Idols Are Not Human – Returning To A Favorite Topic

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So I’ve been thinking about the “meaning” of idols again, the way sane people consider the meaning of Christmas or the meaning of life. Granted, this is a topic that’s always simmering in the back of my mind, but a couple of recent events have made me focus on it even more than usual. 

First, there was the plea from Hey! Say! Jump for their stalkers to back the fuck away. I feel bad for them and hope to God nothing happens to any of those fine young men. Second, there was my odd reaction at watching footage of Kago Ai’s return to the stage. (Thanks to Hello! Online for subbing the clips.) While it’s great to know she has indeed resumed her singing career… if I had to be perfectly honest, I just didn’t care.

Further, the return of American Wota from a long hiatus has also made me evaluate why I love idols in the first place, as well as how I love them. Why write about idols in a certain manner, as opposed to others? What assumptions do I bring, and how does that inform my writing? What conceptual framework do I hold about idols, and do I carry it through in the way I write about them?

I’ve written in the past about the importance of the idol persona as well as the value of a worshipful distance between idol and wota. To me, these are the cornerstone to a productive idol-wota relationship. Idols are not the human singing and dancing on-stage, or posing in swimwear for a photobook. Rather, they are the persona being projected by that human, final product that reaches us, the role that the human assumes and which is reproduced time and again through the media forms promoted the idol industry.

The idol is a simulacra, much like those motion capture actors covered in light balls. The motion capture is recorded by the computer to guide the movements of video game characters; there’s a human guiding it, of course, but it’s the simulation of that human guidance which we enjoy when we play a game. Similarly, I’d argue the idol is covered in a specific persona – as opposed to light balls – and that the persona’s moves are what is recorded, produced, and manufactured in order to be enjoyed by their audience.

Humans have a certain dignity they wish to preserve. Idols dress up weird and are asked to do ridiculous things, which they often will do gladly. Why is that the case? Because these humans have no sense of self-worth or dignity? No, it’s because they are playing roles – often similar to themselves in many traits, but different enough because that role is played up for its charismatic value, to entice an audience that wants to fall in love with that idol.

And falling in love with an idol is perfectly acceptable – just so long as the wota understands what that love entails and what it does not entail. Falling in love with an idol isn’t like falling in love with the girl next door. Rather, falling in love with an idol is like falling in love with an actress pretending to be the girl next door. It is a simulation in its own right, a re-enactment of the kind of emotional ritual attached to falling in love with a real person – except idealized and made decidedly more one-sided because there are many wota-suitors for every idol.

So is the love for an idol worthless, then? I’d say not. Love is a strange beast to begin with – the heart has its own criteria that the soul and mind do not always fathom. Sometimes love is disastrous, other times it can be life-affirming, even redemptive. And those positive effects of love do not require that love be reciprocated – it’s in how it makes you, the lover, feel about the loved one. If you are inspired by a loved one, if being in love with a particular person (or idol) empowers you in some manner, that is a force of good in itself. That cannot be taken away unless you let it be taken away.

If anything, idols are worthless unless there is love from the wota. Without that love, why would there be any worship? And what’s an idol without worship? The wota love for an idol is a kind of postmodern complicity – there is a critical distance in knowing how commercialized and manufactured and prefabricated the idol must be to earn the wota love… but the wota gives in to that love and embraces it neverthless, because that is what a wota does by definition. It’s not unconditional love but a simulation thereof. It’s being seduced by the X factor of that idol’s particular persona and charms and quirks, which – ironically enough – cannot be exactly reproduced from one idol to another since that spark comes from the particular human being’s performance of said idol. That’s what makes the human being behind the idol important to wota – not as a flesh-and-blood creature, but as an enabler, a vessel by which all this idol goodness can grace our lives.

However it is possible to love an idol in the wrong manner, much as it’d be wrong to love one’s dog the way one loves one’s spouse. If a wota’s love for an idol is about a postmodern complicity – the nod and a wink about the artificiality and commerciality of the emotions, even as one gives in to them – it’s an intuitive tightrope one must walk. There has to be a clear understanding that the Platonic ideal – of a certain kind of femininity or masculinity, of a certain kind of relationship (often amorous) – is always out of reach with these idols since it does not even exist in the human being projecting the idol persona. It is just a figment born out of the persona that is manufactured and packaged for the audience’s consumption. 

