Tag Archives: AKB48

Strange Boutique (March 2015) – Gaming the charts

My March column in The Japan Times was a response to the news that chart organisation Oricon was changing the way it calculates the charts to prevent idol groups of the XXX48 cult and their pretend-rivals in Nogizaka46 from using download cards to game the charts.

I’m not going to spend much time on this subject here because frankly I’m sick of writing about idol music right now. It passed the point where it had anything interesting to contribute a couple of years ago, and in particular the big idol corporations that sit on top of the pile are of rapidly diminishing interest to me nowadays, even as a phenomenon. However, (and there’s always a however in these things), it’s worth noting how this news underlined two things.

Firstly, what a feeble, impractical, face-saving move this was by Oricon. Download cards are such a small part of the way idol groups fix the charts, that this amounts to mere lip service to dealing with a much bigger problem. Even if Oricon were to follow the lead of other countries and set a limit on the number of formats and versions of a single that are eligible for the charts, they can’t stop individual fans from buying hundreds of copies of the same CD, and dumping them unlistened-to.

Secondly, it reinforces what I’ve been saying for a long time: that idol music isn’t about music and idol fans aren’t music fans. That’s not to say that their naked, competitive pursuit of the emptying of their own wallets is in itself wrong (each to his or her own), but simply that calling this stuff music is making a category error.

With these kinds of groups and their fan cultures, I’m right now way past irritation and deep into disgust, and this issue conjures up nothing so much as the image of ravenous hyenas ferociously picking the last pieces of gristle off the bleached bones of a once proud beast.

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Strange Boutique (December 2014) – the year in music

As 2014 comes to a close, it’s end-of-year review time, and as usual my Japan Times column took on the task of trying to find new ways of describing the same stuff that happens every year. For those of you who’d rather not read the full 1500-word piece, it goes something like this:

  • Music industry still broadly in decline
  • Record companies still suspicious of online music and streaming
  • Advertising and tie-ups increasingly more important than actual sales
  • Korean music doing better than Japanese music abroad
  • AKB48 not as popular as they were but still pretty much the biggest thing out there

The way I chose to look at it this time round was from the perspective of what some of the key events or trends of the year tell us about who music is really being made for.

With a group like AKB48, there are a lot of intersecting factors at play as they balance the need to please a number of different masters. As one of my always charming commenters was helpful enough to point out, Google Trends isn’t the only, or the best, measure of something’s overall popularity, and of course their sales are still sky-high. Oricon’s recently-published year-end charts give the group all of the top five singles and the number one album in terms of CD sales, although this figure is fishy as well given the marketing gimmicks that surround CD sales in Japan. The top 40 CD singles was dominated by three organisations: Yasushi Akimoto’s AKB family, the Johnny & Associates boyband farm, and perma-tanned, goateed, twats-in-hats boy band Exile. All these acts boost their CD sales with marketing gimmicks aimed at their fanatical core fanbases, and it’s interesting to note that the only act from outside this axis of evil to make the top 40, comedy “air band” Golden Bomber, released their own song in a plain white case with no extras as a protest against this sort of gimmickry (or/and as a gimmick in itself).

What I was looking at in Google Trends was the general, casual interest in AKB48, in particulat the spikes that occur in June every year around “election” time. This is the time people who otherwise wouldn’t care much about the band but have a mild, general interest in them and are generally favourably inclined towards them are more likely to have a look to see what’s going on with them. Throughout the year, point by point, the figures are about one third of their 2011 peak. This doesn’t affect sales because these people never bought AKB CDs anyway, but it does affect advertising. Anyone living in Tokyo these past few years would have noticed the diminishing visibility of the group on billboards, and as a colleague of mine recently pointed out, advertisers have even resorted to labelling the group in adverts so that people know who they are – something usually reserved for new acts the ad agency has hooked up with the tie-ups as part of its deal with their talent agency. But then the turnover of band members ensures that AKB48 are perpetually a new group, and this is the core of their problem for advertisers in 2014: everyone knew Atsuko Maeda, Yuko Oshima, Tomomi Ito, Mariko Shinoda and maybe a couple of others, but people nowadays would struggle to name any of the current lineup.

