Late last month, Minami Minegishi, a 20-year-old singer with the Tokyo-based supergroup AKB48, uploaded a video to YouTube. On its surface, Minegishi's video was strikingly different from the hundreds of other videos already published to AKB48's official channel. Rather than depict Minegishi in a stations-of-the-cross variety of upskirt shots, what we see is a stark close-up of her freshly shaved head. She is not wearing make-up. Nor is she flashing the come-hither-and-help-me-with-my-biology-homework look that pervades the other videos.
The optics of Minegishi's video lay things bare, even as her words dance around the issue: Harsh lighting; eyes rubbed raw with tears; legible anguish; shorn hair. This is a very public and painful act of contrition. Minegishi has wronged somebody. But who? And how?
By marked contrast to Minegishi's apology, the first thing an AKB48 newbie like myself might notice in the channel's other videos is their unsubtle blend of schoolgirl innocence and Showgirls genuflecting. Imagine Britney Spears' "... Baby One More Time," but inflated to the size of an alternate reality nurtured within a trillion-yen brand. Welcome to the sexually cynical world of AKB48. It was to this public Minegishi directed her apology.
Why was she sorry? Days before Minegishi's video appeared, she was discovered by Tokyo paparazzi to have spent the night at a male J-Pop star's apartment. This presumed date was a violation of her AKB48 contract, what's been referred to in common lore among the group's fans as the "purity oath." Minegishi's management -- the two most public faces of whom being the group's founding producer, Yasushi Akimoto, and its general manager Tomonobu Togasaki -- likes to market a chaste image for their clients.
Or so they say. But Akimoto and Togasaki's justification for upholding their Old World standards with draconian punishments doesn't stand against a baby's breath of reason. One look at the AKB48 brand -- either through its risqué YouTube page or the several controversies that have arisen in Japan linking AKB48 to child pornography complaints -- mocks Akimoto and Togasaki's stated appeal to a greater moral good.
Considering the rather lurid subtext to much of AKB48's YouTube channel, it's plain Akimoto and Togasaki are not looking after their clients' or their customers' virtue. Instead, Akimoto and Togasaki are at pains to avoid disrupting the masturbatory illusions Minegishi's male fans project on her. This is AKB48's bottom line, and the linchpin to Akimoto and Togasaki's business model. That Minegishi might have a love life of her own, in the real world, is judged bad for business. So her mangers refuse to allow it.
There's already been much hand-wringing in the U.S. about the harsh light this "scandal" shines on Japanese culture. Surely, things are better over here in the States, right? But are we really that much better off than Japan? Or is it that we live in a culture where the power to control our female artists by shaming them publicly is diffused throughout many marketing divisions and editorial mastheads, rather than being more transparently concentrated into two Akimoto- and Togasaki-like figureheads?
Let's look at our recent history: Can you think of a time that our celebrity culture, by the force of its relentless surveillance-cum-moralizing, has pushed an artist off the rails and into the brush of human indignity? Can you recall a moment in the past, say, seven years, when a popular female entertainer had a nervous breakdown in public that finally manifested itself through her shorn locks and withered disposition? Can you think of any media outlets who trade in the public shaming of female celebrities? Who use accusations of addiction, infidelity, and promiscuity to tarnish female pop stars -- accusations that when leveled at even the most middle-of-the-road male rock stars or sitcom actors, tend to puff-up their status as legends-in-waiting?
If your answer to any of these questions is no, then you partake in a much more civil pop culture than the one that streams unbidden into my view every day.
The harshness of Minegishi's plight might seem to have no parallel in the States. But it's only through convenient thinking that we can reach this quick conclusion. A cursory glance at our music journalism and marketing world suggests otherwise. Our media's insistence on viewing female artists through the male gaze reminds us we should keep our implicit moral superiority in check when telling Minegishi's story.
As it turns out, when it comes to sexual equality, our music culture runs a lot closer to Japan's than it does a truly just culture. It's only through selective memory that Minegishi's apology echos our Medieval past and not our TMZ-and-glossy present.
Just like the upskirt shots that bring visitors to AKB48's YouTube channel, Minegishi's message of beseiged femininity serves to bolster the brand Akimoto and Togasaki have built. The promo videos and the apology are of a piece -- two sides of the same vision. The only difference is that Minegishi's tears are also iconic of the forces that have oppressed women all over the world and throughout all of history -- including ours.
I'll consider our own music culture sexually equal when I can watch Minegishi's apology without it recalling to me a lifetime's worth of gender-targeted indignities we've imposed in the States.
I'll be convinced of our own enlightenment when Rihanna is allowed to appear on major magazine covers in the States wearing enough clothes that, should she want to bolt directly from the photo shoot to a restaurant, she wouldn't be turned away by the maitre d'.
I'll feel more confident about our own music culture's moral superiority when its long-standing record of unthinking critical dismissal of women artists as diverse as Lesley Gore, Jackie DeShannon, Jocelyn Brown, and Juliana Hatfield -- artists who consistently made great records but never conformed to the image we tend to favor from our musical heroes, a rough-and-tumble image originating with the troubadours of chivalric times (a decidedly masculine image) -- has been amended.
I'll be impressed with the strides made within our own music journalism when I no longer have to read profiles written by men who fixate on their female subjects' appearance -- or detail in self-flattering prose a double-blink they interpret as a come-on.
Rather than wag our collective finger across the Pacific, Americans should look directly at Minegishi's tearful video and accept this as a teaching moment. This is what systematic objectification looks like; and this is how it's felt by its subjects. This is the psychological cost of 1 million clicks. This is what glamour turns into when the fickle creditors who loan its power come collecting your debt. This is the failing of a music culture split into two unequal sexes: one that is heard; and a second that is only seen.