Why idol culture is eating alternative music and why Nakigao Twintail will save it

The popularity of idol music among indie and underground music fans is something I wrote about last year and it has only accellerated since with the growing popularity of Dempa Gumi inc. and BiS. At a recent concert at the 2,700-capacity Zepp Tokyo, Dempa Gumi inc. fans were moshing, crowdsurfing and generally rocking out like good punks, without much of the dead-eyed, robotic para para that is traditionally associated with idol music, while when I interviewed BiS, they presented a punkish, defiantly anti-idol public face. When I DJed at a 2013 countdown party at an alternative rock venue in Fukuoka, a Momoiro Clover Z tribute act performed next to the usual indie and punk acts. In fact I would go further than merely saying idol music is popular with indie and underground fans: I would say that it’s usurping the position that the indie and underground scenes used to occupy.

(This is the point where all the “it’s just pop music, you’re overanalysing this lol” types can kindly piss off.)

One reason I think is to do with business. Idol music provides a framework for marketing and imagery that makes it easy for record companies and talent agencies to sell. Because there is no inbuilt expectation that the girls should have any independence outside of the parameters set by the idol marketing and image management framework, it’s easier to package, produce and sell them without having to deal with the unpredictabilities of a rock band whose appeal is more likely to be tied up with more esoteric and difficult to predict aspects of themselves and their work. Members can be replaced and reshuffled more easily, cuter members can be parachuted in to improve mainstream appeal, and because the creative elements are handled on the management side, musical differences are irrelevant.

Also, because of the cheap production values and the acceptance (or even desirability) of amateurishness among idol fans, the scene provides a path for songwriters with an indie background into professional songwriting and production where they would be seen as a risk in more nominally mainstream music circles. Songwriters like Hyadain and Narasaki of Momoiro Clover Z would not be allowed to get away with what they do with the likes of Kana Nishino, and it’s telling that while big hitting 90s star producers such as Takeshi Kobayashi and Tetsuya Komuro were every bit as successful with their own bands as the artists they produced were, the names behind today’s idol stars are rarely worth a fraction of what their idol work sells when out on their own.

And then there’s the desire among fans for authenticity. It’s ironic that it is to idol music, the most transparently artificial music in the world, that fans are turning in the search for something real, but it’s essential to the genre’s appeal. Even with chart monstrosities AKB48, the process of watching idols grow up, make mistakes, learn and overcome difficulties is integral to the narrative that fans buy into. Within the artificial framework, the perception is that at least the girls themselves are being sincere. Similarly, the appeal of Momoiro Clover Z with their energetic schoolgirl acrobatics, Dempa Gumi inc. with their tale of socially withdrawn hikikomori backgrounds that they overcame through living the dream and turning their fantasies into reality, or BiS with their seemingly plain-speaking dismissal of the pretensions of other idol groups — all of these narratives play to an audience desire for authenticity.

Authenticity has always been the preserve of indie, rock and punk acts, and yet here are completely artificially produced groups who don’t play their own instruments, don’t write their own songs (when an idol tells you she “writes her own lyrics”, be very suspicious), and who are recruited through agencies (early in their careers, Momoiro Clover Z and AKB48 sister groups shuffled and traded members) actually competing with indie and rock bands on their home turf.

Part of what’s happened here is that rock bands have shuffled off their cloak of authenticity and can no longer legitimately claim it as their own. Rock music, or at least what we might call “band music”, was the dominant format for “serious” music in the 90s, and the big rock bands of the day like Mr. Children occupy a position, through no fault of their own, where they’re blocking off new artists from coming through. Why should a label in troubled times invest money in new acts that might not ever become successful, when they can just repackage and re-release old acts whose success is guaranteed?

Even into the 2000s, indie or alternative-influenced bands were socially relevant for young people, with the Supercar-Number Girl-Quruli axis defining indie rock for a generation to follow, but the bands that followed them were successively watered-down copies, and even where the music could match up, the social relevance couldn’t. Supercar split up, Quruli settled into rock mediocrity, Shutoku Mukai and Shiina Ringo retreated from their positions as inspirationaol voices of their generations and formed popular but more technically-orientated bands in Zazen Boys and Tokyo Jihen. No new voices came in to replace them.

