Momoiro Clover Z: What we talk about when we talk about idols

appmomoheadr

If this is AKB48’s world and we’re just living in it, Momoiro Clover Z has an even greater task on their hands: tweaking the standard just enough to keep it different, without ever abandoning true blue idol pop. I should confess that AKB48 is my least favorite thing to happen to Japanese pop music in the past decade. This includes, by the way, teen boy bands, Funky Monkey Babys, and Ayumi Hamasaki’s last single. Because we have yet to crown a new diva, one who hasn’t been born before 1990, the Oricon charts and pop culture conversation revolves around girl groups and subgroups. Unfortunately, AKB48’s success may have unleashed an ever larger number of idiosyncratic idol groups, but it’s become difficult to mess with the formula in any substantial way. Take Perfume, an idol group by any definition, who have never truly fit the mold: their best feature — music that doesn’t succumb to traditional idol pop — has also been their commercial downfall. It’s easy to think of Perfume as wildly successful because of their vociferous niche community, but their last number one single was 2009’s “ONE ROOM DISCO.” And more than chart status, looking at a group’s ripple effect is a better indicator of the kind of popularity we’re dealing with. When Perfume hit it big, a spat of similar artists mopping the classic Yasutaka Nakata electro-pop sound debuted, hoping to get their foot in the door it took Perfume almost six years to pry open. In recent years, these groups and solo artists are almost all but forgotten.

apppassorIn their place are groups like PASSPO, whose shtick is travel in general and flight attendants in particular. In addition to the costumes and lyrical content, the group has also invented a dubious vocabulary to make them stand out from groups with other, less classy angles. From their generasia profile: “Their live events are called “flights” while those who are attendance [sic] are usually called “the passengers” who can earn points, called “frequent flier miles.” […] The group releases three versions of their singles, each name [sic] Business Class, First Class, and Economy Class, with different material inserted in each version.” Lest thou be fooled by the group’s aggressive marketing tactic, rest assured that this is your garden variety idol group, bubbly rock-pop and requisite graduations (may I suggest “that great gig in the sky”?) included.

appsaintfourrOf course, groups rocking a large number of members is nothing new. AKB48 had a predecessor in similar idol groups like Onyanko Club and Bishoujo Club 31. Momoiro Clover Z owe a debt to a rarer kind of ancestor like SAINT FOUR. That short-lived idol group churned out spunky synth-rock numbers in colored costumes while performing acrobatic dance routines to rival professional gymnasts. Unlike other groups that emphasized a coy vulnerability, they met the stage head on, bouncing around like loose springs in spandex costumes that evoked superheroes, or Super Sentai knock-offs. These girls didn’t whimper, they roared.

Momoiro Clover Z might be known for trolling the same geek circuit, but they also challenge the AKB legacy and its current spokeswoman Minegishi Minami. Both groups pander to an audience: in Z’s world, it’s what Patrick Macias explains are “bonkura.” To distinguish it from your run of the mill otaku, he says, “Bonkura guys are not anti-social. They will seek out and immediately bond with others who share the same wild enthusiasm for junk culture as they do. [..] All they want out of life is raw stimulation and to satisfy the unsophisticated desires of their eternal teenage boy within.” We’ll get back to that last thought in a second, but to sum up: Junk culture. Raw stimulation.

One of Momoiro Clover Z’s best known singles has the girls carousing around like drunk salarymen for “Rodou Sanka,” singing about the everyman giving it his best at work. Others have them traveling through outer space on bikes dressed as space pirates as a barrage of color hits the screen. When they’re not dressed up in color-coordinated boxing costumes, they’re endorsing anime like the newest reincarnation of Sailor Moon. Wacky and weird videos aside, before you start thinking they’re pushing the envelope with Edo period mythology, here’s another sample lyric: “Looky looky here, I want you to look here / When you look at me my heart pounds and I’m happy.” There’s that (teenage) male gaze again. These are idols, after all.

appmomocovrThe newest videos to promote the album 5th DIMENSION are a little different. At some point, in a crescendo mix of orchestra and dubstep, the members’ faces are covered completely by masks. In fact, the only way you could tell them apart (if you didn’t already know each girl by her distinctive height or movements) is by the signature color on their clothes. It’s hard to decide if this is a commentary on the bland, easily replaceable idol industry, or if the girls are just being eccentric again. Yet this isn’t the ridiculous fun of “Push” or “D’no Junjou“; they’re just wearing sparkly costumes with the equivalent of paper bags on their heads.

The real disappointment is the album itself. After the amazing teaser PV of “Neo STARGATE,” it’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking there’s genuine novelty about to happen in an idol group. 5th DIMENSION seemed like it would at least continue the trend of the group’s quirks, even if those quirks are just deliberately standing out from their peers. But the album is a collection of a lot of the same idol treacle with a few catchier stand-outs. It’s especially disappointing if you’re unable to reconcile the idea that Japanese idols created by a male-dominated industry for male-dominated audiences can’t be idols and also women and also positive role models in image and creativity.

