In some recent discussions with fellow writers as well as a few articles from Happy Disco and New School Kaidan, the topic of the live performances by idols came up in a very big way, and it’s something I’ve wanted to tackle in a larger context for a while. The relative discussion started with the topic of many of Momoiro Clover’s fans feeling the group has lost some of their “spark” or “energy” in live performances recently, which is generally one of the things their fans constantly refer to as the main reason to follow the group.
This started to bring into question the importance of idol live performances, what purpose these performances really serve in the grand scheme of their careers, and how these performances help them accomplish their goals as an idol project. This brought up many different opinions and discussions, which I then started to analyze and break down to arrive at some points I wanted to expand on in writing.
As a preface, I’ve never really been a big fan of watching idol performances on video unless it involves live instruments or a huge curiosity where I want to see if a group can really pull off a song I enjoy in a live setting. I generally make it a habit to ignore the majority of idol performances, even from my favorite idols, unless they have that certain special something about them, and I’m definitely not one of the fans who feels the need to watch every single live show an idol does or risk not being a “true” fan.
Coming from a musical performance background and having experience with live performance myself, if the musicality isn’t there in a performance, it doesn’t really serve much purpose for me and doesn’t do much to enthrall or entertain me. In my mind, if there’s no musicality or skill on display outside of dancing, you may as well just go watch a PV or staged video of some kind and at least get a little more value from the visual side of it.
There’s a heavy implicit narrative in idol culture that suggests an idol’s live performances have always been a way for fans to see their “growth” or “progress” in their abilities over time; as a way of “supervising” that growth. This typically also acts to more strongly endear the fans to the idols and nurtures the “parent” or “guardian” aspect that so many idol fans base their idol-wota relationship on.
On the opposite end of that narrative, when you consider that a good amount of live idol performances are actually lip-synched or done with a very heavy backing track or auto-tune, you have to wonder, what are you really getting from this performance? Those aspects of seeing growth or advancement of skill are largely out the window if you’re not even truly hearing them perform.
One could argue that you can still assess their dancing, but personally, that’s the least interesting part of what idols do, is the dancing, and I honestly don’t think most hardcore wota have a genuine interest in the dancing either. Though they may enjoy it to some extent, most of their enjoyment of the dance stems from the fact that the idols they like are doing that dance, not the choreography itself.
Idol live shows are often also used as marketing platforms for the idols to promote all the great new merchandise they have for sale or the new song/album/release they have coming up and maybe even the next live show they can encourage everyone to buy tickets for. The situation produces a captive audience and “rewards” the audience with the opportunity to be close to the idols, and as a “favor” in the relationship between the idols and fans, the idols request that the fans keep buying more of their output.
This is the cycle that the idol live performances fit into which facilitates the continuation of that seemingly endless repetition of consuming of the idols. This is a concise model to demonstrate that cycle and how every activity the idols take part in leads directly into the next activity or opportunity for consumption, enrapturing the fans into the cycle from which it’s very difficult for most to escape. The more the fan consumes of that idol, the more they feel they’re becoming one with that idol or having more “ownership” of that idol, so these feelings drive the obsession further, and therefore, right back to the “consume” stage again.
Because of playing a major part in keeping this cycle going, the live performances of the idols may serve as a large source of income for the project, between the ticket sales, the merchandise sold at the events, and the residual effects from the marketing they do at the performances themselves, so performances can arguably be pretty important to the survival of the project. We can’t say this 100% for certain, as we don’t know what kind of overhead operating costs, rental fees, or other associated costs go into holding a live performance at any particular venue in Japan, but this was mentioned in the discussions.
Another major role I believe idol live performances play is the simple role of appealing to fans by proximity. It allows the fan to get close to the object of their affection (read: obsession) but more often than not, they still can’t actually touch them or break that barrier that’s set up between them and the idols by their management, be it a physical barrier or metaphorical/psychological/circumstantial one.
Idol performance MC segments also provide yet another opportunity to reel the audience further into the fantasy environment they’re creating with direct fan interaction, but still keep them at that safe distance. This keeps fans interest piqued while preventing them from obtaining the goal of “being one with” the idol, and this also keeps them chasing that unobtainable goal by buying more merchandise and going to more live shows to get more of this sensation and more “chance” to reach that goal.
While most performers from any part of the world will have small talk segments at their live shows, idols stretch these segments out to an extreme degree so they have more time to advertise themselves and get the fans more wrapped up in the reverie, as well as it extending the overall running time of the show.
For many overseas fans, it seems a popular mentality that in order to be a “real” idol fan you have to behave and think like the domestic wota who go to all the concerts, consume every output from the idols, buy all the merchandise, etc. I think this is a testament to just how deeply ingrained the implied necessity of domestic fan behavior is in the industry. This isn’t to say that all overseas fans adopt this mentality, but I know there are a number of them out there who try to emulate or live vicariously through domestic wota as a way to “prove” their love for the idols and one-up the other idol fans in their respective fan community.
On this same token, many fans also say that the live performances are sort of a “meeting place” or social club of sorts where lots of like-minded people can get together and have a good time, which is surely true to some extent, but I think to use that as your main reasoning for attending an idol show, you must innately support and be comfortable with being assimilated into this fan “collective” to embrace this mentality. Not that I don’t appreciate banding together with like-minded people, but finding them at a live concert seems to me a pretty haphazard way to go about it.
