Analysing overanalysis (WARNING: META)

The phrase “You’re overanalysing this” is one of the most annoying phrases a music journalist can hear, because analysing music is a key part of a music journalist’s job, and so embedded in that statement is the implication that the journalist’s job is useless. Putting aside the question of whether that is indeed the case (there are lots of useless jobs, and music journalists definitely have a strong case for a berth on the Golgafrincham B Ark), let’s just say that, true or not, it’s annoying. But at the risk of overanalysing the idea of overanalysis, I do sometimes wonder “What do you really mean by ‘You’re overanalysing this’?”

Because the same J-Pop and idol fans who are likely to accuse someone like me of overanalysing pop music are people who when I occasionally visit their web forums are engaged in discussions that provoke a very similar “You’re overanalysing this” reaction in me. In this sense, it seems to me that the phrase “You’re overanalysing this” really means something closer to “You’re analysing this in a way that I personally find troubling and/or alienating.”

I think in the case of J-Pop and especially idol music, it comes down to the base assumption that discussion works off. Fan discussions treat as a baseline the idea that idols are real human beings and that what is presented to you is real. They may know that it isn’t really real, but the discussion is carried out within the confines of the narrative. They analyse the lyrics and ask themselves, “What do these lyrics express about the singer’s personality, hopes, dreams, etc.?” in the same way that fans of a TV soap might discuss the characters and their lives. The discussion can get very detailed, picking up on all manner of little effects or elements of the music or other related products. It also irritates me in the same way Wikipedia articles on some anime annoy me, where they start speculating about inconsistencies in a show by saying, “It can be suggested that Character A did this unexplained and illogical thing because of Reason X” when I just want to bang my head against the table and scream, “NO, YOU IDIOT! Character A did this unexplained and illogical thing because the writer did a shitty job!” — the need to explain everything “in-narrative” is a habit of fan culture that draws a lot of brain power into creating tortured explanations for things that have really simple explanations when you step outside of the bubble.

The reason I get the reaction that these people are overanalysing it is I think because this base assumption that these are real people funnels the analysis into areas that I tend to see as irrelevant. My baseline for any discussion of J-Pop or idol music is that everything is artificial and the girls dancing at the front are in many ways the least important element of the whole process. It’s not quite that simple, and you can kind of see with the better artists like Kyary Pamyupamyu, Perfume, Momoiro Clover Z and others that there is some synthesis between the performer and the production, but basically, I tend to discuss it all in terms of the mechanics. To return to the TV show analogy, my approach would be like analysing a drama from the point of view of narrative structure (three acts, mid-point crisis, etc.), genre studies, that sort of thing. The people on screen are characters in a holistic product that has been designed by others, and the actors themselves are simply another aspect of the production. This probably takes a lot of the fun out of it for a lot for fans.

With J-Pop and idol music, these two positions are a bit confused because the character and the actor are the same person. A lot of fan discussion takes this as axiomatic, whereas I treat it more as an actor playing a version of themself (like, say, Jerry Seinfeld or something) while maintaining a separation between the person and the role. In any case, I think the key point isn’t so much that one side or the other is analysing something too much as that the two sides are analysing it using different sets of tools and based on different sets of assumptions. Were I less of a gentleman than I am, I would note at this point that my way is correct and better, but that would be mean, so I shan’t.

1 Comment

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One response to “Analysing overanalysis (WARNING: META)

  1. Of course your way is better, in the same sense that 21st century physics is better than 19th century physics: greater explanatory power, because it takes more factors into account, and frames them in a larger context.
    In the West I see the dynamic you’re talking about played out in a related way as arguments over authenticity. The personas portrayed in the songs are undermined (for some) if the artist involved is not actually living the sort of life they’re singing about. We have an opposite problem: if it gets too real then you end up with Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin dead by their own hands, and Tupac Shakur dead by someone else’s. Bowie stayed three steps ahead by changing persona radically nearly every year. His characters were so clearly pure artifice that the question of authenticity does not arise; it’s only a certain slice of roots/blues/folk/working class music that seems to demand authenticity. The J-Pop I see (I mostly stay away from the idol music, so I have no ground to stand on here) seems much more of the Bowie type than the Bruce Springsteen type: not even attempting to portray a natural and lifelike persona. The biggest difference, comparing Western artifice of something like Bowie, Bjork, or Sinead O’Connor to the Eastern artifice of idol music, is that these Western artists are not separable from their music. They are not replaceable in the brand that their act represents (not least because Bowie is a musical genius who wrote his own songs), whereas AKB48 seems designed on purpose with interchangeable artist parts. I’m hard put to think of an example in Western pop or rock which is/was designed that way (Yardbirds lead guitarists notwithstanding). Well, OK, probably if ABBA had rotated members in and out of the lineup I wouldn’t have noticed–there IS interchangeable music in the West which reminds me of the ‘product’ nature of idol music. A Brittany Spears or a Tiffany (anyone remember Tiffany? No? Good…) or for that matter a Taylor Swift seem pretty obviously plucked off the product development shelf, from among a large pool of very similar candidates. But once they ARE branded, these artists cannot be replaced simply, because so much Marketing has been invested in that specific individual.
    I remember this from WAY back, so only vaguely, but it seems to me some of the fan discussions about the Beatles when they were still a functioning group took on some of the characteristics you’re talking about: what Ringo is like, what Paul likes to do, fantasies about what it was like to be a Beatle that likely had zero correspondence to their actual lives (such as Lennon’s wife and child). From those fans’ point of view, it really is all about the fantasy, yes?
    In a way it’s rather sadly poignant. These fans do not have actual live human relationships with their idols, and they’re never going to, yet they’re enormously attached to their idols emotionally, and looking for ways to express those attachments. So their fan in-group discussions of the idols over-invest in the pseudo-reality of the artifice that is presented to them. They **have** to use that material, they have nothing else. Though the facts are wrong and the artifice is unreal, the emotions these fans feel are not. Even if this kind of unreal emotion investment is a bit unsettling and queasy-making, I do have a sort of distant sympathy for the real human feelings behind it, the ‘sehnsucht’ of the superfan for something they’ll never have.

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