“What a disgrace.”
“I can’t believe we sent our national idols to America to make this piece of shit video.”
“This looks completely stupid.”
“Ignorant Westerners just don’t understand what Japanese idols are about.”
So goes the BAAAAAWWWWWWWWW of certain stupid ass wotas who saw Jonathan Carrera’s “USA version” of RIVARRRRR and immediately had their sensibilities violated. And who can blame them? The PV is daring, defiant, and flies completely in the face of idol orthodoxy. Kinda like the song itself, really.
Who the hell is this guy?
Now, this is going to sound completely INBOU, but I have actually met Jonathan Carrera in person. Twice. I’ve worked with him when our media outlet hired him to do video coverage of Anime Expo in 2007 and 2008. However, the word is that he doesn’t like flying very much, and we had to find ourselves a different A/V guy in 2009. This other guy, however, turned out to be a coward and a flake, who was completely unprepared for the convention scene because his previous experience was in taking pictures of buildings, or something. A word to the wise: cosplayers do NOT behave like ancient works of architecture.
Believe me when I say that Jonathan is a totally cool and fun guy. He really pours his heart and soul into his work, and you can see it in the joy that spontaneously bubbles out of him, as opposed to the sad and bitter fandomwankers that I usually have to work with when I am on con business. Like, Anime Expo 2007 was the first con that he went to, and even though this whole Japan-o-fan subculture thing was new to him, he was genuinely having a good time. I remember hanging out with him in a hotel room, co-editing some video footage of a panel he’d just recorded, and he was gushing about how awesome and genius Carl Gustav Horn is. And I’m like: I agree. Carl Gustav Horn is totally awesome and genius.
Because Jon is so positive and fun to be around, I actually have a hard time trying to be jealous of him and screaming “YOU BASTARD!!!!!!!111″ when I think of him spending a whole day shooting a music video with MY WIFE. Instead, I’m genuinely happy for him, because just like me, he now has his own special memories of meeting the Cutest Girls On The Planet RIGHT NAO. I imagine that maybe next con season, if I run into him, we can sit down and compare notes.
A Necessary Hunger
So, as the story goes, there were two videographers working on this project, and the plan was to split AKB’s New York faction into two groups of eight and produce two different videos. What I find especially interesting, looking at the lineups, is how Jonathan—with little or no knowledge of the group—inadvertently picked a lot of AKB48′s “second-stringers.” Not that I am saying they are less talented or less attractive or less [whatever else], but when you think of who always ends up in Weekly Playboy, or UTB, or Friday, or at the front of the music videos, or on the cover of the CD singles, you think: not these girls. They are the ones always in the shadow of Maeda and Oshima, Kojima and Takahashi, just a step behind but ready to jump into the limelight when opportunity calls.
Because of that, I think Jon picked the better lineup.
You see, the way I figure is this: imagine you’re Atsuko Maeda. (okay, you can stop nosebleeding now.) Every entertainment publication in Japan is at your mercy. All you have to do is show up at a photoshoot and the staff start asking if you want anything. You put up a single blog post with a picture of yourself and what you had for lunch today, and you get 400 comments. Young women want to be you. Young men want to be with you. And if some dude from New York says he wants you to be in his music video, you’re like, Okay, fine, let’s get this over and done with.
A second-stringer, on the other hand, has hunger. She has passion. She knows that, if she just works hard enough, she could be the one getting all those magazine covers, the one with all the face time in the music videos, the one getting 400 comments per post on her blog. And she will sing her heart out, dance her ass off, and flirt with the camera as much as it takes to Make. It. Happen.
She is … Sayaka Akimoto.
And it was, like, the first frickin’ time Acchan wasn’t picked No. 1 for something.
I just love how the lineup is stacked with underdogs. Genking. Myao. Gachapin. Erepyon. SUUCHAN. (Happy Happy Birthday!) He picked freakin’ Suuchan. If there was ever an underdog to represent all underdogs—the second-string idol of all time—who better than Morning Musume’s greatest failure, Sumire Sat0rrrrrrr?
