What the hell is an idol?
These are idols:
“Thanks for the help.”
You’re welcome. But I get it, you wanted an actual explanation.
To a Westerner, the concept of an idol is kind of tough to digest; the nearest U.S. approximation might be Jennifer Lopez, who’s been a crossover pop star, an actor, a fashion and cosmetics model and talent competition judge (among plenty of other things). Maybe Madonna in the 90s, when she was everywhere. Lady Gaga. Beyonce.
Basically, an idol, properly understood, is an all-pervasive media personality. It’s more than being a pop star (Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is one of the biggest stars in the world, but she rejects the notion of being an idol), but appearing on TV and in movies, modeling, hosting their own shows, and on and on. Until fairly recently, most idols were flash-in-the-pan phenomena, coming out of nowhere to shine brightly for a few inescapable months, then disappearing while new personalities rose to take their place.
Idols have been part of the Japanese cultural landscape for a few decades, really, but haven’t always been as insanely popular as they are lately — for going on about 10 years now, idol as a scene has been not only the dominant pop cultural force in Japan, but it’s adapted to better dominate the entertainment industry.
Gone are the days of individuals and groups coming and going; now, there are plenty of long-standing groups populating the charts. Gone are the days of performing in parks and malls for peanuts; the biggest idol groups of them all sell out stadiums and put on some of the most gangbusters visual performances you can even imagine seeing.
Of course, there’s a huge human cost: Groups like AKB48 above (or any of the other 48s, for that matter) are particularly hard for a Westerner to understand: Not only do their membership rolls expand into the dozens, but they also turn over membership constantly, with some members never even appearing on an album or in a music video.
There are huge cultural and business pressures on idols, too. One defining characteristic is an accessibly inaccessible wholesome sexiness, sort of girl-next-door-meets-virgin-slut. It is expected of idols that they will present a completely innocent demeanor while showing a bit of skin (or doing summer single videos in bikinis), that they won’t date, that they won’t ever be associated with drugs, and on and on. Some of that is culturally imposed, implicit in the deal of becoming somewhat famous; plenty of it also comes down from management, and considering the organized crime background of some of the agencies, it’s absolutely not surprising to hear about physical and sexual coercion of idols (many of whom, it’s worth pointing out, are teenagers at the time), not to mention the intense economic exploitation at the root of it.
You mean idols don’t get rich?
Not many do. Historically, that’s due at least in part to the structure of idol culture, which only offered the performers a small window to stand out; in sports terms, it’s akin to never getting a chance at that fat second contract. But talent agencies, not record labels, are the big drivers of the Japanese music industry, and the agencies typically take a huge cut of revenue for themselves. A Perfume, for instance, or a Momoiro Clover Z will make far more money than most people per year and over the course of their careers, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what Katy Perry can expect to make.
Now, some idols will make a lot of money during their time as idols and after, but not through their music. The real money comes from acting and modeling and endorsements (and the agencies of course get their cut), which is why the emphasis is on building fame.
This sounds weird and counterintuitive at first blush, but it’s how the entire entertainment industry is structured around the world. People are famous for being famous, creativity and talent don’t mean a hill of beans if you aren’t marketable, the tops of the charts are (typically, not always) dominated by easy-to-access sounds and bland personalities that fit within the dominant culture.
And a lot of them are teenagers?
A LOT of them are teenagers, at least when they start. Even in the West, that isn’t that weird, but it is on another level in Japan. For example, Sakura Gakuin (who gave birth to Babymetal) just had an incoming class that included two 10-year-olds, and all of their members graduate from the group when they graduate from ninth grade.
And all girls?
Yes and no. Japan doesn’t have a shortage of boy bands, and a lot of them are idols in their own right, but it just isn’t the same. There are some limited instances of men being part of women’s idol units. Where men fit, though, is nothing like where the women do.
So yes, girls and women. Wholesome and often at least a little sexy. Singing J-pop when they aren’t modelling and acting and doing voice work and on and on.
That sounds exhausting.
So why are you into idols?
Part of the impetus behind this website is to make a certain side of idol more accessible to the Anglophone world. Like a lot of people, Babymetal was the prime mover on a journey that led to the discovery of some really great music in a fascinating cultural context.
