Thoughts on the East Asian “Idol Culture” Part 1

Somehow I think this actually makes them look more human.

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.

Rating: Concerned


A huge jazz nerd and unabashed fan of alternative rock, I joined Anime Instrumentality in December 2010. I tend to get very passionate when it comes to music and try my best to understand how it works. An enormous fan of The Pillows, among my favorite anime composers include Ko Otani and Yoko Kanno. My tastes in anime vary wildly, but I try to be as thoughtful about my viewing as I am about my listening. I play the saxophone.

25 thoughts on “Thoughts on the East Asian “Idol Culture” Part 1

  • June 6, 2011 at 11:48 pm

    About goddamned time someone wrote about this. The whole concept of East Asian Idolism is built around more of looks than of quality or character. For the love of god, the greatest example of this could be AKB48, which has no reason to have 48 members to begin with.

    Also, recently, have you heard of SEA*A? South East Asian something. They are signed on to sing solely anime songs, but they consist of a group of random maids at a maid cafe in last year’s Anime Festival Asia , picked by what’s-his-name-I-forget. Doesn’t this seem to prove the fact that when they sign on potential idols looks go before everything else?

  • June 7, 2011 at 3:46 am

    A lot of the stuff you say is pretty typical complaint against this sort of music, but it also demonstrates a shallow understanding of the dynamics behind why people like the stuff, its history and development, and worst, a narrow view of what music is.

    I think it’s perfectly okay to have this notion that idol pop is shallow stuff (because it often is), but to use it to infer people have idle minds is very 🙁

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  • June 7, 2011 at 4:37 am

    Well unfortunately, it’s where modern marketing has been moving towards more and more, because it works. Society has been getting more and more materialistic as our standards of living improves, and it seems creativity, passion, and innovation is way too often cast aside for the sake of pure profit, reaping in on what is known to “work”. I’m not a big music person, so I’d actually consider this one of the more minor negative influences of modern cultural materialism… but it certainly is concern-worthy.

  • June 7, 2011 at 6:29 am

    Ah, finally, someone who shares my disappointment with the growing j-pop and k-pop trends. Almost everything is recycled.

  • June 7, 2011 at 7:36 am

    I do not listen to very much idol music, but some of it can be fun- I can sometimes enjoy it as a diversion from the stuff I usually listen too. I do like some of the really cutesy and silly anime songs, if mostly for the charm of it.

    I think people approach this in the wrong way; sure the idols themselves can be seen as shallow fluff, but the producers are what we should be paying attention to. Yasutaka Nakata (Capsule, Perfume) certainly writes his music through an artistic vision and is a respectable creator no matter what you think of his work. I agree with Omo, these are valid complaints, but obvious/narrow ones.

  • June 7, 2011 at 9:09 am

    I am not too keen with idol culture whether its western and eastern, it’s the same old thing but packaged differently. No matter how bad sounding the songs are, people are still going to buy it because the girls look attractive. I for one am concerned more about the music talent and if it fails at that, it’s not worth listening…

    However there is a exceptions to the mainstream idolship. If you can tell with my review of Moon Signal single on this blog, Sphere is one of those notable exceptions considering that they are already backed up with great talent for the most part… then again, I consider them more of a group of singers than a typical idol group.

    • June 7, 2011 at 10:32 am

      The thing that raises the most curiosity on my end is how the marketing is done since I imagine (unless I’m really wrong) that this is an issue where you can pretty much throw money around at the problem to solve it. Saturation is powerful stuff and the formula they use for all this marketing has been shown to work. The only reason why I think it’s a money thing is only because indie artists aren’t able to replicate that kind of success.

      Finally, my stance is still the pay attention to composers that are worth it, ignore the artists who suck; and thankfully, ignoring them is pretty easy since the marketing engine hasn’t penetrated these shores.

  • June 7, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    I think if something moves you, then it is good enough to be worth your time. Conversely, something that doesn’t move you isn’t worth your time. I point to modernistic music. I can’t say I enjoy every perplexing composition that claims to express some meaningful message. By your logic, these works should be the ones receiving the most of my appreciation, but they’re not. I can’t bring myself to like something that I can’t make heads or tails of and sounds weird besides. In the end, it’s not about what the composer is offering you, but about what you can take away from the music. It is your time, after all.

