Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Least Wu-Tang of All Wu-Tangs: AKB48 and the Bulbous Egg Sac

Credit for the strange title goes to, whose review of Darksiders sussed out the idealized features of "Zelda" as a game type, and used that as a rubric for finding Darksiders "particularly Zelda" (though not particularly a good game).  I had an apparently similar insight last year when I first started learning about AKB48, a hugely popular pop idol enterprise, who superficially capitalize on a music marketing trick first pursued by the Wu-Tang Clan.  AKB, started in 2005, has (yes) 48 members, and they are divided into a series of ranks, grades, and 'teams' which form a variety  of sub-groups, fulfill different roles, and appeal to a variety of different fans, all while operating under the same umbrella.  This makes AKB48 a many-headed dragon, each head strengthening the constantly-growing body - pretty much in the same way Rae and Ghost would go off and do a couple things, building their own brands and Wu-Tang's all at once.

But AKB48 take everything a step farther.  Today was the release date for the first single, "The Extinct Brunette," by NMB48  [warning: don't watch if your faith in humanity is tenuous, it's an unbelievable mess].  Founded just last year, NMB are a parallel AKB, with the same massive, complexly tiered internal structure. While AKB stands for Akihabara, NMB stands for Namba, a section of Osaka.  There's also SKE48, started in 2008 and based in Aichi Prefecture. Finally, there's the slight variation of SDN48, with the SDN standing for "Saturday Night" and suggesting the very slightly more adult orientation of that group, composed in part of 'graduates' from AKB (aka women who can no longer pretend to be little girls).

Akimoto Yasushi,
 who I hope is proud of himself.
So, with four groups of 48 members each, and numerous smaller formations within each of those, the AKB empire begins to look like a Wu-Tang of Wu-Tangs, as if Killarmy and Sunz of Man had each become a hit factory in its own right.  Except, that is, for the part where this Meta-Tang (copyright) is put together by a svengali-like behind-the-scenes producer, Akimoto Yasushi.  Wu-Tang negotiated its revolutionary deal as a true group (albeit initially with RZA in a clear leadership role), from a position of little power, and with an eye towards a democratic future in which they could all be equals, without at the same time having to submit entirely to the risks of rule by committee. By contrast, AKB and its spawn were the creation of one man, and every move made can be assumed to have the goal of further enriching him.

You can question a lot of what Wu-Tang have done over the years, but despite the strategic nature of their business arrangements, their music has never been carefully market-conscious.  Frankly, they just got really lucky for a few years there, and have since returned to their proper place as vanguardists.  The AKB organization, on the other hand, applies the Wu-Tang model to aesthetic, image, and marketing decisions that range from run of the mill pop-machine exploitation to borderline sociopathic mind-fuckery to just remarkably dumb.  An instance of the former was the recent introduction of "Aimi Eguchi," a new member who turned out to be a computer amalgamation of five other top members (and whose name was actually a play on the gum she was digitally created to promote).  More nefarious, and vastly more fundamental to the AKB plan for domination, is the annual 'election' of the most popular member of the group. This is like a less-democratic version of American Idol, especially since to be able to vote you have to buy a copy of the group's most recent single.  There are images floating around of obsessive AKB fans who supposedly bought dozens or hundreds of copies of the single to vote for their favorite member - in other words, the entire scheme aims to exploit some seriously desperate shut-in otaku.  (Oh, and for the "just dumb" part? There's an annual intra-group rock paper scissors tournament that takes place AT BUDOKAN).

Of course, as much as it's exploiting the audience, AKB is almost certainly exploiting the girls in the group.  Unlike the Wu-Tang, AKB members haven't shown much ability to move into productive solo careers, even as they (Menudo-style) get shuffled out of the main group as they get older.  Some go into the older-skewing SDN48, but others take, well, less conventional paths.  Most dramatic is Rina Nakanishi, who now works in Adult Video under the pseudonym Yamaguchi Riko.  Note, this is not softcore or private sex-tape stuff, but actual hardcore porn starring a former member of the currently most succesful pop group in the country.  Of course, the path to that outcome was well paved, since the girls of AKB are trained primarily in dance and dress-up, including donning skimpy clothes for photo shoots, sometimes from a very young age.  Not that I'm against half-naked women in principle (or for that matter, totally naked ones), but the unremitting focus on youth is pretty icky - for instance, the video for the new SDN single has them all in schoolgirl outfits, which is standard through the AKEmpire.

