It may surprise some of you to know that I am a fan of idols. Not just pretty animated boy idols but actual real-life idol groups. Back in the day, I use to jump around to Morning Musume songs all the time (before they got their fancy ’18 tag). I quite liked Perfume and more recently E-Girls. Although I don’t know that much about AKB48, I have generally enjoyed the handful of songs I’ve heard.
I was always superficially aware of the peculiarities of idol culture, but I hadn’t really delved much into it until I fairly recently discovered idol anime and the complex and massive fan structure around it.
Because I’m nothing if not topical and super current, I’ve been listening to BABYMETAL lately and talking to a friend about it. He mentioned “seeing a post of Rob Zombie defending Babymetal from rude gatekeeping metal “fans”. He was basically telling them to f-off , that he toured shortly with Babymetal and they had more energy and passion than most conventional metal bands he’d worked with.”
Gatekeepers, aren’t they just the best every community has to offer!
To give you a little bit of context – this is the specific video I was watching:
As you can see, it’s a live performance and that’s important here.
Putting aside whatever you may think of the music itself and whether or not it qualifies as metal (I don’t particularly care myself, I just think it’s a very fun song to listen to), there is something to be said about the idol experience here.
The reason I am using BABYMETAL for my example instead of some other idol group, is because of the contrast with the more traditional metal venue. To me a lot of pop musicians are I fact idols so the distinctions I want to make aren’t as obvious.
Form what I’ve gathered, the biggest derision thrown at idol groups is that they lack artistic merit. Indeed, a lot of us have a super romanticized idea of the starving musician. That poetic soul, all alone with their guitar (or piano, or whatever), moved by the muses to create music form their very souls. They are artists to the core. Any success, money or popularity they gather along the way is trivial. They would still be doing this if no one was listening because it’s first and foremost about the music.
In certain genres like punk, metal and blues, there’s an added element of taking a stand against the institution. Raging against the machine. It’s still first and foremost about the music, but that music is meant to give voice to frustrations that have no other way of being expressed. It’s about the little guy, the individual struggling to not be absorbed by the system. It’s wild and free. It’s a call to rock out with your c*ck out.
Did you watch that performance? Do you see the dissonance? Unstructured chaos and raw emotion are somewhat antithetical to the idol experience. Those girls aren’t about tearing down the establishment, they are very clearly good cogs in the machine. That performance is polished, choreographed to the millisecond and perfectly synched. Just look at what they’re wearing, those are uniforms! Ok not literally uniforms but they are matching costumes. Clearly, they didn’t just pick the least dirty thing off the floor and roll with it. This is stiff, precise carefully controlled work. In a few spots, the backup girls don’t quite keep up with their lip-synching. None of them play an instrument!
And that’s the big divide, isn’t it? Where artist and musicians will go out of their way to claim major implication in the creative process and take enormous offense at the suggestion that they did not exert full creative control, Idols ill openly admit that their songs are written and chosen for them. If they do play instruments – which is rare, they will have learned them after or at least in order to become an idol. I cannot imagine any of those Babymetal girls sitting alone quietly pounding away at a piano to get the arrangements just right. When would they have the time. Do you know how much practice it takes to get that choreography down pat.
And that’s a great thing.
To me musicians are inherently selfish. It’s about their self-expression and needs. If they also incidentally happen to be very talented, you may end up getting something magical out of them. Idols are not. They are all about the audience and their needs. An idol wants to entertain and make people happy. A musician wants to discover the greater truths of the universe or something like that… One isn’t better than the other and some people can probably be both. But Idols and musicians are two very different things.
As I’ve said before and again, I enjoy effort and passion. Those girls prancing around on stage, you can practically taste the hours, no the months, of grueling physical effort it took to get that performance so smooth. The are like clockwork. Every movement precisely to the beat of the music, perfectly in synch with their bandmates. They take full advantage of the layout of the stage. They picked costumes just as carefully as they do instruments. And they even incorporate visual gags and a physical narrative to go along with the song.
This took a team of professionals all gifted in their respective fields. And the end result may be a product, but it’s a great one.
So, if you are thinking that idols aren’t musicians, you may be right. My point is that they don’t have to be. Idols are entertainers. Their entire approach to performance is completely different and their road is painstaking. I’m not even getting into the image requirements and just emotionally grueling ordeal of representing an ideal.
I realize that the money and fame are probably the main appeal for any idol. I’m not that naïve. But a little part of me loves that fact that after watching countless hours of idol anime, they never mention their need to create or share their music. The motivation is always making the fans smile, brightening the day of people that took dedicated the little free time they had to coming to see them. Although reality may be considerably less sweet. That idea is still somewhere at the core of the idol concept. Personally, I think that kinda rocks.