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Idol Watch #1: January-February 2020
10 great Japanese idol songs by Carry Loose, Dempagumi.inc and more from January and February
Hello! Welcome to the first edition of Idol Watch, a bi-monthly companion to This Side of Japan that’s all about Japanese idols! Every other month, I will recap 10 singles from the past two months that caught my attention. Idol music isn’t excluded from the main newsletter, but I decided to dedicate its own separate space for coverage because I spend a lot of time following the idol scene, maybe the most out of any Japanese music scenes.
Before I get into this, I want to clarify what exactly qualifies as “idol music,” and so I want to explain the type of artists that are eligible for this section.
Alt-idols and chika idols
It goes without saying that this section will cover idol groups from all tiers, the majors to the DIY-level of indie, and the music will feature all types of genres.
Boy bands and vocal/dance groups
Male idol groups can potentially be included here. Some acts, male and female, don’t explicitly market themselves as idols and instead go by other categories such as “vocal/dance group.” It can be disputed whether or not these groups like, say, E-girls or w-inds qualify as idol groups, but I will be including a lot of them here.
There are some types of artists that unfortunately won’t make it, but on the bright side, they can still possibly be featured on the main newsletter:
Unless they still explicitly market themselves as a solo idol, like Yufu Terashima, they won’t be considered for this section. Former idols like Airi Suzuki and Sayaka Yamamoto seem like they’re consciously trying to break away from their idol past and forge a fresh new pop identity as a solo singer. There are also others like Yoneko, formerly of Migma Shelter, who initially continued a solo career as an idol but later wanted to be defined as just an artist. Idol can be a complicated identity, and if they want to separate themselves from it for whatever reason, I want to respect that.
Anime songs and seiyuu singers make up an entire culture in itself. While there are many crossovers with idol culture, the two industries will remain separate. (Anime theme songs by idols, though? Fair game!) There may be exceptions with groups like TrySail, 22/7 and Run Girls, Run that lie in the middle of the two, but sorry to artists like Sumire Uesaka—they will be exempt.
Now that is cleared up, here are 10 great idol songs from the past couple of months!
“Layline” by Yanakoto Sotto Mute [DCG]
Since last May, Yanakoto Sotto Mute have kept dropping gem after new gem to premiere during their monthly NINE shows. “Layline” from that monthly singles campaign begins aggressively with a raw post-punk guitar riff, and the chugging figure creeps up again in the post-chorus as the song’s main hook. The idols take heed of the change in music, transforming from their usual bashful selves into an assertive voice who’s ready to act upon their burning desires. “Those scattered coincidences/ I embraced them tightly, and now I’m finally here,” they sing in the last chorus as the intense sweep of the guitars help propel them forward.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“My Last Dance” by Crossnoesis [ekoms]
Though not included in last year’s mini album, Chronicle, that recently hit streaming services, “My Last Dance” fits right at home in Crossnoesis’s debut showcase of their melancholy pop. Twinkling synths meet maudlin alt-rock creating an emotionally sensitive mix that feels close to other idol groups such as Kolokol or Hamidasystem. “My Last Dance” also gains resonance as earnest lyrics like “hello, my last dance, the one I chose/ I’m going to dance right here while holding on to an unforgettable morning” layers with footage of the actual idols living out their passion.
“Bessekai” by E-girls [Avex Trax]
“Are you ready to see another world,” E-girls inquire in the titular refrain of “Bessekai” (“Another World”). Had this single come out last year when the group seemed to get their groove back, those words of newfound confidence would’ve been an inspiring lyric. However, with news about their disbandment at the end of 2020, it’s bittersweet to hear them sing about taking flight and transitioning into a new era. They save the tears for later, though, opting instead to keep up a cheery attitude with a gliding garage-house beat guiding their way.
Bessekai is out now. Listen to the complete single on Spotify.
Previously featured in This Side of Japan: Issue #3
“Melancholy Humanoid” by Infume! Dopechan [Doping!]
