Tetsuya Komuro, 1996

tkapp

I get the feeling one is not supposed to like Tetsuya Komuro, not anymore, but I can’t help being consumed with the work of yet another gangly male producer who works almost exclusively with young, beautiful women (take your pick from history or the latest Oricon chart topper). We’re not supposed to like Komuro for some or all of the following reasons:

  • He sold and broke too many records, awarding him the distinction of filling most of the spots on the Top Ten best-selling singles at one time, therefore, he was too popular to actually be any good

  • He wasn’t that great a keyboard player, really

  • He used his talent and power for nefarious purposes, essentially ushering a number of young women into the limelight while being personally involved with a number of them, after which when he had moved on, they were discarded and left to pick up the pieces in front of a prying public and eke out a living in photobooks and greatest hits compilations (luckily, some moved forward with even greater dignity)

  • His lavel, Avex Trax, helped create the modern term and sound called “J-pop”

  • He stopped composing pop songs you either loved or hated and started indulging in genres nobody was interested in

  • His megalomania caresses the CD booklets of all his work, as his name is credited two dozen plus times under each song title of producer, composer, writer, and vocals, ad nauseum; after discovering Tomomi Shimogawara, he made her change her performing name to Tomomi Kahala so they shared the same initials

  • Speaking of, his penchant for self-promotion was so inclusive he dictated every aspect of his proteges’ work, from clothes and hairstyles, to stage directions; his ego and shameless public persona guaranteed we’ll always think first of Tetsuya Komuro before his equally gifted partners, like Cozy Kubo

  • He squandered most of his money away, probably on expensive toys and drugs, ending up in court for attempted fraud on the copyrights to his songs

  • Took him long enough, but he finally worked with Ayumi Hamasaki, writing most of Love songs, and gifting the world “Feel the love”

Yet his presence, craft, and instantly recognizable style influenced what we now call Japanese pop music, and what we continue to call it as long as he’s still at large. His label, Avex Trax is still producing some of the most talented, very non-idol, performers. And most importantly, his music was constructed with the kind of care one uses to hold a newborn baby — I think here of “DEPARTURES,” the mindful piano line, the slow addition of bass, cymbals and drums, beat, the soaring vocals, I go, also, to “I HAVE NEVER SEEN,” and even a throw-away single like “I wanna go,” filtered with so much distortion Komuro comes close to carrying a tune.

In fact, for a large portion of the 90′s, Komuro was the greatest common factor in any J-pop fan’s collection. When we see sales figures like 4,136,460 copies sold of globe’s debut album, that’s actually 4+ million physical copies that were sold, without the need to adjust for hand-shaking event tickets, senbatsu ballots, or alternate cover art (but maybe karaoke culture). The death of physical copies is itself a blow to those who like to keep score at home, but with the Internet making available all kinds of rare, mainstream, old, new, underground, I mean, basically all, music, there’s little room for another phenomenon or means of shared cultural communication quite like that experienced before the 00s. But it’s boring to go there. So rather than lamenting the “outdated” production values (is it outdated now? I guess I’m too old to notice) and getting nostalgic, let’s share one of the greatest years in J-pop history together as it was.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Top songs, albums, etc. of 2013

apptop2013

I’ve already done a countdown of my favorite 30 songs of the year over at tumblr – check out the tag to see the rules and the complete list. I haven’t done many other extensive lists, but below I have added my top 10 albums and top 30 East Asian pop songs of the year. Here’s to another fantastic year of music! Continue reading

Tagged , , , , ,

Perfume’s “LEVEL3″

perfumelevel3app

Perfume / LEVEL3 / October 02, 2013

It’s easy to think Yasutaka Nakata has lost his mind: his recent work with Harajuku fashionista Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is filled with the type of nightmare-tropes-made hip that give his particular brand of electropop a boost of the unwanted grotesque. It appears he’s honing his technique on subject matter (ninjas, fashion monsters, bonbons, eyelashes, onomatopoeia) set to the kind of stuff you’d hear at library story time, but remixed by a producer whose gift lies in empathizing with, rather than mocking, teenage girls. One would almost think he wishes he could be one. While the work he does for Kyary is an acquired taste, Perfume is still a standard, one of the few constants in Nakata’s career. Fans of Perfume have grown up alongside the trio, past their sweet donuts phase, through a one room disco, and now, in their most mature work to date, LEVEL3.

Visibly, Nocchi, Kashiyuka, and A~chan have surpassed their peers. They’ve developed a stage persona and personal aesthetic that is instantly recognizable and forever classic. Fans have come to rely on their sense of wonder, excitement, and gratitude alongside their trademark fashion silhouettes and immutable hairstyles. But to forget that all their hard work wouldn’t be possible without Yasutaka Nakata is to gravely mistake the power of great PR over the power of prodigy: the undeniably brilliant songs that Nakata pumps out at a rate Joyce Carol Oates would be proud of, and rarely hitting stumbling blocks that can’t be turned into stepping stones. These are Nakata’s best trademarks: synths, auto tune, whimsy, pretty females with airy vocals, and making the impossible look easy enough to create between naps.

While dance music has always been Nakata’s primary sound, it’s mostly hovered in capsule’s ouevre, the more experimental work that offers listeners a chance to see what the producer has been playing around with. But the work he’s done everywhere else, namely with Ami Suzuki, MEG, Kyary, and, especially, Perfume, has been solidly rooted in the pop tradition. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, etc. and maybe a dance break in the middle has been the modus operandi of Supreme Show, GAME, BEAM, JPN, and Pamyu Pamyu REVOLUTION. LEVEL3 is a mix of purer dance elements: the repetition of vocal lines, free flowing structure, major key changes throughout, musical elements slowly added, stripped down, and added again.

