Cool Japan vs. Hallyu: The long, loud road to soft power

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Like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu before them, Perfume is all set to make their North American debut this fall on a tour that includes stops in Los Angeles and New York, as well as an international release of last year’s album LEVEL3, which will include two bonus remixes. The Internet has been predictably awash in both pleasant surprise and utter horror — worries FilmiGirl, “Their songs are tied up in their intricate visual choreography but I’m afraid that part won’t be clear to the Western arts types trying to write about them.” While South Korea has had a fruitful K-culture export strategy, Japan has been less successful, for several reasons I’ve gone over before in this blog, and that others have reiterated across the Internet. But the one point it always comes back to is that Japan lacks effort because they simply do not care. Japan still holds the distinction of being the second largest music market in the world with physical sales of CDs still trumping digital by leaps and bounds. At least for the time being, Japan’s business strategy works for the music entertainment industry in their favor.

Yet we still see the occasional group or singer attempt an American, or international, crossover. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has toured the US and released an international version of Pamyu Pamyu Revolution, globe-trotting on her brand of Harajuku fashion and artistic, sometimes off-the-wall visuals. But crossovers have gone all the way back since Hikaru Utada, Mai Kuraki, Pizzicato Five, Seiko Matsuda, Pink Lady, and so on. Despite these artists sharing Western styles of music and performance, rather than Japan’s abundance of idols and idol pop, rarely has anyone been able to attain a palpable sense of popularity, perhaps one of the reasons that crossovers tend to stay local, with Asian artists focused on growing a fan base in other East Asian countries like China and Singapore.

Japan, and, especially, Korea have attempted to rectify their low cultural influence outside of Asia with initiatives like Cool Japan and what is known as Hallyu, or the Korean Wave. Both of these tactics are similar, with government funding initiatives to pump up soft power: food, television, cinema, music, and electronics are only some of the positives the countries want associated with themselves, banking on the idea that foreigners will eventually form positive opinions of their country through this coercion, rather than force (hence the term “soft power”). Japan is investing $500 million in a 20-year plan, most likely in response to Korea’s enormous gain in the international pop culture wars — while Japan used to be Asia’s predominant taste maker, Korea has caught up in a phenomenally short amount of time.

koreancoolappIn The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture, Euny Hong outlines the reasons Japan’s reign has come to an end:

“First of all, Japanese pop culture, like the Japanese archipelago itself, is too isolated from the rest of the world to have remained a sustainable global influence. […] Others, like pop culture critic Lee Moon-won, point out that Japan is a big enough consumer market as it is (the population is 100 million) and is less dependent than Korea is on foreign exports. For many Japanese companies, it’s not worth the huge risk of a very, very costly overseas marketing campaign.” (200-201)

In addition, she cites that “many of Japan’s video games are for the Japanese market only,” the Japanese are reluctant to learn English (“J-pop bands don’t strategically include non-Japanese members, for example”), the presence of online distribution channels like YouTube and the use of subtitles which Japanese companies refuse to take advantage of, and the practice of grooming potential stars much differently than their Korean counterparts (201-202). Korean agencies churn out K-pop stars in a factory system, training idols from a very young age in dancing, singing, and media presence, and sending them out into the world as polished and professional as most audiences would expect. On the other hand, Japanese idols start out at a young age to purposely appear green: their real marketing push is to debut somewhat untalented so they can hone their skills in the public eye, giving the audience a sisterly or brotherly pull to support them. This creates a sort of emotional (and financial) bond unique to J-pop idols. In addition, it’s worth mentioning that Japanese idols are valuable less for their singing or dancing skills, than their ability to effortlessly float across media platforms, such as dramas, variety shows, and advertising.

W. David Marx writes in “The Jimusho System: Understanding the Production Logic of the Japanese Entertainment Industry“: “In pursuit of profit, they [agencies] maximize entertainers’ incomes through a wide variety of activities, most deeply focused on product sponsorship. [...] Idols are products of their jimusho, [agency] and the jimusho work to create idols who have the greatest economic potential (37).” This “economic” potential is difficult to parlay into an overseas net value where the same advertising tie-ins would be highly difficult to obtain, and artists would, instead, have to rely solely on their music and performances. In that case, it would be a Sisyphean task to attempt to cross over hugely successful groups like SMAP, Arashi, or AKB48. Furthermore, it makes little sense from a business standpoint to drop what is already such a lucrative endeavor that needs no explanation at home, to a country such as the United States, that would require footnotes at every step (see my post Japanese Pop Culture and Intertextuality to get a sense of what we’re dealing with here).

