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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?
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