And then there was the sense that rock music was somehow foreign and elitist, perhaps bolstered by the high entry costs for musicians wanting to enter the live circuit, especially in Tokyo. Independent music’s biggest expression in the mainstream was the 90s Shibuya-kei boom, which was dominated by cultural curators with elite university backgrounds, connections with the fashion scene and overseas music. As the idea lost hold that “cool” was something imported from the West and imposed from above by cultural elites, a sense grew, influenced by the growing relative strength of the anime and manga scene as a cultural market, that Japanese authenticity should really be Japanese. Idol fandom often plays off shared cultural signifiers from childhood like anime, tokusatsu monster serials, pro-wrestling and others, and whether out of insecurity or increased confidence, it’s a genre that celebrates its Japaneseness, its traditions, and youth and modernity at the same time. It may be confused, and it by no means rigidly excludes all things foreign (as idol music reaches out more from the otaku scene into the indie and punk scenes, nostalgia increasingly trumps nationalism), but idol music does contain within it a sense of a nation and a generation exploring its own sense of self.

With authentic voices facing industry obstacles to gaining popularity on their own, and genuinely inspiring voices in music unwilling to take responsibility for the popularity they had previously earned, the arena of idol music has become the only avenue into professional or semi-professional songwriting for musicians, and one of the only expressions in the mainstream of fans’ desires for a narrative of authenticity. Fans who in previous generations would have turned to alternative music, find idol music more readily available and more easily palatable; existing fans of indie and punk music find it easy to cross over, maybe at first convincing themselves that they’re being ironic or that idol music really does have genuine subversive sentiments.

Now here’s why it’s wrong.

For all that idol music is interesting and culturally relevant, it is bad for music because it relies on fans substituting an attractive lie for a difficult reality. The narratives that it spins may have some truth to them, but their representation to the audience is in the simplified form of a pantomime, a performance. Fans who buy into the idol narratives are taking the easy route, taking a shortcut to emotional gratification.

It can be argued that it is elitist and snobbish to complain that idols don’t play their own instruments, because as long as their performances are filled with purity, sincerity, hard work and energy, that’s enough. Playing music is difficult, and an idol’s attractiveness is intertwined with her accessibility, her normality. She shouldn’t be too talented because that would set her apart from her fans, make her inaccessible. An idol who can play music well is an exciting novelty to be patted on the head like a performing dog, and any talent she has must be apologised for with a shy giggle and balanced out by a corresponding weakness or vulnerability.

Because for all its “You go, girl!” gloss, idolism is socially conservative at heart, and it’s no surprise that the rising popularity of idol pop in Japan runs hand in hand with polls showing increased support for traditional roles of women in Japanese family life. Idols bow long and hard to their (mostly male) audiences, make themselves pretty, yell out breathless, tear-stained thanks to their (mostly male) fans for allowing them the opportunity to live their dreams, and meanwhile male managers and production teams pull the strings behind the scenes, pitching and calibrating the message that the girls will send so that it can better reach out to the disenfranchised 90s/2000s generation male demographic, sending out appeals to nostalgia for things that the girls themselves are too young to even know about and probably wouldn’t have been interested in even if they weren’t.

Idol music may provide a path into the mainstream for musical ideas that would be smothered at birth in a more conventional J-Pop artist, but it isn’t really subversive. To see what a genuinely subversive idol would look like, just look at Jun Togawa back in the 1980s, exploiting lolita fantasies, shrieking about sex and menstruation, deconstructing issues of female body image and satirising objectified feminine stereotypes. Don’t wait for Momoiro Clover Z to do that. They won’t. They aren’t interested in doing so and their fans don’t really want them to. It’s not their job. Their job is the be young, cheerful, pretty (but not too pretty), energetic, and to tell their fans how much they appreciate them.

Because idol music massages a need for authenticity that isn’t being provide elsewhere, because it provides that raw rush in such a palatable, sugar-coated form, because it feeds a sense of nostalgia in a generation defined by uncertainty, because of all these things, we don’t notice that we’re being fed a placebo, a dummy pill. Idols provide musical homeopathy for the jilted generation.

But that only works until you see the real thing.

The real thing is Nakigao Twintail. It’s probably a lot of other bands from all over Japan who you’re never going to hear about as well, but here, now, it’s this particular group of five seventeen year-old high school second graders from Saga in Kyushu.

They’re the heavy gut-punch of reality that makes you sick up the idol sugar, because they’re all the things that the current generation of idol music, with its winks and nudges towards alternative culture, wants you to think it is, but without the smooth edges.