These are the hallmarks of LEVEL3, the type of thing “edge” tried to be back in ’08. “PARTY MAKER” is one perfect example with almost four minutes of crescendo before the brilliant, satisfying drop. “Spending all my time (Album-mix)” a second. These album mixes are, no really, new mixes, as if they were lovingly tweaked to flow smoothly into an album that could easily have been made with no track gaps. “Spring of Life (Album-mix)” starts off with the song’s break down, killing suspense to focus on groove and letting the vocal elements coast, while “Magic of Love (Album-mix)” has a whole new synth line. The album also has quiet moments, like the melancholy of “1mm” and “Furikaeru to Iru yo;” more subtle, ever dazzling. A lot of this was probably the influence of the members, who offered input. “We requested like, “We’d like a track that can match the Dome concert where we can build large sets” or “Can we have a song in which we can make various directions, rather than just dancing?” and so on. All of the new songs on this album are very suited with our requests,” said A~chan in a recent interview. I can see the laser lights already.

While it’s difficult not hearing “Hurly Burly” instead of “Mirai no MUSEUM,” LEVEL3 is as close as ever to yet another Nakata classic. Woe to those who have forgotten Perfume has four members, not three.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Japanese pop culture and intertextuality: Negicco’s “IDOL Bakari Kikanaide”

negicco1

In the introduction to Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture, Patrick W. Galbraith and Jason G. Karlin outline the vast media intertextuality that makes audiences outside Japan find it difficult to understand the country’s pop culture. “The idol, as a multimedia performer, is always operating within a system of meanings and codes that are referencing other texts” (19). This occurs in four ways: (1) the way that idols perform across genres and platforms (appearing in dramas, sports events, and on game shows, releasing singles, appearing in commercials, etc.), (2) idols’ appearance in fictional and nonfictional contexts that reference both their real and onscreen lives, (3) the multi-platform appearances that link media forms for the purpose of promoting and selling other media, and (4) the way that intertextuality encourages nostalgia based on a shared cultural framework of texts (10-12). It’s that last point that will be most important here, and is summed up so succinctly:

“Without the intertextual knowledge that comes from a shared understanding of the cultural codes that circulate across media forms within Japan, the idol is reduced merely to his/her ability as a singer, dancer, or actor, which is limited. As a result, Japanese popular culture does not translate well cross-culturally, since its forms are overdetermined by the self-referential structures of the domestic media landscape.” (12)

That’s a rather large batch of quotes and summaries, but makes sense when you think of how often you see bewildered expressions or LOLJapan memes that circulate when readers or viewers are provided information on Japanese idols, bands, or fads without any of the relevant context. And bereft of context, we often get disdain, fear, or general apathy.

A great example of this intertextuality is Negicco’s latest single “IDOL Bakari Kikanaide.” Released this May, the single provides more than the usual number of references. Let’s break it down as coherently as possible:

(1) Japanese idols are heavily promoted media personalities that combine singing, dancing, acting, modeling, and advertising into careers that may last as little as a couple of years to decades. They’re generally attractive, particularly cute, and are usually considered pure or innocent, an image that will be consistently torn down by scandals or tabloids. The whole point of modern Japanese idols that separates them from other equivalents is that they are generally more valuable based on their potential. That is, an idol is valued if he or she starts out with moderate talents and abilities, but is shown through his or her career to develop and grow, a process fans are eager to participate in by supporting their chosen idols. Idols generally began appearing in the early 1970s, reached a peak in the 1980s, were replaced by more ambitious artists like Namie Amuro, Hikaru Utada, and Ayumi Hamasaki in the 1990s and early 00s, and have slowly begun an ascent once again.

(2) Shibuya-kei is a genre of music made popular in the 1990s. As Simon Reynolds puts it in Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, “The term came from the Shibuya area of Tokyo, in which were clustered record stores like Tower and HMV that stocked a lot of imports, along with ultra-hip record boutiques. The upper middle-class, privately educated kids who frequented these stores bought loads of import records from the UK and esoteric reissues of all kinds, then created music that was a portrait of themselves as exquisitely discerning consumers.” In other words, Shibuya-kei was a nod to forgotten, hip genres as varied as French ye ye, bossa nova, jazz, disco, and other pop styles, with the look and feel of 1960′s retro-futurism. Popular artists included Pizzicato Five, Flipper’s Guitar, Cornelius, and Karie Kahimi.

pizzicato2(3) One of the groups that epitomized the Shibuya-kei aesthetic, as mentioned, was Pizzicato Five, a group most popular with its incarnation of members Maki Nomiya and mastermind Yasuharu Konishi. It wouldn’t be erroneous to call Konishi the man with the vision: a look at P5′s discography puts you at the center stage of ironic, 1960′s retro-futurist musical genres, fashion, and general pastiche. Some would even go so far as to call Konishi’s music downright plagiarism. Suffice to say, Konishi understood this. His gigantic collection of vintage records that he relentlessly sampled wasn’t too far from what hip-hop had been doing for years. Regardless, Shibuya-kei did eventually reach a boiling point, most likely when books and manuals were published detailing all the minute references that took the pioneers forever to uncover, spelled out for even the simplest passing musical tourist to grasp. Suddenly, with a gigantic reference library of knowledge and specialist shops dedicated to the genre, crate digging for hours wasn’t as much fun, unique discoveries were impossible to make, and a new generation was onto something else. Or, to put it less lightly, “Through the mass media, the awareness of a particular celebrity or idol permeates national consciousness until it collapses under the weight of its own self-referential reproduction. [...] As a result, the desire for novelty becomes engrained in Japanese media culture, guaranteeing stability and routinizing consumption” (Galbraith & Karlin, 17). Pizzicato Five released their last album, Ca et la du Japon, in 2001, symbolically ending their reign of the decade.

