Friday, June 13, 2014

The Conventions of Unconventional Idols

It's tenth-grade biology class again, and you, reader, have been assigned with your lab mates to dissect a frog. So you get out your lab manual, follow the instructions, and everything is going according to the teacher's plan as it has every year the tenth-grade biology class does this experiment. But then you look over to the table in the back corner and notice something odd. A few of your classmates aren't dissecting the frog, as per the lab instructions. Instead, they've attached wires to the frog and are attempting to bring it back to life a la Dr. Frankenstein. Blood spatters everywhere, utensils fly across the floor, yet this group of students remain completely enthralled with their little experiment. You yourself cannot understand why these students decided to completely ignore the instructions and wreck havoc on the classroom, but they aren't interrupting your group's experiment, so you do your best to ignore them. Other classmates express their outrage and annoyance, and a few classmates even admire this strange little group of lab mates trying to resurrect their dead frog buddy. For better or worse, they have left one hell of an impact on the lab assignment today.

I like to think of unconventional idols as that frog-resurrecting lab group.

Ah, unconventional idols. They're almost as divisive as Youtube idols! But what exactly is an unconventional idol? According to the Miriam-Webster dictionary, the definition for unconventional is:
"very different from the things that are used or accepted by most people; not traditional or usual; not conventional"
So the very broad definition of an unconventional idol could be an idol who is different from the traditional idols. When I say "unconventional idols" I'm simply referring to idols that purposely defy the current standards set by popular idol groups. Said idol groups being AKB48 and all its sister groups. However, I should also distinguish that when I say unconventional idols, I'm not talking about idol groups like Momoiro Clover Z and While both those groups do have a lot of quirks and rather unconventional idol music, neither one of those groups is constantly and intentionally trying to defy the traditional concept of idols. They're playing with the concepts, yes, but in a safe and market-friendly way. Actually, there are a lot of idol groups today that are straying away from the "pop" sound that's defined idol music (in other words, everything that AKB48's been releasing). And in that special little niche are the idol groups produced to have a sound and image about as far from friendly as possible. I'm talking about the idol groups like Alice Juban, Bellring Shoujo Heart, Babymetal, and of course, Brand-new Idol Society. You know, those idol groups that make everyone uncomfortable!

Something really cool about the idol industry of today is that a lot of idol groups are backed by producers willing to experiment in different sounds, such as popular producer Hyadain who's produced both Momoiro Clover Z and just to name a few. Other groups like Rhymeberry and Tokyo Girls' Style also have very distinct music styles that don't fit with popular idol music. My point is this era of idols is a producer's playground for music styles and gimmicks. I like to think of these producers as artists with the idol groups they produce being their canvases. So with all the different sounds to try out on a pile of girls who have little to no creative control, why produce them with a more unconventional sound? I'm going to ignore the obvious answer that it's to make money, because everything in the idol industry exists to make money. I swear to god, if I hear that complaint one more time from an idol fan, I am going to set something on fire. Idols are products and if you can't wrap your head around that, you are following the wrong industry. I think there may be some self-produced indie idols you can find if you look hard enough, but at the end of the day this industry is not known for being one with self-control.

Anyways, back to unconventional idols. I think it's pretty easy to understand the appeal of traditional idols. They represent an idealistic portrayal of youth, the purest and cleanest facets of adolescence. For young girls, idols are role models; for older men, they're a picture of innocence hung against the backdrop of harsh reality. The objective of an idol is to stir feelings of hope and happiness in people. Many idol songs convey some form of positivity whether it be in love, friendship, perseverance, etc. Said positivity is typically presented through catchy pop songs meant to appeal to wide demographic. Idol groups like Super Girls and of course, AKB48 exemplify these traits. Even if Super Girls is more-or-less a punchline on my blog, I can at least acknowledge that they embrace all the cliches of idol music and imagery with such commitment. And AKB48 is the most popular idol group on the market right now, even if their welcome may be overstayed depending on whom you ask. As the most popular idol group (at least for female idol groups, male idol groups are not my department), AKB48 sets a precedent for other companies looking to cash off idol groups the same way AKS has.

