Idol Watch #7: March/April 2021
The best in idol from the past two months featuring RilisReverse, NiziU, O'CHAWANZ and many more, plus Idol Watch's own mock Verzuz match-up
Hi! Welcome to Idol Watch, a bi-monthly companion to This Side of Japan that’s all about Japanese idols! You can check out the January/February issue here.
Verzuz first began as a one-time Instagram Live stream with Timbaland and Swizz Beatz during last year’s nationwide quarantine, and it has now grown into a full-on (Triller Network-owned) spectacle based on the friendly competition between the producers: two artists go back and forth playing a snippet of their own single to one-up what the other played. While it teased some international potential with its dancehall clash between Beenie Man and Bounty Killer last May, it’s going to take a while for a J-pop edition to be in development.
This year, a group of J-pop fans took matters to their own hands to host an unofficial Jpop Verzuz on Twitch. Fans on Twitter had already dedicated tweet threads to would-be match-ups, and so it was not a question of “if” but “when” this would happen. For their inaugural stream this February, they called up people from respective fandoms for Morning Musume vs. AKB48 with each putting together a setlist for the hypothetical showdown.
Throughout their months-long run, Jpop Verzuz brought a lot of noise on my side of the idol Twitter timeline. The song selections and the sequencing, for one, have been a point of contention. While the first event with Morning Musume and AKB48 were equal competition, the follow-up of Perfume and E-girls felt lopsided. That said, the actual event went on solidly with team E-girls bringing a well-rounded playlist that showcased all of the act’s facets, including its subunits and past iterations.
Since the streams of Jpop Verzuz have been very idol-focused, I wanted to pitch a idol-group Verzuz of my own: Dempagumi.inc vs. Momoiro Clover Z. While the latter act may be more visible in public media, they’re both essential groups who defined idol culture of the 2010s. They have the status, and they have the songs that makes them worthy competition for one another.
This Verzuz is a slightly shrunken version of the real deal with 7 instead of 12 total songs (five for the main set; two for encore) for the sake of space but also my own energy—there is also a regular newsletter attached with this! But I did bring a couple guests to help represent each group and share a write-in choice of their own in the setlist. If you think a better song could’ve made the cut, or don’t agree with the final results, do let me know! Of course, there is a Spotify playlist if you want to listen.
Round 5:“W.W.D. II” (2013) vs. “Mouretsu Uchuu Kouyoukyoku Dai Nana Gakushou Mugen No Ai” (2012)
Round 1: “Den Den Passion” (2012) vs. “D No Junjou” (2011)
Bacci: Theme songs achieve that status not only by embodying a project’s signature sound but also by conveying part of its identity. Out of the many Dempagumi.inc songs to do this, “Den Den Passion” holds the merit of working as the most in-your-face introduction letter to the group. From the moment the song is kicked off by a broadcast signal siren (which seems to be meant to gather the attention of both the listener and the group’s members), increasingly energetic synths lay out a frenetic roadmap in which each of the members takes turns in sharing the herculean effort that represents facing life, not as an ordeal but as an adventure.
Always carrying their mission of bringing the world together via moe song with them, the song punctuates this by melting dreams and subculture together into a rap bridge that leads into a final explosive promise to turn hardship into a shared legacy. If Dempagumi.inc are meant to be recognized for their extremely energetic take on idol, it makes perfect sense for a song like this to be their way to introduce themselves, even after several lineup changes.
Ryo: The chorus of “D No Junjou” also functions as a statement of intent for Momoiro Clover Z: “let’s dash from tomorrow / these tears, we can utilize,” they declare as they charge forward to the tune of an equally heroic pop rock. The song lives up to their messages established elsewhere, about sending love and promising better days to come for an audience stuck in a rut. But what it ultimately ends up lacking is this quality of an identity-defining introduction to the world as Bacci mentions about “Den Den Passion.” Momo Clo does well in “D No Junjou,” though they would later refine what they put down on paper here into something bigger and better. Dempagumi, meanwhile, was already fully formed.