Finally, just to reiterate, none of this is anything but a total disaster for Japanese fans or the quality of culture.  The core fanbase of socially maladjusted and detached Akiba nerds has resulted in music that would seem to be targeted at children if it weren't for all the overblown synth and sexual innuendo (So, half-deaf, horny children).  Ian Martin of the Japan Times makes the apropos comparison to the Korean band Girl's Generation, who while still managed to within an inch of their lives, are also quite clearly being given better music to work with.  Pop is pop, no doubt, and maybe America has been spoiled over the past - what, forty-five years? - by the constant availability of some slight counternarrative amidst the pap, whether it was Kate Bush and Blondie cropping up inexplicably in the Eighties or the more recent likes of Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga (whose music is disposable but who is at least genuinely opinionated, provocative, and let's just say it, gay).  What exactly is it that has kept Japanese pop so docile and irrelevant for so long?  The more I learn about it, the more I believe it has something to do with the hierarchical nature of the music business . . . and the more I wonder how long this crap can survive the internet, however clever the branding structure.


Hayley said...

I'll agree with you that AKB48 is mindless fluff marketed to obsessive hermits (yet I somehow enjoy it, though not to the point where I buy fifty singles xD), but to paint all Japanese pop like that is unfair. Just like the US has it's pop stars who can write their own music and control their own image, so does Japan- it's just that you won't find them among idols like AKB48. Artists like Namie Amuro, Ayumi Hamasaki, Utada Hikaru, YUI, Miliyah Kato, and Kaela Kimura are more like what most Japanese people listen to, in terms of female pop singers.

(Though I think I have to give you props for mentioning one of my favorites, Kate Bush? Though she was far from super successful in the States...)

Still, this is a really interesting article, and hearing someone who isn't interested in pop idol's opinion on AKB48 is always refreshing.

TheWonton said...

For someone who is devoted to "burning the intellectual laziness out of the academy" you seem pretty intent on making very broad generalizations and sweeping judgment calls.

You also proceed to take some pretty strong but uninformed stances on a number of issues without taking into account any cultural differences and belittling the nature of the business model by reducing it to "hype."

This all, of course, makes me wonder just how much research you ever put into anything in general before you begin to push your biased agenda on others until they agree with you just to have you stop talking.

David Z. Morris said...

Hayley,you're right, there are higher-quality Japanese pop stars. I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on Amuro and Hamasaki, who are basically the female versions of Exile - but still, I take your point. The problem is that those artists who are able to control anything have a vastly more difficult path to get to that point than in the U.S. Just to take a specific example, I recently did some (very marginal)work on the upcoming solo release from Doumoto Tsuyoshi, half of the Kinki Kids. He's apparently wanted to put out a solo record for TEN YEARS, but Johnny's wouldn't let him. That's just absurd. So, while AKB are certainly an extreme example, I do still think it's safe to call them representative of broader trends.

David Z. Morris said...

TheWonton, if there's something here that's factually inaccurate or that you would interpret differently, I'm more than happy to hear it. I consider a big part of intellectual laziness to be the unwillingness to risk being wrong, and that's what this blog is all about - rough drafts of ideas, open for rebuttal. I'd love your help.

TheWonton said...

Basically it's what I said. You've reduced almost all your opinions about the group into an insultingly basic argument.

To dissect your opinion would form a response longer than your article. It is literally not worth the trouble.

One example, of many I could have pulled, is that multiple-copy promotions is an oft used tactic all across Japan. It happens in stores selling photobooks to promote getting extra goodies like signatures, posters, or photos with the model. Nearly all pop-related CD's have multi-cover versions. DVD's have similar promotions to get limited edition chekis or in-store signing sessions associated with the model involved. Even video games have multiple versions, some are "limited" versions which come with extra material and some games like Pokemon and Digimon justify the idea of two-versions by having different creatures in each volume.

