Idols are a huge part of the Japanese music industry, in fact the biggest if you’re going off physical album sales (more on that later). Famous acts like AKB48, Momoiro Clover Z, and the pioneering Morning Musume continue to be a force to be reckoned with, not to mention cross-media giants like Love Live! And THE iDOLM@STER and newer acts gaining international attention like BABYMETAL. Idols are important and, presumably, here to stay but not all of them have yet achieved mainstream status.
In this article, We’re showcasing some “alternative idols” worth checking out, a basic overview of how idols work in general, and a little history behind important groups and production companies like WACK.
IDOLS AND WHAT IT MEANS TO BE “ALTERNATIVE”
When talking about idols, the focus of their appeal is largely based around their image rather than musical talent. The vast majority of idols are completely produced by companies, they don’t write their own songs or play instruments and have their public image and lifestyle heavily controlled by their company, typically to be very innocent and sweet to be “role models” for young people and also give their, mostly male, fans some weird ideas by not letting them date during their careers (the mechanics and critique of idol culture could be an article in and onto itself).
Unlike most other music groups, idols have a special focus on selling physical copies of their music, which is usually tied in with rewards for buying things like taking photos with the group, signed merchandise, etc. Super fans will buy stacks of CDs for these rewards, which is why idol music typically tops the charts for physical sales in Japan while not necessarily the overall charts. Idol groups also have frequent changes in their lineups because members will retire or change to a new group, many also just add more members over time as the group becomes more popular.
In any case, what I’m calling “alternative” idols are groups that make music outside of the typical sugary J-pop genre most associated with idols, embrace a different style of stage persona, or are otherwise underground/unusual.
IDOL IS DEAD – WHAT IS WACK?
WACK (WACK Co., Ltd) is the most prominent production company in the alternative idol scene, currently managing eight different acts that include the first major alt-idol group, BiS, and their “successor” group BiSH which has actually gone on to recent mainstream success in Japan. Holding everything together is Watanabe Junnosuke, the owner and creator of WACK who also serves as manager and producer for many of these groups. Watanabe is somewhat of a controversial figure, which should come to no surprise given the unconventional, provocative style of many of the groups he works with. He and his company, WACK, have a lot of great acts; I’ll be talking about BiS, BiSH, GANG PARADE, and EMPiRE in this article. Watanabe first started WACK to manage Pla2Me in 2014.
ORIGINS? – BRAND-NEW IDOL SOCIETY
BiS (Brand-new Idol Society) was founded in 2010 by Pour Lui, formerly an indie rock singer. Pour Lui saw the state of the J-rock scene as being largely pushed aside by the rise of idol groups and decided to create a group meant to destroy the preconceived ideas of idols from the inside. By all measures, she was largely successful and changed the world of idols forever, but not without some extreme measures that would tear the group apart multiple times, Pour Lui included.
BiS is famous for their over-the-top antics to gain notoriety both on and off the stage. Some notable examples being the video for “My IXXX” having the then-trio running naked through Aokigahara, Japan’s “suicide forest” outside of Mt. Fuji, simulating oral sex in “Paprika”, and even attempting to run a 110km supermarathon in a day and afterwards do a 24-hour live concert which ended disastrously as documented in their “hitoribochi” video. Stunts like this, coupled with the already volatile nature of idol groups, led to a huge amount of shuffling in the BiS roster, eventually leading to the departure of Pour Lui herself and disbanding of the group at Yokohama Arena on July 8, 2014. However, BiS, in yet another form, would return shortly.
On July 8, 2016, it was announced that BiS would be reforming and held auditions for new members, and in November, the group would release the album Brand-new idol Society 2 with songs re-recorded with the new lineup. After rejoining, Pour Lui graduated on March 4, 2018 and is currently part of BILLIE IDLE®. To add even more strangeness, BiS currently exists as two different groups, called BiS 1st and BiS 2nd, whose members are decided on through online voting on the platform BiS.LEAGUE. Using serial codes included when buying albums/singles, fans vote for their favorites members. The popular vote winners become part of BiS 1st (the “main” group) and the rest will be part of BiS 2nd and the two groups release different versions of the same songs.
