Song of a Distant Idol: Performance Intimacy and Love Triangles in Macross Frontier

Love songs are a weird thing. By nature, they’re an expression of the most intimate of emotions, but the majority of the time they’re conveyed at a distance—sung from a radio, through headphones, or on a stage—and as a performance object to be heard by many, not one, thus stripping them of the personal emotion they ought to host.

But, for a little under two minutes in the middle of Macross Frontier, a love song connects.

Macross Frontier

Of the many love songs I heard and saw on television, the radio, and in movies during my childhood, two that have stayed with me to the present are “Lida Rose/Will I Ever Tell You” from The Music Man and “I Must Have Done Something Good” from The Sound of Music. In Morton DaCosta’s 1962 film adaptation, the former is delivered in a pointedly stage-like manner, as the Buffalo Bills and Marian sing their respective halves of the song in spotlighted circles on a mostly dark screen. It’s the modern love song, sung with a sort of passive-aggressive intent, but mostly thrown out into the void, waiting for a response from “that special someone”. By way of contrast, Maria and Captain von Trapp sing their love to each other in explicitly direct terms, bookended by spoken professions of love and a delicate kiss. [1]

Ranka Lee and Sheryl Nome’s episode 15 duet of “What ’bout my star?” is a love song in the tradition of Maria and the Captain’s, a no-holds-barred, unapologetically genuine expression of love through music. Alto has no choice but to submit.

As might be expected, all this makes Alto somewhat uncomfortable. But why? Of course, some of it is certainly the cognitive dissonance that arises from seeing one’s two love interests openly (and yet somewhat cordially) vying for your affections when you’re the indecisive member of the love triangle. And there’s also the base-level human embarrassment from being so blatantly called out in a public place. But, beyond that, there’s the unusual, powerful disruption of the normal arrangement of performance.

Macross Frontier

If “I Must Have Done Something Good” and “What ’bout my star?” are touchingly authentic (and, thus in my estimation, highly unusual among love songs), “Lida Rose/Will I Ever Tell You” represent the other end of the spectrum, a 50-year anticipation of the disconnected love songs of Top 40 radio and, more relevant, idol performances. “Lida Rose” visually represents the commonly agreed-upon structure of idol love songs: a solitary singer immeasurably far from the adoring chorus while still preserving an illusion of closeness.

The recorded or performed love song is disconnected; singer and audience are blocked apart by status, stage, and state. This holds doubly true for idols, created as they are to mimic intimacy while remaining distant. [2] An idol must belong to everyone generally, and no one in particular.

Thus, Ranka and Sheryl doubly (and jointly) burst through the falsity of the love song performed, through performance. These are no ordinary idols, and this is no ordinary idol song (nor an ordinary love song).

Macross Frontier

My favorite shot of the scene is the third in the above gallery, taken from Ranka’s POV and framing Alto through her fingers. The frame within a frame imitates the construct of performance [3], but that in itself is a fake because there no such convenient and comfortable distance for Alto in this moment—and Ranka has already made the decision, following Sheryl’s lead, to abandon the pretense of the idol’s solitary stage for a moment of sheer connectedness.

Love is not something that can be done at a distance.

And lest the all-important shift from the performed love song and the intimate love song of Sheryl and Ranka go unnoticed, Frontier contextualizes their non-performance within the diegetic use of Ranka’s episode five performance of “What ’bout my star?” @Formo on the screens of the hospital, a performance Sheryl characterizes as “fresh […] like a young, dreamy girl singing.” [4] But, just like Marian in “Will I Ever Tell You,” the Ranka on the screen (accompanied as she was by instrumentals that may as well have been non-diegetic, despite their pseudo-diegetic presentation) is singing a love song in isolation. Sheryl’s initiative appropriates the distant idol performance context and grounds it in the intimacy of physicality.

Macross Frontier

Ranka, ultimately, is still riding Sheryl’s coattails here, but that doesn’t reduce the authenticity of her own efforts to reach Alto through song. Even as an echo, her voice is no less real, no less potent than Sheryl’s.

And, together, even as their duet leans into the typical idol conventions of choreography and spotlights, it reaches out past the affectations and solitary nature of idoldom to pull Alto in. In fact, it’s really a violation of the very essence of idols, of the image, of the mask, of the performer. It’s true. It’s immediate. It’s powerful not because of the projection, but because of the reality. And nowhere else could this happen besides in a show that understands that we are alone, but come to love others in spite of the distances between us. That’s the true power of Ranka and Sheryl’s song.

So, to sum it up: this silly robot show understands love songs better than almost any other comparable thing. Sheryl is good. Ranka is good. Macross Frontier rocks.

