Category Archives: Editorials

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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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33 1/3 draft introduction for Ayumi’s I am…

The 33 1/3 books, a series based around seminal albums, accepted proposals until the end of April this year, and although I only had two weeks to put one together by the time I heard about it, I thought it would be a fun experience to submit one. I considered Pizzicato Five’s the international playboy & playgirl record, which I thought might stand a better chance, as the band gained a cult following in America during the 90s, and of course, Ayumi Hamasaki, because I can’t stop talking about her. Since I figured neither would be chosen — the books are heavily bent towards the classic Western white rock canon — I took a chance and wrote about Ayumi Hamasaki’s  I am…, the album I think sums up everything Japanese pop was and wasn’t at the turn of the century.

I will not include the chapter summaries, only the first draft for the basic introduction, but I planned the book around each single in chronological order and focused on the one year that made Ayumi Hamasaki one of the most popular female musicians in Japanese pop history. Every piece of that year and those songs reflected a multitude of ideas: the Japanese idol factory, J-pop’s inability to reach a Western audience, musical authenticity, fashion and design, major record companies and artistic control, vocal techniques and musicianship, Japanese advertisements/celebrity endorsements, the global impact of 9/11, fame and its repercussions, and one of my favorite and often-returned to fascinations with the domestic and foreign DJs featured on all of those crazy, wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime maxi-singles and the merging of house, trance, and other electronic styles into the Japanese mainstream. All of that and more from a high school dropout.

This introduction wasn’t meant to be exhaustive or even beyond the basics: in many ways, I wrote it for an audience I was assuming had never heard of Ayumi Hamasaki and was unfamiliar with Japanese pop and pop culture. And once you take all of that into account, it leaves you with little else to do than place footholds that you want to come back to later. Most of you probably won’t learn anything new here, especially if you’ve read the Time interview and explored masa’s translations (where most of the quotes are taken from), but it’s honestly a legend I rarely tire of sharing. I had a lot of fun revisiting and re-contextualizing I am… with everything I have learned and experienced about music since I bought the album when it was released and knew it would be a grower, rather than an instant attraction. I think the introduction, for all its clumsiness, simplicity, and cliches (starting the intro with Hamasaki’s over-quoted “product” speech in Time? That two week deadline never seems more obvious) sums up the rest.

DRAFT INTRODUCTION/OPENING CHAPTER
Ayumi Hamasaki’s I am…

A note on capitalization and grammar: The Japanese have a particular and not arbitrary system for using lower-case and capital roman letters in song and album titles. In promotional material or in the liner notes themselves, they are always spelled a particular way: I have chosen to keep the artistic integrity of this practice and stay true to capitalization as it is written on the CD sleeves.

When Ayumi Hamasaki called herself a product in an interview with Time magazine in 2002, that in fact, it was necessary she be viewed as a product, she was summing up not only the state of Japanese idol worship, but her own already fruitful career spanning all of three years. By the age of 23, Hamasaki had already released twenty-six singles, four original studio albums (all Oricon chart number ones), twelve full-length remix albums, and a career-defining greatest hits collection. Though she would later come to regret the declaration, at this peak in her career, Hamasaki was selling out concerts, setting her sights on the rest of the Asian market, and taking unprecedented control of her music, image, and merchandising empire by selling herself as nothing short of a unit to be moved.

Hamasaki was certainly not the first female Japanese superstar: idol Seiko Matsuda, for example, held the record for the most consecutive #1 singles for a female artist for eighteen years, when Hamasaki broke it in 2006. But no other female idol managed to wring as much momentum out of her time at the top until Hamasaki began releasing singles at a bimonthly rate, in addition to limited runs of copies, multiple versions with alternative covers, and special remix albums — in both CD and vinyl format. Even her pop contemporaries, Hikaru Utada and Mai Kuraki, were unable to achieve five entries in the top twenty singles of that year in sheer sales.

