fly to high

Definition of ‘Idol’
November 12, 2010, 5:05 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

What differentiates a pop idol from being a pop musician?

An person who can be an idol is different in every culture, but when you think of it in terms of a J-pop idol, you’d think AKB48, Johnny’s Entertainment, and Hello! Project, amongst dozens of smaller companies and lesser known groups. Those are our idols: good looking but down to earth entertainers who can (sometimes) sing, (sometimes) act, (sometimes) host, and (always) charm the pants off of their demographic, whether its 12 year old girls or 50 year old men.

They release a fairly consistent strain of pop music that’s rarely musically acclaimed but often catchy and fun. Many of them show themselves on entertainment shows.

Recently, a string of idol groups are being imported from Korea and hitting it big in Japan: Girls’ Generation (SNSD), Big Bang, Kara, and 4minute are all making an impact upon dozens more that have tried or are planning to release. And there’s no way to mention this without mentioning TVXQ, which in their heyday was (and still is) highly regarded and loved in Japan. In Korea, these groups are referred to as idol groups, but in Japan, their style is completely different.

Big Bang’s hip pop music and urban style dance is much different from Arashi’s tunes and semi-synchronized dances. SNSD and Kara’s leg baring, hip shaking dances are nothing like AKB48’s cute group dances. Big Bang’s music resonates more towards J-urban artists than Johnny’s, while a SNSD member would look more at place posing amongst artists like Amuro Namie or Suzuki Ami – sexy, sophisticated, and definitely grown up.

In Korea, it’s easy to define an idol – are you in a group, or were at one point in a group? Are you in a group of people who sing and dance at the same time? Are you trained and your career decisions made by a higher up? Do more people focus on how your look versus how well you sing? Congratulations, you’re an idol.

In Japan though, it’s hard to tell who is an idol selling idol pop and who is a musician selling pop that sounds like idol pop. Amuro Namie was in a idol group but with her urban style in the 90s and continuing success in the new millennium, its doubtful anyone still considers her as an idol star. Matchy debuted and still remains in Johnny’s Entertainment, but does anyone really regard this middle aged singers’ songs as idol songs, even though his fans are probably still remnants from his idol days? Perfume definitely started as an idol group, but these days they’re regarded everywhere as a pop unit – possibly due to their electropop sound, and possibly due to the fact that they’ve steered clear of the bikini-wearing, wota-handshaking overly cute gestures that plague idoldom.

The line is blurred even more for bands that don’t start out as idols but somehow turn into them. Scandal has the cute looks, the schoolgirl outfit gimmick – but they formed on their own and play their own rock music, though their music is more like idol-rock sound. Otsuka Ai plays the cutest, love-saturated songs ever, but they’re all music she wrote and composed herself. Are they idols?

Yet these Korean stars walk into the scenes, and despite releasing music and showing images that are less like Japan’s idols and more like Japan’s artists, they are still idols.

Does it come down to artistic creation – that is, if you take part in crafting your music or image, then you belong to yourself as an artist, not an idol? Even before she gained much more power over her career, Ayumi Hamasaki wrote much of her own music, therefore she had a stake in her career, becoming more of an artist. If Yamapi of NEWS started writing his own songs for his solo releases, would that make him less of an idol? What if you’re like Yuna Ito, who does not write for her song? Is she less of an artist and more of an idol?

Is it the training? Idol companies often audition their talents. Hello!Project, Johnny’s Entertainment, the AKB Franchise, they all have dozens of trainees under different names that they are training. Is it simply where you learn your trade that differentiates you being an artist or an idol?

Is it all in your marketing – whether you’re selling your image versus your song? Or maybe your activities – are you just a singer, or a singer-actress-talento – that defines you? But who is to say that artists can’t be artists in multiple media? Is Shibasaki Kou any less of a great actress by her singing, and is her singing doomed to be “idol pop” just because she can act as well?

Or is it just defined by how many people love you? AKB48 has a devoted following. Arashi has a devoted following. YUI also has a devoted following, loving her as much as they love her music. Is YUI, despite starting out as an indie singer-songwriter, an idol now?

