But when the groups do crack through to the more general English language press, the surface level is generally the only level that’s looked at. Idol groups are treated as a joke (“Can you believe this boy band is 40?!”) or as fodder for scolding, social justice warrior outrage (“Why isn’t this girl group more empowered?!”). And just to make it a condescension trifecta, I’ve also seen cultural commentators--generally the type looking to “corner the market” on some underexplored angle of pop culture--attempt to look at mega-popular Japanese idols through the standard “music critic” filter. And guess what? The results of any of the above are always embarrassing to the Westerner.
So, when my old friend Will started posting about Japanese pop act BABYMETAL, I didn’t want to see him fall blindly into the same trap and I offered to share whatever knowledge I’d accumulated about Japanese idols over the last few years.
Here is the dirty secret many people writing about Japanese culture in English don’t want you to know: many of them do not understand the Japanese language and have done little to no reading on their chosen topics from Japanese sources. This is really important because, what you need to understand before looking into Japanese pop culture, is that the Japanese, in general, do not give a fuck about the outside world. This means that almost nothing is translated into English and what does get translated into English is coming through some very specific filters. Most of what you can find in English is either a) product for Japanese nerds sought out by translated by Western nerds (i.e. anime, video games) or b) “globally-minded” middlebrow product enjoyed by cultural elites across the world (i.e. Murakami novels, Kurosawa films). There are exceptions, of course, but they are few and far between. But I think it’s not mentioned often enough that Japanese pop culture is created and consumed in an entirely Japanese bubble. If a reviewer or commentator is trying to sell you on a viewpoint and they don’t understand this simple fact, then his or her opinion is worth absolutely nothing.
Here’s just a small example of how little the Japanese care about what the international market thinks. When the adorable idol group named “Sexy Zone” debuted in 2011, the boys were all young teens except for the youngest member, who was only 12 years old. To the English-speaker, “Sexy Zone” is a highly inappropriate name for a group featuring prepubescent boys but the English word “sexy” doesn’t mean the same thing in Japanese as it does in English. The word “sexy” has been imported into Japanese with a meaning that’s something more like “appealing to the opposite gender” rather than the English “sexually desirable”. And with the addition of “Zone” as a nonsense English word, what sounds like an inappropriate name to us native English speakers boils down to a phrase meaning something like “The Cute Bunch” to native Japanese speakers.
With all that in mind, here is the odd thing about BABYMETAL: they are a bit of novelty act in Japan not because they combine idol music and heavy metal but because BABYMETAL have become somewhat popular among music nerds in the West. Their Japanese wikipedia page devotes an entire section to this fact that goes unremarked upon in the English page. The group has been around since 2010 but their “breakthrough” in Japan came in late 2014, thanks to Lady Gaga of all people. What I want to make clear is that BABYMETAL is not indicative of mainstream Japanese pop idols. The weird anime your nerd friend is obsessed with is not indicative of mainstream Japanese entertainment. And what Murakami is speaking to are global middlebrow values, not the specific Japanese experience. Got it? That’s not to say that these things can’t be really good but there is very limited value in using them to draw any broader conclusions about the Japanese people, the Japanese entertainment industry, or mainstream Japanese culture.
BABYMETAL are fun but the reasons that they caught on in the West have little or nothing to do with the (extremely healthy) idol market in Japan.
Okay, now. Idols. What is an idol? Just a pop star, right? Wrong!
Idols are magical creatures. They are us and yet they are not us. They are better than us. Idols exist to give the entertainment industry some much needed emotional heft. They are professional “personalities”. Some idols may also excel at singing, dancing, acting, or comedy, but many others trade on nothing except supernova levels of charisma. All idol fans have different relationships with their idols. There is an element of romantic or sexual attraction for some fans, yes, but you can’t paint all fans with the same brush. A 14-year old girl crushing on a dreamy teen hunk has a different relationship with idols than a 70-year old grandma who finds pleasure in watching sweet, young men romp around on television game shows. The man who obsessively collects pictures of his favorite female idol as masturbation fodder is not be the same man who enjoys learning the dance routines from girl groups in order to perform them at karaoke. Or he may be. It’s complicated.
