The Conversation: Bellring Shoujo Heart
Joined by our friend Myrna, we discuss all about one of the most influential idol groups of the 2010s
This feature is part of Idol Watch #12: March/April 2022. You can return to the column here.
The Bellring Shoujo Heart discography represents the absolute lawlessness taking place in the idol scene during the first half of the 2010s—a period remembered by fans and followers as the idol sengoku period. Many groups during the era threw anything and everything at the wall to see what would stick, and BellHa (their abbreviated moniker used by fans) sang over some of the most fascinating pop ephemera to inspire an idol record at the time, from rockabilly to surf rock, ‘60s psychedelia to Britrock. Their last album, 2016’s BEYOND, stands practically as an art-pop style guide for new groups to reference if they want to carry the torch and continue to twist the mold of idol music.
Though, let me clarify: Singing would be too generous to describe the vocal takes on BellHa records. Even the group’s producer would say it takes a bit for that roughness to grow into some kind of charm, and not everyone admittedly has the patience nor the will power to sit through the lack of notes being hit. The records, however, tell half the story. We highly recommend you watch the live footage for the full experience as the stage erupts into an off-the-cuff basement punk set, vocals and choreography abandoned by the idols in favor of shrieking while throwing herself into the crowd.
With Bellring Shoujo Heart’s catalog available now on streaming services, it’s a perfect time to re-introduce one of the most influential idol groups of the 2010s. I’m joined by my friend Myrna to talk about the music of BellHa, the group’s former place in the idol scene and why they were so beloved when they were around. Myrna also created a Spotify playlist for you to further enjoy the catalog. Happy listening!
Myrna is an avid music fan that focuses mostly on underground idols and K-pop. She constantly blabbers about it on Twitter. She has previously worked with me for The Conversation: Migma Shelter.
Ryo: When producer Kouji Tanaka announced Bellring Shoujo Heart’s catalog being available soon on streaming services, he offered a cute little disclaimer at the end of it thinking about the rollout possibly introducing the group’s music to a new audience: “You’ll get used to it after three days, so it’d be great if you listen to a lot.” He was referring to the lack of polish to the idols’ vocals—“their voices were real but in a, how can I say, shocking way,” he explained his reaction after revisiting the group’s songs—and it’s this reputation as a pack of tone-deaf and rhythm-less performers that looms largest for the group to this day as they celebrate the 10th anniversary of their debut this year. With that in mind, what were your first impressions with this group, Myrna? How did you get introduced to BellHa, and what did you first think about them?
Myrna: I cannot say Mr. Tanaka was wrong with his comments about the group’s performance, and I admit that my first impressions of them were not as positive as they are now. I first found out about Bellring by their participation in what I like to call the “BiS ‘nerve’ challenge”. Something about the group grabbed my attention (probably how cool I thought their now iconic costumes looked) so I decided to check them out.
Being a fan of alternative idols, I kind of knew what I was getting into, but I was still very surprised with what I saw. The first music video of theirs I watched was “Circus & Renai Soudan.” At first, I didn’t like it. The music was jarring and the performance felt too chaotic, so I clicked out of the video. I still found the group’s aesthetic interesting, though, so I kept watching their videos. Something about them kept pulling me back despite not liking how the girls themselves sounded. I really liked the music; I thought it was quite unique to the other idol groups I listened to. And just how Mr. Tanaka said, I gave it three days and I started appreciating them way more.
I think it’s kind of funny, though, how everyone who I know are big fans of the group kind of go through the same process. So I am curious: Did you also go through the same feeling when you first learned of the group?
“Circus & Renai Soudan” (2012)
Ryo: I already knew what to expect from BellHa and their voices before I listened to their first album, BedHead, much after its initial release. But a lack of vocal skills have become somewhat of a norm for idols alternative to the mainstream, or alt-idols, by the time I decided to explore BellHa’s music, so I don’t think it would have come that shocking to me even if I knew nothing about them.
This is to also say I worked backwards when it comes to BellHa. They were long gone when I got into their catalog, and the alt-idol scene had grown much more diverse in personality. What got me curious about the Crow Girlswas the groups formed in their wake, some of which counted former members in the line-up, like Gugu-LuLu, SAKA-SAMA and There There Theres. When I first listened to BellHa’s music, it fascinated me how I can hear the foundations of those later groups hidden inside an album like 2016’s BEYOND. Do you hear any particular influences to later groups in BellHa’s music? What threads can we draw to currently active groups from their catalog?
