Most nights at a theater inside the Chaoyang U-Town Shopping Center in Beijing, a group of young women will sing and dance for an adoring crowd. On another night, another group, and another group on another night. These young women are interchangeable parts of the same band: BEJ48 — short for Beijing 48 — a 71-member (!) superband that has commodified the fan-based musical experience, all while churning out occasionally catchy (though mostly identical) tunes.
It all began over a decade ago when Yasushi Akimoto revolutionized the way the Asian public consumes celebrity culture. He wanted his pop stars to be down to earth and personable, and instead of trying to build a large fan base in a scattered market, Akimoto decided his stars would only serve one specific market. What he offered was a way for fans to cultivate their own idols.
Thus began AKB48, named after Tokyo’s Akihabara area, where the band has a dedicated theater. With success, Akimoto authorized a Shanghai-based entertainment company to create and run SHN48 in 2012, the group’s first sister band in China. They had an ugly split in 2016, so any Chinese groups launched after SNH48 — including Guangzhou (GNZ48) last year, and Beijing — are not recognized as “official” by their former Japanese partner. BEJ48 recently released its fourth EP in September along with its latest single, “Sign of a Hundred Changes” (百变惊叹号), which is embedded above.
Expanding to China is tricky for any business, but BEJ48 arrived in Beijing without caring about tailoring to its new audience. Few of BEJ48’s members hail from Beijing, and the band isn’t shy about borrowing from Japanese and Korean influences. In fact, not much distinguishes BEJ48 from other international girl idol groups aside from the fact that the members speak Chinese and have hemlines conservative enough not to offend.
But this is all part of a plan. Akimoto accepts that it isn’t selling its consumers music, sex, or even a lifestyle. Instead, what these groups are selling is a handshake — literally, as meet-and-greet events are frequently held for fans to “meet their idol.”
As a huge band spread across three subgroups — called Team B, Team E, and Team J — BEJ48 plays its fans against one another. The subgroup with the most fan support is the one most prominently featured, while the rest might be relegated to the background. In this way, BEJ48 members and their fans are mutually responsible for each other’s existence: The idol must inspire worship, while followers must continue to elevate band members to ever loftier heights.
But where faith can only get you so far, money will guarantee results. By making purchases, fans are given ballots with which to vote for the girl of their choice. Since one only gets back what is put in, fans are compelled to become personally invested in their idols, something that is apparent at BEJ48’s live performances. Throughout this video, fans are heard loudly calling out for their favorite members, often with no regard to what’s happening on stage.
It can all get kind of hectic. Much better sometimes to sit back, at home, with a video.