    The differing opinions about idol culture stems from what you’re looking to take away from the music. Most people want for enjoyment and nothing further. Their desires are satisfied by pretty faces and catchy beats because the superficiality doesn’t matter to them when all they’re looking for is a way to entertain themselves. Unfortunately this tendency doesn’t help those artists who put more effort into what they do.

  • June 7, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    I’ll put in a couple of different ideas here.

    First, the situation can be compared to Bollywood, in which attractive people are paid to “picturize” a song. In Bollywood movies (which all include musical numbers), the singers (known as playback singers) are known to be professionals whose work is then “picturized” by the attractive actors on the screen. There is something honest in this duplicity. At the very least they break the idol experience into two roles so that musicians practice music, and the pretty people dance around and lip-synch.

    Second, I personally think there is a problem with the direction that all music has gone in recent years. The corporate entities that back idol groups in Asia or in America are interested in converting music (an experience) into a commodity which they can own and sell. To me, the very idea of music has broken down. While it is true that I enjoy some complex music, and have enjoyed the performances of professional musicians, I really think there is a problem with believing that music is something we acquire.

    I remember my grandmother telling me about her childhood, in which her father’s buddies from work would come over on Saturday nights, and they would all play music together, and dance and sing. I bet the dancing wasn’t as good as some idol group, and the singing was likely off key, and the songs most likely couldn’t be too complex, else the amateur players wouldn’t have been able to play them. Still the music was an experience; it was felt immediately, not mediated by a playback system. It was a part of life, not a spectacle, or something to be consumed.

    You mention supply and demand. It is in the best interests of the “music industry” to have supply be limited, so they can control it, and portion it out to those who will pay. For their vision to be achieved, music cannot be an experience we all can have immediately in our lives (that would be an infinite supply). It must be a commodity they can sell. But what does that do to the human soul (or, if you prefer, the human experience)?

    I know I get something different from music by playing around with my guitar than I can ever get by hearing someone playing “the right notes”. I respect talent and skill, and can enjoy an accomplished musical experience as well, but it will NEVER replace the experience of musical exploration, or the sense of accomplishment when I figure something out, or the feeling of community when playing with others.

  • June 7, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    AKB48 is a bit different in that they’re more like a show/attraction that has its own venue, but I agree that having 48 members is a bit ridiculous, whether or not they’re divided into teams of 16 and 10.

    Humans are shallow creatures that base much of their first impressions on looks, so it’s perfectly reasonable to have attractiveness as important factor in the marketing machine. It’s just that looks have become such a crucial you-do-or-you-don’t sort of thing that nothing else may matter.

    I appreciate your perspective. I like to think I have a good understanding of why this sort of stuff appeals to folks (I’ve had lots of honest answers from friends/acquaintances when I literally asked them “Why does this appeal to you?”), and I did do a good bit of research regarding the number of new groups popping up and the selection process behind them. I’d like to hear your neither typical nor shallow view on this, particularly your vast knowledge on the history and development on this sort of music.

    A “narrow view of what music is” may be exactly what I have, but please note that I never went so far as to call idol pop “not music.” Music is what you decide to call music. A fourth-grader drumming on his desk with two pencils can be called music just as legitimately as the sounds coming out of the London Symphony Orchestra (though it’s clear which I’d consider better music). Idol pop is music. It’s just not music I enjoy or music that seems to have had much thought put into it.

    Finally, I’d like to address the concern that I’ve “infer[ed] [that] people have idle minds.” I’m not saying people are dumb or unintelligent (though I haven’t as kind to judge a few of my personal friends). Like the person just cruising on the interstate with no idea what’s around them, or the boring college professor that’s taught the class so many times they just blab on autopilot, or the uninterested high school kid that just skims through compulsory reading, music listeners can get a lot more out of what they’re doing by being active, intelligent participants. When they do, I like to think they’ll realize there is more out there than 2ne1 or Sistar and branch out their tastes. Thanks for your input.

    I think you’re dead-on about creativity and the corporate machine. It’s just good business: why take a chance on the risky, out-of-the-box new artist when you can sign on a sure-fire hit? And this is a music blog haha, and we are big music people. Thanks.

    Brothers in Evangelion, brothers in music.

    I agree the songs can be a welcome distraction. The songs can also be very well produced, and can be quite the experience on a good set of ‘buds or ‘phones. Nevertheless, there are people out there that only listen to this stuff, which is what I cannot understand. It’s like living off of nothing but cotton candy and diet cola.

    I definitely agree that there is a lot of good talent in the production side of things, I just regret that they have to be represented by idols.