One thing they do differently from other idols is put on children-only and women-only lives, perhaps to let minority fan communities get in on the fun without having to constantly rub shoulders with some of the seedier male fans, otaku and bonkura included. Don’t worry, guys get their own lives too, which is to say, Momoiro Clover Z wants you to have a good, safe time in a comfortable environment. But in essence, this also opens up the dreaded conversation about the extreme, less savory fans of idol groups, the ones that crop up the most in the media and make you just a little ashamed because you bought AKB48’s latest single for the song, not the election ballot.

app2ne1rI’ve spoken about the difference between Japanese and Korean idols before, but in an interview with Robert Michael Poole, the CEO of Something Drastic International Music Promotion, he finds it worth noting that “the majority of the audiences [for K-pop shows] are young girls, not boys. [ …] The Japanese pop market has typically been all about cuteness, presenting boys with the ideal submissive girl to treat like a doll rather than lust over.” And later: “The J-pop industry couldn’t create a K-pop style group, because Japanese girls being that edgy would be seen as wholly un-Japanese. [… ] It seems girl groups in Japan have actually become increasingly cuter, younger and presented as servants (maids being the ultimate example), with the likes of AKB48 and their many copycats.” While the general tone of the interview highlights J-pop’s innovative inertia, keeping a pop sound that wouldn’t be out of place two decades ago, the two short years since the interview has seen what is perhaps the Hallyu wave’s last crash. Worth noting is the difference in marketing tactic K-pop groups have taken, attempting to deliberately cater their image to reach that coveted male Japanese fan and his spending money at the expense of strong, independent, and mature role models girls might want to see (note T-Ara’s original video for “Bo Peep Bo Peep” compared to the Japanese version).

This is not to argue how much more noble the K-pop industry is — for one thing, the process of training idols has fallen under extreme scrutiny — but rather to examine the function of idols, the freedom of expression and options girls are encouraged to pursue, and what it says about a particular culture’s notions of what boys and young men should come to expect from the girls and women they are presented with, from entertainment, to the boring, mundane interactions of real life.

Are Momoiro Clover Z the same as their idol peers, or are they actually forcing us to question the predominant image of female idols? Are they presenting different choices for talented girls, or delivering the same message through a different medium? When Tomohisa Yamashita goes solo from NEWS and takes risks working with producers like Yasutaka Nakata to make atypical music, or we see the girls of Fairies performing in outfits rather than costumes encouraging listeners to “Flow like a hero” instead of waiting for one, are we seeing a future of optical and musical variety, or will it simply satisfy a tiny niche so the industry can stay busy catering to the male psyches that offer an unyielding mix of loyalty and money?

For now, it seems all idol groups and solo artists with their eyes on the charts can do is avoid releasing singles and albums the same week the AKBs do. Maybe Momoiro Clover Z, with their aggressive sound and daft intersection of idol and junk culture, will continue to provide alternatives to what has become a fetid industry. Idols as they are now want to relieve us of the burden of examination, from the responsibility of honoring the opposite sex with dignity, from looking at the presentation of young women, and men, in the media and what they say about our own attitudes and responses to the easy glamour of pop culture, and from the courage it takes to confront what doesn’t feel quite right.

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14 thoughts on “Momoiro Clover Z: What we talk about when we talk about idols

  1. miffy April 18, 2013 / 2:54 am

    Interesting. Back in the Friedman post, i thought you subscribe to the Neojaponisme theories on the stagnant music industry. Different path, almost same conclusions

    Let’s not forget that AKB, Momoiro and Perfume only reach these heights by being backed by the same corporations that been around forever. The scene is so stagnant the only way to push EDM (post 2010) to the public consciousness was to sell to the wotas. And they will BUY ANYTHING.

    I always try to explain to people if the saviour of japanese music are idols who subscribe to some narrative that is independent of the music, then the industry will never get out of his rut.

    • appearsdx April 18, 2013 / 12:42 pm

      Yes, I don’t think my opinion has changed much since that post (which was made almost a year ago, by the way). My point wasn’t necessarily to say idols would (or should) be the savior of Japanese pop music, I just chose to examine them in particular for this post. I understand that Japanese idol music is in itself a genre that evolves slowly. I would just like to see more variety in Japan’s popular music right now. I think AKB has defined their time period, but it’s time for the next thing. When every group starts to look and sound the same, it can be redundant, especially when that sound isn’t much different than idol pop that was released ten or fifteen years ago. I may have come off a little harsh, but I do find Momoiro Clover Z very interesting, even if my favorite work of theirs so far has been that special live CD they released, Momoclo ALL STARS, which says everything. I like 5th DIMENSION well enough, but it really does end up sounding like most idol pop nowadays. I guess I just wish more songs sounded like “Neo STARGATE” or even “LOST CHILD.” They have a fun angle, and I hoped the music would reflect that a little more.