For lack of a better term, what we experience with celebrities in general isn’t intimacy but a paraintimacy, a sense of knowing somebody that falls outside the usual realm of everyday interaction, precisely because it’s so heavily mediated. Idols are very good at this because they’re chosen in part for the charisma they project, for the persona they can assume. Confusing the person with the idol is like mistaking Susan Lucci for Erica Kane. One is the real person we’ll never get to know, the other is a character we’ve watched develop for years who we feel we know very well as a result of that prolonged interaction via television.

That’s what makes the HSJ – or any other idol-stalker situation so sad. It’s painfully clear that the stalker has gone out of bounds, that the idols value their privacy as human beings even as they expose their personas in such a gloriously flagrant manner. The idols are aware of the boundaries, they guard that line between fantasy and reality because they know what happens when the veil is rent. And inevitably when the borders are crossed, somebody gets hurt.

As for Kago Ai, I love the idol – she was the bratty la belle dame sans merci of the Golden Era of Morning Musume, and she blossomed quite beautifully in W. But the Kago Ai who’s been on display of late is quite different. She’s still a geinou, not an idol – a celebrity, yes, but one who has gone from obscuring her biography to making her biography the central focus of her media personality. As a result, this Kago we see on our screens in recent months is a far cry from the Kago from her days in H!P. Those past associations with H!P may form a sense of continuity and familiarity, but are actually an entirely separate performance. Seeing that, I had to consider this new Kago in that changed light.

If I had to choose, in the real world I’d rather sit down for a coffee and some conversation with the new Kago Ai. But as a wota, the old Kago Ai is the idol I’ll remember and treasure. And honestly, even posing this issue in such a way begs the question: when will I ever get a chance to meet Kago Ai in person anyways, never mind sitting down with her for a chat? I mean, sure, I’ll pencil her in between hanging out with Don DeLillo at the local mall and a candle-lit dinner with Vera Wang. 

Not that there’s anything essentially wrong with such what-if scenarios – they’re the basis for a good deal of audience-celebrity interaction, the kind of casual fantasizing that our modern media encourages. However, that doesn’t mean a common sense limit shouldn’t be observed: at some point you need to slam the brakes on all these fantasy scenarios and the false assumptions that inform them, and actually live your life in a realistic manner. 

* * * *

Having said all this, I hope it becomes clear why I write about idols the way I do. 

For me, the manufacturing and packaging of the persona is the most fascinating part of the idol world. The means of selling that persona – whether music or photobooks or TV show appearances or whatever else – is all looked at with an eye for whether or not the consumer (i.e., the wota audience) finds the product compelling. On that level of abstraction, the difference between a pop idol who sings and a gravure idol who poses in a bikini and even the AV idol who has sex on-camera isn’t that different at all – all are selling the persona first, to better pave the way for the selling of actual merchandise (like a song on a CD or an image in a photobook or a DVD). (And yes, I know I’m pushing the matter by including AV idols but I’d add the caveat that I’m speaking from an ideal abstract – and further, very few AV stars are actual idols, though some certainly are.)

With pop idols, I value PVs above anything else because it’s the most comprehensive and the most controlled expression of the idol persona that one can present. Music by itself doesn’t capture the full idol effect, TV appearances and concerts are too potentially chaotic. Photobooks are almost as good as PVs because of the level of control involved in its creaction, and because the idol persona is again the main way to differentiate in terms of quality.

When I decide to be less respectful, when I poke fun at idols with my strange brew of sexual single entendres and accusations of impossible scandals, that is directed at the way idols are presented by those who manage and package them. It’s a gesturing towards the human side of idols that remains firmly out of reach, an intentional travesty of speculation which understands that – regarding the personal lives of idols – speculation is indeed all we have.

My guess that Kanna is a domiantrix who keeps a pink dungeon for BDSM sessions with H!P Kids is about as well-founded as any other guesses about what Kanna is like in real life, because the veil between the idol persona and the human being is meant to be as opaque as possible. Even when they show you their home life or it’s exposed in the tabloids, it’s being edited into something more perfect or more scandalous or more strange than it is in real life. (Just ask any reality TV contestant, they always blame their worse moments on a show as a case of bad editing, intended or otherwise.) I don’t expect anyone to believe what I write about the personal lives of idols, mostly because the style of writing is meant to be exaggerated, is meant to betall tales like that of Paul Bunyan or John Henry, except with more singing and dancing and kawaii and genki.

