Idol Is Art

Here’s another one for you fine people to chew on.

Brian turned me on to this translated blog post at Babymetal Newswire, originally by anime director Yamamoto Yukata, that’s interesting in a lot of ways for its ruminations on the Tokyo Dome performances from an artistic perspective (if you missed Daemon’s Red Night and Black Night dispatches, there’s another chance).

The money quote is Babymetal being at “the forefront of contemporary art,” as the title suggests, but it’s the reason that gets me: While Babymetal may not quite hit all the right notes all the time or be quite as perfect in their stage performance as often seems to be the case, its in the commitment to this thing they’re doing, this creation of personae and acting within them, that makes them perfect idols, and attaining that level of idol is an art in and of itself.

Fascinating, and also true.

I could couch this in a bunch of “IMHO” stuff, but I won’t because I don’t think I need to; I love Babymetal, my whole thing with idols stems from Babymetal, and I still spin the crap out of their music, but I’ve done two things previously: I’ve said that they’re basically perfect idols for largely the same reason, and I’ve pointed out the flaws in their performance when I’ve seen them (in some corners of the Internet, that apparently means that I hate them, but whatever).

It’s not the Babymetal point that I’m riffing on now, though. Yes, Babymetal does those things and is that, but look at the other really big names among our section of the Idolverse, or the different styles (like yami-kawaii) that bubble out from within it. There’s BiS, who took a George R.R. Martin approach to idol (inverting tropes while keeping the narrative structure intact); there’s Zenbu Kimi no Sei Da, the living embodiment of fractured emotions; Guso Drop, down-and-dirty hardcore scenesters; NECRONOMIDOL, mortuary-chic; and so on. Hell, Bellring Girls Heart may as well be an art project brought to life.

Now, we like the music, and we connect with the aesthetic, but think about all of the angles at play in there — the performance isn’t (or isn’t just) what’s happening on stage in the song and dance, but in the way the performers are playing a part. Do I think that Zenkimi’s Mashiro is dealing with complicated feelings of rejection, betrayal and exploitation while possibly nursing a heroin problem? I don’t, but she sure as hell is conveying that, on and off the stage, in and out of her music. There’s basically no difference between that and Hanako-san being an undead schoolgirl or Pikarin an ancient demon; personae are created, roles are established, and the show goes on.

It’s fascinating. Even Pour Lui, who meant every assault on the form of idol (which, as we’ve seen, was a form of expression separate from her actual personal feelings in its own right), nonetheless kept the underlying structure intact* (political economy folks in the room might understand it as a base and superstructure thing).

It’s in this that our darling alt-idols (set your teeth on edge!) are, in fact, the most perfect idols of all, because they’re committing to the kind of all-out personality creation of a typical idol but with wildly different rules and expectations — they’re reinventing form and function at the same time, all the time.

And yeah, I get it that it’s not always the case. There are plenty of idols who are true, genuine amateurs and enjoy putting on a little bit of an act while on stage and then drop at least some of the facade for fan interaction, and then drop all of it once the uniform comes off. That’s not a problem; I don’t even think it’s an issue, because performance art (like acting) can run a gamut from Daniel Day-Lewis to Keanu Reeves without losing the fact that it’s all still performance art.

But all of that together — and a whole bunch of stuff that I’m deliberately leaving out because I’d like for us to be able to talk about it rather than me say it at you — is a big part of what makes idol so blessed fascinating. I’m not in a position to say whether any particular idol or group’s performance is or is not “perfect idol,” but I do know that there was always a right way to do things, and that right way is being pushed and pulled and pinched and slashed by people willing to see how far the very idea of idol as a performance art can be taken. We probably haven’t even come close to the outer extremes yet, at least not in a popular way, and that’s extremely exciting.**

*We could probably spend days going over how that all worked, but that’s not the point of this piece
**It’s also a challenge to this whole thing, because Westerners care (or pretend to care) a lot more about “authenticity” in their musicians, especially so among punk+ and metal people. It’s always been one of the biggest criticisms of Babymetal, that the girls write none of the music (mostly) and don’t play instruments; for people for whom those are actually things that matter, no amount of the Kami Band selling the live experience can make up for how manufactured it all is.

I think that’s dumb, and I think we probably all do in our own way. It’s also bullshit, because what the hell does “authentic” mean anyway? More on that in a follow-up piece, I guess.

2 thoughts on “Idol Is Art

  1. I think one important thing is to note that the “manufactured” nature of BABYMETAL is built right into the concept and the characters in a playful way which is part of why i personally think they have been able to be accepted by as many people as they have.

