In which I tell about my experience at the 2014 J-Pop Summit Festival, my encounter with Tokyo Girls’ Style and how they brought me back from an idol slump into a fiery return to being an idol fan.
This is going to be a long adventure, but bear with me. If you feel like you’re losing interest in idols, music or anything similar to your interests, you might find that you can relate to this. Now to start off, I believe most every J-Pop idol fan became a loyal admirer of an idol group for one or both of these two reasons.
- Looks/personality: The members of the group are adorable and cute in your (the idol fan’s) eyes or they have the funniest sense of humor or quirky trait that sets them apart from the rest. That’s what prompts you to follow them in their path to stardom.
- Music: The idols may have amazing voices, great music arrangements or an unusual style combining two or more genres that appeal to your tastes.
There may be more reasons than this for why you personally became a fan, but these two seem to be the most prominent amongst most. Both of these are very excellent reasons to become a fan of any group, but what do you do when the idols you follow begin to lose the qualities you grew to love them for?
To provide a brief background, I was first introduced to idol music about three years ago in the form of AKB48. I first heard the music before I saw the girls, and I was hooked on songs like “Ponytail to Shushu“, “Shoujotachi yo” and pretty much every song off of the “Koko ni Ita Koto” album. From there, I began extensively listening to everything AKS until a year and a half later, when I felt the quality in songwriting begin to take a sharp drop. There were still really good songs scattered in every couple releases, but I began to lose interest quickly because, in my opinion everything had become too “safe.”
There were no more singles in the unorthodox style of “RIVER“, no more singles with the fire, passion and uniqueness of “Flying Get“, there weren’t even B-sides I could claim to like either. This topic could be endlessly debated because everyone has their own opinion, but for me personally this spelled the end of my interest in most idol music. I retained an interest in a select few groups that held a unique musical twist, namely BABYMETAL and Rhymeberry, but that was the extent of the idol music that I listened to for the next year or so.
Fast forward to May of this year. I had been slowly listening to more idol music than I had in the past several months, although I contributed literally nothing to this site for the past year and I had stopped keeping track of releases. The passion was lost, the drive to be an idol fan disappeared, it happens sometimes. There are periods of drought where you lose interest in something you used to love, and that can weigh heavily on your mind. The upside about a drought though, is that it can’t stay dry forever. (Unless you live in California. -GM)
While I was attending Fanime in San Jose, there was a booth set up promoting the 2014 J-Pop Summit Festival so I stopped by to check who the guests were. I had made the annual trek out to San Francisco’s Japantown for the past two years and even worked as press the past year during the event, so I was curious to see potential interview opportunities.
The lineup consisted of model/singer Una, soloist May’n, a whispered rumor from the man running the booth of ex-AKB member Itano Tomomi potentially appearing, and idol group Tokyo Girls’ Style. I had to think for a while to remember who Tokyo Girls’ Style were. I recalled only hearing one song of theirs, “Sparkle”, and while it was a good song, the group never stuck in my mind. I had no high hopes for anything amazing happening, and I mostly anticipated seeing Itano Tomomi. After the excitement of last year’s headlining guest, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, this seemed like quite a letdown.
After securing passes for the Nihongogo press delegation, we saw that we were going to have a chance to interview Tokyo Girls’ Style privately as well as some of the other guests. I was intrigued. Knowing next to nothing about the group had created an aura of mystery around them and who they were. I didn’t know who the members were, how big their fanbase was, or what kind of music they made. I was completely in the dark. However, Tokyo Girls’ Style were going to be performing live for the first time at Union Square as part of the concert that is staged there, and I’d be right in front, taking pictures. What better way to start understanding who they are than to see them perform live?
The five members of Tokyo Girls’ Style began walking out in a single file fashion to cheers and people screaming their names with wide smiles on their faces. Once they were situated, they began asking everyone if they had their sunflower rings on their hand, which had been handed out earlier by TGS staff. The girls then started demonstrating the signature dance move of their first song, “Himawari to Hoshikuzu” and asked everyone to dance with them. After hearing the audience cheer them on, the girls got ready to perform and launched immediately into the funky guitar line of “Himawari to Hoshikuzu”.
Upon hearing the guitar my attention was immediately caught, and when they started singing and the beat dropped, I was blown away. I had no idea that their musical style was this funky mix of Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder and The Bee Gees. I loved it from the moment I heard it. I hadn’t heard any idol groups who really dug back to the roots with their music and used it as a selling point; it was soulful, funky, and grooved hard, and I was dancing and grooving with them during their performance.
I’m wearing a grey shirt and carrying a camera under the left side of the tent, you can see me start to headbang a little bit @ 0:11
I had a blast throughout the entire concert, my perspective changed completely and maybe just a little bit of fire had been reignited in me for idols. Maybe there was hope after all, and I couldn’t wait until tomorrow, for their second performance and our private interview.