Before Ayumi Hamasaki was a household name, she was a high school dropout and struggling model cum actress pounding the pavement of Tokyo, shilling for banking companies and starring in low-budget films before trying her luck at the idol market — presumably, something to fund all those shopping trips to 109. Culminating in a failed recording contract with Nippon Columbia, the project has never been considered a part of the official Ayumi Hamasaki canon. The single, “NOTHING FROM NOTHING,” is an uber-nasal experiment in hip-hop that failed to illustrate any personality, its mere existence the base her label used to drop her. Where Nippon Columbia failed to put the time and effort into creating potential out of deeply concealed promise, Avex Trax producer Max Matsuura discovered her at a night of karaoke and proceeded to pursue her until she began taking vocal lessons. When she began cutting class, Matsuura sent her on a field trip to New York, where he finally succeeded in capturing her attention, as well as convincing her to write her own lyrics. Inspired by the challenge, Hamasaki released her first single with Avex, “poker face,” debuting in 1998 at #20 on the charts.

By the following year she was beginning her streak of #1s and amassing a teenage legion of imitators. While still not possessing the penchant for reinvention or the commanding stage presence that would take years to hone, her first two albums, A Song for XX and LOVEppears, nonetheless were quintessential pop success stories, notable for capturing the late 90s, early 00s Japanese pop zeitgeist with harmless 4/4 structures and riffs right out of the Johnny’s playbook. Unlike other idols, Hamasaki had neither dance ability, nor a predilection for vocal gymnastics: in this, she was both unlike and very much a clone of her Japanese contemporaries, where musical authenticity still meant so little as to be entirely inconsequential. In 1999, the most remarkable thing about Hamasaki’s persona was her changing hair color, but her most triumphant was her lyrics.

During an early All Night Nippon radio program hosted by the budding icon in 1998, Hamasaki related her fairytale without a hint of shyness: her earliest memory was of her father packing up and leaving in the guise of a business trip from which he never returned, and she credits her independence and acknowledged selfishness with her own mother’s subsequent inability to be very maternal. Notably, Hamasaki insists this was not something she noticed or even concerned herself with: “I’ve always accepted it as quite ordinary and not particular that I have no father and my parents were divorced.” However, her neighbors didn’t take so kindly: childishly referring to herself in the third person, Hamasaki reveals that she was often avoided by children her age. Her intimation of her first real friend at the age of 20 is somewhat sad, but only because there is nothing about Hamasaki that sounds out of the ordinary; though dropping out of school in a such an education-oriented society could make her somewhat of a social pariah, she did find enough kids to spend her nights clubbing and frittering away cash with at trendy nightclubs.

After her father, the one man who seems to have made the biggest and most lasting impression on her life was Avex Trax producer and now-CEO Max Matsuura. After catching her at karaoke and noting what a terrible singer she was, he sent her to vocal lessons and refused to give up until she finally succeeded in New York: fate would suggest he saw something Nippon Columbia bitterly regrets in their once-over. Again, in the third person, “Ayumi had always been told “Hamasaki can’t do anything” [...] But then the man, Max Matsuura, said to Ayu, “You can.” [...] It was the first time for Ayu to meet such a person. I was never told such a thing even by my parent. I met a person who expected [something of] Ayu for the first time and I was shocked very much. And I thought I would do my best.” It is worth noting that though these two stories are told in succession, it is related without a hint of allusion to the father-figure role he might have fulfilled for Hamasaki. He also prompted her to begin composing lyrics, what has since become Hamasaki’s trademark.

“Ayu doesn’t write on a paper basically. I’m always thinking in my mind. I feel scents of a city, people’s movements, the air, for example, in my own way.” Confessional and deeply sympathetic, Hamasaki’s lyrics often explore concrete experiences, straying far from ambiguity: in the specific, there was universality. Her most autobiographical song, “A Song for XX” sums up the quintessential qualities of Hamasaki’s lyrics, a sort of thought-process-in-song, not without its immaturities and sometimes-clichés. Though they are often simple enough to be taught at an elementary level, her lyrics are the place most go to argue and make claims of the personal and private variety, sometimes involving elaborately projected fantasies and absurd speculation. But as a self-proclaimed product, Hamasaki herself claimed both her words and her voice: “[M]y songs are my own. No one can take my songs away from me.” Rarely problematic, they do, however, require an open mind and the possibility of misinterpretation. Regardless, they are what fans most often point to as testament to her honesty and capability.

