10 years after the release, Heavy Rotation continues to define the image of AKB48 both at home and abroad, for better and for worse. One of the group’s catchiest and most recognizable songs, the song is also a source of controversy for the group’s many detractors. With a music video featuring the members of the group in little more than lingerie for its duration, it was derided for over-sexualizing the group’s young members and pandering to the worst subsections of the AKB48 fanbase. The group were undermined by many as a result of the content of this video.
That’s where I step in. Although the group as a whole are deserving of scrutiny, I’m here today to defend Heavy Rotation, AKB48’s iconic, controversial, generation-defining hit, 10 years on.
Heavy Rotation came out as AKB48 was beginning to stake their claim towards market domination. While 2009 may have been the year of the group’s first number 1 single, River, a release that started an unbroken chain of number 1 singles that continues to this day, Heavy Rotation is the song that defines this early period of AKB48 dominance. Through this song, the group released a chart-topping and record-breaking karaoke hit that gave the song a cultural ubiquity few pieces of music can achieve, cementing their place in pop culture and setting them up to become one of the 2010s most influential musical acts, both inside and outside of Japan.
With success came controversy. They may have struck gold with Heavy Rotation as a song, yet simultaneously faced accusations of sexualizing its younger members, some of whom were under the age of 18.
This isn’t an attempt to argue about the feminist virtues of Heavy Rotation. The sheer fact it’s a song by AKB48, whose controlling and problematic management team has been repeatedly, deservedly, attacked for their mistreatment of both them and their sister groups, makes such an argument impossible. However, with the freedom photographer and movie director Mika Ninagawa was given when creating this music video, I can’t help but feel that the group’s reputation and the video’s surface-level imagery has had an impact on its reception and legacy.
Mika Ninagawa’s work has often cast a critical eye towards the media’s representation of women and particularly targeted the inner workings and pressures of the entertainment industry through films such as Helter Skelter. Mika Ninagawa herself described her photography as partially being influenced by ‘the intense envy of the boys [and] the fact of being a woman’. It’s this idea that was used to capture AKB48 for Heavy Rotation.
As stated in an interview Ninagawa took with magazine Mgirl, attempts to capture an element of unity found within the AKB dressing room morphed into the video’s concept of a stylistic sleepover from an all-girls high school. Viewing the scene through a keyhole is an attempt to let us into a world of behind-closed-doors affection that would manifest itself in a place of safety among friends without men around. The idea of capturing not just people themselves but the world they live in and how that influences their expression is a core part of Ninagawa’s work, which this framing exists to support.
Scenes of intimacy such as those on the bed portray a sense of freedom that comes from being away from male influence and help to make this by far the most feminine of AKB48’s videos. Mixing in Ninagawa’s visual flair, I feel she does an excellent job of capturing the personalities of each member and achieving her goal of recording a homosocial intimacy not seen in other AKB48 works.
Still, AKB48’s Heavy Rotation is far from without fault. The decision to capture underage members in lingerie is still a questionable move, and whilst it was designed in response to the growing female fanbase, this video was never solely going to be consumed by that subsection of fans. What may be viewed as platonic in a private environment is instead being recorded for an audience, and such acts can appear voyeuristic under these considerations. Suddenly, peeping through a keyhole feels a little perverse.
Yet how much of this perverse feeling is because to the video itself, and how much of it is because we have become accustomed to contextualizing female bodies through male gratification, and not a place of feminine self-expression and control? How much of this is due to the act of two women kissing being considered explicit, and how much of it is due to the fact this act has typically been seen as an act for male titillation and therefore that is assumed to be true here as well?
I wouldn’t want to suggest Ninagawa is faultless, but it feels like a lot of the controversy that followed came about because audiences simply assumed such a video was pandering without considering the content of the video itself, or the fact that Ninagawa stated her intent to capture an all-girls school environment without male interference.
Covers of Heavy Rotation by the sister groups to AKB48 have taken the controversy surrounding the content of the original music video into account when filming their takes on the song. While they still attempt to capture this core of female intimacy, they quite deliberately tone done any sexual insinuation.
It makes sense to avoid a repeat of the drama of the past, but it proves my point. Due to AKB48’s Heavy Rotation being perceived as inherently sexual despite itself, its approach to female intimacy hasn’t and essentially can’t be recaptured in later versions. Ironically, the consequence of this adjustment is that many of these covers capture what I would regard as a masculine interpretation of female intimacy which that video tried to avoid (although the one that makes the best effort at recapturing the original’s intent in this framework is the recent cover by Thailand’s BNK48).
Now that 10 years have passed since the release of Heavy Rotation, we’re long overdue a rethink of how we perceive AKB48’s controversial classic. While I wouldn’t and couldn’t defend every decision made in this video’s production, maybe we need to reconsider not just our perceptions of this music video, but why this video was seen as controversial in the first place.