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.

way better than pianos

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.

it means so much to so many

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.

40 thoughts

  1. Pfft! BABYMETAL are old news – it’s all about LOVEBITES and BAND MAID now! 😉

    I have to disagree that “musicians are inherently selfish” just because they express themselves through songs, guitar solos and riffs – not everyone can sing, dance and rock a gothic loli dress! 😛 This doesn’t negate their desire to entertain either; they rely on record sales and concert tickets to make a living too you know! 😉

    I did write a very long post to offer further counterpoints to your comments but I knew the back and forth arguments we’d get into defending our positions, so I’ll simply say that whether it is an idol group or a singer-songwriter/rock group both have the same objective, they just get there via different routes and different ways of making music. As long as you feel it, job done! 🙂

  2. I don’t typically like idol groups, but then, I don’t particularly like a lot of different kinds of music, so that’s not necessarily saying much. I think if push came to shove, I’d probably say something along the lines of not minding the music of idol groups so much as I mind the business practices. Both financially and in terms of just how much these girls are sometimes pushed both physically and mentally, I think things can get distinctly shady. And unfortunately, that’s just now accepted as the norm here in Japan. (I also tend to avoid Akihabara whenever I visit Tokyo, because as much as AKB48 music isn’t my thing, what’s really disturbing to walking by the official theatre and seeing the long line of fans – primarily males in their 40s and up.)

  3. ” 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.”

    My respect for Rob Zombie, which was already pretty high, went up even more after reading his defense. And for the record, Baby Metal is metal. This statement’s from someone who adores Nightwish and Therion!

    And thank you for the Beyond the Boundary screen cap! That episode was so much fun to watch!

    Liked your conclusion!

        1. well sadly the scripts aren’t fantastic but the camera work, blocking and editing are all pretty freaking good. His Halloween entry for instance has some fantastic tension building despite the so so acting and dialogue all o the strength of camera work. Man’s got a good eye

          1. Well, I really enjoyed the first Halloween when it came out (and yes, I saw it in theaters — and no, there were no dinosaurs around — they were long gone by at least a decade by then…), that’d be a good point of comparison. Thanks for the suggestion!

  4. I’m not that knowledgable about the idol industry, but as long as they’re singing they’re musicians. As a total package, though, they’re probably more performers. In any case, there’s no reason not to respect the work they put into it. And if people enjoy the results that’s fine, too.

    I wouldn’t take the I-want-to-make-people-smile line too seriously; it’s probably as scripted as the rest of the performence and only sincere if you’re an anime character or naturally inclined that way (some just are).

    It’s interesting, though, that you’ve got a Hibike Euphonium image there with the caption “idol?”. The answer is, “no, they’re not.” They’re musicians in a wind orchestra. As individuals they stand out less and aren’t marketed at all. There aren’t going to be meet-and-greet events. And they can probably keep their job (should they go professional) longer [the idol business is notoriously a youth culture – sometimes to the extent of creepiness]. But one thing they might have in common is creative control. You’re going to do exactly what the score tells you; you may have some leeway during a solo (though there are probably fewer solos for the tuba than for the trumpet), but even then you’ve got to time your performence with your orchestra mates. There are a lot of instruments in an orchestra. Yet, nobody I know would say you’re not a musician if you play in an orchestra.

    What bothers me the most about the idol culture (apart form the somteimes extreme youth culture), is the way the performance sometimes extends to the private life of the idols (e.g. apologising for having a boyfriend). Everyone who supports that should be ashamed. But I figure there’ll be differences from production company to production company, or from agency to agency. As I said, I know very little about the industry and it’s probably not a good idea to judge it all after extreme cases. I am fairly sure the industry has systematic problems, though. (What do idols do when they get too old for their jobs [much too soon, most likely]; switch to solo artists? TV announcers? Wives? I have no idea.)

      1. Yeah, acting seems like a good career, too. To bad the character ended up in a thriller, might have had an easier time in a slice of life. (Seen it in the cinema, and own the DVD – it’s the only anime DVD I own that did not come out on an anime imprint – it’s part of a series called the German equivalent of “Masterworks of Asian Cinema”.)

  5. Hard work and talent are traits that both go hand in hand in what we can generalize as “performance” in whatever form it may take. One way of looking at this dichotomy between idols and musicians (as two different performing entities) is in how much they seem to portray these traits; where we typically hear of “talented musicians” and “hard working idols” more than the inverse. Not to say of course that musicians don’t work hard nor that all idols are untalented, but the narrative for both does tend to go in that direction most of the time.

