Many of us were asked what idols are, why they are appealing, and why we’re fans of them. This is my scrambled attempt at answering these questions, as well as giving a very basic breakdown of what this fandom consists of. If by some random happenstance you were interested in the above topics, then this is it, my friend. To keep myself sane, I wrote very casually, so don’t expect a formal, well-written essay— this is anything but. It may not be for everyone, but this is how I would ideally break it down to you; preferably at a place with drinks. Rambling awaits, after the break.
So, maybe you’re thinking about being an idol fan. Though there are only several thousand overseas idol fans, maybe you will be among the few who will acquire a taste for it. But I’m not even going to dive into the subject of idols right now; baby steps. This is all about preparation, because this isn’t something everyone can jump into without testing the water first. It’s strange, it’s Japanese, it’s cute girls… and it’s not porn. Chances are, this is new territory for you. There’s no easy way to spell it all out so I’m just going to explain how I got started and touch on my perspective, not just on idols, but my mentality on how I approach things in general.
Let’s start from where I’m coming from, which is a “city mouse” point of view. I’ve lived from city to city, from the quiet suburbs to metropolises. Though my family isn’t particularly well-off, I’ve lived on a fatty diet of first-world problems and trendy shit. I grew up in a generation and culture where we’re constantly trying to prove that we’re not pampered brats, and we’re always just a bit too quick to justify any daring accusation that we may actually be enjoying our candy-ass pop music and deep-fried food. Side-note: it’s this misguided attempt to be taken seriously and become “real”, that hipsters were born.
A few years ago, I just got fed up with it all. One day I found that being an overtly self-aware smart-ass, to my surprise, was not being “real”. If western(more specifically American) pop culture was a giant soup, it’s now an over-salty reduction of sarcastic, largely fabricated, pseudo-intellectual mentalities with soggy lumps of irony swimming in the bottom of the pot. Cynical comments are thrown at every establishment that provides anything on a massive scale with about as much thought as it takes to wipe your ass. We inexplicably have a huge hard-on for assuming the worst, even to an embarrassing fault.
If you live in privileged cities, you know about these offenders: the self-proclaimed “quirky” individualists trying to carve a legitimate sub-culture for themselves who are always on the hunt for over-the-counter, “edgy yet still socially acceptable”, counter-cultural ideologies on which to live by which are usually dictated and enabled by Urban Outfitters. And those of you who scoff at the mention of Urban Outfitters, don’t think you’re off the hook either. Even “Hipster” is a culture that can produce some really great stuff.
Now I’m not saying that you should be impervious to feeling irritated by pop culture. There are quite a few things out there that even I find are nigh indigestible, and yes, I am guilty of all of the above(and more). And sure, in the end, we CAN (irrationally) hate whatever we want. It’s our freedom. But for the love of God, please keep that bullshit to yourself. Few things boil my blood more than a prick on a high horse. Do you relish the thought of someone looping you into a category with the likes of “frat boys”, internet warriors and youtube commenters? It’s the pompous ignorance of things that others enjoy that makes you the fool. If you really can’t shake it, at least own up to your title as a willingly ignorant douche. I confess that I still am on certain subjects; it shouldn’t be too hard for you to do either.
Let’s take some current western(and global) pop icons for example: if you, for the honest-to-god life of you, claim that you cannot begin to understand why people enjoy Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga, I’m telling you right now, chances are you’re either apathetic(which I consider to be an alright excuse), full of shit, or special; in a I-was-dropped-as-a-newborn kind of way. I’m not saying you have to subscribe to it, but the inability to actually conceive of why they are popular and influential (while displaying your giddy enthusiasm for discrediting them) is either the result of an ego-driven delusion, or flat-out ignorance. Both are pretty hard to remedy, but if we try reeeaally hard with our brains, I believe change is possible.