(4) Yasuharu Konishi continues to produce and remix things here and there. His latest work is for Negicco’s new single “IDOL Bakari Kikakanaide.” Besides the fact that this is a classic Konishi hyper-violin, go-go groove, we’ve also got a reference that turns in on itself back to the source: a song idols are singing to encourage a boyfriend to stop listening to idols so much (“I don’t care how much you love idols / But no matter how much you shake her hand / You can’t date that girl / Too bad!”). Clever, right?

(5): Handshake events are quite popular in Japan. Often access is obtained by purchasing singles or albums. It’s exactly what is sounds like: fans get a chance to meet and shake the hands of idols.

negicco2Yasuharu’s interest in the long-running idol group started back in February, when he supposedly “begged” their producer connie to write a single for them.

(6): It isn’t uncommon for professional and budding musical composers to write songs and submit them to idol agencies in the hope they get produced. It’s a little different than your standard single-producer complete-control regimen, but it certainly takes fan interaction to a whole new level.

Says Yasuharu: “I’ve played this monumental song close to a 100 times at home already. I always dreamt of writing a song for an idol from when I was a high school student. I want to take this song and make him (myself in high school) listen to it. It was like, ‘the Kyohei Tsutsumi inside me’ burst out of me.”

(7): Kyohei Tsutsumi is another popular record producer who penned Ayumi Ishida’s ridiculously popular song “Blue Light Yokohama” in 1968 and has since gone on to become one of Japan’s most prolific music composers. Humble, Konishi is not.

Says connie: “The first time I heard about the idea for the title, ‘IDOL Bakari Kikanaide’, was on our first meeting. When I heard that title, I liked it so much that I said, ‘Please go with that!’. Just imagining Negicco singing a song called, ‘IDOL Bakari Kikanaide’ (meaning, ‘don’t just listen to idol songs’), it’s such a great idea! It gave me goose bumps when I listened to the demo when it arrived a few days later. It was authentic Konishi melody, and Konish [sic] lyrics. I was moved by just that.” In true retro fashion, this single was also released on limited edition 7″ vinyl.

(8): Negicco isn’t the only group with a retro-idol vibe to be affiliated with Pizzicato Five. To name another, kawaii duo Vanilla Beans have covered Pizzicato Five songs such as “Baby Portable Rock” and “Tokyo wa Yoru no Shichiji” and have invited ex-P5 vocalist Maki Nomiya to compete with them for the 4th edition taiban project.

(9) By the way, the title of the song is also a reference to France Gall’s “N’ecoute pas les idoles.” Because Konishi.

(10) The promotional video might seem a little stiff and awkward. Speculation: the idol group is most likely influenced by seminal idol duo Wink, a style that lives on in many Wink-style performances. From the blog Kayo Kyoku Plus: “You might call Wink the anti-Pink Lady: emotion-drained faces, robotic moves utilizing mostly their upper bodies, and Lolitaesque dresses. They looked just like porcelain dolls given life.” Wink took bubbly 80′s dance-pop and turned it into a cool, robotic business of hand waves and blank expressions that lives on in idols today.

The song can certainly be enjoyed without peeling back all of the layers and finding the references within references, but it does reveal the intertextual layers one has to sift through to truly understand and contextualize Japanese pop culture. Rather than assume everything from Japan is wacky or strange, sometimes it takes some research and an open mind to figure out what’s happening. Really, (at least in terms of a “shared cultural framework of texts”) it’s no different than movies or sitcoms that rely on pop  culture references for humor, or the links posted here or anywhere that lead you down the rabbit-hole that build on other links: more difficult than Wikipedia, but easier and less hypertext-y than Nabakov’s Pale Fire, which a sadistic professor may have forced you to read in an undergrad pomo Lit class. As such, it can be difficult to write about Japanese pop culture without assuming the reader knows the basics or grasps certain aspects that would take at least five or six steps backward to comprehend.

As per past discussion, Korean pop doesn’t necessarily follow this formula: Korean idols are created to be less specific, with references that mostly stem to the universal and the shared, or skewed towards those of the Western world. Again, Japan doesn’t really seem to care too much about exporting their idol talent, or easing up on the subsequent colossal advertising tie-ins and cross-media promotions. With the revenue they generate within their own country, whatever they’re doing seems to be working for them, even if they have to bribe fans to buy CDs to vote in media-promoted idol elections. Wait, back-up. Should we break that down?

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

The next great male J-pop artist will not be Keita Tachibana

Keita SIDE BY SIDE

It’s great when male idols escape their group for a while and go solo, especially when those efforts resemble something like Tomohisa Yamashita’s trajectory. He’s one of the few male idols being given a chance to do something with all that talent he’s got without fear of compromising his bland Johnny’s image (I’m thinking of all the stuff he gets to explore image-wise now, mostly, and not that entrance on a giant pair of lips wearing a full-length white coat on his Ero-P tour). Sure, the audience still has to endure those Johnny’s back-up dancers, the gimmicky underwear packaged with his latest album, and questionable collabs like “Monster,” but they also get to experience his nascent composition skills, such as awesome, ridiculous dance songs like “Hit the Wall” that couldn’t possibly come out of the hands of a person with such little experience. And yet.

