Page views, AKB48, and the economic right to bore

One of the key differences between writing on the Web and writing for a magazine or paper is the speed and precision of feedback, and this undoubtedly has an impact on the form the writing takes. In print media, the reader may choose one title over another, and may choose to skim over one article in favour of another, but in the end, they’re at the mercy of the editors when it comes to what they see. A music magazine could be able to reel readers in with attractive cover stories featuring artists readers already like, and then once captured, introduce them to the artists the editors think they should like. Readers’ natural bias against reading about the unknown is overruled by the fact that they’ve already paid for the magazine and so might as well get their money’s worth out of it. On the Web, the power dynamic has shifted over to the readers’ side, and media must now compete for their attention. Great! Democracy! Smash the elites! Except no. Readers are lazy, conservative creatures, and will always click on something that reinforces their pre-existing biases than something that challenges them. This is well observed in political journalism, but equally true in pop culture. People will always click on something about an artist they already know about over something new, and ideally that article should be parroting something they already feel about that artist. For the online media outlets, their stats provide instant feedback on what’s getting page views, and over time, there’s always pressure to cater to that stuff. When the Japanese music web site Natalie started, it had high ideals – it would be bilingual, and give coverage to independent musicians that the mainstream music press ignored – but sure enough, once the page view stats started rolling in, the English page was the first to go, and then the content became overwhelmed with idol music and popular rock music. MTV 81, which I have on occasion written for, still publishes some interesting stuff but has followed more or less the same path. It’s not personal, kid, it’s just business. I get the same pressure on this blog too. Whenever I write about Perfume or Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, or Momoiro Clover Z or Babymetal, my page views spike, and I get that little nagging voice asking, saying, “Finally, this site is getting popular! Now maybe if I just wrote a bit more about this kind of stuff…” before my rational brain takes over again and reminds me that since I’m not making any money out of it at all, my idiot audience can go hang. Anyway, the fact remains that Akihabara and Harajuku are what get the clicks, and any media that considers itself a business is going to be under immense pressure to pander to these audiences. The one case where these idol-induced spikes fail to occur is when I write about AKB48. Now part of this is perhaps that AKB48 just aren’t cool in the way the acts I mention above are. Another might be that I’ve been so beastly about them in the past that their coterie of English-speaking fans has been definitively warned off this site (and good riddance). AKB48 are such a divisive presence in Japanese pop culture that you’re either a mad, frothing-at-the-mouth fan of them, or you just don’t want anything to do with them – either way, it doesn’t translate into shares or retweets. People like me who have zero interest in either their music or the girls themselves as characters, but find what they represent on a pop cultural level fascinating simply don’t fit into the equation (again, no problem with that). What there is a demand for in the clicks marketplace is analysis of otaku-related culture that gives a supportive critical foundation to widely derided, usually for reasons of perceived sexism or outright creepiness, pop cultural artefacts or trends, giving fans a sort of intellectual shield behind which they can carry on consuming just as before, without allowing their bubble to be pierced by unwelcome alien ideological critiques or reflecting on any subliminal ideological assumptions their own consumer behaviour might be predicated on. These kinds of articles are the intellectual big guns that fanboys can wheel out and then duck behind whenever their hobby penetrates the mainstream consciousness with something outright icky, like the 2013 AKB48 hair shaving incident, or easily mockable viral curiosities like Babymetal or Hatsune Miku. Partly this is to be expected because of the way so many observations from outside come at otaku culture, idol culture or whatever from an inverted version of precisely the same mindset: revulsion followed by a need for an intellectual foundation for that instinctive reaction rather than any real need to deal with the assumptions and ideological positions underlying it. These two poles are essentially moral rather than analytical arguments, and the fighters on both sides are really just driving each other further and further into their trenches rather than making any progress. The comments under my Japan Times article on Babymetal earlier this year demonstrated this pretty well. I don’t feel entirely comfortable with Babymetal, but I tried to come at it from an explanatory point of view, so that newcomers will at least