AKB48 is an all-girl idol group from Japan that has, with no lack of controversy, impacted the entertainment scene ever since its inception in 2005. To date, the group has more than a hundred members divided into four main teams, with regular shows at its main theatre in Akihabara, an area in Tokyo popularly known for its ‘geek’ or otaku subculture. In an interview with CNN, producer and creator Yasushi Akimoto said the key factor for the group’s popularity is its accessibility. Fans not only participate in meet-and-greet sessions during the live shows, but are also given the opportunity to select the line-up for the next single during the group’s annual elections. With every purchase of the group’s latest single, buyers are entitled to a ticket allowing them to register a single vote for the member of their choice.
Strategic marketing and democratic spectacles aside, the group has been criticised for its suggestive song lyrics and infantilised sexuality, but these have neither obstructed their commercial success, nor prevented Akimoto from spinning off sister groups in other areas of Japan and even Indonesia. Along with official merchandise stores, comic books and an animated series, the branding of AKB48 is as much a fan-driven enterprise as it is a talent showcase.
Fandom in the pop idol industry is certainly not a novel phenomenon, but its democratic impulse continues to be a matter of considerable debate. There is firstly, the ominous vision, which posits that the apparatuses of these images are essentially insidious. If one adopts a Marxist formula, the pop idol is not simply an object of pleasure, but also a ‘freedom from thought and from negation’ a distraction that alienates one from his or her political function. Critical reflection is negated in favour of passive consumption, even as art and popular culture ‘are subordinated to one end and subsumed under one false formula: the totality of the culture industry’. Hence, there is nothing innovative or empowering about AKB48’s elections; the transformation from consumer to voter is merely complicit with the logic of commodification. The system persists, while the consuming fans remain subjected to it.