It’s just as exciting to see Keita Tachibana of w-inds. get another chance at going solo, as he’s easily the most charismatic member of w-inds. (also the best looking, natch). Unfortunately, SIDE BY SIDE is less than memorable. Listening to this album is like being tricked into another w-inds. album: things are going great until all of a sudden they aren’t. There’s all those songs that would sound just fine if they weren’t so desperate to remake him into some kind of soulful, heartsick crooner. More importantly, it’s frustrating to see a Japanese pop album refuse to go all-in on a sound. The best moments are the common-denominator dance tracks that give some of the great K-pop numbers something to think about (that’s you “Shame on me”, rife with putting your hands up in the air like you just don’t care cliche, oont-oont minimalism), rather than almost everything after the mid-point, when the safer pop numbers kill the rest of SIDE BY SIDE‘s momentum.

I’m thinking now of somebody like Daichi Miura, a man with all kinds of technical ability, but maybe without the push of a team like Tachibana’s. This music video for “Right Now,” for example, is the greatest thing I’ve seen in a long, long time re: male solo singers. The choreography is amazing and Miura’s voice is so sharp when it needs to be, and softer when the lights go down, and then smooth, and then jazzy, and then he hits that falsetto and draws it out until there isn’t any air left in the song. It’s like he has eight different voices inside of him and knows the right time to use each of them. Yet this song barely cracked the Top Ten of the Oricon before it slid way, way down into obscurity, making nary a year end list.

There is room for male pop singers like Miura, Yamashita and even Tachibana. I only hope there’s more songs like “Shame on me” and “Thinking of you” in Tachibana’s future, probably two of the strongest tracks on an album named for one of the weakest. In a year where a lot of great singles are shadowed by unnecessary full-lengths, I’m hoping to see more hard-earned, quality competition for the next great male artist in Japan.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Momoiro Clover Z: What we talk about when we talk about idols

appmomoheadr

If this is AKB48′s world and we’re just living in it, Momoiro Clover Z has an even greater task on their hands: tweaking the standard just enough to keep it different, without ever abandoning true blue idol pop. I should confess that AKB48 is my least favorite thing to happen to Japanese pop music in the past decade. This includes, by the way, teen boy bands, Funky Monkey Babys, and Ayumi Hamasaki’s last single. Because we have yet to crown a new diva, one who hasn’t been born before 1990, the Oricon charts and pop culture conversation revolves around girl groups and subgroups. Unfortunately, AKB48′s success may have unleashed an ever larger number of idiosyncratic idol groups, but it’s become difficult to mess with the formula in any substantial way. Take Perfume, an idol group by any definition, who have never truly fit the mold: their best feature — music that doesn’t succumb to traditional idol pop — has also been their commercial downfall. It’s easy to think of Perfume as wildly successful because of their vociferous niche community, but their last number one single was 2009′s “ONE ROOM DISCO.” And more than chart status, looking at a group’s ripple effect is a better indicator of the kind of popularity we’re dealing with. When Perfume hit it big, a spat of similar artists mopping the classic Yasutaka Nakata electro-pop sound debuted, hoping to get their foot in the door it took Perfume almost six years to pry open. In recent years, these groups and solo artists are almost all but forgotten.

apppassorIn their place are groups like PASSPO, whose shtick is travel in general and flight attendants in particular. In addition to the costumes and lyrical content, the group has also invented a dubious vocabulary to make them stand out from groups with other, less classy angles. From their generasia profile: “Their live events are called “flights” while those who are attendance [sic] are usually called “the passengers” who can earn points, called “frequent flier miles.” [...] The group releases three versions of their singles, each name [sic] Business Class, First Class, and Economy Class, with different material inserted in each version.” Lest thou be fooled by the group’s aggressive marketing tactic, rest assured that this is your garden variety idol group, bubbly rock-pop and requisite graduations (may I suggest “that great gig in the sky”?) included.

appsaintfourrOf course, groups rocking a large number of members is nothing new. AKB48 had a predecessor in similar idol groups like Onyanko Club and Bishoujo Club 31. Momoiro Clover Z owe a debt to a rarer kind of ancestor like SAINT FOUR. That short-lived idol group churned out spunky synth-rock numbers in colored costumes while performing acrobatic dance routines to rival professional gymnasts. Unlike other groups that emphasized a coy vulnerability, they met the stage head on, bouncing around like loose springs in spandex costumes that evoked superheroes, or Super Sentai knock-offs. These girls didn’t whimper, they roared.

Momoiro Clover Z might be known for trolling the same geek circuit, but they also challenge the AKB legacy and its current spokeswoman Minegishi Minami. Both groups pander to an audience: in Z’s world, it’s what Patrick Macias explains are “bonkura.” To distinguish it from your run of the mill otaku, he says, “Bonkura guys are not anti-social. They will seek out and immediately bond with others who share the same wild enthusiasm for junk culture as they do. [..] All they want out of life is raw stimulation and to satisfy the unsophisticated desires of their eternal teenage boy within.” We’ll get back to that last thought in a second, but to sum up: Junk culture. Raw stimulation.

One of Momoiro Clover Z’s best known singles has the girls carousing around like drunk salarymen for “Rodou Sanka,” singing about the everyman giving it his best at work. Others have them traveling through outer space on bikes dressed as space pirates as a barrage of color hits the screen. When they’re not dressed up in color-coordinated boxing costumes, they’re endorsing anime like the newest reincarnation of Sailor Moon. Wacky and weird videos aside, before you start thinking they’re pushing the envelope with Edo period mythology, here’s another sample lyric: “Looky looky here, I want you to look here / When you look at me my heart pounds and I’m happy.” There’s that (teenage) male gaze again. These are idols, after all.

appmomocovrThe newest videos to promote the album 5th DIMENSION are a little different. At some point, in a crescendo mix of orchestra and dubstep, the members’ faces are covered completely by masks. In fact, the only way you could tell them apart (if you didn’t already know each girl by her distinctive height or movements) is by the signature color on their clothes. It’s hard to decide if this is a commentary on the bland, easily replaceable idol industry, or if the girls are just being eccentric again. Yet this isn’t the ridiculous fun of “Push” or “D’no Junjou“; they’re just wearing sparkly costumes with the equivalent of paper bags on their heads.

