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.