Why Idol Music is One of the Most Innovative and Surprising Genres of the Japanese Industry
When I first got into Japanese music five years ago, the description most people gave me of the Idol scene was of generally untalented girls singing plain songs written by someone else and promoting random commercial products. As a newbie coming from years of western rock and metal music, I was pretty disturbed by this vision at first, so under the relief of finding a whole new world of music and the comfortable protection from cutting-edge groups like Perfume, I started analyzing the idol scene with attention and found out that those statements weren’t completely right, at least for what concerns the music quality.
While at first I definitely noticed groups representing that disheartening description, i couldn’t do anything but getting more and more interested in certain projects involving Idols that stood out for personality, talent, and most of all, good music. Surprised to find all those qualities in a genre that, according to my former point of view, was just not worth any time, I started to incessantly look for more groups and music that could catch my attention and genuinely entertain me with charismatic concepts and enthralling vibes, a rewarding habit I still keep today that brings many satisfying discoveries.
The last encounter happened this week, when I came across an eye-catching project that had me surprised for the umpteenth time, a new unit that goes by the name of “Maison book girl“.
Composed by four members, including the ex-BiS Koshoji Megumi and Japan’s Miss ID 2015 finalist Yagawa Aoi, this project kicked off in 2014 but started to get recognition only now with their freshly released first album bath room. Far from finding its place between the average idol groups that struggle to find an identity or a reason to stand out in the maze of this niche, this first long play produced by Sakurai Kenta (known in the scene for his previous work with Izukoneko) is catching the attention of many aficionados of the genre for valid reasons, that go from great quality production, magistral balance and versatility in the girls’ vocals, to enthralling acoustic and jazz influences that contaminate the nine tracks composing this release. The atmospheres summoned in these numbers, coupled by accessible yet well layered sonorities, unpredictable tempo-changes, and complex structures, surprised more than once during the whole length of this album, reminding me once again (as always when I listen to this kind of records) how stubborn I was in thinking that Idols couldn’t deliver genuinely good music and convey feelings.
When I think about it, I get more and more convinced that the diffidence towards this nice that afflicts a certain part of the general audience (especially overseas) is due to superficial prejudices coming from the shining and sometimes excessively cheesy feel emanated by a large part of the Idol acts. Judging a product from the label is hardly a good meter for quality though, and the presence of girls singing and dancing to “someone else’s song” doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no space for quality music; Actually, the most innovative tracks and concepts I’ve seen in the last years in the Japanese industry mostly came from the Idol genre. I could use several examples, citing the charismatic Momoiro Clover Z unit, that showcases multiple and limitless concepts and amazing (almost progressive) pop compositions, or the delicious and classy funkiness brought by the idols-turned-artists TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE, or again, the wonderful reinterpretation of classic 80’s idol pop brought by ex-Sakura Gakuin leader Ayami Muto. I could spend the entire day listing acts that catch the attention of their fans with valid music and concepts, but a deeper look at this music scene would make everything shorter and definitely more pleasant, other than convincing even the more skeptical and picky of listeners (a category in which I shamelessly fit) of the quality hidden in this niche.
Another curious and enjoyable aspect worth mentioning that represented a real evolution in the idol scene in the last years, is the fusion of common idol pop music with completely unrelated music genres, a new trend not to be underestimated that brought to success several groups. As a fan of experimental music and all the unpredictable combinations that come with it, I was really pleased to see the birth and growth of Idol projects born with a mixed concept in mind, and while it can definitely be a double-edged sword due to all the risks of fusing distant music influences, it still brought several valid groups to the Japanese music scenario: Indie idol unit lyrical school, for example, were the first to fully implement rap music in their compositions, teasing the audience with catchy Idol pop and rhymed lyrics, successfully combining these distant music genres. More recently, the globally successful group BABYMETAL merged for the first time Idol sonorities with extreme Metal, a combination the world didn’t see coming that resulted in a striking success brought by the energy of three girls and their band composed by top notch musicians. I could also mention Curumi Chronicle, the independent solo idol that makes a wide use of several electronic music influences under the care of producer Usagi Disco, mixing her unique vocals with cold electronic sonorities, spacing from Techno and Dubstep to Trance and Drum ‘n Bass. While all these projects gained attention because of the undeniable curiosity born from this fusion of genres, the main reason why they stand out today is because they bring genuinely good compositions and extremely well thought combinations of sonorities.
So, after seeing such groups reaching success and gaining strong fanbases, is it fair to say that Idol music is a fertile niche to create quality music by implementing and mixing different sonorities? The answer to this question is at the same time the reason why the Idol scene, today, can be a treasure chest full of interesting music: Because it’s free of limits.
This freedom comes from the above mentioned “Girls singing someone else’s song” statement: That’s the key to it. The producer behind the group creates music to then make it perform to the girls. Because that’s what idols are: performers backed by a team of artists, musicians and designers that put their music and visual concepts at the service of these young talents to deliver the representation of a creative outlet, showcasing the performing abilities of the girls at the same time. What’s better, the fact some Idols have no particular skills (especially at the beginning of their career) makes everything even more malleable and various to work with for the producer. While artists with strong and aimed vocal and dancing skills are somehow limited and forced to respect a certain pattern that averagely varies in minimum doses, Idols take advantage of the nature of their catchy and “light” genre and of their youth age to welcome clear music influences and improve their yet-to-be-developed skills with them. To make a simple comparison, Idols are like blank pages where the producer writes its concepts and feelings to then convey them through the girls’ performances, developing at the same time the talent of these young girls. It’s a two way mechanism that works greatly, where Suzuka Nakamoto from the already mentioned group BABYMETAL represents one of the best examples of it, a girl that keeps stunning the global metal community with her powerful vocal skills at the mere age of seventeen after years spent performing in the Idol pop scene. It also breaks down the theory of “untalented acts”, as the work idols put out comes from artists that help the performers become artists themselves: It’s a different and more complex representation of the standard “moral” thought of musicians creating their own music and playing it live.
That’s why when it comes to Idol music, considering only the acts on stage is generally a limited vision of it, as they are part of a unique entity where the performers and the team of artists work together and have the same relevance on the final output (one clear example is the Perfume/Yasutaka Nakata connection). Lastly, I think we can all agree that performing on a stage, on a professional level, in front of hundreds (or thousands) of people requires not only talent, but a lot of self-control too, a dote that an hypothetical “talentless act” couldn’t possibly own.
Especially when it comes to music, personal tastes are obviously unquestionable, but denying that the Idol niche today represents one of the most innovative and interesting areas of the Japanese music industry would be a lie. Potentially, its most valid acts are also the ones that can gather the interest of the overseas audience as well, as proved by the huge worldwide success of certain artists in the last couple of years. As in every music niche, there are good and bad acts, but an open-minded approach to Idol music can be an incredibly entertaining and rewarding experience due to the variety of this genre. Music “habits” might make it a bit of a hard task at first, but still, watching performers developing their talent and grow with it on a stage is a unique experience that deserves to be considered by anyone that loves music.
And while enjoying the uplifting and jazzy vibes of bath room, my mind is already looking forward to find more refreshing tunes in this surprise-filled scene.
Maison book girl official site : http://www.maisonbookgirl.com/
Momoiro Clover Z official site: http://www.momoclo.net/
TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE official site : http://tokyogirlsstyle.jp/
Ayami Muto official site : http://www.mutoayami.jp/
lyrical school official site : http://lyricalschool.com/
BABYMETAL official site : http://www.babymetal.jp/
Curumi Chronicle official site : http://curumichronicle.tumblr.com/
(*She takes hiatus from July 5th, 2015)
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