In terms of my question about who music is for, where AKB48 fans have been successful is that by their enormous expenditure on the group, they have retained a degree of ownership over them. This idea of ownership is perhaps key to the success of the whole idol format: the fans, by their exercise of obsessive degrees of purchasing power, are able to keep the groups “for them” rather than letting them slip entirely into the treacherous hands of advertising. It’s extreme and a bit mad in its degree, and far more focused on “character” consumption than on music listening, but taken in isolation, the principle is admirable.

Looking over at the iTunes charts, we see a very different picture, with a more diverse selection of acts and far less in the way of idol music (as I say, idol otaku aren’t music fans, they’re machines for consuming character goods) but it does serve as a timely warning of what awaits us if the idol boom were to suddenly die. In three words: One OK Rock. In another three words: Sekai no Owari. I have nothing to say to that other than yuck. We can blame the music industry for feeding people shit, but sooner or later, music audiences have to just take responsibility for their own awful taste.

One thing I didn’t have space to mention in the context of the growing prominence of the “national interest” in the use of pop music was Ringo Shiina’s NHK World Cup theme, which was accused in some quarters of being unnecessarily nationalistic. Now I’m not sure what that means in this context – football is pretty much the one arena in which you get a free pass to be as jingoistic, flag-waving and borderline fascist as you want without damaging your liberal softie cred – but given the Abe government’s ongoing efforts to stack NHK’s board with historical revisionists and ignorant propaganda stooges it bears keeping an eye on. As for Shiina herself, who knows? Her whole aesthetic is based around the fact that she loves Japan a lot, and that’s part of her appeal. A bigger problem with the song is that it was a really rubbish song.

In any case, the fact that the government are now openly and explicitly mobilising pop culture to promote their agenda, from the relatively benign Olympics-related let’s-make-ourselves-look-good-for-the-guests stuff to the full-on militarist AKB48 join-the-army-spread-dreams-to-the-world ad campaign bears scrutiny. What are the criteria behind who gets Cool Japan money? If you’re taking that money, have you read the small print? Do you fully understand what other agenda you might be unwittingly hitching yourself to? This may seem a bit paranoid now, but no pop culture exists in a vacuum, and if pop music is being recruited to serve the state, it matters a lot what the extent of the state’s agenda is. I’d feel much more comfortable with Cool Japan is it was completely out of the hands of the government and in the hands of an independent arts council.

Of course indie music is the main purpose of this blog, and 2014 was a particularly fine vintage for music that no one either within Japan or without is ever going to care about. I wrote a bit about this for The Japan Times earlier in December as part of its albums-of-the-year roundup, and I repeated myself using slightly different words as a small part of Néojaponisme’s own year-end roundup. I shan’t go into detail here because I’ll be going into it in painstaking album-by-album depth next month in my personal 2014 top twenty countdown, but particularly for indiepop and fucked-up junk/postpunk/skronk there was a bumper harvest to the point where whittling it down to a mere twenty discs has proven a painful and difficult exercise.

One of the booms in the indie scene this year has been what I tend to dismissively call “funny bands”, with comical and/or performance-orientated acts like Dotsuitarunen, Nature Danger Gang, Guessband and others being ubiquitous. Partly I think this is the flipside of idol music in that if we see indie as a degraded mirror of mainstream entertainment, where girls are pretty idols while men are comedians. As a result, the indie scene subconsciously mimics that format so on the one hand we get Seiko Oomori and on the other we get Triple Fire.

This rise of owarai-type acts like these is something I’m ambivalent about in that on one level it cheapens the indie scene by making it qualitatively not significantly different from the mainstream, but on the other hand, just as I’d listen to AKB48 any day over terrible, “serious” J-pop bands like Kobukuro and Ikimono Gakari, these theatrical, comical indie bands and performers are infinitely preferable to the tediously earnest, sterile technical virtuosity of professional on-stage wankers like Toe.

In my own musical projects, I can pronounce myself largely satisfied with what 2014 gave me. I celebrated the ten year anniversary of my first event with a thrilling Koenji Pop Festival at Higashi Koenji 20000V/Ni-man Den-atsu which was probably the loudest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. The venue is notoriously loud to begin with, and when the PA engineer gets excited, he tends to gradually push everything up and up as the night goes on. By the time headliners Hyacca stepped up, the walls and floor were shaking and the whole experience was just one of sheer, earsplitting rhythmical noise. For me at least in a good way.

