Tag Archives: Dempa Gumi inc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s why it’s wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

But that only works until you see the real thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: Afterword

As I said in the intro, this list was framed by my own fluctuating tastes and just what I happened to   have listened to this year. Jesse Ruins are a superb band who released their Dream Analysis EP via Captured tracks last February.I didn’t get a chance to hear it during the course of the year so it couldn’t make the list, but it’s probably a good record.

None-more-Kansai garage-noise extroverts Gezan also released an album that I didn’t get the chance to hear in 2012, but it was apparently good enough for Time Out Tokyo to rate it as one of the year’s best. Goth-Trad is another artist I didn’t get a proper chance to listen to, but many picked up. It features in the Time Out Tokyo list as well as Make Believe Melodies’ 2012 album roundup (along with other buzzed-about artists I still haven’t heard, like Taquwami)

And then there are albums that missed out on my Top 20 but which might have made it on another day. Sekaitekina Band’s debut album was good but I went for Underrated instead because I felt the musical development that had gone on between the two records instantly outdated the earlier release. Also there was a new album by capsule, Stereo Worxx, which had some very good stuff on it, but which by the end of the year I’d found I wasn’t really listening to.

I’m not going to do a “Top Tracks of 2012” series since most of my favourite tracks, especially in the indie and alternative spheres, are contained within the albums I’ve just written about, but there are a few excellent mainstream-ish pop tunes I’d like to flag up (all by girl groups, natch). As well as the Kyary Pamyu Pamyu album and the aforementioned capsule, Perfume’s Spending All My Time was really good.

Idol group Dempa Gumi inc.’s awesome, hyperactive cover of The Beastie Boys’ Sabotage is also worth revisiting, especially after having seen them perform it live last weekend.

Also, Korean girl group 2NE1’s I Love You was a great example of pop at the more sophisticated extreme.

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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.

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Dempa Gumi inc.: Kira Kira Tune / Sabotage

I spent a long time earlier this year talking about what makes some punk and experimental musicians so obsessed with idol music, and to a limited degree how a few idol singers have at least partially reciprocated that love. Primarily that seems to work via producers with indie backgrounds who have helped mould idols into more interesting musical shapes, although since appearing submissive and doll-like is such an essential part of an idol’s image, it’s hard to know and even harder to trust precisely what they say about themselves without the nagging image of some team of micromanaging handlers feeding them the lines.

One group I was able to talk to and gain firsthand answers from was Dempa Gumi inc., an otaku idol group apparently formed of former hikikomoris (social shut-ins) who had done a collaboration with UK-based psych-noise band Bo Ningen. Among their answers were a couple of pretty interesting points, but given that their main musical output was so firmly entrenched in a fairly predictable cheap-sounding, mid-range idol groove, it’s hard to know how seriously to take it. They seemed a bit wiser and sharper than the typical idol fare, but Bo Ningen aside, their musical output did little to live up to what their personalities hinted at.

Kira Kira Tune (or “Killer Killer Tune”, pun fans) isn’t going to change that for anyone. It’s a down-the-line idol pop confection with little to add musically to the conversation. It makes its mark rather more interestingly through the video, which spends half the song lingering over soft-focus images of the girls sleeping. This is almost certainly part of the moe-otaku habit of recycling and fetishising imagery of childish femininity at its most vulnerable, but it’s quite a bold and perhaps even original move for a music video given how dramatically at odds the placid images are with the peppy music. Perhaps less intentionally (although I don’t presume to know), the disconnect between the visual and audio messages being received creates an eerie, almost apocalyptic atmosphere. Are they sleeping or are they dead? Drugged? In particular the image midway through the video of all six girls sleeping in a circle on the grass is curiously similar to the disconcerting closing image of Satoshi Kon’s anime Paranoia Agent.


It’s really the other side of the single that’s got something to say musically, and it’s no surprise that it’s producer Hyadain of Momoiro Clover (Z) fame who’s behind it. As you might have gathered from the title, it’s a cover of The Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, and it’s the first thing I’ve really heard from this group that really goes for the guts.

As we should have come to expect from Hyadain’s work now, the arrangement is all over the place, with frantic 90s pachinkotronica beats trading places with fruit pastel rainbow synths, vocals popping out at you from all angles in a variety of registers, and running right through all this chaos, the rock solid original song with all its energy and power recognisable and undiminished. The almighty scream at bang on two minutes, such an important part of the original arrangement, is here and then some just in case anyone still disagrees with me that idol music’s anarchic childishness can rival almost anything that punk can throw at it for self-centred, shrieking energy — it’s a shame the version on YouTube cuts off so soon after, but even the short amount you can hear is enough to remind us that in the right hands, and apparently with the right cast, idol music can be radical.

It’s also an interesting step from Hyadain himself, whose earlier work with Dempa Gumi inc., Tsuyoi Kimochi, Tsuyou Ai, was pretty low key by his standards and whose work with Momoiro Clover Z was starting to, if not exactly get stale, at least to have settled into a familiar pattern, and it provides a good demonstration of his skill at finding the right music into which to channel the particular energy of a certain group or performer.