Idols exist for us to watch but they also exist for us to identify with and to fantasize about. And, very importantly, they enable fans to bond with each other. Japanese idol culture has a strong lateral component. The top down idol - fan relationship comes first but the fan - fan relationships are almost as strong. I’ve been to a handful of idol (and idol-type) concerts in Japan and at almost every one, people went out of their way to talk to me and help me out with things like… the intricate audience choreography during certain songs. Yes, we want to be waved to by the idol but the overpowering feeling that comes from joining thousands of other fans in a coordinated dance is just as strong.
Now, how does one spot these mythic creatures? Not every pop star is an idol. A lot of it has to do with a) self-identification and b) what exactly is being sold. For example, pop group Perfume looks like an idol group to the outside observer because the unit features three beautiful women who dance and lip sync to catchy songs. But Perfume are not idols. They aren’t selling personality and personal narrative. Perfume considers themselves primarily a dance unit. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is another one who is often mistaken for an idol by Westerners but she isn’t. Kyary is an attractive young woman who sings pop songs but she makes a point of stressing the fact that she is not an idol. She doesn’t have an emotional relationship with her fans and, though she does trade on her image, it’s primarily as a (kooky) fashion model.
Contemporary idols include groups like the 40-something rock band Tokio who have a massively popular television show where the members run around the countryside in overalls and do things like harvest crops and go fishing. What marks them as idols? Personal narrative and self-identification. Tokio are members of idol agency Johnny’s & Associates, home to dozens of male idols. If you are with Johnny’s, you are an idol. People love Tokio and have long-running emotional investment in them. That's what makes them idols.
Idol music runs the entire musical spectrum from sappy ballads to crazy novelty numbers to heavy metal rockers and electropop dance numbers. By and large, idols do not write their own songs nor do they play musical instruments, although there are exceptions, like the aforementioned Tokio. Idol fans are totally fine with this. (Western pop stars also do not write their own songs or play musical instruments but this fact is less generally known or accepted by audiences.) Idols do not generally have what Western audiences think of as “good” (i.e. American-idol winning) singing voices but idols don’t need them in order to be enjoyable to listen to. Think of it this way. Those big American-idol style, Broadway-style singing voices are the vocal equivalent of eating out at a fancy 5-star restaurant. Idol voices are like eating your favorite home cooked meal. The Broadway voice may be “better” but which do want to hear everyday? The meal that’s “technically” prepared better or meal made with love?
And love is what it’s all about in the end. That’s what separates idols from pop stars. I, personally, have broken down in tears at an idol concert, overwhelmed by the love from the group on stage and my love for them in return. And that is what best idols do. They make us love them and they love us in return… sure, they also sell dishwashing detergent and shitty singles written by friends of their talent agency heads but we’ll buy those shitty singles and learn to like them because we love our idols and they love us. Nothing comes close to replicating that intense emotional bond in Western entertainment, except maybe certain corners of genre fandom, like Star Trek.
It’s easy for outsiders, especially snobby Western music critics, to mock and laugh at idols. The glitzy outfits, the lip-syncing, the coordinated dancing, these are things that are not respected in English-language cultural circles. The idea that the emotional content of music matters more than the technical content is completely outside the realm of “music criticism” and all the value it places buzzwords like “authenticity” and “originality” and “progress”. But, if you ask me, there is nothing more “authentic” than getting choked up listening to a stadium full of fans sing along with a 30-something boyband on their 15th anniversary. That feeling of a shared journey, of a following ups and downs in the idols’ lives and the songs marking the ups and downs in our own, that love isn’t captured in bits on a plastic disc or available for download from some streaming service. It’s intangible. It’s not for sale… though it does drive lots of sales. That is the catch-22 of idols.
Each idol group, each idol talent agency has their own methods, their own traditions, and their own history. Some idol groups use a rotating system, cycling in new members and phasing old ones out. Some idol groups incorporate a sales-based voting technique to “elect” the face of the group. Some idol groups use the groups' own friendships as a major selling point. I know a bit about some of these groups and quite a lot about the groups from Johnny’s & Associates but it’s important to keep in mind that these groups, and their talent agencies, are extremely opaque. Nobody really “knows” what goes on behind closed doors except the idols themselves. There is no TMZ in Japan. Idols have a pretty strong line between their public and private lives and a lot more privacy than Western stars.
