The other day I was looking around for a video to watch on YouTube when I saw that one of my favorite channels, This Exists, made a video about idol culture, specifically the anti-idol / underground idol scene. As a long time viewer of that channel, which explores strange and interesting subcultures, this felt like a great mix – the channel has covered music genres before (the video about vaporwave helped me become a fan of the late great Especia) but the one thing I’ve always loved about This Exists is that it tends to keep an open mind. As someone who follows a lot of the foreign press about idol culture, you tend to see it all devolve into some of the same arguments and just fundamentally miss the point about a lot of things (The recent BBC-aired documentary, “Tokyo Girls,” about idol fans calling handshakes an inherently sexual act will go down in infamy among other idol fans).
Since I was so excited to see this pop up on my YouTube feed, I thought I would write a response here rather than in the YouTube comments, in case any of my blog readers are interested as well!
First off, I have to say I’m actually quite impressed with the research that Sam did in this video by citing Yamaguchi Momoe and Onyanko Club as progenitors – while there were other groups I’d consider to be idol groups (Pink Lady, Candies) they’re not really the same thing. Onyanko Club was really the originator of the “more is more” philosophy that so many idol groups have today. So many journalists tend to see idols as a new phenomenon or a new trend (we saw that even in “Tokyo Girls,” which showed idols as something new rather than a continuing trend). It’s clear that actual research and deep dives were done, which is a refreshing change from some of the journalism I’ve seen surrounding idol culture. Seeing an actual look at the more underground idol culture and flat out looking at more than the first hit for AKB48 on YouTube (which for years was either Baby Baby Baby or Heavy Rotation, before the YouTube Red thing).
All that being said, while his analysis is really great and explores idol culture in a way I’m surprised to see, I’m not sure things line up quite as neatly as they do in this video. Throughout the video he points to Momoiro Clover Z paving the way for anti-idol groups, and while I do think that Momoiro Clover Z’s influence has been a big one I’m not sure I’d agree it was as big as it was. Babymetal had its origins in 2010 as a subgroup of Sakura Gakuin, and BiS was formed in 2010 as well. This all coincides with the start of the idol boom, which I would argue started at the end of 2009 with AKB48’s River hitting #1 on the Oricon charts (but I feel like most people would agree was in full force by the end of 2010 after AKB48’s Heavy Rotation was released). So considering Momoiro Clover Z didn’t add the Z until the middle of 2011 and it took a while for their simultaneous rise in popularity and strangeness, I’d suggest that while they definitely influenced later groups and the popularity of later groups, that the influence is more on the end of the idol culture existing as more of a subculture and also the content creators themselves.
While pop music in American culture and a lot of cultures tends to be mostly popular culture, idol music has for quite some time existed with nerd culture – fans of idols are ‘otaku’ in the same way that anime/manga fans are ‘otaku’ (though most Western idol fans tend to prefer to refer to themselves as wota). While I’m not sure where this shift happened (it may very well have been with Onyanko Club), idol fans are often nerds – these are the people that have carried idol groups throughout the years when popularity wanes, and also the people that are fans of the smaller groups. Being able to aim music at a smaller demographic allows for more demographics to pop up within idol groups, and also offers idols the opportunity to exist on an underground music level. Idol music is in many ways subculture more than it is mainstream, though it certainly is mainstream. This also allows for collaborations between other more underground groups – Babymetal’s collaboration with Kiba of Akiba works because of their connection to Akihabara, nerd culture. It also allows for Miri of hip hop idol group Rhymeberry to go freestyle at hip hop events and gain some experience that way.
The other thing that I think is so weird and interesting about idol culture and frankly has kept my interest in this for so many years at this point is just how the dedicated fanbases can prop up some of the weirder stuff. Music does matter, but there are so many other reasons to buy a single. Physical sales still matter a lot in Japan, and to bolster these singles often include other items, often a ticket to an event of some kind or a photo. Fans are highly incentivized to buy a copy (or multiple copies) of every single, which allows groups to get a bit more creative. Morning Musume, for example, put out Mr. Moonlight ~ Ai no Big Band~, a big band-inspired track inspired by the all-female Takarazuka theater troupe, and they could do that because they knew the hardcore fans would buy their single. While this has allowed for some laziness in some groups, it also allows for inventiveness in others. At the height of its popularity Morning Musume changed musical styles almost single by single, and they knew they’d keep their fans.