There is no REAL reason for anyone to buy multiple copies of any of the products above, but people do. No one forces them to, and it's not necessary. What they do with their money is up to them. Why do you feel you should judge them on their behavior?

For people in America it's not unusual for a person to buy two copies of the latest pokemon game but what are the differences? A small differentiation in the Pokemon included but it's the same exact game. It features a different cover and some superficial changes.

Yet so many Americans look down on multiple single versions even though the system is exactly the same. A different cover and maybe one unique track to each "type" of Single available.

Suffice to say, if you are displeased about something in the future and lack the resources or patience to dissect it properly it would be best to keep your opinion to yourself.

It ends up only fueling the hatred of those similarly singular-minded who vainly attempt to find a blogger or an article who agrees with their sentiment to prove the validity of their bias.

David Z. Morris said...

I don't really follow your objection. Just because there are plenty of other examples of similar tactics doesn't undermine any aspect of my comments about AKB. And while you're absolutely right that people have the right to spend their money on these things if they choose, that doesn't make it a positive or healthy way to spend either money or attention.

I'm still not sure what your real objection is. I gather you've come from the AKB fan site, so my guess is that you're trying to defend your enjoyment of them. How about helping me understand why you enjoy them? Maybe there's more value there than I'm able to see.

And by the way, telling me to "keep my opinion to myself" makes you sound petulant and childish, and makes it far less likely that anyone reading this is going to take what you have to say seriously.

TheWonton said...

Your objections regarding business tactics fails to take into account cultural norms. You point it out as if they are unique to this brand.

Your opinions on this subject might as well be in line with Disney marketing and branding positioning.

Consider this:

Disney has theme parks around the world to promote their shows and movies. They own a television station (ABC) that they can aggressively push their brand and products. They have another television station (Disney Channel) and radio stations (Radio Disney) which they push their younger brands and products. They set up stores around the world to push their products (Disney Store both physical and online presence) and yet.. who complains about this company?

Do you see anyone actually being taken seriously when they blog and nag incessantly about how "unfair" Disney tactics are to the Nickelodeon brand name? Or how Disney isn't "real" enough like X BRAND group that they DO prefer?

Absolutely not. These comparisons are laughable and embarrassing.

When I told you it was a good idea to keep your opinion to yourself, it wasn't an effort to silence you. It was my hint to you, that unless you are prepared to do your research you just end up embarrassing yourself by making superficial judgement calls.

I need not explain what I enjoy about AKB48 to you, because I am not an insecure person who needs to push my agenda on others unnecessarily.

If you call me childish, note this:

My post was in response to your wholly uninformative and biased rant about a group JUST for the sake of passing your own personal judgement. They don't affect you, you don't attempt to delve anywhere past your surface observations of the group, and yet you feel that someone reminding you to show some dignity is brushed off as childish.

For someone who talks so big about "burning the intellectual laziness out of the academy" you seem very intent on doing the exact opposite. You sit there waiting for me to tell YOU why I enjoy it. You wait for me to explain to YOU why your opinions are far from academic. You are waiting for me to point out YOUR factual or ideological errors. You started this, and are so under-informed that YOU can't even it this.

David Z. Morris said...

TheWonton, I admire your persistence, and I guess I can't fault your tone, considering that you're here already on the defensive.

But again, you're not really getting there. I, and a lot of other people, actually do dislike and distrust Disney and everything it stands for. This isn't because we prefer Nickelodeon - and in fact, that you think the only choices are between various giant media brands is pretty depressing. The real alternative is for people to be directly engaged with music - maybe make some music, or listen to some your friends made - instead of just having a giant culture machine squirt a semi-musical paste into their ears.

I'm asking you to help me understand the appeal of AKB because there's at least the possibility of redeeming them there. I may dislike Disney as a company, but they do occasionally do right (for instance, they made Toy Story 3). Not all culture produced by a corporation is bad. The focus of my post was on the business and marketing side of AKB48, but if there's some real power to the music that I'm missing, it would help me get a better grip on what it's really all about.

Kiryu_kazuma said...

i like turtles

city said...

thanks for posting.