Thought For The Day: The H!P Kouhaku Medley

Filed in American Wota 2.0

As unfortunate as this year’s Kouhaku performance was for Hello! Project, was it all that different from the treatment they’ve been receiving at this event in recent years?

For a while now, H!P has had to clump together various units under the guise of a medley just to get them in Kouhaku in the first place. W and Def. Diva immediately come to mind, and they had the advantage of featuring Musumes the general public recognizes, which the H!P Kids don’t. It would have been much more surprising – albeit more satisfying for fans – if C-ute and Berryz Koubo each received their own slot. It would have meant that they were recognized by Kouhaku as distinct groups with their own value, and not just the backup dancers and metaphorical little sisters of Morning Musume. That just hasn’t happened yet.

As for performing “Love Machine” yet again – that’s all the general public cares to remember at this point, and Kouhaku is about giving the people what they want. (Wota aren’t people in this case.) The double-edged sword of Morning Musume’s Golden Age legacy has always been more likely to be raised against a current line-up’s favor when larger audiences are involved: in other words, the new work is always sidelined for the classic singles when Morning Musume as a historical phenomenon (as opposed to a living, evolving music group) is emphasized. The tenth anniversary has made that mixed blessing even more obvious as the Musumes shill their Collected Singles CD and DVD by rehashing seven-year-old releases.

It’s a classic double bind: on the one hand, H!P’s flagship unit relies on the name recognition to continue to sell as much as they do and to attract new fans. On the other hand, they have to live up to expectations that the name recognition involves. You can’t have a Rolling Stones arena tour without doing a bunch of singles from their 1960s prime; you can’t have the Beach Boys on tour without “California Girls”; and it seems you can’t sell Morning Musume to the Japanese public without bringing up “Love Machine”. It may be weird to think of Morning Musume as an oldies group, but that may just be the case in the public eye.

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6 Responses to “Thought For The Day: The H!P Kouhaku Medley”
  1. Radicalipton says:

    These comments are absolutely on-point. Three observations: The whole thing looked and felt crammed; yes, Morning Musume, Berryz and C-ute needed their own slots; and, finally, the audience, mostly old and all dressed as if they were at the opera, appeared clueless.

    The men had that brutal look of guilt on their face as all these sensationally beautiful girls proceeded to take off their dresses and finish the number in stunning yellow underwear (a la AKB48). The women didn’t know what to think, most staring down at the floor. Glowsticks were only hesitantly raised (if at all), as if the audience was petrified they would be punished by a bolt of lightning from God if they looked a little too hard.

    The folks standing alongside (I assume they were the other groups that performed) sort of got it, but were slow to acknowledge the greatness (however crudely executed) they were witnessing.

    Yeah, some adjustments are needed in Kouhaku. How about just getting an audience whose members aren’t brain-dead?

    This is Radicalipton signing off — for now.

  2. Ray Mescallado says:

    To place things in perspective: Kouhaku is a venerable tradition in the entertainment industry and the audience reflects that. It’s also a conservative, family-oriented show, as last year’s DJ Ozma scandal emphasized. The line-up is a mix of old and new acts, pop as well as enka, with an emphasis on old-fashioned pageantry (the elaborate costume of some enka singers, the skits performed). When my wife and I watch, I usually know who the newcomers are but she recognizes all the older acts, some of whom have been performing at Kouhaku for decades.

    So along that line of thinking, the H!P Kids are unproven interlopers who should consider themselves lucky to be allowed to perform in front of this audience. In terms of the geinou industry, they’re probably thanking their stars to be in front of these “brain-dead” old folks, who may well matter more to them than an arena full of jumping, screaming wota.

    Kouhaku is a big deal for H!P fans because it puts H!P in front of their largest TV audience all year and side-to-side with big name talents. However, they’ve become small fish in this big pond, which is why H!P lump so many units together for their allotted slot. The Johnny’s acts – especially SMAP – are much more dominant than H!P had ever been. And even this pond is shrinking, in some ways. Kouhaku hasn’t been able to pull the starpower it used to – many top-selling artists simply don’t appear, often preferring other venues or not even getting invited. Maybe it’d serve H!P – or at least some of their units – to try those other venues on future New Years.

  3. Japonaliya says:

    Back in the 1960’s where today people think of icon such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, etc. etc. they at the time were virtually unrecognized at the main, massive western musical event we call the GRAMMY’S.
    While super groups such as The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, were considered as gods of the music scene, almost all of the now appreciative “other” talents were passed over for the likes of bubble gum groups barely remembered now, or the old fogies like Andy Williams, and Tom Jones, et al.
    It wasn’t until MTV in the early 80’s that Rock as we know it now could be recognized for the first time as more than Top 40 Pop. …and THAT was over 10 years after the “golden Age” of rock.
    The fact that Morning Musume and Hello Project should be invited year after year at Kouhaku is at least a backhanded tribute to their place in Japanese Pop music.
    Yes, it is sad that they lump H!P al together, and make them sing Love Machine as if they were only one hit wonders, but think of all the vibrant Japanese music talent that never get invited to Kouhaku…..Visual Kei groups like An Cafe, and even mega-metal kei Dir En Grey just to name a few that I personally like. Before Mai there was Ruppina, did SHE ever make it to Kouhaku though IMO she was the best of the female balladeers?
    What about Ikuta Aiko, or the now defunct SweetS?

