Parody of the Idols: ‘Pop’ Democracy and AKB48


Some of the members of AK48B

by Joel Gn

AKB48 is an all-girl idol group from Japan that has, with no lack of controversy, impacted the entertainment scene ever since its inception in 2005. To date, the group has more than a hundred members divided into four main teams, with regular shows at its main theatre in Akihabara, an area in Tokyo popularly known for its ‘geek’ or otaku subculture. In an interview with CNN, producer and creator Yasushi Akimoto said the key factor for the group’s popularity is its accessibility. Fans not only participate in meet-and-greet sessions during the live shows, but are also given the opportunity to select the line-up for the next single during the group’s annual elections. With every purchase of the group’s latest single, buyers are entitled to a ticket allowing them to register a single vote for the member of their choice.

Strategic marketing and democratic spectacles aside, the group has been criticised for its suggestive song lyrics and infantilised sexuality, but these have neither obstructed their commercial success, nor prevented Akimoto from spinning off sister groups in other areas of Japan and even Indonesia. Along with official merchandise stores, comic books and an animated series, the branding of AKB48 is as much a fan-driven enterprise as it is a talent showcase.

Fandom in the pop idol industry is certainly not a novel phenomenon, but its democratic impulse continues to be a matter of considerable debate. There is firstly, the ominous vision, which posits that the apparatuses of these images are essentially insidious. If one adopts a Marxist formula, the pop idol is not simply an object of pleasure, but also a ‘freedom from thought and from negation’ a distraction that alienates one from his or her political function. Critical reflection is negated in favour of passive consumption, even as art and popular culture ‘are subordinated to one end and subsumed under one false formula: the totality of the culture industry’. Hence, there is nothing innovative or empowering about AKB48’s elections; the transformation from consumer to voter is merely complicit with the logic of commodification. The system persists, while the consuming fans remain subjected to it.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is an attempt to reconcile ‘hefty emotional investment’ with a ‘civic subjectivity that is based on knowledge, rationality, detachment, learnedness or leadership’ (van Zoonen, 47). If the personal is indeed political, the application of cold rationality would only culminate in universal disinterest, since there is no intrinsic motivation, or affectation compelling one to act. As commentators such as Max Weber would observe, the fervour of political activism, insofar as emotional investment is concerned, hardly differs from the fanaticism towards a celebrity. Within this framework, feelings prove to be pertinent because they produce the required frame of mind that ‘enables the acquisition of information, the analysis of the situation, the assessment of alternatives and development of new routines’ (48). Simply put, emotions can be exploited for certain ends, but this exploitation occurs only because emotions are necessary for both individual and collective participation.

Oddly enough, the lack of a resolution to the tension between democracy and control also opens up a space to consider the relationship between idolatry (i.e. the worship of idols) and contemporary culture, for isn’t the veneration and adoration of an idol only possible in the presence of the masses? Indeed, it would be quite absurd for producers to promote an idol no one demanded for. And that demand—or to use more religious terms, ‘call to worship’—would in turn culminate in the incarnation of information, in order that there may be something tangible for everyone to experience.

Akimoto is acutely aware of this. Not only are the girls of AKB48 transformed into animated characters, but one of the members, Aimi Eguchi, is herself an artificial human, having been synthesized for the screen by combining the visual features of the other members. If technology is the poiēsis, or bringing forth of the object, it also brings forth the reality that the gods themselves neither reside in nor rule from the heavens. Rather, they have to be crafted, repeated and disseminated. This is the Promethean ritual of the object. To be worshipped, the gods must be a part of us. The contemporary spectacle of AKB48 is therefore both proof and parody of this incarnation.

Aimi Eguchi

This fabrication of the object also sheds light on the tumultuous relationship between monotheism and idolatry. The deity, as described in the Judeo-Christian narrative, is first revealed to the people in the singular – God is One, there is no other. Accompanied with this strident call to worship is the renunciation of all images in place of this one true God. This poiēsis is thus declared to be false, but if God is to be worshipped, but not objectified, where then is the object of one’s worship? We are subsequently confronted with the disappearance of God in the singularity of divinity. This is the curious case of monotheism, for it can only be validated through the experience of an image enacting the truth it seeks. And since there can be no worship without objectification, it follows that all worship is a form of idolatry, an expression of attachment or devotion to an object representing the Divine.

Polytheism on the contrary, does not face such a contradiction on its own terms, for it resides in a field of multiplicity. To re-phrase the argument: There is no One, and we are always among others. Anyone or anything for that matter can stand in, mediate and act on behalf of the other. There is no primordial being, for the gods themselves dwell among us. The pop idol exemplifies this point. By becoming an object, she gives herself up to representation, to the totality of the spectacle. In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin writes that ‘As individual instances of artistic production become emancipated from the context of religious ritual, opportunities for displaying the products increase’. Display value, or that which is repeated to be seen, to be consumed by all, effectively displaces cult value, or that which is set apart, exclusive and hidden from view. Is this not an illustration of the democratic impulse? For just as the ancient Hebrews, in their failure to behold Yahweh, clamoured for and brought forth a golden calf, so it is with the popular reception of AKB48 and their merchandise. Little wonder Plato in The Republic would consider democracy to be synonymous with excess, debauchery and of man belonging to the masses (see Derrida 145).

Herein lies the allure of the object, for it continues to beguile the subject into authenticating its desire, so that the subject, by virtue of its desire, can master and lay claim to the object. What is overlooked here is the destiny of the object. As taught by Jean Baudrillard, ‘the object is what has disappeared from the horizon of the subject, and it is from the depths of this disappearance that it envelopes the subject in its fatal strategy. It is the subject that then disappears from the horizon of the object’. An eventual absence of distinction and subjectivity. The idol fascinates, precisely because she has no substance or meaning to call her own. Instead, she has to be written, performed and repeated for the subject, only to have the latter collapse into objectification itself. Which is why the idol is self-objectification of the highest order—she is what we want and aspire to be. And it is not just one, but all of us who have succumbed to it in sheer democratic celebration.

The popular vote, as we would call it.

Works Cited:

Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer. “The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception.” Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum, 1993. 1-24. Print.

Baudrillard, Jean. Fatal Strategies. Trans. Philippe Beitchman and W G.J Niesluchowski. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2008. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Trans. J A Underwood. London: Penguin, 2008. Print.

Coren, Anna. “Japanese idol group AKB48 Yasushi Akimoto on CNN’s Talk Asia.” 12 January 2012. CNN Asia Pacific. Web. 19 July 2012.

Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy.” Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Trans. Babara Johnson. London: Athlone Press, 1981. 61-171. Print.

Diaz, Jesus. “Can you fall in love with this beautiful girl?” 23 June 2011. Gizmodo. Web. 19 July 2012.

St. Michel, Patrick and Daisuke Kikuchi. “AKB48 ‘election’ shows marketing brilliance.” 31 May 2012. The Japan Times Online. Web. 19 July 2012.

van Zoonen, Liesbet. “Imagining the fan democracy.” European Journal of Communication 19.1 (2004): 39-52. Print.

About the Author:

Joel Gn is a doctoral student at the Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore. His dissertation will critique the aesthetic of cuteness and its relationship to the configuration of desire within a technological space. Joel’s other research interests include Japanese popular culture, animation studies and critical theory.