Unlike Super Girls and all those other idol groups that look and sound exactly like them, unconventional idol groups exist to defy the norms of idol music from the look to the music to even the objective. Traditional idols represent a positive, innocent set of ideals so that they can appeal to a wide range of demographics. But unconventional idols often do the opposite. They're not trying to be positive or be role models or roll with the tropes of traditional idolry. Most of these idol groups have very small niches and never achieve widespread success. They're a stark contrast, and for a lot of people, it's a contrast that's too different and sometimes too disturbing. Sometimes the lengths an unconventional idol group goes to be unconventional can be too much. After all, is an idol group really an idol group if they exist only to subvert every common element of idol groups? So what is the appeal then? Even as someone with a tendency to gravitate toward unconventional idols, I couldn't really figure out an answer to this question for such a long time. Now I'm not even sure if I have the right answer. I think trying to fully dissect the appeal behind unconventional idols and why they exist is the equivalent of opening Pandora's box. It won't be easy fully explaining why, but as someone who is a fan of more unconventional idol groups, I want to at least try.

To understand where the concept of an unconventional idol originated, we have to dig into a little history. The Japanese idol concept originated in the 1960s, but really hit its boom in the 1980s. So much that the 1980s is referred to as "The Golden Age of Idols in Japan." Left and right were idols debuting, some of them never to be heard from again. Others quickly rose to the top of the idol hierarchy. And the golden girl perched at the top was Matsuda Seiko. Even if you're like me and don't look into older idols, you've probably heard her name before. With more than seventy-five singles under her belt and a string of high-charting singles, Matsuda Seiko is one of the best-selling idols in Japan. While she isn't anywhere near as successful today, in the 1980s, Matsuda Seiko owned the idol industry. There's a reason that she's called "The Eternal Idol" and Oricon ranked her as the number-one everlasting idol in Japan. Matsuda Seiko was the quintessential, girl-next-door, smiling, shining idol in the 1980s. Even when her popularity started waning after the 1980s, Matsuda Seiko still maintained a legacy as the face of this "Golden Age" for idols.

I've listened to a few Matsuda Seiko songs from when she was in her prime, and I can see why she was so popular. She had a very sweet voice, with just enough power to carry her songs. And her songs are just a nice as her voice. Matsuda Seiko's songs have all the sugary sweetness that you can find in idol pop. Watching her performances, I get a sense of deja-vu. Because her demeanor and performance style is so reminiscent of many idols of the future. Take this performance of her debut single, Hadashi no Kisetsu. So many idols of today are probably crafted around that same approachable friendliness that Matsuda Seiko popularized in the 1980s. And at the time, Matsuda Seiko helped set the standard for what the conventional idol was at that time. An idol was pure, but not distant the way they were in the 1970s. Idols of the 1980s were mostly sweet in that girl-next-door kind of way. And there are many idols in the 1980s vying for that top spot. As many as 60 idols could debut in a year and be gone the next. I can imagine that this time period is similar to the boom of idols today. So surely not all idols during this Golden Age were cookie-cutter copies of Matsuda Seiko, right? Wasn't there at least one idol trying to defy the norms of the Golden Age of Idols?

Enter Togawa Jun.


Togawa Jun is an artist that started out as a idol in the early 1980s. Outside of her solo work, she participated in a variety of side projects, including lead vocalist for band Guernica and lead vocalist for Yapoos in the late 80s and early 90s. In her idol career, she was never the universally adored dream idol that Matsuda Seiko was in the 80s. However, Togawa Jun did have a large underground fanbase who admired and respected her work. Why? Because her music was insane. Togawa Jun wrote about murder, parasites & insects, sadomasochism, even menstruation, and a plethora of other dark, bizarre topics all while maintaining a grim sense of humor. Her debut album, Tamahime-sama is basically an exploration of insects and the human body, and you should all totally listen to it. And she was the same age as Matsuda Seiko when she did all this. There's a live performance on Youtube showing her performing the title track from Tamahime-sama, clad in insect wings and twitching around like a dragonfly squished by a boot. I think it sums up pretty well her angle of approaching the idol industry. Togawa Jun was (and probably still is today) strange, grotesque, and most importantly, unconventional. Can you guys think of any idol groups today that are strange and grotesque? I'll give you a hint: they're about to disband soon.