have some understanding of what kind of mechanics are going on behind the scenes. Fans liked my article because they felt shielded by it, while critics just ignored most of it and continued to focus on paedophilia as their main concern. Matt Alt’s very good article for The New Yorker on Takashi Murakami, lolicon, and Pharrell’s new video had a similar effect in discussions I saw. It’s understandable, because when issues of underage sexuality loom so large in the wings as they do in idol music and lolicon, it’s difficult to simply put that aside and have a disinterested debate about the semiotics and pop cultural meta-discussion that’s going on. Still, get into one of those debates and don’t expect it to go anywhere fast. Anyway, over the summer, another bit of AKB-related strangeness hit the news when a man attacked two members of the group with a saw (yeah, I know, a saw!) at a handshake event, where fans can line up to briefly meet and touch their favourite girls in exchange for purchases of goods. Coupled with this was the way the incident coincided with the annual extravaganza of the group’s “election”, and I felt there was a parallel between the two events in the way they both speak to the central problem the group has balancing the need to be credible as a mainstream pop cultural commodity and the need to maintain the illusion of connection with fans. If you want to see a stark visual evidence that this conflict exists, just check out the photos of a post-attack handshake event at the bottom of the page here. Nippon.com published two articles about AKB48 this summer, both touching on different aspects of the same issue. In one of them Jun Mamiya I think correctly dismisses the notion that the group’s popularity has anything really to do with something zeitgeisty and forward-thinking in their music – the hits are a result of the popularity, not the other way round. Instead he discusses the group’s elections and fan meeting events in terms of people’s alienation from the democratic process. Mamiya projects the group as a largely positive force here, shining light on the failures of society through a carefully structured artifice of meritocracy that mirrors how fans wish the country still was. Whether it ever really was like that, and whether such ruthless competing for favour is desirable in the first place, is a question Mamiya doesn’t really discuss. To get to this point, Mamiya has to put aside the saw-wielding fan and any question about what the sexuality/sexualisation issues that concern so many overseas observers. That doesn’t mean the issue has gone away, but clearly not every article can address it as the core of its argument. In the end, Mamiya’s article provides just the sort of legitimising analysis many fans of derided subcultures seem to need: “We’re not perverts. We’re just ordinary, good people disenfranchised by the elites.” (You see the same arguments made by the racists in the Tea Party and Ukip, so in that context, AKB48 might be pretty benign.) Mamiya’s article is interesting, but what it provides first and foremost is a cultural explanation, and I’m instinctively suspicious of arguments that appeal to culture. The little Marxist homunculus that controls the levers in my brain always wants to think about the economic factors, and in my article I try to look at fan culture through the lens of the business model’s response to the changing economic conditions in which idol groups have had to work. In the end, economic and cultural factors will always intertwine. Extend Mamiya’s argument just a bit and you can perhaps see the disaffection he talks about more broadly from the sense of economic vitality and meritocracy in people’s professional lives due to an ageing society and stagnating economy. Take my discussion of idol music’s changing economic environment a step further and you have to question what underpins the changes in fashion that saw idol music drop out of the public eye to such an extent in the 90s. Looking back on it though, I think one other reason for the attraction economic arguments hold for me is the way economics is a rare area of discussion in pop culture where its appeal to numbers, or at least the implication of a numerical underpinning, creates a framework for discussion that feels rational and disinterested – it provides an intellectual mooring amid the stormy conflict between the unthinking and the uninformed, between self-justification and knee-jerk outrage. Of course this rationality is an illusion. Economic discussions are just as capable of dissolving into furious, spitting insanity, and they are (I think rightly and inevitably) just as ideological as cultural arguments at heart. Also, while I try to be openminded, I’m far from neutral in the cultural skirmishes that rage around idol and otaku culture: I just try to be honest with myself and conduct any argument I make in good faith, from as well informed and well thought-out a position as I can. Not that any of that has an effect on page views. There as well, however, economics is my friend: where there’s no money at stake, there’s no obligation to please or court one group or another. I can insult, irritate and bore my readers all within the space of one rambling blog post and none of it matters one jot.