Again, I’m not saying idols are for everyone. I’m saying that idols are way more accessible than the layman believes. Make no mistake, it is new territory; in the west it’s actually hard to imagine a dude who makes a hobby of watching cute girls without the, “Bro, I would totally bang that chick” mentality. If you have the ability to suspend your preconceptions and take the cynicism out of your fat head, in a vacuum, following idols can be a really enjoyable and fun ride. And depending on your eagerness and ability to enjoy what idols have to offer, you’ll soon be able to take your fandom out of that hermetically sealed chamber and realize that something as foreign as idol culture is something that can be, dare I say, understood and even applied.
This fandom certainly exposed me to a lot of new perspectives, giving that unique, extra shade of color and je ne sais quoi to my everyday life. You’ll realize that the concept of idols, at its core, is not that mysterious or controversial, and you’ll find that there’s something very relatable and approachable to this stuff; which opens the doors to understanding why it’s an undeniable force in Japanese media and culture.
Idol music and fandom is probably a more whimsical take on pop than you’re used to, and frankly, it does takes an open mind to push through the first few stumbling blocks. So really— cut the crap and let your guard down. You don’t have to prove shit to anybody in this fandom. It does however, require suspension of disbelief and possibly re-evaluating of your set, preconceived notions. Also, have some fucking fun— this is a business of cute girls suckering you into wanting to pledge your allegiance to them. Get over it, man!
Introduction to Idols
Finally, now I’m going to talk about Japanese idols. “Japanese Idols” by its most generic meaning encompasses many various forms: Performing(music), gravure(glamour), seiyuu(voice acting), and even AV(adult video, aka porno) just to name a few, and the common thread among all of these incarnations is that they are populated with attractive people (big surprise!). NSK primarily follows performing idols because they have the broadest scope of activities, and that is what I will be telling you about.
What are Idols
So, just what are “idols”? It is not a golden calf or a false messiah. It is not a singer performing in front of Simon Cowell. Throw those ideas out of your head, because an “idol” in Japan is something unlike anywhere else. So again, what are Japanese idols?
Seen as a loaded question for some, it’s always been relatively simple for me. In short, they are entertainers in nearly every sense of the word. These are idols who are known primarily for their music, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Beyond the songs and dances, there is a massive repertoire that can consist of voice acting, advertising, modeling, radio, acting, writing, television, video games and more. Unlike the west, a Japanese idol does NOT have to be extremely popular to be considered an idol. But in a rare case an idol with enough media exposure through different venues will often transcend their musical occupation and become a sort of omnipresent media personality. When you are a popular idol, the world is your oyster.
There are thousands of hopefuls of all ages auditioning to become idols in Japan every year, and judges choose based on a wide variety of factors. Fair or not, looks play an undeniably large role. The idol industry is about grabbing your attention at first glance, catching the corner of your eye, hoping that maybe a passerby will be interested in seeing more. Charisma is also an extremely important attribute. Simply being the cutest in your hometown isn’t enough. Remember, idols are supposed to have the potential to be plastered on every billboard, every show, and every cereal box across Japan. It’s a fiercely competitive field and it’s especially ironic for an industry that “supports” dreams to destroy thousands of them come every audition, but that’s how it is(and has to be, not everyone can be an idol).
Now, it’s time for a little exposure. Go to youtube and search an idol group’s name; Morning Musume, AKB48, SKE48, C-ute, whatever. Click around. Go watch a music video, a commercial, random clips, a concert performance or two. If you look around enough, you’ll get a feel of what kind of music they produce and hopefully see the kind of diversity I’m talking about.
Alright, so you’ve heard a couple idol songs and seen some performances here and there, and maybe you’re loving it. On the other end of the spectrum, maybe you’re hopelessly and utterly bewildered and confused. “Where are the perfectly tuned, strong voices?”, you might ask. “Where is the confident vibrato? Why is the choreography kinda sloppy?” To put it bluntly, “Why are they not that good?” Here’s another very important thing to keep in mind that many seem to miss: Idols are not finished products; they are always in training. Performing idols are often not considered to be at the same level or rank as pop musical artists for that reason. They can sing relatively okay and hold a note, but Nora Jones and Usher they are not.
