Why idol groups are good for Shibuya-kei

In the halcyon days of Shibuya-kei’s past, female performers were far more than just pretty faces that shrewd marketers decided were bankable. Whether the girls’ personalities manifested themselves in the form of Cibo Matto’s bratty, rebellious stance or the childlike innocence of Takako Minekawa, the important factor was that individual, unique identities were cultivated. It’s no coincidence that most female Shibuya-kei singers were directly involved in the creative process for their albums even when the songs were written by others; Kahimi Karie produced all of her albums, for example, and on later albums even wrote the majority of the lyrics herself. Even when working with veritable titans like Yasuharu Konishi, the women of Shibuya-kei’s past still found time to assert their own creative voices (Maki Nomiya co-wrote some songs for Pizzicato Five, as well as sharing production credit on Bossa Nova 2001); a stark, and refreshing, contrast to the one-way street of manufactured idol personas that defined the Japanese pop mainstream.

Naturally, this would all seem to suggest that embracing the idol format – with its assortment of performers chosen neither for talent nor personality, singing lyrics they had absolutely nothing to do with over music they similarly have no meaningful connection to – is a massive step backwards for the genre’s producers. It is undeniably regressive, in a sense, for people like Takao Tajima and Yasuharu Konishi to go from legitimate collaborations with actual artists to writing songs for idol groups assembled by a record store’s vanity label, but ultimately their choice to start working with idol groups may be the best thing to have happened to Shibuya-kei in a long time.

Over a decade from the release of her debut single Mike Alway’s Diary, Kahimi Karie did something completely unexpected: her 2006 album NUNKI somehow wound up charting on Oricon’s weekly album ranking, peaking with the not-terribly prestigious #67 position the week of its debut before dropping off the chart entirely two weeks later. Now, why mention this, you might ask? The answer is because a peak of 67 on the weekly chart – and selling enough in the second week to still chart – was actually a resounding success for Karie at that point in her career. SPECIALOTHERS and It’s Here, the two albums she’s released since, spent a week on the charts each, with SPECIALOTHERS rendering the whole idea of “charting” somewhat arbitrary by peaking at #264. It’s Here did better, position-wise, but still failed to break the top 100 in its sole week on the charts – it reached #155. Karie had long outgrown the role of the whisper-voiced sex kitten she played when working with Momus in her early career, and in abandoning her old persona she threw out the old sound with it; 2003’s Trapéziste would prove to be the last hurrah for the Shibuya-kei sound Karie made her name with, her later works delving into free-jazz and collaborations with avant-garde composers Jim O’Rourke and Otomo Yoshihide. In going forward from Shibuya-kei’s golden age, Karie decided that trans-continental jet-set chic was best replaced by sparse, emotionally distant experimentation – perhaps best shown by her completely joyless “Blue Orb.” As the sales figures show, when she imagined the future of Shibuya-kei as a dour, lifeless expanse of glitchy noise and experimentation for experimentation’s sake, she made the wrong call entirely. Even if people wanted that sort of thing, they didn’t want it from Kahimi Karie.

A year after It’s Here failed to make anything of a mark on culture in general, executives at Tower Records figured that, perhaps, the time was right to get into the idol-music game. Having leased the group Vanilla Beans from Tokuma Japan and signed existing groups Shizukaze and Negicco (whose Yasuharu Konishi-penned “Idol Bakari Kikanaide” is embedded above), the roster for their T-Palette Records label had a solid lineup but no real hook – until, sometime around 2013, someone at Tower Records realized Shibuya-kei was just that hook. I’ve written about this before, but the recent release of Negicco’s Hikari no Spur put things into a much clearer perspective. After years of struggling to even get on the singles chart, much less hold a position in the top 100, Takao Tajima suddenly found a single that he wrote debuting at #1 on the daily chart and winding up with a #5 position on the weekly one. Strictly speaking in terms of chart positions, Hikari no Spur is the biggest hit Tajima has had in at least a decade – and possibly his whole career, although Oricon’s publicly-accessible information doesn’t go that far back. Idol groups’ popularity may be rightly seen as a plague, but it’s pestilence that sells. Without the three girls of Negicco looking adorable in the video and singing with blandly autotuned precision over his music, odds are Hikari no Spur would have wound up as another non-starting single from a man with a career full of them; but through the sheer magnetism of Negicco’s wotaku appeal, he managed to nab a #5 spot on a chart where his singles as Original Love could only dream of breaking the top 100. People do want Shibuya-kei – it just turns out they want it presented differently than it had been, but not in the way Karie imagined they did.

