While youtube-browsing, I came across a clip of Music Station that goes back through the history of Johnny’s. Apart from the fact that their gay, colorful, sparkly outfits apparently haven’t changed for more than two decades, one thing struck as odd – if this is the entire history of Johnny’s popular artists, why is it that around halfway through the video I can recognize every group and song?
A simple wikipedia search (well, maybe not that simple for me) later, I know I’m not just hallucinating from too many cheesy pop songs: of the Johnny’s artist debuted since the beginning of the 1980s, more than half of them are still media active.
A few disclaimers before I move on: I counted “media active” as idol groups that still release music as a whole, and receive mass media attention amongst the general public. Thus, Shounentai releasing new singles and albums counted as being active; Shounentai doing PLAYZONE and only that every year did not. Also, I only included the officially debuted groups (if the info is wrong, blame wiki.jp!), not counting temporary groups and solo projects. I also didn’t include solo artists like Masahiko Kondo and Toshihiko Tahara, because solo careers had unique paths.
From my handy chart (color-coded in rainbow shades, of course) you see how Johnny’s idoldom dramatically changed with SMAP in the 1990s. Johnny’s ruled with male idols, but at one point in time being a male idol meant going in with a bang when you were young and fading out of the limelight in a few years to do some solo projects or stageplays. Another point to note is that, while Johnny’s as a company was always powerful and popular, their releases were not always chart toppers.
SMAP headed the start of the current Johnny’s wave by becoming not just pop idols that fade out but a group of cultural icons. However, it’s of my opinion that the time all Johnny’s started gaining even more popularity was at the time of KinKi Kids’ debut. With KinKi Kids, chart topping became standard.
I think, as Johnny’s fans, we’re starting to expect permanence. Before, you’d expect your favorite group to be popular for five years, and soon “graduate” or disband. But now, you’d expect to see bands last for at least a decade. SMAP, TOKIO, V6, KinKi, and Arashi have all been in the business for about ten years or more. With the exception of SMAP, who aren’t traditional Johnny’s anyways, none of the groups seem like they’ll disband anytime soon and are all active with releasing music or touring. Arashi is at the very peak of their popularity, now that they have the top two singles of 2008. TOKIO, V6, and Kinki Kids, despite a downward trend of sales since their peak, still do extremely well – for example, despite the worst single sales since their debut, KinKi Kids continue top the charts, even on yearly rankings.
Popularity of Johnny’s also now seems guaranteed. Around 2003 and 2004, NEWS were widely advertised as being a group that has had every single go to number one on the charts. Just a few years later though, it’s uncommon for a debuted Johnny’s group to not release something and have it shoot straight to the top. In a time of declining physical sales, Johnny’s continuously push fans to visit the record stores by promising DVD extras, different tracklistings, multiple versions, or sometimes just a different cover design. Consumerist mindset encourages purchases, and the tracking of sales makes fans compete to get their group the most “successful” or “popular” by topping charts, even if it’s falsely inflated by a single person making multiple purchases.
It’s perhaps our willingness to buy that keeps these bands in business. Let’s be honest – when was the last time SMAP seemed truly excited about releasing a song? If I’d wager a guess, they’d probably all rather do their individual projects. But they can continue to sell tens, hundreds of thousands of copies even with mostly uninspired and unexciting songs, so there’s no incentive to stop releasing.
The issue now is, how many groups can you squeeze into the market before there really cannot be any more Johnny’s?
Personal experience tells me that it is impossible for someone to be completely devoted to more than three groups; most people can only concentrate their attentions on one. NEWS, Kanjani8, and KAT-TUN share its You&J fanclub under the idea that fans of one would be fans of the others too – but the difference in sales and media attention for the groups show that just because you’re a fan of Jin doesn’t mean you’re going to go out and buy his bff Yamapi’s NEWS singles too. And of course, some fans skip around – maybe you were a KinKi Kids fan, but the KAT-TUN hiprolls just captivated you. Or you liked V6, but their general lack of activity sometimes caused you to become a bigger NEWS fan. But if the continued sales show anything, it’s that every group has its core group of devoted fans who will support it under every circumstance.
Johnny’s is popular with younger girls, of course, but their lasting popularities are from the long-time fans and wide age ranges. (SMAP’s popularity comes from that they reached older age group; the mostly underage Hey!Say!JUMP definitely has fans that range from elementary school to middle age.) So if groups keep debuting and debuting, one day there just won’t be enough people interested enough in a new group of boys to have the same kind of popularity.
Whereas in the 80s, you could be a die-hard Otokogumi fangirl – then they’d drop out of the media spotlight, and you could focus your attention on the new shiny groups like SMAP or V6 that pop up and debut – you’d never really have that need to find your new Johnny’s of choice anymore. If I love V6 and they continue to entertain me with their music and media appearances, why would I want to spend time and money to go to concerts and buy CDs of some new group I don’t know or love as much?
At the same time that Johnny’s has established its power by having groups that can continuously sell themselves over five years, ten years, even twenty years, it limits its potential for growth. With the debut of new groups year by year, there seemed to be a dramatic increase in the popularity of newer groups – but it will stop.
Despite the insane amount of media attention Hey!Say!JUMP received for their debut, they just couldn’t be the next big thing – due in part, I’d wager, that so many of the young girls in its targeted age group are already fans of a You & J group.
Unless the older groups disband or every group jointly loses popularity, there’s no way for Johnny’s to keep up its streak of mega-popular bands. So maybe it’s a bubble just waiting to be popped, where our beloved bands will start retiring again once there are so many groups that they cannot all sustain high sales. Or maybe we’re living a golden age of Johnny’s – a special group of idol superstars that are continuously successful for decades.
I hope what I wrote made sense; it’s hard thinking about anything after taking all those finals. (I hope this makes up for me not writing anything for the first half of December. 🙂 )
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