They play their own instruments of course, but they don’t just play them — the video clips on YouTube do the band little justice, but they hack at them, tear at them, make them scream for mercy. If all-girl rock band anime K-On! sounded like this, it wouldn’t be such a piece of shit, but then Nakigao Twintail aren’t K-On! or anything like it. They don’t offer up an inspiring narrative of weaknesses overcome and lingering vulnerabilities by way of apology for their talent, they’re just fuck you, we’ve got the stage for the next thirty minutes, so either scream and yell like you adore us, or fuck off. A bunch of seventeen year-old girls singing and dancing along to a backing track may or may not be sincere in their passion and energy, but a bunch of seventeen year-old girls with a front rank of three electric guitars plugged into Marshall amps can deliver approximately eight and a half gazillion times more.

There’s no ageing punk dude in the shadows feeding them lines, just a couple of the members’ mums sitting in the corner (whether to support them or keep them out of trouble, it’s hard to tell). When they walk off stage and come back on in the guise of a cute idol-type alter-ego band, they announce their next song is called Jisatsu (Suicide) and the mums put their faces in their hands in shame: “What kind of daughters have we brought up? Where did we go wrong!” and then you look at the band, shunning uniforms, a guitarist still young enough to know that shades look cool indoors, the singer’s clothes mutilated with safety pins, and you think the question should really be “Where did we go right?”

Where BiS are confrontational, provocative and critical of idol culture, they’re really just carving themselves a consumer niche in an increasingly crowded market. It’s a schtick and they’re welcome to it. It’s fun, but it’s fun in an abstract, intellectual sense. It’s a pantomime of what punk bands like Nakigao Twintail are doing for real. There’s no need for a Dempa Gumi inc.-style redemption narrative or a Momoiro Clover Z style “weekend warriors” gimmick to fit the band around their high school schedules: the band won’t even exist in two months because they’ll be entering their final year of school and they don’t do things by halves. This isn’t a showbiz career, because Nakigao Twintail are all about the moment. They’re not here to provide you with a service, massage your ego or sense of nostalgia, and the only gratification they’re interested in is their own and now, now, now.

They might graduate from high school and go on to form some cheesy pop-punk atrocity like Scandal, but I doubt it. More likely, they’ll come back to music at university, grow in sophistication and technical skill and enter the music scene, probably in a few different bands with various other people, as a more mature, more musically developed version of something vaguely similar to what they’re doing now. Some of them might gain a degree of success, but probably not doing anything as outrageously silly, rough edged and purely, selfishly thrilling as this.

And they shouldn’t, and we shouldn’t expect them to. If youthful passion, excitement and careless energy could be replicated that easily, it wouldn’t be as precious, it wouldn’t be real: it would be a fantasy. This is something that Dempa Gumi inc. kind of admitted to their audience onstage at Zepp Tokyo. The group delivered their interminable, tearful monologues to the crowd one by one, then came back onstage in costumes representing their dreams, but they were only facades of costumes, stitched together by straps at the back, revealing rather more mundane nightclothes beneath. It was a metaphor, see?

By wearing the fantasy and the artifice of entertainment industry convention on the surface, idol music can to a certain extent hide it in plain sight, but the genre structures and restrictions that limit the extent to which idol music can truly express anything other than watered-down, sugared-up narratives for its listeners are no less important for that. You can say that it’s just pop music and should be treated as such, loved unconditionally for that alone, and I think I would agree with you (anyone who’s a regular reader of this blog will know that I have a lot of fun with idol music), but its importance as a successful and popular arena for subcultural creative types and fans means that whether we like it or not, it isn’t positioned solely as pop music.

When teenage girls and boys think about getting into music and idol music is the only left-of-mainstream entry point that they can see, either as a performer or a fan, that has a knock-on effect on the next generation too. There are signs that the idol scene may be fraying at the edges and eating itself now, but with the industry getting quite comfortable with the business model and not looking for any major new upsets in times they’re already finding terrifyingly turbulent, don’t count on a major reaction against it appearing any time soon — certainly not with any kind of serious support from the major label-funded media.

Instead of that, we can just hope that genuinely independent voices will still find a way to filter through. Enjoy the fantasies of idol pop, but don’t mistake them for a revolution, or even a meaningful alternative: it’s just a business model that has somehow colonised part of alternative music subculture’s collective consciousness. Instead, it’s the genuinely raw, rough-edged voices of the sons and daughters of those shame-filled (but hopefully secretly proud) mothers who should be celebrated and encouraged.