Earlier in the year my Call And Response label put out the album Mind Business by Slovenian rapper N’toko, which remains one of the releases I’m proudest of and perhaps the most coherent recorded artistic statement the label has ever put out. I released it on iTunes, probably for the first and last time of anything on my label. I have nothing in particular against Apple, but given what a non-profitmaking venture Call And Response is, iTunes is just not a marketplace where I feel comfortable doing business or able to justify the time and energy. There’s no pot of gold at the end of the online rainbow, just an increasingly grubby race to the bottom in terms of prices and returns. While I enjoy the convenience of online music as a consumer, as a label owner I prefer to deal with customers and vendors in person, even if that means a vanishingly small number of them. The N’toko tour in March confirmed a lot of those feelings for me, and while it had its ups and downs in terms of crowds, there were far more ups, and experiencing it all in person was its own justification and reward for the effort putting it all together took.

Other releases I put out or helped put out over the course of the year were February’s free compilation 「チョコくれるのはいいが・・・、何を企んでるんだぁぁ!?!?」 featuring 21 different bands covering the song Paranoid by Black Sabbath. I will hopefully top that for completely stupid and pointless free covers projects by the end of next year or at most the year after. The summer also saw the albums Tane to Zenra by Kagoshima psychedelic band Futtachi and Love Song Duet by Tokyo synth-punk trio Jebiotto. Both of these are albums that would on their own musical merits certainly make it into my personal top albums of the year list if I admitted Call And Response releases for contention in those things, but I don’t so they won’t.

There’s already plenty to look forward to next year, with Extruders and Sayuu/Sa Yuu planning new albums for early in the new year. Going a little more mainstream, Capsule have a new album due out soon, albeit alarmingly EDMish judging from the sounds currently emerging from chez Nakata. With Call And Response Records entering its tenth anniversary year, I personally intend to be a busy bee putting out a string of truly horrible releases lab-grown to be the opposite of everything popular in Japanese music right now.

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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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Strange Boutique (December 2013) + Neojaponisme Reviews of 2013

It’s time for Strange Boutique’s review of the year again, which really just means me finding new ways of saying essentially the same thing (music industry resistant to change, idols all over the singles charts, Yasutaka Nakata the only person making anything really good, indie doing whatever the hell it wants and no one else paying the blindest bit of attention) but there are a couple of nuances at the moment that are worth paying attention to and could become significant in the near future.

First up, here’s the Japan Times column. As I point out, the yearly singles charts are a joke, with Johnny’s and XXX48 bands accounting for nearly all of it this time. Here’s a list of the acts that accounted for the top 30 bestselling singles of the year:

1. AKB48
2. AKB48
3. AKB48
4. AKB48
6. Arashi
7. SKE48
8. SKE48
9. NMB48
10. Arashi
11. SKE48
12. NMB48
13. Nogizaka46
14. Nogizaka46
15. SMAP
16. Kis-Mt-Ft2
17. Southern Allstars
18. Kanjani8
19. Kis-Mt-Ft2
20. Kis-Mt-Ft2
21. Nogizaka46
22. Nogizaka46
23. HKT48
24. HKT48
26. Kanjani8
27. Kis-Mt-Ft2
28. Hey! Say! JUMP
29. SMAP
30. Linked Horizon

If that isn’t a depressing sight, I don’t know what is. Even if you’re a fan of this horrendous, evil music, the sheer lack of variety must surely be a bit alarming — something is obviously going badly wrong when the end of year charts are so rigidly homogeneous. So what does it say? Well, one explanation is that these bands produced the best music of 2013 and that this is the objective proof of that fact. The other is that only nerds buy singles. I’ll leave you to decide which of those it is.

What throws this into an interesting light is something else that comes up in another article that I contributed a little to, so go have a read of Neojaponisme’s review of the year now.

