I did not follow AKB48 in real time until just after Ono Erena graduated, but during my survey of AKB48's older music about a year and a half ago, I heard her solo, "FIRST LOVE," and was interested in finding out more about her. Though it was processed to the point where Ono herself did not and could never sing it live, it was a great song. It was very well arranged, it showcased Ono's cute voice without emphasizing her flaws, and it was wonderfully free from the headache-inducing one-TWO one-FUCKING TWO cut-time percussion rhythms which seem to be the hallmark of most ---48 songs. (Taku Takahashi, I feel your pain, buddy.)
From what I have seen, it isn't hard to see why Erena was popular for the most part, especially among overseas fans. She was quite cute, very photogenic and had great onstage energy. But like most of the ---48 girls, she didn't have much to offer in terms of real talent, which is one major reason keeping up with the 48ses remains a huge headache for me beyond the very popular members.
There are a lot of great personalities in the 48s, but very few of them actually had/have that spark onstage, including Ono. Love them though we may, anyone with even a passing interest in the 48 empire must admit that the 48s Do Not exist to create honest to god musicians or dancers, and we are fools to wish they did. They, like almost all idol groups, exist for four major purposes:
1) To prepare young women for a career in performance.
This is one of the things I actually really love about the Japanese idol industry specifically. Idols in Japan, unlike those in Korea, are works in progress. They are far from polished. This is an industry in which literally anyone who really wants to can succeed.
It is often true that the most popular idols are the most conventionally beautiful (Michishige Sayumi, Yajima Maimi, Kojima Haruna, Yokoyama Yui), whether they have musical/physical talent or not.
However, there are tons of examples of this convention being broken. Suzuki Airi was a very awkward kid when she first debuted, but she grew up to be an imperfect beauty with incredible charisma. Nakanishi Yuuka is not very feminine looking at ALL, but she ranked in the senbatsu elections this year because fans saw her charms. (FYI, she is also my SKE oshi, so that was not in any way a bash). And although she is more cute and cheeky-looking than fall-on-your-oshiri stunning, Oshima Yuko reigns supreme in the idol world right now.
In Korea, the most attractive girls (AND boys) with hints of talent are picked at a young age to train. Those who have a good deal of talent but are not perfect-looking are "fixed" with surgery, something no one can deny with any credibility (e.g. Tiffany from SNSD). So, while we get very professional, polished idols out of the K-pop industry who are always a pleasure to watch because of their mad, mad skills on stage, not just anyone can have that chance. I love K-pop, but this has always and will continue to bother me.
It is so fun to watch idols grow up, get better, then fly away into the big, big world of performance on their own. I love it.
2) To promote the creation of the perfect Japanese woman (read: wife, mother and home-keeper);
Have you ever seen an image DVD that doesn't focus on showing the girls in a very personal way (by our standards)? While it is really fun to get to know our idols like this, image DVDs serve a fairly unhealthy, non-progressive purpose in some men's fantasy lives. Yes, men specifically.
I myself own quite a few image DVDs for 3 reasons: I find it fascinating to get a glimpse of the girl behind the camera, i like getting to know cultures outside my own, and chiefly, to support my favorite girls. However, I am not in the target audience. For better or worse, the target audience is young, single men just starting out their careers. At this stage in life, Japanese people are traditionally expected to find a wife and leave their parents' homes.
Traditionally-minded men are going to be looking for wives, and thus be judging the worth of young women in the idol industry for their wifely qualities. Unfortunately, traditionally-minded older women are also going to be doing this. (Remember that talk show in 2009 where people went out and asked older women which Morning Musume member would make the worst daughter-in-law? I can tell you right now that they weren't looking for smart young women with brains, ideas and successful careers)
Thankfully, this is changing slowly. This is not healthy, and I would bet money that most idols are losing sleep over this kind of judgment. This is not how modern idols should be made. Is it bad for young women to enjoy things like cooking and cleaning? Of course not. I very much enjoy these things myself (except for the cat box--that's his job, dammit). However, I do not want my worth as a person to be based solely on like qualities. And I'm sure many idols don't either; but fuck if they're allowed to express that.
3) To promote ideal Japanese beauty.