Myrna: BEYOND is definitely the album where you can hear most of these influences. One of my favorite tracks, “The Victim,” could be called a prototype MIGMA SHELTER song. The song is a remake of industrial band minus (-)’s song of the same name, but the tiny changes in Bellring’s version has characteristics also heard throughout MIGMA’s discography. You can also pinpoint the start of GuGu-Lulu’s signature strong bass lines all over Bellring’s songs like “Manic Panic” and “Mr.Merci.” It goes without saying that successor groups of the Crow Girls like There There Theres and NILKLY also took on their base sound, but they managed to change it around enough to form their own identity.
Another thing that has always fascinated me about BellHa’s impressive catalog is that you could often tell very easily where they got the inspiration for their own songs. I remember in one of the earliest This Side of Japan issues, you mentioned how they seemed to take a lot of inspiration from psychedelic rock and British alternative. I always found the interpolation of “Song 2” by Blur in their song “c.a.n.d.y'“ one of the coolest things ever. And you could hear the main guitar riff of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” all over “Get Rid of the Chopper”—BellHa always seemed to wear their influences on their sleeve. You probably heard some of these too. Have you found more of these specific musical influences? Do you think this influenced how Bellring are seen now in the greater chika idol canon?
Ryo: BedHead dumpster-dives into a lot of pop ephemera that also inform, like, the Cramps, the B-52s or Stereolab. The album opens with a surf-rock tune “World World World,” and the groovy, galloping bass lines propel a more spy movie vibe in the aforementioned “Circus & Renai Soudan”; “Pleasure ~Himitsu No Kotoba~” sports some spooky psych-pop arrangements that don’t seem out of place in an early Broadcast album. That corner of classic rock ‘n’ roll, the immediate offspring of genres like blues and rockabilly, lies as their center, and I can hear echoes of it in a non-Aqbi group like Melon Batake A Go Go or Shihatsu-Machi Underground.
I do want to believe their adventurousness got them a leg up in the game, but it’s hard to tell if their music brought the group any praise or fame. During BellHa’s heyday, music was hardly evaluated at face value and instead more by its novelty as laid in contrast to the traditional, post-AKB48 idol sound, if the music played a part in the conversation at all. The early half of the 2010s in idol was a time full of desperate attempts to win any attention, and so shock and edge oftentimes took precedence. BellHa had broken up by the time the scene had established itself enough to start appreciating the diversity of style and the quality work put into the actual music.
To add more context to the state of the scene when BellHa was active, who would you consider their peers? What position did the group occupy in the scene, and how were they perceived?
Myrna: The first groups that come to mind are the original BiS and You’ll Melt More! as some of the groups who, along with BellHa, could be called the pioneers of what we now know as the alternative idol scene. BiS (and their antics especially) seemed to have set the stage for all of the shocking and edgy gimmicks the scene has been known for. You might not see them as often as in the early 2010s, but groups that came after them like The Banana Monkeys or the currently active PLANCK STARS continue the tradition.
You’ll Melt More! on the other hand weren’t as out there as BiS in their gimmicks, but they were also a key group in how the music of this new scene was perceived. They started their musical career by taking influences from bands like Neu! and ESG after all. Much like BellHa, You’ll Melt More! weren’t afraid to experiment with other sounds outside of the typical idol music of that time.
More than how unique their music sounded for idols at the time, I think what really made these groups so revered was their live shows. Their performances often looked more like a basement punk show than a normal idol concert. BellHa would completely throw themselves into the performances without caring about anything else, and this extended to their fans as well. I remember stories of them getting banned from attending certain idol festivals because of how intense they could get when BellHa was performing.
Bellring Shoujo Heart performing “asthma”
Ryo: Lawlessness really defined that half of the decade in idol. BellHa’s music in particular feeds back this eagerness to not only try whatever they could get away with but also what they were genuinely interested in even if it wasn’t then proven to fit into the idol mold. The roughest of edges are rounded out by the wholesomeness of the idols, who just sound psyched to play with music that’s very new to them. Because of this, I’ve perceived BellHa as a more sincere idol group who’s far less aggressive and antagonistic than, say, the original BiS. How would you describe BellHa as an idol group? How would you describe the personalities of the members?