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21 responses to “Why idol culture is eating alternative music and why Nakigao Twintail will save it

  1. toak

    The simple truth remains that the music of Nakigao Twintail isn’t as good as BiS’, as Momoiro Clover’s, and that in the end you have to decide whether you’re in this for the music and the ideas the music, isolated, brings to the world, or if you’re in it for the sub-culture itself.

    You”ll clearly go for the latter, for the ideological ideas and raw emotions. That’s fine. You care about the health of a scene and the variety of expressions among Japan’s mainstream artists.

    But you’re conflating several discussions and answering them with one simple conclusion. I don’t live in Japan and can’t communicate with all of the aspects of the industry you mention, I can only have a relationship with the products I get at the other end, the records themselves. A second rate local punk band may do a world of good for the scene around them or the whole country, I don’t know, but I’m definitely not going to listen to it as much as the next MomoClo single.

    Which again, may not be the most important thing to you, but when you then dismiss the arguably more formally experimental and interesting music of certain artists because they’re not ‘real’ enough you’ve moved from also caring about the scene to not caring about the art at all.

    As an ignorant to many aspects of Japanese society I admit I only think of groups like Momoiro Clover as regular old pop artists and don’t think much about the non-musical aspects of idol-culture, which admittedly seem to take a sinister form in some cases, and for me ‘pop stars’ or ‘punk stars’ doesn’t really matter if what they do is great music. The Ronettes have always been worth ten Dead Kennedys for what they gave to music and pop culture history.

    (And for the little I have picked up at least Momoiro Clover seem to avoid the icky gravure sidejob that’s compulsory for several other girl idol groups, have enough female fans to quickly sell out a 10 000 capacity girls-only event, and have notably worked with female songwriters and producers, last year most memorably when Yakushimaru Etsuko produced Otome Sensou for them,)

    As for the ‘they don’t play instruments’ schtick – you fail to avoid that even as you present it as possibly ‘snobbish’. It’s more than that – it’s formed on the back of a man-made canon where male, white rock bands of the 60s constituted quality music and a masculine value set that has remained, mostly through the works of male music critics, as the sign of real artistry in popular music, where shredding a guitar is the sign of an artist being a man enough to do his thing on stage.

    Kembrew McLeod once looked at Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop polls from 71 to 98 and looked at the characteristics given to artists and which were assigned positive and negative scores. He confirmed the skewed bias towards assumed aggressiveness in the music, and when it wasn’t there, gendered insults were used. In Rolling Stone 88 a record was described as having a «lackluster production of guitar-castrated foundations». RS journalist Steve Pond lashed out at female singer/songwriters, demanding that they «make this much-maligned form tougher and more soulful and grittier and more real».

    I’m not an AKB48 fan, which is part of the reason why I find it so much fun to link people who use “the instrument argument” to clips of them performing their 2012 single ‘Give Me Five’, fully live, as a band*. They learned the instruments for that song, and perform it in a ramshackle and not entirely pleasing way, horns and drums and guitar at full gear, incidentally reminiscent of many a twee student band I’ve had the pleasure of seeing through the years. It’s raw, if nothing else.

    Those performances are not a sign of great artistry, just another cleverly planned ‘concept’, but they’re a reminder of how pointless it is to assume some force of good to ‘authenticity’, not having a professional producer and superficially showing your real self. They’re the most cynically formed group in pop, and even they can do it.

    * http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xnwja0_akb48-live-give-me-five-request-hour-2012_music

  2. miffy

    Ahha, you came around to my way of thinking. I be saying idol music is not the way forward and all it took its some good old disregard of the audience.

    Take notice that there was no weird icky feeling seeing these young girls perform and compare that to other idol performance where it is always at the back of your head.

    • Sometimes the need to present a position that’s at least slightly internally consistent means that I seem to contradict myself from one post to another, but I think my position is basically consistent. I think idol music brings something fresh and disruptive to mainstream music, but it’s getting burrowed in too far with indie/underground culture now and after watching Dempa Gumi inc. the other weekend and then Nakigao Twintail a couple of days ago, it really drove home to me what it lacks in comparison with the basic thing of a bunch of kids picking up instruments and going mad with them.

