Why Isn't Idol Culture Bigger In America?

by Justin Sevakis,

Riku asked:

I remembered few weeks ago I asked you about an American adaption of Love Live! and you stated that it would not make sense since America does not have idol culture. Then how come Hollywood attempted to adapt Perfect Blue? Isn't Perfect Blue a story about idol culture? It's getting more confusing to me. Any clarifications?

Well, you're talking about two different genres here. Perfect Blue is a psychological thriller that happens to follow an idol singer - the film isn't trying to sell you Mima as an idol, while Love Live! is a straight-up no-foolin' idol anime. Mainstream Western audiences are a lot more familiar with the former than they are the latter - you can sell Americans on the idea of a gritty thriller set in the glamorous world of pop idols, but it's a lot harder to sell them the idols themselves, and a lot of that has to do with the big differences between Western idol culture and Japanese/Asian idol culture. They're used interchangeably sometimes, but they're not the same thing.

In the West, "idol" usually refers to young and glamorous pop stars, nothing more and nothing less. The word itself just means "an object of extreme devotion." The definition is a little inexact, and most people use the term more for pop singers than anything else (hence the show, American Idol). Male or female (though the term usually is used for women), they're young and attractive, and they're produced to appear as perfect and glamorous as possible. Their fans obsess about them and the tabloids write about them, and whenever they appear there are throngs of screaming fans and people asking for selfies, and all the rest of it.

Pop idols and idol groups (a.k.a. boy bands and girl bands) are almost always manufactured by a management agency that are trying to sell a product. While there are hits and misses, the idea is to sell the general public a "glamorous celebrity" package with mainstream appeal. It's a mass market thing, with high production values and a Kardashian-like image of effortless glamour. A People Magazine cover given human form, if you will.

At least, that's what's presented to the public. The truth is that actual pop stars work extremely hard and spend most of their time isolated from everyone they know while enduring punishing practice and touring schedules. While it doesn't always seem like it sometimes, the bar for musical ability is pretty high: the songs have a lot of harmony and sometimes challenging range and chord progressions. And the mass appeal also comes with it the expectations of modern celebrity: the paparazzi, the tabloid headlines documenting every real and imagined struggle with weight, love lives and substance abuse. Some hardcore fans devour this stuff and get obsessed, and sometimes it gets dangerous.

That much is true pretty much everywhere. But Japan's idol culture is different. Part of the allure for idols is a girl/boy next store attainability that Western idols lack. In most cases, they are not supposed to seem larger-than-life; in fact, they're supposed to seem approachable, like someone you might already know in your daily life. It's all in the marketing; they're selling fans a virginal, innocent pure package of cuteness that can be "theirs".

The same psychology of fandom applies here as with the Western kind of idol. However, this slight difference in image means a lot. It doesn't matter nearly as much if the idol has any real singing or dancing ability -- in fact, it may be better if they're kind of mediocre. They don't need to have flawless complexions and necklines etched by God himself, because they're not supposed to be this perfect, inaccessible thing. They're supposed to be The One For You.

That's why you have bands like AKB48, with so many girls that they have to be split into sub-units just to keep performances manageable. That's why you have "local idols" promoted by cities and even neighborhoods. You have otaku idols that dabble in voice acting and mostly perform songs for anime, even for hentai OVAs. In fact, Japan has SO MANY idols that you will never know all of their names (okay - some of you might). New ones are constantly cycling in, and older ones are constantly retiring. This isn't about creating gods and goddesses out of a handful of people, to be adored by all. They're about each idol finding their niche.

There are, of course, the big mainstream idol stars: the ones that appear on variety shows and perform for large audiences. The bigger ones that are attached to anime even occasionally get to go to the US and perform at conventions. But most stay pretty small scale, adored by a few thousand fans.

Most Japanese idols work on the micro-level. They interact directly with their fans (for a price, of course), and often only release a handful of singles before their careers peter out. They perform at shopping centers and department store rooftops. With such an intimate relationship with their fans, many idol fans become obsessed, and get extremely upset when it's revealed that the idol has a romantic life of their own. That breaks the spell: the fantasy that was being sold was that they COULD, in fact, really be yours! Why else would you spend so much money on all their terrible songs and photos and magazines?

While idols were in decline by the mid-90s, the last decade has seen a huge resurgence in their popularity. There are now an insane number of idols. Tokyo Idol Festival, a three-day summer event purely for female idols, held its annual event in early August. I don't have 2018 numbers, but last year they hosted 200 idol groups and 1500 idols! The event website jokingly refers to this renaissance as the Idol Warring States era. And, of course, with shows like Love Live! and all of the other female and male idol shows, anime has gotten into the action, often using voice talent to blur the lines between animated and real idols.

The endless firehose of short-lived idol talent in Japan is something that's taken for granted. The sheer quantity and the accessibility is something unique in popular culture: only YouTube performers come close to that sort of thing in the West. These differences in idol culture are why you likely wouldn't see a major Hollywood studio invest in a straightforward live-action English language adaptation of something like Love Live! that actually stuck to the original show's spirit and execution, but you might see them invest in a low-stakes, mid-budget psychological thriller that uses idol culture as a backdrop.

Thank you for reading Answerman!

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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