    Like I said, there are definitely some great musicians out there, just drowned by the pomp and circumstance of everything else.

    I see it less as a dignified marketing formula than I do a dubiously sustained anarchy. Though there are a surprising number of successes, the number of groups that simply disappear are up there, simply because the public cannot keep up. It’s definitely a money thing. To compete in the market, you’re gonna need more funding than NASA (ziing!).

    Though they don’t market directly to the US (usually), it’s difficult to ignore especially if some of your closest friends are absolutely drenched in this stuff.

    *Ahem* that’s actually the inverse, my dear Yu, but that’s just me being a total jerk.

    I’m not saying there’s a direct relationship between the complexity of something of the attention it should receive. There’s not. That is not my argument or logic at all. Pretty much everything else you said you basically nailed. People view their music as entertainment, but just like people that watch nothing but Jersey Shore and/or daytime programming on TV, would it be unfair to say that people who listen to nothing but idol pop should consider widening their tastes? Should they be more intelligent about their listening habits, and not just a passive consumer?

    Find out next week on DRAGON… BALL… ZEEEE!

    Amen, man. Well said. There’s not much else to add. I’ll just link people back to your comment.

  • June 14, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    I know their music’s shit…but they’re so hot.


    (lol, teenage mind talking much)

    But yeah, I get how you’re saying that their songs aren’t that great, but people eat it up because they’re the ideal people they want to be…as always, with all celebs, really. lol.

  • June 19, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    Then again, you could also think about music not as music, but as… something else. Music in the sense of sounds is a completely different genre from idol music now, and it’s getting harder and harder to compare them….

    Apples and Green Apples?

  • June 26, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    @Aftershock – nice article. You definately make some interesting points. My main criticism however is that you seem to be looking at idol trends in a vacuum. What AKB48 does is nothing new – its just that modern forms of media and communications allow a degree of marketing oversaturation that just wasnt typical before.
    Back when i was in high school (so many moons ago) my favourite singer was Shizuka Kudo – who has since gone on to marry SMAP frontman Kimutaku. But Kudo got her start as part of the Onyanko Club in the 1980s – an idol band with over FIFTY members. and this was a quarter of a century ago.
    The thing thats changed in the intervening years is the marketing and tie ins. AKB48 used to be considered niche to the extreme – but once they started being used for in-store promotions at every 7-11 in the country, the japanese public soon decided that these frilly skirty fivolities were ‘mainstream.’ And what does the mainstream want? Well, as is noted above by another poster – most of the mainstream audience just wants a good time without having to think to deeply. And how do people do this? karaoke. the simpleness of a lot of idol music is directly linked to how singable it is – the fact that anyone CAN sing it is pretty much the point (this is something thats always been a factor but was especially championed by Puffy back around the turn of the century).

    Now granted, Im much more of a Tokyo Jihen, Pontiacs, or Yoko Kanno kinda guy, but knowing the basics of AKB48 and Girls generation has become necessary just to participate in watercooler conversations around the office. While I may not like the music, when this degree of cultural awareness has been achieved, well the marketers have definately won the mainstream mindshare.

  • June 29, 2011 at 1:56 am

    I’d like to think that true talent will not be so easily drowned out by the crowd of pretty faces and idol manufacturing. (e.g. Adele in the western entertainment scene.)

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  • August 1, 2011 at 5:34 am

    I’m not especially an expert on the subject but Idol music is not new at all in Japan, but has existed since at least the 70’s, if not the 60’s or earlier. And I think boy bands and girl bands have been a mainstay of the Japanese music industry since then.

  • August 6, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    Nice article. I believe these groups could be more accurately called entertainers than musicians. The good looks, the dancing, the poppy sounds, they all point to entertaining the audience. This is in opposition to a musician who plays an instrument (or multiple), writes the songs and/or lyrics, and performs them live. Real musicians are getting to be much more rare these days, since their music doesn’t always sell as well as the entertainers.

  • August 21, 2011 at 3:10 am

    @AFTERSHOK Your view on idol culture is so shallow. Sure, the idol pop music is simple compared to what other musicians/artists create, but what is wrong with liking it? Saying that the only reason people enjoy it is because of the pretty faces/sexual appeal is just wrong. I believe that no one should care about what you listen to. If you like it, then who cares what others think. You make it sound like we should shun k-pop/j-pop, but why? There is nothing wrong with liking a variety of genres.

    You are blaming people for making simple music, but i mean everyone has moved towards this style. People just want something to dance to and easy to sing along lyrics. Basically everything on the radio is this.

