A Thousand Word Picture – SweetS’ “Lolita Strawberry in Summer” Cover

Filed in Cult Of Pop 2.0

I keep thinking I’m ready to say goodbye to SweetS but I’m not – a part of me is still very much in denial, the group that has meant so much to me can’t possibly be gone. SweetS were supposed to be around for a long, long time…

Wait. I said the same thing about Zone, too.

Like many revolutions, the kind of girlpop I’m most fond of has a habit of eating its young. For whatever reasons – the fickle nature of the pop market, institutional and contractual obligations, the girls growing up and realizing there’s more to life than being an idol – it’s rare to see a group last for very long. The ephemerality of the Jpop idol is part of its appeal, a brief flash of magic and then on to the next brief flash of magic…

But I’m a wota, and I grow attached, and there’s wailing and gnashing of teeth when an object of worship is taken from me. The bond I feel with my favorite idols may be difficult for others to understand, but that doesn’t make it less powerful or compelling.

So I’m working my way to saying goodbye to the greatest Jpop group ever – at least, that’s how I always saw them, in potential – but will start by looking at how they made their first impression on the world. This image cast away any and all doubts about SweetS when I first saw it: the group still left me unnerved, unsure of why the hell I wanted to look at and listen to a bunch of eleven- and twelve-year olds… But this group portrait, taken for their first single and DVD, still has a power over me – it affirmed then that SweetS was a group unlike any other, and it affirms now that my instincts weren’t wrong.

Looking at it now, I’m shocked at how much the girls have grown. Not that this comes as a surprise in any way, but the sheer temporal expanse and biological changes feel so vast now, especially when compared to how they look in their final PVs. It’s one thing to say that these girls have grown into wonderful young women – it’s another to hold up the “Color of Tears” CD and see the transformation in stark contrast.

This image isn’t happenstance – behind-the-scenes footage makes clear that the position of the girls were sketched out, and the proper angle was decided. And yet there is the sense of the girls being caught unawares: an unexpected moment of voyeurism for the viewer, a moment of surprised reaction from the girls. An instant bond is created between the girls in the image and the viewer, a connection built on an unsteady balance between fascination and shame, a desire to see more and a self-awareness of why that desire is there in the first place. The image brings out the Humbert in its viewers – well, in me at least – and these five girls project a dolorous haze of rorikon fantasy that seems to speak at the core of their being.

The first important choice is the rug. I’ve long considered it a bear skin rug but I don’t think that’s truly the case. Rather, the bear skin rug provokes certain associations that play perfectly into the paradoxes of SweetS: babies posing nude on a rug, as well as old-fashioned pin-ups (nude and scantily clad) from the era of Vargas and Betty Page and early Playboy. It plays into both innocence in its purest form and a sexuality from an earlier time – the time of the SweetS’ grandparents, not even parents – that itself seems more innocent in our day and age.

The positioning of the girls is also crucial: they look like they’re about to take a nap together, creating a sense of comfort and relaxation… yet it’s too posed, too neatly interconnecting, to be true. For starters, Aya would probably not be getting a good rest by having both Miori and Mai lying their head on her stomach and legs. (And doesn’t Mai toss in her sleep a lot? If I was Miori, I’d keep a healthy distance from her if that’s the case.)

Again, there’s a distinctly sexual element to the way the bodies overlap each other, especially in Haruna resting her head and arm on Aki. Let’s be blunt: to an eye looking for the obvious scandal, it’s girl-on-girl action waiting to happen. But that would get the image all wrong, of course. After all, the sexual interpretation comes from looking at the work with adult eyes: to these girls, it’s simply lying around with some friends, maybe horsing around or even just striking a pose. There is comfort and camaraderie in the way the girls connect here – but there is no desire, and certainly no lust. The difference in context – between five young girls and five adult women in this same pose – speaks volumes, and signals the masterful way SweetS toyed with rorikon as a system of meaning in this first phase.

(It also speaks volumes that when the girls recreated their pose for “Bitter sweet”, Mai nestles into Miori – but one still doesn’t get a sense of desire or budding sexual interest among the girls as much as a friendship molded by three years together. For all the play and tease of their image, SweetS have for most all their career steered clear of obvious sexual overtures to their viewers, with the notable exception of that horrendous bikini scene in Precious Memories and the 5 Elements booklet insert. That restraint is one of their saving graces.)

The clothing is masterfully chosen – like the girls, it’s suspended between the juvenile simplicity and fit of Osh Kosh B’Gosh and the slightly more sophisticated attire of the teen mall rat on the prowl. The clothing isn’t sexy, but the way the girls look at the camera and the poses indicate a desire to become sexy – or at least, what a child thinks is sexy, not inviting sexual interaction by any means but appearing adult and drawing attention that feeds the young ego.

