Idol Watch #16: January/February 2023
Rounding up the best idol songs from the past two months, featuring Chemical X, NMB48, Devil ANTHEM. and more
Hi! Welcome to Idol Watch, a bi-monthly companion newsletter to This Side of Japan that’s all about Japanese idols! You can check past issues in the archives.
Moe-pop band MOSAIC.WAV and composer ARM of musical ensemble IOSYS imagine how the otakus of the future might view Akihabara culture in the 2000s in their single “Augmented Ojiichan” written for Dempagumi.inc. The lyrics are filled with the decade’s slang that emerged from internet communities like 2chan; the choreography takes from dance moves famous within otaku circles. Those who lived through it in real time are humored from the references, though maybe the intended effect from the otaku-speak is to make listeners feel lost in translation from its sheer impenetrability.
As MOSAIC.WAV and ARM wonder with Dempagumi about how otaku culture will be remembered in the future, they also subtly question how it will be preserved. It definitely won’t be through mainstream commercial powers, who relegated it more as a backwater part of culture in the 2000s. The agents more likely to be up for the job are the very people who actually lived through the era and participatied in the very circulation of the memes. I’m already a beneficiary from those who experienced it: the references who flew right over my head when I first listened to “Augmented Ojiichan,” and it's only because of someone in the comments timestamping all that they recognized that I was able to search up most of it to report here.
Same goes for my experience familiarizing myself to the idol scene, which only makes up a portion of otaku culture. I also had to pick up the pieces left behind those very folks who engaged with the scene in real time to gain knowledge of idol in the 2010s—the Idol Warring Period. It’s easy to retain the basic narrative of the era and its key players, your AKB48s and BiSs, through wiki pages and some YouTube intros, but the journalistic trails quickly run thin as you go deeper and want to know beyond the same 5 groups featured in a typical alt-idol listicle. In the end, my internet idol-fan friends who I made along the way helped me discern what was really essential and let me in on the obscure favorites better than any official media outlets.
“Augmented Ojiichan” reminds that idol and other pieces of otaku culture are folk art in this way, with participants directly passing down the artifacts to later generations. The industry is fickle, keeping only a portion of history alive through its commercial archives: I don’t feel need to harp on J-pop and its relationship with digital catalogs. Veteran bloggers and columnists, dedicated MP3 uploaders, and devoted fan-commentators are more likely to preserve what matters in the idol scene, popular or obscure. Dempagumi stand as both artist and archivist in this movement, with a record that begs for those in the know to annotate with context.
Here are the 10 idol singles I enjoyed from January and February!
“Start” by ChemicalX [self-released]
Let’s face it: was there ever a chance that I was not going to like a pop-punk idol group named after a Powerpuff Girls reference? I will admit that I imagined them to be a tad more bratty and acidic after seeing them take on Chemical X as their name, maybe grabbing at slicker Avril Lavigne-core rawk. But they charm nevertheless with their earnest brand of pop punk, which hues closer to a post-adolescent version of B.O.L.T., especially with a debut song about writing their new future. “It will come true one day / I won’t give up yet”—a heart-on-sleeve chorus made to be shouted along classic punk riffs.
Start EP is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “RIOT GIRLS” by PPPR!!; “Take me now” by Quubi
“PLAMO NIGHT” by LINKL PLANET [BANDAI SPIRITS / PLAMO GIRLS PROJECT]
Taken upon its face, “PLAMO NIGHT” presents from LINKL PLANET a late-night funk-pop slow jam that slides in a few sweet-toothed lyrics typical of a textbook idol. But with any idol group, context is everything: the chorus which goes “it’s all coming together, today and the future” reads a lot different when you take into account how LINKL PLANET is produced by Bandai as an ambassador act promoting their line of plamodels. And the idols hardly try to hide the exact identity of their object of desire: “I’m going to build you,” they sing without shame yet sounding so sincere as they spend their evening coloring their beloved die-cast model in the music video. While the composition remains tidy enough for the record to stand on its own as an actual song, LINKL PLANET’s approach of idol as PR makes for one of the many reasons I love following idol music.
Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “Karappo De Mitashite” by Kaede; “Cosmic Float” by ukka
“Super Full Flat” by CUBΣLIC [Harvest]
CUBΣLIC have been looking more to disco and funk while they arrange fuzzy, low-bit synths as material for sticky electro-pop, and the group make their influence known in “Super Fall Flat” through an infectiously catchy talkbox ad lib. The digitized vocals nod to groovy idol tracks arranged by Dance Man, and the sparkly yet buzzing sounds for “Super Full Flat” keep the song closer to electro-pop made by the likes of early ClariS or JPN-era Perfume. Embellished with little pops and fizzes familiar to future-bass, this new production for CUBΣLIC adds a sleek finish without killing the fun.
