Tag Archives: Babymetal

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 (March 2014)

My March column for The Japan Times was something I’d been planning to write for a long time anyway and was really a development of things I’d written about before and which had come together in part through the process of writing my book. The sudden viral explosion of all things Babymetal-related was a serendipitous bit of timing that gave me a single focus to hook the idea into, and I daresay being able to hop onto the back of an international hot topic made the JT web site people happy as well.

One thing that changed with the new focus on Babymetal was that the international angle made the story sort of about the international reporting of the group and by extension about Japan generally. The opening gambit, where I write a hypothetical “false intro” imagining British pop culture being written about from a similar “aren’t they wacky!” perspective was one I had some doubts about and these doubts were later confirmed when the Slovenian musician N’toko, who was staying with me during his Japan tour at that time, pointed out that’s pretty much exactly how most of Europe does tend to see the British. I suppose given that the JT is an English language paper though, that’s less of an issue. In any case, I think it still makes its point.

I’m not a particular fan of Babymetal, although I think they’re nice enough, I dig the metal angle, and the silliness of some of their stage performances makes me smile. I mean, when you think about how stupid, theatrical and childish a lot of metal really is, isn’t it the sort of music that’s more appropriate for little kids to be doing than middle-aged guys?Babymetal: Death

What surprised me a bit about the response to the article was how quickly the comments coalesced around the idea of it as something sexist or exploitative. I guess it shouldn’t have, since you can’t take a couple of 14 year-old girls (and that’s just how old they are now — they were younger when the group started), stick them on a stage and tell them to dance in front of a massive crowd of adult men without there being something creepy and exploitative about it. It’s the nature of the beast, and no idol music will ever really escape from that, whatever excuses the scene’s apologists offer. That said, taken in context, they’re pretty benign in comparison to Yasushi Akimoto’s Evil Empire.

Another point I didn’t really go into in the article was the relationship with visual-kei, which seems a bit odd from a Japanese perspective, since it’s been a dead genre for a long time now, but once you see it in the context of trying to capture overseas fans, it makes more sense. Despite having been dead in Japan for over a decade, visual-kei has enjoyed a long spell of, posthumous zombie popularity abroad, and I get the impression that the lack of new material from the scene has left an under-served overseas market primed for stuff like visual-kei. The dreadful One OK Rock seem to have tapped into that need, and I wonder if Babymetal were at least partly deliberately attempting to do likewise, at least in part.Babymetal: Headbanger

Anyway, I don’t really think Babymetal are a positive thing so much as someone making the best of a bad situation. The whole “take subcultural thing, add small girls, serve” approach to music just seems like a terribly reductive approach to music, and there must be other ways of selling it. Seeing indie bands and promoters adopt a similar approach is really starting to get a bit pathetic. I remember the way Agata from Melt Banana (a fan of Babymetal) expressed a bit of anxiety about how their use of blast beats could end up with a situation where people hear blast beats in a Melt Banana song and just think, “Oh, they’re being like Babymetal,” but I think that’s just how underground music’s responsibility to keep finding new ways to move things forward is enforced and I can’t really see any advantage in ring-fencing certain tools of musical expression for the exclusive use of the underground. Where it becomes a problem is where the underground pioneers who develop these ideas don’t get the credit they deserve for them, and that is certainly the situation you have now. Unless Melt Banana start producing idol music, no one outside their little core fanbase is ever going to give two shits about them in Japan, and that’s sad and a failure of the industry as a whole. Still, critical though I’ve been of idol culture over the years, I’m not completely against it, and we have to recognise what it offers that other aspects of the music scene in Japan don’t.

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