The Continuing Evolution of Hello! Project

This isn’t really the “departure” I was hoping for. – BGM for modernica
Tsunku is doing something right?!? – J. Popping

As I wrote in the earlier Noteworthy post, there’s been a slew of especially impressive posts lately about Hello! Project. In the past day alone, there’ve been a couple of unconnected posts that, read together, provide an interesting take on how H!P is evolving through trends that threatened to leave them behind. What’s especially interesting is that neither of these articles are about Morning Musume, but the other groups in the idol collective.

First up is from BGM for modernica, where blogger Cait has a fascinating take on Buono!’s new album partenza. Idol fans may not like her attitude – towards idol music in general (she’s condescendingly dismissive of it) or to the slightly pedantic writing style on display here. Myself, I find the style quite adorable – it reminds me of the students I used to teach when I was in grad school, that time when young adults believe they already had the world all figured out and were unafraid to let everyone know that. “I’m speaking as someone who’s been there” was a phrase that made me laugh out loud for some reason – so urgent, so dramatically fraught! It could be the start of a Dag Nasty song.

Such insouciance often makes old people like me shake their heads and smirk – most all of us went through that same phase, after all. But even more important is that such youthful boldness allows for ideas to be expressed that have a certain eloquent flair (in the right hands) and a willingness to speak truths others would rather ignore. Case in point, the dismissive attitude towards idol music. Which doesn’t offend me, either, since music has often been the least interesting aspect of the idol industry for me. Calling idol music out for being bland is like calling out gonzo porn for poor lighting.

But indeed, Buono! is called to task by Cait for the creative decisions and stylistic mis-steps that inform the album, still working their rock-girl tropes on the one hand while also trying to cater to the growing popularity of Kpop artists and their more mature sensibilities. The sarcasm fairly drips at times, but it’s informed by a sharp critical perspective that both takes into account the realities of being an idol and wishes for something better nevertheless.

BGM for mdernica is apparently a follow-up from a previous blog, launched last month and updating sporadically. I’d love to see more frequent posts, but am certainly willing to sacrifice quantity for quality in this case. I doubt she’ll be covering H!P or idols much, but I’m sure whatever she chooses to cover will be of great interest.

Next up is Sophie from J. Popping, where Sophie uses Selective Hearing’s take on revolving door groups to figure out the chancea of two rather stable H!P units, Berryz Koubou and C-ute. Sophie claims to approach the idea of a fixed-membership idol group in terms of biological theories, though there are times when she does so and it feels a whole lot more like simple economics to me. (Maybe they work on the same principles? Certainly there’s a Darwinist streak in each worth comparing.)

It’s worth reading closely, attentively, because Sophie describes two developments- the cyclical rise of idols and the current hallyu craze – as both working towards Berryz and C-ute’s futures in the long run. Does it guarantee huge successes? Not even close. But there’s a chance for longevity that I certainly hadn’t considered, and it’s argued in a way that makes me think there’s more of a fighting chance than I’ve been assuming all along.

Sophie writes with a harder edge than Cait – she’s clearly a fan of idols and idol music, but seems more intent on making sense of the general landscape of the Jpop world and where her favorites fit into that matrix. The writing is clearer, less baroque, but just as enjoyable and engaging.

What emerges from these posts – besides some stellar writing and thought-provoking opinions – is Hello! Project coping with a major crossroads in the Japanese idol industry. AKB48 may be racking up the biggest sales at the moment, but they’re essentially playing by the same rules and expectations as Hello! Project had through the years. (Maybe because H!P was playing from the rulebooks of AKB’s predecessor, Onyanko Club.) The hallyu aren’t signalling for more of the same, but rather a shift that could leave H!P idols flailing (as Cait argues for Buono!) or work in their favor in the long run (as Sophie argues for Berryz and C-ute).

And then there is the cyclical nature of idols as a cultural trend. One way to look at the situation is this: Hello! Project was once setting the trends for others to follow – dream made a radical change to be more like Morning Musume after Mai left, and Momusu had been the model for many other idol groups in the first years of the new millennium. Then AKB hit it big and made large rosters and constant bikini action the new conventional wisdom for idol success. This ties into the anticipated collapse Sophie predicts, as well as the random trend-hopping that Cait mentions about current H!P acts. And looked at that way, it almost seems like a force of nature, a conceptual inevitability. Seeing it in that light may provide comfort for some fans, or fatalistic dedication in others.

These are big picture ideas, writ large and quite stylishly by two very talented bloggers. Whether or not you agree with either of them, I’d say it’s worth your while to give both a careful read and appreciate what these perspectives offer to the wotasphere. Because as H!P faces the challenges Cait and Sophie describe, we’ll be looking back on these posts – and others like it – to try to make sense of the eventual outcomes.