    • January 7, 2013 at 6:45 am

      I hate this argument. That just because someone likes the music its wrong to criticize it. I can criticize rebecca blacks music anyway i want. Furthermore, she is criticizing the culture of Pop music idolism in East Asia, not the music they produce. The girls or pretty boys have no talent and is just a mouthpiece for the producers. That is what i would call shallow.

      [You make it sound like we should shun k-pop/j-pop]
      Ahh but she never says that. All she said is that most of the music is shallow (ie suck) but is repackaged with nice idols as mouthpiece. She never said that jpop/kpop were rubbish. Its not her fault you’re fooled by the pretty idols.

      [You are blaming people for making simple music]
      Nope. nice strawmen though. you can’t blame people for making simple music. the travesty here is that people were fooled by marketing gimmicks. Its the same thing with the transformers movie. I think people who like it are dumb and shallow. they are only impressed by the explosions and hot babes. Same thing with the current trend of jpop/kpop. Its sad really.

      [i mean everyone has moved towards this style]
      Its a pity they’re idiots.

      [People just want something to dance to and easy to sing along lyrics. ]
      You won’t see me dancing and singing to rebecca black friday

      [Basically everything on the radio is this.]
      Just because its on the radio, doesn’t mean its not garbage.

  • September 10, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Branching away from anime/JPOP for a minute, the members of Motown group the Four Tops stated that they were entertainers – yet they were also excellent singers/musicians.

    I like the collision of the light and the heavy or complex music at events like Animelo Summer Live – I would never have heard Ali Project or Kalafina if I hadn’t first heard Minori Chihara (who is still one of my favourite anime singers). The truly good singers and compositions become evident (and not always at the first hearing).

  • November 6, 2011 at 4:53 am

    Very interesting analysis.

    I myself dislike the idol culture as well, yet it interests me at the same time. I’ve studied idol culture, and I find myself oddly intrigued by the fact that people are willing to sacrifice so much of their money and time, to feel a part of the idols life. An idol, mind you, that doesn’t really know you or otherwise care about you.

    A shame really that these entertainers are appealing more to people than actual artist who try and reach out, and often in a much more personal way, to the very same people, yet aren’t as successful as the idol groups. I have to admit that it annoys me greatly. Such is the world today.
    One of the most glaring issues that I have with this, is the separation of idol and fans. For music to have an effect on people, a certain connection is needed between the audience and “artist”. The connection is what creates the “experience”, which many people go out of their way to point out in your article. The thing is there isn’t any connection. Idol and fans are kept distanced from each other both mentally and literally. The fans are tricked to believe that the idols are of much greater value, and thus a desire to be equal to them is created. If there’s a desire to be equal or an equal part of their life, it implies that there is some sort of separation from fan and idol.

    It should be noted that there are differences between the Kpop idol culture and Jpop.
    Jpop is like selling a turd, but telling the buyer it is chocolate. Meanwhile Kpop is like selling a turd, but telling the buyer it is manure.

  • December 8, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    You’re like most people who complain about the music industry,. Idols are very talented, but the emphasis is put on their looks as opposed to their talent. Instead of acknowledging that these idols have talent (Taeyeon=great singer, Big Bang=full of great singers), you instead perpetuate the focus on “only looks” by saying the music is crap, generic, the idols are untalented, money-making robots, instead of saying that it’s a shame their talents are overshadowed by their looks. People like you only contribute to the problem by dismissing every idol and all main-stream music as crap, instead of acknowledging that their is plenty of good, main stream kpop music and that their are plenty of talented idols, but yes, that there is plenty of crap as well.

    I agree with what you said about talent not being enough, but that’s the fault of the people, not idols and not companies. Entertainment is all about escaping reality, people don’t want to see ugly people, or fat people (Adele is a rarity, but even she is gorgeous), people want to see perfection so that’s what companies give them. Kpop is popular because it’s simple, easy and fun. Anyone can learn the dances, anyone can sing the songs and that’s the point. It’s not suppose to show off talent and skill, it’s suppose to be for the people, for entertainment.

    You demonstrate a shallow understanding of idol culture, by saying that people only like it because of sex\pretty faces and catchy songs and dances. Music has always been recycled you should watch R!P: A remix manefesto and you will see that music from the 60’s-70’s was ripped off from music from the 20-30’s, names, lyrics and all, but it’s only now that people complain about it.

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