I contributed a bit about music to their annual review piece as I did last year, and through some chats I had with Marxy over it, this idea of “Peak AKB” came up. What he told me that I had suspected and which the way AKB48 etc. game the charts doesn’t show is that there are clear signs of their popularity slipping, as evidenced by sharply declining Google searches for the group. We discuss some reasons particular to the group’s own dynamics and behaviour this year (and we should remember there was no album from them this year, that it could merely be support diffusing out to their clone groups, etc.), but what’s really interesting about the Neojaponisme piece is how the AKB stuff I wrote (co-wrote honestly) dovetails with Marxy’s discussion earlier in the same piece about how it looks like the reactionary nerds are losing control of Japan’s Internet as ordinary people finally take control. Pop culture in the first decade of the new millennium was defined by subcultures like otaku and gyaru, just as the Net supplanted mainstream media as the primary driving force for delivering new trends, but if subculture groups are losing control of the online pop cultural discourse, that could mean genuine changes happening. Whether they’re good changes, I wouldn’t like to speculate, but change anyway. The word sounds strange on my tongue after all these years…

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Strange Boutique (AKB48 hair-shaving weirdness special!)

So I wrote an emergency subsidiary Strange Boutique column for The Japan Times that was put online on Friday and went into the paper on Sunday, about the weirdness surrounding Minami Minegishi from AKB48, who was caught leaving the home of a boy (a boy, I say, of all the horrors!) and then subsequently demoted to the “trainee” team, and then appeared in a bizarre, weepy apology video with her hair shaved off.

Reactions were divided into five basic categories.

Firstly there are the core fans, whose argument is basically that she broke the rule and her punishment is justified. “Our fantasies of your virginity trump your actual rights over whether or not to have a virginity.”

Second are what we might call generalised J-Pop fans, including a lot of overseas fans. Their reaction was more along the lines of, “This goes a bit far, but then again, she did upset her fans. It’s strange that they need to have this rule but then again, if the rule is there…” These fans are probably well meaning, but every bit as much part of the problem.

Then there’s the general Japanese population, who also seem to basically buy into the whole, “It’s a rule” thing, but at the same time, generally think the whole hair-shaving, sobbing apology was way over the top and that it makes AKB48 look like some sort of cult. I also get the impression that among ordinary Japanese, there is a sort of defensive need to brush it off as insignificant and “part of that weird thing those people have”. There is a shame-fuelled eagerness that this incident not be seen as representative of wider Japanese culture, which suggests that even if few are willing to outright condemn it, they at least understand that it ain’t right.

There’s also the argument that says it’s all a publicity stunt orchestrated by evil mastermind Yasushi Akimoto. I don’t buy this, and if it was, it backfired. It came during the week that a new AKB48 documentary came out, and the management may have thought that by skillfully orchestrating an apology, they could turn a potential downer into a positive, but the fact that they’ve since pulled the video from their official YouTube channel suggests that the reaction was not what they were hoping for at all. I think the publicity stunt to promote the film was meant to be Tomomi Itano’s graduation news the following day, although all that ended up being was damage limitation. A distractor to divert negative publicity and column inches onto something more easily controlled.

Then there has been the English language reaction, which has ranged from some fairly ignorant, outright condemnation of Japanese culture as a whole to some slightly more moderate remarks. The reaction is of pretty uniform condemnation though.

So yeah, expect some fan kickback against this to be along the lines that this is just a manufactured scandal by foreigners who don’t understand Japanese culture, imposing their ignorant Western values on deep, preciously held Japanese traditions.

And there are some Japanese traditions here. Hair cutting is something people in Japan do, perhaps when breaking up with a boyfriend, making a symbolic new start, or maaaaaaybe in cases of penance. Shaving it all down to the bone is what you do when you join the army or go off to join a monastery though, so we’re still way off base here (unless you believe that AKB48 are a kind of religious cult, which is the way a lot of people are increasingly starting to think).

There’s the argument that she chose to do it herself. That her management begged her not to, but she did it secretly without telling them while they were privately discussing her punishment.

This is a mad argument.

Even if she did make the actual specific decision to cut it herself, you can hardly call it “her decision”. Anything she does while there are a bunch of people in the next room discussing what her punishment should be, and masses of fans pouring onto 2ch to discuss their outrage that she was seen with a boy, is something she did under duress, whether direct or indirect. What do the fans who make these kinds of arguments think happened?

