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.