American Idol may have gotten North American audiences used to the idea of putting a person plucked from obscurity on a pedestal for his or her singing talent for a year or so before the idol (usually) fades back into obscurity, but the “idol” (aidoru in Japanese, but the word is taken from the English equivalent) has long been hot in Japan. Not always (but often) singers, the Japanese idol becomes a massive cross-media hit known more for her (we’ll get to that in a minute) looks and (possibly manufactured) personality than her talent.
Sometimes in the 1970s, the idol boom began in Japan, strangely not after the cross-media popularity of a native Japanese woman in Japan, but of a French musician named Sylvie Vartan. Talent agencies formed keen to produce the next “idol,” the next young woman who would be plastered across all media outlets and become the next big “cash cow.”
Japanese idols are usually women, but some young men may be considered idols (men typically become idols through initially joining the music or acting industry, though, and don’t specifically set out to be an all-encompassing “idol.”) Idols are usually teenagers (specifically 14 to 16), but may be as young as 12 or so and as “old” as in their early 20s. Very few idols remain popular beyond their 20s, but there are a few memorable ones who have preserved and have been recognized for their talents in the long-term.
Idols may sing, act, or model (or all three), but they don’t necessarily have to have a “talent” and aren’t marketed for their one talent. The goal is to have the next, hot new idol permeate everything in the entertainment industry that she can. This typically means frequent appearances on talk shows, variety shows, radio shows, and game shows, as well as sponsorship deals. A Japanese idol must be pretty or cute (as deigned by the talent agency), thin, and must demonstrate a lovable, sweet personality in her appearances. Some are even known for being “lovable airheads” and gladly milk this personality portrayal for all that it’s worth. However, it’s well known that the overly cute “personality” is often just an act and there are sometimes gossip stories about how ruthless and mean—or conversely, how intelligent and down-to-earth—the idols can be when not “on camera.”
The Japanese idol industry is a tough, competitive industry for which thousands of young women compete each year. Only a few successful idols “survive” their few years of fame to become famous in the long-term, and those are usually the ones who have real talent and genuinely act like themselves when interviewed.
Do you know of any Japanese idols? Who are your favorites? Do you think it’s demeaning for women to become idols or does it at least provide a good start for women with genuine talent to become recognized?