    As frustrating as it is..we should be grateful that Morning Musume has a slot at all, and are seen by millions every year, no matter how lame…

  4. crs says:

    Ray, I think you’ve made some great points here, but I would also suggest that what we’re seeing here is an inherent function of the entire idol industry. In general (and with some notable exceptions who probably deserve their own overly involved and pretentious essays, haha!), I think idols *and* the supporting infrastructure of their entertainment agencies are innately conservative.

    For example, look at the monolithic, self-aggrandizing nature of Johnny’s Jimusho’s Shounen Club. It’s a closed set, a hermetically sealed chamber. Almost all of the songs are drawn from Johnny’s songs past and present. It has twin benefits: a) the American Idol effect, where unfamiliar singers singing familiar songs are somehow seen as more palatable; and then b) the canonizing effect. In some ways, a cover is referential, an homage or an act of idolization, if you’ll excuse the bad pun. It’s like the immigration elevator effect. When new idols appear at the bottom, the old idols get pushed up a level. Even groups like NEWS and KAT-TUN benefit, and they haven’t been debuted very long, especially when compared to Arashi, another ‘young’ group.

    When homage is the primary instrument for introducing new idols to their audience, I think that implies an inherently conservative (and hierarchical) strategy. Johnny’s Jimusho is a business, and their goal is to maintain the financially lucrative dominance they’ve already achieved. Change–evolution–doesn’t benefit them. It’s even something to be contained with bribes and threats.

    Even though there’s no really organic way to organize JJ without making some arbitrary groupings, I think of JJ in two ways, as a hierarchical dynasty and as a diversified conglomerate. On one hand, it’s like a royal lineage: one idol hits his stride, and there’s another to take his place. The names rotate, the faces change vaguely, the music updates without innovating, but to me, there’s a stronger collective idea of One Idol to Rule Them All, and different people fill that role for a limited period of time. Some idols may get older, but The Idol is ageless and unchanging. That’s a powerful notion, a good business strategy, and also inherently conservative.

    Until recently, one of the big differences between H!P and JJ was the absence of separate and integral ‘lineages,’ so to speak. In JJ, recently you have Hikaru Genji, SMAP, Tokio, KinKi Kids, Arashi, and so on. They’re separate foundational groups from which individual members spin off into solo work. That’s not really the case with H!P, where Morning Musume was the center of the universe for so long. H!P has some orbiting stars, and for a while, Aya Matsuura did very well solo. But so many of the non-MM groups used pre-existing Morning Musume members as a base.

    Now H!P has Berryz and C-ute, which I think is a step in the right direction, and one that incidentally makes their organization more like JJ. No Berryz/C-ute member has ever been promoted to MM, and it looks like none ever will. Tsunku seemed to believe that if he rotated the members of MM every year or so, he could make them–the idea of MM–immortal: always young and always vaguely, virginally new. For a variety of reasons, it hasn’t really worked. You can talk about increased media scrutiny, the proliferation of copies of images on the internet, but when it comes down to it, what Tsunku is really selling is the ultimate girl idol named Morning Musume, and Morning Musume is old. Idols are not supposed to age. Women are not supposed to age. If MM were managed by JJ, they’d have at least gone gracefully into that good night, turned into aggressively apotheosized seniors to bunches of H!P rugrats.

    If Morning Musume were managed by JJ, they wouldn’t have been singing Love Machine; Berryz and C-ute would have, in their own separate, obnoxiously reverent tribute to their seniors. If MM is always being measured against its classic self, part of the problem is there are no other equally prominent groups in H!P to take on the role of being measured against and found both (respectfully) wanting and “adorably” fresh-faced. In contrast, practically every group in JJ has played that role.

    So I agree with your suggestion that Morning Musume is seen as primarily a played out oldies group, but I think a lot of it is just structural. These are growing pains years where the gap between what Tsunku was trying to do (create immortal success with one ageless group) and what he should have been doing (create immortal success with an unending rotation of different ascending and descending groups) will be most evident. No matter how powerful the idea or how effective the PR, idols are people, and people age. The brand ages too.

  5. Ray Mescallado says:

    *sniff* Oh, I miss you so much, crs. That was beautiful – and very true.

  6. Suika says:

    Wow. That was an impossibly poignant, spot-on summation of the state of H!P today, crs, and I’m just sitting here in awe. Thank you for that!