    For instance, “musical talent” (ie perfect pitch, aptitude for learning instruments) is somewhat of a given when talking about most musicians whereas idols don’t necessarily have to have musical talent to be what they are. “Idols don’t have to be exceptionally good singers or dancers” is the common precept. What they have instead (at least on my own thoughts on the matter) is a form of “spectacle” in doing things that they may not have inherently known how to do yet still giving it their all for the sake of performance; whether it’s singing, dancing, (or as with your example), being metal (xD)

    1. I suffer from Perfect Pitch. I can hear it, and that helps me make it if I practice, but it gives me no real advantages to being good at creating music. I just suffer physical pain when I hear people off key. Its kinda like chewing aluminum foil or licking a 9v battery. Several of my family also have perfect pitch so it seems to be genetic.

  6. What an interesting post, dude. Personally, BABYMETAL is one of my Japanese band yet the way they create a concept like metal and idol is something new that people will recognize little by little. I remember when bands like “Rage against the Machine,” “Linkin Park,” “Korn” or other nu-metal bands are something that new which people at first really hate these band, almost, because its ruined something that metal have it. Yet, BABYMETAL brings something new to a new level including a new unique genre. As a metalhead, I love how they bring metal to a new concept. Even, James Hetfield, Corey Taylor, and Marylin Manson gave a shout out to these girls.

  7. I really like that thought too. The fact that they are part of something that makes others happy.
    I like asking that question to other creators and most of the time it really comes down to giving those who read/watch/listen a break from life. A moment where they can forget their world for just a bit. It is awesome being a creator.

  8. I mostly understood that idol singers are pretty much about marketing. They are product, with lots of stuff for sale associated. Even K-on is about the music, even if they’re moe and the characters are all from Sora No Woto. Nana was a great example of a musician’s struggle, and her friendship with a codependent mouse who wants to be a housewife and doesn’t really mind if she gets beaten by her future husband. Nana is famously good for good reason. I couldn’t get into Mongolian Chop Squad because it put too much of its story into bullying and I stopped watching it. The various anime about idol groups, including Locodol and Sakura Project are about the machine, and the intent for which they were hired to promote. Those shows are way more human than actual documentaries which should how crazy busy they are, and I will note here that Britney Spears was managed on the Japanese model for an Idol singer, INCLUDING the officially endorsed “rebellion” period to get more audience. She doesn’t write her own music either. Like Michael Jackson and Madonna, it is all engineered by focus groups and marketing guys hired for the purpose to promote the product and sell stuff for profit. In its own way, getting lots of radio play to advertise music for sale and concert tickets is what REAL music is about. It is about money. So you raised the contrary points appropriately, that music business is a business, and that music from the soul is also selfish (equally true). Bravo.

  9. One of the interesting things I learned doing news last week or the week before is just how much idol culture was influenced by the older pop musicians of the US. I think the Answerman on ANN has a good post about it.

  10. It really depends on who and what you ask about an idol; more and more of them are looking to usually debut in idol groups and work to be a ‘musician’. Aka from having music handed to them, to having a hand in writing lyrics, making their own choreography, or just a more hands on approach. I haven’t quite written about idols too much on my blog (always in the works), but I do run a tumblr for female idols (human ones) and we’ve had the spirited debate on who is an idol, and where to draw the line on being a musician. Obviously, Ayumi Hamasaki is now a soloist in her own right but there’s not doubt at one point she was touted as more of an ‘idol’.

    But very intersting thoughts, and glad you wrote about it!

  11. I wrote a long comment then deleted it. Interesting post, though Irina! You speak with the authority of someone who’s watched a lot of idol anime even though I think we all know that line in the last paragraph should be amended to say “countless hours of ~male~ idol anime”. Not having a go mind you, just saying…

    1. I think generally speaking the boy and girl ration is still 50/50. Up until last year I had never seen a boy idol anime so throughout the years I’ve seen a lot of random girl idol shows (and if we count Jem and the holograms then girls win hands down!). I’m sure the ratio will quickly tilt though. Gimme a few more months!
      This said, the girl idol shows are also all about making the audiance happy (in my experience). They love their fans and want to fill their heart with song.
      It’s quite sweet.

        1. I really loved Key and Perfect Blue is one of my all time favourite movies but I’ve also watched a bunch like locodol, idolmaster, K-on (if that counts) good ol creamy mami. I’m probably forgetting a bunch. I did watch most of these a long time ago, so I don’t remeber them much and haven’t reviewed them.
          I just finished Ore which is about a girl idol group and loved it! I’ma gonna review that!

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