A Visit to JKT48 Theatre

I would rather experience something myself before passing judgment on anything. I don’t believe what people say until I get firsthand experience. I’ve listened to Justin Bieber’s albums and skimmed through “Fifty Shades of Grey,” so I know that both items are pulp at best. I wouldn’t say they’re rubbish — because taste is a personal matter — but if somebody handed them over to me, I’d give them a facial expression that screams “Are you kidding me?”

As I’m going through my mid-twenties, perhaps I’m too old to get the hype surrounding the latest Asian pop phenomenon. I don’t get K-Pop, J-Rock or any music genre that comes with a hyphenated capital letter. So don’t talk to me about Super Junior or Girls’ Generation. The only Asian pop group I know is F4, the erstwhile boy band sensation from Taiwan that reigned over the continent in early noughties. From highschoolers to stay-at-home mothers, they knew about F4, but God knows what happened to the long-haired quartet from Formosa since then.

Since my knowledge in Asian pop industry is slightly above nothing, I was uninterested when a friend asked me to watch JKT48 theater in a shopping mall in Jalan Sudirman, South Jakarta. I’ve heard about JKT 48 before, a group of teenage girls who sing and dance in unison and have attracted a cult following here. JKT48 was conceived right after its Japanese sister group AKB48 gained commercial success. To say the least, I’ve seen JKT48 on TV and, frankly, can’t comprehend how anybody would call what they do as an art.

Nevertheless, I said yes to the invitation — merely for the purpose of observation. I arrived at the theater 1.5 hour earlier than the scheduled show and found a queue of around 50 people. My friend said the crowd was kind of low because it was on Thursday and it was the reserve team, or Team J as it is called, performing.

So the group has a b-team? I kind of found it amusing. I thought only sport teams have reserves, but a music group? I was informed that the rookie team is the second batch of the group, and while they’re not on the same level as their seniors, they actually gave quite an entertainment.

Wikipedia says that the original AKB48 has four different teams, so they can perform separately in different places. I think it’s a stroke of genius. Why didn’t Mick Jagger and Keith Richards think of that? Set up Rolling Stones A and Rolling Stones B, and scheduling problem solved.

I have been warned prior to entering the theater that fans of JKT48 are among the craziest music fans. I’ve survived a moshpit at a metal show, but how bad these pop fans could be?

The lionshare of the fans are males. Some of them are teenagers, some are young adults. Females are minorities among the crowd. The fans are known as Wota, devoted followers of the idol group. They sing, dance, clap, arm-wave, chant, anything a pair of hands can manage to do, during the performance. This series of avid dancing is known as wotagei.

Some of the wotas had light sticks with them as some kind of prop when they do the dance. Some of them wore football shirts with number 48 on their backs and their favorite idols (or Oshi, as they’re known) names above it.

Different music fans have different ways to actualize themselves in the concert. Metal heads form moshpits, hip-hop fans throw their hands in the air, jazz lovers shake their heads like they’re in some sort of confusion, but the way wotas express themselves in JKT48 theater resembles more of football fans than concert-goers.

Every time one idol “sings” solo, wotas are on their feet and chant the idol’s name that sounds more like a football terrace chant than teenager’s scream in a pop concert. The roll call goes on from top to bottom, depends on who gets the spotlight. Sometimes there’s a long cry of “oi oi oi!” that I believe had nothing to do with the punk culture. As someone who watches football regularly, I have to admit that I was a little intimidated.

What I realized later was the biggest entertainment came from the fans instead of the group itself. Maybe I have a different taste, but I was hardly amused by a bunch of 16 teenage girls lip-syncing and dancing in fancy dresses in 2 hours. To their credits, I’m pretty sure they worked hard on daily basis, but I don’t think something that’s pretty close to a mild burlesque is my cup of tea.

Critics said that this kind of idol groups encourages perversion considering the teenage girls performers and a male-dominated audience. I’m trying not to dip further into a moral debacle, but I was in a horror upon finding out that my oshi — whom I reluctantly picked after a friend urge me to — is only 15-year-old?

How would the society react if I idolize a teenage girl who’s 10 years younger than me and watch her on stage with a certain degree of enthusiasm? She’s not even in the legal age.

I still don’t catch the hype of this idol group, but now I understand the reason behind the rapid-growing fandom. For the wotas, watching JKT48 is like supporting their favorite sport team. They chant, scream, dance and do anything stupid by anyone’s standard, but inside the theater, they’re free to do such things.

That reason alone, I will say yes if somebody asks me to go to JKT48 theater again.