While most idols had very little involvement with the songs that would eventually come to define their avatars, Hamasaki began writing lyrics at the outset of her career, an area where she excelled among fans and critics alike, and a sort of escalating trajectory through immaturity, understanding, enlightenment, and the responsibilities of craft that go beyond mere self-reflection. To wit, by I am… she was already reaping the benefits of working through issues that plagued her first three albums: loneliness, broken promises, roads not taken. As her music warped from sugar rushed adrenaline kicks and melancholy R&B ballads into hard rock with screeching guitars and rapid-fire drum machines, so, too, did her vocals lose their polished sheen of do-re-mi vocal lessons to become strained, broken, and full of vibrato. I am…, her first true rock album and composed almost entirely under the pseudonym CREA (named after one of her beloved pet dogs), was probably the closest representation of the sound Hamasaki was truly looking for all along, and with album sales in the millions, she was finally given the freedom to pursue her new found artistic impulses. Her trademark openings that crawled like lullabies would make way for an onslaught of noise and wailing guitars, crashing so resolutely they threatened to physically erupt from speakers.

For someone with the knowledge of the limited shelf-life of an idol, Hamasaki was already putting a lot of effort into a long-term sustainable career, most likely boosted by her record company Avex’s insistence of releasing a greatest hits collection: a signal Hamasaki took as the end of her career. While she openly grappled with her anger and vulnerability at the hands of Avex, expressed in songs like “Endless sorrow” and her decision to appear in tears on said collection, she also began understanding the true meaning of a timeless superstar.

After the September 11 attacks, Hamasaki changed the entire concept of her album, beginning with the cover art: “I had a completely different idea for the cover at first. We’d already reserved the space, decided the hair and makeup and everything. But after the incident, as is typical of me, I suddenly changed my mind. I knew it wasn’t the time for gaudiness, for elaborate sets and costumes.” Thanks to a last minute change of heart, we now have the iconic image of Ayumi Hamasaki, boldly confronting the world head-on as a symbol of peace and innocence, a statement of the strength in vulnerability, made all the more verbose by the perching of a white dove on her left shoulder. Despite her collaboration with singer keiko of pop group globe on a song meant to be dedicated to relief efforts and this seemingly new found dedication to social issues, the irony of the album’s title never belies how self-involved the album remains. As a summing up of an era, it is even better than Duty as accepting the totality of a life of servitude to fame and fans, and as a memoir, better than MY STORY, the ellipses separating it from a declaration, to an ongoing debate.

Despite such an initial nuanced grasp of her own evanescence, Hamasaki clearly began exacting more and more precise control over her image and business. Rejecting the flighty, mawkish pop songs of her peers, she began composing her own songs with what the West would arguably call a more “authentic” rock sound, even while treating her singles like commodities to be packaged and sold at highest volume. The maxi-single format of her singles beginning with Boys & Girls marketed her directly to the house and club scene, while also giving her a unique edge against other artists who would never dream of including so many cuts for the same price of what had up until then been the popular 3″ format. Her ties with both domestic and foreign DJs gave her the opportunity to work with dozens of producers, some of whom like trance act Above & Beyond would be given their first gigs or launch ever-more successful careers given the privilege of remixing her vocals. Her involvement in the club scene culminated in a collaboration with Ferry Corsten, the godfather of trance, on “connected,” an I am… cut that would eventually boost her popularity in the dance-heavy European market.

This proved that Hamasaki could be all things to all people, or at least most things to most people: whether it was a hard rock ballad, a rhythmic punk manifesto, a techno-ethnic drum n’ bass dirge, or a standard pop jingle tailor-made for selling cosmetics and flavored beverages, Hamasaki reflected exactly what the Japanese wanted from a pop star: not only a bag of options, but total and complete devotion to satisfying their need for more. Even after ten more studio albums and another twenty-five singles, after taking in 42.6% of Avex’s total revenues at her peak, after a failed Hollywood-like marriage to an Austrian model, and the loss of hearing in her left ear, I am… is perhaps not the greatest Japanese pop album of all time, but it is certainly the era’s greatest Japanese pop star’s greatest album: its most definitive, and its most revealing.

