So apparently Japanese idol pop centipede AKB48 held their annual “election” (please imagine me pausing slightly, making big, wide air quotes and saying that word in a sneering, sarcastic voice) this Wednesday. Now my Japan Times colleagues Patrick St. Michel and Daisuke Kikuchi already covered a lot of it in their piece the other week so I shan’t go into the whole thing, and notorious J-pop hater that I am, I chose to spend that particular evening with my wife celebrating our wedding anniversary rather than submit to actually watching it, but I gather there were a few interesting things to come out of the whole charade.
Firstly, there is the fact that Fuji TV’s blow-by-blow coverage was briefly suspended thanks to the inconsiderately timed death of Prince Tomohito. It’s a shame that it took the death of the emperor’s cousin to shift this graceless, vapid, money-grubbing pantomime even temporarily from centre stage, but there was an undeniably bittersweet taste of schadenfreude at seeing Yasushi Akimoto’s painstakingly constructed monument to the debasement of Japanese popular culture suffer even the smallest of setbacks thanks to, you know, news, so I must confess to having allowed myself a discreet, Nelson-style “Ha-ha!“
Second, with the win of Yuko Oshima again, that makes it four years running that a girl from Ohta production has won (she’s traded places with Atsuko Maeda since the “elections” first began). It’s fun to imagine a conspiracy to promote girls from a single talent agency just because one can imagine the riots that would ensue among all the duped fans. In fact, if that did happen, I think I might have to concede a grudging admiration for Akimoto. I mean, seriously, the old adage about a fool and his money was never more appropriate than in the case of these legions of fans and by buying into the whole charmless parade in the first place, they are practically tattooing “Take my stupid money” on their foreheads.
That said, I very much doubt there is any scam involved, simply because there doesn’t need to be. The whole process hinges on the girls’ utter interchangeability. Whoever wins, the fans are clambering over each other in a desperate scramble to give Akimoto their money, sweaty hand over trembling fist, so why risk it?
Next, there’s the more general observation that what Akimoto has done here is harness the mindset of the indie music fan and successfully synthesise it into a pop format. The process of finding a performer you like but who few other people know, supporting them at close-up, small venues and maybe even speaking to and meeting one-on-one at those little gigs, and then following their development through to mainstream success has all been recreated synthetically within the confines of the group. AKB48 and their sister projects aren’t just pop groups, they’re an entire music ecosystem.
The ecosystem they most closely resemble, however, is the Galapagos Islands. As the whole of the rest of the music scene, even in net-fearing Japan, moves inexorably towards the abandonment of physical media in favour of downloads, AKB48’s entire business model and the whole election fiasco hangs off the sale of CDs. As Japanese subculture and tech journalist Toshimi Yotsumoto wondered on Twitter this Wednesday, “What’s going to happen to AKB48 once there are no more physical media?” On iTunes, you only need to pay for a song once and unless you set up multiple accounts, it won’t allow you to pay again. Perhaps they might decide to set up some kind of direct debit or credit card system that allows fans to bypass the hollow ritual of actually buying the CDs by simply wiring the money directly into Akimoto’s bank account, but more likely what we will see happen is everyone else in Japan moving more and more towards digital sales, leaving AKB48 a curious, disconnected island way up at the top of the Oricon charts, floating far above all the rest, artificially buoyed on a cushion of hot air. In fact perhaps less Galapagos than Swift’s Laputa.