Still can’t crack the code: TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE’s “Hikaru yo”

It doesn’t take a grand feat of hindsight to see where it all went wrong for TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE, especially now that Avex is backtracking as fast as possible. When the members of the group grew up, their record label looked to be maturing them into more sophisticated “artists,” rather than idols with a big marketing ploy that involved declaring they would no longer be performing certain songs (“Onnaji Kimochi” and “Ganbatte Itsudatte Shinjiteru”), a transition out of their signature New Jack Swing sound into more electronic territory, and, eventually, the lose of a member. Avex was banking on the idea that after giving the market what it wanted (idols, more idols, just idols, all the time), it could take a loyal audience with them into territory where they were more comfortable, and leave the idol experimentation to sub-labels like iDOL Street. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a bit of a miscalculation.

This failure could be for any number of reasons, not least which is that the new material just didn’t live up to the old. While not horrible, it was jarringly different: musically speaking, TGS’s first four albums are near perfect at marrying peppy messages of positivity with idol what-have-yous to a classic 90’s TK, J-pop sound — it’s not an easy trick to pull off. But it seems that the team behind the group took it for granted, erroneously believing that, like many idol groups before them, the members themselves had established enough of a connection with fans that they would be followed anywhere they went, even into adulthood. But it seems that while fans primarily of idols and idol groups want to watch their biases grow, they don’t want them growing too much. Turns out there’s a line in the sand, when the unwritten contract between idols and their fans cease to exist regarding any number of expectations from behavior to lyrical content, that can cause a gradual erosion of loyalty. And when fans began to slowly abandon TGS after the abrupt set of changes, Avex didn’t necessarily try harder at marketing to a different audience — they just pushed forward and hoped for the best as the four women left in the group were forced to start from scratch. Yet now it seems an opportunity has presented itself.

First, two idol groups affiliated with Avex disbanded last year (GEM and X21). Second, none of Avex’s recently debuted non-idol groups (FAKY and Def Will) seem to have taken off. Though the group announced as early as 2017 that, just kidding, they’d like to be both “idols and artists”, it’s with the release of their new single, “Hikaru yo,” that it seems Avex is truly rethinking their strategy and steering TGS back into the services of full-on idol worship. The song and PV have no distinguishing features of which to name; instead, it is generic J-pop at its lowest common denominator, a song that could be sung by virtually any group, with a visual that includes an attempt to turn the clock back with a magical-girl transformation sequence that sees the members go metaphorically from very contempo-SPEED back to dolls. With neither the chunky beats present on their first four albums, nor the dance-heavy groove of their “post-idol/artist” era, the song is a blank canvas on which audiences can begin drawing, or re-drawing, their expectations (in case it isn’t clear enough, the B-side for this single is titled “Reborn”). Only a follow-up single just as formulaic and bereft of personality can confirm suspicions of the label’s intentions, but the prognosis doesn’t seem promising.

With so many of their all-girl idol groups folding and their dance groups not taking off, it looks like Avex still hasn’t quite figured out how to tackle the market in a musical environment where, despite predictions and best intentions, idols, rather than artists, still dominate. I am curious to see if TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE will survive a second re-branding, but skeptical, and overall disappointed at what their failure at moving forward as artists and young women says about the current state of J-pop.

[ Photo credit ]

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TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE: What we talk about when we talk about idols Pt. 2

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On December 20, 2014, leading Avex Trax idol group TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE announced that they would be leaving their idol status behind them and moving forward as “artists.” There is quite a difference between artists and idols, one that goes beyond that alarming moment the camera pans over the audience and you notice it’s 98% male. Unlike other records labels, Avex Trax is fairly new to the idol scene, instead traditionally known for producing solo artists and dance groups. While project director Yoshiyasu Satake explains the distinction by saying that the girls “will no longer perform in idol festivals, appear in idol-specific magazines, and will no longer perform their songs “Onnaji Kimochi” and “Ganbatte Itsudatte Shinjiteru,”” the more specific truth is that the ways an artist or group are marketed, or promoted to target audiences are pretty much the means by which they will be regarded and consumed. This includes everything from the lyrical content of songs, to the costuming, to the type of promotional tie-ins and product endorsements, down to the age of the members themselves.