MINEGISHI: I’m going to do it! I’m going to cut it all off!
AKIMOTO: Noooooooo! Miichan, your beautiful tresses! Please!
MINEGISHI: My heart is decided! The only way I can show my sincere repentance to my sweet fans is by being bold! (Bzzzzzzzzz-SNIP!)
AKIMOTO: Oh, the humanity! What have you done, you sweet, foolish child? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!?!? … (Shouts out of frame) OK, GET THE CAMERA IN NOW, SHE’S DONE!

But fans don’t like to see the framework, they don’t like to see the wires, they like to believe that everything the girls do is just as they see it on the stage, because they have so much emotionally invested in the fantasy, in the narrative that they’re being sold, that it would crush them if they allowed their suspension of disbelief to slip. You can’t argue with AKB48 fans for the same reason you can’t argue with religious fundamentalists: because you’re not arguing with a person, you’re arguing with cognitive dissonance.

One particular objection I have with the whole story is the way some insist on calling it a “scandal”. A scandal implies she did something scandalous, whereas all I see here is a girl doing something ordinary. The only people who feel scandalised are the fans who believe that they have some kind of rights over her life, who feel that by signing that contract when she was thirteen, they own her, and that is the real scandal here. That fans and management have colluded first in forcing a young girl to sneak around in shame when visiting a boyfriend should be the most natural thing, and then when exposed to collaborate in her public humiliation, that is the only scandal that anyone should be talking about.

There’s a fan in the comments under my JT piece (who insists on referring to Akimoto as “Aki-P” — I mean, wow, do fans really call him that? Wow!) making all sorts of hysterical arguments, one of which seems to be that it’s actually people like me and all the other “foreigners” who are the real problem because we made a fuss about it. While it’s a wildly incoherent piece of logic, it does cut to the bone of what otaku fandom of pretty much all kinds is like. It basically says, “Leave us alone in our fantasy!” which I have some sympathy for in anime and manga fandom where no real humans are involved, but less so with idols who are actual lumps of more or less sentient organic matter, and certainly less so in the case of AKB48, who are the biggest pop group in the whole country, watched by millions. They don’t belong only to the otaku, they are part of Japanese popular culture as a whole and what happens with them feeds into discourse about society, its values and how it sees itself (and how it sees women in particular).

The main argument this particular commenter makes basically amounts to, “She’s not being punished for having a boyfriend, she’s being punished for breaking a rule.” Now I had to read that a few times before I could be sure I wasn’t missing something important, but it’s the same damn thing! The rule is the not-having-a-boyfriend thing. They. Are. The. Exact. Same. Thing.

The same commenter goes on to make the spurious point that the rule is actually not a no-boyfriends-at-all thing, just a not-seen-dating-in-public thing: sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell. Again, I don’t think there’s anyone out there who doesn’t understand that this is how the system works in practice. Of course the management aren’t going to care what the girls do if they don’t get caught. This is partly why I’m inclined to blame fans fractionally more than management in this case, because it’s the fans’ sociopathic need to have their ambivalently sexual fantasies protected from reality. Because if AKB48 fans had any sense of perspective, or indeed any basic sense of what a young woman is really like and not what their moé fantasies say young women should be like, there would be no rule, no “scandal”, no apology.

And so when fans cry that “No, Mr. Martin, it’s not misogynistic because boy bands sometimes have similar contracts,” then yeah, some of them (Johnny’s stuff mostly, although in the 90s, the visual-kei scene was similar), although the culture seems to be coming from a slightly different place. I’m rather reluctant to talk about Johnny’s because it’s such a dark area, but one key difference between AKB48 and Johnny’s idols is that the former has these connections with anime and manga fan culture, which is very much focused on fetishised images of adolescent (and younger) female vulnerability and innocence, whereas Johnny’s acts seem to be coming from a slightly different tradition. In any case, I don’t see why the existence of a parallel weird cultlike fandom over at chez Kitagawa means that what’s going on under “Aki-P”‘s aegis is any less sick. The management of the boy in the Minami Minegishi case have made a statement to the effect that they don’t care what he does with his private life, and pointing and fans shouting, “But no, because LOOK OVER THERE!” doesn’t seem to be engaging with the problem on their own doorstop.