The women currently doing idol different are making it music-centric; they’re taking idol styles of vocals and stage performance and applying them to genres that, on paper, make absolutely no sense in combination, but it works and it’s awesome.
Part of why is the simple reason that J-pop, as ex-Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman found when he went to Japan in the 90s, is pretty damn great. There’s a lot of song in J-pop songs, more than the rhythm-and-hook orientation that plays well in the United States, and a lot of room to mix and match styles and experiment with sounds and tempos.
So, just speaking personally, as a person who cares about the music, I can enjoy the product of idols without supporting the oft-abusive industry forces that control them. I look at it as being no different than liking professional sports, to be honest.
Okay, but … homicidols?
Yep. As suggested above, idol has always had a certain musical flexibility, and anime fans will know that the idea of “animetal,” of mixing female pop vocals with hard rock or heavy metal, is nothing new.
But the current world-conquering rise of idol, as should be no surprise, brought counter-cultural elements along with it. BiS and Babymetal, who both loom large in this context despite playing very different roles, got started in 2010, as did the more traditional Himekyun Fruit Can; over five years, dozens of rock and punk and metal and hardcore and “denpa” idol groups have popped up.
Some never even made it as far as putting a live video from a dingy club in a red-light district on YouTube; some are becoming serious business. If their popularity continues to expand in the West, Babymetal is poised to be Japan’s all-time #1 musical export in the not-too-distant future.
It’s the heavier, harder side of music that gives them a common bond; even if some groups actually freely embrace traditional roles as idols within what they do, the fact that they’re bringing challenging musical themes into a culture that’s been obsessed with one idea of what an idol can be is hugely important.
And, of course, a lot of them define themselves by just how far they can invert the central tropes of idol culture. They may be singing and dancing backed only by recorded music, but few things are as punk as idols drinking on stage and stage diving, and few things are as metal as teenagers performing themselves into the hospital while surrounded by pyrotechnics and borderline-Satanic mythologies.
But seriously, that name?
As the idea for this site started to come together, I wanted to call it something unique, give it an identity. Unfortunately, it looks like BiS management or possibly Avex Trax still owns idolisdead.com and won’t give it up for cheap, so that idea was out. Idolcore.com was a possibility, but the project always felt bigger than just what can neatly fit into a definable idea of “idolcore,” so that was out, too.
Ultimately, the punk attitude at the center of so much of it made me think of the Suicide Girls, so “suicidols” was almost the name, but then I didn’t like the association of a burlesque show with (I must make this clear) teenagers, so, cool name or not, it had to go.
Little Brother, who holds the root responsibility for this being a thing, was the quick brain who turned “suicidols” into “homicidols,” and it just really works, from the beaten-bloody look of BiS to the horror violence of the Alice Project to the sheer possibility that Fruitpochette may put a bullet in you.
In short, these are idols who aren’t playing around. They aren’t soft, they aren’t cute (even when they are), they aren’t yours to obsess over (even when you do), they aren’t your object. They will kill you dead.
And like the whole scene is covered on here?
Not even close! In fact, JapanCorner.cc has been out in front on getting a lot of stuff from the underground into the attention of Westerners, and quite a bit of the groups that are profiled on here (not to mention the eventual blog coverage) might have never seen the western hemisphere if not for those videos … and the Idol 2.0 project is only scratching the surface.
Pure Idol Heart, both the website and the Facebook page, is also indispensable as an English-language Japanese resource that happens to have an in with some indie idols and genuinely enjoys the underground.
And, at least from a steady content perspective, I have no pretensions about trying to cover everybody. There are some (light) guidelines:
- You have to be “good.” This is a very subjective measurement, obviously.
- You have to have a presence online. This puts the groups with agency representation, or at least decent management, in the driver’s seat, and that isn’t fair, but there has to be something for us to connect to, and thousands of miles’ worth of distance means that the Internet is it.
- You have to have video available, or files on Soundcloud. We need to have something to listen to and share.
- Other English speakers need to be interested in you. Also not fair, but I don’t have any Japanese and the various online translators kind of suck, so the news has to come in an accessible way, at least at the start.
