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Flying Solo

Being in a group is one of the greatest boons and biggest hindrances in a Japanese idol’s music career.

Being in a group means you have people to back you up, people who will divert the audience’s attention away from your bad points, people with whom you’re working towards the same dream so even if things seem tough, you know it’s not just you who’s suffering under the burden of all the hard work. It’s the stuff and fluff we see in movies about this particular world; where girls cry and laugh and sing and dance and form irreplacable friendships.

Being in a group also means you’re not always the star. Sometimes you’re never the star. Or maybe you were once a star and then got shunted aside. And in fact, that time when you’ll shine and dazzlingly so seems a long way off.

We all have our own impressions of idols and their reasons for joining the industry, but there’s one thing that’s pretty much irrefutable. People in the idol industry are all being groomed towards an eventual solo path. Everyone is told to stand out as much as they can. The reason why a person is taken in to begin with is because producers see a potential star, a person who can win even a small audience. Whether that quality is already jutting out or buried under tons of sand and hard rock of normalness makes no difference to both the people in charge and this article – it’s the producer’s job to unearth the gem, and this post isn’t about the producers. It’s about the act of putting this same potential bundled in a human package in a group.

And marketing a person in a group just happens to kill two birds with one stone. You get actual onstage practice, you learn to become used to the limelight, and you learn to develop a public image and presence with less scrutiny than you would if you were going at it by yourself. Any personality flaws can show through and it’ll be fine – it only becomes endearing because despite being an idol, you’re only human, and the producers built the group with balancing everyone’s individual elements in mind so there will be someone to offset you. You can focus on improving your vocals, your acting, whatever it is that you bring to the group, and when you stand on your own, there’s the pride that it’s your own hard work.

But the years during which an idol is in a group can also force the idol – male or female – to become reliant on the group, whether or not they realize it. Some idols overcome their shortcomings through sheer popularity and natural improvement will do the rest – practice makes perfect, after all. Some know early on they’re getting cut off from the flanks, and eventually develop their own style, eventually rising out of the “idol” moniker. Most will hang onto the group, though, whether they continue their solo activities within the group or use the group’s name as a way to stand out from every other fledgling starlet. The group becomes a safety zone, even when you want to get out – because once you’re finally out you can never go back. It’s never until things are gone that you realize how much you miss them.

And to that extent, solo songs for a group’s member is great. It feeds the fans’ desire for their favorite member to shine. It lets the members themselves show what they can do without the other person(s). Perhaps their voice is better suited for a music style that just doesn’t sit with the group’s image, or maybe they can do something else in the context of the song – show some operatic or acrobatic ability, joke around, ooze sex, whatever. But it’s a taste of the individual fame that they’ve been geared for, and it’s always interesting to see how they do when given the light to themselves. The marketing focus of a group is the group, of course, and producers’ goals be damned – but it’s the fans’ fondness for the idols that make us appreciate the solos when we get them. And if not every person gets a solo released on an album, we can clearly see who’s getting somewhere fast, and who may be left in the dust. (I still think every NEWS member should have had the chance for a CD-released solo. Clearly.)

It also makes it stand out that much more when the group disbands, but no one (or only one person) continues on in the business. Folder5, SweetS, BeForU – I’m looking at you. AKINA, Aya, Haruna, and Riyu were clearly the lead vocalists of their respective groups, but thanks to the solos, we know the other girls had the capability too. (Please don’t ask me to name all of them. 12 name drops is a bit much.) 3-nin dream’s Mai graduated from the group and attempted to pursue a solo career – if she ever made it anywhere, she’d have some gorgeous soft songs thanks to her lyrics and vocals, from the solo we did get back on Process. It certainly would’ve been better than where Kana and Yu are stuck now, but we also know Kana had vocal ability from her own solo. And not a day doesn’t go by where I wish she’d graduate from DRM and show up Yu with her own solo career.

HINOI TEAM’s other three girls – Hikaru, Rina, Keika – never got solos. They didn’t have enough of a career to ever manage that, plus the fact that it was, indeed, Hinoi Asuka’s team. But if they had, would we be looking even more fondly at what might have been for H, R, and K? On the guys’s side – w-inds.’ Tachibana Keita has his acoustic pop solo career concurrent with w-inds.’ continued releases, but we’ve had solos from Ryuichi and Ryohei that prove they might be able to get somewhere in pop-rock and R&B/Hip-hop respectively if given the chance to polish and shine. Not a peep from PONY CANYON or VISION FACTORY on that, though.

A group member’s solo speaks about potential, the future, and hopes. Fans’ hopes, the individual’s hopes, the producer’s hopes… it just has more of an exciting, if uncertain, feeling lying behind the lines because it comes from someone in a group.

On that note, 2008 is going to be all about listening to groups for me. As far as my posts here have been concerned, it’s already been pretty group-centered, with a smattering of solo works. But seeing as my attention has been drifting away from solo artists and focusing on the group dynamics of pop idols, and the fact that I’ve been skipping over solo artists I loved just a year ago in favor of groups, it seems fitting to declare such.

Except maybe I’ve Sound and contemode. Can we count production labels as groups too? No? The music dictionary doesn’t allow it? …we need to have a talk.

Categories: Fandom, Music, Ramblings

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