Minami Minegishi was in tears. After being caught spending the night at Generations boy-band member Alan Shirahama, the J-pop idol lost her place in AKB48‘s Team B and was demoted to ‘trainee’. Shortly afterwards she appeared on YouTube, her head shaved, begging the fans for forgiveness.
The media couldn’t be happier. "It’s perfect", an industry source told CNN. "It’s an endless source of fodder to fill magazines and now they have one that went all Britney".
Marketed as "idols you can meet everyday", the Japanese girl-group AKB48 has strict rules about dating. As fellow AKB48 member Yuki Kashiwagi says "idols should always put their fans first and think about what they can do to please them." And according to Ian Martin that’s the problem :
The central problem of groups such as AKB48 is the defence that by dating, idols are ruining fans’ fantasies. This is key to understanding not just AKB48 and their sister groups, but pretty much all idol culture. The groups are not just selling music, they are selling a fantasy narrative. It’s one that everyone knows is fake, which is why it is imperative that fans’ suspension of disbelief be maintained at all costs — with severe punishments for those who step out of line.
So what does this have to do with politics? Ask yourself why Tony Blair waited until he left office to announce his conversion to Catholicism. According to Yair Rosenberg "Blair never told the whole truth to the electorate about his personal convictions — for reasons of political expediency." In secular Britain, Blair’s Catholicism was his ‘boyfriend’ issue.
Blair’s 1997 campaign style was modeled on Bill Clinton’s. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, explained, America’s "politicians had effectively drained Presidential campaigns of substance, replacing ideology with biography and principles with focus groups."
Part of Clinton’s appeal was a sense that he really did share our dreams and feel our pain. The 1992 campaign’s ‘Man from Hope‘ ad didn’t lay out a policy agenda, it invited viewers to form an emotional bond with the candidate by showing how his life embodied their deepest beliefs and values.
When Japan was hit by an earthquake and tsunami AKB48 shared their concern with fans and urged them to donate to a relief fund. According to academics Patrick Galbraith and Jason Karlin, pop idols avoid divisive messages. Their passions are for the same things we all care about — sick and injured children and those who suffer through no fault of their own.
Like AKB48, today’s political leaders strive to be "idols you can meet everyday". In worksites and shopping malls they meet and talk with people just like us. They wade through flood waters and appear on tv comforting the victims of fires and cyclones. Sometimes they join us for breakfast on morning television where they chat with the hosts the way we chat with our friends and family.
Unlike pop idols, leaders are expected to be strong and decisive. If we fantasise about being rescued from the squeeze of an ever rising cost of living or protected from waves of illegal immigrants, our leaders must acknowledge our fears and promise to keep us safe. If we complain that rorters and bludgers are taking advantage of us, they must convince us that they are on our side.
In America Ronald Reagan has become the mythical hero who revived the economy, restored hope, and saved the world from communism. But, for his conservative fans, preserving the fantasy means suspending disbelief. Reagan didn’t reduce the size of government, he ran huge deficits and oversaw tax increases that took back much of what he gave in cuts to income tax.
In 2008 John McCain’s backers hoped to use his past as a war hero to promote him as a strong leader. But they were frustrated to find both the old and new media in love with Barack Obama. The telegenic candidate was a favourite of Oprah Winfrey. And on social media one of the biggest YouTube videos of the campaign was ‘Crush on Obama‘ with Amber Lee Ettinger.
The McCain campaign hit back with an ad claiming that Obama was "the biggest celebrity in the world" complete with mocking images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Then they picked Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate.
Celebrity and politics is a volatile mix. Once the candidate’s personality and life history becomes the product almost everything they do and say is open to media scrutiny. Watching the pop idol’s video, I couldn’t help thinking about Bill Clinton’s apology for misleading the public about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Unlike Miss Minegishi he kept both his job and his hair. But he too had surrendered his private life to the public when he took the job.
Media commentators tried to pretend that the real story was the deception. But everyone knew what the audience wanted.
If Minami Minegishi’s apology reveals the fantasies of AKB48’s fans, what do the campaign ads, media stunts and apologies of politicians reveal about our fantasies? What impossible narratives do they help us consume?