      Actually, watching Momoiro Clover Z’s performance last year, there were a couple of moments that made me a bit awkward. For example, there was one part where they were in maid costumes, which I know are such a standard part of the cosplay repertoire now as to be utterly meaningless, but I do remember thinking that if I’d been in there with 10,000 male fans all screaming and cheering at that part, it would have probably meant something very different. But yeah, the values they represent are definitely rooted in some sort of otaku fantasy of traditional Japan but there’s nothing really sexually creepy about them, at least not compared to “the other lot”.

  3. Hi,
    In answer to your first point, I’m in it for the ideas AND the music, but as you note, this blog is mostly about the ideas. I’m not trying to say that Nakigao Twintail’s music is better than BiS or Momoiro Clover Z because I don’t think it’s a relevant comparison. There is no such thing as BiS’ music (it’s all made by Kenta Matsukuma, who also writes for Shoko Nakagawa and some others) and there’s no such thing as Momoiro Clover Z’s music (Hyadain, Narasaki, Etsuko Yakushimaru, Tomoyasu Hotei, Ian Parton, etc.), which doesn’t mean that the music doesn’t matter, just that it’s not fair to judge it by the same standards since it’s produced under different conditions and appeals in different ways. The common denominator between the groups is not songwriting, it’s that within a certain sector of Japanese music subculture, they share a similar kind of emotional appeal.

    For what it’s worth, I think Momoiro Clover Z’s best stuff is dizzyingly good, but BiS do nothing for me. Nakigao Twintail’s music has much more to it than you give it credit for. It takes standard punk/garage elements but brings them together in a nonstandard way, which but for degree is actually quite similar to how a lot of Momoiro Clover Z’s songs work. As I said though, they’re not playing the same game musically so I’m not really interested in how their music stacks up relative to each other.

    Oh, also on Momoiro Clover Z’s appeal: yes, I agree. They are definitely a lot less icky, and I think that’s reflected in their popularity among girls. I was actually at the “Onna Matsuri” event at the Budokan last year in my capacity as a member of the press (they made me wear a massive, spangly blue bow in my hair to neutralise my powerful man-aura) and I was impressed that most of the fans there really did just seem to be ordinary girls of roughly the same age as the group members themselves.

    My point about guitars isn’t predicated on any 60s rockist notion of the relative value of aggressive music, it’s based on a contemporary punk/underground notion of the relative value of aggressive music, since the context of the blog is the popularity of the current generation of idol music among fans of punk and underground music in Japan as well as its position among the kinds of people who might in previous generations have got into that kind of music. Nakigao Twintail’s music is aggressive but (and I’m sure this isn’t your point, but bear with me) I think it’s a mistake to equate that with masculinity. Given the idealised and more often than not submissive images of femininity that girls are bombarded with in the Japanese media all the time, not least by many idol groups, girls have plenty good reason to be aggressive. Personally, I see it as more a generational thing than a gendered one though.

    In all, I don’t think we disagree on that much here, other than that I’m criticising something you like (although it’s also something I often like, as a quick glance through my archives should make clear). I think you fall rather outside the parameters of the kind of criticism I’m trying to make though. There is no reason not to like good pop music just for being that. My problem is that its appeal and fandom are creeping into areas where I think authenticity are still important and I’m concerned that the easier thrills of idol music are crowding out ideas that need to exist even if they’re not big successes, as well as enforcing a rather dubious gender divide (albeit with lots of important caveats, e.g. Momoclo etc.). Basically, it’s me being an embittered old punk, shaking my fist and shouting at the youngsters, “GET ORF MY INDIE LAAAAWN!” although I would like to think there’s a bit more to it than that. As you say, the health and balance of the scene and all that.

  4. I don’t get the AKB video though. So shitty music can be made with guitars: anyone who saw Paul McCartney at the Olympic opening ceremony could tell you that.

  5. I laughed out loud at this :

    (This is the point where all the “it’s just pop music, you’re overanalysing this lol” types can kindly piss off.)

    just today I got a very nasty message from a perfume fan for analyzing symbolism in the PV for “spending all my time” — here, in case your interested — http://blog.caitlin-burns.com/symbolism-in-spending-all-my-time-by-perfume/

    And I loved this entry — in fact, I like a lot of your entries. I am glad people take the time to consciously consider the hows and whys of pop music, and I’m especially interested in deconstructing the roles of gender and authenticity. I would love to hear what you have to say regarding Shiina Ringo and her unrelenting, unashamed performances.