Back to Togawa Jun for a moment though. In my opinion, Togawa's album that most clearly twists the concepts of being an idol is Suki Suki Daisuki, released in 1984. While her previous three albums forayed into rock, enka, and even electronic, Suki Suki Daisuki had a much more pop-oriented sound. However, combined with that saccharine pop is Togawa's theatricality and strangeness. The songs range from the sarcastically straightforward Angel Baby to Osozaki Girl which is about "late blooming" if you catchy my drift to Sayonara wo Oshiete which is about Togawa loving a boy so much she swears to come back from the dead as a ghost to be with him. But the standout track of Suki Suki Daisuki has got to be the song that shares the title of the album. There's a reason BiS Kaidan covered it! Suki Suki Daisuki is probably my favorite idol song, if you can count it as one. I suppose that's a little ironic, considering how the song is mocking every idol long written ever. But Suki Suki Daisuki goes from cutesy and adorable to harsh and operatic so quickly, I think it really showcases how well Togawa Jun plays with the conventions of idol music back then. Compare the chorus of Matsuda Seiko's Akai Sweet Pea to Suki Suki Daisuki.

Kiwi Musume's translation of Matsuda Seiko's Akai Sweet Pea:
"I will follow you 
I want to follow you 
I will follow you
Even though I'm a bit weak-willed 
Because you're a wonderful person 
My red sweet pea 
Growing on the shore of my heart"
Jun Togawa Collective's translation of Togawa Jun's Suki Suki Daisuki:
"Kiss me like thumping, as blood clots on my lips 
Hold me, as my ribs breaking 
I love you so much 
I love you so much 
I love you so much 
Say you love me or I'll kill you!"
In the 80s, Nakamori Akina was always pushed as the "rival" to Matsuda Seiko, for her more mature and sensual image being the opposite of Seiko's sweet and innocent image. But I think Akina doesn't quite serve as the complete antithesis to what Seiko stood for in her peak days. I think Togawa Jun takes up that role. What makes Togawa Jun so unconventional is that the conventional standard of that time was a stark contrast from the way she presented herself. Honestly, Togawa Jun seems like a very interesting person. No doubt an eccentric person, but still fascinating. I've read several of her translated interviews, and she just has so much interesting stuff to say. Even better, I think Togawa Jun presented herself the way she did because she wanted to. Not because some management company realized "Hey, anti-idols make money!" and produced her with that image. And I think that's what separates her from the idols of today. Sure, Babymetal and BiS and Bellring Shoujo Heart can be as unconventional as they like, but at the end of the day they're still idols produced to maintain a certain image that appeals to a certain demographic. That doesn't mean it doesn't work for them, but compared to Togawa Jun, all the unconventional idol groups of today seem downright tame.

So let's fast-forward to the present day. AKB48 sits at the top of the idol pyramid with all its sister groups (and Nogizaka46) not far behind. Just below them is Momoiro Clover Z and then below them all the other idol groups ranging from mildly popular to practically nonexistent. My point is that AKB48 is in a position where they've set new precedents and enforced old ones for new idol groups. It's the same position that Matsuda Seiko was in during the 1980s. What an unconventional idol relies on is taking whatever is currently popular/standard in the idol industry and doing the opposite. Brand-new Idol Society exists to be the "anti-idols" but ironically, if idol groups like AKB48 weren't around, then neither could BiS be, at least not with the concept they have now. Same for Babymetal. The difference between BiS and Babymetal are their gimmicks, with BiS actively defying idolry and Babymetal embracing it, only adding metal and headbanging. However, both exist under the umbrella of unconventional idol groups that have been emerging these fast few years. In fact, I think that BiS and Babymetal actually helped kickstart that. After the controversial My Ixxx music video, BiS got a lot more attention than previously, and ever since then, they've been getting crazier and crazier going more and more out of their way to maintain unconventionality.