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9 responses to “Page views, AKB48, and the economic right to bore

  1. Reblogged this on The Cool Kids of Howland High and commented:
    Please enjoy these bigoted ramblings of a complete shithead.

  2. These various threads of music, culture/subcultures, economics and criticism can probably never be completely traced, let alone untangled. So I have another to add – facets of culture which are famous for…well, being famous. There is so much non-musical activity around AKB48, frantically keeping them in the public eye, that I place them in a category similar to the Kardashians in the U.S. (although the Kardashians are the purer form, having literally nothing else behind the image, not even factory-produced “music”). Acts like Kyary Pamyu and Babymetal move toward this condition with dismaying swiftness (though thankfully at a lower intensity than AKB48), receiving the additional layer of press that comes from being a next ‘thing’ that the faddists are following. While this sort of thing has been around forever (Elvis, Beatles, e.g.), it happens much more often now, and with much greater swiftness. And of course it’s the technology that’s driving the speed: the obvious ways, with clips that go viral, but also behind the scenes economically, where in a plummeting-CD music market, the formula to extract value is Attention=$$. Where an 80’s CD would have been able to expose its value as musical content over at least 45 minutes (a length of time that now seems like an eternity, with a purchased artifact that the consumer might as well listen through entire, now that they’ve bought it), the current environment of online streams and videos receives its verdict (with no money upfront) in 6.8 seconds or less. And so…
    It’s difficult to argue against the notion that the straightest line to attention is via Sex. Japanese otaku culture approaches this one way; in the U.S. I have to embargo the singers of our present time from my young teen daughters, because so much of it crosses over into outright visual porn. The 100% states of undress of Hannah Montana–sorry, Miley Cyrus (our very own lolicon), Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez and Nicki Minaj, look to me like the same ‘Attention=$$ via Sex’ that has a frankly subtler if also way creepier expression in Japanese otaku.
    *****
    You already know I hold this opinion, but this latest entry just establishes again that yours is by far the smartest and most interesting music blog online, by several orders of magnitude.

    • Cute fact: My wife keeps saying “Miles Davis” when she means “Miley Cyrus”. I think it’s a sign of her impeccable taste that Davis’ name is closer to the front of her mind when she’s reaching for the word.

  3. Perhaps the topics you write about regarding AKB48 aren’t the type that fans are interested in. I noticed that AKB discussion tends to be very focused on member updates, popularity predictions, and group dynamics. The reason for this is obvious. Perfume fans will read pretty much anything related to the group, and they also show interest in trying to find more depth in Perfume’s body of work.

    I have my music blog with near nonexistent viewers, and the posts that get the most views are pretty expected (my Babymetal album review is by far my most viewed). My review of Gesu no Kiwami Otome’s single is among the highest viewed oddly. I wonder where all those readers came from.

    • Yeah, I think that’s exactly what it is as far as AKB48 fans go, at least in the English language. There’s far more appetite for analytical stuff in the Japanese language simply because the market is so much bigger to begin with, but I’d say the trend is probably similar. As for why that is… well, I suspect that has a lot to do with what I was writing about on how the fans interact with the business model: it’s character-based marketing that encourages fans to identify with certain girls and focus on the managed competition with the group.

      It’s not something that concerns me greatly as far as my own blog goes — I know roughly what the “natural” level of readership for the stuff I do is supposed to be and I have no particular incentive to boost it by pandering to audiences who aren’t interested in that sort of music — but I’m interested in how the Web encourages music media to retreat from its role as leaders or curators of taste. I know lots of people celebrate this, but in practice finding new stuff is difficult and without “snobs” and “elitists” leading the way, it’s just left to corporate power to push new stuff. Some groups like Red Bull seem pretty benign in this regard, but more often than not it’s going to be the likes of Apple shoving crap like U2 into people’s music libraries, or Dentsu shoving AKB48 into society’s every orifice, that sets the agenda.

  4. It’s cool that you write economic or social critique and commentary on various groups including groups that you don’t like, and I appreciate your writing (which is why I’m subscribed even if we might have different tastes).

    But as someone who knows a lot of AKB48 fans, there’s a really good way to put it: people don’t remember jackshit about what you write, but they will remember how you make them feel.

    If all you do is tell them that they’re “a mad, frothing-at-the-mouth fan of them” with no grey zone in between for more critical fans, what exactly do you expect them to do?

  5. Pingback: The Shibuya-kei Year in Review, part four: what was Shibuya-kei in 2014? | Memories of Shibuya

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