    • I think there are a two or three things here. Firstly, I think once an artwork leaves the hands of its creators, it doesn’t belong to them anymore and its meaning is in the hands of all sorts of weirdos. I include myself in this, but also fans. Even if something isn’t intended in a certain way (and I’m usually wary of assigning intentions to creators unless I’m fairly sure I’m right), if it’s being consumed in a certain way, that assigns meaning to it. I don’t know if any significant number of readers are assigning masonic meanings to Perfume videos, but if you can extract that meaning from it, then go nuts — have fun with it!

      That said, I think you can take it too far and end up in a situation where you start to feel that you’re in some postmodern bubble, floating above notions of authenticity. I get like that sometimes, especially when analysing pop culture, and sometimes you need something to bring you down to earth with a bump. Watching a group of high school second graders making some very silly but undeniably thrilling, offbeat garage-punk at the weekend did that for me. I picked on Nakigao Twintail because they’re the band I saw, but I suspect there are isolated pockets of kids all over the place doing similar things, that just no one ever hears about.

      I think there’s a lot going on in Shiina Ringo’s stuff but I’ve never been enough of a fan of her to dive in deep. I know people who are into her stuff in a big way and they might be better placed to discuss it. One thing I’ll say about her is that I remember about eight years ago, I used to see schoolgirls with guitars coming into my classes at the cram school where I sometimes teach, and when I said, “What kind of stuff do you play?” they always said, “I don’t know, but I like Shiina Ringo.” Nowadays, they all like Justin Bieber, K-Pop and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, with One Direction oming up strong (no girl admits to liking idol music, although a few of the boys do). Nothing wrong with this, but it makes me sad that all the kids with guitars have vanished. Where are the next generation of songwriters coming from? Probably not from the Pamyu Pamyu fans, wonderful though she may be.

  6. toak has posted a much better counter-argument here than I could, but I’ll take a crack anyway in my own hamfisted fashion…

    The term “authenticity” crops up an awful lot here and it’s a bizarre term that gets bandied about quite a lot.

    When you go to a concert or you listen to music there’s a magical transition. It’s a gear shift that switches you out of the moment. This gear shift happens on many different levels and with many different effects depending on your interests or your mood or the particular day of the week it is.

    You might desire “authenticity” but it’s an indefinite object that’s impossible to nail down and shifts depending on your interpretation. For example, during the 1990s there was a backlash against bands using synthesisers which were viewed as not being “real music”. It wasn’t “authentic”. That just meant bands were more limited in their tools to create music and, as tastes and trends change, shifted anyway to using whatever they wanted to create the sounds they were looking for.

    Let’s get back to idol music. I can’t really comment on what the average Japanese music enthusiast thinks when watching their favourite idol outfit. For me, there’s a cultural transition taking place when I watch a videos by these bands. There’s often many cultural signifiers at work in the music or the videos that I don’t get having not been brought up in a Japanese environment. This isn’t necessarily an important factor however because the magical effect is still in place. It’s an exposure to a colourful, melodic world that captivates your senses. This doesn’t take away from going out the next night to see your indie band of choice playing the Duck and Cover music night, it’s just another change of gear.

    You’re describing this as an “attractive lie” but I’m suggesting that you’re forgetting or misinterpreting the magical effect of music. It’s also somewhat patronising to suggest that fans are taking an “easy route” here to “emotional gratification”. Music fans are entitled to travel whatever road takes them to whichever destination they’re seeking.

    You’re also comparing two completely disparate concepts here – that of the idol outfit and that of the angsty underground band. Trying to compare an amateur guitar band with the completely fictional band from K-On! (you know, the one that got up to professional playing standard in a matter of weeks…) is a very odd argument.

    The real argument emerging from this article appears to be a disdain for any band or any artist that achieves success. Because when bands do this, they’re already committing a betrayal against this rule of authenticity that some people continue to cleave to (we like our artists to starve in their garrets). Yet the fact is that music is a commercial enterprise. You may rail against the labels and the PR companies and the advertising tie-ins, but that is the way the music industry works and it’s been that way globally for a very long time. SCANDAL deserve their success as do many of the idol outfits doing the rounds.

    But this doesn’t kill the concept of the indie band. The very existence of bands like Nakigao Twintail shoots that argument down.

    • I may have to repeat a lot of the things I said in my reply to toak here, but I really think you’re arguing against a point I didn’t try to make and that we may be rather at cross purposes here. I know point-by-point replies can sometimes look obnoxious but I hope you’ll forgive me if I do in this case.