What’s most vile about comments like those of this so-called fan on the JT comments is that they still manage to convince themselves that they’re really true supporters of their beloved Miichan. They, who form the bulk of the culture that put her in this absurd position. And maybe she really is sincere in her desire to get back into their good graces, and maybe they really do feel bad about being forced to punish her like this, the abuser feeling dreadful for the abuse they inflict and the abused blaming herself and eagerly trying to work her way back into her abuser’s favour, and in the cult world of AKB48 and their fans, maybe this is normal, but what’s happened here is that whether the fans like it or not, the door has creaked open a little and society at large and the world as a whole are now, slightly more than previously, seeing them as the cult that they are.


Filed under Features, Strange Boutique

Strange Boutique (November 2012)

My latest Japan Times column is a tongue in cheek musing on the explosion in the number of Japanese idol group members in recent years, drawing an analogue with Japan’s demographic woes die to its top-heavy ageing population. Put simply, how can all these girls be put to work and made useful to society once they’re no longer seventeen years old and living on a flower.

Of course what it’s really about is casting a view over the various ways idols have moved on in their careers once they’re past their idoling sell-by-date. Even though she’s largely inactive now, or at least only sporadically active, I brought up Aya Matsuura, partly because she’s gorgeous and I’m in love with her, and partly because some of her post-idol performances exemplify the point I was making about how a sort of inoffensive, jazz-influenced easy listening pop and balladry seems to be quite common, and also because she’s a good example of an idol who’s actually a reasonably decent singer.

I’ve talked before about the importance of jazz as a baseline of Japanese popular music (in the way that R&B seems to be fore American and British music) and it seems to return there almost as a default setting whenever it’s unsure where to go next.

Basically a lot of it just comes down to talent, and much as people like me might sneer at the notion that talent matters in an industry as top-down and controlling as the Japanese entertainment biz, if an artist wants to outlive their notional shelf life, they probably need it, either in singing, acting or knack for self-promotion.

What would be really nice would be if a few of them did something really artistically outrageous. I can’t think of any examples, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some exist. Given the vast numbers of girls currently inhabiting these idol groups, firstly there are probably all types and temperaments involved and there’s no way they’re all going to carry on meaningful showbiz careers, so it seems to me that it probably wouldn’t be that difficult for some really avant-garde Nagoya musicians to hook up with, say, some girl who used to be the 37th most popular member of SKE48 or something, and make something absolutely mad. Given the large and growing crossover between indie and idol music (BiS and Dempa Gumi inc. both played at Borofesta in Kyoto alongside postpunk weirdos like Fluid and Worst Taste & Special Magic, for example) I think there’s likely to be more of this kind of thing happening.


Filed under Strange Boutique

Interview: BiS

I’ve been doing a bit of work for MTV lately, helping out with some stuff for their new English language site, MTV 81 (81 is the international dialling code for Japan, geddit?), aimed at promoting Japanese music overseas. The first thing I did for them was this interview with BiS (Brand-new Idol Society) that was published the other week and which I duly forgot about. When they say the idol group they’d most like to kill is “○○○○8”, I’ll leave you to guess which mass idol group they’re talking about.

One other thing that came through strongly in parts of the interview (although not really in the bits that were cut together to make the MTV 81 feature) was that their manager seemed to be pitching them quite specifically towards audiences, like himself, who grew up listening to indie music in the 90s. There are references to British groups like Primal Scream (often just abbreviated to “Primal” in Japan) and Ash, Radiohead and others in their song titles, all groups most members would have been too young to know in real time (Radiohead are still very popular, but the BiS reference is from a line from a 90s song).