Ask an idol about the keys to success, and she might say something about following your dreams, and believing in yourself. But she doesn’t tell you what you REALLY need to succeed, because why would she want you to surpass her? The thing that’s really keeping her on top is a necessary hunger—the killer instinct that drives her forward when dreams and self-confidence run out. And no one is hungrier than a second-stringer who is just one solo line, one dance move, one photoshoot away from the top. So close that she can smell it.
It smells like Atsuko Maeda’s butt.
I Can Hear Africa
You don’t have to like what Carrera did. But you should, at least, sort of understand it. And if you are reading this blog, I take it that you are the kind of intelligent person who wishes to know what the deal was with this PV, and not just some stupid ass wota who wants to soil the intertubes with misplaced nerd rage. So here’s what I figured out.
It’s funny, because I didn’t draw the connection until I was listening to “RIVER” in a vacuum. And by a vacuum, I mean the comfort of my Toyota Corolla, which if you go by the CDs in the passenger seat is some kind of non-stop J-pop concert encased in 1.5 tons of plastic and steel. It is in here, as far away from New York as possible and even further away from Japan, that I came upon an epiphany. Not surprisingly, it traces back to that epic 1-minute introduction, the song’s “Eroica” moment.
I try to imagine Jonathan listening to “RIVER.” He’s deeply immersed in the step-and-chant routine, rockin’ out to the polyrhythms that sound so different from traditional J-pop. He’s experiencing that watershed moment when Yasushi Akimoto said “I want it to sound kind of like this,” and Yoshimasa Inoue comes out saying “Okay, I came up with this,” and proceeds to blow away everyone in the room. And Jonathan, in his imaginative wisdom, isn’t just hearing the essence of hip-hop culture, the pure distillation of breaks and beats from the street. He is hearing Africa itself.
He can hear Africa!
And now he knows what to do for the PV.
I remember when we did the World Music section in my music class in middle school, and the example song from Africa was a rhythmic nightmare. I mean, you take me, having been raised with proper classical music in a proper upper-middle class family, and I’m coming face-to-face with this beast that is in 12/5 time or something ridiculous. And the project, if I remember, was that each student in the class would pick one of several rhythmic lines, and you played that rhythmic line while everyone else played THEIR rhythmic line, creating a percussive wall-of-sound that sounded maybe a little bit like what they really do in Africa.
You take that incredible rhythmic sensation, that raw wall of sound, and you run it through several decades of popular music and across a couple of continents and through the musico-technological developments of the last 20 years, and you get “RIVER.”
And Jonathan Carrera, meanwhile, gets his idea for the video.
(Which, I would just like to say, is a whole lot more creative than “dancing in bog-standard AKB48 uniforms on a New York rooftop.”)
The Masks We Wear
What is bugging a lot of people, apparently, is the used of “traditional African style make-up.” How dare he sully our beautiful idols with garish face paint! What the hell does he think this is, The Lion King?! If you knew anything, you’d know that for most AKB girls, The Lion King would be a dream come true. After all, there’s that one MTV interview where they were all excited about Broadway, and that actually makes sense when you consider AKB48′s roots: it was always a “theater” first, a cavalcade of song and dance and a celebration of youth, and what is Broadway if not the apotheosis of musical theater? And if you’re a performer who’s spent 80% of her career futzing about in this 8th-floor theater in Tokyo’s geek district, and now you’re in New York, acting out a pretend Lion King sequence with this super cool American guy, wouldn’t you be thrilled?
