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Why Can't Idol Singers Have Lives Of Their Own?

by Justin Sevakis,

Chris asks:

Singer Minami Kuribayashi — known for a number of anime OP and ED songs and as a voice actress for the Rumbling Hearts and Muv-Luv visual novels — recently admitted in a blog entry that she had a son, and that she expected that “because of this announcement, there will be a need to start from zero.(http://fast.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2015-07-06/singer-minami-kuribayashi-reveals-that-she-has-a-son/.90150) How bad of a situation is this for her, really, and what is Japan's problem with it anyways?

More than possibly any other piece of entertainment culture, Japan's social role of an idol singer is completely different than in the west -- to a degree that I think even many Western anime fans don't fully comprehend. We see them as singers, and compare them to our own young, attractive women that sing on television: the Taylor Swifts and Justin Biebers of the world. We see anime about little girls wanting to be idol singers, and we equate that of our own little girls who dream, on the surface, of what seems to be the same thing.

It is not the same. In Western society, the fans of these performers see them as, predominantly, musical talent. They sing, they dance, they put on a show. Some of them get big enough to turn into paparazzi and tabloid magnets, but their role is music, and as long as they keep doing that well, almost anything else is forgiven. While younger and more emotional fans might see them as surrogate girlfriends/boyfriends, that dream is not their primary role.

In Japan, and in much of Asia, those roles are pretty much reversed. The role of an idol is much closer to that of a beauty pageant winner: they're in the business of selling dreams. The product is the illusion of a cute, slightly idealized person who is there for you, the fan. Idols are prohibited from dating anyone because if word got out, that would ruin the illusion that they're there JUST FOR YOU. Likewise, any sex life, alcohol use, or anything else that would be seen as "impure" to fans that want this perfect, innocent little china doll (male or female) would ruin the illusion, and therefore render the idol useless.

Music is secondary. That's why so many idols can only barely sing, and their producers don't put nearly as much work into making them sound and look perfect. As they're supposed to be accessible, their minor flaws are intended to be endearing, and contribute to the fantasy that they're a completely attainable salve for a lonely soul.

You get big idols, and you get small idols that are only famous within their neighborhoods. And as with most genres of Japanese pop culture that cater to the obsessive, the idea is to cultivate a small, manic group of otaku and get them to buy as much merchandise as humanly possible. Every CD single in every repackaging, every poster, every book of photos, every DVD of them standing around in cute outfits eating candy. Good fans, its implied, will attend every department store rooftop concert, get in line at every meet-and-greet, get an autograph whenever one is available. And just like with expensive Japanese anime Blu-rays, there only needs to be a few thousand of these otaku in order for the whole venture to make money.

That's why Kuribayashi's announcement that she has a child is so worrying for her career. Even though her image wasn't a particularly cutesy one, having a child pokes a gigantic hole in the image that she's spent years building for herself, and therefore violates the image of her that her hardcore fans have. There is a very real possibility that many of them will desert her for that, and it will end her career -- unless she starts over, building a more honest and realistic image of herself again. The million dollar question is, do the otaku even want that? Or would they prefer to obsess over an unrealistic and idealized image of a woman with no love life at all?

The obvious conundrum here is that these idols are, in fact, human beings, who have love lives, sex drives, bad habits, and body odors just like the rest of us. The "idol" image, is a totally unrealistic one, and keeping up the illusion is both difficult for the performer and feeds into unfair expectations of purity. But the idea is that, if many people are going to look up to someone, that someone better be pretty special: they need to be of the highest "moral standing," whatever that means. And if someone wants to be an idol, they are signing that Faustian bargain, wherein they have to (at least publicly) give up whatever they need to in order to gain the adoration of fans.

I'm not advocating for or against any of this, but suffice it to say I don't personally understand the appeal of either being an idol, or being a rabid fan of an idol. All things in moderation. But that's not how the Japanese media economy operates, ultimately.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!) animenewsnetwork.com.

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on real, strange stories from the anime business, Tales of the Industry.

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