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Unraveling a fantasy: A beginner’s guide to Japanese idol pop

PrimerPrimer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginner’s guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you.

Despite often being considered a niche interest, J-Pop is about as sweeping and unhelpful a term as “rock ’n’ roll” is. It’s only J-Pop’s conflation with K-Pop in the Western world that has led many to believe that J-Pop in itself is some sub-genre phenomenon, when it simply refers to popular music in Japan. Real phenomena exist within J-Pop, and chief among them is the insane and adorable world of idol pop. Thought it’s technically a musical genre, something isn’t considered idol pop because of distinctions in sounds or rhythms. Rather, idol pop only only  becomes idol pop if industry impresarios declare it so and market it as such. The main inroad into idol pop is through talent agencies. They are the gatekeepers. Agencies like Up-Front Promotion hold auditions and scout young artists, quickly deciding whether or not the candidates are idol material. To be of “idol” caliber simply means potential stars must be willing to temporarily relinquish control of their own humanity and submit themselves to a culture that is as punishing as it is rewarding.

Thankfully, those who do end up taking the plunge into the immersive world of idol pop don’t have to hold their breath for long; their careers are often as short-lived and ephemeral as the blooming of a cherry blossom. This is in large part due to idol pop’s obsessive prioritization of youth. Being young is the central tenet of idol pop from which all of other key cultural characteristics of the genre flow. Some idols-in-training are as young as seven while most are under 20. Within being young, one must also be—or at least create the illusion of being—saccharine, chaste, demure, and sincere, so to not shatter the fantasyland in which all idol pop fans dwell. A little dose of kawaii, the Japanese quality of cuteness, also goes a long way. Idol pop stars are only considered a finished product when they are able to successfully suspend the outside realities of their fans, somehow establishing an emotional and profitable connection between themselves as packaged goods and the fans as consumers. It’s an order as tall as Tokyo’s skyscrapers, but when it’s filled, the results are fascinating and worth understanding, seeing as Japan is the world’s second largest music market and idol pop is its industry’s crown jewel.


The genesis of idol pop can be traced to the launch of the genre’s leading talent agency, Johnny & Associates, in 1963. Named after idol pop’s master crafter, Johnny Kitagawa, Johnny & Associates created the blueprint for idol construction and has been building idol pop boy bands for over 50 years. At Johnny & Associates, “Johnny juniors” (the name given to all young men brought into Kitagawa’s fold) train for more than five years before being strategically grouped with other juniors. Once in their groups, juniors then rehearse for an additional two years in order to further learn how to act like certified idols. When followed precisely, Kitagawa’s process allows his groups to be lionized not for what they are, which is impossible to control, but for what they appear to be, which can be easily manipulated: cute, innocent, and as untouchable and alluring to a young girl as an encased doll on a shelf.

Over a half-century later and in the face of multiple sexual harassment charges by former boy band members, Kitagawa’s influence has not waned. Rather, it’s studied. Scholars at Meiji University recently created a social psychology course on Kitagawa’s methodology and included in the syllabus are a few chapters on Johnny’s most precious gem: Arashi. The five members of Arashi are idol pop’s ultimate stalwarts. Active since 1999 and with plenty of highs and lows under its belt, Arashi is unrelenting. Not surprisingly, each member of Arashi started his career as a Johnny junior before being tapped to join Arashi. Upon formation, the group got to work quickly and found immediate success with their debut single, “A RA SHI,” which is their best-selling single of all time.

“A RA SHI” is a remarkable and sweeping track that manages to skitter through 10 years of boy band sounds in four minutes. The top of the song features the same funky bass lines and stabs of sax that can be heard on just about any New Kids On The Block song that populated American airwaves in the early ’90s. This is followed by a stretch of campy rap verses that, despite linguistic differences, sound as if they were lifted directly from Marky Mark And The Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations.” Eventually the rapping turns into a slow jam as the track closes with breathy harmonies and smooth snaps reminiscent of Backstreet Boys balladry. With a dozen or so key and tempo changes at play, “A RA SHI” offers a little something for everybody, and 15 years later still reigns as the group’s most inventive and listenable track.

Surprisingly, the hit single “A RA SHI” failed to precipitate further success for the group. The group was sluggish until 2007, when it blitzed back onto the scene and incited mania. This was in part thanks to Kitagawa’s orchestration. He expanded Arashi’s exposure by finagling deals with television network producers that made their singles the theme songs of many of Japan’s most-watched shows. “Love So Sweet” and “Happiness” benefitted from these deals. Both tracks are quintessentially Johnny-sounding. Unlike the R&B-influenced “A RA SHI,” “Love So Sweet” and “Happiness” are upbeat ditties comprised solely of the bloated melodies and excessive instrumentation that have come to define the Arashi sound.