FLOWER EP is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “Happy Chocolate” by FRUIT ZIPPER
“2060 Nen Cherry Blossom No Tabi” by Qumali Depart [MUSIC@NOTE]
What’s more meticulously scrambled in Qumali Depart’s latest, the off-the-walls synth-pop or its “go big or go home” lyrics? The hooks are as chaotically arranged as the kitchen-sink production, which sounds like frequent collaborator Tamaya 2060% blowing up the group’s chief producer Sakurai Kenta’s kiddie instrument collection with his dempa-punk blast. But between the astro-themed lyrical absurdities—no group other than Morning Musume has spun the mnemonic for the planets in such a fun fashion—hides an earnest ambition to shoot for the stars: “It doesn’t mean a thing / a bunch of stuff like this / but just in a huge scale!” They shout in the chorus, and with their dates for Budokan on the horizon, their dreams might not be too far off.
Cosmo Depart is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “tattatta tiger lily” by superpouvoir!!; “sawage!UtaGation!” by UtaGe!
“Love Me Better” by iScream [LDH]
In “Love Me Better,” iScream grow out of the kind of idol-pop I like to call Seventeen-core: a teen fashion magazine’s vision of a girl-crush group, like Girls2 or BREAK TIME GIRLS, that’s cut from a similar street-cute cloth as Twice’s early Japanese releases. The flashy R&B production suggests serious business that matches in earnestness with the idols’ commitment to devote their whole heart to a single inspirational love. While a bit of an adolescent feel can’t help but show through the seams as they try to play the part of an adult soul, particularly that rap in the second verse, they get an opportunity to dress their trained vocals down into something cool and stoic.
Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “BESTY” by BananaLemon; “Koi No Sei” by et-and-
“Sowa Sowa Chocolate” by Devil ANTHEM. [MUSIC@NOTE]
Devil ANTHEM’s own Valentine’s Day gift of a track, “Sowa Sowa Chocolate,” melts the heart with sugary sweetness from the first bite. “Fill my love in this tiny, tiny piece / I hope it gets delivered straight to you,” the idols begins the song with its main refrain, the track soon unwrapping a concentrated rush of fizzy electro-bass. While the production shakes the senses with its chiptune explosions and future-bass pops and snaps, it’s the cutesy phrases that really stun the heart: wait until you hear the idols prep the saccharine chorus by casting their own little spell to ensure the tastiness of the chocolate they’re making just for you.
ADVANCE is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “Shuki No Jyujika” by idrip; “moist” by Kanano Senritsu
“Reincarnation” by Schrodinger’s Dog [self-released]
The music video for Schrodinger’s Dog’s new single features a proper band behind the group to ostensibly help bring the synth-laced metal music to life. Yet it only makes me wonder if groups like Schrodinger’s Dog still need a presence of a live band these days to legitimize or even contextualize their music. The typical metal-idol song has resembled something like “Reincarnation” for some time now with it more interested in following current-day pop trends than establishing its metal cred: take the post-K-pop structuring with its hip-hop-inspired detour on the second verse. The live band, then, is more an accessory than a seal of approval, a personification of just one of the song’s many moving parts.
Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “4STEP GO” by mistress; “metamorphose” by My Best Friend
“MUST GO” by Mameshiba No Taigun [Avex Trax]
Mameshiba No Taigun steps up as this year’s WACK group to supply the heart-on-sleeve pop-punk we’ve come to expect almost annually from the label. The idols in “MUST GO” treat their days as serious business like they only have one last shot to make it count, and in classic WACK fashion, they become their own worst enemies: “I gotta be able to do what I couldn’t then / I can’t change if I always feel anxious,” they begin before they promise to go all in for the sake of self-progression. Despite the emotional baggage, the pop punk music keeps chugging along without any weight dragging it down.
MAMEQUEST is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “Puls ultra” by BLUE BARE; “THIS SONG” by GREAT MONKEYS
“Done” by NMB48 [UNIVERSAL SIGMA]
NMB48 lays it down thick with melodrama from the get go in “Done.” A bombastic string intro set the scene for a relentless production led by martial, rapid-fire drums and a brooding bass line. The deafening sonic excess is only an attempt to match in scale the deep fatalism harbored by the idols: “This love / is already finished / everything is now in the past,” they sing in complete defeat. They give up the moment the song begins, but their call-outs to undo their mistakes ring even more futile against austere music so devoid of warmth.
NMB13 is out March 8. Listen to the single here.
See also: “Machigaijanai Naitarishinai” by Tsubaki Factory
“Time Machine” by mzsrz [Avex Trax]
Guitars filled the production of mzsrz’s debut album with pop-metal riffage here, a fidgeting Vocalo-math-rock there. But I still didn’t expect mzsrz to pivot into power pop and hand in an indie-rock record that you’d instead find from a band like, say, Regal Lily. The idols’ crystal-clear, somewhat bashful vocals mesh with the blown-out emo riffs, its loudness telegraphing the urgency that the idols are too shy to commit to on their behalf. Despite the shift in sound, mzsrz express a familiar fatalism heard in their Teddyloid-produced debut single. “Don’t change, please don’t grow up,” they sing in the chorus. They hopelessly wish to keep on admiring the past in rose-tinted glasses, though their resigned sigh suggests they know they have to move on eventually.
Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “ATMOSPHERE” by RAY
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