The real disappointment is the album itself. After the amazing teaser PV of “Neo STARGATE,” it’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking there’s genuine novelty about to happen in an idol group. 5th DIMENSION seemed like it would at least continue the trend of the group’s quirks, even if those quirks are just deliberately standing out from their peers. But the album is a collection of a lot of the same idol treacle with a few catchier stand-outs. It’s especially disappointing if you’re unable to reconcile the idea that Japanese idols created by a male-dominated industry for male-dominated audiences can’t be idols and also women and also positive role models in image and creativity.

One thing they do differently from other idols is put on children-only and women-only lives, perhaps to let minority fan communities get in on the fun without having to constantly rub shoulders with some of the seedier male fans, otaku and bonkura included. Don’t worry, guys get their own lives too, which is to say, Momoiro Clover Z wants you to have a good, safe time in a comfortable environment. But in essence, this also opens up the dreaded conversation about the extreme, less savory fans of idol groups, the ones that crop up the most in the media and make you just a little ashamed because you bought AKB48′s latest single for the song, not the election ballot.

app2ne1rI’ve spoken about the difference between Japanese and Korean idols before, but in an interview with Robert Michael Poole, the CEO of Something Drastic International Music Promotion, he finds it worth noting that “the majority of the audiences [for K-pop shows] are young girls, not boys. [ ...] The Japanese pop market has typically been all about cuteness, presenting boys with the ideal submissive girl to treat like a doll rather than lust over.” And later: “The J-pop industry couldn’t create a K-pop style group, because Japanese girls being that edgy would be seen as wholly un-Japanese. [... ] It seems girl groups in Japan have actually become increasingly cuter, younger and presented as servants (maids being the ultimate example), with the likes of AKB48 and their many copycats.” While the general tone of the interview highlights J-pop’s innovative inertia, keeping a pop sound that wouldn’t be out of place two decades ago, the two short years since the interview has seen what is perhaps the Hallyu wave’s last crash. Worth noting is the difference in marketing tactic K-pop groups have taken, attempting to deliberately cater their image to reach that coveted male Japanese fan and his spending money at the expense of strong, independent, and mature role models girls might want to see (note T-Ara’s original video for “Bo Peep Bo Peep” compared to the Japanese version).

This is not to argue how much more noble the K-pop industry is — for one thing, the process of training idols has fallen under extreme scrutiny — but rather to examine the function of idols, the freedom of expression and options girls are encouraged to pursue, and what it says about a particular culture’s notions of what boys and young men should come to expect from the girls and women they are presented with, from entertainment, to the boring, mundane interactions of real life.

Are Momoiro Clover Z the same as their idol peers, or are they actually forcing us to question the predominant image of female idols? Are they presenting different choices for talented girls, or delivering the same message through a different medium? When Tomohisa Yamashita goes solo from NEWS and takes risks working with producers like Yasutaka Nakata to make atypical music, or we see the girls of Fairies performing in outfits rather than costumes encouraging listeners to “Flow like a hero” instead of waiting for one, are we seeing a future of optical and musical variety, or will it simply satisfy a tiny niche so the industry can stay busy catering to the male psyches that offer an unyielding mix of loyalty and money?

For now, it seems all idol groups and solo artists with their eyes on the charts can do is avoid releasing singles and albums the same week the AKBs do. Maybe Momoiro Clover Z, with their aggressive sound and daft intersection of idol and junk culture, will continue to provide alternatives to what has become a fetid industry. Idols as they are now want to relieve us of the burden of examination, from the responsibility of honoring the opposite sex with dignity, from looking at the presentation of young women, and men, in the media and what they say about our own attitudes and responses to the easy glamour of pop culture, and from the courage it takes to confront what doesn’t feel quite right.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Ayumi Hamasaki’s “LOVE again”

ayuloveagainban

Ayumi Hamasaki / LOVE again / February 08, 2013

The consequence is one seeks love with a new person, with a new stranger. Again, the stranger is transformed into an “intimate” person, again the experience of falling in love is exhilarating and intense, and ends in the wish for a new conquest, a new love — always with the illusion that the new love will be different from the earlier ones. (Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving)

It’s no secret that Hamasaki’s 14th full-length album is love’s victory lap, a straight-up, no-frills rebound to 2010′s Love songs, that strangely earnest chapter in Ayumi’s memoir that makes follow-up Party Queen seem twice as fragile and practically toxic. Plummeting sales aside, LOVE again makes no qualms about reconciling the past with the present: Hamasaki’s lyrics have always been extremely vulnerable to interpretation. Her cover art more so — take a look at the color palette when love is involved: both Love songs and LOVE again employ hazy back light, pastel pinks and peaches, a warm, white fuzziness, cozily disheveled hair. We’re so close to tipping into Glamour Shots’ diffused glow territory it’s almost a tragedy there’s no sign of Aquanet. It’s like the break-up album never happened.