I’ve attended around 60 or 70 concerts in my life from all kinds of music across the spectrum of genres and of performers from across the globe (including about a 15 idol concerts) and I’ve never truly felt comfortable being associated with a large group of people who I don’t actually know, and in most likelihood, I probably don’t have much in common with besides an interest in the performer we’re both seeing at that show. The common ground of both people having interest in the performer at that show isn’t usually enough to make a real connection, since, more often than not, their level, scope, and perspective of interest for that performer will vary quite a bit, and your similarities in lifestyles and interests may end right there.
So, even the interest in that particular performer may not really mean a lot in the long run and doesn’t speak to what kind of person they are past their interest in that performer. For all I know, they could be disrespectful, inconsiderate people, which I really want no association with in any capacity. I’m not so quick to forfeit my individuality and personal standards just to be a part of a collective, but many idol fans seem to be OK with that.
There are also many different ways that various idol projects handle live performances and many distinctive focuses they concentrate on when it comes to their performances, which dictates a different goal or impression they intend to make with that performance. It seems almost every idol performer in the industry now has their own unique angle and approach for their live performances that suits whatever kind of goal, agenda, and audience they have in mind for the project.
For instance, just to give a few examples, Momoiro Clover has high energy concerts full of spontaneity that represent carefree nature and youth, 48 family focuses on dancing and image since most are lip-synched or heavily sonically aided, Idoling!!! focuses on musicality with pure live vocals and live instruments often being played, and many smaller groups like Dempagumi.inc focus on heavy crowd interaction during songs as well as high energy.
This also presents further discussion of relating the role of live performances of idols directly into what that group’s management is really trying to accomplish and who they are trying to target with their activities. The discussion brought up the point that in the current idol industry, we seem to have a different idol group for every sector of Japanese society as well as every niche sub-culture, with the idol project’s activities, and effectively, their live performances, shaped around directly appealing to that sector and audience.
In the current market we have a vast selection of idols ranging from old-school idols (Idoling!!!,) virtual idols (Vocaloid/Hatsune Miku,) “idols you can meet” (48,) lolicon idols (Sakura Gakuin,) heavy metal idols (Babymetal,) otaku sympathizer idols (Dempagumi.inc,) horror punk idols (Alice Juban,) avant-garde idols (BiS,) JAV idols (Ebisu Muscats,) fantasy RPG idols (Armor Girls,) anime idols (Idolm@ster,) among countless others. These are just to name a short few and to demonstrate how concentrated and focused some idol projects are to a very specific segment of Japanese culture.
All these different kinds of idols slightly tweak and personalize the content and nature of their live performances to better appeal to their audience, which is essentially just focusing on a target market that they wish to profit from. This kind of super-niche marketing has been a common practice in the Japanese entertainment industry since the otaku culture began being embraced by the industry in the mid-2000s.
Around this time, the industries realized that otaku have economic buying power and are willing to pay for nearly any kind of simulacra related to their interests almost as quickly as the creators can release them, and often regardless of the price. This marketing tactic has most recently taken a strong footing in the idol market since the late 2000s and early 2010s, when we started to see a huge influx of new idol projects popping up in every corner of the market to suit different niche interests.
Returning to the inception of the discussion, specifically in regards to Momoiro Clover, I made the point that I think their recent shift away from very expected, pandering otaku music and into a more mature, universal music style was nothing but a good thing. My mentality seems to differ from most Momoiro Clover fans in that I focus on music itself with no stake in their live performances. I see this shift as a “maturing” of their activities, not a loss of what made them great.
This shift could have been part of their management’s plan for a while before it happened, in attempt to establish themselves outside the otaku market so they didn’t have to rely so much on those live performances or old marketing tactics anymore. After all, the idol industry at it’s core is supposed to be about growing, maturing, and moving on to bigger things.
I think appealing to a more broad audience could go either way for a group like them, where it could result in people all around the country or the world could being invested in the group to some extent (maybe not to otaku levels) or it could adversely cause a dispersing of their core fanbase who feel “betrayed,” which leaves them nothing to fall back on when the mainstream market gets tired of them.
There are a few idol performers who transcend the usual idol stereotypes and move on to become strong musical performers in their own right, and that’s something I’m very thankful for and would like to see more of in the industry. Unfortunately, since it is more or less the standard of the industry that idols are mostly unskilled or untalented with music for most or all of their career, I don’t have too much hope for it becoming a norm, so I continue to cherish those projects or performers that do break that mold.
My examinations of the idol industry probably make it seem like I see the industry as a disgusting, exploitative shell of barbaric capitalism, but I’d say that’s pretty misguided. I still follow idols because I truly enjoy the music and much of the entertainment they put out and I think it can present interesting advancements in culture and the arts, even while being a fairly exploitative business at it’s core.
In relation to this article in particular, I can safely say I don’t think many strides are being made towards artistic or cultural advancement by the majority of live idol performances on the market today and I think live performances are one of the parts of idol activities that lend themselves the most toward pandering to fans or being a marketing platform for their consumable features, not to truly display abilities or skills.
To go back and try to answer the question in the title, the main conclusion I keep arriving at is that the role live performances play for idols differs slightly for each different idol project, so there really isn’t one wholly conclusive answer. It does at least seem to me that the performances, regardless of being specialized or personalized in their own way, do generally act as a strong marketing platform and a way to produce perceived intimacy with the idols by proximity.
I’d like to hear if anyone has any feedback on this regarding whether you have a similar assessment of idol live performances or if you assess them more from the uncritical perspective of a fan where “any activity is good activity” for the idols you like. Thanks for reading, and I hope to hear your thoughts.