Back To Basics: Defining Indie Idols

When Gaki first asked me to contribute to Pure Idol Heart, I was taken by surprise. I had been working behind the scenes with the blog as its de facto webmaster, but that is a far cry from actually contributing content. More to the point, my knowledge of indepedent idols is much more limited, and much more secondhand, than that of PIH’s main contributors. The trick, then, is to work with my limitations instead of letting them hold me back. My first few posts here will be tackling some basic issues, hopefully opening up a dialogue with the readers out there, and paving the way for a more complex look at indie idols.

So to start with, I found myself asking, What does it mean to be an indie idol? What sets indie idols apart from the majors that would make them so admirable and worthy of the attention of western fans of Japanese idol music?

I find it mildly troubling that the definition of indie idols is more about an absent trait than a present one: that is, indie idols are, on the most basic level, idols who have not signed to a major record company. They are not independent because they choose to be, but rather because they have to be. I get a sense that most all indie idols out there would sign to a major if given the right terms.

And yet, that makes sense to me. If anything, this makes me think of the music I grew up with, punk and post-punk acts that cut their proverbial teeth on independent labels such as Slash and Subpop and SST. Some acts were dogmatic enough about their punk ethic to stay strictly independent and never moved on to a major label – or, just as often, were too volatile to last before a major label could snap them up. (It also likely helped when a band helmed its own label, the way Fugazi did with Dischord and the Dead Kennedys with Alternative Tentacles.)

But many of the major alternative acts from my youth jumped to a major label when the fit looked right – Sonic Youth with DGC comes to mind, as does X to Elektra and Soundgarden to A&M. For that matter, most of the major acts that spawned the punk movement had their debut albums on major labels – the New York Dolls on Mercury, the Ramones and Talking Heads on Sire, Television on Elektra. The notion of being independent or DIY wasn’t a concern, they wanted to reach as wide an audience as possible and knew that major backing helped. While there were some concerns about maintaining a unique, often idiosyncratic vision, these groups were confident about holding their ground. If anything, they did nothet, see signing to a major label as “selling out” but rather as “buying in”.

If that is the case, though, does this mean that being an indie idol act is a case of being in the minor leagues, of biding your time and waiting for the big time to happen – if it ever does. Well… yes. But is that a bad thing? If anything, it speaks to a hopefulness that these young ladies hold, to dream about spreading their gifts to as many fans as possible. Not everyone can be national idols on major labels – there is a business side to consider after all – but aspiring to that level is admirable, it speaks well to ambitions.

However, I think there may be more at work here as well. I have to wonder if indie idols also serve as a useful counterpoint to the majors, providing both a means to preserve idol traditions as well as a way to innovate. And the reason it can do both is precisely because they aren’t the majors, because they don’t have to answer to the expectations created by having so much money and hype.

More money may or may not lead to more problems, but it does demand a wider audience – and that audience may not care for idols with the same intensity wota bring. They may require a more musically or visually conservative approach that could have broader appeal, but also an approach that may not be as steadfastly “idol” as diehard fans would like. Which isn’t always a bad thing – fans have their own conservative lapses as well, and pop culture is never a zero sum game of influences and ideologies. But indie idols can stick closer to the roots of idol traditions, for good or ill, and be a useful force in that sense. Indie idols may have less to work with, but that often seems to lead to a simplicity and directness to the act that feels, in some ways, like a purer idol experience.

Paradoxically, indie idols can also be a means to innovate and evolve idols as well, especially when signing to a major label. The trick here isn’t to concentrate on the seeming contradiction on the indie side bit rather consider the ways major label idols are constrained on their end. Established major idol acts must often consider current musical trends and balance idol traditions with these demands. They must remain identifiably idol but not so much that they alienate the larger audience. I think that in itself is an impressive feat, and in the hands of an Aki-P or Tsunku can lead to such classics as “Heavy Rotation” or “Love Machine”. That said, it also risks stagnation and repetition. I’ll leave it to each of you to think of Aki-P and Tsunki songs which would fit that bill.

But when an indie idol moves to the majors, they also bring something different to the table by sheer novelty. They aren’t constrained just yet, and whatever innovation they bring can even be the way they set themselves apart from other major label acts. Perfume were a strange new idol group when they left the indies, with their electropop take on idol music and early major label cyberpunk princesss image. Their image has smoothed over to something less outre, but the group’s sound has remained distinct over the following years. Momoiro Clover Z has become a force to be reckoned with; despite some initial troubles signing to a major label, they are now an idol act that can stand even with the Big Two of Hello! Project and the 48 family. They bring a fresh energy, playfulness, and vision that remains idiosyncratically idol in the geekiest way imaginable. And then there’s BiS, whose signing to Avex remains baffling to this day. Signing to a major label hasn’t exactly smoothed out their rough spots; if anything, they’re making even more of an effort to be as offensive and un-idol-like as possible.

The dynamic between indie idols and major label idols isn’t as cut-and-dried as it initially seems, then. There is a complex relationship at work, and the indies do as much for the idol genre and tradition as the majors, but in different ways. The majors keep idols mainstream and a part of the national cultural dialogue, the indies preserve tradition while also providing a means to innovate. It’s a nifty symbiosis, and probably typical of the underground / mainstream dynamics one finds throughout the popular arts.

Next: should Western fans care about indie idols if they don’t care about us?