Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Play and the Performance: Idols as Performers

I'm about to tell you guys something crazy: idols are manufactured. Manufactured. I'm telling ya, this shit's revolutionary. So go! Spread the word! Let everyone know the truth is out there!!!

I'll bet they aren't even human.

So in my English class right now, we're spending a lot of time talking about music. The teacher asked us who our favorite bands were. Me, being the unashamed dork I am, said my favorite artist was Perfume. She then proceeded to blast Spending all my time before the ears of all my classmates. So that happened! But that is not the point of this little anecdote. In our class discussion about music, the obvious topic came up: does how genuine a band is affect their quality and credibility? The obvious and absolutely cliched answer to that question is "YES!!! Corporations churn out sellouts that only exist to make money! The only real music is the kind that's recorded in the back of a van with a handheld video camera from 1984!!! Everything else sucks!!!" Okay, I'm exaggerating a bit, but you guys know what I'm talking about, right? The ol' corporations control all music criticism? I actually do think that this is a pretty good argument, if not a tad pretentious when you hear it from twenty different people. Still, money is the anthem of success (as said by an artist criticized for selling out to a corporation), and we all want money. I want money.

This same criticism applies to idols. Even though many popular idol groups (like the ones that end in '48) have a very approachable image, it is still an image that is manufactured to make money. Then money is exchanged for goods and services, and you know, economic. The idols themselves have little input in how they're marketed. Usually, a producer writes the music, someone choreographs the dance, and a production team handles the media and promotional material. There are exceptions of course, like Electric Ribbon, who are self-produced idols. But most self-produced idols are too obscure or independent to reach this side of the earth. So my focus is major label idols. Manufactured idols aren't exclusive to Japan; here in the US, we have our own teen idols (think the kids on Disney Channel and Nickelodeon). Regardless of origin, a common trait (and criticism) of these teen idols is the blatant manufacturing and pandering to make bucketloads of money. You've probably heard this before; I've heard it more times than I can count. While I do think this is a valid criticism, I don't have the anger or passion to parrot it again. So let's talk about something else.

I feel like when people write about idols as products of a money-grabbing corporation, they tend to forget about what the idols themselves put into that final product. Idols aren't just clay models that can be bent and shaped into anything. You have living, breathing humans with their own thoughts and ideas that they will bring to a group in some way. Maybe they're not up in the studio writing their own lyrics or getting involved with the creative team. But they are bringing their own performance methods to a group, along with their own personality and work ethic. Idols are like the heart of an group, and the producers are like the brains. It doesn't matter how much work a company puts into creating an idol group; if you don't have the girls, the metaphorical body will lose blood circulation and die. I think it's just harder to review a performance; unless you manage to see an idol group, you're at a real disadvantage. Music on the other hand is a much more accessible medium to review. Whether we like to admit it or not, downloadable music has made obtaining idol music much easier than it's ever been.

In this debate about validity and manufacturing, I often find the idols themselves are cast aside. You can't really blame them for much when they're more-or-less doing what their managements tell them to do. Gaging their own personal feelings are hard enough with their images being so meticulously filtered by management. So with idols being preened and promoted to the will of their management, is there anything significant an idol contributes to her own group? Well... there's her performance. You know, the thing that differentiates someone who can sing and dance in front of people (sometimes creepy people) and someone who gets stage fright? I think performance is an important aspect of idol groups, maybe even more important than the music. And unlike the music, an idol is in charge of her own performance. My brain, being the perpetual enigma it is, connected this to my own experiences in performance. Now I have obviously never been an idol, but I have acted in plays. Several plays, and musicals to boot. As I was reflecting on performing onstage, I began formulating a hypothesis. If I was a scientist, I'd test said hypothesis, but all I can do is write about it on the Wonderland.

So my hypothesis is: Are there parallels between performing as an actor and performing as an idol?

On a scale of 1 to "Nia, did you bump your head on something?" how outlandish is that notion? For the record, I'm talking about scripted performances, not improv. As a distant observer, I can't help but draw connections between stage performance and idol performance. No, I'm not saying that actors and idols are exactly alike. But both actors and idols are selling an illusion. Idols sell the illusion their producers create for them, and actors sell the illusion created by a playwright and a director and a crew. The difference is when you're an actor, you can leave that illusion behind once the play ends. Idols do not have that luxury. Remember The Mask I wrote about so many moons ago? Read that if you haven't. I don't want to focus on The Mask here, but I do want to address performance. Of everything an idol possess, the only thing she has solid control over is her performance. Yes, she has people telling her what to do and when to sing and how to dance, but the idols themselves are the ones that have to get up on stage. Isn't that pretty much what an actor does?