Furthermore, celebrity endorsements work differently in Japan anyway. Jason G. Karlin writes in “Through a Looking Glass Darkly: Television Advertising, Idols, and the Making of Fan Audiences” that

“[u]nlike celebrities in the US, Japanese [talents] do not endorse products. Instead, image characters lend their star image to the brand, but without implying any direct endorsement or testimonial. The Japanese celebrity is not making any claims or representations for the product. Indeed, in most commercials, the celebrity never even mentions the name of the product.” (74-75)

To sum up again, we’re looking at a culture that is financially stable in its own system that, at least for the time being, works in their favor. To move outside Japan, Japanese companies would be losing control of large amounts of income and the enormous influence they yield over broadcast networks and other companies by providing stars that earn those companies revenue in return.

On the other hand, K-pop idols are much more willing to play the long-game and adapt to their Western counterparts in both business practice and image. This is especially easy when K-pop is already so familiar and hip to an international audience that recognizes its references immediately without needing to Google eight separate pieces of background information to get an idea of what’s going on with the sounds or visuals. Perhaps this is why Perfume in particular have been chosen as the next torchbearers: their sound is largely irreverent of current J-pop trends, capable of being enjoyed in as basic a vacuum as you can get when it comes to J-pop. They are also not idols in the traditional sense, yet they do bring a sense of something wholly unique and Japanese, that Yasutaka Nakata sound that is so difficult to replicate and so chillingly important in a music market that sounds more and more homogenous. While they don’t have Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s fashion cred, they do have a uniform look and appeal that remains classic, and a forward-looking visual aesthetic that can be as breathtaking as it is innovative. They are, in short, one of the best musical groups Japan currently has to offer and continuing to send them off into the world is the only way to keep the party going when domestic sales start to flutter.

hellokiappIt’s also a way to promote Japanese pop culture without using the words many already associate with Japan: anime, cute, kawaii, Hello Kitty, etc. While none of those things are inherently bad unto themselves, Japan already has a PR campaign focused on nurturing kawaii. In “Wink on Pink: Interpreting Japanese Cute as It Grabs the Global Headlines” Christine Yano lists everything from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs using the robot kitty Doraemon as its mascot, to Hello Kitty for its tourism, to using three young women, Misako Aoki, Yu Kimura, and Shizuka Fujioka, to model Lolita, Harajuku, and schoolgirls-in-uniform fashion at Japanese global events to showcase how “Japanese cute – including its tease of youth and femininity — has become part of official policy in creating a new face that beckons the overseas customer (685).” While there is something of a tongue-in-cheek way that these fashions and messages are worn by consumers (the “wink” in the article’s title), it’s still a wonder to see three girls like Perfume promote something other than a stereotype: indeed, the girls are hard-working and talented and feminine and strong and they don’t have to wear a maid uniform to get your attention or represent their country. Progress.

Regardless, none of this points to absolute success, where success is defined by the acceptance of a widespread Western audience: for example, while the Japanese lyrics are part of the appeal, it may be difficult for a broader audience to accept the authenticity. In fact, historically we have nothing to predict this will catapult Perfume into global stardom, rather than do the same thing groups like Girls’ Generation have done: bring happiness and delight to a small niche audience, maybe open a few new eyes and ears to something new and different (in this case, recruiting English speaking members is a plus when you plan on conducting interviews and making audiences more comfortable with English-language albums). Maybe get the ball rolling for more, mostly insignificant, collaborations, or spark the hope that a person or persons of Asian background can become celebrities outside their respective countries. At best, get “Gangnam Style” out of their heads. This is why fans that fear the group will change, or that they’ll lose something fragile and precious, as if they own trends or people and would rather hold them back to the detriment of their overall success, probably don’t have much to worry about.

femmappAs for where J-pop is going, it is indeed interesting to watch the music market evolve with the influence of K-pop. I’ve written before how groups like Fairies are borrowing some of the look and style of K-pop groups. Earlier, I quoted Euny Hong stating J-pop groups are reluctant to learn English (“J-pop bands don’t strategically include non-Japanese members, for example”), but this also seems to be changing with groups like FAKY and GENERATIONS from EXILE TRIBE. Both groups are under the record label avex trax and include non-Japanese members that were born outside the country or are of mixed background. It’s worth noting that avex trax might be one of the few labels that can attempt to experiment with the market: as one of the most successful independent record labels in Japan, they have the reputation and the funds to put things like hyper-experimental (and oh my god amazing) “mannequins” FEMM out into the world. All of these are responses to the K-pop model of music, a mutation in the J-pop virus that churns out uber-pop boy and girl bands for the sake of banking on present trends rather than taking a chance on the future, or rather, creating one. However, this is still not the typical practice of Japanese record companies.