Akimoto Yasushi, the producer of AKB48, the largest and most successful female idol group in Japan (as of this writing), described the members as “incomplete”. He has no illusions about making idols compete at the same level as artists and he understands that they’re less than perfect. So why the fuck do people follow them? They miss notes, make mistakes in choreography and may be too high-pitched for your liking; but make no mistake, they are entertaining as hell, and wouldn’t be there if there wasn’t a market for them.
It’s just as much about the stuff they do off-stage, or in my case, even more about the things they do outside of performing. It’s about the television shows they appear in and the wide array of personalities that make them fun to follow. It’s about watching the chemistry between the rag tag group of idols while they work their asses off to become something extraordinary. It’s about the romanticized and perhaps naive idea that if you work hard enough at something, you can achieve whatever you want.
When these misfits appear on stage and perform, they can appear less than professional; but to those in the know, that’s where the appeal comes from. Idol careers can start anywhere between someone’s early teens and end in their mid-to-late twenties(male idols can end their much, much later). Idols that do well for themselves can be in that business for ten years or longer; just imagine how much that idol grew in the span of those years as a performer, not just technically, but even just as a person. Idols are closely documented, using photos, videos, and internet to release information to fans through dvds or blogs. Fans celebrate when idols give a great live performance, and find humor as well as sympathy if they completely screw up. Remember, when an idol makes a mistake, it’s fucking adorable. Always.
There is always a sense of “rooting for the underdogs” in idol fandom, because even though idols can become mainstream sensations, it’s still largely a niche hobby. There may be a lot of idols out there, but precious few actually break into the mainstream. Fans always want the idols they support to make it in the industry, because doing so would be a rare, living example of someone achieving a dream; a classic rags-to-riches story. Fans get satisfaction from supporting idols, whether it’s by purchasing their releases, attending events or just by spreading the word. Not all idols achieve success, but for those that do, it’s just as much of the fans’ accomplishment as it is the performer’s.
When a idol reaches a milestone in sales, those who participated in purchasing a single feel a similar sense of pride and accomplishment among themselves as well. If they sold poorly, fans will rally and work harder to make the idol more known. The fact that fans can make or break idol careers is pretty harsh, but part of the reason why idols can become national phenomenons is because of the “close” relationship between fans and the idols.
The charm of idol fandom is being able to see the progress of growth and efforts these idols put in. Think of someone becoming an idol the same way someone would go to college to learn about a professional trade. Becoming an idol is like entering a very intense training school or a conservatory for those who want careers in the performing arts. It’s an opportunity to get real exposure and learn the ropes of what it takes to be in the media world. And when they’ve stayed for several years and think they’re ready to move on, they graduate. Much like college, it’s unsure if they will go on to have successful careers in media or if they will follow a different calling after they graduate; but that is, more or less, when the curtains draw.
“But it’s for Pedophiles!”
LOL, so many things wrong with this question I don’t even know where to begin. I assume you also think that video games with violence are for the sociopathic?
So what can break an idol’s career? Many people would say terrible songs and lackluster promotions, but if they have enough charisma and personality, chances are they’ll still have an avid fan base— from that point on it’s dependent on the agency whether or not they want to keep the franchise. The far more effective idol career killer however, is the dreaded scandal. Every dream job has a catch; every Eden has a forbidden fruit.
In my opinion, the idea of scandals is antiquated and frankly, obsolete. But honestly, there’s not a whole lot you or I can do about it besides just accept it. Firmly rooted in tradition as many things are in Japan, old habits die hard; and as far as idols are concerned, it’s just as enforced as ever. As performing idols are the most public among all other forms of idols, the want and need to maintain the idea that idols should be “pure” in the eyes of the public is far greater, so a few strict rules are put in place: Idols cannot smoke, drink, or be in a romantic relationship. The issue of drinking is normally forgiven for those of age, but smoking and romantic relationships is a zero-tolerance rule across the board, no matter what.
It’s understandable why these rules are put into place; people don’t want to see these idols they follow and adore, these romanticized capsules of pure youth, these poster children of dreams, to sully their ideal image and set a bad example for the youngin’s. But ironically, and sadly so, popular idols are under extreme scrutiny at all times, more than practically any other occupation, including actors and politicians.