    I don’t think an idol pretending to be a tortured drug addict would hold up against a similar amount of scrutiny…

    There is a related topic wanted to bring up in the “Phase II” post but i didn’t want to make too many BABYMETAL comparisons but since it fits in here i will go ahead:

    It is also important to note that BABYMETAL are deliberately, gleefully and almost violently inauthentic.

    They tour with Lady Gaga and RHCP, they pose for pictures with Ariana Grande and say that they are big fans of hers in interviews.

    When asked what metal bands they like they say Bring Me The Horizon, Metallica and Limp Bizkit and Marmozets…

    They didn’t team up with some underground grindcore artist to collaborate on a track, they teamed up with Dragonforce…

    And this, of course, also is true of their music.

    To put it simply; They don’t care if genre gatekeepers think they are authentic or not.

    Some other idol groups seem to do things differently and i am very curious how they would be accepted if they started getting western attention…
    I can’t help but think of King 810 who were pushed with an image of being “real” and “dangerous” to the point where it all came off as super super fake and people started turning on them.

  2. I also discovered Idols from BABYMETAL, and as delightful as they are, a few things about them seem obvious to me now about their rise to “ART”.

    For starters:
    A ) being handpicked for nearly exclusive training, add to that years of training piled on top of some obvious earlier talent and/or experience.

    B) Aside from a handful of intimate unrecorded Sakura Gakuin shows or episode clips, we (westerners) and perhaps a half-dozen early show audiences entirely missed their “growth phase”. By that I mean NOT carefully edited concert video DVD’s, NEVER singing live ( pretty much all junior Idol groups sing and dance live, there is almost always a “suck phase” or to put it nicely and not be an ass, it is incredibly difficult and takes years to develop singing AND dancing skills properly together, even with training and talent. All to often, most Idol groups form and disband before the “suck phase” is completed, without corporate backing, or substantial financial backing, how long could a standard underground/hard unit last with that model? We will not see that happen again, thankfully.

    And yes, that’s why their is always something said about “trying one’s best” .As far as imperfection growing into something greater, this a mainstay of watching Idols grow and develop. As an Idols confidence grows, some remarkable talent can erupt, seemingly from nowhere. That is a huge part, embracing the imperfections and the feeling Otaku and overseas fans have as part of their development.

    BABYMETAL fans were robbed of a crucial part of the Total Idol fandom experience, I think.
    Koba’s master-stroke was to give extended training wheels to a project in a culture without an aversion to them (Lip Syncing) and most western audience had no idea either way. It goes something like this watching older BM stuff and explaining it to a newbie.
    Why are they lip syncing?
    Too Young!
    Oh alright I makes sense, I suppose.
    They really sing with a real band now, too. Check this video out…

    And that is the Hand-Wave that glosses over a huge elephant in the room pertaining to BM’s ART and Idol.

    An entire segment of non-Japan culture fans were primed to seek out more “similar to BABYMETAL” experiences and many were set-up (intentionally perhaps) to have a tough time duplicating. There are some kickass CD’s from Idol groups of any Musical background. Not knowing that Idol lives can differ greatly from the recordings can be a turn-off to “typical westerner who doesn’t have a clue”. I admit I was one of those at one point.

    Although It seems to be the beginning of a trend that Idol Units are venturing beyond their home prefectures in an effort to grow. Maybe this, if anything is the path to future success for “Hard Idols”, straight from Koba’s playbook. It only happened after western success, though. Overseas tours seem to be good Idol Cred, and even if it were not, it helps build a fanbase. Obvious, but BM added to their name by carefully selecting where to have shows. It worked well but half the planet is disappointed, still.

    Maybe “underground/hard idol” is becoming more slick and produced, I often wonder how many shows ticket fees, cheki, merch sales it takes to pay for a “cool video” that can hold it’s own against any western offering. BABYMETAL raised that bar somewhat, as far as Concert Videos go, but Osaka Syunksyun, BiSH, and many others have much better high/medium-budget PV’s .

    I suspect seeing BM selling out the largest theaters (and arenas)throughout Japan and even others Units getting enthusiastic responses abroad has more than a few Young ladies minds (and staff) envisioning bigger things.

    So Yes, BABYMETAL is Art. There is magic behind the Art. There may very well be a cost to Idol behind the illusion many were lured to BABYMETAL with, which has since become reality.

    And yes, the many Idol fans who pre-date the entire BM thing (and could teach us newbie Idol fans more than a few things) must be fairly sick about the whole thing. I know I am at times.

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