Idol Watch presents Verzuz: Dempagumi.inc vs. Momoiro Clover Z
Two major idol groups of the 2010s go head to head in this mock 7-round match-up
This feature is part of Idol Watch #7: March/April 2021. You can return to the main column 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
Round 3: “Keijijougaku, Mahou” (2019) vs. “Stay Gold” (2019)
After working for more than 10 years in the game, both idol groups are still far from stagnant. While Dempagumi.inc win when it comes to who has had a bigger change in its line-up, Momoiro Clover Z have gone through a more drastic makeover in their style over the past half decade. The latter’s self-titled album from 2019 stands as proof with its buffet-style survey of contemporary pop. Anything seemed to be fair game to freshen up their image, even a Kenmochi Hidefumi production.
That said, Momo Clo still have a bit to catch up with Dempagumi, who had a head start exploring outside of their comfort zone. Dempagumi have already settled into some new sounds while also retaining their essence, like “Keijijougaku, Mahou” that transposes the group’s scatterbrained feel into frenzied jazzy keys. Momo Clo have some fun experiments yet their most quality work of recent times, “Stay Gold,” is backed by a more familiar thrashing of metal guitars.
Round 4: “Chururi Chururira” (2014) vs. “Wani To Shampoo” (2011)
Crests: Hyadain’s influence on Momo Clo’s direction and popularity is inarguable, and with large amounts of energy (especially when performed live), uniqueness, humor, and a theme that can appeal to anybody, this silly song about not doing your homework over summer vacation is the culmination of everything that made Momo Clo big. Brainstormed from only the phrase “alligators and shampoo,” and intended specifically to gain the group more fans when they heard it in anime, this just may be Momo Clo’s most fun and exciting song.
The call and response of random answers to assignment questions thought up on the spot by the members themselves are also one of the most iconic and creative lyrical moments by the group, including such lines as “What is the capital of Australia? There isn’t one!”; “Where do you live now? Yes I do!”; and the titular “What is oxygen made of? Alligators and shampoo!”
By having songs perhaps unconventional for idols at the time, Momo Clo resonated with a wide audience. Considered one of their most notable songs, the impact of “Wani To Shampoo” was actually so great, it spawned the phrase “Wanisham state” for the panic of doing work on the day it’s due. All in all, “Wani to Shampoo” exists as proof that Momo Clo were doing everything right in their journey to carve out their spot in the industry and become the biggest idol group in Japan.
Ryo: “Chururi Chururira” is another great show of proof that Hyadain can spin an idol-song hit out of whatever wacky subject you hand him. Nissin tapped Dempagumi for a track to go with their “modern samurai” cup noodle advert, which likened today’s glow-stick-wielding otakus to the feudal swordsmen of yore. The commission explains the use of traditional Japanese instruments along with zaps of video-game synths but also its direct lyrical references to the Sengoku period. “We’ll dance, and we won’t hold back / We are Japanese!” The group shout in the chorus, like this fearlessness as an idol is in their blood.
Fun and silly as it is, the self-reference of Japan in “Chururi Chururira” feels obvious given the topic. The song admirably doubles down on the expected through its frantic energy and the density of its Japanese-ness, like Hyadain decided if he’s going to grab for the cliche, might as well get aggressive and over-saturate. But it’s almost basic compared to the pure ridiculousness of “Wani To Shampoo,” where he doesn’t think outside the box as much as he re-imagines creative thinking altogether. What kind of song are you even suppose to write based on the phrase, “alligator and shampoo”? Apparently, there is an actual answer to such a question.
Winner: Momoiro Clover Z
Round 5: “W.W.D. II” (2013) vs. “Mouretsu Uchuu Koukyoukyoku Dai Nana Gakushou Mugen No Ai” (2012)
Two Hyadain-produced epics inevitably come head to head for the final round. They make an even match when it comes to scale: “W.W.D. II” nears the seven-minute mark, and “Mouretsu” feels like you’ve listened to a full album by the end of its five minutes. Both songs also touch on the idol experience. Dempagumi’s take reads way more obvious, though if you look beneath the space-opera ridiculousness of Momo Clo’s single, what is not the idol life but stopping at nothing to deliver love and gratitude to every person living in the universe? If the sheer maximalism of “Mouretsu” feels exhausting, imagine how idols feel having to restlessly show you the world. The music only intends to display the pressure and responsibility saddled on its very singers to its true scale.