Of course what they’re saying with the whole anti-idol schtick is a facade like any idol group does, but by speaking directly about some of the fakery like the way idols all pretend to be friends when really it’s just business, even if it’s being used to build up a kind of fakery of their own, I think it reflects a need on the part of many fans of this most artificial of genres for an authentic voice. It’s not just because BiS are courting indie and rock fans, because Momoiro Cover Z’s popularity stems in part from their perceived genuineness, and Dempa Gumi inc.’s whole ex-“hikikomori” social shut-in status appeals to the need of otaku to feel the group is somehow genuine and one of their own. Part of this might be a reaction to AKB48’s overt manipulation of fans and the postmodern (and frankly cynical) way Yasushi Akimoto lays his whole marketing technique out in the open, although even there, part of what hooks AKB48 fans in is the idea that they can go to the theatre in Akihabara and watch the new members make mistakes, practice and mature. In this sense, K-pop might be seen as more firmly opposed in that it makes no pretense of sincerity and practically basks in its own artificiality. In any case, it’s curious that such an obviously artificial genre of music as idol pop seems to engender such a passionate desire for authenticity and sincerity in fans.


Filed under Features, Interviews

Notes on the AKB48 “election” 2012

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.

Little Sister is Watching You

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.

“Thanks for your money, you big, dumb fucks!”

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.


Filed under Blogs

The Setting Sun: Tetsuya Komuro, Namie Amuro and How to Be a Girl

I’ve always had rather mixed feelings about Tetsuya Komuro. On the one hand, I blame him for in the late 80s and early 90s killing kayoukyoku and creating the ugly, lumbering beast that is J-Pop; his thin, tinny beats and digital synths drilling out a relentless pitter patter of cheap Eurobeat and inspiring even cheaper knockoffs that can still be heard today in some of the musical atrocities being churned out by AKB48.

But fundamentally, Komuro was and is a music guy to his core. He’d come up out of the new wave movement of the 80s and like most of the key figures in the birth of J-Pop (notably Takeshi Kobayashi and Judy And Mary), he really knew and cared about his music, even when the stuff he was making sucked huge logs.

Also, for anyone still looking for reasons behind the rise of Korean pop in Japan, Komuro’s work demonstrates a number of precedents with its localised repackaging of contemporary dance music coupled with obligatory rap segment pretty much defining the core K-Pop songwriting formula. More than that though, he would occasionally imbue his work with some elements that were if not exactly inventive, at least striking in terms of the Japanese pop music scene. From 1997, at the swaggering peak of the 90s, just before the sun started to go down on J-Pop, here’s one of Komuro’s finest moments as a songwriter and producer.

Namie Amuro: How to Be a Girl

The idea that Korean pop is not a strange and alien thing to Japan is one that I keep coming back to, and I’m convinced that getting to grips with its own musical heritage is something that Japanese pop would benefit a lot from in terms of firstly understanding the Korean invasion and secondly in terms of fashioning its own response.

Japanese pop’s fear of the schaffel beat is something I wrote about last year, and while there are maybe historical reasons why that kind of R&B influenced rhythm never took hold here, I think it’s also symptomatic of a contemporary fear of anything that differs from the formula that J-Pop has come to understand as being the sound of its greatest age, the boom years of 1997/98.

However, listen to How to Be a Girl, a number one hit single released at the height of the boom as the follow-up to the record-shattering smash hit ballad Can You Celebrate (with well over two million sales, it makes AKB48’s recent efforts look like chicken feed), and Komuro is doing far crazier things with the rhythm. Lennonistas will recognise it as the backline from The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows, although 1990s pop fans would perhaps have been more familiar with it from The Chemical Brothers’ 1996 UK hit Setting Sun (yeah, the one with Noel Gallagher on it). He’s being true to his own formula of watering down contemporary dance hits, but he’s also using the hotly anticipated follow-up to the best-selling single of all time ever by a female singer and pushing out the boundaries of Japanese pop in a way that would be unthinkable for anti-musicians like Yasushi Akimoto.

The Beatles: Tomorrow Never Knows (I just had to embed this clip)

Couple that beat with a riff appropriated from Gary Numan’s Cars/Wire’s Men 2nd (all Numan’s best stuff was nicked from his more talented contemporaries) and some neat distortion on the vocals and you have a piece of mainstream pop music from one of the nation’s biggest selling and most iconic artists that breaks all the rules of what J-Pop now thinks popular music can be.

