Friday, 12 August 2011

AKB48, "Koko ni Ita Koto"

(I reviewed this album ages ago for The Japan Times, but this was a longer, more detailed analysis I did together with a friend and colleague of mine that was originally published in Japanese at and cross-posted in English from Clear And Refreshing)

With the staggering popularity of AKB48 and their ever-expanding legions of sister groups, there can be no denying that Yasushi Akimoto is in possession of a particular kind of genius. To have taken what at first seems like a niche product, best suited to performing at anime conventions and amusement parks, and made it into the most successful group in the country demands attention. The release of "Koko ni ita Koto" provides as good a platform as any to subject the AKB phenomenon to some measure of analysis, not least to answer the question of whether Akimoto's genius extends beyond the group's marketing and into their music.


To achieve the level of commercial success that AKB48 have, they would never have been able to do it without attracting a sizeable female following. Nevertheless, look at the queues outside AKB48's theatre in Akihabara and you see precious few female faces. And while many of their casual casual audience are female, everything the group does is predicated on the assumption of a male audience. In this way, it seems that the group's success is built on an obsessive core of male fans, to whom they faithfully pander, and female fans are simply invited to follow: "This is what kind of female image is considered attractive,” “this is how to be cute,” etc.

AKB48's image treads a thin line in lyrical content, participating in the obvious “moe” sexualisation of childlike imagery but avoiding the kind of direct appeals to lechery that were the stock in trade of 80s predecessors Onyanko Club. Or, indeed, the earlier AKB48 of "Seifuku ga Jama wo Suru"-- in many ways, "Koko ni Ita Koto" shows these earlier works to be naive. The sex is merely a hook to draw audiences towards something longer-lasting: the pursuit of true love, and when we say "true love", what we mean is "the relentless march of consumer capitalism."

The main manifestation of this is in the way that beneath the superficial atmosphere of friendship and mutual support, the members of AKB48 are made to constantly jostle for the affection of fans via the "senbatsu elections" and special edition CDs. Despite the claim that "Dare mo minna Team B oshi desu yo ne?" the song "Team B Oshi" basically amounts to the members of Team B engaging in the equivalent of an intra-team rap battle over who should be the listener's favourite.

There is more to this paradigm of competition than meets the eye. Consider that dozens of girls are singing songs together about the importance and uniqueness of "one true love" to a single imagined male listener. It's reminiscent in some ways of that creepy moment when, listening to a boy band, you realise that there are five guys singing about wanting to get with the same girl -- and yet it's different. With a group like 'N Sync or Blue, the band are the subject and the girl the object: they are seducers and she their quarry. In AKB48's case, the hypothetical man they are singing to is still the subject, with the power to choose from the array of girls before him, while the girls objectify themselves in competing for his attention. This relationship is most obviously apparent on "Ponytail to Shushu", where the girls take on the voice of the male listener and narrate his pursuit of his object of affection from the male perspective. The song also romanticises the obvious point that the man's love can never be physically requited:

Your long hair is bundled in a polkadot scrunchie
I cannot catch that tail of love
If I touch it, this illusion will disappear

In the 2D world that AKB48 and their fans inhabit, "true love" has been systematised like that. The girls make a play for the man's attention in the brief snatches of time the format of the group allows them, through their enactment of the various pre-determined "moe" behavioural elements that act as shorthand for more complex human character traits. At the same time, the man sits in judgement, indicating his affection through voting power that is conferred on him directly in accordance to how much money he spends. It is love as perceived through the mind of a piece of accounting software.

That is not to say that AKB48 fans are stupid. The notion of the single true love that they perpetuate through their lyrics is a lie in which both sides are complicit. The whole time the group and the fans are acting out this curious late-capitalist pastiche of love, what we might call the "Akimoto System" is encouraging the fans to take time to sample the different flavours. "Come to the theatre more than once to see all the girls perform, buy all the different versions of the single, complete the set. You will fall in love with one, but you don't know she's the best until you've shopped around, right?"

