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The hammer and scalpel are what’s needed to subvert idol-pop culture

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

One new act who has been creating a buzz in music-industry circles this year is quirky singer-songwriter Seiko Oomori.

The music video for her song “Midnight Seijun Isei Koyu” (“Midnight’s Pure Relationship Between the Sexes”) depicted a possibly murderous tale of lesbian obsession. Her new single, “Kyuru Kyuru,” sees the singer shrieking and meowing in a candy-colored lingerie store on the back of a truck driving around Tokyo. On the face of it, Oomori seems to represent idol music through the looking glass.

She is very good at what she does, but let’s make clear what she isn’t: She isn’t any sort of brave, radical subversion of idol culture. She may dress in fluffy clothes and play at the Tokyo Idol Festival every year, but she isn’t really part of any idol pop tradition.

Oomori’s musical core is in the singer-songwriter tradition of Shiina Ringo and Jun Togawa. Strip away the hi-NRG beats, synths and hyperactive classical music loop from “Kyuru Kyuru” and the vocal melody you’re left with has the distinctive cider tang of Ringo.

However, where Ringo had her rock education in the 1990s Fukuoka underground and against the self-consciously grownup backdrop of J-pop, Oomori grew up musically in the quirky, culturally acquisitive Koenji underground of post-millenial Tokyo — a period when idol music occupied an overwhelming hegemony in pop culture.

The underground and the mainstream may rarely meet, but they nevertheless exert an influence over each other. Oomori has always been surrounded by idol culture and while she isn’t part of it, she has, from her starting point of shrieking away behind an acoustic guitar, gradually adopted a lot of its superficial trappings: the costumes, the dance routines, the perky synth arrangements and the annoying pachinko beats.

In this sense, Oomori has more in common with Togawa, whose work in the ’80s came during the first golden age of idol music and which used idol’s deformed feminine grotesqueries to deconstruct and subvert cultural attitudes toward women. In Oomori’s case, however, the purpose doesn’t seem to be to subvert so much as to appropriate. She dresses like an idol as a symbol of recognition for her fans, like an observational comedian who notices something about your life in order for you to laugh: “It’s funny cause it’s true!”

Sure, she acts a bit loopy. But against the backdrop of an otaku-led idol world that eagerly objectifies oddball females as yandere (prone to violent romanticism) or some other such archetype, she can still be easily accommodated as a sort of new indie-ish subset of the broader idolsphere. In that sense, the appropriation works both ways, with Oomori symbolic of the way indie and idol culture have — if not exactly gone to bed together — made out with each other in the back of a movie theater.

Every once in a while something crops up in or adjacent to the idol scene that hints at subversion, from the cabaret pop of Urban Garde to the “anti-idol” schtick of BiS, but at the end of it all, idol culture itself remains unchanged. Idol culture has proven itself willing to accommodate pretty much any overt message or imagery, as long as it adheres to the form’s broad consumerist agenda and has girls in it.

So if an artist really did want to subvert idol music in some way, the challenge would be to impose a new set of meanings on something that so easily slips free of and then absorbs meaning. There are two weapons for this: the hammer and the scalpel.

The hammer is punk rock. Punk is a blunt weapon, and its power comes from its refusal to accept ambiguities, gradations of degree or any sort of mature reason. Punk rock has been neutered in the mainstream media as a sort of happy, non-ideological expression of youthful nostalgia, but at its heart, punk is angry, aggressive and utterly opposed to the social and cultural order. To subvert idol culture using punk’s hammer, a singer would be constantly spitting hatred at her contemporaries, her record covers would feature, let’s say, pictures of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s severed head covered in swastikas — not violent imagery as theater, but as a sincere attack on identifiable enemies. Even then she would be vulnerable to the problems of becoming an object sold to satisfy just one of many fandoms, something to fill the gap left by BiS.

The scalpel is satire. Satire is difficult, and to satirize idol culture from within would require a level of intellectual rigor for which three-minute pop songs are not ideal vehicles. A satire would have to clinically peel back the artifice and meticulously take apart the edifice that supports the culture. Again, however, in a culture where the cogs and levers are often placed on open display and fans are even invited to participate in the process, this would be hard to do.

With this in mind, it’s understandable why singers such as Oomori choose to use — instead of subvert — idol’s commercial monolith, because what both approaches would have to do to succeed would be to confront the fans themselves. To subvert what is essentially a structure of raw consumerism, an artist would have to make fans deeply uncomfortable and force them to question their own role as consumers. And that’s what makes the appearance of any true subversive so unlikely: No one could claim herself worthy of the label unless she was actively engaged in sabotaging the commercial basis of her own existence.

  • toak

    I think yearning for punk rock’s glory days or even using “punk” as an adjective to describe the one true musical rebellion’s path is a narrow, male white way of looking at music and politics, a failure to recognise the many other forms and shapes subversiveness has taken and takes in music. And I think BiS did actively satirize idol culture – whether the satire was good or bad is up to everyone to decide individually – but look for example at ‘Nerve’ and how footage of, for example, a member with her boyfriend was paraded about, after (in real life) a source threatening to publicize photos shortly before in the proud tradition of maintaining idol’s sexist “pure” image. Then there was the Mura Mura where they capture and torture the horny fan, turning the stalker perspective around, with all members dressed up as the shaved AKB member Minami Minegishi. Again, if it’s effective satire or not is subjective, though ulike Oomori BiS were ‘real’ idols on a major label and so stuff like that does hit a bit harder. Perhaps their most subversive act was quitting while on a commercial peak, because the project was done.

    I do agree with you though, about missing the more specific political, and I think with these various “anti-idol” stunts tried and tested, the only way to really provoke now would be to, say, have an idol group go full anti-Abe. Now that would be a positive contribution to society.

    • Ian Martin

      Right. By splitting up when they did, they rejected their own existence as a commercial entity. I completely agree on that.

      I think a lot of the stuff they did was interesting and I think they went part of the way towards doing what I talk about here, but AKB48 isn’t the be-all and end-all of idol culture and taking pot shots at them, while an honourable pursuit, is kind of low hanging fruit (I know, mea culpa and all that). I admire them, but what they illustrate mostly is just how difficult it is to do this kind of thing without it all just getting absorbed and appropriated by the otakublob.

      (By the way, what word would you use instead of “punk”? My background is in the punk scene so it’s a natural word for me to use. It’s certainly not one I’ve ever thought of as being exclusively male — its historical role at least was quite the contrary. I’m pretty sure a lot of Japanese punks would take issue with the notion of it as a “white” genre too, although I get your point there.)

  • Richard Horner

    In 君と映画 (the preceding video) I got the impression the boyfriend was just locked out on the balcony,though the girl does write シネ on the glass.He’s just asleep outside when Midnight begins.Thanks for bringing 大森 to my attention.I get the Ringo/Togawa lineage but I feel it’s stretching.It is nice to see something a bit left-field that could get big in the AKB age.