“Mouretsu” may be more creatively bold—just look at that space pirate music video—but “W.W.D. II” is more daring with its intent. Similar in spirit of the first “W.W.D.,” the sequel unravels Dempagumi’s dark, candid worries about the present for display. Thematically, it’s the inverse of Momo Clo’s perspective: they hardly have the will and self-belief to soldier on, and they approach idol life as self-sacrifice in a far more bleak, tortured manner. The marathon-like feel of the production reinforces the sensation that depression is everlasting as much as it ebbs and flows. It’s an idol song that’s brutally honest about the thankless reality of being an idol—a radical move when the impulse would be to present a romantic, gratifying fantasy. That said, the struggles allow personal redemption to resonate more powerfully: when the group finally gains the strength to get back up and shine like the stars they are, it leads to one of the best moments in idol pop in the past decade.
Encore 1: “Ashita Chikyuu Ga Konagona Ni Nattemo” (2015) vs. “Saraba, Itoshiki Kanashimitachiyo” (2013)
This is the cruelest match up. Both songs hold a special place for me. They’re both penultimate tracks fighting to reclaim personal freedom and rise above from the big, bad world. If you would love a more triumphant ending, I recommend Momo Clo’s. “Forget yesterday / be brave and speak out / so you can learn to love yourself / My sleepless sheep / your worries deep down your heart / don’t look back for your life has only just begun”—the entire chorus is full of lyrics I wish I had the courage to claim. I wish I had a fraction of the self-confidence that Momo Clo exude while singing it.
Dempagumi’s is more realistic and down to earth yet just as resonant. The group celebrate smaller victories like getting the hang of your job at work, though sometimes seeing the positive in the trivial can mean the world when you constantly contemplate the end of your life. Dempagumi offer a chorus I wish I could claim as well: “if the world got crushed into pieces and disappeared into dust / I’m gonna do make-up like the aurora / say “you’re the worst” and prepare to die.” I want to be that fearless in the face of a personal apocalypse, emotionally ready enough to remember to look fabulous as I accept my fate.
The tie-breaker comes from “Ashita Chikyuu Ga Konagona Ni Nattemo” and how the group directly sings how, for you, they’d perform on stage even if Earth came crashing down: “It’s a promise, please,” Dempagumi end the track while convincing you of the beauty life has to offer. Those gestures mean so much coming from an idol group who once shared the crippling details of their dark past. They’ve been there, and they want you to keep going no matter how hopeless things seem.
Encore 2: “Future Diver” (2011) vs. “Ikuze! Kaito Shojo” (2010)
All a typical idol song has to do is celebrate the here and now, but Dempagumi’s “Future Diver” powerfully embraces the hope for their music to stand the test of time. The group’s confidence is even more felt as they take on a production very indebted to the sounds of its time. They’ve lived to prove what they sung about a decade before, building an impressive legacy for the idol scene at large: not only can Mirin Furukawa claim to be a married active idol, she’s about to become a mom at the time of this writing.
Momo Clo’s iconic “Ikuze! Kaito Shojo” doesn’t look beyond its own present. The group was then too busy to think about the future, occupied instead of just trying to make a name for themselves. The idols, too, sound too caught up by life to really ponder about what’s in stores: “there’s no time to be doing homework,” they sing, changing into their roles as idols once the bell dismiss them from school. The only time they sing about what lies ahead is a cheeky notice to the crime they will eventually commit: stealing your heart. Knowing their place in the idol scene then, it reads as wishful thinking, a boast they only can dream to come true.
All that said, for what it scans as being short-sighted, “Ikuze! Kaito Shojo” has proven to be a record that hits on a timeless feeling. The idol scene have changed in many ways throughout the past decade yet what remains relatively unchanged is the narrative that drives an idol group: a batch of young dreamers trying to become the center of your world by way of song and dance. The present seems like all that matters to fans when their favorite idol is performing; the present means everything to an idol during this moment of self-realization, when they become the center of their world. “Ikuze!” still sings true to this narrative, hitting on the struggle as much as the drive that keeps idols going, and Momo Clo’s celebration of the here and now remains one of the most essential idol-song classics.
Winner: Momoiro Clover Z
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