Since I’ve already gone into TL;DR territory, I’ll end with my thoughts on BABYMETAL as idols. To be honest, I find the group a bit disturbing because the girls, the actual idols, are treated like props.
I had a hard time making it through the PV for “Karate” because I didn’t like how small and diminished the girls were in comparison to the backing band. What exactly is being sold here? Are the girls really idols if they aren’t being sold on personality? There are far fewer close-ups of the girls’ faces and much more emphasis on the “real” musicians, the band, behind them than I’m used to seeing in idol videos.
Compare that to a more typical idol video from モーニング娘。(Morning Musume)
Or ももいろクローバーZ (Momoiro clover Z)
Notice the close-ups of faces. The girls are the main attraction, the only attraction. They are who we are supposed to be watching and identifying with. Maybe there is some shadowy offstage figure pulling strings but while they are on stage these girls are the only ones in the spotlight. They are idols and we love them.
I strongly suspect that one of the reasons BABYMETAL caught on here in the West is that we Westerners are so literal minded that we can only accept the pleasures that idols have to offer--i.e. watching charming people romp around on stage--if it’s couched with some sort of wink. BABYMETAL is acceptable because the band is onstage signaling to the Western nerds that the group is “authentic” because there are instruments being played somewhere in the dancing girls vicinity. How much of the girls’ individual personalities comes through to the Western fan is murky.
That’s not to say that BABYMETAL is bad. They aren’t. I enjoy their television appearances when they pop up on the Japanese music shows I watch but I remain highly skeptical of their appeal to English language music nerds. I find it kind of gross, to be honest. Without distinct personalities, the girls of BABYMETAL may as well just be Gwen Stefani’s faceless Harajuku backing dancers. Can they really be idols if their audience doesn’t understand meaning of the lyrics? Can’t read their interviews in magazines? Can’t watch them interact on television? Can’t understand their cultural context?
I said earlier that idol music can’t be judged merely on the music itself and I stand by that. It really can’t. And critics attempting to do so should not be listened to. One can like an idol song or not like it, like an idol group, hate an idol group, or adore an idol group, but the value of that group’s songs isn’t something that can be captured in a review. Taken on its own, Arashi’s “WISH” is an incredibly stupid song:
2006年7月 少年倶楽部 ゲスト：嵐 by yasuieda
BUT that song, over ten years, has developed layers and layers of meaning. It was the theme song to a phenomenally popular television drama starring one of the group members, giving them a boost in popularity. That drama was beloved. The song is now bound up with fond memories of the drama and is itself now fondly remembered now by many, many people. Not just Arashi fans. The drama and the song are cultural touchstones. When Arashi perform the song now, “WISH” isn’t just an insipid collection of notes but a fun callback to the days when they were striving youngsters, a sign of love to the fans who have followed them since those days, and a burst of nostalgia for the heady days of Hana Yori Dango mania.
嵐 × ももクロ！コラボメドレーFNS／2015年12月2日 by happy274
Here they are performing the song with Momoiro Clover Z on FNS Winter Music special in 2015. The song still seems fresh 10 years later, a testament to the talent and appeal of both Arashi and of Momoiro Clover Z.
Sure, one could write a music review detailing what a terrible song “WISH” is but whether the song is good or bad is utterly beside the point. The song is. And its existence is its meaning. I don’t go out of my way to listen to “WISH” but you bet your ass that I can belt it out at karaoke or in the shower and have a great time doing so.
I love idols.
Obviously I have a lot more I could say on the topic but this has already turned into a monster post. If you’re looking for a good hook into finding a Japanese idol group for you well… go video diving on youtube or dailymotion. There are lots. From Arashi to the AKB48 groups, Golden Bomber, Kanjani8, Momoiro Clover Z, Sexy Zone, Shiritsu Ebisu Chugaku... find a group, start watching concert videos, music videos, television show appearances… and get hooked. Then you, too, will understand why I burst into tears every time when A.B.C-Z started singing ボクラ～LOVE&PEACE～” (Our LOVE&PEACE) at the concerts I attended last year.
Oh yeah become one, そうさLOVE & PEACE
If our small wishes were piled together,
Oh yeah become one, yeah, that’s LOVE & PEACE