What can J-pop tell us about politics?

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?

6 thoughts on “What can J-pop tell us about politics?

  1. Fantastic post Don. I guess most of us intuitively know that politics is being sucked into the vortex of media management, but it’s nice to see the contours of the thing expounded. It puts me in mind of a couple of points.

    1. Lindsay Tanner’s insistence in Sideshow that one of the iron laws of politics these days is “offend no-one”. Indeed, you even take this to the point of pretending to hop into some interest or sector but doing so with a nod and a wink so that no-one gets hurt (and often nothing gets done). I can think of the Government’s initiative to stimulate competition in banking. The one in which they proudly announced in their press release that they’d listened to all their advisors in producing this package. All their advisors. Good of them wasn’t it. Not the community, but their advisors. This is the same as the optimising pop-star who likes kittens and orphans but nothing too controversial.

    2. I’ve always been very suss on the cliché of the ‘It’s Time’ factor. I don’t think there is one. I think, to the contrary, that the longer a government stays in office the bigger advantage it has. Why? Because the more demoralised, deskilled and marginalised its opponents get. The higher the risk the electorate feels. By 1972 when the electorate elected the ALP, it was in real fear that they knew how to govern (not such a misplaced fear as it turned out, though they learned how to govern – by about six months before they got chucked out. When I was a kid I witnessed Menzies-Gorton, Askin, Bolte-Hamer, Playford, periods where terms of government could run into two decades or more. I still think that basic idea remains true. Yet these days it’s almost impossible to hang on for much more than a decade. How come? Part of it, I think is that if you go from one statement to another all of which are platitudinous, and without ruffling many feathers, you don’t say much and you don’t really stand for much. When interest rates are low you say how low they are and how great you are, but when they’re high you talk about something else. You relentlessly say things that seem to be good things for pretty much everyone. When you run into flak in the media about your school spending program, rather than admit there are problems and defend the program as good policy in the circumstances, you try to change the subject. And after you’ve done that for a while you’re pretty much ideological and (oh cruel irony) media blancmange. No-one really listens to you because they can somehow hear focus grouped memes coming at them (moving forward, stop the boats, stop the goats and stop the stoats.) And anyway by the time you’ve been in the public eye for more than a remarkably short period of time, you find yourself saying things that are strangely opposite to things you’ve said before. For Opposition leaders this is normally about two years – and with even good PMs it’s stretching things to last longer than five (though I’ll admit to some exceptions – namely Hawke and Howard who lasted around double this.) But I can’t think of too many Premiers in that position lately.

  2. Hi Don,

    The theme of politicians pandering to us is loud and clear here! Nice examples.

    Can you think of policies we would not have had without this for one can argue that we are just looking at the dress-code of politics?

  3. Can you think of policies we would not have had without this … ?

    According to Phillip Coorey, the Rudd Government’s Grocery Choice initiative “was a spin-off of Kevin Rudd’s pre-election empathy with voters over the cost of living.” It turned out to be unworkable.

    Recent US legislation that restricts where welfare recipients can use their Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards is another example.

    Legislators know that the new laws will not prevent people spending welfare on alcohol, gambling, or strip shows but have passed them to show they share the values of voters.

    In the US state governments use EBT cards for SNAP (food stamps) and for cash benefits like TANF (paid mostly to single mothers). Recipients can withdraw cash benefits from ATMs or use the EBT card in stores.

    Media outrage about welfare recipients using EBT cards in strip clubs, casinos and liquor stores has prompted politicians to pass laws prohibiting the use of EBT cards at these locations.

    The federal Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 requires states to prevent “electronic benefit transaction access to TANF cash at liquor stores, casinos, and strip clubs”.

    These restrictions do not prevent recipients from using their EBT cards to withdraw cash from other ATM and spending the money wherever they like.

    Some state politicians have passed (or tried to pass) laws that will penalise recipients who spend welfare on prohibited items. However there’s no real way of enforcing these laws.

    As far as I can tell, the laws are mostly for show. They are part of a performance where the media stokes public outrage and politicians respond by taking action.

  4. In a sense this is a framework for explaining modern politics. I feel that one could explain nearly any recent policy choice in terms of political pandering to our perceived (perhaps real in aggregate?) psychological deficiencies.

    Although I like it a lot, I’m not entirely sure it is a complete or even nearly complete explanation for as much. I don’t know enough about it to be sure.

    Also, isn’t there a difference between the point about surrendering private life, and pandering? I get that they surrender their private life in part in order to pander, but isn’t the J-pop analogy illustrative of the fact that they surrender their private life in order to pander to the electorate in a particular way – by being something that the electorate (perhaps in aggregate??) feels a need for?

    Political pandering of the ‘hurt no-one’ type seems a bit different. Perhaps a bit cruder a form of it?

  5. I think we are the source of the fantasies and the pop stars and politicians adjust to reflect them back at us. Here’re a couple of examples of the fantasy world:

    1 despite it’s pointlessness, the carbon tax is a good idea (bonus points for thinking we’ve saved the barrier reef);

    2 we can just ignore the facts of our federation when discussing the RSPT and MRRT.

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