      “When you go to a concert or you listen to music there’s a magical transition. It’s a gear shift that switches you out of the moment. This gear shift happens on many different levels and with many different effects depending on your interests or your mood or the particular day of the week it is.”

      I don’t get what you’re saying here. You mean that we enjoy stuff differently depending on our changing moods? Sure. No argument there.

      You might desire “authenticity” but it’s an indefinite object that’s impossible to nail down and shifts depending on your interpretation.

      Well, I agree that notions of authenticity shift. My own band’s music and a lot of my favourite records are to a large degree synth-based so obviously I’d reject the notion that the simple existence of synthesisers is evidence of inauthenticity. I also came of age during the Britpop era, which was in part a reaction against the suffocating notion of authenticity that grunge had (although it was also in part a reaction of “band music” against what were seen as faceless Euro-dance acts, and ended up bringing its own baggage in the form of stultifying notions of authenticity with it).

      On the other hand, I don’t think it’s as bizarre a notion as you seem to suggest, and I don’t think I’m being particularly controversial by suggesting that groups who are put together by management agencies, whose music and production is farmed out to professional songwriters and whose imagery is micromanaged to appeal to marketing demographics are way over on one side, while a bunch of school kids who’ve picked up guitars (or synths, or turntables, or a Macbook Pro, or a string quartet) and started messing about and playing a few shows off their own back are far more on the other. You’d really need to have let your sense of relativism run away with you not to see the difference there.

      You’re also comparing two completely disparate concepts here – that of the idol outfit and that of the angsty underground band.

      I spent several paragraphs at the beginning of the post setting the context and the parameters within which I would go on to make the comparison, i.e. that idol fandom does indeed play to notions of authenticity in fans, by asking them to buy into an emotional narrative. Within the structure of an idol group, I have no doubt that many of them are sincere. I saw Momoiro Clover Z at the Budokan and there’s no doubt they meant it, my friend Taigen from the psychedelic noise band Bo Ningen is pretty tight with Dempa Gumi inc. and he assures me that they are very much 4real. As a result of this, and the fact that some of the music has challenged J-Pop norms, idol music has found a home among indie/underground/punk fans in Japan, as well as among some of the kids who would in previous generations have gravitated towards that kind of scene.

      My problem is that this that this emotional narrative is necessarily, as a function of the way idol music works, simplified and played up as theatre. It’s often channeled along lines derived from otaku culture (which is why K-On! is an entirely relevant subject to bring up, being an idealised otaku notion of how a schoolgirl rock band should be). I can celebrate idol music as something interesting and offbeat that is making cracks in the mainstream, but the more it embeds itself in the indie scene, I think it’s going to cause problems, for example by creating a false equivalence between these simplified, theatrical narratives and the more individualistic, less structurally limiting experience of indie/underground music. Taigen from Bo Ningen is a big proponent of idol music, and he has pointed out, rightly, that the Japanese indie scene has all kinds of invisible structures that influence or limit the development of bands, but those are points for another article (I’ve written lots about that too already).

      My problem is not in any way one with the existence of idol music in itself, or of fans enjoying it purely as pop music. I’ve written with tedious regularity some of the most cloying, insipid praise about all sorts of idol pop, K-Pop, electropop, kayoukyoku and whatever artists (and Miffy has regularly made fun of me for that) so I think it’s unfair to suggest that I have “a disdain for any band or any artist that achieves success”. I don’t really know what your musical background is, but you’re connected to a site called J-Pop Go and you like Scandal, so I very much doubt you’re part of what I’m interested in here.

      You may rail against the labels and the PR companies and the advertising tie-ins, but that is the way the music industry works and it’s been that way globally for a very long time.

      Yes, and the role of alternative music is to offer an alternative to this. The clue is in the name. Sometimes alternative music starts to take itself too seriously, and it’s at times like that that the walls of the scene need to be kicked in by something silly, simple and fun (I put together a couple of limited edition CD/R compilation albums of local indie, noise and punk artists covering 70s idol trio the Candies and more recently Perfume for precisely this reason) but one shouldn’t lose sight of the fundamental differences. I’m not saying you have, but in the Japanese indie scene, I think idol worship starting to go a bit too far.

      But this doesn’t kill the concept of the indie band. The very existence of bands like Nakigao Twintail shoots that argument down.

      The existence of bands like Nakigao Twintail is a reminder that young girls can be silly, fun and provocative (and I’m pretty sure they enjoy anime and some of the better idol groups as much as anyone) without dancing in the palm of some kind of production factory. This is something I would like to encourage. Sorry if that sounds old-fashioned (clue: I’m not sorry!)