It’s like the pre-teen girls in the eighties who dressed up like Madonna. Did those teeny boppers understand what Madonna was getting at with “Like A Virgin” and wanted the sexual experiences she described in her songs, or did these girls simply want to emulate the glamor and hipness and sheer now-ness that the pop idol projected? My money’s on the latter – and that if they understood the former, they would have refrained from sending out the signals that they did. That ignorance of the deeper meaning – or, to be more kind, that willful focus on the surface glitter – isn’t necessarily a bad thing in pop culture. The modern pop world is all about skating on hard shiny surfaces and gliding past the cracks of profundity if one chooses to do so.

And so it goes with the SweetS girls. Their handlers definitely knew the subtext behind what they were creating, I’d argue the girls themselves less so – if only from lack of experience and an over-reaching eagerness to become the next BoA or Ayu. And yet… and yet the girls understood well enough to be able to project a defiance, a shatteringly sharp attitude, that is the heart of this image.

Compare this image to the Hamilton Island picture of the third and fourth gens sleeping. The Morning Musume image projects serenity, comfort, accessibility… and ultimately an insouciance about the viewer, a refusal to care if someone is watching them or not. They are super-idols, looming far above the bustle and noise of those who worship them The SweetS girl aren’t as nonchalant – they’re placing the onus on the viewer with a subdued ferocity. They know you’re looking, they don’t seem pleased that you’re looking – but there’s a complicity there as well, a sense that a complex emotional transaction is taking place. It’s another way that the idol-fan relationship is stripped bare and made plain to the viewer, a dare that seems to ask, “Do you really know what you’re getting into? Can you accept what looking at us says about you? Do you even understand?”

Not every idol can do this, never mind do it as effectively as the SweetS girls did this early in the game. This is part of what makes them so special: they were better than most idol groups to channel the ineffable elements that make Jpop idols – especially U15 idols – so attractive to certain people. They knew how to approach the camera with the same kind of knowing attitude as a supermodel – whether or not they did know being beside the point, since it is all about surface on that level of appreciation.

Shihono Ryo is the only other idol I can think of who’s mastered that attitude at so young an age, maybe Goto Maki right out of the “Love Machine” gate… and that’s it. Everyone else who starts this young either relies on the softer, more accessible kawaii attitude of a youngster or simply fails at looking alluring – but not too alluring. The special ones – Ryo, Gocchin, SweetS – knew how to walk a fine line, had a talent for it as important as all the other talents they possess.

And then there’s the mistake – or rather, the “mistake”. Mai is looking, not directly at the camera, but off to the side. That still amuses me to no end – it feels like an error, that somebody right at the edge of this shoot is hissing, “Up! Look up at the camera! Over there!”

But the postmodernist in me thinks that there may be a plan at work, as well. After all, there was rarely a group as knowingly self-reflexive in the way they were handled than SweetS, especially in their first phase. The people behind the Penty Five were not only creating the perfect idol group, they were creating the metacommentary on that idol group as well. By having Mai’s attention elsewhere, she seems to be refuting that great line from Oz, she seems to be telling us, “Do pay attention to the man behind the curtain.”

This image is the warning shot over the head of Jpop fans: SweetS are entering dangerous territory and wanted everyone to know it, they were provoking a challenge to their potential audience, playing on their expectations and unspoken feelings about pop idols and why they worship them. Unfortunately, that warning shot probably did go way over the heads of many people. I was scared of SweetS when I first encountered them, they were too unsettling – this image was too unsettling – for all it stirred up and brought to the fore.

But the longer I stared, the more it made me think as well as feel. SweetS became not only an emotional experience, but a deeply satisfying intellectual experience as well. That became their saving grace – the tableau may have been designed to appeal below the waist, but it was most useful above the neck. I think that may be why it’s harder to say goodbye to SweetS than Zone – it’s not just my heart that can’t accept this staggering loss, it’s my head as well. In some ways, there’s just too much being asked to be let go.

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One Response to “A Thousand Word Picture – SweetS’ “Lolita Strawberry in Summer” Cover”
  1. Steve/Japonaliya says:

    Well said..

    The “horrendous” bikini shots don’t bother me much because 1) I AM an otaku perv.

    2) It REALLY emphasis’s how the girls have grown up. Even at 15 or so, they project a more mature image, and the shots were not coy or sexy.

    3) It would have been quite another thing if SweetS had a PB or DVD out when they were still pre-teen, and then had bikini shots…
    I often wonder since the Japanese are so baize about U-15 junior idols prancing around their DVDs and PB in skimpy attire, why someone drew the line with SweetS and Berryz? If they wanted SweetS to sell more, keeping with the original ‘Lolita” concept, having them in bikinis from the beginning would have made sense from a marketing pov. Just think how much merchandise SweetS could have sold if they had been marketed to drooling salerymen, as well as the true music fan.
    I know it didn’t quite work for Sweet Kiss, but they had no musical talent whatsoever…then again…the DVD sure sell….