Arriving early to the packed Japantown area, I shot photos of Itano Tomomi during her performance at the Peace Plaza and waited until Tokyo Girls’ Style’s performance in the afternoon. Knowing how their performance would go now, I eagerly awaited seeing them from the crowd perspective and getting to cheer and be amongst fellow fans.
Their concert was a smaller event, due to the size of the venue, but it was still packed with people as Tokyo Girls’ Style filed out onto the stage. Grins all over their faces, they looked fired up and ready to perform yet again.
They launched into a nearly identical set as the previous day’s, but I didn’t mind as this allowed me to begin learning their songs and dances. The girls seemed even more enthusiastic than before, knowing that they had a dedicated fan base cheering for them, and involved the crowd in multiple songs. While I was at the very front, pushed up against the metal railing, I kept scanning the girls’ faces. Trying to decide which member gave off the most charisma, the most smiles, and the most presence. I felt giddy and happy, just like I had when I had discovered AKB48 for the first time, caught up in the saccharine rush that idols pass on to their fans. Now all that was left was to pick my favorite out of the five, my oshimen, but I still couldn’t make an informed enough decision until we left for the interview.
While we waited for our turn to interview the group in an artistically minimalistic white hallway, I got a few shots of staff member Dave Chang modeling the trademark Tokyo Girls’ Style sunflower.
Since I missed my opportunity to obtain a sunflower before the interview, I borrowed one of Dave’s as we were ushered into the room where the members of Tokyo Girls’ Style were waiting.
The five members – Konishi Ayano, Yamabe Miyu, Arai Hitomi, Nakae Yuri and Shoji Mei were all lined up in their signature order when we walked through the door. The girls were all engaged in various activities while we set up our gear; Ayano was slowly dozing off, Miyu and Hitomi were talking quietly and giggling and Yuri and Mei were reading some magazines that were on the table.
At one point during setup, Miyu noticed the sunflowers on our hands and excitedly pointed them out to the other girls, who all were equally ecstatic that we were showing our support for both the group and their crowd-funded project. Although this is merely speculation on my part, I also believe that the girls were genuinely happy to be interviewed by people who were fans of their music, and this affected their disposition throughout our time together.
Over the course of the interview, I noticed something unique about Tokyo Girls’ Style that was not present in a lot of more popular idol groups that made them very endearing. They didn’t have canned responses past their introductions, and once the questions started, all of the members opened up and made the interview come alive. Nothing ever felt forced, the girls were eager to respond and they helped make the interview dynamic, asking questions in return and building off of each other and giving very energetic answers. Tokyo Girls’ Style wasn’t playing it “safe”, like many other idol groups. Their management wasn’t keeping a stranglehold on the girls or their answers, in fear of unfavorable responses. The manager traveling with them even got involved in one question and gave her own input at one point, which caused both the members and us to laugh.
As I learned more about TGS both during the interview and on my own time afterwards, I could see that the management and the girls coexist in a very beneficial relationship on both ends, and I had never seen a system work like this in the idol industry before. Of course, the argument could be given that Tokyo Girls’ Style isn’t as well-known yet or hasn’t matured enough to maintain decorum when it’s appropriate, but for a setting such as the one we were in, it suited both parties perfectly.
Even if they weren’t mature enough or weren’t subjected to enough of the spotlight yet, I’d still hope they’d never lose the unique charm it brought to the group, because that is something that AKB48, the group that brought me into idols, lost a long time ago as a consequence of being in the spotlight. For me, Tokyo Girls’ Style were “the idols I could meet”, “the girls next door” and everything about them perpetuated that idea, not to mention that we were all in the same room together.
While we wrapped the interview up, thanked the girls for their time and began to file out, I found myself full of this energy that I hadn’t felt in a while, and it felt great. I now had the energy to continue on as an idol fan, with Tokyo Girls’ Style at the forefront of my attention. Additionally, after a lot of deliberation, I chose Mei as my oshimen because she simply embodied everything I stated earlier that I would expect an idol to have; charisma, presence and above all, a flawless smile.
I’ve been told by people that what I experienced was just “Idols playing with your head”, “It’s all part of their business scheme to get you to buy their product”, “It’ll wear off before you know it”, and I say, “So what?” Sure, idols and their music are technically a product being marketed to us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it. If anything, this means that TGS management have understood and utilized a business strategy that many other idols groups haven’t. Combine this with a superior, talented group of young women and you have a dedicated fan who is willing to support this product, and everyone on both sides is happy with the results.
Wow, this is one long read. If you’ve reached the bottom, congratulations and thank you for taking the time to read it all. At the end of all of this, (re)discovering Tokyo Girls’ Style has helped me find some amazing music, meet other passionate fans that share a feeling of camaraderie with each other and most importantly of all, restore my faith in idols and their music.
The interview mentioned can be found here.