It may not be immediately clear, but the difference between Keyakizaka46 and a slightly older J-pop group such as AKB48 is significant. The similarities, though, can obscure it; both feature dozens and dozens of young women performing generally up-tempo numbers, long-time music figure Akimoto Yasushi produces both, and they have similar types of uniforms.
Yet the shift from AKB to Keyakizaka becomes clear while listening to the latter’s first album, Masshirona Mono Wa Yogoshitaku Naru. If, as Yasushi has said, AKB48 is him writing music and lyrics about the teenage experience but not directed towards teenagers, Keyakizaka46 focuses on the teenage experience but speaks directly to that audience.
It’s all laid out in the group’s debut single and the album’s first proper song, “Silent Majority.” Other biggie-sized girl groups such as AKB48 or its various spin-off units have often touched on socially conscious issues, such as teen depression, but Keyakizaka turn directly to adolescents rather than paint in broad strokes. Over a brisk guitar line, the group sings about the importance of avoiding the flock and being yourself, regardless of what the adults around you say. The key difference is the constant use of “you” and tapping into the classic teenage feeling of feel held back by the world older people have built, as well as the group urging listeners to not give up on their dreams, even if they have to face loneliness. They even weave in some political commentary about politicians lying.
And so it goes across Keyakizaka’s debut album’s 15 songs (bonus editions feature a lot of extra songs, but this review is focusing on the standard release). It’s a strategic move; the AKB’s of the world achieved mass popularity partially because of their ability to bring in older male fans. Keyakizaka46 is at least trying to directly to appeal to actual teenagers, and it’s working at least in some ways; the group has experienced more success on youth-centric social media sites than AKB, with popular Japanese “influencers” dancing to their songs. Taken in the greater context of idol music, Masshirona marks a clever demographic shift from the nation’s dominant faction.
Having said all that, plenty of elements also don’t change. Yasushi’s lyrics remain mostly vague, even when indulging in teen angst (the “let’s smash the system!” gallop of “Fukyouwaon”) or youthful optimism (the forget pessimistic adults, embrace love sing-speak of “Sekai Ni Wa Ai Shika Nai”). Love remains a constant topic, even if the words mostly avoid the cliche happily-ever-afters found in most idol repertoires instead of a more realistic take on teen dating. Still, this just offers up a new set of familiar tropes to touch on, and are often the least interesting lyrics to parse here.
Lyrics aside, the music offers up some of the more interesting ideas to come from a Yasushi-related group in quite some time. Beyond the advance singles, the best moments feature ample amounts of silence to underline the drama within (“Te Wo Tsunaide Kaerou Ka”), right down to spoken word passages (“Sekai Ni Wa Ai Shika Nai”). This isn’t a paradigm shift sonically for idol music, but mostly bounces along nicely, featuring ear-worm-worthy hooks you don’t mind getting stuck in your head.
Masshirona successfully establishes Keyakizaka46’s mission statement, and as far as mainstream Japanese idol music goes, it’s one of 2017’s stronger offerings. Still, it’s often tough to get on board with their speaking-to-the-teens approach knowing the person behind the screen is an almost-60-year-old man. Lyrics about rejecting the world of adults and blazing your own path forward read great when dropped onto a Facebook status, but these lose a bit of luster upon knowing that it all comes from an adult adjusting his demographic targets (and still using similar sales techniques to inflate the numbers). The music is worth checking out, but don’t let the message pass without some questioning.
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