Japan needs to remember that as it leads the world in music sales, it also has the responsibility to remain as diverse as it always has, to support not only its huge corporations but its budding indie labels and future taste makers, to utilize social media and not fear the big, bad, icky feeling of not being able to dictate how their audience will buy, share, view, or consume their products at all times. Because of the lose of control of their performers, over segments of the industry as a whole, and the extra revenue generated from crossover platforms, exporting Japanese culture would need to transcend the bottom line for the ideals of national pride and a genuine desire to share culture across borders rather than to niche audiences like fans of anime or Harajuku fashionistas. Perhaps “the ultimate question of whether “Cool Japan” can really pose a challenge to Hallyu lies in whether people even want the Japanese brand of cool when Korean cool seems to be working so well already,” writes sophie at Beyond Hallyu. Nonetheless, whether or not Cool Japan has the potential to catch up with or surpass the Hallyu wave depends on all of this, in addition to how willing the country will be to let go of business-as-usual and dare to try new things – or decide it’s worth it in the first place.

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Ai ♥ Otsuka and the fantastic fall of the Oricon charts

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Every month some new article pops up about the fall of Ayumi Hamasaki, often in terms of CD sales according to the Oricon. Sometimes it’s about Namie Amuro. Or Kumi Koda. They all end the same way: your favorite thing is no longer a thing. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to talk about a J-pop artist’s diminishing sales because a) CD sales are rapidly declining every year, especially since the early 00’s and b) most of the titans we talk about when we talk about “diminishing sales” have been around since just before the CD industry collapsed. Therefore, while the number of years an artist has been around and the decreasing number of sales might be correlated, we can’t really know just how deep the Oricon sales dip might be if it weren’t for digital sales and/or people no longer paying for music in general. Here’s a chart of what Ayumi Hamasaki’s CD sales have looked like since A Song for XX up until Colours (as of today’s date).*

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This might look familiar to you because basically every J-pop diva’s chart looks exactly the same.

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(You might also mistake these charts for that of Japan’s annual inflation rate.)

Rather than say an artist is losing popularity, it might be wiser today to notice, for example, how popular Japanese recording artists all seem to follow the same trajectory: building up to an explosive album sale only to rapidly lose selling power. Instead of assuming sales are a reflection of the artists or the musical content itself, it’s safer to state a host of other hackneyed platitudes: that the general public is fickle, that fame is fleeting, and that selling music today is a Herculean task for only the bravest of record labels. Or more certainly, that the Oricon chart is meaningless, telling you neither who is buying albums nor why, that digital sales are better markers, or even that selling music is less important than selling concert tickets, merchandise, or providing opportunities for an artist to sponsor other products.

aiotsukalovefancovappNowhere is this more obvious than in some of the music that’s contained on these incredibly low-selling albums. My personal vote for most underrated album of the year is already Ai Otsuka’s LOVE FANTASTIC, which as of this writing, debuted at #22, slipped to #113, and has only sold a total of 5,188 units in its first two weeks (the vast majority of sales occurred the first week — the second only yielded 770 units). These are scary numbers for an album that is a quintessential example of J-pop done right, including Otsuka’s lush signature ballads (“Gomen ne,” “Mawari Mawaru Mawareba Mawaro”) and quirky upbeat numbers (title tracks “LOVE FANTASTIC” and, especially, “LUCKY☆STAR,” which sounds like a hip indie band’s debut single). In fact, this is one of the most cohesive albums Otsuka has ever released, and certainly one of my favorites overall, down to the jacket art (let’s not pretend LOVE JAM isn’t just some outrageous garbage).

But perhaps the “love” gimmick is just getting too hard for anyone to buy into anymore. Perhaps not releasing an album for six years has caused the public to forget who exactly this talented musician is — and perhaps Avex staying busy promoting Namie Amuro’s BALLADA has left them with little time, or incentive, to give the album the extra push it needed. Releasing any album ever, anywhere, anymore is always going to be like starting over, like forgetting all the past numbers, like forgetting numbers altogether, and simply making music that can hold its head up with grace while the charts crumble.

*(All statistics have been gathered from generasia.com/wiki. Please note that although the graphics appear to reach extreme lows, none of the numbers reach zero, as it might appear to — it’s just hard to illustrate drops to the low thousands on a scale with such large numbers).