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Marty Friedman’s “What is J-POP?”: A response

Preface: I think it’s great that Marty Friedman is so enthusiastic about Japanese pop music. However, for someone who has apparently been living or traveling to Japan for so long and speaks fluent Japanese, it is astonishing how little he understands the full scope of it. And as a musician (former member of Megadeth, current guitar virtuoso), writer, and speaker, it’s even more astonishing how his lecture “What is J-POP? ~Exposing the Myth of Japanese Music Phenomenon” is partly a failure of articulation. Friedman has ideas, they just get tangled and sprout half-formed. His tone borders on less-than-conversational, barely scratching the surface of popular Japanese music, while exposing his biases and the kind of thinking that makes one believe everything off one’s radar doesn’t exist at all. So basically, it might sound like I’m tearing this to pieces, and I guess I am, but since Friedman takes the time to apologize for his tastes several times during the lecture, I guess I can take the time to do it at least once: this lecture just wasn’t my thing. Sorry.

“And the main reason why I want to do this is because now is the time that Japan and its music scene is going to begin to be well-known outside of Japan. I think it’s really beginning now and [...] I believe Japan’s music is the future.”

Japanese popular music has pretty much been around as long as its American counterpart, as Friedman himself takes pains to discuss. However, why Friedman thinks that now is the time that Japanese pop will “explode” is unclear. If any country can be predicted to hold the future of the world’s music right now (and I hate that I keep returning here, but it’s inevitable), that would be South Korea. Besides the fact that South Korea is motivated by economic factors (Japanese musicians don’t necessarily need foreign sales to thrive — plus, as mentioned in the lecture, kids will buy three or four copies of a single to collect all the singles or get the trading cards, while the South Korean music market pales in comparison), it also has a brilliant PR campaign the likes of which Japan has yet to utilize. While Japan patrols YouTube like a nark, pulling uploads and refusing to post full-length PVs, South Korea has successfully exploited social media to create viral videos and establish a brand. Many artists are already mingling or collaborating with foreign musicians, itself an easy transition when K-pop sounds like the smartest, hippest pop music upgraded to 11. And unlike Friedman’s lumping of J-pop into one large genre as if AKB48, X Japan (though he does use the term “visual-kei” here — more on that later), and Perfume all have the same sound, K-pop does have the luxury of that label: contemporary Korean pop music and groups are certainly easier to lump together than Japanese pop will ever be.

Later in the lecture, Friedman takes this further by positing that the future is a lot closer than we might anticipate: “all the stuff I introduced to you from Japan is going to make it outside of Japan, and soon. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already. I’m talking this year, or next year something is going to explode because this stuff is too good.” It takes a lot more than a few punk rock secretaries to make a movement, and even with South Korea’s expert marketing campaign, it’s already taken several years of very determined, very aggressive action to gain the sliver of media attention that K-pop has gotten. Japan is already set for failure as there aren’t many record labels and entertainment agencies that care that much about making a name outside Japan. Furthermore, to expect groups like, say, a Johnny & Associates group or the AKB/NMB etc. trend to gain traction in the West without a grasp of context and culture, is unlikely. Where it’s already associated with anime tie-ins and appearances at comic cons, it has already failed miserably by equating music culture with otaku culture, as if the two are never one without the other. It will take much longer to reverse what has already become the mainstream idea of what “Japan” and “Japanese culture” denotes to the average American citizen because of a reluctance to change it and refusal to be militant in doing so. When Friedman says things like “not only because it’s so whacked and so freaking crazy but also so cool, so colorful and so happy,” he’s really not doing Japan any favors, and certainly not changing anyone’s mind regarding stereotypes. Furthermore, in reference to his later championing of visual-kei…it’s been around for decades. Which is a long time. Again, I’m happy he’s so enthusiastic about this, but it’s not going to “explode” in 2012. It’s had the chance to explode for many, many years. And it hasn’t.

