Old idol tactics hold them back, but this group shows flashes of potential.
10 Apr 2017 - 3:52 PM  UPDATED 10 Apr 2017 - 3:52 PM

The state of idol music in Japan has changed drastically over the last five years. The decade started with an “idol boom,” brought on by biggie-sized outfit AKB48, prompting every label on the island to create new groups full of young women, and for every possible sub-culture and style to get its own representative idols (hey BABYMETAL). For a while, J-Pop was completely dominated by idols.

Yet that’s changed pretty radically. Now, only a few heavyweights from the boom years remain, new units mostly operating in the underground while other success stories have distanced themselves from the idol tag to maintain continued relevance (hey BABYMETAL). It started with AKB48, and it now pretty much revolves around them and the expanded universe of groups they’ve ushered into the world. Lately, the most visible has been Keyakizaka46, the official sister group of Nogizaka46. Forget the complicated ties, Keyakizaka46 have become highly visible in the J-Pop scene and have received attention from non-hardcore fans, and only some of it for controversial clothing choices.

New single “Fukyouwaon” and the “special edition” format it arrives on (for all purposes, it’s an EP) highlights why Keyakizaka46 are poised to be the new standard bearers for idol music to mainstream listeners, along with all the pitfalls that come with it. The spotlight song is their highlight, a galloping number featuring synthesiser stabs and splashes of Spanish-tinged guitar building up to a chorus where a dozen-plus voices singing together at once actually works rather than repels. Idol songs, especially at the AKB level, don’t need to be subtle, hardcore fans will buy whatever they put out, so simple and familiar usually wins out. Yet “Fukyouwaon” is filled with great details, from channel-skipping vocals to something resembling an EDM breakdown. It makes for a single revealing new elements every listen, and one of the strongest numbers to come out of the AKB universe in recent times.

The rest of the release, though, is far less memorable. Keyakizaka46 are still an idol group, and that means most of the b-sides rounding out this release are more like collectables, different numbers appearing on different physical editions for maximum sales power. Yet a “special edition” still exists gathering them all (and it is the spotlighted version on streaming services). W-KEYAKIZAKA No Uta is a charming bit of marching pop, but more stripped down efforts on “Hohoemi ga Kanashii” and “Tuning” lack charm. “Wareta Smartphone” teases electro, but soon transforms into cheesy pop. “Eccentric” comes close to catching the charm of the single, thanks to elegant instrumentation and rapped verses.

The moments Keyakizaka46 carve out something entirely their own is when they stand out. Simply being idols isn’t enough to earn mainstream looks in Japan anymore, so here’s hoping they zoom in on the fresh ideas  “Fukyouwaon” presents.

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