Myrna: Yes! Even if the members themselves weren’t particularly big fans of the kind of music BellHa was doing—Mr. Tanaka once told the story of a member complaining to him crying that she wasn’t singing the kind of songs idols sing—they were always ready to give their all on stage. I think there was a special energy to them when they were on stage that made them resonate with so many people.
I stumbled upon this interview from 2015, where Rere, who at the time had just joined the group as Kamin Reina, very excitedly explains that even though she didn’t like the music, she was convinced to audition for the group after she saw a clip of Ayano climbing up a pillar during a Tokyo Idol Festival performance. This was probably the same performance that got them and their fans banned from attending the festival the following year. I think this represents how the group approached the entire idol performance thing.
They went through a lot of member changes throughout the years, but I’m especially fond of the group’s final lineup, composed of Mizuho, Ayano, Kai, Rere and Kanra (now known as N-Feni). They were so full of personality. I’ve always loved how Mizuho took every chance she could get to interact with fans on stage, how Kanra’s passionate song delivery often looked more like performance art or how Kai’s quiet, hard-to-figure-out persona on stage became one of her main charms.
Mr. Tanaka mentioned how this kind of energy from not only the idols but also the fans made BellHa popular with bands in the scene. While they never had their own version of the Hijokaidan x idol project (like the aforementioned BiS or You’ll Melt More! had) they had a chance to collaborate with Merzbow, the previously mentioned minus (-) and even Jun Togawa and Mariko Goto. The latter even wrote the song “Chappy” for them!
I think if you made a chart of how the indie idol scene connected with each other, you could find BellHa right at the very center of it. I know this is common inside of the scene, as we mentioned in our Migma Shelter conversation, but did you expect the group to be this connected? Was there anything that connected to the group that surprised you the most?
Ryo: I’m always fascinated by BellHa’s connection with magazine-turned-record label Trash-Up!! They most notably dropped the BellHa-starring movie, Bellring Shoujo Heart’s Sixth Dimension Galaxy, in 2016, and alumna Mizuho and Kai later got on the label to drop their own music after their group disbanded. Trash-Up!!’s blend of pop and the underground aligns a lot with BellHa’s output, so much so that I can’t help but think the label looked to the act as an inspiration behind its first self-produced idol group SAKA-SAMA, who also would take cues from jangle pop, post-rock, trance and more throughout their career. It also housed the works of the Crow Girls’ real-time peers Avandoned as well as spiritual successors Dots Tokyo. If BellHa can’t account wholly for Trash-Up!!’s core aesthetic, the group definitely built the foundation for those ideas to be viable.
The previews for Bellring Shoujo Heart’s Sixth Dimension Galaxy starring the idols
It’s easy to take BellHa’s innovative approach to idol music for granted, not just because their music had been unavailable on streaming services. If their music doesn’t sound as fresh as we make it seem, it speaks to how much their successors like RAY and MIGMA SHELTER or maybe even acts like HAMIDASYSTEM and Yanakoto Sotto Mute have taken their ideas further. If their catalog seems more inconsistent than omnivorous in its musical appetite, then it shows how cohesive the music has grown in the idol scene since BellHa pointed to examples, if not models to what idol songs can be. What do you think new audiences might miss from their music from their first listen? What’s something you want people to keep in mind as they listen to BellHa’s catalog for the first time?
Myrna: As much as I would love it to be the case, I know not everyone is gonna be a fan of BellHa's unique approach to idol music or performances, but I do hope they are open to giving them a chance. While a lot of people might frown upon the fact that these girls could not hold a single note, I think that's precisely what made them so interesting. How did these girls who were clearly very bad at singing and dancing gain such a dedicated following? It’s no coincidence that so many idol groups we all know and love today cite the group as their inspiration.
What they lacked in skill they made up for with amazing performances, on-stage charisma and very good music. They disbanded at the height of their success, when they were filling the largest venues an indie idol group in a small agency like BellHa could have, but in those active years, they never had a dull moment. It was always about being unpredictable and having fun until everyone was ready to move on.
I hope this conversation helps convince people that BellHa are definitely a group worth checking out and they’re willing to give them a chance despite the lack of empirical skill. And who knows? Maybe after three days, they’ll get used to it.
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A nicknamed used affectionately by us after the group’s signature black, feathered costumes that resemble a crow. Their crow-like visual has also carried over to their successors Theres Theres Theres and NILKLY.