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f(x)’s “Red Light”

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f(x) / Red Light / July 07, 2014

The big question about f(x)’s new album was always going to be whether or not it stood up to last year’s Pink Tape. As far as perfect pop records go, there weren’t many contenders to Pink Tape, which kind of puts f(x) in a unique position: for some reason, I get the sense that they might not be as widely regarded as Girls’ Generation or 2NE1 (says totallyamazing: “SM has successfully sold me f(x) as the oddball younger sisters of Girls’ Generation” and mixtapesandlinernotes asserts: “It’s days like this I’m thankful that f(x) is on the fringes of the SM talent pool”), yet their output is at times far superior. Both groups have already released albums this year: GG’s Mr.Mr. inspired a collective meh from its audience, and 2NE1’s CRUSH wasn’t necessarily bad, but it was unfortunately released far too long after their last mini-album, making some wonder whether the wait was worth it, or if there should have been more substance to something that took, three singles notwithstanding, almost three years to finally cultivate. But Red Light, mere days after its release, is already respected as one of the best albums of the year, a quintessential collection of pop standards, all hovering somewhere around the three minute mark to boot.

While Red Light is certainly a more mature work than its predecessor, it functions as more of a darker sequel to the art-house aesthetic of Pink Tape (though we’re still forever jumping over Instagram filters and Urban Outfitters ads since the inception with these guys). Many tracks neatly book end each other, such as the lead electro-pop singles (“Cheos Salangni (Rum Pum Pum Pum)” and “Red Light“), the two retro (70’s disco strings in “Signal,” smooth 80’s synths in “All Night”), hip-pop (“Kick” and “Mujigae”), and the ballad ending tracks (“Ending Page” and “Jongi Shimjang (Paper Heart)”). Rather than trying to surpass the work of Pink Tape, the writers emulate a lot of what worked so well, with an overwhelming degree of success. One can’t hold a grudge against this, anymore than a group that succeeds by making drastic changes you’re not partial to. For its part, the rest of the album is just as young and  slick as we’re used to expect from the group, with subtle elements defining what really makes the album stand out (the bhangra drums on “MILK” are a particularly interesting choice, the way the last syllable in Dracula is drawn out in “Dracula” turns the sinister saccharine, and “Vacance” is a great companion to GG’s “Europa”).

Red Light will surely go down as one of the year’s highlights, especially where K-pop is concerned: there’s only a few more “comebacks” before all the major labels have flexed their finest, and the rookie groups continue to flail at a spectacular level. Red Light, while simple at its core, and almost elementary in its lyrics, is filled with some of the healthiest hooks and this-is-my-jam opportunities we’re likely to see all year.

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Why the world needs a new “Feel the love” PV

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Although Ayumi Hamasaki’s 15th studio album, currently untitled as of this date, won’t be released until July, several previews have already been released, including the digital single “Hello new me,” the dub version of “Terminal” (produced by mega-trance mastermind Armin van Buuren), “Angel,” “What is forever love,” “NOW & 4EVA,” and “Lelio.” Based on the list of producers alone, including RedOne and Fedde Le Grand, the album is touting itself under the massive umbrella term “EDM,” perhaps in a bid to update Hamasaki’s typical sound, and step as far away from her last three albums as possible. This isn’t entirely new musical ground for Hamasaki, at least in terms of original material; remixes aside, 2009’s NEXT LEVEL was heavily influenced by electronic dance music and back in 2002, she collaborated with famed trance producer Ferry Corsten on “connected.”

What remains to be seen is just how much of this album is really a “new me” and how much of it is the same Hamasaki cocktail we’ve come to know and occasionally crave. What you’ve expected for the last ten years: pop/rock songs, heavy on the guitars, poppy ballads, drama, tragedy, grand-scales, heavy-handed declarations, specific references to who-knows-what events, personal revelations — but only behind an I know something you don’t know smile — and a handful of extraordinary risk takers, the few songs penned by new or unknowns that leave us wondering why someone didn’t push Hamasaki further into that vast territory of the au courant. Here are the missing variables: Is Hamasaki sabotaging herself by insisting on more of the same? Has she lost her touch for recognizing moving and exciting material? Is she resting on her “brand”? Does she seriously think “Hello new me” is anything new at all? Are the intriguing songs like “Lelio” just luring us into believing there is something of relevance here, or are they just echoes of a trendy genre, desperate to sit at the cool table? Maybe more than correcting the musical missteps of the recent past, there’s clearly a desire to correct the mistakes of the present.