Rapper idols deserve to be treated as rappers proper with acts like Lyrical School, the now-defunct Koutei Camera Girl Drei and now Infume! Dopechan putting out great Japanese rap records. While the trio’s new Doping! EP explores a variety of styles from neo boom-bap to speedy hip-house, “Melancholy Humanoid” is their “melancholic hip-hop idol” tagline exemplified with whisper raps laid over a mellow bedroom-pop beat. Don’t let the softness of the production or the catchy extended chorus fool you, though: the three rap about complex questions about relationships and the future in an equally dense rhyme scheme.
Doping! is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
“Big Bond” by Los An Jewels [Tapestok]
Debuting last November, Los An Jewels carry on Tapestok’s signature mix of rap, hip hop and electronic music that the label has cultivated through its Koutei Camera Girl groups. For their melodic raps in “Big Bond,” the group looks at the SoundCloud underground for inspiration. The idols stretch out their voices to bask in the sweetness of Auto-Tune, but come the verses, they flex their skills through double-time cadences and nesting hooks within those speedy flows.
“Ningen” by Carry Loose [T-Palette]
Carry Loose continue to offer more sunny music to lighten the brooding tendencies of a typical WACK project. They’re not completely free of troubles: “I don’t know what I’m looking for/ It’s not anywhere that I can see/ What am I even saying,” YUiNA EMPiRE sings, beating herself up for failing to move forward like everyone else. The music, however, is more forgiving of her mistakes, scattering the dark clouds before they fully form. The titular line that closes the chorus—“humans really are amazing”—may read a bit cheesy on paper. But after Carry Loose overcome their struggles, it becomes a pure, sincere sigh of relief.
Ningen is out now. Listen to the complete single on Spotify.
“Not Your Fault” by IDOLATER [Asobimusic]
Almost a year has passed since Idolater debuted from Asobisystem—an agency home to Yasutaka Nakata and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, among other pop acts. The group continue to hone in their glossy dance-pop sound in their third single, “Not Your Fault,” with a combo of sticky keys and slick funk riff capture the sweetness behind the idols’ infatuation with a crush. “I’m so mesmerized/ I can’t grow up just yet,” they admit in the chorus, unable to occupy themselves with anything else.
“Like? or Love?” by Junjo No Afilia [Stand-Up!]
While recent years have seen Junjo No Afilia favor melodramatic pop numbers that befit a Gothic title like “Babel of Cruelty,” the group lightens up from their serious side with a charming EDM-pop production in “Like? or Love?” The idols play coy as they work up the bubbliness of the rumbling dance-pop to the point the love song stretches into meta territory: “no relationships allowed: you’re not planning on following such a rule, are you,” they sing, winking to their identity as idols.
“Like? or Love? / Kyukyoku Unbalance!” is out March 11.
“Suisei” by CYNHN [Teichiku]
CYNHN return to a gossamer alt-rock sound for their newest single since last year’s versatile full-length, Tablature. The idols trade lines in quick succession about being trapped in dark waters to keep up with the busy guitar riff—a speedy scribble reminiscent of the math-rock-inspired ends of Japanese indie-rock. They finally get to gasp for air in the chorus as they emerge from the metaphorical deep end.
Suisei is out March 18. Listen to the A-side on Spotify.
“Moshi Moshi Internet” by Dempagumi.inc [Toy’s Factory]
With “Moshi Moshi Internet,” Dempagumi continue to venture out from their household sound of clumsy synth-pop to find more new styles to call their own. While the jazz-funk textures tap into a different realm of pop than the frenzied electronics of their past hits, the production retains a kitchen-sink feel with sonic decorations tumbling into each other. The idols tone down their voice into more of a mellow sigh, but they still run lines in a familiar restless cadence. If the group’s upcoming album follows this plan of presenting the Dempagumi voice through fresh new styles, it might be the most interesting addition to their catalog yet.
Ai Ga Chikyuu Wo Sukuundattesa! Datte Dempagimi.inc Wa Family Desho is out April 15.