      • miffy

        Or maybe the indie scene has bought into the Denstu-backed otaku are cool narrative. Maybe better idol music but I guess the indie scene is still intrinsically Japanese. Or maybe like a headless chicken even since the Big 3 (Q,SuperCar,NumberGirl) retired.

  7. Pingback: Gender Relations in Japan « Feministify This!

  8. feministifythis

    Thank you for a great article. I find it very interesting why some mainstream and highly commercial pop groups are suddenly appreciated by the indie music community. I didn’t knew about the Japanese situation, so thank you for explaining it so well.

    I used a few quotes from you (all sourced of course) in a feminist analysis of the Minami Minegishi incident. I hope you don’t mind. You can find the article here if if you want to have a look: http://feministifythis.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/gender-relations-in-japan/

    I highly appreciate your writing, it’s always very informative and insightful.


    • Cheers. I read your blog last night and thought it was a really interesting analysis of the situation. Patrick St. Michel is a friend of mine here in Tokyo, so we’re metaphorically high fiving each other right now over being so favourably cited by you!

      • feministifythis

        I’m very glad you liked it. 🙂 I’m virtually high fiving you both because you’re writing excellent posts. Keep up the good work!

  9. Pingback: Nakigao Twintail: Em (live) | Clear And Refreshing

  10. dashkeepingtabs

    Reblogged this on dashkeepingtabs and commented:
    this is such a great post, i think we can find similarities in Crayon Pop as well(?)

  11. Pingback: BiS-kaidan: Suki Suki Daisuki | Clear And Refreshing

  12. Pingback: Ten Years of Live Music in Tokyo Part 10: Nakigao Twintail | Clear And Refreshing

  13. Kany

    Dempagumi inc a bunch of lies and a overrated idol gruop? You know nothing. I mean nothing! just generalities of all. I hear Dempagumi inc and I hear a lot of indie underrated bands of different generes.

    • It might help to see this in the context of a lot of articles I’ve written about the relationship between idol music and the indie scene over the past few years. Basically, when indie musicians first started incorporating idol-like elements into their events and idol groups first started working with indie songwriters and producers (this had been happening on and off for a long time, but it’s around 2010-2011 that I noticed it starting to become pretty widespread), I pretty much supported it for two main reasons:

      (1) It’s a useful reminder for indie musicians not to take themselves too seriously.
      (2) It gives indie musicians a chance to get their music heard by a wider audience and get some new musical ideas into the mainstream.

      By the time I wrote this blog about two years ago, idol music was everywhere, and the boundaries between idol and indie music were becoming less clear. This gave me two main thoughts:

      (1) This used to be cool but now it’s starting to get annoying.
      (2) Are indie and idol music the same basic thing (i.e. “It’s all just music”) or are they different, and if so, what is the difference?

      Part of the difference is that the attitude towards “authenticity” is different. The good thing about idol music (and pop music generally) is that it’s simple, fun and easy to enjoy without worrying about authenticity. When I said before that indie sometimes takes itself too seriously, that’s what I mean: it sometimes cares too much about being “authentic” and not enough about being fun. However, once idol music started to be everywhere, I think it became worth starting to think about authenticity again.

      Idol music can use indie songwriters, and the singers can be very energetic and sincere, but it’s not the same as a rock band because they are produced in completely different ways. What I’m talking about here (and what I used Nakigao Twintail as an example for) is trying to show a certain appeal that a band like them have that is different from the appeal an idol group have. Put simply, a group of kids picking up guitars, screaming and making a noise is more raw and visceral, whereas a group of kids doing a choreographed performance to a backing track is always going to have something a bit artificial about it. Artificial isn’t always a bad thing, and in Dempa Gumi inc.’s case I think it’s interesting that they seem to be aware of this aspect and make some self-aware theatre out of it. However, it’s not the same kind of appeal.

      In this post, I was promoting the appeal of these kids making raw, loud, anarchic music. Idol music has a lot of appeal of its own too, but it’s already doing very well and doesn’t need my help. If boring, serious rock bands ever start to dominate the music world and idols start to disappear, I’ll be one of the first to start reminding people of their appeal, but in the meantime, I get greater pleasure and satisfaction in exploring something different.

      Now stop being such a baby.

  14. Pingback: Idols – Parte 3 : o que temos por agora | shichōsha

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