Vanilla Beans, An Appreciation

After just over 10 years of delightful Shibuya-kei inspired pop mixed with electro excursions, Vanilla Beans officially announced that their disbandment will take place this October, ending with one final concert.

While I’d admit it’s not a terribly shocking turn of events, (They’ve mentioned the possibility previously.) it’s still a sad loss to those of us who always adored their harmonies and retro-cool aesthetic. They were, in a sea of idols, a very special group marching to their own drum.

I was first charmed by Vanibe way back in 2008, after seeing the MV for their second single “Nicola”. (Lisa was actually not part of the very early duo, but a girl named Rika.) I was instantly obsessed with the song, and it remains to this day among my very favorite pop tunes of all time. And MV was also sublime with it’s brilliant design and subtle humor. In short, it gently delivered what I consider to be a perfect capsule of pop. Vanilla Beans let me in on something exciting: “Idols” weren’t contained to the carefully constructed tropes I had pegged to the genre. 

Vanibe didn’t even really feel like idols to me, they were more like the cool older sisters of the idols. Sure, they MC’d idol events frequently and posed for cheerful photos with the other girls backstage, but they always had their own unique thing going on. Even pre-BiS, I remember them creating merch that remixed their brand with famous punk-rock logos and pop-culture iconography for winking references of uber-hipness. Along with their quirky music that reached into older retro vibes, Vanilla Beans also took less commercial routes with their seemingly random oddball album covers, along with doing things like sharing acapella versions of their singles to encourage creative remixing.

Vanilla Beans and Negicco were the very first artists to sign onto the T-Palette label, and musically both groups flourished creatively and released wonderful singles with a personal friendly touch. (Negicco continues this indie label relationship.) But in 2015, Vanibe surprised their fans at live show with the announcement that they signed with Avex and were entering the major label arena. And y’know, while I do hold a cynical view of major-label entanglements, I hoped for the best-case scenario that perhaps the duo would succeed on a significantly larger stage. But the truth I have to reluctantly admit to though, is that I don’t believe this was the right move for the girls. The pressure the meet major expectations meant changes in music that wasn’t bad by any means, but just didn’t feel quite right for them. And too often, a corporate entity really doesn’t know understand how to market artists who lack easy commercial categories.

At one point shortly after the first Avex single’s release, the duo essentially offered an ultimatum of sorts: (To paraphrase) “We must either meet expected sales goals, or we’re disbanding.” It may have been true that T-Palette didn’t have the resources to push Vanibe the way a major label could, but it did allow the freedom to make creative choices without fear of failing to meet contractual demands. (ie, sales) Fast forward to the present, and it seems this may have been the impetus to the group finally coming to an end. 

In some ways, I would imagine that this essay of mine presents Vanilla Beans as a cautionary tale of the pitfalls with associating with a major label. But ultimately, what I want most is to to praise the duo for 10 years of absolutely terrific music and doing a small part to alter my preconceptions of what I believed idols were confined by. Vanilla Beans were in fact early progenitors of the current wave of idols. They demonstrated that the rules of the genre were wider than originally presented, and that imagination and creative spirit could take this form to new heights and more adventurous experimentation.

Thank you Lisa and Rena. I wish you the very best wherever the road takes the two of you next. 

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