I mentioned a couple of posts back about a video by Sakura Gakuin, where they were singing a song called “Graduation Toss” and where they pretty much were finding it impossible to hold it together. You could see it on their faces throughout the song. One girl was just about one word away from completely losing it, and as the song progresses, you can see them falling apart in real time. At the end of the song, they’re trying to do their smiley wavey thing at the end of the song, and they just… can’t. One girl is down there just completely bawling, the other is trying to comfort her and end the song at the same time, the graduating girl is trying to smile but you can see it on her face. It’s just a train wreck.
And as I also mentioned, this is one of the more popular videos from that group. It actually seems sometimes like people are treating it kind of like emotional porn, pausing the video to try to find places where the girls are losing it, and I’m not really sure that’s okay. But acknowledging their emotional vulnerability is important to the theme of this post, so I’m going to be using it.
Graduations in idol culture generally seem to be incredibly emotionally wrought. The girls have spent maybe years together growing a strong bond, and then one of them is leaving. I’ve seen this phenomenon in every single idol group I’ve ever come across. Morning Musume, AKB48, Sakura Gakuin… about the only one that hasn’t is Babymetal, and that’s because that’s not so much an idol group and their members don’t (and really can’t) graduate per se. But every one of those groups has graduations, they have graduation concerts, and the tears flow like rivers down the stage. And the cameras are there to capture every moment of it.
Whilst there is an aspect of this phenomenon that feels like emotional porn, there is an aspect that feels very pure as well. The girls are breaking down on stage (and backstage), true, but there are thousands of people there who are there to support them. Even if parasocially, they love the girls they’ve come to see graduate. True, the girls might be crying and breaking down on stage, but in a twisted sense, they’re amongst thousands to tens of thousands of their biggest fans, and they don’t feel any shame about it. They don’t feel any shame because they don’t need to. No one is judging them, no one is upset at them for their tears, they’re crying right along with them and wishing them the best as they move on to the next stage of their life and career.
And the most interesting thing is, I’m convinced that in nearly all cases, the girls’ tears are completely and totally genuine. And they’re so brave when they get up on stage and fight through their tears to perform and say what they want to say, even though clearly all they want to do is just collapse and sob their little hearts out (and almost do, as with the video I’m referring to). But they do that, for each other, and for their fans. How many western groups would do that? How many western groups could do that? They don’t always give us everything of themselves. They’re performers. They perform, and they have characters, and those characters are well formed and developed. They don’t always reflect who they actually are. But in those moments, they do. They give us, and each other, everything, and trust us with it.
I think that’s the beautiful thing about idol culture. It’s a dirty and messy business. It really is. It can and does take young girls, chew them up, and spit them out. It’s got dirty old men, abuse, bullying, all of the stuff you’ll find when you great an industry based upon the probable exploitation of young girls. But on the other hand, it can create strongly bonded groups, who grow up together, who love each other, and who are beloved by their fans as well. And I’m not and never have been convinced that’s entirely a bad thing.
Idol culture could not exist in the US, because we have lost the ability to form those bonds, either socially or parasocially. It would end up being like a reality show, a little like produce48, where girls are fighting with each other for the chance to move up, in a brutal and cutthroat manner. And the fans would idolize, and worse, sexualize those young girls in a way that the Japanese fans could (for the most part) never conceive of. And the fact that we are culturally unable to have that kind of subculture says a lot about what we’ve lost.
i can’t honestly say I love any idol. Su-metal is not my queen. Moa-metal is not my princess, Takahashi Minami has never been my oshimen. In fact, I don’t have an oshimen, though there are a few I find more entertaining than others. While there have been idols who I have enjoyed watching on YouTube, and one or two I’ve even found a little attractive (And I mean literally one or two), I have no illusions of what they are and what I am. I try to stay healthy about it, and mostly succeed. That being said, though, when they are on stage trying not to cry their little hearts out because of heartbreak and loss, It’s hard not to feel a little fatherly towards them, and be proud of them for bravely showing the world their vulnerable hearts. And for just a few moments, reminding us that behind every performer is a person, capable of deep feelings, and sometimes even willing to share them with people they don’t even know. Like me.
I think that, beyond anything else, is why, even with all of the obvious and not so obvious failings of idol culture, even with all the parasocial relationships, all the bullying, jockeying for position, competition (such as in AKB48), abuses, long hours, exploitation, and everything negative about idol culture, I still am something of a fan of it. They start out as young girls, they grow up into young women, and along the way you catch glimpses of the sweetness and authentic feelings of youth that is so much missing from the world anymore. Just glimpses, but they’re like sweet nectar in a world of shit.