One last quick note on the cover image, featuring the group in the same pastel school uniforms but with added 70s shades and moustaches. Firstly, this is obviously a tribute to the original Beasties video, but it also locks in interestingly on another trend in Japanese girls’ fashion and pop culture. It’s hard to know exactly where it comes from, but Hazel Nuts Chocolate (HNC) played about with a fake moustache in the video for Hello from 2005, and the fake ‘tash is by now a pretty firmly established accessory in the arsenal of twee-cutester girls as a digital augmentation for Twitter profile pictures or similar. I could now get excited about its role in subverting both traditional notions of femininity and male notions of cuteness while retaining the punkish desire to remain a child by rejecting seriousness and embracing make-believe, or perhaps its place in the otaku/Harajuku playbook of taking jarring, oppositional images and finding cuteness in the disconnect, but I think that’s for someone else to get into. I’ll just end by stating that Dempa Gumi inc.’s Sabotage is a fantastic piece of work and that if the love affair between the punk/experimental and idol scenes is going to result in them going steady, on the evidence of this, the idols might be wearing the trousers.

EDIT: Full version of Sabotage here:

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Bo Ningen and Dempa Gumi inc: The love affair between experimental and idol music

Continuing with the theme wrote about in my last post and Japan Times column about the intersection between experimental and idol music, and what it is that attracts freaky hippy longhairs, dirty punks and art-school pretenseniks to idol music, here is the full text of Taigen Kawabe of psychedelic rock band Bo Ningen’s comments, in which he discusses Momoiro Clover Z and his work (as Dempa Ningen) with the idol group Dempa Gumi inc.

Studying and making music has changed the way way I think about music compared to as a child. Music always makes me think, but when I heard Ikuze! Kaitou Shoujou by Momoiro Clover for the first time, I found myself listening over and over again without thinking at all. It was like the way I used to listen to music as a child. It wasn’t a particularly experimental song, but then after that I began to listen to other songs that were more challenging.

Key to the appeal of idol music for noise or punk musicians might be that both types share a kind of anarchic energy. it doesn’t have to be in the music itself, you might have to hear it live — even for Bo Ningen it’s a different experience hearing us on CD and seeing us live.

Dempa Gumi inc. are older than Momoclo but they have a similar approach. It’s all about capturing the energetic momentum of youth. In their case it’s quite striking because they all used to be social shut-ins and couldn’t use their youth, so they’re sharing with their otaku fans this reinactment, trying to reclaim their youth. In their case, idol music is like a time machine.

I don’t like AKB48 because what they do is so regressive. Even stuff like Perfume or Kyary Pamyu Pamyu are kind of challenging. This is music that is tryiing something new and has a sense of moving forward. In a way, idol music nowadays is on the cutting edge of what Japanese people like. The producers might have backgrounds in other genres or take influences from other sources. In fact idol music’s background gives you access to quite a wide range of music. What attracts me is that you might find noise music hiding in idol music or idol music hiding in noise. Merzbow did a track called “Yumin, Non-stop Disco” which was a noise track comprised entirely of Yumi Matsutoya’s idol-ish early music.

Especially with recent idol music, I think it has the potential to cross over. Punk, rock, metal — especially in metal you have the “metal manner”, a very strict form, but with idol music it doesn’t matter what you do.

I also got in touch with Dempa Gumi inc. for a couple of brief comments, although my deadline for the original article ran out before their comments arrived. For anyone interested in hearing their music, here they are:

It’s hard to know how much one can draw from these comments (while their backstory is interesting, I don’t think you can really say their music itself is “totally different from regular idols”), but since all members of the group took the trouble to send some pretty thoughtful replies, I thought it would be useful to add their comments here too (English translation generously contributed by Dave McMahon).

1. How was the experience of working with Bo Ningen?

FURUKAWA MIRIN: I didn’t know much about them but there was some common otaku ground and they liked to talk about the same things, so although we may look different, I felt we were all essentially the same type of people.

YUMEMI NEMU: I had spoken to Taigen on the phone before we did the session, so I wasn’t worried. But at the same time I had no idea how it would all turn out… Performing live with Dempa Gumi inc there are lots of fantastic moments as an Idol, but there were moments in the session with Bo Ningen which moved all five senses.  I’ll never forget that shock.  I have no doubt that, in those moments, it was the coolest live in the whole world.

MOGAMI MOGA: In one word, it was CHAOS!!!

AIZAWA RISA: I felt that the collaboration was a chance to transmit Dempa Gumi Inc.’s ‘heat’ and ‘unique seishun’ to the audience.

NARUSE EIMI: It was very very stimulating!  But I didn’t really feel a big difference between us all as artists. And maybe, to anyone watching it would have seemed that way too.

