Did “One•Two•Three” Save H!P?

I saw this pop up in my Twitter feed a few days ago:

This is an interesting theory. There’s no question that “One•Two•Three” (OTT) returned Morning Musume to relevance in the J-idol world, but it’s effect on the Hello! Project itself is something I’d never considered. I did some research using data from the Hello! Project Wiki, and here’s my take on the premise.

First, a history lesson.

Morning Musume had been languishing in their post-Golden Era sales slump for nearly a decade, having failed to crack 100K sales for any single since 2004’s “Ai Araba IT’S ALL RIGHT”, and had settled into the 40K-55K range for the most part from 2006 until the release of “One•Two•Three” on July 4, 2012. In the midst of this sales morass, AKB48 began their surge with the release of “Oogoe Diamond” on October 22, 2008, selling 96.5K units and marking the official passing of the J-idol girl-group torch. While neither “One•Two•Three” nor any of it’s successors would ever seriously challenge the AKB juggernaut in sales, it was a shot of adrenaline for the flagging H!P flagship, doubling the sales of nearly every MM single of the previous two years.

The 4th of July release was revolutionary for a group whose sound had become predictable, stale and for many fans, boring. “Emo Musume” — despite sporting arguably the brand’s most talented lineup — had lost their edge and their joyfulness and, in so doing, much of their hard-core fan-base. “Shouganai Yume Oibito” was the high-water mark of this sound (and a MM classic by every measure), but precious few other songs of the era came close to it, and by mid-2012 it was over two years old .

By contrast, Kaoru Okubo’s unabashedly EDM treatment for “One•Two•Three” was fresh and exciting, and a brave move for a group as historically important as Morning Musume. Even if they had lost current relevance, the brand “Morning Musume” still carried weight, and the safe move would have been to course-correct toward the popular AKB sound rather than, say, Perfume’s. Not that OTT sounds like Perfume, but both are solidly in the EDM realm, and while OTT’s predecessor “Ren’ai Hunter” toyed with Dubstep, it was a half-measure compared to the bold, full-throated EDM of “One•Two•Three”. Equally brave was the group’s concurrent move toward formation dancing, which completed an all-encompassing group make-over that made them stand out in a booming J-idol girl-group market. To put it bluntly, “One•Two•Three” is the most important song of MM’s modern era despite being out-sold by most of their singles that followed it.

The gamble paid off, as only two of Morning Musume’s 16 singles since have failed to crack the 100K sales mark, and while they have not recaptured the culturally iconic status of the Golden Era, they have carved out a space large enough for them to remain relevant in the over-saturated idol market that grew in AKB’s wake. Even in a current climate where many fans — myself included — see Morning Musume’s sound having once again become stale and predictable, they still move 120K+ for the most part. So while “One•Two•Three” absolutely saved Morning Musume, what was its effect on the rest of the Hello! Project?

Berryz Koubou

Before the release of “One•Two•Three,” BK had never been a major player in the idol game, although their run from the end of 2007 to the beginning of 2010 was respectable, as they consistently moved 30K-35K per single. Their free-fall started when “Maji Bomber!!” (July 2010) failed to clear the 30K hurdle, and the decline would continue all the way to March 2012’s “Be Genki, ” which barely topped 17K. Then something interesting happened: “cha cha SING” — released one month after OTT — moved 33K. Their next single sold 42K, followed by 32K, 47K, and closing their career with a whopping 80.7K for “Romance wo Katatte / Towa no Uta”.

S/mileage

The baby sisters of the Hello! Project in 2012, S/mileage consistently sold 20K-30K starting from their June 2010 debut “Yumemiru Fifteen” through their pre-“One•Two•Three single “Dot Bikini” in May of 2012. There was no riding the OTT wave for them, though, as sales of their first fours singles following OTT were right in line with their historical norms. S/mileage would see a bump to the mid-30K range with the two singles after that, but their ascendance to 40K-50K heights was propelled by their own 2015 make-over, which included a new name, a new sound and a talented new 3rd generation.

C-ute

This one is interesting, because C-ute did see a spike around the time of “One•Two•Three”, but it definitely wasn’t because of it. C-ute’s sales had been on a similar path to those of their sister group Berryz Koubou until the release of “Kimi wa Jitensha Watashi wa Densha de Kitaku” in 2012. At 46K sold, this would be C-ute’s best seller to date, out-pacing their previous best by 8-thousand (2007’s “Tokaikko Junjou.”) Here’s the thing, though: “Kimi wa Jitensha Watashi wa Densha de Kitaku” was released three months prior to “One•Two•Three”. This single was the springboard for C-utes rise to consistent 60K+ sales for the final three years of their existence.

Verdict

There’s no obvious evidence that the immediate aftermath of “One•Two•Three” improved the fates of the Hello! Project as a whole: BerryZ Koubou’s rise could just as easily be attributed to coattail-riding C-ute’s “Kimi wa Jitensha Watashi wa Densha de Kitaku,” as those two groups have always been tied more closely to each other than to MM, and S/mileage saw zero growth for the next year-and-a-half. However, the longterm effect might be a different story.

Love them or not, Morning Musume is the Hello! Project flagship, boasting the largest fan base as well as the legendary brand, and the fact that they have been able to sustain the growth spurred by “One•Two•Three” for over seven years now was, I think, one front in a perfect storm that propelled Berryz Koubou and C-ute to sustained growth for the rest of their careers; the other being time. Both groups had just come into their primes as idol groups of maturing young women around the release of OTT. They had become more appealing to a wider audience simply by growing up (I specifically remember it was around this time that I began seeing reports online about C-ute drawing a lot of female fans to their concerts, which was an anomaly for H!P groups then), and MM’s renewed popularity almost certainly contributed to the long-term growth of both groups.

The increased visibility and profits generated by H!P’s three veteran idol groups provided Up-Front the resources to add four new full-time groups to their stable over the following three years: Juice=Juice (2013), Country Girls (2014), Kobushi Factory and Tsubaki Factory (2015). Of those four, my guess is that J=J was probably in the works before “One•Two•Three”, and would have debuted irrespective of the song’s sales. My other guess is that Country Girls were likely created entirely due to the opportunity provided by OTT’s success, and that the Factories were pushed ahead of schedule due to it. Up-Front knew they would have to replace Berryz and C-ute in the not-too-distant future, but looking back, it does feel like the Factories were launched to be those replacements sooner than they might have been, and it was possible because of the increased overall health of the Hello! Project as a whole.

This new healthy Hello! Project was now capable of having two young, established acts ready to step in when the last of the H!P Kid groups walked off the stage for the final time, not to mention the luxury of resurrecting Country Musume as Country Girls. It was an amazing reversal of fortune for a company that was on life support — financially and creatively — only three years before. As it turns out, the remedy for the Hello! Project’s years-long illness was as easy as “One•Two•Three”.

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