the appeal of idols

i’m no expert on japanese culture.  i read manga and watched anime occasionally, but selectively.  my knowledge of japanese cinema boiled down to critically acclaimed old-timer directors like akira kurosawa and yasujiro ozu, campy pop films like ‘death note’ and ‘battle royale’, or recommended films like ‘nobody knows’ and ‘linda linda linda’.  my japanese music collection were usually bands that i ran into or given to me by friends.  most of what i saw from japan were acknowledged internationally, but i’ve never gone deeper than that.

sure, coming from a korean background, japan never felt super-foreign to me;  my grandfather grew up during the japanese occupation.  he taught me a lot of the japanese i know and we’d watch variety shows together on television when i was younger.  but there was one thing that was totally foreign to me until recently.  idol groups.  specifically, akb48.

don’t get me wrong, korea has ‘idol groups’ as well, but it’s a totally different beast.  the philosophy and idea of a performing idol is totally different in japan.  and it’s something that’s absolutely foreign to 99% the US.

being an idol in japan isn’t just about becoming a phenomenal singer recognized by large record companies.  there are tons of performing idol groups out there on the ‘indie’ scene, groups of girls with a passion they want to share with anyone who will listen, even if they get little in return.

the size of small east-asian countries, and how quickly media and trends can spread throughout the entire country, could contribute to how something like idols could spawn as a reaction to an overcrowding of singers traditional to the current music industry in the west.

for successful idols, performing is just one aspect of their job.  for some, it could even be negligible.  taking part in photoshoots, public services, television programs and other various media is a much bigger part of being an idol than it is for any performer in western media.

it’s about selling idealism; in more ways than one, it’s about role-playing.  an idol can represent anything to a fan: the perfect sibling, perfect daughter, perfect lover, perfect friend, etc, providing happiness, comfort, support, and consistency.

of course, these roles would never be fulfilled in a substantial way.  they’re temporary and fleeting, as any form of entertainment is; but it’s easy to see how people can be drawn to them.  because this idea of role-playing is important in idol culture, it explains why they don’t necessarily have to be talented to be famous.

the majority of media-savvy people in the west would scoff at this kind of practice saying it’s shallow to be a fan of something like idols; and it’d be hard to argue with them.  concepts and trends that are popular in the east can’t easily be explained to those who have no experience with it.  in many ways, you can trace these trends far back to the traditional eastern roots of entertainment.  even many western fans of this kind of media may have a different understanding of the appeal than natives do.

there are a number of reasons i support performing idols.  especially now, idol groups are consisting of more ‘normal’ girls; no longer held up to an impossible or obviously artificial lifestyle.  this change in trends is giving more girls opportunities; to first become an idol, and to have it be a stepping stone to greater and grander career options.

a major appeal for me is just the amount of sheer effort girls put in.  many idols in japan, even in akb48, aren’t the cream of the crop.  i’m sure many of them initially had little to offer in terms of talent.  these aren’t A-list performers; they are prettier-than-average girls with average talent who aspire to be more.  and where they lack in talent, they make up for with hard work.  for anyone aspiring to be an artist, fear is paramount.  thoughts like “i’m in over my head”, “how do i deal with this”, “how can i become more”, and finding themselves through that process is the most important.  that’s what brings the hardest workers forward and into the spotlight; those that overcome their timidity and fear.

it’s about putting in everything you have, and then putting in more than you even thought you had.  to become an idol is to give up a normal childhood, and entering a commercial and professional atmosphere.  come into it timidly, and nothing will happen.  there fans who feel that some girls are unfairly pushed into the background, and complain about how they’re almost never featured.  while there are a few that may actually be in that situation, i feel that some of them just don’t put forth enough energy and effort to be recognized.

it seems that some of them are complacent with where they are.  they may be amazing dancers or singers, but that’s not all an idol is; you need to direct that energy to your audience as well.  otherwise, your fanbase will only be as large as there are people who are actively looking for an underdog to support.  again, the idea of role-playing and personality is what audiences look for as much as they do music and dance.

i’ll be candid.  akb48 will probably be the only idol group i’ll be a big fan of.  they were the first idol group i was introduced to, and surprisingly provided me with more entertainment than i ever thought.  who knew i would even get into an idol group?!  i never would have thought so in a million years.  i understand they’re not the only group of its kind; there’s the empire of hello! project, idoling!!! and others, but i’m happy with just sticking to one, and i’m glad i got into akb and was able to witness their huge surge in popularity.

the world of idols is fleeting and temporary; there’s a whole new generation every decade.  when members i support and the 1st generation of akb48 graduate, so will i;  i think it’s only fair.  i must say though, i couldn’t have picked a better group to get into, and it’ll be a lot of fun while it lasts.

About Dae Lee

-Dae, aka Mizu -Writer, broadcaster, and podcaster on New School Kaidan

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