The following is a translation of Takumi Abe’s article (【知りたい】モーニング娘。は「3つの時代」をこのように闘いながらアイドルの新たな道を切り開いてきた) that originally appeared on Rockin’on, the companion site for ROCK IN JAPAN FESTIVAL, on July 22nd, 2019.
(I wanna know!) Morning Musume paved a new path for idols by fighting through “3 eras”
At last year’s ROCK IN JAPAN FESTIVAL 2018, Morning Musume surprised attendees at the LAKE STAGE with singing and dancing to all 11 songs in their set, taking virtually no breaks at all. Juxtaposing their flashy looks and highly stoic staging, you’d want to call them “un-idol-like.” On the other hand, they’re like all other idols in the way they perform with a smile and make their fans happy in any way they can. Seeing how Morning Musume can possess both orthodox and unorthodox qualities at the same time, they’ve always increased the possibilities for idols at the frontline by making progress in their own obvious ways [or ‘by making it obvious as they moved forward’]. In this article, we’ll take a look back at their 21-year history and how they created new paths for idols.
To expose reality and create a new mold for idols: The Golden Era
Morning Musume’s long history started when five girls who lost one of TV Tokyo’s ASAYAN auditions: Sharan Q Rock Vocalist Audition. To debut, the girls had to sell 50,000 copies of their indies single “Ai no tane” in 5 days by hand; television cameras followed the girls, unsure about their future, and showed them working extremely hard behind the scenes. Although this type of reality television isn’t rare now, the belief that “stars are stars” was still rampant at the time, so to show regular girls (who aren’t refined) on national TV become stars was quite a provocative choice.
((Ai no tane PV))
However, both the lack of dislike of their unrefinedness and falling in love with them process by process fit the demands of TV viewers perfectly at the time. [For example] LOVE Machine, with its comical and earnest, yet slightly lame easy-to-copy dance became their first million hit seller, and was sung/danced to at parties/receptions all over Japan. In addition, the original shocking, negative news of a member’s graduation became set content with auditions/new member additions: this graduation/new member concept became indispensable to the growth of the remaining members, and became the group’s drawing point with the drama that surrounded the process. This led to graduations/auditions becoming the norm. While a large number of currently active groups follow the norm of having graduations/auditions, no one at the time had that system. Fans call this period up until 2003 when they were able to have high television ratings and become popular enough to be called “national icons” as their “Golden Era,” but what that Golden Era actually did was succeed in establishing a new system for idols.
Promoting “Idols = Quality”: The Platinum Era
Although Morning Musume’s output during The Golden Era was able to perfectly fit the needs of the times and create a social phenomenon, there were various factors which led to their activities finally hitting the ground in the late ’00s: their Golden Era members graduating, appearing on TV less, and the changing ways people consumed and found music. From April 2007 to January 2011, Morning Musume didn’t add members for four years. They were the very ones who founded the concept of showing themselves changing/growing whether or not they wanted to, so you could effectively call this long period of stability as “betrayal.” However, even during this period, Morning Musume ended up revising the general concept of what an idol is. If you were to hear “idol,” your first thought became an overwhelmingly high quality performance–something completely different from what “idol” had been associated with.
((Resonant Blue PV))
This was the result of the group focusing their efforts on improving their performances under the leadership of Takahashi Ai, showcasing their best selves to the fans who made their way to Morning Musume’s annual Spring/Autumn tours, even if they weren’t in the media as much or getting attention from the general public. Even if it looked like they lost the dynamism of changing at once, they were evolving individually on the inside while keeping their outward appearances.
((Naichau kamo PV))
Fans would later call the period when Takahashi took the leadership role in June 2007 to the time the 9th generation came on board in January 2011 “The Platinum Era,” which came from their March 2009 album “Platinum 9 DISC.” The name came from the need of “assigning” a name to that period, which to both fans and the Morning Musume to follow was a *very* important period. Each member’s raised awareness and steadfast effort, their promotion of their concerts as their main activity for their fans to watch directly, and the anchoring of Morning Musume’s longest serving members became an ever-rising force in their maturity as performers. With all these qualities combined, their performances on stage were such high quality that the “Platinum Era” Morning Musume expanded the realm of what an idol can be once again.
((Kimagure Princess PV))
The “Platinum Era” Morning Musume would later become the foundation of the current Morning Musume, some of whom applied for the auditions because they admired how cool this Morning Musume looked, and would see this as the example of the high quality they need to reach.
A Colorful Musical Experimentation that Connects Their Future while Expanding an Idol’s Possibilities
Even in Morning Musume’s history of always continuously improving themselves and changing what it means to be an idol, the changes in the period surrounding 2011 was especially dramatic. 2011 saw the addition of the 9th generation (Fukumura, Ikuta, Sayashi, Suzuki) and the 10th generation (Iikubo, Ishida, Sato, Kudo). Four of these are still active, and continue to support Morning Musume ’19 in various ways as well as pull them along (furthermore, 11th generation Oda Sakura would be added in September 2012). At the same time, leader-slash-ace Takahashi Ai, who long supported the Platinum Era Morning Musume would graduate, which in the end made you fully feel the passing of the torch from one generation to the next just in 2011.