Round 2: “Kuchizuke Kibonnu” (2009) vs. “Hashire!” (2010)
“Kuchizuke Kibonnu” is easy to overlook. For one, its home album, Dempagumi’s first, is not available for streaming, and the group has first began making strides through their subsequent singles. The song’s mellow, chugging guitars are also a bit different from the synth-thrashing of their other hits. That said, if you find the group’s synths too much but still would like an entry point, why not take it for a spin?
Though the bashful narrative of “Kuchizuke Kibonnu” charms—“if we make it past the highway, I’m going to tell you this / kuchizuke kibonnu,” they sing in the twinkling chorus, perhaps shyly gesturing to their lips—it remains low key against Momo Clo’s glowing indie classic “Hashire!” The triumphant production soars, and its ascent never stops partly by design: as suggested by the title—“run!”—Momo Clo march on without rest or shame to win the heart of the one they set their eyes on. Their larger-than-life emotions practically spill out into the chorus like light peeking through the music. “I like you / with just that my world is changed,” Kanako Momota sings in the bridge. The subsequent key change is almost unfair, perfectly arriving as if to show how her outlook has now become completely anew.
Winner: Momoiro Clover Z
And now, back to our regularly scheduled program of Idol Watch. Here are 10 great idol releases from March and April
“Daisuki!” by Gomaten [Flex Dance Agency]
Please forgive this out-of-season Valentine’s Day entry. Or maybe accept this as my late White Day gift. Gomaten prepare chocolates as they confess their feelings in the aptly titled “Daisuki!” The electro-pop production already communicates their fluttering heartbeat with the synths zapping like it blew a fuse, but the immense chorus puts to scale just how big their love really is. “I love you, I love you / I think in my mind like a hundred thousand times,” they sing while the short-circuiting beat fires off. The color on this synth-pop glows as loud as the most fluorescent Perfume track, but Gomaten probably would argue no one can compete with the size of their feelings.
Listen to it on Spotify
“Reversal” by RilisReverse [Increption]
RilisReverse take on such a fine-tuned form of the electro-punk sound developed by the group’s forebearer, HAMIDASYSTEM. Though their vocals seem fit to express more despondent songs, “Reversal” resonates as though they now have a new lease on life after experiencing the folding of their former iteration. “Let’s break through our limits / and let’s fulfill the tomorrows of revolution,” they sing in the chorus. As the drums lock into a marching beat, and the compressed guitars shred a growling riff, you know the four mean every word about creating an unforgettable moment.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“The Blue Dahlia” by Situasion [Sanbai]
Freshly debuted last December, Situasion are freely grabbing at whatever gravitates them to see what sticks. “The Blue Dahlia” introduces yet another new sound not covered in their sprawling Debutante mini album, and one that feels particularly inspired by the rock ends of today’s J-pop. The stomping one-two drums, the bluesy riffs, the wonky psych-rock guitars: save for the obviously idol vocals, the grunge-y music isn’t too far off from other bands borrowing from the world of Millennium Parade. The idols let their hearts bleeds like them too, especially the bridge with the key change taking the song for one last high.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“Yuukai” by Dai Dai Dai [Demon Tapes]
Dai Dai Dai carve out more new niches within their goth-dance aesthetic in their brilliantly titled new EP, The Absurd Is the Essential Concept and the First Truth, and the group introduces the record’s more hypnotic side for their single, “Yuukai.” While they load the front half of the EP with heavier, noisier music, they offer this mesmerizing juke-trance track right before the last lap. Soft kick drums rapidly tap about as the foggy, gossamer synths roll into the production. “I’m falling, I’m melting,” the idols chant in a spellbound monotone, and their voice gradually gets digitized as if they’re sinking into the thick electronic ooze. Though the post-punk freakouts do some sweet damage, I’d also love to see Dai Dai Dai further pursue this path.
