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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.