The British are mad, aren’t they? That Kate Bush with her crazy gyrating around a cello in the video for “Babushka,” that daft loon Robbie Williams with his funky skeleton costume, those kerrr-azy Tellytubbies with their wacky dance routines — what is it about the British that makes them so totally off-the-wall bonkers?
Not the kind of report you see very often, and one that would probably seem a bit lazy, under-researched and perhaps just a touch racist, but replace the word “British” with “Japanese” and replace Kate, Robbie, Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Lala and Po with the likes of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and current BuzzFeed favorites Babymetal, and . . . well, you know, the Japanese are mad, aren’t they: What more is there to say?
When something seems mad, it may very well be the result of a unique and oddball talent like Bush, but when it seems to be happening institutionally and across the board, it’s more often a rational response to irrational circumstances. To a large degree that’s what’s happening in the idol scene in Japan’s dysfunctional pop industry.
In the 1970s, when mainstream Japanese pop was good, an abundance of ideas (albeit heavily mediated) from songwriters versed in a wide range of musical styles flowed into the mainstream. Those ideas came from the worlds of jazz, classical, psychedelia, folk and the avant-garde. Musicians grounded in these diverse scenes could thus work their voices into the mainstream, whether it was through their own work, as with stars such as Yumi Arai (now Matsutoya), or through writing for others, as with songwriters such as Koichi Morita and Yusuke Hoguchi or lyricist Yu Aku.
It was always a handy advantage for the singers who fronted pop acts to be young, pretty and female, but they still had to win auditions and perform live — talent was of equal or greater importance than looks.
In the ’80s, appearance and marketing really started to take over. Stars were produced and promoted through cross-media marketing, in particular through commercial appearances. Music and talent became secondary. The term to describe this new kind of star was “CM (commercial) idol.”
In the ’90s, J-pop initially acted as a backlash against the CM-idol system, putting more focus on bands and singers with a mature, modern image. However, when album sales started to show a decline in the late ’90s, access to the majors gradually closed to new players. The big labels took fewer chances on new bands, money for songwriters and producers atrophied and marketing reasserted its grasp.
Uber-producer Tetsuya Komuro used to sell as much with his own band, Globe, as his superstar producees (Namie Amuro, Ami Suzuki) did. His modern-day equivalent, Yasutaka Nakata and his group Capsule, barely sells a fraction of what he can get by producing commercially managed, image-oriented acts such as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Perfume.
With these circumstances in mind, the revival of idol pop, first with Morning Musume and then in a big way with AKB48, can in some ways be seen as a subversive element, because it’s the only corner of the mainstream pop industry that offers anything like a meritocracy.
For all its horrors and the undoubted misogyny that underscores everything it does, it’s important to note the effort AKB48 puts into maintaining the illusion of intimacy and contact between its fans and members, even if it’s heavily monetized at every step: There’s the small theater in Akihabara, the handshake greeting events, the localization of its sister groups and the regular “elections” that decide the most popular performer in the group.
Musically, AKB48 is stuck in the homogeneous blob of the mainstream, with the worst kind of bland, crassly produced, thin-sounding, supermarket-ready pop. Elsewhere in the idol scene, though, groups are able to tailor their music to speak to specific audiences and subcultures who have been left out by a mainstream that increasingly avoids saying anything specific to anyone for fear of alienating others (and as a result gradually alienates everyone). To do this, idol music has been far more willing to provide songwriters from the underground music scene with a path to professional participation in the music business.
This is where Babymetal comes in. Many of the trio’s songs are the work of Nobuki Narasaki (usually known by just his surname), the frontman of post-hardcore/shoegaze/metal/screamo band Coaltar of the Deepers — a band with a deep well of underground cred.
Narasaki has past form here, having written songs for idol superstars Momoiro Clover Z along with avant-pop musician and composer Kenichi “Hyadain” Maeyamada. Meanwhile, songwriters such as Etsuko Yakushimaru of new wave band Soutaisei Riron, Yasuharu Konishi of Pizzicato 5 and Nobuya Usui of technopop performance troupe (M) otocompo have also been able to get their music out via various idol groups. Even Yoshiyuki “Jojo” Hiroshige of noise legends Hijokaidan has made a mark on the scene, producing a collaboration album with self-described “anti-idols” BiS.
What has happened is that by adopting the simplistic but effective marketing model of cute face + whatever = ¥¥¥, the idol scene has opened up a new route for alternative musical ideas to enter the fringes of the mainstream. And by catering to subcultural fan groups, they have, aided by the growth of the Internet, given voice to aspects of culture that the core mainstream’s drive for homogeneity has ignored — building strong, die-hard fanbases in the process.
The idol scene has now grown to such a level that it’s starting to show cracks and is splitting off into different directions. Parts of the indie scene have cottoned onto this and you can see the focus-on-the-girls model of promotion that has always been indie music’s shameful secret moving more out into the open as stores such as Tower Records increasingly start to push musically unrelated acts together as “girls bands,” and subculture events increasingly adopt idol-like presentation and marketing. The rabid misogyny of otaku-focused acts such as AKB48 sits poorly with the more egalitarian indie and subculture fans who have lately colonized the idol world, and they tend to prefer the less overtly sexualized and more musically out-there groups such as Momoiro Clover Z, Dempagumi.inc and now Babymetal.
Increasingly as well, the gullibility of the Western media in its unquestioning acceptance and regurgitation of any “wacky/weird Japan” story has surely occurred to the people behind these newer groups. The long-tail overseas success of not-quite-idol Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has been followed by increasing nudges toward overseas markets, with Dempagumi.inc and Babymetal explicitly presenting themselves in a sort of “From idol . . . to the world!” sort of manner. “What’s going on in Japan?” Babymetal asked in its video, “My First Heavy Metal in Tokyo 2012,” and the act’s career thus far has been in part a carefully crafted answer to that question, made in full awareness of an overseas audience looking in.
While the wackiness of idol acts such as Babymetal is obvious for all to see, it’s also the work of people who know exactly what they are doing, trying to craft fun out of a specific set of economic, creative and marketing circumstances. In that sense, is it really any more absurd than the theatrics that Western metal acts such as Dragonforce and Manowar have been delighting and dismaying fans with for decades?