Unless you’re a new fan, reviews of LOVE again are mostly apologetic, or else a begrudging acceptance of the album’s marked difference to Party Queen. Says LoKi of podcast Gaijin Kanpai: “I feel that she’s not relevant anymore, and she’s trying really hard to be relevant.” Replies Jaylee, “You got her trying to be relevant off this album?” It’s not difficult to see Hamasaki’s work in the past few years as insignificant, unless you’re Ayumi Hamasaki herself. Most of what the reigning Empress of Pop does is akin to public scrap-booking: if you don’t know who she’s dating, check out her latest promotional video. If you want to know who she’s been hanging out with, check out her latest promotional video. If you want to know what designers she’s been into lately, you get the idea. Her tweeting habit alone is enough to make her seem practically furious: is there a word for relevance that only exists because you’re so legendary, no one is allowed to say “no”? Or the sadness one feels at the spectacle of it all? There’s got to be one in German.

Then there’s the music itself. “Wake me up” is sort of a perfect album opener: like (miss)understood‘s “Bold & Delicious,” it doesn’t tread lightly. Unfortunately, we’re rolling back into the deep of Hamasaki’s psyche for much of the rest of LOVE again. There are standard piano ballads, peppy rock numbers, and edgier songs like “snowy kiss,” a newbie’s “evolution” with its crazy poly-drums. These are nothing more than brief deviations. “Bye-bye darling” seems lost, kind of like “Love song” on Love songs — from whence did this come, and where can one findeth more? When the song titles aren’t limp (“petal,” “glasses,” “snowy kiss,”), we get vague references to Ayu-specific events (“untitled for her… story 2″), that we feel we’re supposed to know something about, but really know nothing about. Does someone as famous as Hamasaki get to choose what is made public and what is kept private? Have we ever figured out why there’s so much mutual violence in the “You&Me” and “snowy kiss” videos, or is this Ayumi’s new normal? Increasingly, we have to resolve that we’re all kind of trapped in Hamasaki’s dream/reality, the type of thing that happens when you’re so famous you can’t leave the house, but you have a big budget to create fantastical music videos with your future husband that may or may not be allusions to real-life events or fabricated nonsense. They’re usually both.

People fall in love many times in one lifetime: with friends, strangers, trends, music, films, themselves. It’s just as easy to fall out, maybe easier when you fall too fast and feel too much. It’s a therapeutic process to put those emotions into your work or art, as long as you don’t dramatically milk the concept more than once. And so unlike Love song‘s first-time sincerity, LOVE again is simply exhausting without any of the reward. It’s not as easy the second time: we fear the inevitable doom, the end, the fresh ink on divorce papers. It’s never easy to make poor choices in front of 866,283 followers and live your life through ViVi diary entries, but it’s difficult to applaud sheer effort after 15 years of pop stardom, or to love simply as a consolation, because it’s familiar. As Hamasaki is learning, rather than loving, the primary struggle is being loved. Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules to overcoming loneliness. Erich Fromm recommends discipline, concentration, and patience. Ayumi would also like to suggest a helmet.

Tagged , , ,

R.I.P. Trance Around the World

Here is how powerful the EDM marketing strategy is: After hosting 450 weekly broadcasts of their popular radio show Trance Around the World, Above & Beyond are ending the show with their final Bangalore soiree and starting Group Theray Radio. While this brand change would seem to effectively erase the association with trance in particular, to electronic dance styles in general, the group states there won’t be any major changes:

[T]he music policy will remain the same. Above & Beyond will continue to present 90 minutes of the best in trance and progressive, with a 30 minute guest mix from some of their favourite artists each week.

But eerily enough, it’s already somewhat difficult to define modern trance as the EDM boom waters down the essence of most styles: nothing new for big industries attempting to amass larger revenue by providing audiences with a more all-encompassing, streamlining label of the myriad subgenres of music. As usual, this seems to have created a whole new genre in the process. Quotes Sami Yenigun in NPR’s two cents:

“Everything that’s being presented as EDM falls so much within one particular corner of the scene, which is generally a more commercialized corner, a corner with more marketing muscle behind it,” says Philip Sherburne, who writes for SPIN and has covered dance music for more than a decade. “[The term has] been adopted mainly by an American audience to apply to big tent electro-house, American dubstep and things like this.” These things don’t all sound the same. [...] In reporting this article I spoke to more than a dozen DJs, industry insiders and dance music journalists (and many, many more in clubs and at festivals), but nobody I spoke to could draw a clear sonic line between EDM and other subgenres of dance music that they don’t consider EDM, like deep house or techno. [...] But as the ever-shifting vernacular around dance music has started to congeal, some sort of consensus has formed around its definition: EDM is a pop-driven, mostly high-energy, commercial strain of dance music.

Lest one begins to rank the positive and negative outcomes, it’s important to recognize that anything seeking to emulate a “commercial” value will itself create a highly competitive market for its own best music. While it may not be the most interesting or even challenging sound, EDM encourages a music-making pool similar to the greatest pop: making music for large numbers of people without sacrificing the care and attention it takes to craft a genuinely catchy or meaningful song.

Above & Beyond’s own shift falls under the same ethos. While Trance Around the World confined the group within a certain niche, the change opens the show to possibilities it may discover it wants to pursue. Without relishing its own status as something of a trance legacy, Above & Beyond is choosing to move forward rather than rest on the group’s veteran reputation by making a risky decision that could ensure the group’s survival past EDM’s inevitable rise and fall (which may actually have occurred this summer). Group Therapy is already a phrase I’ve evoked as a kind of otherworldly term for trance, specifically the kind that Above & Beyond are known for: it’s an all-inclusive term that acknowledges how people themselves are an integral experience of the music. Where there’s genuine appreciation, sometimes the more, the better.