Bear with me. Let's pretend you're an actor. In fact, let's say you're an actor in a musical (that ties us to music a little more closely). As an actor in a musical, you are given a script and some sheet music. You have someone to direct your performance and instructors to help you learn the music and the choreography. You yourself have limited input on the creative side. The play has already been written, the roles have been cast, and the music is prepared long before you auditioned for this play. Your job as an actor is simply to put on a believable performance. So you rehearse over a few months, putting your heart into the music and scenes. Then you perform before an audience. The audience isn't there to see you; they're there to see your character. Or sometimes they're there to see the music. Sometimes both. My point is you are selling an illusion. Obviously, the audience members know that you aren't Cinderella or Jean Valjean, but they suspend their own disbelief and allow themselves to give in to the illusion for a few hours. My character died in a play once. Obviously, I didn't die in real life, but to the audience, I was dead the minute my cast mates dragged my "lifeless" body off the stage. My point is the actors are only one aspect of an entire product, but without them, there is no product.

Performers with little creative control over what they're performing... what does that sound like?

Subtlety has never been my strongest suit.

When an actor performs, nobody criticizes them for not writing the play they're in. Because that's not the actor's job. So why is it that idols and furthermore, produced/manufactured music artists get this criticism so much? Is it not not just their job? I think the difference is presentation. In a play, you know the actors didn't create the work. They're just interpreting it. With idols though, this is never addressed; instead, there's this underlying assumption that everyone knows that what they've paid to see was created by a team of professionals looking to make some money. And for some people, the adherence to this illusion with no acknowledgement is simply too plastic. That's perfectly understandable. I personally am not bothered by this illusion. In fact, what always fascinates me about idols is the performance. These are girls my age, even younger than I am, getting up on stage and performing front of dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people. Do you know how hard it is to perform when you feel like shit? It is especially hard trying to be happy and engaging and approachable is a pain when you wake up ready to punch someone in the face.

And that's what idols do; it's their job. And I think that's incredible. Even idol groups I am not a fan of, I have a small twinge of respect for them simply because of their ability to get up and perform. Even Super Girls. So I feel like idols should at least get some acknowledgement for taking these songs and costumes and images given to them by producers and rolling with them. Much like an actor is given a role to play. For both parties, there are some days when performing comes naturally and other days where you have to slog through it and hope the audience can't tell. You have to leave yourself behind and walk onto that stage ready to give you audience what you want. That's not an easy feat. So yes, idols don't produce their own music, yes, they're fabricated to fit a certain image, and yes, they're manufactured to pander to a certain demographic and make money off of said demographic. But to say that an idol contributes nothing is I think severely undermining her role. An idol's own performance is just as important as the producers backing her up. After all, it would be quite boring to stare at an empty stage for two hours.

So do any of you readers have performance experiences of your own? If so, do you think that performing as an idol has similarities to other mediums of performance? Any differences? You're not getting graded for these questions, so feel free to answer or pass along!


  1. As a guy that performed 3 plays and danced Laser Beam AND Spring of Life on my school, I can say that what you wrote not only has sense, but it's incredibly true! I have quite a hard time in school because of this, feeling and being treated as a marionette in the hands of my school's Art Department Director.

    ...and I've been acting since 2009.

    Not only performing, but keeping a strict performance as you grow up is extremely difficult. I remember that after my first play, I wanted to quit everything in my life. I was depressed for the rest of the year. I felt like scum. What I did? Smiled. Until my cheeks hurted, until my sadness was gone. All the things people said hurted me a lot, but I kept smiling and laughing. I was always hidden somewhere crying. The only person I've ever talked to was my school's janitor.

    Luckily, I'm out of it now. Janitors are wise, wise men. Now I can manage all the pressure easily, do everything in my way, and most important, have my own way.

    But it took 4 years. 4 years are a lot of time. Most idols's careers are 4-years long. Only now I understood why.

    1. This is incredibly off topic but it is AWESOME that you danced to Laser Beam and Spring of Life! Anyone who can dance Perfume gets brownie points in my book! I'm happy that someone else identifies with my sentiments, and I'm so sorry about your situation at school.

      I've been doing plays since 2008 but they've mostly been local efforts. Nothing too professional, but there is definitely a lot of pressure when you first start out. You feel like berating yourself for not being as talented as your peers. For me, the joy of just performing and seeing the audience's reactions outweigh the negativity though. I can see how it would be too much though.

      I'm so glad you've got things figured out now, even if it took 4 years! The fact that you figured out how to handle the pressure is a huge step forward. Best of luck to you in future performance endeavors!