The Absurd Is the Essential Concept and the First Truth is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
“More!” by POMERO [self-released]
POMERO appear ever so cool in “More!” The idols’ voices sound slick and poised as the smooth funk beat. They remain in sync with each other, their call-and-response and ad libs landing sharply on cue in the chorus. “Get down,” they even signal, and the production slows down and speeds up to obey the group’s command. But for how much they got it handled, the idols ironically sing about being caught off guard and at a loss of words. While they still sound nonchalant describing their rising heart beat, they can’t completely keep their composure when they mention how they want your body closer.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“Dawn” by SIPP [Mimoro]
The charging riffs and pummeling drum beats of SIPP’s debut track lives up to the group’s self-given, sort-of backronym of Super Idol Pop Punk. That said, they sound more weathered than what their supposed “super” title might suggest. The music, for one, goes for something heavier, closer to their metal-adjacent peers than peppy power pop. “Let’s go, start over / I’ll keep trying again and again,” they declare in the chorus as though this isn’t their first ride through hell. “I’ll promise right here / A future I don’t want to take away.” SIPP make a dramatic first impression, and hopefully, their flame doesn’t wither any time soon.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“Shake It! Shake It!!!!!!” by buGG [Rock Field]
BuGG join the pack of groups like Malcolm Mask McLaren who are practically pop-punk bands masquerading as idols—or so I’d like to think because their stuff regularly competes with outputs by actual bands in terms of quality. (There are also instances like B.O.L.T. calling up TOTALFAT for a song, getting grade-A pop punk straight from the source.) Not only does the exclamatory “Shake It! Shake It!!!!!!” supply the riffs and fills, it proclaims to make the best of the here and now in the hooks that are loud as acts riling up a Warped Tour set. “Let’s mix the reasons for us not to worry and make a brand new scene,” they shout in a chorus emblematic for both idol songs and pop punk.
Shake It! Shake It!!!!!!! is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
“Take a Picture” by NiziU [JYP / Sony]
“Take a Picture” begins like you suddenly got bum-rushed by a gang of paparazzi. While the cameras rapidly snap to the beat, the incessant four-on-the-floor kicks really amplify the overwhelming feeling of being blinded by the lights. The track hurls you in this bullet-train ride the moment it starts, and it refuses to pump on the brakes. I’m in pins and needles whenever I listen to this thing, though NiziU embrace the music not with panicked anxiety but ecstatic glee. “Take a Picture” goes on loud and nerve-wracking, accelerating beyond control, but it’s just how NiziU feel while stricken by infatuation.
Take a Picture / Poppin’ Shakin’ is out now. Listen to it now on Spotify.
“Shinkai” by Fishbowl [Payayaam]
Shizuoka group Fishbowl gets help from Yamamoto Sho for their debut single, and the renowned producer hands them a carbonated funk beat reminiscent of his recent works for Ukka and Rirunede. The bouncy pianos of “Shinkai” in particular call to mind the sprinting pop of YOASOBI especially as the chorus follows a bobbing melody similar to “Yoru Ni Kakeru.” “Rather than have this love shine tomorrow for only a moment / even if no one is looking yet / I will be shining for myself / at the bottom of this deep dark end,” they sing in the chorus after a long look at themselves. It seems Fishbowl aren’t exactly the naive, innocent batch of idols that the sweet pop music might have you to believe.
Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “Kodou” by Femme Fatale
“Rest of the Girls” by O’CHAWANZ [Second Factory]
The trio rub their sleepy eyes from last year’s Mellow Madness to kick more old-school-indebted raps in “Rest of the Girls,” the opening track of their new Do the Right Thing album. The idols lay down a chill, well-measured flow over a sunny boom-bap, making the most out of the feelgood atmosphere. “Let me know all of your problems / let’s get your pressures from not knowing where to go,” they recite while exchanging bars, and the group’s effort to console sounds even more sincere delivered in their proudly amateur delivery. Even if you can’t understand the lyrics, the “hey! Ho!” ad libs alone endear enough to join their celebration for a better tomorrow.
Do the Right Thing is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
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