Tagged , , , ,

Don’t call it a comeback: Japanese City Pop

Although its exact origins are still up for debate, the term “J-pop” didn’t make its debut until 1988, right around the time the bubble economy burst, ushering in a different kind of decade highly relative to the open consumerism that defined much of the 80s. Before then, various labels were thrown around to capture the anomalies between traditional Japanese music and its more Western-influenced chart-pop, including New Music and a little later, City Pop. While New Music was a mix of Japanese popular forms with an “urban contemporary” mix, City Pop erased much of the Japanese influence and highlighted synths with all matter of popular “urban” styles, such as jazz, adult contemporary, R&B, and even big band.

City Pop is making something of a revival in the past couple years (emphasis on something), marked by albums like Greeen Linez’s Things That Fade and domestic artists like Hitomitoi and YYSHID. In a recent profile of the style, The Japan Times says City Pop “blends soul music, fusion and adult-oriented rock (AOR) with lyrics that center on city life as it often was experienced during the country’s bubble economy,” a point Michael Bourdaghs takes further in Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon to describe the vibe of the 80s in big cities like Tokyo: “The Japanese economy is surging to unprecedented heights, driven by a speculative bubble that brought with it conspicuous consumption on a world historical scale… Media culture reacts as well: the new consumerism can be seen in the cheerful hit songs of the Southern All Stars celebrating summer vacation and life at the beach” (198). City Pop artists in the 80s included vocalists like Miki Imai and Momoko Kikuchi, whose album ADVENTURE released in 1986 defines the genre by checking off all of the stylistic boxes without neglecting the importance of ambient jacket art featuring an extravagant private jet.

While the number of artists who dabbled in City Pop during the decade are too numerous to consider individually, it’s still peculiar to witness the genre crop up in contemporary artists: while nostalgia might be an apt explanation for any revival, City Pop hasn’t yet accrued enough of a following to count as a proper revival. And though City Pop eventually petered out when the bubble burst, it was almost instantly picked up by Shibuya-kei, which took the same themes of leisure and excess spending to new heights by incorporating 60′s Continental jetset culture with playboy romanticism. In a sense, while the genre itself became unidentifiable, the sentiment still loomed in a different form. City Pop also captures something of a fascinating paradox in values, at once espousing an urban lifestyle while longing for beach side resorts and tropical climates, the kind of conventions taken for granted by those that can afford to get away from the city for a while and long for simpler things for which they are willing to spend top dollar. If there were such a thing as yuppies in Japan, you’d find them jamming to Piper’s “RIDE ON SEASIDE.”

As such, Hitomitoi’s new album City Dive doesn’t deliver anything novel, rather it indulges in these tropes with a gentle pinch of irony, with perhaps its most charming characteristic being the ability to appear sincere despite its acknowledged label as a “concept album” — its dead giveaway is the (purposefully?) awful Photoshopped cover art. As far as covering the bases, the album is no stranger to excess: there are two song titles alone that reference summer and two others that hint at bodies of water. Maybe problematically, City Dive only recognizes its vapidity enough to render the album smart rather than simple musical indulgence, though bereft of its historical context, it accomplishes what the best radio-pop does: toes the line between sonic wallpaper and genuine significance.

After all, despite City Pop’s place in music history, it wasn’t the only genre popular in Japan during the 80s: punk rock was gaining notoriety thanks to bands like The Blue Hearts, metal was never far from the public eye, and idol pop was still the biggest cash cow most likely to appear on music programs and the front displays of record shops. But where there are kids with too much spending money, there will always be a music culture that reflects their discriminating tastes.

Tagged , , , ,

The Avex Apex: A Brief History of Trance-pop in Japan

Before the term “EDM” entered the mainstream, dance music has been an omnipresent fixture on the pop music panorama, ranging from Perfume precursors Candies and Triangle, to Yu Hayami’s transformation into an italo disco darling and up into the late 90s and early 00s, where house culture made its heavy crawl outside the club and onto the radio, becoming a Top 40 standard. But pop music is no stranger to the accusations of appropriation and it doesn’t take a Deadmau5-fueled rant on the cover of a mainstream magazine to complain about the mainstreaming of dance music to wonder what will happen when the fad cashes enough checks to move onto the next curiosity.

Japan had its own EDM mainstreaming in the late 90s and early 00s, when the import of trance music reached its eventual zenith, leaving behind a number of co-ed pop groups scrambling for relevance. In the 1990s, the mix-and-match of Shibuya-kei, a type of sound that embraced Continental retro-futurist styles, gained traction at the same time rising-star record label Avex Trax took one look at club culture and saw massive yen signs. While pushing their pop stars towards the then-popular freestyle genre, itself a kind of heir to italo disco, sub-label Rhythm Republic was established in 1994 to focus exclusively on dance music, beginning with the “SUPER EUROBEAT” series (that same year, they opened the nightclub Velfarre, one of the many hotspots Ayumi Hamasaki used to fritter away her teen years before being signed to the record label — to set the scene, she mentions German eurodancers Real McCoy receiving huge play).

While the name itself implies origins outside of Asia — and indeed, the sound itself was imported from Britian — the genre itself is mostly unique to Japan. Best described as a combination of house, happy hardcore, and Hi-NRG, the sound features lightening-fast BPM, electric guitars, and dizzying synths played on fast-forward. While the genre enjoyed its own unique labels and artists (a few J-pop groups included Two-Mix, Folder 5 and HINOI TEAM), the mass following of the series eventually found its way onto the reportoire of the label’s pop artists like Namie Amuro and her former backup dancers MAX. In the late 90s, it reached an even wider audience when artists received special remix compilations done in the style. By the time Ayumi Hamasaki was on the label, she received the deluxe “SUPER EUROBEAT” treatment herself.