To paparazzi everywhere, taking a picture of an idol breaking a rule is the holy grail of shitty publications. With precious few exceptions, if an idol is caught in a relationship or smoking, their career is basically over. There are lesser penalties if broken rules were unearthed from the past, usually resulting in a suspension for a few months followed by an apology. Whether you agree with these policies or not, they will inevitably play a part and affect you, should you choose to follow idols.
Tips on Idol Fandom
Are you a new fan and/or just starting out? I have a few tips for you:
First, get used to listening and watching shit without subtitles. There is a hefty amount of subbed material out there, but the vast majority of their catalog isn’t subbed. It’s bizarre and strange that there are so many fans who can watch/listen to all this idol content without understanding much of what they say, but the fact that they’re willing to bear it (and still really enjoy this stuff) is very telling how accessible this stuff is.
Every subtitled video you find is a precious display of generosity, given how niche this fandom is, but check out things that aren’t subbed either. Music is a universal language in of itself, and many videos can be largely understood through context. The easiest way to get idol content is through Hello!Online. It’s a torrent tracker that requires registration and decent seeding, but in return you get a treasure trove of music, tv shows, magazine scans, anything your heart desires. I consider it an essential resource.
Want to take it to another level? Start learning Japanese, either by yourself or at school. This is by no means required, but you’re going to learn at least some Japanese just by exposure in this fandom alone, why not take it to the next level? Variety shows are great ways to practice your reading and hearing skills.
The most popular way to find news and share your new-found interest is by joining a forum. There are a number of idol forums out there, each with a different community and focus. Look around a number of them, read around, and get a feel for the community. Choose which one will suit your personality best. Let’s take AKB48 fan forums for example:
For the latest news and great resources for lyrics and general information, you could give Stage48 a try. If you want a new, up-and-coming environment, maybe Everyday48 is your comfort zone. If you’ve got thick skin, enjoy some self-deprecation and humor, perhaps you’d be right at home in Nihongogo. If you’re a total whore for idol pics, JPH!P’s got your medicine. Lots of it.
Obviously, the fastest way to get the gist of a forum is to read their introduction and rules. Since they’re usually written by the administrators, you can get a clear view of their mission statement, what they offer, and what kind of fans they’re appealing to. Fair warning: in forums it’s easy to give in to the madness and get dead-serious emotional over harsh opinions that offend your very soul, even(or especially) within the fan community itself, but don’t get suckered into that nonsense. There’s more than enough e-warriors around, and I view this concept the same way I view disease-ridden pests that could possibly carry the world’s next catastrophic plague.
Have a sense of humor about this stuff. There are few things more embarrassing in this fandom than seeing a fan go completely off the rails and start making shit real. If someone’s attacking your nerves, just laugh it off. If your poor heart is seriously wounded, maybe it’s a sign that you’re too emotionally invested. ALWAYS remind yourself that at the end of the day, it is a hobby, and the whole damn point of all this is to have fun. Be a good fan; DON’T be a fanatic.
BE CAREFUL OF OBSESSION. Obsession is one of those things that just creep up on you. If you’re not careful, it’s something you will only realize once you’re up to your neck in shit. Sometimes obsession is a good thing, but I’ve yet to see something genuinely positive come out of being an obsessed idol fan. Balance your shit out. Don’t let this be the end-all-be-all form of entertainment for you(but of course, when most people realize this, it’s too late). Don’t throw all your previous hobbies to the curb and go all in on this. I know it’s damn tempting, but don’t do it! You’re asking for a severe reality check otherwise.
That covers what I want to say, at least for now. First of all, if you actually read through this whole fucking thing, congratulations. I hope it wasn’t a complete waste of your time; my apologies if it was. If it makes you feel any better, I wasted a whole lot more time writing it. Feel free to share how you got into idols, and if you had any preconceptions of them prior to becoming a fan. Also, if there are any other topics that you think are crucial for new fans that I should have covered, leave them in the comments as well. Happy Idol-ing!