Arashi - Happiness [PV] from liliane on Vimeo.

To be clear, Arashi is not idol pop’s best offering. Musically speaking, the group is more boring than offensive. But its lack of innovation and often-referenced inability to harmonize hasn’t stopped it from complete idol domination. For example, in 2010, six out of the top 10 singles of the year belonged to Arashi. Or better yet, this: Arashi has had 39 No. 1 singles, putting them just one shy of doubling the Beatles’ American record. When considered closely, this logic-defying comparison reveals a core idol pop 101 lesson: It’s never about the music.


Intermediate Work
While boy bands certainly have cemented their place within idol culture, idol pop’s brightest stars are women. Superstar solo acts like Seiko Matsuda dominated the ’80s and ’90s, while the early ’00s have belonged to female groups the likes of which America hasn’t seen since the break-up of The Supremes. And even The Supremes aren’t a fair comparison because while The Supremes had, at the time, a record 12 No. 1 singles, AKB48, Japan’s most popular idol group, has 23.


AKB48 is the vision of Japanese producer, Yasushi Akimoto, who sought to make “idols you can meet.” To facilitate this dream, Akimoto expanded AKB48 to include over 130 members that are broken down into over a dozen teams and subgroups. This means that on any given day, various members of AKB48 can be bombarding fans across multiple channels at the same time. While Team A is performing in AKB48’s permanent theater in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, Team K could be starring in a commercial, and subgroup Not Yet could be busy at a meet and greet. It’s a system that practically guarantees ubiquity.

Though superfans might have a favorite team or a preferred subgroup, AKB48 is still marketed and sold as one product, and Akimoto sure knows how to move units. So much so that former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano recently praised the business model of AKB48 and conceded that the model could be effective for the Japanese economy in general.


As is true of many pop stars before them, the magic of AKB48 is in the marketing, not the music. It’s genius to include free vouchers for exclusive meet and greets in the girls’ CD. That’s a value-added proposition fans can’t get from pirated music. Tactics like this account for at least 50 percent of AKB48’s success. The remaining half is attributable to psychology. Given AKB48’s insipid lyrics, pedestrian vocals, and overwrought production, its success must be made possible by what is projected upon them as opposed to what they produce. The group’s music videos bring evidence to this claim; take the kawaii-inspired “Heavy Rotation,” for example.

In this instance, kawaii is deployed to elicit glee from tweens and salaciousness from adult, manga-loving men—AKB48’s two largest fan bases. As the mostly minor-aged girls flounce about in lingerie and feed each other cherries, a viewer’s base instincts can’t help but flare and rev. It’s like looking at a Balthus painting. Young viewers might find the kawaii aspects of it endearing, but anyone above the age of 12 will be suspect of both the video’s stars and makers. Not surprisingly, there has been no shortage of reactions to this video. Some pundits consider it a humanitarian crisis; others call it merely incendiary. But most agree that there’s something unsettling about its treatment of the young girls, and perhaps rightfully so. That being said, this video, and others like it (of which there are many), isn’t intended to be controversial. Japan has a rich history of creating fantasy worlds for consumers, and AKB48 is a commodity that is simply optimizing a rich trifecta: girls, kittens, and candy. If this video seems alien, revisit Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl.”


Though it possesses over 20 No. 1 hits, at times it can be difficult to remember that AKB48 makes music. Their sound, much like Arashi’s, is largely forgettable. Their newest single, “Labrador Retriever” has a few unique details, such as the flares of orchestration that call to mind The Supremes’ “I Hear A Symphony,” a classic track that builds up, breaks down, adds and subtracts instruments, and comes complete with a distinguishable chorus.


“Labrador Retriever,” on the other hand, starts where it finishes. Every element of the song—strings, vocals, woodwinds, random dog barking—is maximized into perpetuity without any offerings of respite. The culminating effect of so much happening at once is the absence of any lasting impression. In the face of too much sonic inundation the brain simply shuts down.

Not all bands take idol pop to the extreme that AKB48 does. While certain elements of AKB48, like relentless marketing, persist throughout idol culture, many other bands within the genre look nothing like AKB48. Take longtime idol pop favorite Perfume, for example. In comparison to AKB48, Perfume has an ordinary origin story. Whereas AKB48’s members were mercilessly recruited from a rolling American Idol-esque audition and voting process, the three women of Perfume met in school (albeit at a rigorous talent academy). After graduating they toiled for many years, jetting back and forth between Tokyo and their hometown of Hiroshima in search of a fan base that would stick. They eventually partnered with producer Yasutaka Nakata, whose fame and influence surpasses Pharrell Williams’ by about a light-year or so, and who allowed the girls to develop an electro-pop sound complete with robotic imagery. Between the years of 2003 and 2007 Perfume dug deep into this niche until the group finally struck gold with  “Polyrhythm.”