Other than that, there’s a lot of wiggle and opportunity. This site has launched with profiles for only a handful of the groups that will eventually get there, and a companion site for alt-idols who aren’t particularly heavy or hard is in the works, so please be patient if you’re, like, a huge petit pas! fan and butthurt that I didn’t get to them yet. It’ll take time.
Complicating that is the fact that new groups are rolling out all the time. Like, I found out about Cutie Corpse and Honey Emperor debuts in the same week that I was writing a lot of this. The scene gets bigger every day.
WHY AREN’T YOU COVERING BAND-MAID / DOLL$BOXX / ALDIOUS / WAGAKKI BAND / ETC.
Because this is a site about idols, not all-woman bands or woman-fronted bands or really bands at all, with some small exception for anti-idol groups that involve bands. Band Ja Naimon! gets it right.
What do some of these terms that you throw around mean?
Banhammer: What will be brought down upon any commenter or contributor who breaks the rules. A certain amount of leeway will be given for first offenses or borderline behavior, but the Banhammer will also be swift and strict if necessary. It is preferred that the community police itself, thereby rendering the Banhammer to last-resort status. Nonetheless, it’s my site and I get to decide what is and isn’t appropriate or acceptable, and I will not hesitate to put the Banhammer to good use if I must.
In the event of a warning, the offense will be spelled out and explanation given. In the event that the Banhammer crashes down upon you, there will be no explanation.
Center: Even if unofficially, many idol groups will have a center, which AFAIK is basically the lead or most important singer. This is sometimes also the leader; even groups without a leader may have a center. But to give some example, St. Chitti II is the leader of BiSH, and she has a lot of the lead singing duties, but Aina the End is absolutely the center, which you can tell by the fact that she has most of the choruses (and an outlandishly powerful voice for an idol, FWIW).
Gradol: Idols whose real base of activity is in gravure modeling. I’m deliberately avoiding the gravure work done by some of my personal favorite artists featured on this site, but it is a thing.
Gravure: So controversial! I don’t have an easy way to describe gravure modeling and photography. It’s sometimes perfectly innocent and unobjectionable; it’s sometimes a little too close to outright porn; it sometimes IS outright porn. To keep the focus on the artists and their work, this site will not include gravure photography of any type, but it will sometimes discuss gravure photography in proper context.
Idol: See above.
Kawaii: Usually rendered in English as “cute,” it is that, but it’s also more than just cute. Weird Western otaku tend to over-associate kawaii with, like, everything. For a proper example, Babymetal call themselves “kawaii metal.”
There are also different notions of just what kawaii is and what it means, whether it’s an internal or external or exogamous thing. Dempagumi.inc and others in the Akihabara scene have recently taken to “same-sex kawaii”; that is, it’s a girl-centric kawaii that’s more about impressing your friends than appealing to men.
But anyway, kawaiicore is a thing, and it gets some treatment here, but nobody’s going to score any points on the basis of their level of kawaii. This site is about music and personalities and somewhat about appearance if it’s relevant to performance; it is not about kawaii. If that’s your bag, go check out Tokyo Girls Update.
Leader: Many idol groups have a member who’s in charge. What that actually means depends on the group — they might write music, or they might just do most of the talking in interviews, or some combination of lots of things.
Mascot: I actually don’t know if this is the preferred nomenclature for the role, but I’ve seen it used enough to adopt it — basically, there’s usually a member of an idol group who handles the comic relief, acts as the little sister, gets the short end, etc.. This may be a person who’s not much in the song-and-dance department, but nonetheless has a great presence on stage and can work with an audience, or who can feature prominently in interviews or videos. I mean, a mascot. I don’t think I have to spell it out so much.
Oricon: A record sales chart, like a Japanese Billboard, except that Billboard Japan exists, so I don’t get the point of Oricon except that ranking on the weekly charts is apparently kind of a big deal, so there will be references herein!
Oshimen: Your favorite idol. Refers to your favorite of a group (short: oshi), but also applies in general (tan-oshi just one term) if that’s your thing. If you’re the kind of wota whose actual human identity is at least in part taken over by your oshi, you probably refer to her as kami-oshi. If this happens to you after the age of 15, you are weird.