FUJISAKI AYANE: We’re totally different from (regular) Idols and so is our music. Just as Dempa Gumi can seem to be smashing boulders to pieces with our sounds and voices, Bo Ningen also seem to be striking and smashing boulders to pieces, so I felt like we were breathing the same air (we had a lot in common) and it was fun. I personally like Bo Ningen’s music, so I was pleased to get the chance to work together.

2. How do you feel about music of the sort Bo Ningen make given that it seems at first glance an unusual combination?

FURUKAWA MIRIN: I think that we share common roots. I guess the same could be said of any music but the prospect of making something amongst yourselves was the same.

YUMEMI NEMU: Listening, I thought it was music which vibrates the feelings and the senses. But the way I think about idol pop, it doesn’t follow a set pattern — It can often suddenly switch to metal or enka, etc… So even when you mix Bo Ningen’s music with Dempa Gumi inc., they’re still idol songs. Really really cool idol songs.

MOGAMI MOGA: For me personally, I like music like Bo Ningen ’cause I’ve always been into metal and rock. My mum has told me before that she doesn’t understand the difference between ‘otagei’ (otaku’s synchronised audience gestures at idol concerts) and headbanging, so it was probably a bit like that. To people who want to feel music and enjoy it, I don’t think the genre really matters. The fans reacted well to Denpa Ningen too, so that just served to drill that idea home even further.

AIZAWA RISA: I love it!  Dempa Gumi aren’t a band as such, but the way our fans cheer and dance at our shows is similar to at a live band’s show. I mean, Dempa Gumi’s very existence is a big tangle of maniacs, so I could really identify with what Bo Ningen are very focused about trying to get across through their music.

NARUSE EIMI: The truth is, I like music like Bo Ningen, so I felt like I wanted to know more about it. Even though I’m an idol (Guffaw).  In fact, we all feel like we don’t just want to do idol pop, but that from here on in we’d like to keep on including more of the different types of music that we like. As long as we don’t lose sight of our roots, anything is possible for Dempa Gumi!

FUJISAKI AYANE: You can feel the weight their music has from playing their guitars, bass and drums with all their might, so we were overpowered by that totally different power. It was very moving!

As I say, it’s hard to know exactly what to take away from this since idol music comes with a set of assumptions that aren’t necessarily going to be the same as those in alternative music so phrases like “anything is possible” might operate within very different sets of limitations depending on one’s starting position. Nevertheless, the idea that hopping from style to style and not following a “set pattern” is not only permissible but also an integral part of the musical experience comes through in both Taigen’s and Dempa Gumi’s comments.

Also a point I think is interesting is Mogami Moga’s comment about her mum not seeing the difference between audience behaviour at idol and metal shows. I think this point can be extended to a wider observation on how “ordinary” people view subcultural products and behaviour. While idol music and otaku culture have been normalised to a large extent in Japanese mainstream culture, AKB48’s music still makes a point of not veering even remotely from the dead middle of the road down which J-pop has been puttering since at least the mid-90s, and most idol music still sounds freakish and subcultural to “ordinary” people in much the same way (although depending on the music and the particular type of “ordinary person”, the extent might vary) that music at the opposite avant-garde extreme might.

The last thing is the idea that genre doesn’t matter. I’m not sure about this, and the reaction of some Momoiro Clover Z fans to Ian Parton from The Go! Team being brought in for one song suggests that genre does matter to idol fans, but that the choice of genres is subject to more complex strictures. One obvious point is that any sign that an idol group is becoming more mainstream will be taken as a sign by otaku that the group is being taken away from them, which they will clearly not be happy about. On the other hand, Parton’s song, Roudou Sanka, was an unusual song by both mainstream J-pop and otaku standards, and I suspect the source of fan discomfort was more its “foreignness” — not specifically the use of a foreign writer (they accept Marty Friedman on its follow-up) so much as that despite the video piling in every nostalgia-ready Japanese cultural cliche it can manage, the music itself is built on a whole structure of sounds, musical references and motifs rooted in a different culture of what’s cool. While Parton’s music would have been cool as fuck to the 90s Tokyo indie generation that formed main Momoclo producer Hyadain’s background (Hyadain has a background in Shibuya-kei and The Go! Team are on Japanese label Vroom Sound, home of post-Shibuya-kei electronic pranksters Plus-tech Squeeze Box and Eel), otaku reject the role of trendsetting elites, preferring to build culture from the bottom up (recognising this and tricking fans into the illusion that they have this power has been key to the marketing genius of Yasushi Akimoto and AKB48). As a result, when fans complain about Roudou Sanka being too mainstream, perhaps part of what they mean is that its mishmash of funk, Motown, Britpop and mutant disco sounds dangerously fashionable.

Combine this with Taigen’s point about idol music’s role in recreating youth, and I think the freedom of idol music has limits set not by record industry convention but by the audience’s own cultural horizons and sense of nostalgia. Idol music is certainly more musically outgoing than its mainstream competitors, but it won’t have its direction imposed on it by “elites” from outside its own cultural milieu (and certainly not by the sort of people who use words like “milieu” in their blogs).

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