Society

Battle of the bands

Mimicking Japan and Korea, China’s record labels want homegrown ‘idol groups’

Flavour of the moment: 29 ‘idol group’ pop bands to debut this year

In the year 2000 an unassuming bank employee became a household name in much of Britain thanks to an advertising campaign launched by a mortgage lender. The campaign’s modus operandi was to take regular staff members and have them perform popular songs, with the lyrics rehashed to extol the benefits of the company’s services. Howard Brown – or simply Howard to his fans – was subsequently catapulted from a branch in Birmingham to instant stardom as the new face of the Halifax group.

This year, it appears China Southern Power Grid is planning something similar. The Guangzhou unit of the state-owned electricity provider unveiled its own in-house girl band this month – dubbed the Power Girls – via a music-video-cum-advertisement that’s designed to “help people better understand the work that the power company does”, Guangzhou Daily reports. The Power Girl’s debut single was appropriately called Ablaze with Lights and the band won’t want for energy-related titles for future tracks (if all else fails WiC suggests they could always turn Blowin’ in the Wind into a song about turbines).

That said, this high-energy girl band may struggle to retain the limelight this year thanks to a surge of new entrants in China’s pop scene.

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According to the CEO of Wanga Media, a Beijing-based online gaming company, there are 29 “idol groups” slated for release this year. The concept of an “idol group” is taken from Akimoto Yasushi, creator of Japanese girl band AKB48 – the highest-selling musical band in Japan in terms of singles sold. His vision was to create a group that focused as much attention on direct interaction with the band’s fan base as on their actual performances. Following the tagline of “idols you can meet”, AKB48 perform daily in their very own concert arena and attend regular meet-and-greets with fans. In fact, although the band nominally has 48 members, there are various sub-groups, allowing for incarnations of AKB48 to be available in two places at once.

AKB48 has already spawned a Chinese sister group called SNH48 which debuted in 2013. The group copied many of the practices established by its Japanese forerunner, including elections (enabling fans to vote for their favourite members and advance them up the group’s singing hierarchy).

Of course, a heightened emphasis placed on fan interaction dovetails with a broader commercial agenda. That is evident too in the strategy behind a new girl group scheduled for ‘stardom’ this year. Going by the name Astro12 you might simply assume the band has 12 members. However, the group’s manager only unveiled 11 singers in the beginning (albeit each with different star signs). This aroused a lot of attention across social media, as internet users wondered who the twelfth star sign might be.

It turned out the missing Virgo was the band’s business partner, a weibo celebrity known as Uncle’s Friends, who is thought to be a young man with more than 10 million followers on Sina Weibo. This Tsinghua University graduate creates cartoon strips based on horoscopes and operates a company in Shenzhen that produces affiliated merchandise. CBN reports that through the partnership with Astro12, the two parties plan to produce a variety of zodiac inspired items involving the new girl band.

Some of this year’s new stars don’t even need to look good. One example is Sunshine, a band of five female high school classmates. Although Sunshine doesn’t come with any marketing hook, netizens have found one to attach to the unfortunate starlets: simply that they’re anything but photogenic.

According to Setn.com, Sunshine’s instant ‘popularity’ is a symptom of a generational trend where the uglier something is the more likely it is to become popular.

Not everyone was happy about this online. “The more we insult them, the more popular they become,” complained one netizen, while another asked: “Have you listened to their songs? They are not just ugly, but they also sing terribly too!”

Meanwhile, a doctoral student at Peking University’s Chinese department has suggested to CBN that Sunshine’s ascent is also a reflection of the younger generation’s dream of ‘instant fame’. “Thanks to the proliferation of reality TV shows, ‘dream’ has become a buzzword, and the mass media seems to have simplified the process of achieving one’s dream,” the student says.

Yu Bapo, a popular blogger whom People’s Daily credits with breaking the news of Sunshine’s arrival on the music scene, offers support for this assessment, telling the paper that her inbox is full of messages from young people asking her to help make them famous. (Social media in China has produced some unlikely celebrities over the years: longtime readers will recall Zhang Zetian, who became an overnight sensation – and later married a billionaire – after a photo of her in school uniform holding a cup of milk tea went viral, see WiC231.)

Sunshine may currently be enjoying the fifteen minutes of fame that Andy Warhol once promised the world. Will the futures of the 29 other new bands due to debut this year prove equally limited? Or will one of the producers hit the jackpot and give China its equivalent of South Korea’s Girls’ Generation? Formed in 2009 the eight-girl group has proven popular across Asia and especially in China.

In fact, one member of Girls’ Generation has even made the crossover into Chinese TV drama. This month Yoona, a Girls’ Generation singer, appeared in a lead role in God of War, Zhao Yun, a 60-episode series. The show has received 2.35 billion views on Chinese video streaming sites since its debut on April 3, with the Korea Herald putting much of its success down to the popularity of Yoona in China.


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