This, really, remains my open question: what defines an idol?

4 Comments so far
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In Korea “is easy to define” what and Idol is because they mixed up the American Idol concept with the Japanese Idol concept. That’s why for them are easy to identify an Idol.

In Japan, the suspect is more complex, and as an Idol culture academic researcher, I could stat the next lines:

1. Japanese female and male Idol concepts are different. They are related to “shounen” and “shoujo” images and values. If you want to define “Idol”, you must understand what a “boy” and a “girl” are in the Japanese Media and in the Japanese history.

2. Because the Americanization of Japanese Pop music, nowadays “Idols” could sing Rhythm & Blues, Rock and even Reggae. But that is not the essence of Idol music.

3. Because the Japanese Patriarch system, male Idols’ career last longer than female Idols. A female Idol must abandon the industry by 30s years of age. A male Idol could continue trough 50s years of age.

4. Because the marketing Japanese system, nowadays and Idol could be anybody from a singer to a porno actress. That’s why the Idol concept is so hard to define.

5. The traditional Idol concept is rooted in the decade of 1980, thanks to the work of male and female pop singers. Hikaru Genji is still linked to SMAP or Arashi. Meanwhile, Onyanko Club is linked to AKB48 and Hello! Project. If you want to define what an Idol is you must know deeply that era.

I hope my notes could help you.

Visit my “Idol culture” section on my blog:


Comment by Hernandez Kurisu

Hi! I loved reading your post! However, I’d like to add a couple things. I’m only going to talk about female japanese idols, seeing how I don’t think Korean actors have the same cultural background, and I don’t follow male idols at all.

The Idol concept was born sometime around the 70s with the premise of “Kiyoku Tadashiku Utsukushiku” which roughly means “Purely, Honestly, Beautifully” These were japanese ideals for women and idols appeared in order to fulfill this role of a “perfect” young japanese woman.
Taking this into consideration, for me, idols are a very distinct group of entertainers, which can’t be merely defined by the proposals you made above. An idol is a girl who joins a company to train, under those ideals I discussed above. Idols aren’t only defined by the fact that they sing prefabricated music, don’t have a say on their careers or dance in a group, they are defined by the purpose of their existence to fulfill those ideals, showcase themselves as a “perfect” possible girlfriend or friend and have to comply with the rules of an idol: Can’t date, can’t smoke, can’t drink heavily, can’t do anything that damages the name of the company they work for.

That’s the way I see it at least 🙂

Comment by Cat

I think an idol is an artist who spends less time singing and dancing when compared to the amount of time they spend appearing in and hosting variety shows or starring in dramas. Its got nothing to do with their style of music or their image. if your sole focus is not singing and dancing then your categorized as an idol.

Comment by chat

My Marketing professor was discussing this issue the other day and he made some interesting points.

Many observers have been categorizing K-Pop idols as artists in Japan, but this actually seems to be a misconception.

Idols became influential out of the necessity to have someone who would entertain the Japanese people after WWII and thus, their focus has never been to showcase great singing and dancing abilities, but simply to entertain.

A Korean idol does exactly that as well. They are all assigned concepts and are trained to attract their audiences with their personalities and words much like the Japanese idols. Similarly, their singing techniques are average and so are their dancing skills when compared to professional troupes. The sound they sell and the way they are marketed, however, is what sets them apart from their Japanese counterparts.

To cater to the Korean people, idols are sold as untouchable entities whom people can admire from afar whereas the nature of Japanese culture calls for the need to sell idols as close acquaintances with whom the public can identify. This is also the basis for developing marketing creative strategies for the Japanese.

On the other hand, there are groups consisting of dancers and vocalists trained solely to perform, such as Rhythmic, Dream, Exile, AAA, Speed, Happiness, and Bright, among others. According to the Japanese, these groups are performers, but not idols because while they entertain you, their focus is entirely placed on their singing and dancing capabilities and often times, the public also will not be able to relate to them or feel as if they share the same intimacy they do with idols.

So, I think it is possible to distinguish an idol from an artist based on the role they take and the purpose they serve.

Comment by Van

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