In the wake of BiS and Babymetal's debuts, a slew of other idol groups created with similar unconventional gimmicks have also popped up, such as New Idol Order, Death Rabbits, Passcode, Fruitpochette, Next Shoujo Jiken, and my personal favorite (and the only one that really interests me) Bellring Shoujo Heart. I am noticing a pattern in a lot of these unconventional idol groups that have emerged though. A lot of them either copy the aesthetic of Babymetal or BiS. New Idol Order for instance, defines themselves as a strictly "metal" group, a Babymetal sans the idol pop. Death Rabbits has pretty much the same description. These groups are all described nearly the same with a few different spins like "Lolitas and metal" or "a metal duo" or something of that nature. Generally, all these new unconventional groups are abrasive, morbid, and weird. They hold live concerts with blood and dead animals and other crazy antics that separate them from the "conventional" idol groups their producers are satirizing. But here's what happens when a group of people trying to be different do the same thing: they create a new set of conventions to abide by. It's kind of a paradox.

And it brings up another question: is an idol still an idol if they're doing everything that idols weren't conceived to do? Or are these unconventional idol groups changing the criteria for what an idol has to be? How much can you strip away from the standards of being an idol until you've created a shell that's only an idol in name only? The answer is debatable. BiS is not a well-liked group in Japan. Oh yes, they have their fanbase, but they still get a lot of flack for their concept and performances. Just go and look at any of the comments sections on their Youtube videos to see what I mean. So why go to so much trouble to attract fans when there are easier and more conventional ways of doing so? I know what draws me in personally to BiS and other unconventional idol groups is the sheer audacity of them. It's interesting seeing an idol group strive not to be like an idol group. To see all these creative variations and odd songs and music videos. And I have to think that there are BiS fans out there who feel the same way I do. BiS (and every other unconventional idol group I've mentioned) will always be divisive for disturbing concert performances, un-idol like behavior, and taking risks. But even if it's all manufactured like every other aspect of the idol industry, unconventional idol groups still draw me in at least a little bit.

I don't think unconventional idols will ever have real, breakthrough success the same way idol groups like AKB48 and Morning Musume and Onyanko Club have. So why do the producers of today go to so much trouble to create an unconventional image for certain idol groups when the alternative is much more marketable? Well, obviously there is at least a small niche for unconventional idol groups. I mean, look at Babymetal. They started out as a subgroup from Sakura Gakuin, then blew up over the Internet, and now they're performing in Europe and Canada and all over the world. As of now, they might even be more well-known than Sakura Gakuin. Sure, Babymetal's international recognition primarily stems from the mindset I like to call, "Look at this weird Japanese thing!! Hot diggity-dog, Japan is so gosh darn wacky and strange!" But attention is attention, regardless of where it stems from. And these unconventional idol groups do garner a good deal of attention. It's not always positive attention (BiS for instance is not a revered group amongst Japanese otaku). Nonetheless, it's enough attention for these unconventional idol groups to carve niches for themselves. And sometimes, that all producers strive for. Not every idol group needs to sell millions to stick around.

What I'd like to see is another idol like Togawa Jun. No, not a rip-off of Togawa Jun but an idol with her own vision of being an idol that's maybe a little weird and a little strange but nonetheless her own idea. As of now, this is the best time to try out these more different idol groups. The market is ripe with other idol groups trying out different music and concepts. Self-produced idols may not be the most well-known, but they're out there doing their own thing. BiS wouldn't even exist if Pour Lui hadn't the idea of making her own idol group. I'm not just sad that BiS is disbanding because I enjoy their music and style. I'm sad because of what they represent in the current idol industry. They weren't always great, but they were always interesting and vivacious. And they kept me sane when AKB48 was driving me crazy with all their bland music. Unconventional idol groups can be hit-or-miss with idol fans and for good reason. But I find something exciting and intriguing in listening to idols like BiS and Bellring Shoujo Heart and Togawa Jun. And maybe hardly anyone else does, but I don't care. At the end of the day, it's my own personal taste. I do hope that unconventional idols can always find a niche though.

Who knows? Perhaps someday a crazy idol like Togawa Jun will come along.



