When a pop singer who has long faded from the limelight suddenly starts appearing in your Twitter timeline in the form of glowing, nostalgic re-evaluations, they’re either gearing up for a comeback . . . or dead.
In the case of 28-year-old singer Aya Matsuura, the reason for the brief flurry of critical reappraisal was the happy news that she is about to give birth to her first child. Still it got me thinking about the trail she blazed through the J-pop scene as a teenager, what it shows about how pop has changed and what made her such an intriguing star to begin with.
Despite rising to prominence on the crest of the early-2000s idol revival as part of Morning Musume’s Hello Project network, Matsuura occupies a space in the public consciousness that’s somewhat removed from the core of what people think of as “idols.” For one thing, she can sing, having carved out a post-idol career of sorts as a jazz singer. This is an important part of her appeal, contrasting to the consciously amateurish style of many contemporary idols.
AKB48 producer Yasushi Akimoto has himself observed in interviews that the kinds of stars he produces are not necessarily the most talented singers, but he is also clear that this is not what either he or the fans consider to be the most important thing. This is perhaps the one area where Akimoto and I agree, but where for Akimoto the unpolished nature of the girls he works with is key to what makes them accessible and “real,” I would argue that pop music is inherently manufactured, and that the key to its appeal is to embrace this rather than deny it.
Matsuura is a decent singer, but that’s not what made her so much fun. A big part of her appeal was how she seemed to celebrate the inherent weirdness of her position.
While the standard model for an idol singer these days is as part of a group, Matsuura was a solo star in the classic model of 1980s idols such as Kyoko Koizumi and Seiko Matsuda. She took it further than that though, with her videos presenting a hyper-intensified focus on her as an individual. Look through early videos and she’s literally the only person who appears in any of them, to the extent that there are often multiple versions of her interacting with each other.
The video for “Tropical Koishiteru” sees her playing tennis against herself, with another Matsuura serving as umpire, a fourth as ball girl and a fifth watching at home on TV. Meanwhile, “100kai no Kiss” features a love-struck Matsuura constantly undermined in her attempts to contact a boy by an evil alter-ego with the power to freeze time. A constant theme in her imagery was the way her identity was mutable, cut into fragments and set in opposition to itself.
Over the past few years there has been a trend toward more self-awareness in the presentation of idol groups and that is part of the draw for fans, suggesting that beneath the contrived pop frills, there’s a real, thinking, feeling human.
Where Matsuura differed, though, is in how her stage persona embraced the artifice of pop stardom even more completely. She was a consummate professional, who performed with such polish that she might have been a cyborg. She had no need to show us the chinks in her armor: She was a star in all the extraterrestrial machine glory of that alien species.
It was the song “Ne~e!” (produced by Yasuharu Konishi of Pizzicato Five fame) that perhaps defined her best. On one level, the song was simply about a girl fretting over what outfit (“sexy or cute”) would best please her beau, but Matsuura’s dilemma was really directed toward her fans. By implicitly asking them which version of her they prefer, she reduced herself to no more than a doll. To emphasize the point, a miniature, clockwork Matsuura danced on a table in the song’s music video, poked and prodded by her life-sized self.
What makes this fascinating is how, thus reduced, she explicitly separates herself and her persona, giving her fans all of the latter but denying them access to the former. In a contemporary pop cultural environment, both in Japan and the West, where intimate access to stars and the image of emotional authenticity are so strongly emphasized, Matsuura’s remoteness feels refreshingly old-fashioned.
There are many routes to pop appeal, none inherently more or less valid than any of the others, but in Aya Matsuura’s case at least, her willingness to inhabit the role of a pop star so completely, without taunting us with the specter of reality, has a curious sort of dignity to it.