Devoid of many of the coquettish distractions that afflict AKB48 videos, “Polyrhythm” serves as a slightly more palatable sampling of idol pop for someone unfamiliar with the genre. The number opens with the striking of a few airy and suspended chords that quickly usher in a vocal so auto-tuned it sounds as if a hologram is singing it. Many influences are quickly recognizable—namely the four-on-the-floor rhythm patterns of Detroit house and the Vocoder-infused vocals of Kraftwerk. Other parts of the song, like the bridge, render no search results when attempting to find a comparison. The main feature of the bridge is its polyrhythmic structure. As is immediately evident, the rhythm of the vocals in the bridge conflict with the rhythm of the percussion to create a sound that is both jarring and addictive. At the time this structure was so atypical of idol pop music that Perfume’s record executives insisted on removing it from a separate, shortened version, thus deleting the polyrhythm from “Polyrhythm.” Despite this dense move, the original version prevailed and climbed up the Oricon charts, proving that an innovative marriage arranged by Nakata between a buffering bridge and a catchy chorus was the exact kind of update idol pop needed.


Perfume has continued to have many high moments since the success of “Polyrhythm.” 2009’s Triangle was Perfume’s first chart-topping album, and was composed of many stand-out tracks, notably the innovative “One Room Disco.”

“One Room Disco” finds Nakata and Perfume in full on electro-pop assault mode. A corral of electronic sounds is at work on this number, but Nakata implements each one brilliantly to create a giddy and danceable track that reminds listeners of old school hits like Snap’s “Rhythm Is A Dancer” or Ace Of Base’s “All That She Wants.” In other moments on Triangle, Nakata and Perfume seem to lose their grip on the knobs and dials, which leave tracks like “Zero Gravity” sounding uneven and tilting too far in the direction of nonsensical, electronica gravitas.

Regardless of the album’s imbalanced efforts, Triangle rocketed Perfume into idol pop’s fame orbit, from which they are yet to return. Of course, idol pop popularity begets idol pop trappings, and soon after the release of Triangle, the product endorsements, sponsorships, and endless advertisement requests came rolling in. The result is evident in 2011’s watered down effort, JPN, on which each song on the album had been pre-sold to different advertising campaigns. This pivot toward a more commercialized career marked a shift in Perfume’s music where each new release sounds like the last—a pattern that has held up through its most recent hit, “Spring Of Life.”


An exception to the recent dominance of idol girl groups is solo artist Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. A fashion blogger turned J-Pop star, Pamyu is the only idol act to catch the attention of the Western world, counting perennial tastemaker Grimes and pop star Katy Perry among her fans. Part of what makes Pamyu approachable is her overt, over-the-top treatment of the genre. She disarms idol pop by almost making a mockery of it, employing every weapon in the kawaii and Harajuku arsenals—from Catholic schoolgirl skirts to flying lollipops—to tremendous effect. With the help of the aforementioned Nakata, Pamyu spastically colors outside idol pop’s predetermined lines to create playful and peppy songs such as “Kira Kira Killer” from her sophomore effort, Pika Pika Fantajin.

A song with a perfectly bouncy center, “Kira Kira Killer” was originally composed as the soundtrack for a cellphone commercial, but that’s an impossible factoid to detect from the video, which is more about existential questioning than it is good reception. At one point Pamyu can be seen standing on a semi-circular earth that’s resting on top of a giant turtle, perhaps hinting at the same “turtles all the way down” philosophy that recently inspired Sturgill Simpson. After an apple falls from a tree and hits her on the head, Pamyu slips down the throat of a serpent, shoots out its tail, and ponders Einstein’s theory of special relativity. That all of this subject matter is tethered to a sonic sugar rush makes Pamyu’s efforts all the more impressive.


Just like Perfume’s “Polyrhythm,” Pika Pika Fantajin earns additional points for expanding the ruthless boundaries of idol pop, which have hardly budged since 2001. Instead of lazily sticking to predictable EDM tracks and gloppy balladry, Pamyu, and once again by extension Nakata, experiment with quality musicianship, most notably on curveball track “Sungoi Aura.” Unlike many idol pop tracks, “Sungoi Aura” features discernible instrumentation. There’s vaudeville-like piano plunking, skittering drums, and even a piccolo or two—proving “Sungoi Aura” to be a departure from not only idol pop but from Nakata’s traditional bag of tricks. Granted, the song sounds more fit for an acid-induced reinterpretation of The Music Man than it does a pop album, but at least instead of reinventing the wheel (as idol pop acts are wont to do) Pamyu deconstructs it and leaves a neon hula hoop in its place.