After playing Ikimonogakari’s “Arigatou,” Friedman says, “It’s just a gorgeous melody and it’s kind of sad in a different way than “sad” music is in Western music. When I think of sad music in Western music I would think of something like Adele or something like that.” I think the word he’s looking for is “nostalgia” (and possibly the overall theory of musical authenticity). Why the concept of nostalgia would not come to somebody who has apparently been listening to Japanese pop music for so long is strange, as it is an integral part of what constitutes Japanese pop culture. When he says this sound evolved from kayoukyoku music from “maybe 20-30-40 years ago” — well, which is it? Because that’s a huge chunk of time to be playing with, and Japanese pop music from the 80s, 70s, and 60s, all sounds extremely different and could be as easily lumped together as the contemporary styles are today: for Friedman, Japanese pop is no more dynamic than someone’s idea of Japanese culture consisting of geishas, rock gardens, and kabuki masks.

His giant theory of a unified J-pop extends into technical arenas as well, for example when he talks about Perfume’s “POLYRHYTHM.” “This is another thing about Japanese music is they can accept deep technical concepts within the context of ultra pop music.” “POLYRHYTHM” does indeed have some crazy-awesome time signatures going on, and it is arguably one of my favorite pop songs of all time, but using this song as an example of Perfume’s overall musical style is naive, as is calling Perfume’s music “the music of the future.” Technically, this is already the music of the past, as “POLYRHYTHM” was released five years ago. Furthermore, the group is still best known for their single “CHOCOLATE DISCO” which was released in 2007. Producer Yasutaka Nakata has since gone on to write and produce hundreds of songs with several artists, all with a similar, signature sound. That doesn’t diminish how great the music is, but it certainly no longer makes it worthy of being “the music of the future.” Sure, he’s spot on when he says “the main thing about this unit [Perfume] is the producer is a genius.” It’s probably the only 100% accurate statement in this piece. Unfortunately, he then goes on to call the founder of AKB48 a genius, which kind of takes away some of Nakata’s glory, and then basically calls the entire Japanese pop enterprise a genius, so the word loses its meaning and makes J-pop seem infallible, which is the least kind of logical argument someone can make for anything. Nothing is perfect and calling J-pop flawless takes away part of what it makes it so fun to listen to and discuss.

Friedman goes on to make an inadvertent testament to how Japanese pop really works when he moves on to Mr. Children, confirming that it’s “not going to sound like anything new, they’ve been around for at least 10-15 years. But every album is consistently a huge hit due to the quality of their song writing and performance.” Rather, I think Mr. Children’s popularity is due largely to the idea of loyalty that fans have to bands and artists that allow groups like Mr. Children and B’z to continue releasing music simply because there is a ready made audience that will buy the new single and the sort of respect legendary artists accumulate with time. But in the grand scheme of Japanese music, popular or otherwise, I would argue that Mr. Children and B’z have hit their stride years ago and remain faintly relevant, a perennial fixture on the landscape of Japanese pop.

“People in France might know X-Japan, because X-Japan is successful here and they toured outside of Japan, just like Dir en Grey did. But in Japan X-Japan are the ancestors, they brought it to the mainstream first. [...] They are the Godfathers. They started it, they set the pattern of it. And now its 2012 and finally its making its way out of Japan.”

Is it though? And if X Japan are the ancestors, why are we still talking about them? Has visual-kei evolved so little that X Japan, who were popular twenty years ago, are still the most relevant example Friedman can offer? He then continues to namedrop more relics and claims visual kei is going through a “big boom” right now. But visual-kei never really went away; it’s not really experiencing a big boom, so much as it’s riding a pretty stable wave. Second of all, if it’s going through a big boom, where are all the great bands that haven’t been around for a decade? MUCC, Dir en grey, L’arc~en~Ciel…these are all bands I remember from when I was getting into Japanese rock fourteen years ago who had already been around for a while. Instead of trying to show how Japanese pop music is a flourishing, diverse enterprise, he’s really just showing how stagnant it’s gotten.

