Mandopop Month: AKB48 SH’s wide-eyed trip into stardom

Society & Culture

The Friday Song column this month turns its focus to Mandopop, which technically refers to all Mandarin-language pop music, but these days more often implies boy and girl bands, the type with seemingly interchangeable parts and high-energy, highly produced dance tracks.

“Love Trip” is the catchy debut for the fun-loving girl group AKB48 Team SH. It was released in December 2018, but seven months later has come into its own as an ideal summer song, much as the group itself has coalesced in the year since it was formed.

The song is an upbeat tune about growing up and leaving the past behind. It has the kind of chorus that can loop in your head for hours and make you want to imitate the singers’ adorable, finger-wagging dance moves.

In the Boy/Girl Group Inc. industry, however, the song isn’t unique to AKB48 Team SH. That’s because it’s owned by AKB48 Group, a Japanese family of idol groups that has spawned 14 sister acts around Asia.

Started in 2005, AKB48 (for Akihabara, a neighborhood in Tokyo) was the first idol group to have its own theater, with daily performances by rotating teams that allowed fans to meet the performers, a break from the tradition of pop groups focusing on TV and occasional live concerts. The formula worked, and the group has sold the most singles of any act in Japan.

The original AKB48 released “Love Trip” in Japanese in 2016, and it reached the top of the Oricon Weekly Singles Chart. That same year, JKT48, AKB48’s Indonesian act, covered the song. Two years later, Team SH (for Shanghai) sang it in Mandarin. As one fan pointed out, each video features a different mode of transportation: bus, plane, and now boat.

The Shanghai video opens with a couple of the girls looking up at the flashing lights of Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing, and continues with the group dancing on a boat in the harbor, exploring one of the city’s multi-story arcades, and drinking matcha. The girls wear matching schoolgirl/sailor-like outfits and big smiles.

Team SH is actually the second AKB48 group to come out of Shanghai. The original SNH48 was removed from the group in 2016 after contractual violations, and has since gone on to have a successful career of its own that includes its own spinoff groups in other Chinese cities.

The first round of auditions for Team SH saw close to 40,000 applications, out of which 20 girls were chosen, plus one “trainee.” Liu Nian, 18, and Mao Weijia, 24, who both feature prominently in the video, were competitors on the show Produce 101, but none of the other members have significant media experience.

“Love Trip” belies none of this drama, however. Much of the music video is shot in AKB48’s theater, and there’s a tender moment where the girls tear up upon seeing their photos up on the wall. The whole thing is infused with the wonder of soon-to-be stardom; the girls seem to be in awe of both their luck and their new surroundings. But in the end they’re still young Chinese girls abroad, like so many are this summer, holding each others’ arms, snapping selfies, and smiling as they sing.

Mandopop Month will continue next week.