One of the figures behind these developments was Tetsuya Komuro, who was then a music producer at Avex. If Yasutaka Nakata is credited as the modern-day genius who bridged the gap between Shibuya-kei and electro house, essentially bringing it to a Japanese audience, Tetsuya Komuro was the 90s equivalent to a much higher degree. In the mid-90s, Komuro abandoned his band TM Network to focus on producing a handful of other artists under the Avex Trax label, including Ami Suzuki (whose carer was later resurrected after collaborating with a roster of the most famous Japanese house producers, including RAM RIDER, STUDIO APARTMENT, and the aforementioned Yasutaka Nakata, who produced her album Supreme Show in its entirety). Instead of the pop music that constituted his new project globe, he was keen on exploring conventional dance narratives for the label. But globe (much like Nakata’s capsule) soon became Komuro’s creative and experimental outlet, eventually changing its style to reflect his newest obsession: trance.

Trance music originated in the 90s as a jumbled mess of house, techno, and classical music before its German roots took hold in Scandinavian countries and received the ultimate makeover. While the original style sounds very little like its modern day evolution, by the time godfathers Armin van Buuren and Ferry Corsten got their hands on it, trance music was ripe for entering the consciousness of an above-ground audience. While the sound still remained firmly underground for several years, Komuro was determined to be the face of Japan’s trance chapter. At the genre’s stylistic peak at the onset of the new millennium, van Buuren, Corsten, and groups like Above & Beyond, Marc et Claude, and Svenson & Gielen were commissioned to remix Avex artists like Ayumi Hamasaki and Every Little Thing under “SUPER EUROBEATS”‘s sister series “Cyber TRANCE.”

With globe, Komuro began releasing epically winding trance-inspired pop singles culminating in outernet, the group’s first true dance album and first spectacular bomb on the charts. Instead of taking a different approach, Komuro pressed forward, releasing fearless trance-pop songs like “try this shoot” that utilized the genre’s predilection for airy female vocals. However, unlike the traditional breakdowns of a trance song, Komuro fit the music into conventional pop structures and maintained his resident MC. He was also big on taking advantage of the maxi-single format to feature his own extended trance mixes that spanned 13+ minutes. In fact, the single’s move from the then-popular 3″ format allowed more space for karaoke versions and remixes, a trend that artists everywhere began taking advantage of. Before long it became impossible for even visual-kei bands like Dir en grey to forgo a remixed track of some blood-curdling song about death and dying — or else release whole remix albums (a couple era-defining remix albums at this time that employed the forgotten practice of wacky remix names like “Free Food Free Drink Mix” and “You’re Damm Touchable K-Mix” before DJ self-promotion became the norm: Tomoe Shinohara’s DEEP SOUND CHANNEL and T.M.Revolution’s DISCORdanza).

Of course, no one took as much advantage of the maxi-single format as Ayumi Hamasaki: from 1999′s Boys & Girls to 2002′s Daybreak, Hamasaki’s singles contained anywhere up to nine remixes from both domestic and foreign DJs, including Fantastic Plastic Machine, Izumi”D•M•X”Miyazaki, Junior Vasquez, and Hex Hector. While Hamasaki eventually dropped the maxi-single format, the “ayu-mi-x” series lives on to the present day, often including many of the same music producers alongside veterans. Nonetheless, it was her collaboration with trance artists like Above & Beyond (for single “M”) and Ferry Corsten (for “WHATEVER” and later on album I am… for “connected“) that eventually opened the doorway to recognition in Europe.

While Hamasaki represented a broad range of dance styles including trance, from minimal house to drum n’ bass, other artists took the globe route and attempted crafting their own trance makeovers. Label mates move, also featuring a co-ed group of two men and a lead female vocal, ditched their more eurodance sound to find a more trance-inspired influence on singles like 2001′s “FLY ME SO HIGH” and “come together“, resulting in album SYNERGY, which managed to chart at #10 on the Oricon. In addition, they also lent their songs to DJs like D-Z and 83key for their own numerous remix compilations in trance and eurobeat styles. In fact, the first few years of the 00s were turning out to be Japanese trance-pop’s most commodifying year, reaching an absurd peak in 2002 when former X Japan drummer and metal enthusiast Yoshiki joined globe, released a compilation of self-gratifying X Japan trance remixes (Trance X), and a charity compilation album for the 9/11 attacks entitled song+nation received a sprawling 2-disc trance makeover (song+nation 2 trance), peppered with Komuro’s own original material.

Then, in an astoundingly short period of time, globe’s albums dropped rapidly in sales until they ceased releasing altogether, move lost a member and began recording under the name m.o.v.e., Ayumi Hamasaki made a brief appearance at a Japanese Above & Beyond show before deciding she would no longer sing flighty, easily remixed pop songs, and Yasutaka Nakata’s group capsule made the softer sound of trance seem quaint next to his compressed, chunky electro-house sound.

While trance has continued to evolve and flourish in other countries, its brief moment in the Japanese pop forefront has diminished, save for a remix on a AAA single here and a compilation there. Today, trance maintains a steady fan base, growing both in sound and popularity in the West, particularly North America, where artists like Armin van Buuren, Ferry Corsten, and Above & Beyond still record and draw large crowds. Whether or not trance in its pure form will ever be as popular as some of the other genres now falling under the brilliant marketing term “EDM,” its rise and fall atop Japan’s pop scene in the early 00s and its unceasing ability to move forward predicts a healthy future, even after its one-shot DJs and bandwagon enthusiasts leave it for newer horizons.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.