BiS continues to be one of the most popular alternative groups and is doubtlessly one of the most influential in shaking up the idol world. With controversial songs like “DiE” which comments on how women’s images are exploited and more over-the-top publicity stunts like 2017’s “DiET or DiE” incident which involved documenting Pour Lui’s weight and gym exercise and her expulsion from the group when she wasn’t able to reach the goal, BiS (in some form) will likely be a big part of the scene for years to come.
“Don’t miss it!!” (BiS 2nd ver.)
PUNK BAND WITHOUT INSTRUMENTS – BRAND-NEW IDOL SHIT
A year before the return of BiS in 2016, another group was announced by WACK as the “successor to BiS”, BiSH or Brand-new idol SHiT, which is also managed by Watanabe Junnosuke. As a publicity stunt, the first pictures showing the members’ faces were partially concealed with all-black contact lenses, only properly revealing them after they each achieved 4,444 followers on Twitter.
As the follow-up to BiS, BiSH captured much of the same outlandish spirit of their predecessor, especially early on, but never quite reached the same level of insanity. That’s not to say that BiSH is soft, as they still embrace a very rebellious, punk spirit for a lot of their music and aren’t afraid of shock value in their videos like the scat imagery seen in “BiSH: Hoshi ga Matataku Yoru ni”. BiSH’s affinity with BiS is important to the group, their first live was specifically held at the same venue as BiS’s debut, despite its small size, and they even called the event “This Is for BiS”. They also are notable for being kicked out of Tokyo Idol Festival 2015, along with POP, because of stage diving and destructive behaviour from their fans, calling back to BiS.
BiSH is currently the most popular alternative idol group having sold out multiple tours and topped the Oricon album charts several times. Leading up to their first album, starting with “Spark”, the band began releasing their songs for free online to build popularity, which was a huge success, with their debut being #20 on the weekly sales chart. Interestingly, one of the founding members, Yukako Love Deluxe, left the group before their debut which meant they had to re-record all of their tracks. Her voice was retained in “Spark”, however. BiSH also engaged in a guerilla marketing campaign for their second major album "THE GUERiLLA BiSH" which was first released for ¥299 (less than $3) at Tower Records without any prior advertising, and packaged without cover art or a lyrics booklet.
With breakthrough success, BiSH has become the most mainstream alternative idol group, recently even providing the music for the second Black Clover anime opening, “PAiNT it BLACK” and 3D Kanojo - Real Girl’s ending theme “HiDE the BLUE”.
“BiSH: Hoshi ga Matataku Yoru ni” (At Night the Stars are Twinkling)
“Hontou Honki” (Truly Earnest)
“PAiNT it BLACK” (Black Clover TV Size)
LINEAGE OF ECCENTRICS – PLASTIC 2 MERCY, POP, & GANG PARADE
The legacy of BiS after its 2014 disbandment would also continue with the formation of Pla2Me (Plastic 2 Mercy) that same year by former member Kamiya Saki (who would later rejoin the reformed BiS for five months in 2017-2018) and Izumi Mari. When Izumi left in 2015 the group was reorganized as POP or “Period of Plastic 2 Mercy” and added four new members from WACK auditions. Shortly after the previously-mentioned Tokyo Idol Festival fiasco that got them and BiSH kicked out, the group released “pretty pretty good” and Kamiya Saki was put on probation from the group over her involvement in the shenanigans at TIF. In true BiS fashion, Saki would have to run 100km in 24 hours to rejoin the group (and did so with about two hours to spare!).
Following some changes in their lineup, POP was renamed to GANG PARADE in 2016 and has since lost and added new members. The group continues to produce music, largely in the same style as BiS, BiSH, and other WACK groups which they have swapped members between several times like AYA EiGHTPRiNCE (currently in BiS 2nd) and Kamiya Saki herself. Despite being fairly similar to these groups, GANG PARADE is nevertheless excellent and continues to make some of the best alternative idol music out there!
Members of Bis, BiSH, and GANG PARADE also came together in a shuffle unit called SAiNT SEX in 2017 to release the single “WACK is FXXX”.
