Idols vs Artists?

One of the hardest things I have to explain to people who’ve never heard about idols is the difference between an idol and an artist, or rather what separates idols as its own genre. One thing I’ve realized (and I’m sure many others have as well) is that it’s a really tough thing to define for the uninitiated. So I’m going to try to break it down and hopefully figure it out, first starting with what I think doesn’t define it.

A genre of music

Idols do have a stereotypical form of music, sure, and there’s definitely something to this. However, with the advent of groups like Babymetal, Rhymeberry, Passpo, BiS and Alice No. 10, idols are able to do metal, rap, rock, and almost any genre imaginable. So while there may be something that’s “stereotypical idol,” the cutesy upbeat fast-paced music, it’s not necessarily what defines idoldom.

Someone who doesn’t write their own music

This is a big part of being an idol, I think; I am having a hard time of thinking of idols that contribute to the writing of the music other than occasionally helping with lyrics. However, this isn’t something exclusive to idols; for example, I would have a hard time classifying modern day Hamasaki Ayumi as being what we think of as an idol, but she (for the most part) doesn’t contribute to her music. Similarly, while I enjoy Perfume and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, neither really contributes to the music and neither are really classified as idols.

A pure/virginal young female performer

The dating rule definitely springs to mind; however, what do we think of AV/gravure group Ebisu Muscats? I realize they’re almost an exception to the rule, with many AV members, but they’re still a reasonably popular idol group. Similarly, SDN48 (while not AV) had no qualms with being sexy/adult, as are other idol groups. While the dating rule is still in place, its existence is not necessary to be an idol.

An unskilled music performer

While skill in performance is not necessarily a requirement for idols (Indeed, more often than not idols are unskilled) there are really skilled performers among idols. While I think that Matsuura Aya eventually transitioned into being an artist rather than an idol, she was an incredible singer. There are other very talented female idols; Iwasa Misaki, for example, has been doing very well for herself with enka, and other AKB girls are very strong singers.

A part of an idol group/collective/company

While idol groups definitely are more popular than solo singers nowadays, this isn’t necessarily the case. For example, Kikkawa Yuu is no longer under Hello!Project and is a soloist, and is definitely an idol. Aso Natsuko is also the same; she was never in an idol group, but is definitely an idol.

After doing this thinking and making a small list, I’ve come up with two main criteria:

1. The idol doesn’t concentrate on one area of of herself to present. Basically, music artists focus a lot more on music than any other aspect of performing (dancing, variety, acting, etc.); an artist may dabble, but they are firmly focusing on one thing. Idols are supposed to be a jack-of-all-trades, specializing in personality if anything.

2. An idol defines herself as such, and is defined as such by others. For example, as I said before, Perfume and Kyary Pamyu Payu aren’t idols almost simply because they aren’t, though Perfume was once an idol group. Likewise, Morning Musume started off mainly as a vocal group, with producers telling the girls they weren’t idols; however, at some point that was out the window and they were flat out idols.

What do you think? Does anyone have a tried and true method of identifying an idol?

2 thoughts on “Idols vs Artists?

  1. This is a good post. There are a lot of people who seem to think an idol is the same as an artist. I remember when I started getting an interest into the popular culture and I actually had never heard of the word “idol.”

    And like you said, an idol does not focus on one area to present themselves. They must project their image, performance and variety skills to the audience.

  2. I don’t know if there is a “true” method to identify an idol, but given how poorly this Wikipedia article handles the contemporary idols, I guess it’s quite a challenge.

    I think the difficulty to categorize the modern idol industry stems from it being quite an avant-gardist art and business form in its native music market. Its true, they rely heavily on the same chords and sound samples, but their fan bonding activities are remarkable, which go beyond of singing on a stage and chatter a bit with the audience. But the clear outlines that we take for granted when defining an idol, get suddenly blurred (and right heavily so) if we take a closer look at them.

    As you sad, the music genre is not a clear identifier (anymore). In my mind comes the productions of UFP (former UFA or Hello!Project if you like :P) which cover a great variety of music styles. I would even say that the music genre and sound is a minor aspect.

    Your small list is a good start, but I would change the order and I even disagree with some aspects of your second point. So here is my attempt of a definition:

    1.1 Idols get selected to be one by a third party (usually an idol production company), which sets the rules for the specific idol-hood and enforces them.
    1.2 Idols have not the authority to define what an idol is.
    1.3 Idols are in a depended relationship with the party that selected them.

    My first three rules doesn’t help people, who never heard of idols, to identify one. But it draws a first line between an idol and an artist. An artist can analyze his art, the rules it comes accompanied with and his role in it. Furthermore an artist can re-define them by himself and so creating something new out of his own.

    Idols don’t have this freedom: They are selected in a casting (be it a public or behind closed doors) and are given a set of rules which they have to follow. Trying to re-define those rules or even breaking them endangers their relationship with their company and therefore their status as an idol.

    It follows that there can’t be self-proclaimed/-defined idols, as they would (according to my list) be automatically considered artists.

