable, but the fact remains that they stand as the poster children of a new generation of idols who are taking their fate in their own hands. Groups like Bellring Shoujo Heart, Necronomidol or You’ll Melt More! are signed to lesser-known labels, dabble in genres like psychedelic rock, grunge, black metal or new-wave and cultivate a rowdy, empowered image that couldn’t differ from the safe, virginal idol any more if it tried. Nevertheless, these girls proudly call themselves ‘idols’, exploring what the word still means in a context derived from its patriarchic origins.

Undoubtedly inspired by the omnipresent Babymetal — in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, Babymetal are a massively popular idol trio and ‘spin-off’ of the idol group Sakura Gakuin, consisting of three teenage girls who sing catchy pop songs with death metal arrangements — many of these ‘alternative idol’ groups provide a girly spin on distinctly ‘un-feminine’ genres, but take the contradiction far further than the relatively safe Sakura Gakuin offshoot, at the expense of the mainstream appeal Babymetal do have. While these indie idol groups are often still pet projects of their — as far as I know of universally male — managers, producers and/or songwriters, many of them write their own lyrics and the girls are encouraged to freely indulge in their own peculiar hobbies and fashion styles rather than following the strict norm of the mainstream idol. Of course, the contractual purity goes out of the window as well, as indie idols often market themselves on their unicity, charisma, energy, sense of humour or interests rather than on how well they conform to the wota‘s cutesy, demure ideal of womanhood.

As a result, the idol wars that has already taken over the Japanese charts is now marching onto the indie scene as well. Aside from the billions of ‘idol metal’ acts trying to replicate the perverse coincidence that is Babymetal’s success, there are groups like Bellring Shoujo Heart, who trade in the metal for 60’s-inspired classic rock songs, or Necronomidol, comprised of girls with an interest in the occult and searching for inspiration in even darker places. Only last week, an idol group named Zenbu Kimi no Sei Da! (“It’s All Your Fault!”) announced their debut, claiming to be comprised of ‘insecure’ girls with obscure or geeky interests. By far one of the most bizarre cases, however, is Negicco, a ‘local idol’ group from Niigata prefecture and stars of one of the most depressing Vice features of all time. Founded ten years ago as a promo stunt spun mercilessly out of control — their name means ‘leek girls’, in case you’re wondering what they were intended to promote — the trio now finds itself pushed forward by their label as the frontrunners of a Shibuya-kei revival, with many legendary artists from the nineties Tokyo music scene now writing and producing their songs. Having spent years in obscurity, but still playing every idol trope in the book straight, while at the same time boasting a distinct musical style and actual talent behind the scenes makes Negicco a prime example of how bizarrely fragmented the idol world has become.

Yet the point of it all is that it doesn’t really matter whether or not the oh-so-inoffensive Negicco count as ‘alternative’ because their songs get praised by very serious music critics. There’s no point in arguing over the question if BiS can be called ‘idols’ when they run around in bald caps beating dudes up with baseball bats. Not only is the idol scene becoming more musically interesting and diverse, the focus of idolhood is gradually shifting from the audience to the idol herself. Similarly to how Western pop singers are graduating from boasting about and/or praising one’s looks to celebrating one’s individuality, J-pop is following suite, with ‘idol’ becoming a term of female empowerment, both paying homage to the idols who inspired this new generation to aim for the top, and being a symbolic means of injecting traditionally male-dominated music scenes such as indie or metal with some much-needed femininity. And there is no better example of this than the inescapable Seiko Oomori.

For starters, Seiko Oomori is not, and has never been anything close to a traditional idol. She started out in the underground of her native Koenji, an area in Tokyo known for its vibrant punk scene, as a singer-songwriter known for putting on performances that could be best described as staged mental breakdowns with an acoustic guitar. Her newfound fame gave Oomori the means to extend her instrumentarium considerably, culminating in the release of last year’s Sennou, her debut on major label Avex. On that album, she blends together J-pop, folk, alternative rock, punk, electronic and noise into a chaotic, densely-layered whole. Seiko Oomori’s universe is one of corrupted girliness, an explosion of frills and pink hues, while her on-stage behaviour reflects that on an idol possessed by the devil, with cutesy hand gestures and disturbing vocal acrobatics going hand in hand. She picks up the mannerisms and visual style of the idols she loves, yet turns them into something that is entirely her own.

In her latest music video, “Magic Mirror”, Oomori reflects on the loneliness of her newfound fame, while at the same time taking up the metaphorical wings of a guardian angel for the outsiders in Japanese society, whose lives she’s set out to affirm. It’s a more personal take on the escapist zero-to-hero story most idol groups tell, where the way to the top can always be paved with relentless energy and fan support, while reality for many fans might be very different. It’s this iconic aspect of idolhood, not the innocent purity or the manufactured positivity, that artists like Oomori or groups like BiS appropriate and turn into an all-inclusive sign of empowerment, not only for their fans, but for themselves as well. They’re happy to be idols, but they’re people as well; people who, like the beloved characters of Love Live!, who decide to form an idol group to save their school, take their fates and creative identities into their own hands. No wonder they’re getting the praise of countless music bloggers and female idol fans, while AKB48 tumbles from one poorly-handled incident into another.

Rino Sashihara winning the 2015 Senbatsu.

Rino Sashihara winning the 2015 Senbatsu.

Nevertheless, the distinction is, as you might have been able to guess, not as black-and-white as the extremes on both sides of the spectrum may imply. In fact, the influx of progressive acts in the idol scene might have already made its way to the top. Last week, AKB48 announced the results of their annual ‘Senbatsu’ election, a popularity contest where fans get to vote (with their wallet, of course) for their favourite idol in AKB48 or one of its sister groups. The winner was — for the second time, no less — one Rino Sashihara, an idol who only three years ago was ‘demoted’ to HKT48, an AKB48 spin-off located in Fukuoka prefecture, because of a ‘sex scandal’, and was widely hated amongst wota for her negative attitude and seemingly being ‘unsupportive of her group’. Nevertheless, management acknowledged her talents and even gave her the opportunity to produce concerts and solo singles by other AKS-brand idols, as before she became a member of AKB48, Sashihara was a hardcore wota. Nowadays, she’s the manager of ‘group H’ of her band HKT48, and getting to show off her talents all but vindicated her in the eyes of many wota. After winning the Senbatsu in 2013, Sashihara published an autobiography on her rise from shut-in to group manager and producer, overcoming hurdles imposed by herself, her management and even her fans to become Japan’s top idol. Her victories stand as a prime example of how even in the most hopelessly antiquated, chauvinistic environments, idols can reclaim their title for themsel–Oh God, here we go again.

Most of the songs and artists linked in this article are available internationally on iTunes, save for AKB48. Probably for the better, I’d say. Seiko Oomori’s new single, “Magic Mirror/Sacchan no Sexy Curry” will by released on July 15. By the way, check out these previous Jukebox entires if you haven’t yet:

Brand-New Idol Society
Mop of Head
Kayoko Yoshizawa
The 13 Best Tracks of 2013
The 14 Best Tracks of 2014

One thought on “Jukebox: Reclaiming Idols

  1. Very interesting article but I’m surprised you didn’t investigate UPUPGIRLS(仮). You touched on Negicco and Oomori Seiko who have worked closely with UUG. Oomori Seiko even wrote one song for UUG. Please check out UUG and maybe share your thoughts on their growth. Laastly, thank you again for this nice article.

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