Amuro herself is another crucially important part of the song’s appeal, and here’s where Japanese pop differentiates itself from its Korean rivals. Her dancing is more of an offhand shuffle, coming across effortlessly cool rather than simply naive and amateurish, her hair flops down insolently over her face, her costume takes China-dress chic and reconfigures it as a plain, matt black casual suit. Amuro, at that time still only nineteen years old (one year younger than Atsuko Maeda of AKB48 is at the time of writing this), is mature, stylish, sexy and cool, but she’s also casual and easygoing, without the baby-doll lolicon posturing of contemporary Japanese idols, without the militaristically drilled, aggressive sexuality of Girls’ Generation and their followers and without the cartoonish yankii bad girl schtick of 2NE1. Her image is attractive but at the same time attainable for young women.

Sure, How to Be a Girl never reached the sales of its predecessor, but then nothing since then has, and those kinds of crazy figures are never coming back. Amuro’s eclipse by Ayumi Hamasaki and Komuro’s spectacular fall from grace are stories for another piece, but the popularity of 1997-model Namie Amuro should stand as a lesson that Japanese pop fans can handle musical ideas that go beyond the expected, and that at least in theory (of course, given the technicolor extremes that pop imagery is exploring at the moment, one wonders who would even notice an artist as understated as Amuro comes across in that clip) female sexuality can be mature and post-pubescent without aping the glistening artificiality of K-Pop.

Just to leave you with, here’s Seo Yeon’s Korean language cover of Amuro’s biggest hit:


Filed under Classic Pop

Great pop music denied to Japan in 2011: Kara’s Step

While I was putting together my gleefully self-indulgent 2011 Top 10 girly bubblegum pop tunes list, there was one song that I didn’t include but perhaps should have. It was by probably the most successful Korean group in Japan at the moment, who had a string of Number 1 hit singles and two albums in Oricon’s end of year charts. All of which, needless to say, were utter crap.

That group was Kara, who are notable as the Korean group who have gone furthest to ingratiate themselves into the Japanese way of doing things, by throwing out everything that made them refreshing and exotic in the first place and trading it all for some thinly produced, sub-AKB48 J-pop-by-numbers and a pointless TV show. Kara are a case study that can be held up to the bleating fanboy crowd exemplifying the poisonous influence Yasushi Akimoto and AKB48 exert over the Japanese pop market. With their beyond-cynical multiple-purchase marketing model, their blanket coverage across all possible media, and their relentless goose step down the Champs Elysee of the singles charts, they hold themselves up as the definitive example of “what-Japanese-like” and as a model of “how-things-should-be-done”.

That groups like Kara are buying into this notion of bland, lobotomised antimusic as their pathway to success in Japan doesn’t bode well for the future direction of pop music in this country. That Kara’s dreadful Super Girl album outsold fellow Korean invaders Girls’ Generation’s far more forward-thinking self-titled album (on first week sales at least) raises the danger that this approach might in the future become a standard approach to the Japanese market.

The truth is probably that it doesn’t much matter in terms of sales what kind of music a group makes. Kara have been in the Japanese market for longer than Girls’ Generation and comparing their second album to Girls’ Generation’s first is to compare groups at different stages of their initial growth. The structure of the market is such that the future of both groups in Japan will depend more on how much money and effort goes into promotion than on what kind of music they make, which makes DSP Media’s decision to go the full AKB on Kara’s music pointless as well as musically reprehensible.

To drive this home and to make clear the contempt in which DSP clearly hold the average Japanese listener’s taste, Kara also released a Korean language album this year which included possibly the group’s best song, Step:

It didn’t make my list because Japanese audiences were denied it (unless they bought the limited edition of Super Girl or, as thousands did, imported the Korean album), but it was one of the pop songs of the year, with its aggressively energetic 80s synths, la-la-las and shiny, glittery everything-on-max production. If I were Japanese, I think I’d be pissed off with DSP Media that they have such a low opinion of my taste, and perhaps a little ashamed at my country’s pop establishment for having given them that impression.

(Oh, and just in case you think I’m laying it on thick with the girl groups here, I’d also have picked GD & TOP’s “Knock Out” as one of my songs of the year, but apparently Japan isn’t ready for so much swag yet.)

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Filed under Features