When I write about being in love with an idol, whether it’s Yamada Ryosuke or Shihono Ryo, only an obtuse reader would equate it to the real life loves in my life. First off, idol love is bound only by imagination and not by actual laws – so if I’m all for a pedolicious idol, that doesn’t make the teenagers I encounter in real life any less annoying or any more desirable. (I know I’m getting old because real life teens do indeed annoy me and confirm in my mind that everyone is stupid at least until the age of twenty-five. Of course, I came to that conclusion when I was twenty-six, so take it with a grain of salt.) Idol love is a fantasy and, being a fantasy, I enjoy spinning it out into all sorts of exaggeration and weirdness. Actually, it’s only enjoyable through such exaggeration, as imagining a normal everyday life with these idols is like having dreams that are exactly like your day-to-day life. And yes, I know some people do have such dreams, but do they treasure those faithful recreations of reality more than the weirder dreams with their flights of fancy?

I don’t expect anyone to fault me for being either intensely abstract or cynically ironic in my handling of idols. In turn, I don’t fault anyone for being very concrete or profoundly earnest in how they write about idols. It’s a difference of philosophies, but that difference doesn’t get in the way of appreciating good writing and thoughtful insights. However, a sense of proportion – as well as critical acumen – is necessary if I’m going to take such writing seriously. (Not that anyone needs me to take them seriously, as I’m sure many people don’t take me seriously, either.)

Trying to figure out the “real” relationships in an idol group, or sussing out the “real” personality of an idol, is fine – but it’s speculation nevertheless, no matter how much evidence is brought into the mix. Think about how people you’ve known all your life are still able to surprise you with some new opinion or tidbit of personal history. By nature, people are surprising – and that veil between the human and the idol persona makes the potential surprises that much greater.

I can also understand writing about a pop idol album or concert as if it’s exactly the same in importance and priority for a pop idol as for other kinds of musicians. That said, I don’t agree with it: musicians who wind up sucking have no recourse to justify how they identify themselves, the occupation they’ve taken upon has been compromise. A musician who can’t perform music well is shit out of luck. A pop idol who can’t perform music well has other recourses and still keep the occupational identity of idol without a hitch. TV performances, dranas, photobooks – idols, even pop idols, aren’t defined by what they do so much as the charisma they project.

* * * * *

Japanese idols are seen by the general public as quirky show biz oddities that make up for a lack of talent with a surplus of sickly sweet posturings. I don’t think that’s an entirely wrong description – but again, it fails to recognize the nuances and shadings that make the allure of idols so compelling for their fans.

If anything, I’d argue that idols are a distillation of the celebrity dynamic that informs modern media life – a more hardcore involvement from the audience, a greater cognitive dissonance between the emotions and the commercialization. For some people, that’s what what makes idols one of the low-points of pop culture – the unapologetic lack of authenticity, the refusal to provide more than a token pretense that what thy are selling are manufactured personalities of desire.

But for me, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s not so much the honesty as it is the sheer relief – to enjoy this so-called guilty pleasure but not be asked to feel any guilt. To embrace and regonize that the quirks of the modern world and the state of celebrity is indeed filled with emotional irrationalities and cold mercenary tactics, and not find that at all worrisome. 

And of course, there’s all that luscious eyecandy and booty-shaking. But we can talk about that in detail some other time.

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8 Responses to “Idols Are Not Human – Returning To A Favorite Topic”
  1. Celestia says:

    very interesting read.

    I agree 100% about the distance between idols and their fans and that loving an idol should never be equated to loving a person who you have a real relationship with…

    BUT I still think you separate the idol persona and who that person really is too much. “Knowing” an idol is not the same as knowing a person for real, but it’s closer than being a fan of a certain character on a show. No one is dictating every word, planning their every move, predetermining their tastes, their back story, their reactions to things. They might get told “make sure to mention the new CD in your interview” or they might not choose to mention who they’ve been having sex with recently in that interview, but they’re not being handed a word-for-word script. The Erica Cane/Susan Lucci comparison is far too big a jump.

    Sooo, yeah, the idol persona isn’t the same as the real person, but you can’t pretend that there’s not a lot of the real person in the persona.

  2. Celestia says:

    Oh, and since I can’t edit that… mind if I add that I think you look at idols as being sooo far distant from their personas because you want it to be that way, not because that’s the way it really is. You said yourself, it’s a relief, right? That you don’t have to worry about caring about an actual person you don’t know, just an idea of one?