    2.1 Without a public there is no idol.
    2.2 The public image of an idol doesn’t need to be in tune with their real personality, nor is it expected.
    2.3 When in public, idols has to follow the rules imposed to them.

    Idols are imaginary beings which only exist, as long as someone is watching them AND accepts them as such.

    On the other hand this means that idols can have a private life, which is completely detached from their public image. Of course this private freedom ends where it crosses the line of the general accepted social behavior.

    But it means also that they can even impersonate fantasy figures (although bound to the laws of physic of our universe 😉 without creating any contradiction with their “real” person. As soon as they straighten their hair, put their make-up and costumes on AND step onto the stage, in front of the camera or interact with fans, they start playing a role, the idol.

    This point is important, as artist like to stress how personal their works are, how much they are putting of themselves into they art/”art”, and by buying the latest CD or visiting a concert you can get nearer to that person, so they say…

    Of course, in the world where almost everyone has a cell phone, and virtually all of them come equipped with a megapixel camera, any idol is prone to be dragged into “public”, where idol rules and expectation are again applied to her. (Paparazzi are probably only a problem for high profile idols.) And many of them have their own blogs, which despite being reviewed before each post, open up another flank in their more or less orchestrated public image.

    What does it mean for the future? I don’t know. Maybe the line between artist and idol gets more blurred at this point, or the schizophrenic attempts to maintain the illusion of an idol increase. We’ll see. Lets continue.

    3.1 Idols are a work in progress.
    3.2 Idols are encouraged and expected to explore their talents beyond their core one’s, as long as it is in tune with the rules defined by their company.
    3.3 Idols have to excel in their communication skills.

    The first one helps to distinguish them from their Korean counterparts, who come near finished out of the pop music factory. It is even more true for groups with a rolling membership.

    Part of the fun of idols is watching them grow, not (only) in a literary sense, but more in watching them maturing their skills while gaining new ones and getting better in them, too. Idol fandom is like watching an RPG in real life.

    Above all, idols must be able to communicate. It helps bonding with their audience and, most of all, selling their products to them.

    4.1 An idol and her production company are characterized by a close(r than your average music performer) and formal[istic] relationship to their (local) fans.
    4.2 They rely on more than just selling funny, shiny plastic discs (aka CDs) and concert tickets as a mean of income.

    A calendar full of fan club events, wota-chants and wota-dances are a clear sign that you are dealing with an idol.

    Even more so, if you find at the concert entrance (or even dedicated shops) a vast array of goods to purchase, which go beyond a simple photo card, poster or the printed fan. Most idol groups have a vast range of product for each tour or single, special events. Sold at a price point several times above their purchasing costs they make even small idol endeavors sustainable, if not profitable.

    Limited CDs with special goodies or invitations, handshake events and photo sessions with your preferred idol are the next step, securing even higher profit gains.

    It’s the same way that many self-publishing musicians/artists are going today. Rather than selling their recorded music, which can be easily copied, they sell goods or experiences that can’t be copied. The records itself act more as an advertise, mitigating or even reversing the effects of piracy.

    Strangely Japanese production companies took a long time to embrace the offered communication channels by the internet. Probably alarmed by the (international) success of KPop and the conclusion that if you can’t beat the “enemy” (rogue uploaders) you have to join them, they finally started to see its value. Still, they lack the efficient and professional handling of the internet as an communication, advertizing and monetizing tool. I bet, the next recession in Japan will make some of them rethink their attitude.

    As you may have noticed, until now I ignored the appearance of an idol as a criteria. My reason for this is, that it is prone to changes over the time, also depended on the subculture they are aimed at and the zeitgeist in overall. S/Mileage, with their extra-short miniskirts, would have been in the 80s probably seen as unfit to represent idols. Yet today, they indeed are. (Although I still don’t understand the concept behind it and confused at what audience they are aimed at…)

    Nonetheless here is a try:
    – They tend to be young, slender, fresh looking and clean
    (In times of a growing zombie fandom the last point is indeed worth to point out. Though I’m expecting at any time the first zombie idol group.)
    – They wear stylized uniforms which are highlighted by vibrant colors/ornaments.
    – Smaller groups tend to have a color code for each member.

    So lets do a quick with your examples if my classification for Idol vs. Artist works.

    Hamasaki Ayumi: Easy one; she is definitely not bound to any idol rules of a production company, nor depended from it and can choose the path she likes for the next project (pop, techno, film). No idol.

    Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: Started on her own and created her own, public image. So definitely an artist.

    Perfume: Sing(?) and dance what they are told to, do work in and explore areas beyond their core ones and would be lost without their production company. Just because they got acknowledged by Hollywood, it doesn’t mean they “escaped” the idol realm. Don’t know how “strict” rule 4.1 and 4.2 are followed, so I’m unsure

    Kikkawa Yuu: Definitely Idol. Didn’t fit under the H!P umbrella because there wasn’t enough room for another soloist. Probably also guinea pig for new advertising, production and distributions methods within UFA/P.

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