PINK LADY AND THE STORY BEHIND JAPANESE IDOL SINGERS
A posting on the Pink Lady Discussion page once by Todd Dissinger about Mari Iijima, an actress who did the voice of an idol singer on a popular anime series and then became one in real life got me to thinking about Mie and Kei and the important role they played in the history of Japanese pop music. During their heyday, Pink Lady helped define the genre known as idol singers; in some ways, and this is highly debatable, Mie and Kei WERE the genre, lock, stock and microphone stand, illustrating everything that was both positive, and negative about the entire business. Admittedly, I'm not an authority on idol singers, so if I'm incorrect on what I'm about to present, I warmly welcome anyone who knows more on the subject to correct me.
For anyone who's unfamiliar with the term, an idol singer is, quite literally, a product. A prepackaged pop star, mainly female in her late teens to early twenties who is discovered, nurtured and managed by a record label or a talent agency who might have two, three or more such individuals or groups under its collective umbrella, turning them out to the public with almost assembly line efficiency. (In a twist of irony, Kei bluntly called Pink Lady "a product" after the duo's 1981 break-up.) Said company controlled every single aspect of the idol singer's career, from the songs they sang, the costumes they wore to the stage act they employed, as was the case with Mie and Kei and the high energy dance routines that accompanied their hit songs.
As the idol singer becomes popular with fans, she rakes in incredible amounts of money gained from record sales, concerts and promotional appearances. However, the bulk of that money went into the coffers of the company that managed the singer while she got only a modest salary and a few perks that came with fame. Case in point: one of the promo ads on the Memorabilia page said that Pink Lady grossed a staggering 72 million dollars in record sales in little under three years. While taking into account the yen to dollar rate in 1979, if those numbers were even half true, then, according to what I've read about the idol singer business, Mie and Kei only got a tiny percentage of that gold mine while their bosses shamelessly pocketed the rest.
Exploitative? You bet your kimono it was! But, the sad part of it all is that Japan isn't alone in that sort of cold and unconscionable behavior. There's a prime example of that very travesty right under our noses here in the States. It's called the NCAA. To any dyed in the wool sports junkie like myself, you already know about the big name colleges and universities that practically print money from the enormous success of nationally famous football and/or basketball programs. These institutions literally wallow in riches while the often cash starved student-athletes (I call them athlete-students because that's what they are) they exploit can't so much as get a part-time job flipping burgers at McDonald's without running the risk of losing their scholarship.
Of course, the hypocritical rationale the NCAA bigwigs use to avoid allowing athlete-students to earn spare cash is that they're getting a college education free and clear and that they don't need to have jobs, or money for that matter. As any knowledgeable sports fan knows, that's so much bunk because schools don't want to be seen as paying kids to play sports. In the case of idol singers like Pink Lady, earning pennies while management bosses fattened their bank accounts, their ridiculous rationale is that the company provided for the singers' every need, such as health insurance, swanky dwellings and whatnot. Everything but their fare share of the profits that is. And why did these singers put up with that abuse? Because they were told to.
Back in the mid 70's through the early 80's, said to be considered the golden age of the idol singer, women's liberation was pretty much non-existent in Japan, and Japanese females were, and still are, for the most part, considerably subservient to men. The arrogant men running the companies who managed the singers knew that and, basically took advantage of all their charges' sweat, long hours and hard work, knowing full well that the singers, pretty much programmed to do what they're told wouldn't dare complain about their contracts. I mean, do you think that Cher, Madonna or Britney Spears would allow some slimy manager or record company to rake in millions off them while they made chump change? What do you think?
The average life expectancy of a Japanese idol singer's career was said to be around five years, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on how popular they were or how long she chose to stay in show business. For those singers who did hit it big, the world was their oyster as fans, mostly young kids and teenagers truly idolized them, pardon the pun. The mega-popular singers, like Pink Lady for example enjoyed an unprecedented amount of fame, doing TV appearances, commercials, shows, movies, promotional events to hype their latest songs, not to mention sold out stadium concerts to mobs of screaming fans while having their faces plastered on everything from toys, books, clothes, posters, magazines, billboards, you name it.
But, when the idol singer's fifteen minutes of fame expired, the fall was usually sudden, swift, and sometimes hard. Pink Lady was again, the prime example of just how fast a fall from the top could be. By the end of 1978, Mie and Kei were the undisputed queens of pop music in Japan, little over two years later, they were barely a blip on the radar, unable to even give away records. The Kohaku Uta Gassen debacle, a string of unimpressive records that followed (Including a Japanese remake of Villiage People's "In The Navy"), the death of Disco, the failure of their lone U.S. album release, and the disastrous Pink Lady & Jeff combined to seal their fate. By early 1981, the girls reached the end of the road and broke up after a farewell concert.
Speaking of same, when an idol singer calls it quits (usually when the singer can no longer sell records, as was the case with Mie and Kei, or if she tires of the grind and the demands of fame), she holds a farewell concert for her fans. This is different from what goes on here in the States, when a performer of a group hangs 'em up, it's almost always done with absolutely zero fanfare. In Japan, it's practically tradition for an idol singer to say goodbye to her fans with a really big show before riding off into the sunset to find a husband, make babies and become a happy housewife. Unlike in America, in Japan, there's usually no reunions or return to the limelight after ten, fifteen or twenty years, once a idol singer retires, it's often for good.
But does the company that manages a retiring or unproductive singer fret over the loss of its meal ticket? Nope. Like I said earlier, a company often has several singers or groups under contract, so when one star bites the dust, the suits simply toss heraside, then move on to the next flavor of the month and proceed to milk her for all she's worth. Such as was life in a business that was, for all intent and purposes, a factory for turning out legions of fresh faced singers for fans to gobble up like candy. The company that managed Pink Lady had written them off long before their break up and was already prepared to move on to the next big thing, as one of the suits there said that Mie and Kei lingered a year longer than they should have. Ouch!
As far as I know, and, admittedly, that's not saying a whole hell of a lot, idol singers are still plentiful in Japan today, but things have changed considerably for them since the 70's. Nowadays, I've heard that performers like Hikaru Utada, and groups like Shonen Knife have much more control over their careers. They write their own songs (Which wasn't allowed 25 years ago. For all we knew, Mie and Kei might have been the second coming of Lennon and McCartney, but weren't given a chance to show what they could do), play their own instruments and, in some cases, even avoid the big record companies in favor of smaller, independent labels where the singers have the final say over the type of music they choose to play.
Despite the negatives, I'm sure idol singers loved every minute of their lives as celebrities: the fame, the fortune (what little there was of it), the idolation, the recognition, everything. I imagine that if Mie and Kei had the last 25 years to live over again, they probably wouldn't change a thing. Well, except maybe the part about doing the TV show with Jeff Altman. While Pink Lady didn't invent the concept of the idol singer, in my biased opinion, they are most associated with the genre than any performer who came before them, or any who's followed since. When you stop to think about it, Mie and Kei were, in their own way, pioneers, paving the way for all the stars who've since followed in their footsteps and became famous.
Whether or not Mie and Kei fully appreciate their place in the history of Japanese pop culture which is as permanent as Mount Fuji is unknown. Even though I don't know the girls personally, and probably never will (much to my everlasting sorrow), I'm sure they must be very proud of everything they had achieved. By being in the right place at the right time, Mie and Kei captivated an entire country, turning a short five year run together into a lifetime's worth of fame and adulation the likes of which had never been seen before, and, quite possibly, will never be seen again. Not bad, eh? After all, it's not every girl who comes from literally out of nowhere to become an idol to millions.