While sales of physical media are flagging and chart performance would appear to become less and less relevant with each passing year, there’s no denying that the Oricon list still carries with it quite a bit of prestige. That it has been so wholly dominated by Yasushi Akimoto’s mega-sized girl groups and Johnny Kitagawa’s army of interchangeable pretty-boy idols only makes the victories of independent-label releases like Hikari no Spur that much more significant; and while the fans may be coming for the Negicco girls, they’re staying for the Shibuya-kei sounds. Idol group music can serve as a gateway to better things, and with labels using their groups to spread awareness of Shibuya-kei greats who had gone far too long without a proper payday, it’s most definitely a good time to be a Shibuya-kei producer.

Of course, now we get back to that opening statement; it’s a good time to be a producer, but what about the female performers who went out of vogue when the first wave of Shibuya-kei crashed and Kahimi Karie started making albums like Montage? In a world of disposable idols, is there any place for the fearlessly independent women of days gone by? Unlike the comparatively cut-and-dried issue of whether or not the rise of Shibuya-kei idol groups is good for producers, the effects of this new wave on performers are far more nuanced. Neo-Shibuya-kei singer-songwriter Saku hardly did Negicco numbers with either of her indie EPs (peaking at 145 and 165 on the weekly charts, neither staying for over a week), and similarly Shibuya-kei leaning artists from outside the idol-group umbrella don’t generally tend to do much better. This year, Mayumi Kojima’s “On the Road” and Asako Toki’s STANDARDS in a sentimental mood both broke the weekly album chart’s top 100, but neither Miss Maki Nomiya Sings Shibuya-kei Standards nor Cibo Matto’s Hotel Valentine managed the same despite strong sales for Shibuya-kei idols indicating a renewed consumer interest in the genre. Takako Minekawa’s Savage Imagination was never even released in Japan (being the exact kind of album that Ape Sounds would have put out is no use to an artist after that label’s unfortunate demise), and international coverage of Shibuya-kei artists has been practically nonexistent recently. Although there are a multitude of factors that affect chart performance, the majority of these factors do rather transparently favour female idols over their artistically integrous counterparts.

Where Shibuya-kei idols are good even for non-idol female performers, though, is that they shatter one of idol culture’s most seemingly unshakable beliefs: they’re not the high school girls that have so long been the ideal. The youngest member of Negicco is currently 23 years old, with the oldest age 26 – and yet their single’s debut at #1 on the Oricon dailies found them beating out groups with members as young as 13. The idol industry has long been justly criticized for its reliance on ever-younger performers (it’s not uncommon to hear about idol debuts from girls not even into their teens yet), but the dogma supporting their exploitative practices has always been that they’re providing what the people want. In Negicco’s victory one sees a strong refutation of this flawed logic; three women, all well over the age of majority, finding success in what was supposed to be a young girl’s game. In this way, they continue the legacy of Shibuya-kei performers before them – none of the bright lights of the ’90s scene were particularly young at the time of their debut, with Maki Nomiya only joining Pizzicato Five at age 30 – and set a precedent for a less-exploitative, far healthier new conception of idol performers. Yes, it won’t get much easier for non-idols to match the chart performance of their more well-marketed counterparts, but groups like Negicco are opening doors to new possibilities just the same. And, who knows, maybe some former idol-group members might make something they can actually control after their contracts expire – there’s nothing that says one has to stay in a manufactured idol group forever.


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