It’s a shame that the questions he received during panel were so thorough, because I don’t think Friedman takes the time to really consider them. For example, the first question asks how the Japanese can avoid falling into the traps of prejudice when trying to export their sound to the West. After talking around the issue, Friedman says, “I think a lot of it has to do with luck, a lot of it has to do with timing, the right person and the right song, I don’t think it’s something you can plan” (this probably coincides with his constant equating of “magic” with Japanese pop music, as if it sprouts from a land of mythical creatures). This doesn’t make any sense: it sounds exactly like the sort of approach that has already been taken and has failed miserably for it. He might as well claim he’s definitely going to win the lottery next year without having to buy a ticket. How much of South Korean pop music’s relative success has been due to “luck” and being in the “right place at the right time”? None of it. South Korean entertainment companies have used smart, consistent advertising techniques, employed expert use of social networks, and have probably had hundreds of meetings where strategies and goals have been calculated and re-calculated. This is not an endeavor that takes luck. It does not take the defeated strategy that you “can’t plan for something outside of your country.” His example is Yuki Saori, a young woman whose song was stumbled upon in a record store and led to her being invited to sing in London. That’s definitely a great way to get noticed outside Japan: hope your record is found in a 50 cent used bin somewhere and hope for the best!

Without offering any practical advice for how Japanese pop music will “explode” in the next year or two, Freidman comes off as a very enthusiastic, very sincere, fan whose obsession has blocked his ability to think rationally. Regarding the language barrier, he says Adele is difficult for Japanese listeners to get into because “they would have to really study the lyrics and have personal relationships that are similar to hers and that is hard because it’s in a different culture.” So how he thinks Japanese pop music can make that incredible leap is uncertain, especially when he later claims that the Japanese do not need to sing songs in English and should stick to their native language. Apparently, the Japanese can’t “get” us, but Americans will be able to “get” them right away.

And also: There is a (possibly unintended, but nonetheless, noteworthy for being so) fixation on female musicians, if not a simply patronizing tone toward females that escalates throughout the duration, none of which has a male counterpart anywhere in the lecture.

  • The fans of visual-kei are “about 90% females. Go figure, females listening to this kind of music.” Women can like metal, too. Go figure! Sometimes they even use the Internet. Go figure! (By the way, he concludes that girls just like the visual aspect, it’s guys who like the music.)
  • American music is “very kind of dull, it’s like subdued. It’s kind of like girls with candles in their room and incense and pillows and it’s not insane.”
  • SCANDAL, a four-member rock group whose schtick is wearing school uniforms would be huge in America because “you never think of cute girls playing rock.”
  • Nirvana was able to see the brilliance of Shonen Knife because “these were three tiny Japanese secretaries playing punk rock.”

Friedman likes cute girls, we get it. That’s not a bad thing. But the fixation on quiet girls with stereotypical quiet professions or lifestyles stops being quirky and starts becoming really condescending. During the panel, he answers a question saying that “in America the image of Japanese or Asian person is smart or brainy. They’re doing the best in school and they have a very good image.” This remark is made as if the image is inevitable and is the reason he “can’t see any Asian girl singer being like Beyonce or something like that, I just don’t see it happening.” Friedman has clearly never met Namie Amuro or Koda Kumi, two of the most popular female singers in Japan, whose attitude and image are nothing like AKB48, and, while probably not too much like Beyonce either, are certainly not what Friedman considers the ideal J-pop spokesgirl, the kind in SCANDAL or Perfume that he believes should be perpetuated in the West without necessarily introducing their dynamic, diverse equals.

By distilling Japanese pop music to the lowest common denominator in every single way, be it in genre, style, technique, or gender, Friedman actually perpetuates the real myth of Japanese pop music — that it is as stereotypical, static, and wacky as an average American might imagine. What he is “exposing” in this lecture is unclear and the myth actually takes on epic proportions as it continues (although I think his “myth” is that Japan doesn’t have it’s own music, let alone in such abundance, but I don’t think the existence of Japanese pop music is a myth anymore, so much as a fact people choose to ignore). Again, I love his enthusiasm for Japanese pop music and his vision of seeing it get more global attention, but these are exactly the type of incomplete ideas you don’t want presented in front of a large group of people meant to build a foundation for their ideas of Japanese pop music. I don’t know what Friedman’s actual knowledge of the history of Japanese pop music is, nor what his knowledge of its contemporary pop music is, but from this lecture, he comes off as the type of guy who recently discovered an AKB48 song, did a little bit of research on Wikipedia or the Oricon charts, casually browsed a major record store for something similar, and tried to find everything in the world that supported his theory that it’s the only type of music Japan does (or should do). Of course, this involves ignoring the multitude of Japanese pop artists and groups, the array of styles and techniques, the dissatisfaction many Japanese have with their own popular music, the very large indie scene, and the struggle many Japanese and Asians face regarding their ethnicity and/or gender. And that is a big deal.

