Fans of Arashi still haven’t come to terms with the news that the J-pop group will go on a hiatus at the end of 2020, bringing a close, at least temporarily, to one of the 21st century’s most popular Japanese acts.
While supporters might not want to think about life without Arashi — and with nearly two years of tributes likely planned before the break, they won’t have to for a while — this does offer a good chance to contemplate where male pop projects move next. Especially as it signals a potential paradigm shift for J-pop.
The status quo might prevail and Johnny & Associates, the talent agency behind Arashi and 1990s-defining project SMAP, could hold its grip on the industry. If that happens, the concept of a male pop group will remain grounded in familiar visual and musical ideas, and Johnny’s latest marquee act, King & Prince, will probably take the spotlight. While the members of that six-piece unit are younger and geared toward a new generation of fans, they display all the hallmarks of a Johnny’s success — right down to shunning the internet.
The Japanese music industry is changing, though, and many are realizing that avoiding YouTube and other online platforms the way Arashi did its whole career will not be feasible. J-pop acts are already becoming more digital, from the Exile-related packs of young men from LDH to Johnny’s younger stable of performers.
The latter might offer the most clues as to where boy bands could go. Music plays a prominent role in “junior” teams such as SixTones, to the point they upload full videos onto YouTube. But the bulk of their visual output looks like what any YouTuber would post: They eat excess amounts of oden, hang out on the beach and so on. It’s honestly not much different than Arashi appearing on variety shows, an extension of the “talent” aspect of J-pop. The next huge boy bands will embrace the internet and, given the way the web can allow you to circumvent traditional routes to stardom, don’t be shocked if they end up being independent creators rather than kids tied to an agency.
Last, don’t rule out the idea that the next big thing in male idols is diversity. More groups are starting to pop up that feature members from a wide range of backgrounds, highlighted by Avex’s new project, Intersection. That quartet features members fluent in Japanese and English, and with origins far more geographically spread out than the usual Johnny’s creation. Coupled with music more in line with Western trends, the group hints at a potential future in which Japanese male idols actually aim for global attention rather than play it safe at home.
Whatever form the J-pop boy groups of tomorrow take, you can bank on the whole concept still existing well after Arashi goes on its break. Teens are always going to need someone to crush on.