In this way, the relationship between AKB48 and their fans is rather like a video game dating simulator played out in real time and on a mass scale. Like with AKB48, "gyaruge" and visual novels operate in a paradoxical world where the player and game enter into a shared fantasy of true love and intertwined destiny, while at the same time, the player is encouraged to replay multiple times to complete the paths of each girl on offer.

"Heavy Rotation" pushes the notion of one true love hard, although it also (probably unintentionally) hints at this "replay factor":

I wonder how many times can people fall in love in the span of a lifetime?
If I could have just one unforgettable love story, I'd be satisfied

The beauty of this system, of course, is that whatever the fan does, whether he completes his collection, or whether he focuses wholeheartedly on the one girl he truly loves, Akimoto is always there to collect the money. The house always wins.


Musically, the image of the group as an offshoot of otaku culture is not really accurate. Genuine otaku culture, for all its quirks, is constantly evolving, and most of the fans AKB48 had among hardcore otaku have already left them for the likes of Momoiro Clover or the all-virtual world of vocaloid software. AKB48 have always been a simulation, an otaku-themed Disneyland ride.

In contrast, the music on "Koko ni Ita Koto" remains in a musical furrow that has existed relatively unchanged for years. These are the same watered-down, eurobeat-influenced rhythm and major chord progressions that you hear from pachinko parlours and game centres all over Japan. In each case, the sound is linked not to the specific content of what goes on inside, but to the image of cute, cartoonish, colourful, synthetic good cheer. It’s a world where human interactions and life experiences can be simplified to commodities and financial transactions, a world where the only law is "Follow your dreams," and for convenience's sake, the choice of dreams available to you is laid out on a laminated menu.

While this sound is evocative of the 90s, it's not really retro. To be retro, you must first consciously draw a distinction between the music of today and the period that you want to imitate. In contrast, with a few exceptions, this music simply doesn't recognise the existence of any musical advances made since the mid-to-late 1990s.

It's a shame that it has to be like this, since a group like AKB48, at the very pinnacle of the Japanese pop music scene, are in a position with audiences where they could define a new direction that would influence J-Pop for a generation. But that isn’t what’s happened. Whether through fear of alienating fans, or the need to provide reliable content for the advertisers that bankroll an increasingly significant proportion of the music industry, or through sheer lack of imagination and curiosity, the music relies to an extraordinary degree on a sound that has been in stasis for at least fifteen years.

That's not to say, however, that the album never diverges from this template. If you can get over the karaoke backing track production, the firm beat and more aggressive arrangement of the 2010 single "Beginner" sounds like it might be an attempt at a response to the rising popularity of Korean girl groups like Girls' Generation, although the lyrics disregard these superficial trappings of sexual maturity in favour of a familiar brand of faux-inspirational sentiment:

We should be as brand new as a child...
Let's tear off the chains that controlled us

To be completely fair, both "Kaze no Yukue" and the title track are competent enough ballads. "Ningyo no Vacance" is also notable for actually sounding like it might have been written by a human being, and is perhaps the closest thing on the album to legitimate pop songwriting. None of this is enough to redeem the album, but it bears mention.


While it seems like the music of AKB48 is a relatively minor aspect of the total media-mix, the problem remains that the popularity of AKB48 and their sister projects as entertainment icons grants an undeserved aura of legitimacy to this regressive, infantile, musically unadventurous approach to pop. Recent Japanese-language singles "Jet Coaster Love" and "Go Go Summer!" saw Korean girl group Kara aping the thin-sounding, cheap production values and lolita-esque demeanour of AKB48 even though their more mature and sexy image had made them stars in their own right. More upsettingly, Japan's most forward-looking pop group Perfume slipped into a worryingly familiar sort of sentimental 90s balladry on their recent B-side "Kasuka na Kaori". It would be a terrible shame if the enormous popularity of AKB48 were to drag an already creatively moribund Japanese pop scene any further into the abyss. Connor Shepherd & Ian Martin 3.August.2011