Part 1: Idol Bodies, Idle Minds
There was a time where musicians were like meticulous artists brushing paint onto a canvas: noble Bohemians living for their art; here, I lament musicians becoming more and more like the brush itself: a replaceable tool that can be used and disposed.
You may have noticed a somewhat disturbing trend over the course of this past decade in the collective music industries of Japan and Korea. There has been a notable drift towards mass-market appeal and short-term financial gain through sexual titillation – something I’ve dubbed the “Idol Culture” – that has come to permeate much of East Asia. The idol process perniciously eliminates the creative nativity between the musician and music, wherein the artist has become more of an attractive representative for the music than the actual creator. I’d like to offer some of my thoughts on the matter that have stemmed from my personal experiences with people who are deeply immersed in this culture and big fans of the music created in this sort of environment. Also, please take the time to check out zzero’s post from this past October regarding a similar topic.
I’d like to start out by explaining a bit of my background. I’m a Korean American born in New York City currently living in the suburbs of Metro Atlanta. Culturally, I was raised very “American;” I really only related myself to Korean popular culture through the dated and often quaint viewpoints of my parents. Most of my friends growing up were also “American” in the typical sense, aside from a circle of Korean friends that will come up later. The point is that, growing up, I was very far removed from anything popular in Korea and have remained as oblivious until relatively recently.
The early/mid-2000’s was around the time that boy groups and girl groups were really starting to get popular in Korea. Groups like Big Bang and Wonder Girls and Girls’ Generation (aka SNSD) (consider them Korean versions of Backstreet Boys and NSYNC) started to appear. My Korean friends just ate this stuff up.
Given that I am the most cynical person this side of the local insane asylum, I just could not understand what they were on about. Sure, the girls were attractive, the marketing was clever, and the music videos were well-edited, but there was no lasting value to me, nothing “there.” These idols and their boob jobs and their pretty faces and expensive haircuts and fashionable outfits seemed like vehicles to wow people into spending their money. They are ideal images who lend their voices and likenesses to songs made by a technician on his MacBook. Could these people even be called musicians given their shallow participation in the creative process?
I bring this up because much fuss has been made over the producer/artist dynamic in music production. The ideas and feedback generated from this relationship are often profound, helping transform the work from its early visions into the finished product. A good example of this on the anime side of things is the oft-cited relationship between Yoko Kanno and the singers with whom she works. I won’t go into details here, but the gist is that when artist and producer come together as creative equals, the synergies result in a richer final product that is ultimately a lasting work with staying power. Not so, in idol land. The vast majority of these idols are as involved in the creative process as McDonald’s employees are in the cooking process. They stand there, follow instructions, and have someone else deliver the final product. The artist that can talk about the music, what it means to them, and how the creative process unfolded is quickly becoming the exception rather than the norm.
Instead, idols, boiled-down, are facades, tools to create sexual tension and incite desire to buy albums, merchandise, and concert tickets. They are the result of a well-oiled corporate machine that has learned how to efficiently and quickly maximize profit.
It’s no longer enough to have talent to become successful. In fact, now it’s not even necessary. If you look good, people will buy your song. If it has a catchy beat and auto-tuning, have a guest artist fill in a hip-hop section in the middle and stick a “FEATURING [NAME]” label at the end of the song title, and you’ve got a top-ten hit. If a studio happens to find a looker that also has a semblance of singing talent, they’ve hit the jackpot. More recently, I’ve noticed my friends saying that it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the influx of new artists. The competition is ferocious, and the market is becoming saturated; the supply and demand curves only intersect at one point, and the former sure is shifting to the right.
At the very least, this competition may invite attempts by labels to differentiate themselves by improving the quality of their music. There is some genuinely good music out there by idols that give a damn about what they’re pumping into the mic. Some even write their own songs! It’s just that they’re being drowned out by the sheer mass of utter garbage. What I’m saying here, basically, is this: be an intelligent listener. Listen to what moves you, but know when what you’re listening to isn’t good enough to be worth your time. McDonald’s is delicious, but I don’t eat there exclusively. Know quality when you hear it. Reject instrumentality.
You may not have an idol body, but, for heaven’s sake, don’t have an idle mind.