I’d also emphasize the songwriters as being a big part of how idol music has hit creative gold, musically. My favorite idol songwriter, Maeyamada Kenichi, got his start remixing video game and anime songs online but then was recruited to write music for groups like AKB48 until he wrote Momoiro Clover Z’s most popular song and became a well known name. Narasaki, another songwriter for Momoiro Clover Z and Babymetal, started out with a band Coaltar of the Deepers. The people writing music for idol groups today got their start writing music for other subcultures and moved over to idol things. And these names are well known among the hardcore idol fans – I’ve seen groups like LinQ advertise when they have Maeyamada write them a song, because he’s well-known among idol fans. Morning Musume’s longterm music producer, Tsunku (who recently has taken on a much smaller role due to cancer) is also well known, though a big part of that was that he has been a public figure (and Morning Musume was formed out of the runners up to an audition to find a vocalist for his band, Sharan Q). Someone I frequently see pop up is former Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman, who provides guitar riffs for idol songs and has had decent popularity in Japan. There’s a lot of people with varying experience writing all these songs.
I’d also say that like with everything else the ease of production of music allows for more opportunity for creators to make their mark. While they’ve moved to another agency, the group Osaka Shunkashuto originally had one person who was their manager, the staff, the songwriter, doing literally everything for the group, and they found an audience. Magical Ban Bang is another group that manages and formed themselves – they all met doing dance covers online and decided to form a group together. This also happened with Ayumikurikamaki, and there are several other groups that formed because of one producer or the group themselves deciding to do it. Due to the increased ease of production and the ease of marketing using YouTube, Twitter and other platforms like Showroom, groups no longer need to appear on TV to promote themselves. Culture in general is becoming a lot more niche and idol msuic is no exception.
Another thing is that while the idol world in general has strict rules, they’ve been eroding on heir own for quite some time – it’s all a public front that most people would acknowledge as a front. For example, one of the most popular and well known members of Morning Musume, Abe Natsumi, was caught spending the night at an actor’s home at the group’s peak in 2000, but she played it off as being there “playing Playstation” and nothing came of it. The most popular member of any of the AKB48 groups (currently in HKT48) Sashihara Rino was potentially helped in her rise to popularity by a dating scandal, where an ex-boyfriend sent pictures of her to a tabloid. While her move to HKT48 could possibly be considered a demotion, it allowed her to gain a lot more popularity and get a lot more attention than she would have in AKB48. Other members of AKB48 and other idol groups have been “caught” doing something that would previously gotten them kicked out, and most of the time they get a slap on the wrist, if even – it’s often ignored. Some idols have even laughed it off. It’s still a public rule but more than anything it’s become “don’t get caught.” This is just a long tangent to say that while the whole idol aesthetic is a squeaky-clean one, it’s very clearly a facade that most people can see through.
Popular groups are also starting to become more ambitious, musically. While AKB48’s music has gotten stagnant, one of their “official rivals,” produced by AKB’s producer Akimoto Yasushi, has reached mainstream success with singles like Silent Majority and Fukyouwaon being essentially protest songs. Momoiro Clover Z’s sister group, Shiritsu Ebisu Chuugaku, released an album called “Anarchy.” Granted, all of this is under the same model of idol-ness and is still highly controlled by their various agencies and publishers, so it’s incredibly manufactured, but what sells is shifting in an interesting way. Momoiro Clover Z sells out the biggest arenas and just last year released two concept albums essentially about life and death with Amaranthus and Hakkin no Yoake. While Momoiro Clover Z has done a whole lot, popular tastes are shifting. While Nogizaka46, another official rival, initially started out having more traditionally cutesy idol songs, they’ve shifted their style to be more contemporary.
Idol culture is endlessly fascinating, and while I do have my quibbles with the This Exists video they’re small ones at best, and not the giant ones I usually have when someone covers idol culture elsewhere. It leads me to wonder if there’s any easier way for those of us who have experience with idol music and culture to get our thoughts ought there or at least collectively make a primer to share with the next Babymetal or with the next Ladybaby, whenever that may be. I try to do that with Happy Disco but I know I don’t have a very wide reach. This Exists does a lot of great deep dives into things with research, but the next time the Wall Street Journal decides to do an article or a video on this I’d prefer it to not just end up with “it’s Japan and it’s weird!” Food for thought, I suppose!
And, to end this, I find it kind of hilarious that one of the first examples Sam gives in this video about more gimmicky groups is a Baseball-themed group, because of course Japan has a baseball-themed girl group and their song Diving Catch is one of the catchiest songs I’ve ever heard.