But Jonathan put the make-up on them, I think, to also illustrate a point. Idols, if not all entertainment personalities, are defined by the masks they wear. He just expressed it in concrete form, in a way that is so overt, and it bothers people. It bothers a lot of stupid ass wotas because we spend our whole fandom lives tricking ourselves into believing that we can see behind the mask. We buy their CDs and photobooks and posters and calendars, we go to their live shows and handshake events, we follow their blogs and look at pictures of their dogs and what they had for lunch today, anything that makes us think we are “closer” to them somehow.
But who’s to say that it isn’t ALL an act?
Who’s to say that there isn’t some staff member reminding them to post to the blog quasi-daily, and someone telling them what they can and can’t write about, because honestly who really posts that many pictures of their dogs and their lunches without getting bored?
And speaking as someone who’s kept some form of a personal blog for almost a decade now, I can tell you, even an anonymouse such as myself is always mentally filtering what I do and don’t say on Teh Internettes. Couple that with the Facebook Era being what it is, and with the situation of being a nationally semi-famous person in your homeland, and yeah, you’re going to watch what you say online. Unless you’re some kind of nutjob like Stephon Marbury or Tila Tequila.
But otherwise, that’s the idol life for you, where they let you peek behind the mask and find out when they’re going out for dance and vocal lessons, or when they go shopping with their friends, or how bad they felt about getting the flu, but all it really is, is another mask behind the mask.
What I find especially ironic is the guy who got interviewed after the Webster Hall concert on the SkyPerfect TV special, and he said he liked the girls because they felt so “real.” What they’re really doing, my friend, is selling you a different brand of reality. The school uniforms. The effortless smiles. The casual cellphone photos. The girl-next-door personalities and storylines. AKB48 isn’t just “real.” They’re hyper-real. You don’t really fall in love with an AKB member. You fall in love with the concept of her, the mask that she presents to you through all the various forms of media.
And if you’re like me, you know that it isn’t real, but you accept that unreality anyway, because don’t we all wear masks in our daily lives?
The mask I wear at work is different from the mask I wear on Teh Internettes, which is different from the mask I wear in front of my family, which is different from the mask (and wig, and costume, and accessories) I wear at an animu convention.
Idols just have much more elaborately constructed masks than the rest of us.
A Hard-Working Bastard
If I ever run into Jon again, I want to congratulate him. Firstly, for being a hard-working bastard (because, again, this isn’t the kind of stuff that happens with luck, it’s an opportunity that you earn) who got to spend all day with MY WIFE. But secondly, for coming up with a video concept that shook up the fandom, or at least certain pockets of it. It may have generated a number of negative opinions, but that’s still better than no opinion. I’ll take a polarizing work any day over one that people just don’t give a shit about. I think, because he was coming from an outsider’s perspective, because he wasn’t conditioned by years of “This is what an J-pop PV is supposed to look like,” he was able to bring in something NEW, something FRESH, something … (AMAZING?) … something that made us look at AKB48 differently. It wasn’t [girls dancing in school uniforms] + [military special ops], or [girls dancing in school uniforms] + [riding on bikes], or [girls dancing in school uniforms] + [throwing someone a surprise birthday party]. It’s not that he was trying to cast aside the formula, but that he wasn’t aware of the formula in the first place, and instead built something from the ground up. That, I guess, pisses off people who have been lulled into complacency by formula.
And to think that it was done in one day! It probably took an entire day just to set up the freaking cargo plane for that one shot in the original. Instead, here, you have the briskly constructed vision of one man: a vision where he could hear Africa, a vision of raw self-expression, a vision that makes us vividly aware of the masks that idols wear.
So yeah, you don’t have to like what he did. But maybe now you’re thinking a little more about what’s going on here. Maybe it wasn’t just the powerful rhythms that got to him, but maybe he covered up our beautiful girls’ faces to point out that, even without the makeup, their true selves still remain hidden. And we accept it, and we fall in love with it, and we endlessly chase a “reality” that doesn’t exist. It’s a daring statement, a daring PV for a daring song. And perhaps this Westerner is not ignorantly misunderstanding idols. Perhaps he understands idols better than any of us.