Japanese crowds are often stereotyped as being quietly reverent - but that sure wasn’t the case at the VICE Japan show at Tokyo Tsutaya O-East last week. Kids punched each other in the face, crowd-surfed, and kicked people in the shins with steel-toed boots. Off! - an American punk superband - headlined the show, but just about everyone arrived early to wild out to the support act - six women called Brandnew Idol Society, a group whose intent is to throw mud on the cutesy image of Japanese idol music.
Idol groups involve several things: J-Pop, young women, and rich male pervs who enjoy up-tempo music created by teens with names like C-ute and SUPERGIRLS. The groups draw fans in with their innocent image and the chance to be part of their journey to stardom - giving fans merchandise and the opportunity to meet them at “handshake events”. Everything from heavy metal to steampunk has an idol group associated with it.
The most dominant group - AKB48 - are the sort of thing that Brandnew Idol Society have been trying to piss on. They currently boast 140 members - a “first-team” gets voted in annually in an election attended by thousands. They rose to fame behind the motto “idols you can meet” and they’ve got their own home-built theatre where fans can watch them every night. They frequently host meet-and-greets. But it’s all an illusion; the cost of becoming an idol means that they can’t be ordinary girls. The idols often aren’t allowed to have romantic relationships and the punishment can be harsh. In AKB’s case members have been dismissed for having boyfriends and one girl notably shaved her head in pennance. The group also made headlines last month after a 24-year old man attacked two members of AKB48 with a saw. As a result, their home theatre has been updated to include metal detectors and airport worthy security - but at what cost does it take to be an idol?
Brandnew Idol Society exist as a foil to AKB48 - highlighting all of the idol absurdities the super-sized group represent. BiS market themselves as “idols you can touch” - diving into the crowd at their gigs and hosting hugging events (other idol groups draw the line at handshakes) and they’ve sold their house-cleaning services on Yahoo! Auctions. They poke fun at AKB’s virginal image - one of their early singles found the trio scampering around Japan’s “suicide forest” in the nude, they’ve paid homage to Russian pop stars t.A.T.u, and group leader Pour Lui posed in Weekly Playboy covered in fake semen (clearly NSFW).
This approach, however, has made BiS a deeply hated group in Japan - videos get thousands of downvotes and idol-centric forums get filled with vitriol. But in some ways the group are largely positive - they muck up the fabricated cornerstones of idol culture and use it their advantage. They routinely wear schoolgirl outfits - a common fashion choice for idol units - only to bloody up gangsters or stage-dive into the audience. They have managed to make adult men - who often pay money to hang out with teenage singers - feel uncomfortable.
Like everything that once started out as a threat to the establishment, BiS, as publicity surrounding them rises, have to tackle commercial pressures. They once mocked the idol-pop marketing strategies - getting fans to buy multiple copies of the same album over and over again - but they signed to major label Avex who willingly encourage the same tactic. They made a non-shocking cameo in the Japanese video for “Happy.” The pressures of the group’s subversions has driven out many members (only two members from BiS’ original line-up remain).
BiS exist to fill a niche - they are idols for people who don’t like traditional idols. They may be very different to AKB48 - but they’ve still got a cult-like following who devote themselves to the band.
The group announced they will disband this July - perhaps because they’ve started to drive further away from their mission and become too close to the idols they seek to parody. The video for Final Dance, for example, sees them mocking the way idol groups dance in their bikinis by…dancing in their bikinis.
That’s not to say they’re not getting in any final punches. The most fitting goodbye may be their last video - a clip in which the group dance poorly and close to the camera in front of a stark-white backdrop, pointing and making silly faces at the viewer, one last final taunt aimed at the fans they never really wanted.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @mbmelodies