  2. I love when people think of corporations as these entities acting as arbitrary gatekeepers and stifling art. Corporations are the ones who pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover recording costs and cover the 50 thousand dollar budget of a music video that we can watch for free. Even with the downsides of major record labels, they are valuable.

    1. There are a lot of things that corporations screw up (-cough- the American education system), and there are valid complaints. But you bring up a really good point about money. I think we as fans sometimes tend to forget how much money has to go into releasing and promoting music.

  3. Although there are similarities, I think that there are some big differences as well! The mere fact of idols being from Japan makes a big difference in itself, I think -- while people over here may complain about "formula" driven pop music and performers, the real problem is that music companies here simply fail to make the formula very interesting!! Sadly, we are living in a time when even a lot of so-called "alternative" and "indie" music artists are just doing equally formulaic and unoriginal music, even if they're following a slightly different sort of (hipster) blueprint to do it....! Even when they're trying to sound "whimsical", it often seems very calculated to me, like their artistic recipe book told them it's what they had to include. As for these "authentic" singer-songwriter types which we often hear about.... mostly a pretentious load of tripe, if you ask me! Really, a pretense is just exactly what it amounts to, for the most part.

    Luckily, in Japan, they remember that pop music is actually supposed to be a fun and engaging thing!! That in itself makes it a huge improvement. Also, while parts of an idol's image or schtick may be a bit contrived, it tends to be based at least somewhat on their real personality -- even if it is an exaggerated or idealized version of it. Actually, I would say that part of the appeal of idols is that they have set themselves a goal to aspire not only to a higher level of performance ability, but also to reaching a more 'ideal' way of interacting with the world in general! Even if that just means extra smiles and cuteness.... it's still a valuable thing, to a lot of people! Even when groups present a more oddly skewed or almost anti-idol-like concept or image, it still has a basic essence of playfulness at the real heart of it all....

    A lot of this is noticeably missing from what we get over here however, as opposed to being genuinely prized and prioritized over there, I'd say. (It goes far beyond just the realm of music though, and into society as a whole, really.) I suppose it's hard to explain the difference to people who haven't had much exposure to it all. So, I'm not sure if much can be done about that!

    1. You're absolutely right; I left out cultural differences! That's always surprised me about idol music. Over here, all the idols mostly stick to pop music. In Japan though, you have all these differently styled idol groups. I mean, freaking Babymetal is an idol group and they're a blend of metal and idol pop! People are always poking fun at "weird Japanese music" but at least it's interesting! I love me some hipster and indie groups, but even I can agree that the formula is a little worn. I feel like everything I hear on my Alternative radio station is just Alt-electro with a vaguely interesting hook. And I can't even deal with the pretentious singer-songwriters. Pretentious music is kind of a guilty pleasure of mine, but I know that it's pretentious.

      Nearly all idol images are contrived, but at least some of them are entertaining! Again with the Babymetal example, I don't think of the members listened to metal before the group was formed. And it's a bit of a consolation that the idols can at least amplify bits of their real personality when making a persona. It's still a mask of course, but it's a mask based around a small grain of truth. The J-pop idol world is obviously not without its problems, but you're right. There is this playfulness and silliness to the images and music.

      I haven't devoted much time to the teen idols in America as of late, but they all seem to copy the same concept. J-idols do the same thing, but it feels like there's more experimentation. Like there are more producers willing to try out new sounds using idols. Who knows? Maybe a BiS-style group will come to the US someday! But I won't hold my breath on it.

    2. I'm not entirely against the pop or indie scene music over here, but.... it almost seems like it's fallen into a hole, from which it can't see its way out any more -- at least compared to the days of those pioneering New Wave bands, who actually were trying to do something much more uniquely their own. Although it almost defies belief, it seems that these days even the very idea of making music which doesn't fit with some obvious pre-existing trend is something that just DOESN'T MAKE SENSE to people now!! What used to called "alternative" is now relegated to some sort of "weird", "fringe" artist status in people's minds.... as is music from Japan, apparently! And, what's now called "alternative" is mostly just a different type of commercial branding from the teeny-bopper Top 40, it seems. {That doesn't make the Western music bad, necessarily; but, it feels very limited in scope, I'd say.} A certain amount of artsy pretentiousness isn't a problem, really -- but when it's just singers who try to show off their own "earnestness", like it's a badge of honor that makes them superior to "mere pop performers", then I don't tend to bother paying ANY attention to them!

  4. Well look what I found!
    Yes, it's K-pop not J-pop, but I think the principle holds.

    1. Nice list! I only know of Hyuna, but it's really interesting what the article says about her (and the other idols too). I always wondered how much of her onstage image was merely an image!