    It’s easier to pretend that an idol and his/her persona are two, almost entirely seprate entities, like an actor/actress and a character that he/she plays, but in reality, they’re much more closely tied together than that.

  3. Ray Mescallado says:

    I’m delighted you responded, Celestia, since you make the best counter-argument I’ve ever encountered in this Bikkuri Project post – and I recommend that everyone reads it if they haven’t already (as well as the Minna Star post that it responds to).

    We seem to agree on the practical aspects of the wota-idol relationship, so it’s the more theoretical “real life vs media life” issue where we’re at loggerheads. It IS a relief to think of idols as distinct from who they are offstage, but that’s because the notion that media reflects reality has always struck me as ridiculous. (Which is funny, since I love reality TV so much.) Blame it on too much grad school postmodernist theory, a general cynicism about the world, and a wariness of the abuses of technology.

    The stance I take is meant to accentuate that, by definition, the media creates simulacra of what it records and such simulacra cannot be trusted as true reflections of anyone or anything. Photoshop, CGI, editing are just the most obvious examples of how that’s the case. The media portrayals could be accurate – but I’m a paranoid kind of person, so I’d err on the side of caution (which is why I find it a relief) and take all of it with a truckload of salt. Ultimately, then, the general rule of thumb for me is denying the correlation between the media self of an idol and their real life self, and to relegate the real life self as a black hole of unknowability.

    Having said all that, I’ll agree that it’s as much a practical choice for me – a comfort to think of idols in such a manner – as anything else. Though I’d argue that the same can be said in thinking the opposite, that there is a comfort in believing the correlation between idol persona and real life human can itself provide emotional sustenance. It’s just that different kinds of people find different approaches comforting, which may be stating the obvious.

    If the Susan Lucci / Erika Kane example doesn’t work for you, how about William Shatner? The Shat has renewed his career by portraying “himself” in a rather arch, self-parodic fashion, most notably in the movie Free Enterprise. (And now I’m thinking of Neil Patrick Harris in the Harold and Kumar films, as well as John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich, but The Shat is the best example.) How different is William Shatner as he portrays himself in the film and commercials from the William Shatner in real life? How well could we measure the similarities between the two? Is it better to assume it’s closer to real life, or not at all close?

    What makes idols especially fascinating to me is this give-and-take – they want to create as strong a sense of intimacy as possible, even as they work hard to keep the veil between public and private life as opaque as possible.

    I’d love to hear what other people are thinking about this.

  4. Craig says:

    [Speculating]Existence precedes essence/The human being precedes the idol. At 1st they are nothing, they are undefined. Only then after that will they define themselves as idols through their performaces. There is no human being seperate from the idol. They are the idol.

  5. Ray Mescallado says:

    I guess it’s only fair that bad Baudrillard is followed up with bad Sartre.

  6. CJ Marsicano says:

    On what I should think would be a related, if not similar note, what about the fictional IM dialogues I do with “Reina” at SHSSF? How does something like that fit in?

  7. Julia says:

    Embarrassing to admit, but it’s on topic, so I’ll admit it all the same: when I was 13 I was a huge fan of an American actor about a year older than myself, and I was head over heels in love, but I mistook it for real love. One day I asked some friends I chatted with about him, “Do you think we’re in love with him?” I was honestly naive enough that I had to ask that question, because I didn’t know the answer. And one of my older friends replied, “I think we’re in love with the idea of him.” She nailed that one.

  8. EmEl says:

    You know, every time I read something you write, Ray, it just makes me want to meet you. I never really have anything intelligent to add to idol discussion, but reading intelligent things from other people is always welcomed.

    It’s funny, I like the TV appearances and chaotic locales the best. Not because I think any slip up will show me the absolute true nature of the actress-idol, but that it will portray SOMETHING outside of the controlled nature. I think I like it for the same reason that you do–just from the opposite angle. When things are chaotic, it only accents the fact that there IS the idol persona.

    But my favorite part of concerts have always been when a singer has forgotten her lyrics momentarily. My favorite parts of stand-up comedy is when the comedian loses composure just for a second because of an unexpected reaction from the crowd. My most cherished theatre moments are the times when I could tell the actor had flubbed something and was either quick-thinking enough to cover for it ingeniously or made a mess.

    Idols may not be humans, but the actresses playing the idols are. Their off-the-cuff reactions may not be actual indicators of the person they were born as, but they are at least reminders that there is an idol being controlled.