A self-referential research of idols: on Brand-new Idol Society
*This is an English translation of my article written in Feb 2014 with some updates, originally in Chinese.
When the term “research” is mentioned in Hong Kong, people may immediately think of the following conversation in Stephen Chow’s comedy From Beijing with Love: “I am now having a research job in the Central Institute of Psychiatry. (What is the subject of research?) I am the subject of research!” Such a joke may equally be applied to Brand-new Idol Society, a Japanese female idol group.
Brand-new Idol Society, or Sin-sei Idol Ken-kyu-kai (新生アイドル研究会, literally translated as Newborn Idol Research Society) in Japanese, commonly known as “BiS”, is not really popular in Hong Kong (personally I have never heard of them from any of my friends). Nonetheless, the title of this idol group is interesting enough: a “society” in the name of researching on idol is itself an idol group. On what is to be researched by them then?
BiS are frequently labelled as “unorthodox idols” in Japan (which they have always admitted). It is by no means difficult to have a quick grasp of their extraordinariness with simply a Google search; what I can supplement here are only few:
1) Since their formation in late 2010, they have had their number of members increased from four to six, but there are in total five members who have resigned; three resigned in 2013, followed by the joining of four new members in the second half of the same year.
2) The newest member joined in October 2013, at a time the group had repeatedly emphasized that they would disband soon in 2014; eventually it was announced on 12 February 2014 that the disbandment will take place on 8 July 2014 (then they acclaimed “hurray!” loudly together with their fans).
3) There were some rumours among the Sinophone sphere that BiS had been ridiculed by netizens for having too much bodily contact with fans and thus nicknamed as “touchable idol”, but actually these are in no sense only pieces of news among netizens, but officially endorsed views.
If BiS are truly researching on idols, they, being themselves idols, do it in a way of pushing every boundary and bottom-line of the concept “idols” with experimental acts. These acts include not only nude and porn-like depiction, MVs with homosexuality, rape, prostitution, physical violence, endoscopic images and bodily mechanization as themes, and the infiltration of death metal and noise into their music, but also adopting cockroaches, robots and display of human organs in the design of performing dresses. Moreover, being an idol group, they set their goal at nothing else but disbanding. All these upset the existing impression and understanding towards Japanese female idol groups.
But the previous paragraph has to start with a really big “if”. The researches, if they really deserve the name, lack any detachment of the subject from the object, which is expected in any serious research. As a matter of fact, BiS has admitted that their unorthodoxy is a way to survive (as idols) in the “Sengoku Era of Idols”. In other words, the unorthodoxy is with less a pure intention to research than to earn a living as idols. To conclude what BiS has done in such a way is however inadequate if the following question is asked: why they still push the moral boundary with their own bodies, rather than performing as idols in a much safer way, especially when they are not actually going to survive as idols for long after the decision to disband? It is not a question that I have an answer; maybe it is not a question which need be taken seriously. Praising their courage to be different is too hypocritical a comment; what should really be appreciated are the artistic effects of unreasonableness – no matter whether they are intended – which their ground-breaking MVs also possess.
Perhaps someone, particularly immature leftists, would denounce BiS’s unorthodoxy and provocative acts as merely enabling the consumption of alternativeness: after all, idols, who have to survive on fans’ support and media exposure, cannot really escape the power relation between watching and being watched. However, this general view on idols is not quite applicable to BiS, for their fans (called “ken-kyu-in”, or researchers), especially those active ones, are always part of BiS’s performance.
Watching how these fans join BiS’s performance in a comical but proficient manner, and then becoming part of them, are somewhat the greatest motivation of attending a BiS’s live show.
The group who researches on idol becomes the researched; audiences who watch a performance become also the watched. BiS is such a performing group which has successfully caused confusion between subjects and objects. Breaking various boundaries in the name of researches, BiS has caused significant effects which are worth studying. Becoming idols – someone supposed to be “consumed” – under the name of research is not to subvert the definition of idols (it is nothing worthwhile to emphasize on subversion after all, especially when you know how easy one can be prosecuted for subverting state power in People’s Republic of China); rather, it is to make research also an object to be consumed, hence provoking the consumers’ reflection on what they have really consumed. As a matter of effect, BiS can really be said as contributing to researches on Japanese female idols and their performance, though extraordinarily unorthodox not only in terms of how they act as idols but also how such researches (if any) have been conducted – collapsing the boundary between subject and object.
To many, it may be unnecessary to complicate thing as such when it comes to J-Pop. You can also enjoy BiS’s music just by watching the MVs, then you will be shocked and feel the difference between BiS and the other Japanese female idols groups, as if when you encounter some modern art works which cannot be completely understood with your rationality. Of course, to be able to enjoy, you first have to prepare yourself for something a bit hardcore.
Update after Feb 2014
1. The design of performing dresses keeps surprising. The ones since April looked ordinary, or strictly speaking too ordinary to be performing dresses – only some causal wears with a floral pattern. The great trick which again makes BiS stand out is, however, that the cloth on the dresses can be torn out part by part; the dresses then gradually become completely tattered, like something worn by girls in desperate hardship. Being the performing dresses toward disbandment, they somewhat reflect or symbolize the damages suffered by the members during the difficult journey of idols.
2. The disbanding Best album is with outrage graphical theme: abandoned sex dolls. The covers of the album are sex dolls with the members’ photos treated as garbage. The double self-denunciation – sexual self-objectification and abandonment – is again thought-provocative, exposing the meaning of disbandment of a female idol group to its ugly extreme.