    When I look at old-school idols I cant help but love them. I feel like idols in today went to something wrong. I mean for example look for top 3 girl group in Japan. AKB absolutely owes the otaku world and selling like madness. When people talks about idols we think about AKB first. But idols like Momoclo has gained peoples attention who doesnt care about idols. Sure they have ota fans but they have a presence in public. AKB kinda lost their normal fans after...something. I mean they released a bunch of songs since 2012 but only one song became hit (dat cookie). And their sister groups arent famous only their front girls are famous. And we have Pefume which everyone loves and absolutely #1 about publics favorite girl group...but they lack some ota fans which should push them behind. They dont bring good sales and promotions but they still manage to release some hits. All Level3 singles were hit in Japan besides shitty sales. Where is AKB or Momoclo or Momosu of idols

    But past idols had everything on their side. They had that idols who owned everything and they had talent. But now behind of girl groups are focusing on sales so they lack getting attention of rest of people. Should I say they are good idols after that. Hell no. This is why I dislike current idols. (and i am glad that Perfume doesnt play to otaku side of Japan)

    Reading this made me realize why people used to like idols but not now. Thank you Nia

    1. It's so nice having a reader who's into old-school idols! Like I said, I don't really follow older idols from the 70s/80s/90s. So it's nice reading someone else's more insightful perspective on the difference between idols of the past and contemporary ones today. Even if I don't follow old-school idols that much, I do think they're very important to the development of idols of today. Like AKB48 and Morning Musume wouldn't be anywhere without Onyanko Club! I've kind of noticed too that AKB48 is really just maintaining their otaku fanbase and alienating normal fans. Whereas MomoClo seems to appeal to a wider audience. And then there's Perfume, but most people don't consider them an idol group. Even then, their sales aren't chart-smashing. They have a consistent niche of fans, myself included.

      I think with the idols of today, there's not the emphasis on talent that you pointed out with idols of the past. Oh sure, there are still talented idols, but marketability is favored over talent. It doesn't necessarily stop me from disliking current idols, but I can see why that would be a turn-off especially in comparison to old-school idols.

      This time period is definitely a different one for idols. And you're welcome!

  2. Also my comment doesnt have to a thing with this posts main subject but still
    I couldnt help

    1. That's okay! You still wrote some interesting stuff! It was a nice comment to read!

  3. I think you would like Especia.

    1. I like the song you linked me! It sounded so retro! I've actually heard of Especia before but never looked into them. I think I will now!

    2. I'm glad you liked it!
      All of their songs have this 80's retro synth-pop vibe to them and they even perform in vintage 80's clothes!

    3. I did notice there very 80s outfits in that music video. How cool! I love some 80s retro synth-pop! I'll definitely check out more of their stuff!

  4. ffffffffffff omgggg
    I saw this post a while ago but I never knew what to say! I love AKB, and I also love Jun Togawa, but this is the first time I see an idol fan discussing her work. Lately I've seen more jpop fans mentioning Jun, but no one actually bothers to listen to her albums or see her live performances, which is so dissapointing, but I see you made an effort!! and that's very nice.

    I agree with what you said in the post, on how "alternative" idols still get commodified by male fans and are still there to fill a niche. Or at least the ones that aren't BiS. They did a tremendous job alienating the usual wota crowd and managed to build themselves a fanbase that was still wota-ish but also sort of stood out. But even groups like Bellha have this "safe" feeling, like they can be weird and aggressive, but not too weird or they'd make the guys uncomfortable. That's how I felt while reading this post, at least.

    And about Jun, I never felt she was an idol in the traditional sense; because she was an actress first and foremost, and had many personas throughout her singing career. Each of these characters represented/criticized the different roles of women in society and history. This is why I feel her SSD era was more like a parody of Jun playing all the 80's idol tropes. But that's just my personal interpretation! I don't think calling her an "alternative idol" is entirely wrong either, you know.

    All in all, thank you for writing this post! it was very insightful. I think I'll be following this blog from now on.

    1. That's all right! You don't have to say anything if you don't feel like! But you did so thank you! Yeah, I don't really get much of a chance to talk about Togawa Jun on the Wonderland since she's not really an idol. But I love her work, especially her stuff with Yapoos. Dial Y wo Mawase! is my favorite album of theirs, and Tamahime-sama is my favorite from her solo work!

      Yes, I've heard BiS has quite the reputation being not very popular with most of the typical wota fanbase. Ah, I'm gonna miss them even more when they're gone. I haven't been to any of these unconventional idol concerts, so I'm just going off descriptions. I don't think there's gonna be another group like BiS. There will be groups that will try (that or imitate Babymetal), but BiS is BiS. I'm not anticipating anyone capturing their blend of alienating craziness.