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Sexy Zone: This isn’t it

Japanese pop culture is all about cute, and their teams of double digit group members are as old as Onyanko Club. If you’re at all familiar with idols, you’re probably used to seeing girls act like they’re nine years old, even when they’re closer to nineteen. Unfortunately, sometimes less attention is paid to their equally problematic male counterparts, the stuff you’ll usually find coming out of the Johnny’s factory.

One of the talent agency’s newest idol groups, Sexy Zone, consists of five underage male members: you might have skipped over their newest single on a torrent or rar blog, blinded by the awful photoshopped cover. A quick look at their Wikipedia page provides the most terrifying information you will ever find in a bullet point: 100-year old Johnny & Associates founder Johnny Kitagawa says, “The group name came from Michael Jackson’s sexiness.” Which…so. The same article speaks of the group being one of the youngest at Johnny’s since Hey! Say! JUMP (the youngest member is eleven and the oldest seventeen), as well as the use of “sexy roses” at their debut, making you wonder if Kitagawa doesn’t know the definition of “sexy” or if he’s just trolling hard.

What it seems Kitagawa does is create commercially successful scenarios that require the viewer to acknowledge a twelve year old’s relationship to sex, a necessity brought on by nothing more than the group’s name. He did the same thing in ’97 with KinKi Kids, a pun on the Honshu area the group members come from. It’s easy to disassociate the two on the surface because Sexy Zone’s promotional videos are unusually typical, a space to explore Japan’s relationship with cute in the same way a Berryz Kobou video does. For example, in Sexy Zone’s newest video for “Lady DIAMOND,” the boys are dressed in pink sequin blazers and striped trousers from Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” era on a stage made of diamonds, glitter, and stars (hopes and dreams implied). Without a hint of anything that made Jackson’s stage persona legendary, it’s much more conceivable to argue that the video is just an amalgamation of bad taste, rather than anywhere near sexy.

As Never Ending Music Power points out: “I think I have come to the point where I am just ignoring the whole “sexy” theme for this group as I just cannot see something that is so adorable as sexy in anyway [sic]. Sure Nakaken and Fuma can pull off the sexy part but the other three are cute-zoned for me until they start closing in on 18 years old at least.” Even fans are ignoring the failed “sexy” concept and clinging to the kawaii. Furthermore, unlike an abundant number of other groups, it can be argued that Sexy Zone is largely a failure of semantics. While South Koreans are learning perfect English at an astonishing rate, the Japanese are still falling behind due to a number of factors including the tendency to use English decoratively or more as punctuation marks, often at the expense of correct grammar. Where the Engrish phenomenon was born, we get band names like w-inds., Kiss-My-Ft2, Hey! Say! JUMP, and, well, Sexy Zone. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the entertainment company is pushing an agenda, but more that “sexy” here seems to be striving for “cool,” “glamorous,” and “appealing” (none of which it nails).

Even so, it’s difficult when you have a seventeen year old lumped in with a twelve year old as if the ages are inclusive. A seventeen year old dancing among much younger children in the same vein as 2011′s runaway hit “Maru Maru Mori Mori!” doesn’t exactly exempt the group from fetishizing adolescence. While certainly not all Japanese groups are like Sexy Zone, it does help explain some of the appeal of K-pop, where groups like 2NE1 are allowed to have dynamic and evolving personalities while acting like the young women that they are. The Hallyu wave has given Japan something of a difficult task in embracing this new attitude while trying to keep what makes the country’s popular music culture so unique. The emergence of groups like Fairies, that try to keep the flavor of Watarirouka Hashiritai 7 by sending conflicting messages about girlhood while combining the blunt mannerisms of a K-pop dance routine, illustrate the country’s attempt to cash-in on a trend without compromising the number of thirteen and fifteen year old talents. But whether this is a sign of old school agencies like Johnny’s dying out, or simply one shot fads, will remain a defining question for Japan as the country adjusts to the reality of musical inertia.

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