As I mentioned before, the idol industry shows a great deal of acceptance and diversity when it comes to looks. Literally anyone can be an idol if they really want to. But the ones that get the most attention are the ones with the roundest eyes, the best bikini silhouettes, the longest, silkiest hair. Erena did not herself fit all of these ideals, and while she was still very desirable for photos, she remained in that nebulous non-media senbatsu region that always seems to connote "popular, but not quite money."
Calling the idol industry a public eugenics exercise is a bit extreme, but in some subtle ways, the statement is completely true. Aaaaaaaand writing that sentence wigged me out a bit. Yuk.
4) To make old, disenfranchised men in fancy suits tons upon TONS of money. For that gold-plated naked time room.
Seriously, "Flying Get?" Well, at least Aki-P and co. were willing to out and out admit their capitalist pig-doggery with that one. He, like Tsunku and friends, Nakata Yasutaka, and others, are pretty good at working out formulas. They have staked out the best sidewalks, decorated their lemonade stands with pretty pretty colors, and put just enough crack in their mix to keep their customers coming back for more.
The idol industry is half entertainment, half money. And most of that money goes not to the performers, but to the male CEOs, the Bobs, et al. It's whack, guys.
Japanese society, like many other developed societies, is experiencing an identity crisis. For millenia, men ran the whole show, from the lights, to the cameras, to the action. Now that women have been in on the whole living life to the fullest and finding success thing for a brief spell, it's taken some people some time to adjust. For the most part, there has been no difficulty in adjusting beyond wage gaps and women paying far more money for clothing. But somehow, it's still okay to shamelessly profit from a gaggle of giggly girls. (Girls Gone Wild, anyone?)
Again, I love what idols do and the performances they put out. But I believe that the dollar signs in certain people's eyes has contributed a great deal to the 48s' (and the industry on the whole) decline in quality releases. No longer do we see edgy, topical releases with great melodies like "Seifuku ga Jama wo Suru" or even genuine fun celebratory releases like "Namida Surprise." No, those went for quality over quantity. Instead, we get utter and complete shit like Gingham Check and Give Me Five, knowing that people don't buy it for the song, they buy it for the chance to be the only one in their oshi's eyes for a second.
Given the downward trend (fiery death spiral of death?) of the 48 releases, it's a good thing Ono jumped ship when she did, though there was no guarantee that she could find success. I want to think that part of the reason she graduated was that she was fed up with the system. But I have no right to place thoughts in her head. All I know, all we know, is that she studied abroad, came home, and gave herself a new vision:
"About her hiatus, Ono commented, 'I could have gone wrong without this one year (of hiatus). It was the important time for me to reconsider about myself. Now, people say that my way of thinking got more mature.' She continued, 'I would like to think positively about what I can do now, and would like to run my way at full speed if there is a fan who demands me.'" source
Like most 48 fans, I too thought she was lost to the ages until she came out of bum fuck nowhere and released Erepyon this year. I gave it a listen for the funsies, and I was, oddly, pleasantly impressed. It was an incredibly fun idol release with great musical quality--not a common thing in the idol world for those two to come together so well.
But I was even more impressed that Erena herself wrote the lyrics.
Ono Erena came back to the music industry with talent, polish and creative control, which is not something very many former idol group members can say. The thing that impresses me most is not that Ono is now a lyricist, per se, but that she is choosing to stay within the cutesy idol genre while writing her own lyrics. She clearly loves the fun style and the feminine theatricality the idol style offers, and it's great that she kept to what she knows for that reason. It's mind-boggling, but in a really refreshing way.
I was even more impressed when I caught the short PV preview of her latest, "Erenyan," to be released on 10/3. It is rumored to be a remake of a Vocaloid song. The concept is really fun--there are two Erenas, they have musical arguments in a bar, cat-eared hilarity ensues. But what is really remarkable about this is the way she switches characters. She uses two voices for this, one very cutesy and typical idol, and one with a really sultry jazzy quality. Though she is rocking the danso, her deeper voice shows a depth that she simply did not have as a 48 idol. I hope she shows more of this depth in the future. The girl has gotten some serious skills, and for this reason, I am 150% interested in following her from here on out.
Ono Erena embodies a new kind of idol, a modern idol. She has embraced creative control, though she still loves the musical style that shaped her as a performer and, to a degree, as a person. The modern idol is not only a product, but an innovator, a creative process. She is still a very new creature, but like all newly discovered creatures, I have faith that she will evolve, adapt, and spread her wisdom to others.
Check out the short "Erenyan" PV below.