Bo Ningen and Dempa Gumi inc: The love affair between experimental and idol music

Continuing with the theme wrote about in my last post and Japan Times column about the intersection between experimental and idol music, and what it is that attracts freaky hippy longhairs, dirty punks and art-school pretenseniks to idol music, here is the full text of Taigen Kawabe of psychedelic rock band Bo Ningen’s comments, in which he discusses Momoiro Clover Z and his work (as Dempa Ningen) with the idol group Dempa Gumi inc.

Studying and making music has changed the way way I think about music compared to as a child. Music always makes me think, but when I heard Ikuze! Kaitou Shoujou by Momoiro Clover for the first time, I found myself listening over and over again without thinking at all. It was like the way I used to listen to music as a child. It wasn’t a particularly experimental song, but then after that I began to listen to other songs that were more challenging.

Key to the appeal of idol music for noise or punk musicians might be that both types share a kind of anarchic energy. it doesn’t have to be in the music itself, you might have to hear it live — even for Bo Ningen it’s a different experience hearing us on CD and seeing us live.

Dempa Gumi inc. are older than Momoclo but they have a similar approach. It’s all about capturing the energetic momentum of youth. In their case it’s quite striking because they all used to be social shut-ins and couldn’t use their youth, so they’re sharing with their otaku fans this reinactment, trying to reclaim their youth. In their case, idol music is like a time machine.

I don’t like AKB48 because what they do is so regressive. Even stuff like Perfume or Kyary Pamyu Pamyu are kind of challenging. This is music that is tryiing something new and has a sense of moving forward. In a way, idol music nowadays is on the cutting edge of what Japanese people like. The producers might have backgrounds in other genres or take influences from other sources. In fact idol music’s background gives you access to quite a wide range of music. What attracts me is that you might find noise music hiding in idol music or idol music hiding in noise. Merzbow did a track called “Yumin, Non-stop Disco” which was a noise track comprised entirely of Yumi Matsutoya’s idol-ish early music.

Especially with recent idol music, I think it has the potential to cross over. Punk, rock, metal — especially in metal you have the “metal manner”, a very strict form, but with idol music it doesn’t matter what you do.

I also got in touch with Dempa Gumi inc. for a couple of brief comments, although my deadline for the original article ran out before their comments arrived. For anyone interested in hearing their music, here they are:

It’s hard to know how much one can draw from these comments (while their backstory is interesting, I don’t think you can really say their music itself is “totally different from regular idols”), but since all members of the group took the trouble to send some pretty thoughtful replies, I thought it would be useful to add their comments here too (English translation generously contributed by Dave McMahon).

1. How was the experience of working with Bo Ningen?

FURUKAWA MIRIN: I didn’t know much about them but there was some common otaku ground and they liked to talk about the same things, so although we may look different, I felt we were all essentially the same type of people.

YUMEMI NEMU: I had spoken to Taigen on the phone before we did the session, so I wasn’t worried. But at the same time I had no idea how it would all turn out… Performing live with Dempa Gumi inc there are lots of fantastic moments as an Idol, but there were moments in the session with Bo Ningen which moved all five senses.  I’ll never forget that shock.  I have no doubt that, in those moments, it was the coolest live in the whole world.

MOGAMI MOGA: In one word, it was CHAOS!!!

AIZAWA RISA: I felt that the collaboration was a chance to transmit Dempa Gumi Inc.’s ‘heat’ and ‘unique seishun’ to the audience.

NARUSE EIMI: It was very very stimulating!  But I didn’t really feel a big difference between us all as artists. And maybe, to anyone watching it would have seemed that way too.

FUJISAKI AYANE: We’re totally different from (regular) Idols and so is our music. Just as Dempa Gumi can seem to be smashing boulders to pieces with our sounds and voices, Bo Ningen also seem to be striking and smashing boulders to pieces, so I felt like we were breathing the same air (we had a lot in common) and it was fun. I personally like Bo Ningen’s music, so I was pleased to get the chance to work together.

2. How do you feel about music of the sort Bo Ningen make given that it seems at first glance an unusual combination?

FURUKAWA MIRIN: I think that we share common roots. I guess the same could be said of any music but the prospect of making something amongst yourselves was the same.

YUMEMI NEMU: Listening, I thought it was music which vibrates the feelings and the senses. But the way I think about idol pop, it doesn’t follow a set pattern — It can often suddenly switch to metal or enka, etc… So even when you mix Bo Ningen’s music with Dempa Gumi inc., they’re still idol songs. Really really cool idol songs.