The music video goes like this: A blonde, overweight girl with big glasses sits in her bedroom, taping a picture of herself onto another picture with a good-looking, fit, muscular man she has a crush on. She leaps up with determination, goes outside, and starts running. This profile shot of the girl running extends almost throughout the rest of the video, interspersed with an animated version of the girl swimming and/or doing anything else they didn’t have the budget to accomplish with live action. The girl stays the same size throughout her many days and nights of running, only stopping towards the end to get a haircut and go shopping for dresses (there is a scene where she dances a little, and another where she’s gnawing a chicken leg while running because overweight people just can’t stop, can they?). She runs into a park and sees the man from the photo, but he ignores her. She trips, and when she gets up, she’s Ayumi Hamasaki wearing a short, revealing pink dress. The guys sees her and immediately takes notice, amazed at her beauty. Ayumi makes girlish hand gestures, touches her face, winks, saunters over, and they walk off into the sunset together happily ever after. This is not irony, or satire. This is the actual music video for “Feel the love,” the Tetsuya Komuro-penned single released late last year.

In short, the video encourages changing the most fundamental things about yourself to be noticed by a man, the idea that a man will only accept you if you are thin and beautiful enough, a preoccupation with unnatural or unrealistic standards of beauty, and the willful acceptance that you are inferior and unworthy as you are.

A few weeks later, the “full version” of this promotional video was released. Hamasaki herself addressed fans’ concerns over the video by tweeting: “Of course I will listen all my loBely’s [sic] opinions anytime. But thing is that you all haven’t seen the real ending yet. Don’t worry ;)”. The “real ending” consisted of a four second epilogue where Hamasaki turns back into the overweight blonde girl mid-hug while the guy looks at her in disbelief, confusion, and possibly horror. Now, this obviously does not change or make any apologies for the rest of the video, including the part where the girl tries to run on a treadmill and falls on her face — presumably, because fat people are just really funny when they try to exercise. Even the most apologetic fans have to see this as mean-spirited, particularly after a video like “how beautiful you are” where people of all races, ages, genders, sizes, and sexual orientations are portrayed positively. Not every pop song or music video has to be a Statement piece, but when you are making one, your statement probably shouldn’t be: lose weight and all your dreams will come true. There is a way to promote health and fitness without using shame, portraying overweight women as caricatures, or using the attention of men as an incentive for weight loss. From Brown University’s Health Education web site:

“Then there’s the issue of romance. Media messages, particularly those from advertising, strongly emphasize the role of appearance in romantic success. “Getting” the guy or the girl is reduced to possessing a stereotypical set of physical attributes, with no appreciation for personality, background, values, or beliefs.”

In The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance is Hurting Women, Men-And Our Economy, Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett emphasize that “[t]he message to women and girls in all media is that their appearance should be, above all, tailored to the “the male gaze.” You exist at all times in a world where men are looking at you, and you must please them” (140).

Needless to say, the promotional video garnered a lot of mixed to negative reactions from fans after its release. Here are some reactions from fans on the Ayumi Hamasaki Sekai forum who weren’t really feeling the love:

“Dont know if it was funny or absolutely cheap and ridiculous” (Mirrocle Monster)

“Am I the only one who didn’t get the ending? When it finally seemed to me the girl accepted her body-shape…? What was that, if you run a lot and cur [sic] your hair you turn Japanese?” (Gustavopc)

“The main message is: Unless you change your body (and maybe your race), you’re a crap and the boy will run away from you” (Elednist)

“In my opinion, encouraging someone to change their appearance for someone they like under the guise of “working hard for something” is unhealthy and wrong.” (Becky)

“I don’t think they wanted the PV to look offensive but it can totally be seen as such.” (Maemi)

These comments were accompanied by several positive responses arguing that the music video is merely an encouragement to stay focused and work hard towards a goal. Working hard at what you want is a good principle to follow, but again, equating weight loss with success at anything other than weight loss, is a dangerous precedent. Reflecting on all her years of trying to lose weight, comedian and activist Margaret Cho remarked, “There were whole years that I missed. Those were the loneliest times of my life when I had the least amount of love. I just thought if I could get to a certain weight, then I could be alive. But that is a counterproductive idea. Like why can’t you just be alive now? … It took almost half my life to get there.”

Perhaps reacting to the negativity around the video, especially from girls who see her as a role model, Hamasaki is creating brand-new music videos for both “Feel the love” and “Merry-go-round” (why both is a bit of a mystery — the latter’s most egregious sin was being boring). Whether or not the damage can be repaired, it’s obvious Hamasaki is gauging feedback and using it to tailor an album that’s more satisfying for both its viewers and listeners, though perhaps at the expense of genuine creativity, change, or even insight.

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Tetsuya Komuro, 1996

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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

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Top songs, albums, etc. of 2013

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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

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Perfume’s “LEVEL3″

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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.

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

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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?

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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.

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

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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.

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