  2. cate April 18, 2013 / 6:14 am

    “Idols as they are now want to relieve us of the burden of examination, from the responsibility of honoring the opposite sex with dignity, from looking at the presentation of young women, and men, in the media and what they say about our own attitudes and responses to the easy glamour of pop culture, and from the courage it takes to confront what doesn’t feel quite right.” I got chills.

    I love your blog so, so much. I’m putting all my emotional chips on Leo Ieiri to be our pop saviour, though.

  3. tak April 19, 2013 / 10:33 pm

    “One thing they do differently from other idols is put on children-only and women-only lives, perhaps to let minority fan communities get in on the fun without having to constantly rub shoulders with some of the seedier male fans”

    Sorry, but the facts don’t fit your narrative. Perhaps their fan base isn’t exactly 50-50 gender-wise, but there were a LOT of women at the Seibu Dome show. The section I was in was almost entirely couples, and I saw the same on the 8 different trains it took to get there and back. The audience was incredibly diverse: people of both genders in cosplay, fashionable couples, married couples, parents with kids, lolitas, and yes, your otaku-bonkura nexus, which I don’t think of as inherently seedy, but to each her own.

    You could have said instead that onna matsuri was a show of solidarity with their female fan base (they also employed female staff as much as possible). They’ve never done the typical idol bikini shoots or put out photo books, and with every recent promotion they seem to be covering their skin more and more – literally head-to-toe this time out. Seems curious to me you would take this angle with them. It’s one thing to disdain the sugar rush of pure pop and quite another to lump it all into the category of filth.

    • leticia cosmos January 13, 2014 / 10:23 am

      Agree and the thing with their clothes and not doing idol bikini photoshoots seems to be a rule in Stardust, their agent. None of their sister idol groups like Eichu and Syachihoko ever done this, nor famous actresses from Stardust like Keiko Kitagawa that are in Stardust since they were teenage ever done this kind of photoshoot. I think it’s nice that Stardust don’t exploit their idols and actress sexuality in order to be famous, instead they push them to perform live and train very hard to be the best performers they can be, so they are recognized by audience for their talent and work, being much more than just a pretty face.

  4. NyNy April 24, 2013 / 4:10 pm

    What has been happening in Korea since 2008/09 is now starting with Japan and I’ve noticed that now too. The only notable solo artists these days are K(umi).U(tada).N(amie).A(yumi) but like you said, no-one new or born after 1990. But what about Kyary Pamyu Pamyu? Maybe she is not an idol but she is quite successful. Momoclo have really grown on me in the past few months not because of their songs but their performances and variety side. Although I have to admit I enjoyed their debut song when it came out and now their latest song, Neo Stargate is really good.

    The problem with every Asian pop idol that I have encountered in an album is that the single encourages you to listen to the album but the majority of it is a mess at times if you ask me. Sometimes I would like to see an album constructed with songs similar to the single in its style.

    After reading what the CEO said, I can see why. But as a girl, I can now see this more with the amount of fangirls in K-Pop.

    • appearsdx April 25, 2013 / 11:01 pm

      I thought about Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, and even though I do like a good chunk of her music (Nakata fan here), and she sends a great message, she just doesn’t have that same cross-generational, mass appeal. Her outfits and videos appeal more to a niche audience than a majority, and I still kind of see her as someone not minding that there’s an unequal balance between her music, her fashion, and just being as wacky as possible. There’s nothing wrong with striving for a smaller, solid audience, but it’s also good to remember that her Harajuku fashion world has always been a subculture rather than mainstream. Thanks for the response!

  5. dashkeepingtabs April 24, 2013 / 11:49 pm

    “to examine the function of idols, the freedom of expression and options girls are encouraged to pursue, and what it says about a particular culture’s notions of what boys and young men should come to expect from the girls and women they are presented with, from entertainment, to the boring, mundane interactions of real life.”

    i’ve been having these exact same thoughts about k-pop too.

  6. elegiacomo April 27, 2013 / 7:27 pm

    Reblogged this on elegiacomo and commented:
    Interesting article about the hottest new girl group in Japan, Momoiro Clover Z. It’s interesting to compare this to their Korean counterparts, cos while men in K-pop aren’t prone to pretty far out ideas, I’ve yet to see a girl group put out a video as bonkers as this, nor attempt the same kind of dubstep/gothic monk fusion. The post also quotes Robert Michael Poole’s assertion that
    “The majority of the audiences [for K-pop shows] are young girls, not boys. [ …] The Japanese pop market has typically been all about cuteness, presenting boys with the ideal submissive girl to treat like a doll rather than lust over. The J-pop industry couldn’t create a K-pop style group, because Japanese girls being that edgy would be seen as wholly un-Japanese. [… ] It seems girl groups in Japan have actually become increasingly cuter, younger and presented as servants (maids being the ultimate example), with the likes of AKB48 and their many copycats.”

  7. Ina July 4, 2013 / 3:56 pm

    Momoclo isn’t the only group that have only female lives. AKB hold those at their theater as well

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