Why AKB48's Virtual Star, Aimi Eguchi, Won't Cross Over From Japan To America
Anyone who has only recently recovered from Kanye West's decision to use autotune on 808s and Heartbreak will not be fond of the latest strange innovation to come from Japan, a country that has built its international reputation on strange innovations. After a series of virtual pop starlets whose unreality was just part of the appeal (most recently Hatsune Miku, who sounds like a MIDI keyboard and serves mostly to illustrate how physiologically impossible anime characters look when they're standing in front of you) AKB48, the biggest girl group in the country, briefly managed to pass one off as a real girl. After weeks of speculation the group confirmed that Aimi Eguchi -- here's a fascinatingly conflicted forum topic filled with American fans reacting to her hasty introduction into the group and the subsequent rumors -- was not a real person at all but a computer-generated combination of several other members designed for a candy commercial.
Fans of Japanese girl groups study photos more carefully than the people on primetime TV who yell "Enhance! Enhance!" at the other people on primetime TV, so if they were fooled it could happen to any of us. But probably not in America.
America's star culture has accepted fakes before--even comic-book fakes, which is why it's so strange to see a Japanese cartoon band, Ho-Kago Tea Time, held up in several articles about Eguchi as evidence of Japan's taste for the stuff.
But AKB48 is, itself, a distinctly Japanese phenomenon, not just musically but in terms of its makeup as a group. Its infamously devoted fanbase has reams of statistics -- of measurements, of cute anecdotes and likes and dislikes and pet peeves -- and a member of the group can move up in the pop-idol world based not only on how well she photographs but on how well those random bits of information resonate with her fanbase. Putting together a girl from discrete parts is what AKB48 otaku do already; they're like baseball fans who derive the same joy from the act of watching Albert Pujols hit a home run and the act of marking that run down on their scorecard.
But I can't see American pop fans getting the same thrill they do out of what amounts to the back of the baseball card. American popular culture is more about the rising and falling action of scandal and celebrity than any particular idol's height, weight and blood type; not being real is only scandal enough to get you on Perez Hilton once before things get tired. If you want to be famous in America, take it from Milli Vanilli or Ashlee Simpson: We're more likely to remember your name if you're a real person doing something scandalous than if you're the computer-generated result of somebody else's scandal.
Which might be one way for the next Aimi Eguchi to be Virtual-American, after all; if Christina Aguilera were to announce next week that she had herself created a fictional pop star who'd already recorded several hit records, that would be scandal enough to get both of them on Gawker in the morning. I won't be surprised by the whole thing, though; Cee Lo Green never did look like a real person to me.