((Only you PV))
Come 2012, Niigaki Risa (who supported the group for a long time with Takahashi) and Mitsui Aika (who suffered from a stress fracture which made continuing her activities with the group difficult) would graduate, leaving Michishige Sayumi and Tanaka Reina in a group of 10, most of whom not even 2 years in the group. Truthfully, this was a group of newbies. Their 50th single “One Two Three” went all out on the vocal effects and had EDM influences which was making waves in the general public at the time: this would become their reform after their steady “Platinum Era” and the start of a new era, and even now is a killer tune sung at their concerts.
((One Two Three PV))
After “One Two Three,” Morning Musume’s sound would continue on the EDM path, and they started to incorporate Formation Dances in their performances. When you think about an average idol dance, each member would stand in their place and do the same choreography in sync, but Morning Musume would change this image’s stronghold on the public.
((Wagamama ki no mama ai no JOKE PV))
This Formation Dance would become so ingrained as a part of Morning Musume that they don’t need to emphasize the fact that they are doing them [as much as they did when they first started]. Their sound also became varied off of the EDM genre and they started to marry it with a taste of kayoukyoku elements, always trying new flavors.
((Jiyuu na kuni dakara PV))
((Jinsei Blues PV))
Morning Musume broke new ground for idols as stated above, but in other ways in these 21 years they have elements that didn’t change: lyrics that are always meant for the current members to sing [topical lyrics] and always smiling on stage during their performances. With most of the girls within the range of 15-25 as the lineup changes, their lyrics’ feelings, words, and thoughts always remain appropriate for them to say it in their own voices and from their own mouths. If you listen to their works from all of their composers, with a lot of it from Tsunku, you can tell how important it was to them to pay attention to what they wrote for them.
The video I used earlier “Jiyuu na kuni dakara” is paired as a double A-side with the following “Furari Ginza,” but take a look at these lyrics:
Everything is about you
I want to know everything (about you)
As long as you’re there
I don’t need anything (x2)
Jiyuu na kuni dakara
I won’t let you restrain me
I’m my own person
I can’t always be here So
I can’t stay here
At first glance these are completely opposite feelings, which girls feel both within. You can see the reality that these two songs are paired together as a single, and you can feel the reality of having the current members sing those lyrics. No matter the era, the ability to continuously creating works that girls their age can respond to is something that defines Morning Musume, in addition to the group whose members always change.
((Furari Ginza PV))
Morning Musume may always revise what it means to be an idol, and also put rock musicians to shame with their performances sometimes, but the other thing that doesn’t change is always putting on their best performances on stage for the fans that came to see them and having them become happy. That feeling of making fans happy comes through on stage via their smiles.
It obviously has to be difficult no matter the training they undergo as pros to perform 11 songs continuously on the LAKE STAGE in the middle of the summer. Yet, Morning Musume ’18 was smiling from beginning to end. Why was that? Is it because they enjoy performing in front of a large audience? That must be a guarantee. However, we’re the real reason these girls can perform with a smile throughout during these rigorous performances. Because they want us to be happy and enjoy ourselves, no matter how hard it gets for them they’ll continue to smile during their performance.
((Egao no kimi wa taiyou sa PV))
While Morning Musume is revolutionary in the way they open up the possibilities for idols, the reason they’re able to stay full-fledged idols is because no matter how much they venture and try new things with their (musical/performance) expression, their reason to go on stage is to be “the definition of an idol.” They’re also able to pull their revolutions towards idols: they want to make the people in front of them happy, so they show their revolutionary performances on stage while performing with their best smiles as orthodox idols.
As a group that crosses the boundary of what an idol is, having them on the GRASS STAGE at the ROCK IN JAPAN FESTIVAL 2019 will be a wonderful challenge for them. Having Morning Musume, which was originally formed as a group of losers from a “Rock Vocalist Audition” perform at the largest domestic rock festival on the main stage will be deeply moving. For the current Morning Musume ’19 members, this will be an overwhelming number of people in the audience to make happy at once. These girls fully understand the seriousness and happiness of this moment. Holding on to those thoughts, they’ll for sure have another surprising show this year and expand the possibilities not only for Morning Musume, but for idols in general.
The article itself is quite effusive in its tone and uses the same vocabulary in multiple places—while it seems fine in Japanese, it starts to get repetitive in English, thus my changing the translations of certain words throughout the article.
However, reading the article back, it makes you realize there aren’t a lot of groups like this at all: those who can stay relevant with new material yet be able to continuously perform their back catalogue without much issue. Thus, the effusive tone makes sense, and I also hope the fact they’ll be on the GRASS STAGE at ROCK IN JAPAN (which can hold up to 60,000!) leads to new fans and opportunities for the current group. For comparison, the LAKE STAGE holds roughly 10,000.
*To avoid blatant copyright issues, I’ve decided not to link the PVs on YouTube. For those interested, please search “Morning Musume ((contents in double parentheses)).”