Advanced Studies
Not all idol pop comes candy-coated. Like any genre, it has its left-of-center outliers. In idol pop that outlier is Momoiro Clover Z, a group made up of five girls who as children were chosen from Stardust Promotion’s talent roster to start an idol group. In a fateful twist, Momoiro Clover (the Z was added after the sixth member dropped out) was assigned to a manager who wasn’t fond of idol pop. The girls’ manager, Akira Kawakami, was instead interested in pro-wrestling and the stereotypical things that are associated with it, including metal music, action movies, and so forth. As is the tradition in idol pop, the manager is also the maker, so after failing to launch Momoiro Clover as a regular idol pop band, Kawakami stripped it of its sugary shell and started over. He reupholstered the girls in his own materials, and in doing so, launched idol pop’s first heavy metal-influenced, sentai-inspired girl group.


Momoiro Clover Z’s first post-transformation single and video, “Z Densetsu (Owarinaki Kakumei),” immediately reminds viewers of the Power Rangers, and that’s not by coincidence.

Let’s break this quirky conundrum down carefully. Power Rangers is the American version of a long running collection of shows in Japan called the Super Sentai Series. The premise of the Super Sentai Series is such: Everyday civilians turn into a fighting squadron of superheroes who each wear a particular color. All Momoiro Clover Z is doing in this video is formally introducing themselves, a longstanding tradition within idol pop, in the sentai style. As they go around, each girl presents her color and explains her power. There’s super strength, super science skills, and so on and so forth. The video is almost more infomercial than it is music, but it is essential to understanding the essence of Momoiro Clover Z as it contains all of its signature elements of hyperactive energy, frenzied choreography, and a surprising nod to noise rock.


Since rebranding, Momoiro Clover Z has released two albums, both of which showcase in tremendous redundancy the aforementioned elements. The one song worth mentioning from these releases is 5th Dimension’s “Infinite Love.”

“Infinite Love” is the “Bohemian Rhapsody” of idol pop. The song hits the ground running with former Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman providing the early heavy-metal guitar chugging. It then moves at a seizure-inducing speed through noise rock, krautrock, and pop before finally relaxing into a chamber of strings and handbells that signal the song’s end.


Ultimately, what makes Momoiro Clover Z such a delineation from traditional idol pop is not the epic nature of “Infinite Love,” nor its inclusion of heavy metal guitar riffs in its songs (though that helps). It’s not the group’s sound at all. It’s demeanor. Where AKB48 tantalizes, Momoiro Clover Z teases. They infuse kawaii with strength and humor. In doing so, they create a slightly more grounded and human version of idol pop.

Finally, far to the left of Momoiro Clover Z sits Babymetal—idol pop’s most recent sensation. Babymetal, as the name suggests, is a group of idol tweens singing heavy metal songs. Similar to Momoiro Clover Z, Babymetal is the vision of their manager-producer, Kobametal, who—wait for it—loves metal music. As to be expected from a genre that favors fantasy over authenticity, the young girls who make up Babymetal had never listened to metal music before joining the band, though that didn’t stop Metallica from wanting to collaborate with them. Nor did it prevent their eponymous debut album from topping the iTunes heavy metal charts in the United States and climbing as high as No. 35 on the top albums chart. If that kind of success seems random, then take a listen to Babymetal’s viral hit “Gimme Chocolate!!”

Upon first viewing, “Gimme Chocolate!!” might raise a Western eyebrow or two. The coupling of the disparate worlds of kawaii and metal makes for a unique visual that is perfect fodder for the derisive and anonymous world of YouTube commentary. But a much more legitimate reason to stare, jaw-dropped, at this video is because it features musicians—an  idol pop first.


The presence of musicians in the “Gimme Chocolate!!” video is a welcome development to the world of modern idol pop, but even more promising is Babymetal’s stellar debut album. The album is made up of complex metal music constructed by some of Japan’s leading underground rockers, who deserve equal, if not more, credit than the singers and production team for this album’s success. To start, each track on the album features polished renditions of heavy metal’s usual suspects—propulsive power chords, breakneck drumming, and throaty howls. Even if that were all the album offered, it would still be considered a really good metal album. But what likely inspired Rolling Stone Japan to give it a 4.5 out of 5 star rating were tracks like “4 No Uta,” which layers a cheery pop punk interlude over traditional metal. The incomparable “Ii ne!” offers listeners a respite at 1:30 when the track breaks down into a chopped and screwed-styled rap verse and then turns up into a deft EDM track before collapsing in on itself entirely in a raving finish.

As ridiculous as Momoiro Clover Z and Babymetal might seem at the outset, they actually represent a welcome changing of the guards in idol pop’s management. By recruiting producers and musicians from outside idol pop’s well, the teams behind these groups have created cracks in the genre’s impermeable boundaries, allowing greater access to the mainstream for artists on the fringes. This is exciting because it has, in turn, led to an expansion of idol pop’s fan base to include more alternative minded people who are powering a subtle shift in the genre toward places it’s never been before. 


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