“Plastic 2 Mercy” (updated version of the original Pla2me single)
“BREAKING THE ROAD”
“Beyond the Mountain”
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK – EMPiRE
On August 23, 2017 WACK announced the formation of a new group under the code name of Project aW. Five members had appeared wearing masks in front of the BiSH event "TOKYO BiSH SHiNE" held at Zepp Tokyo and would not be revealed until each member received 10,000 Twitter followers (man, Wantanabe sure likes this tactic and keeps upping the ante). YUiNA was the first to be revealed early in September with the remaining later in that month. Similarly to BiSH, several of their first songs were made freely available to download before their debut. There was also an auction where the five highest bidders would get the elite “ROYAL EMPiRE” status in the “EMPiRE CORE” official fan club that would allow them to go on “limousine dates” with the members. So far, the only member to leave EMPiRE is YUiNA (transferred to BiS 2nd), MiKiNA and MAHO joined in March 2018. As their newest venture, EMPiRE represents the next generation of WACK idols, and the first to have a good degree of separation from BiS. Their music has more of a traditional J-pop vibe to it but still enough edge to be interesting. Following in BiSH’s footsteps, EMPiRE’s “Black to the dreamlight” was used as the third ending theme of Black Clover. I’m excited to see what the future holds for them! I’m excited to see what the future holds for them!
“Buttocks beat! beat!”
“FOR EXAMPLE ?? [NEXT EDiTiON]”
“Black to the dreamlight”
For the next groups I’m going to have shorter summaries so you can focus on the music! These girls aren’t produced by WACK and offer even more variety for idol fans looking for something new, plus they rock and deserve more attention!
MALCOLM MASK MCLAREN
Pop punk’s not dead? They self-identify as “melodic hardcore” but apparently are actually easycore? In any case, Malcolm Mask McLaren makes some really fun music with some really weird English lyrics. “Hey! Fuckin’words of love. Dog fucking is more delicious!!” might make me scratch my head a bit but their heavy sound and upbeat spirit more than makes up for it.
KAQRIYO TERROR ARCHITECT
Kaqriyo Terror Architect is 3-person hard rock/metal idol group formed in 2017. Their sound is really hard, energetic, and a little dark. A lot of their music references children's’ games/songs like Hide and Seek and Kagome Kagome (a traditional Japanese kids game and song involving someone playing the “oni” by covering their eyes, having the others spin around them, and having the oni guess who is behind them when the song ends).
YANAKOTO SOTTO MUTE
Yanakoto Sotto Mute is probably the most pure “alternative” idol group if we’re talking about alternative rock. They currently have four members that include Mizuki Nadeshiko, former member of lolita fashion idol group Meltia, and Mochizuki Rena of Mt. Fuji-based J-pop idols 3776. They started in 2016.
Jyujyu brand themselves as “the cursed idols” and heavily incorporate horror elements into their hard rock and metal infused music. They’ve been around since 2014 and are still putting out some of the most disturbing idol music.
“Noroi Hajime” (Curse Begins)
While most of the idols I’ve been talking about so far have mostly been rock, metal, or J-pop based, RHYMEBERRY is a rap idol group that shouldn’t be missed! They’ve changed their lineup a lot since their founding in 2012. I don’t typically enjoy rap but I can’t deny that their latest single is a real banger!
“Tokyo Chewing Gum”
BURST GIRL or 爆裂女子 (“Explosive Girl”) is another recent alt-rock idol group that has some punk influences but with a light-hearted, somewhat comedic spin to it. I really love their video “GREAT FXXKING MY WORLD” and think they deserve more love!
“GREAT FXXKING MY WORLD”
NECRONOMIDOL is one of the most interesting idol groups out there. Their sound is described as darkwave, something of a mix between synthwave, black metal, and shoegaze with Lovecraftian horror theming. They’re also managed by an American, Ricky Wilson, who does a lot of outreach to foreign fans. As a bonus, their collaboration with m7kenji ,“SKULLS IN THE STARS”, is a fantastic production that frames the whole video like an NES/Famicom game!
“SKULLS IN THE STARS” (m7kenji x NECRONOMIDOL)
WRAPPING THINGS UP – THE END
What makes a lot of these groups all the more exciting is that they’re current! I hope you found a new favorite! Please let me know your favorite groups/songs in the comments below!
Special thanks to Ethan Fox and Randal Tam for introducing me to the scene through their Brand-new idol SHenanigans panels at AnimeNEXT!