MOGAMI MOGA: For me personally, I like music like Bo Ningen ’cause I’ve always been into metal and rock. My mum has told me before that she doesn’t understand the difference between ‘otagei’ (otaku’s synchronised audience gestures at idol concerts) and headbanging, so it was probably a bit like that. To people who want to feel music and enjoy it, I don’t think the genre really matters. The fans reacted well to Denpa Ningen too, so that just served to drill that idea home even further.

AIZAWA RISA: I love it!  Dempa Gumi aren’t a band as such, but the way our fans cheer and dance at our shows is similar to at a live band’s show. I mean, Dempa Gumi’s very existence is a big tangle of maniacs, so I could really identify with what Bo Ningen are very focused about trying to get across through their music.

NARUSE EIMI: The truth is, I like music like Bo Ningen, so I felt like I wanted to know more about it. Even though I’m an idol (Guffaw).  In fact, we all feel like we don’t just want to do idol pop, but that from here on in we’d like to keep on including more of the different types of music that we like. As long as we don’t lose sight of our roots, anything is possible for Dempa Gumi!

FUJISAKI AYANE: You can feel the weight their music has from playing their guitars, bass and drums with all their might, so we were overpowered by that totally different power. It was very moving!

As I say, it’s hard to know exactly what to take away from this since idol music comes with a set of assumptions that aren’t necessarily going to be the same as those in alternative music so phrases like “anything is possible” might operate within very different sets of limitations depending on one’s starting position. Nevertheless, the idea that hopping from style to style and not following a “set pattern” is not only permissible but also an integral part of the musical experience comes through in both Taigen’s and Dempa Gumi’s comments.

Also a point I think is interesting is Mogami Moga’s comment about her mum not seeing the difference between audience behaviour at idol and metal shows. I think this point can be extended to a wider observation on how “ordinary” people view subcultural products and behaviour. While idol music and otaku culture have been normalised to a large extent in Japanese mainstream culture, AKB48’s music still makes a point of not veering even remotely from the dead middle of the road down which J-pop has been puttering since at least the mid-90s, and most idol music still sounds freakish and subcultural to “ordinary” people in much the same way (although depending on the music and the particular type of “ordinary person”, the extent might vary) that music at the opposite avant-garde extreme might.

The last thing is the idea that genre doesn’t matter. I’m not sure about this, and the reaction of some Momoiro Clover Z fans to Ian Parton from The Go! Team being brought in for one song suggests that genre does matter to idol fans, but that the choice of genres is subject to more complex strictures. One obvious point is that any sign that an idol group is becoming more mainstream will be taken as a sign by otaku that the group is being taken away from them, which they will clearly not be happy about. On the other hand, Parton’s song, Roudou Sanka, was an unusual song by both mainstream J-pop and otaku standards, and I suspect the source of fan discomfort was more its “foreignness” — not specifically the use of a foreign writer (they accept Marty Friedman on its follow-up) so much as that despite the video piling in every nostalgia-ready Japanese cultural cliche it can manage, the music itself is built on a whole structure of sounds, musical references and motifs rooted in a different culture of what’s cool. While Parton’s music would have been cool as fuck to the 90s Tokyo indie generation that formed main Momoclo producer Hyadain’s background (Hyadain has a background in Shibuya-kei and The Go! Team are on Japanese label Vroom Sound, home of post-Shibuya-kei electronic pranksters Plus-tech Squeeze Box and Eel), otaku reject the role of trendsetting elites, preferring to build culture from the bottom up (recognising this and tricking fans into the illusion that they have this power has been key to the marketing genius of Yasushi Akimoto and AKB48). As a result, when fans complain about Roudou Sanka being too mainstream, perhaps part of what they mean is that its mishmash of funk, Motown, Britpop and mutant disco sounds dangerously fashionable.

Combine this with Taigen’s point about idol music’s role in recreating youth, and I think the freedom of idol music has limits set not by record industry convention but by the audience’s own cultural horizons and sense of nostalgia. Idol music is certainly more musically outgoing than its mainstream competitors, but it won’t have its direction imposed on it by “elites” from outside its own cultural milieu (and certainly not by the sort of people who use words like “milieu” in their blogs).

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2 Comments

Filed under Features, Interviews, Strange Boutique

2 responses to “Bo Ningen and Dempa Gumi inc: The love affair between experimental and idol music

  1. Pingback: Chocolate Discord: Noise inside idol music / Idol music inside noise | Clear And Refreshing

  2. Pingback: Dempa Gumi inc.: Kira Kira Tune / Sabotage | Clear And Refreshing

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