Macross Frontier


[1] Robert Wise’s direction during this scene in the 1956 film further emphasizes the particularly intimate nature of the love song, as the backlighting turns the two lovers (wow, that is weird to type about a show from my childhood) into silhouettes and denies the audience entrance into the deepest parts of the relationship. These kinds of relationships are necessarily exclusive and personal, and Wise respects that—and creates something truly beautiful along the way.

[2] See, handshake events as (structurally) false displays of idol-fan relationship and idol dating bans.

[3] Also, yes, it’s a triangle. Like a love triangle.

[4] Formo being the Zentradi mall where Ranka performed. “@Formo” is the way the song is labeled by the official Macross Frontier Vocal Collection.

 

7 thoughts on “Song of a Distant Idol: Performance Intimacy and Love Triangles in Macross Frontier

  1. That was an interesting read. It probably would have been even more interesting, had I seen Macross Frontier (it’s been on my to-watch list a few years now, but with low to medium priority).

    Question: How watchable are the individual Macrosses on their own? I’m not that into the genre that I would watch it all in one go, so I’d have to pick carefully.

    The idea that targeted love songs are against an implicit idol ethos is interesting. I suppose Kawamori has a bit of wriggle room here, because of the SF setting, and putting songs into concrete service that differs from record sales and fan culture. (I’m really going off AKB0048 here, since I haven’t seen any Macross. From what I know about Macross, the purpose is different, but the key point seems still applicable. And I think it might explain why I’ve always had trouble seeing AKB0048 as an idol show – which is silly, since it’s basically an extended commercial for an existing idol group.)

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    • With the exception of Macross II, all Macross productions co-exist in the same setting and timeline, but they’re generally all separate adventures with different sets of characters living a number of years apart. The one notable exception is Macross 7, where the main characters of that series were secondary characters in the original. Because they’re usually new stories with new casts, it isn’t really necessary to have seen prior installments, though like many long-running franchises there are a lot of callbacks and continuity nods in later shows that add to the sense of saga and history for veteran fans (for example, the song “My Boyfriend is a Pilot,” which was one of Minmay’s hit songs in the original, makes a return appearance in Frontier with Ranka singing it). Outside of that, you should be able to watch Plus or Frontier or Zero on their own without too much trouble. The only ones I’d really suggest you avoid watching first would be Macross 7 – both because it is tied a bit more to the previous series and also because it’s the longest one – and Macross II, which besides being AU just frankly isn’t very good (it’s also the only installment that Shoji Kawamori had no involvement with).

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    • Well, obviously, I’d recommend bumping Frontier up a little on your priorities list. 🙂

      Having seen SDF, Plus, and Frontier, I’d say they’re all watchable in isolation from each other, but they all also build on each other in interesting ways (note that I skipped Macross 7, which is between Plus and Frontier). I personally have really been glad of the fact that I started with SDF, but Frontier might be the most accessible of the three, particularly if you’re more accustomed to newer stuff. I dunno if you’ve ever seen Aquarion EVOL, but there are some echoes of that in Frontier.

      Plus is real good, though (and looks phenomenal, and is only four 40 minute episodes), so that could also make it a good entry point. (Plus is also definitely the most “mature” of the bunch.)

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      • Thanks, bless and WingKing for the detailled replies. Frontier is the one a friend suggested to go with, so I might pick that after all. (Although I’m now interested in plus, too.)

        I’ve been watching anime for about 40 years now (with TV starting to show subbed anime around the early 90ies), so I’m fairly comfortable with any old style. I might even get nostalgic, watching some of the older ones. It’s not impossible that I’ve actually some Macross without knowing.

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        • In that case, I think I’d actually recommend Plus first, since 1) it’s short, and therefore less of a time investment, and 2) the nostalgia factor of its age is liable to be powerful.

          If you like it, great! If you don’t, you’ve only spent a couple hours on it & can move on to Frontier knowing that Frontier is entirely independant of Plus. In short, it’s an opportunity to build up some goodwill towards the franchise with a low risk of entirely isolating you if it fails to connect.

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          • Yeah, I think I’d tend to agree with that, actually – Plus is a good entry point for just getting your feet wet and getting a feel for the franchise.

            The other starting point you could consider is the “Do You Remember Love?” movie, which was a re-telling of the first 3/4 (roughly) of the original series. It’s not a recap movie, though…all the animation is original (and for an anime made in 1984 it’s absolutely freaking gorgeous – miles ahead of the TV series) and some details and events are changed for the sake of making a better/more cohesive film, but the core story and the most important plot points and themes are all basically left intact.

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            • Hm, Plus does sound interesting. I looked up images and it looks quite good, actually. Downside is that a mid-nineties OVA series might be slightly hard to find for me (being dependant on the German market, and/or fansubs).

              Do you remember Love? Hm, a possibility, too, although I think Plus sounds more attractive for now.

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