      I was kind of unsure about including Jun as my example, since I'd read statements saying she was an artist or an idol at first. But I just love her intentions and her angle on feminism and archetypes. That's why Suki Suki Daisuki is so interesting! Her tongue-in-cheek portrayal of idols makes for such a good album. I think she's very firmly rooted in artist territory too, but maybe using idol archetypes to further a point!

      Thank you for commenting! I have my occasional moments of insight!

  5. Interesting article....! I suppose a lot does depend on whether someone is considered to be an 'idol' versus being an 'artist', in regards to much of it though. I don't fully buy into the idea that these are totally different things, myself -- without getting into a complicated linguistic analysis of the various words here, I would say that idols put most of the emphasis on their performance and overall personality elements, rather than constructing the music and songs themselves. So, to be bringing wildly new ideas into it - like Togawa Jun, or any modern-day counterpart - might tend to automatically put someone more into the 'artist' category; and, as you mentioned, you can only go so far in a different direction, before you cease to be in idol territory at all!

    I wouldn't say that means idol music is not artistic, or that it's only about making it marketable.... but instead, that idol performers are parts of a larger creative team and process, which is just a different (not inferior) way of doing things than what a lot of other music artists might be known for. Likewise, mistaking 'talent' to mean simply 'technical skill' is to prioritize only one element in the equation, and arguably not the most important one!! As you also said in your article, simply being interesting is a large part of the appeal of unconventional idols -- and that can even apply to the more conventional ones too, I think. Sadly, this completely goes against the usual ideas which many people have about music, and so-called 'authentic' singer-songwriters or bands.... (especially here in the West). Overall, it really shows how the more innovative and alternative music influences from the past are still alive and well in Japan, even if they've been mostly lost over here, these days -- and the more the idol scene expands into such different styles, the more it becomes the genuine vanguard of the pop scene there!

    1. Thanks! I definitely agree that the line between idol and artist can be really blurred. Especially with Togawa Jun. I think she played with idol concepts but backed further and further away from idolry as she did more solo music and material with Yapoos. With idols, performance and personality definitely comes first, which is really interesting. It's like performing a musical, only without the plot, and the idols are just tools to carry the music forward. And what the audience sees is a final product with weeks (or even months) put into it.

      With producers now, idol music can get very artistic! It's just art that's being sold for a profit. Which is perfectly sensible; everyone needs to make money to survive! That's why it drives me off the wall when people undermine an artist on the sole basis that they "sold out" or "are only doing it for the money." I don't see why profit and artistry can't go hand in hand. That's not to say there aren't artists out there solely creating to make money. Of course there are! But the cool thing about idols is that the product is this giant web of producers and designers and other creative minds. The idols themselves just showcase all that creativity. That's what makes unconventional idols so interesting.

  6. Have you tried Oomori Seiko or Goto Mariko? I think they're like Togawa Jun in being "like an idol, but also an anti-idol".

    1. I love Oomori Seiko! Haven't listened to Goto Mariko, but I think I'll check out her music out now that you've mentioned her! Thanks!

  7. Actually, there was a time where AKB was kind of unconventional, thinking about Keibetsu Shiteita Aijou, Seifuku ga Jama Wo Suru and most of the songs that you mentioned in your Top 20. Of course today they have been releasing poor music since Maeda Atsuko’s graduation, but at least we can still find some "pearls" (Ambulance, Juujun Na Slave, Kegareteiru Shinjitsu)... Akimoto Yasushi must be lazy. Anyway, I'm happy that you published such an interesting post. :)

    1. AKB48 was weird in their earlier years. They had some safer songs like Boku no Taiyou and Romance, Irane, but then they had... well, the songs you just mentioned! And I'm sure their "idols you can meet" approach to marketing stood out at the time. I think AKB48 turned into what the public wanted them to be. Approachable idols with safe, bland music and enough girls to fill a Baskin Robbins. And now that Akimoto's perfected that formula, he's sticking to it. Probably forever.

  8. Hi Nia, after discovering so much great idol groups (thanks to you!), I'm now interested by Bellring Shoujo Heart, but I never listened to their songs. But they are not on iTunes... And Teck Teck Walk isn't either on YouTube or on CDJapan. I tried a link that you mentioned in an earlier comment but it pirated my computer and I've been close to lose it... Do you know another website where I could be able to listen to their music? Thanks! :)