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 “Idol” is kind of tough to digest; the nearest U.S. approximation might be Jennifer Lopez or Justin Timberlake who have been crossover pop stars, actors, fashion models, appeared on talent and variety shows and plenty of other things. Maybe Madonna in the 90s, when she was everywhere. Lady Gaga. Beyonce.
Basically, an idol, traditionally understood, is an all-pervasive media personality. It’s more than being a pop star, but appearing on TV and in movies, modeling, hosting their own shows, and on and on.
Or, at least, that’s how it used to be. Juju made this really great video covering how it all started and has evolved over time.
Note: While groups like BTS and Black Pink have given a global signal boost to K-Pop idol, and Homicidols has begun to cover Korean, Thai and other Southeast Asian alternative idols, for the purposes of this article, unless otherwise stated, the term “idol” is referring to “Japanese idol”.
Basically, idols have been part of the Japanese cultural landscape for decades, really, but haven’t always been as insanely popular and pervasive as they are lately — for the past couple decades, idol has exploded into what has been dubbed “The Warring Idol Period”. Not only is idol the dominant pop cultural force in music, but it has adapted to better saturate TV, film, fashion and almost all other forms of marketing and entertainment media.
The latest estimates are that there are over 10,000 idols populating more than 3,000 active groups across Japan. Idols are no longer perfect, untouchable stars, but performers you can meet and greet and get a photo with after a show. These days, anyone with the guts to get on stage can be an idol, and anyone with the free time and creative energy can create and manage an idol unit.
Gone as well are the uniform characteristics of idols and idol groups. Every gross generalization in one of the countless “Weird/Toxic Japanese Idol Culture” takes by Western journalists can be directly contradicted by any number of idol units:
- Idols are young? Meet KBG84, Okinawa’s idol unit of elders.
- Idols are thin? Meet plus-sized idols, Big Angel.
- Idols are chaste and modest? Meet Bed In, who celebrate sexuality and 80’s excess.
- Idols can’t date? Meet Cent Chihiro Chitiii of BiSH who promises her fans to never have more than two boyfriends at any one time.
- Idols have a “girl next door” image? Meet 14th Generation Toilet Hanako-san, the grindcore toilet ghost who spits food at her audience.
With thousands of idol units all struggling to establish their own unique identity and appeal, there is an idol unit for almost any possible interest or taste. There are units with sport themes, military themes, an enormous number of food and fruit themes. Enjoy Greek mythology? There’s an idol unit for that. Calligraphy? You’re covered.
Additionally, there are the regional idols: idol units that are created to perform at local festivals and events to promote a region, city or industry. Negicco, for example, is one of the most successful idol units of the past 15 years, and they were formed to promote green onions from Niigata prefecture.
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.
If you really want to understand how the Japanese entertainment system works, Neojaponisme’s series on the Jimusho System will put things into perspective.
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.
The other way idols, especially underground and independent idols, make money is through the sale of merch. Agencies tend to own all music rights and royalties, so the primary opportunity for an idol to earn income outside of their agency salary tends to come from the sale of “goods”, especially cheki, at lives. Typically, a large proportion of these sales goes directly to the idol, so fans looking to support their idols tend to spend generously at buppan.
And a lot of them are teenagers?
Some of them are teenagers, at least when they start. The typical age for idols tends to be between 15 and 25, but there are countless examples of older and younger idols. SMAP’s members were in their 40s when they disbanded, the aforementioned Negicco’s average age is 31, and many of the women who launched the punk-idol movement are still active and pushing 30. Meanwhile Sakura Gakuin (who gave birth to BABYMETAL) had members as young as 10, and all of their members graduated from the group when they left middle school (ninth grade).
And all girls?
No. When Western media gives attention to Japanese idols, they almost exclusively focus on the women and girl groups, but the more lucrative side of the business is actually the male idols. Groups like Arashi, Hey! Say! Jump!, SMAP and KAT-TUN may not sell as many albums as AKB48, but the boy bands are all over TV, dominate DVD/Blu Ray sales, and regularly take top place in any annual accounting of comprehensive earnings (and they are almost all managed by the same company, Johnny’s and Associates).
Recently, there has also been a marked increase in instances of coed units with both men and women as members.
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 with idol becoming a dominant and all-pervasive element in Japanese music and entertainment, it should be no surprise that it brought counter-cultural influences 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 the next several years, dozens of rock and punk and metal and hardcore and “denpa” idol groups popped up. Then came the shoegaze and electronica and hip hop and prog rock and dream pop units until almost every subgenre of alternative rock and subversive pop are represented in the idol scene.
Some never even made it as far as putting a live video from a dingy club in a red-light district on YouTube; some have become serious business. Heck, BABYMETAL became Japan’s all-time #1 musical export.
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! New stuff comes along all the time, a lot of it disappearing into an immediate memory hole. Fans will bring up favorites of theirs, which will lead to little voyages through different Japanese cities’ underground scenes or certain “normal” idols’ flirtations with a rock sound.
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 is in the works for alt-idols who aren’t particularly heavy or hard is, so please be patient if you’re, like, a huge Akishibu Project 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?
Buppan: The period of time at a live when goods and cheki are sold.
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).
Chika Idol: “Chika” translates as “underground” so, literally, “underground idol”. The name supposedly originated to describe independent idols who primarily performed in basement clubs in Akihabara in the late 90s.
Cheki: A small polaroid photo taken of or with an idol. Cheki are often sold at lives for chika and indie idols. Types of cheki include the “one-shot” (the idol only) or “two-shot” (idol +fan).
Goods: Idol merchandise sold during buppan.
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.
Indie: Literally, “Independent”. Indie bands and units are those who are not signed to a major label or distribution deal. Some are self-produced and managed while others may be aligned with small, independent agencies. In Japan, “Indie” is an umbrella term used similarly to how “Alternative” is used in the West as a vague description of a collection of eclectic genres and artists that are outside of the mainstream.
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.
Live: In the context of Japanese music, “live” is a noun meaning “performance”, “gig” or “concert”. The word was borrowed from English advertisements for early rock shows. It is easy to see how a non-English speaker could interpret, “Come see the Everly Brothers Live” to mean “Come see the Everly Brothers concert”. The word is often seen as “One-Man Live” (a solo show), Two-man Live (a concert with two groups), etc. Any show with more than four groups is usually called a “Taiban”.
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.
Mix: Mixes are chants that idol fans create to shout out during idol lives. Mixes can vary from unit to unit, and some individual idols have mixes specific to them that their wota chant during their featured vocal or dance parts in songs.
No matter the idol unit, from AKB48 arena shows to the underground clubs, audiences will perform what is called The Standard Mix (or First Mix) which is usually shouted at the beginning of songs. It begins with someone (or many someones) yelling: “Yossha ikuzo!” (Translation: “Let’s go!”) and is followed by the crowd chanting: “Taiga! Faiya! Saiba! Faiba! Daiba! Baiba! Jya jya!” (Literally: “Tiger, Fire, Cyber, Fiber, Diver, Viber, Jya Jya!”).
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?
Oshi: Short for Oshimen, but this seems to be a Western thing. If you say “Oshī” in Japan, people may think you are disappointed or something was so delicious you are having trouble pronouncing words.
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.
Taiban: A idol or rock show with many participants (from a handful to dozens). It loosely translates to “battle of the bands” even though it is typically just a show with lots of participants and not ant real competition. The root words are “Tai” (short for “Taiketsu” = contest) and “Ban” (which is borrowed form the English, “Band”).
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.
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.