Arguably, one of Avex Trax’s most successful idol groups to date has been SweetS, whose members were 13 and 14 years old at the time of their debut. While they could be interpreted as just another singing and dancing group, their target audience definitely skewed to the older male demographic; I remember a certain now-defunct J-pop forum’s SweetS thread to be almost bewilderingly comprised of older men, the types with good paying full-time jobs who pre-ordered every last single and posted images of their CD collections and posters before digital and phone cameras made this easy and ubiquitous — in 2003, you had to love an idol group with so much unabashed pride you’d be willing to purchase a not-cheap scanner to upload your Polaroids after waiting an hour to have them developed. At best, these guys had a sense of humor about their hobby; at worst, a sense of guilt that made them particularly defensive. But it was a  club I knew I would never join, at least not on a high school student’s budget. My people hung out in the ‘What was your latest purchase?’ thread where we’d boast about being able to buy Hikaru Utada’s second-newest single and that one Every Little Thing remix compilation that came out two years ago. When someone scored concert merchandise on Ebay, even just a dinky rabbit’s foot key chain, we’d all enthusiastically gush in admiration and jealousy with just as much, if not more, awe than we did for those who posted pictures of gigantic boxes of CD Japan orders.

With song titles like “LolitA☆Strawberry in summer,” SweetS’ innocence-as-invitation come-ons were plastered across billboards in poses that would mostly attract these older fans. Of course, in the era of post-AKB48, the group almost seems quaint now, rather hinting at the aberrant, where AKB48 — which perfected the practice of objectifying members and treating young girls like expendable, interchangeable cogs in a giant machine — ushered in an era of tight control, structure, rules, and overt agenda. To many who look back, SweetS’ short career is covered in a gauzy veil of nostalgia. On the Is it an idol? blog, the post “SweetS Reincarnate: Tokyo Girls’ Style- doomed to fail?” says “The group seemed to have it all: Fresh-faced, adorable pre-pubescent [sic] members, two strong lead vocalists, and an extremely catchy (although slightly controversial) debut single” and earlier in the post, as “a dream deferred.”

TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE was created to be the group’s successors, being one of the first Avex groups created specifically as idols in many years: indeed, their early discography is littered with SweetS covers like “LolitA☆Strawberry in summer” and “Love like candy floss.” Their early promotional videos are geared especially to a male viewing audience: in “Ganbatte Itsudatte Shinjiteru” the girls play cheerleaders who spend the video swooning over their male classmates and gathering up enough courage to talk to their crushes, not unlike early SweetS songs that focused on the internal dilemma and excitement of falling in love with someone who is hinted at being forbidden. If you were a female trying to get into the group early on in their career, there would be very little to draw you in besides catchy music: since the group was created for the creepier fantasies of boys, everything from the way the girls’ acted, to the content of the lyrics, addressed, and solely catered to this audience. Unlike Namie Amuro or Ayumi Hamasaki, who wore the hippest clothes, sang songs about themselves, their friends, and their own real-life issues, in turn providing more authentic role-models and behavior that was aspirational, idols like TGS create fantasies so even the nerdiest, shyest boy feels desirable, liked; his every behavior and thought, whether deviant or not, justified. For these men, artists like Kumi Koda seem intimidating, even vulgar. It’s not uncommon to hear many of those same boys call her music videos and stage shows crass, unbecoming, or “slutty,” where others, particularly women and homosexual men and women, see it as an expression of sexual freedom, agency, independence, and an alternative to the pliable, simpering behavior that many idols are paid to trade in. That is to say, images are powerful, and the way artists and idols are projected is highly calculated. Unfortunately, this also creates an idol industry that excludes an entire population at the risk of potentially greater monetary rewards: who can afford to buy 4 copies of the same CD to collect all the different covers? Who is willing to buy dozens of copies of the same album to ensure his favorite idol wins the next senbatsu? Of course, this comes at the risk of these groups becoming something of pariahs in the industry, condemned to their corner of the music world, where any outsiders venturing in are forced to feel somewhat ashamed by taking a peek inside.