Not to hate on the idea of an oshi in the first place. This is a music site, so unless you find yourself being a little idol-enculturated while you explore the landscape, you can probably avoid the oshimen phenomenon, and good for you. But if you suddenly snap to at 3:00 a.m. on a random Tuesday and realize that you only wanted to watch “Road of Resistance” one time like five hours ago but are now on your third turn through an obscure, poorly subtitled bootleg video of Sleepiece and you’re hoping that Nene’s enjoying nursing school … you’ve earned yourself an oshimen. It happens. No judgment.
Just don’t be one of those people about it, okay? Which kind of people, you ask?
Otaku: An obsessive. We somewhat have the same thing in the United States, what with gamers sometimes never leaving the house and certain Harry Potter fans and whatnot, but otaku are basically on their own planet when it comes to being nerds. They do, unfortunately, sometimes become shut-ins. It’s sad.
Otaku culture, though, whether legitimately so or because it’s a good backstory, gave us Dempagumi.inc, so it can’t be all bad.
Pinchike: Wota were the backbone of the idol scene for a long time. Then alt-idols started to Sex Pistols their way through the underground and cracked out into the borderline mainstream, and, while they have no shortage of regular ol’ wota, they also have pinchike, the rowdies, the dirty fans who’ll gleefully break every rule of a venue if it means having a chance (I am not exaggerating) to make eye contact with their oshi during her solo line. Oh, and they’ll tear the place apart sometimes.
As a person whose first metal show was seeing GWAR murder Jacques Cousteau and the pope in the first five minutes of a stage held under a tent on a riverbank, I think that nothing validates the whole notion of homicidol culture as metal-as-hell as much as pinchike.
TIF: Short for “Tokyo Idol Festival,” an annual extravaganza that hits … uh, Tokyo every August. TIF doesn’t always host the uppermost tiers of idol, and its doors have been a little more widely open in the past few years (they do have tickets to sell, after all), but getting to perform at TIF is either a sign of respect for where your career is or an indication that you got it, baby, and the organizers think you’ll put on a good show. You can probably also pay your way in, assuming that Japanese festivals work the same way that U.S. ones do.
Playing TIF or not playing TIF doesn’t really matter that much, though. A number of the groups featured on this site played 2015, and both BiS and Babymetal have been there before, but plenty of what you can find in the quality corners of the idol underground is not only perfectly great, but probably completely disinterested in TIF. Screaming Sixties, for instance. Really can’t see them play the Smile Garden.
Weeaboo: Usually used as a pejorative, which of course means that it’s also used as a term of pride by some of those who have it thrown their way. These are people who aren’t Japanese who nonetheless become so obsessed with Japanese things that they first start to wish that they were Japanese, then sometimes go so far as to only associate with Japanese things.
This site is not anti-weeaboo, but it is not a weeaboo site. Our position is that it’s perfectly possible to like one thing from a country (for instance: idols!) without needing to completely obsess over the rest of it, and then you can promote that one thing that you really like and people who aren’t 100 percent like you will be a little bit more trusting.
Wota: Just had this one cleared up by a new friend. “Wota” ain’t nothing but shorthand for “otaku,” which does make sense. I still maintain that, level of obsession being somewhat discomfiting, wota are the best fans in music. They’re usually trying really hard to convince you of that.
The true wota has a near-religious devotion to sometimes even a single idol. Wota have chants that fit certain songs, either dance with the idols or have coordinated group dances of their own, send their favorite idols gifts, get into awesome flame wars on the Internet over completely stupid things … actually, wota are kind of weird and creepy. But they’re seriously the best fans. Watch a few live idol shows from bigger venues to really experience it.
Here’s where I was confused:
Wotagei: Always seeing this word used in association with wota is probably why I got crossed up, but here you go: “Wotagei” isn’t, as previously stated, the origin of “wota,” but it’s what wota do during the show, the chanting and dancing and immersive experience that comes from being super-duper behind your oshi.
That’s a nutshell version of things. If you have other questions, ask in the comments or feel free to ping the boss.