But in many other ways, TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE has always been your average “girls dance and vocal group” as Satake puts it. As early as their 2013 Budokan concert, the group already exhibited so little of the idol spectacle we’re used to: while many idols cash in on their lack of talent and sloppy choreography, TGS quickly developed remarkable skill in their choreography. They also have a small hand in their musical material, through lyric writing, and playing instruments. Some of the members cite BoA and Ayumi Hamasaki as their influences, perhaps a nod to the professionalism, candor, and wide-reaching audience that the group hopes to mimic themselves. Anyone who heard their 2014 album Killing Me Softly could have seen this move in a new direction coming. The album’s softer, melancholy tones shifted their sound into more seasoned territory, relying less on unsophisticated cliches, though I’ll admit the change was gradual, with Avex hesitant to turn the switch off for their loyal audience: the 2013 PV for “Partition Love” depicts a hackneyed plot involving a girl’s crush on an older teacher, eventually showing up at his door in the middle of the night. But if the music itself didn’t tip you off, their collaborations would. “In an effort to market them even more to the indie crowd, Avex Trax had TGS team up with trendy internet label Maltine Records in January for a special collaboration album, Maltine Girls Wave” says Jacques over at arcadey. In many ways, when the traditional route clogged the yen stream to Avex, maybe for not walking the  exploitative path other idol labels find it so easy to go down, they switched TGS to being the “cool” idols, the ones who released exclusive 7″ vinyl singles. Or was this the point all along? A bit of pandering so Avex could go back to doing what they do best?

While the country has fluxed in waves, in Japan’s music market today, idols have been where the money is. But if popular opinion is any indication, this seems to be gradually changing, as group’s distance themselves from the “idol” label as much as possible, and big record companies concentrate on developing groups that are marketed toward girls and young women, giving them things they want to see and participate in. When a recent idol group was rumored to be formed for the opening ceremony performance of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, many public figures reacted in horror, calling groups like AKB48 everything from “the shame of Japan” to “child pornography.” Writes Patrick St. Michel in “Tokyo 2020 Olympics and AKB48: The J-pop Idol Group Controversy,”

“[T]he response to Japan48 highlighted a schism taking place in the Japanese music landscape. For the last five years, Japan has experienced an “idol boom,” spurred by the success of AKB48 and resulting in dozens of new groups composed of young women singing upbeat pop while dancing. In recent months, however, sales have lagged and general interest in such groups has dropped, while a new wave of bands has claimed cultural relevance. Japan’s infatuation with idol groups has started to fade.

For many idols, the template is Perfume: do your time serving as an idol, then gradually mature into “real” artists, the type that can be taken seriously by those beside otaku. Negicco, originally a small, local idol trio, are now collaborating with seasoned producers, developing a more cultivated, Shibuya-kei sound that is attracting a wider, hipper audience. And for some, the chance to be taken seriously can happen right out the gate: groups like E-girls, and their original units like Dream and FLOWER are marketed towards young women, with an emphasis on style, personality, ambition, and talent: any boys or older men who come along for the ride are welcome, but not without the unspoken agreement that their world is first and foremost, a space for girls to feel safe and valued (as a plus, groups like E-girls and TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE both tour with all-girl backing bands, an intentional nod to the talent women can bring not only to singing and dancing, but playing instruments). Like certain K-pop groups and anti-idols, these groups are reinventing the idea that idols always need to be purposefully inept, demure, coy, or pliable to the passing whims of a male audience. TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE, who have been prepping for months, seem to be more than happy to join this brave new world, and will hopefully not lose their popularity or success in the coming years — or even, perhaps, gain in respect what they could never quite make in sales (to this day TGS has never had a #1 anything on the Oricon charts).

For in some ways, the crawl out of the idol underground is still a slow, uneven slog, where “artists” like Fairies and FAKY aren’t getting the recognition they deserve, being unable to find a sizable foothold in the market, leaving Avex to desperately churn out a decent, but very much-idol group like Dorothy Little Happy in hopes they can still crack that idol code someday. And unfortunately, even after girls put in all the hard work, time, and patience necessary for success, they’re still left finding no other work but to pose for pictorials and videos in the seedy, but still booming men’s gravure and AV publications world after being forcibly “graduated” out of a group to make way for the next pretty face. Not every idol group can follow the Perfume plan, nor can they hope to find both respect and success in a market whose buying power is still, even years and years after certain J-pop forums collapse, concentrated in the hands of older, well-off men who are used to having things their way, and able to front the money to get it.

Read Part 1 here: Momoiro Clover Z: What we talk about when we talk about idols.