Move Over: From the Spice Girls to Chloe Bailey, Pepsi and pop music aim for the kids

Move Over: The Spice Girls sell Pepsi

Or, when Chloe Bailey reminded me I’m old now.

By the time the Spice Girls released their second studio album Spiceworld 25 years ago this month, they were a phenomenon that, together with groups like TLC, had resurrected the girl group in the 90s after a slow death in its 60s heyday with groups like The Shirelles, The Crystals, and the Ronettes, through to its Motown evolution with The Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, and The Supremes (though there were earlier attempts). Household names, their ambitions barely exceeded their grasp when they teamed up with Pepsi for an ad campaign that featured the jingle “Move Over,” tipping the scales into the few places on Earth they had yet to infiltrate. Despite some of the great tracks on Spiceworld (the title itself a nod to their international reach), it’s amazing how prominent of a role “Move Over” plays as the forward-thinking, statement-defining centerpiece of an album focused on disco, R&B, and bubblegum-inspired pop music.

Pepsi’s marketing strategy changed dramatically mid-century in a bid to distinguish themselves from their main competitor, Coca-cola. If Coca-cola was all about their deep legacy and classic taste, then Pepsi was going to tap into the youth boom and the future. In 1984, they launched “the choice of a generation” campaign. This was the beginning of what would become a long tradition of pop-star collaborations — and not just any pop stars. They were the biggest, most mainstream rising stars, with already-established core audiences that left room for growth among their most important target: young listeners. Michael Jackson (and his brothers) were the first pop stars to shill for Pepsi for a cool $5 million (Beyonce would net $55 million almost twenty years later), piggybacking off of the phenomenal success of Thriller, the album that almost single-handedly resurrected the music industry after the disco crash, just released in November of 1982 (also gearing up to celebrate its 40th anniversary this month). These “New Generation” spots (with the “Convention” iteration now infamous for the on-set accident that introduced him to the painkillers that would lead to his death) led to deals with Gloria Estefan and, in 1989, Madonna. But Pepsi’s always-looking-ahead ethos that aimed for ever-younger audiences to lock in that lifelong brand loyalty for a generation of steady sales really hit home for kids in my age bracket (Generation Y/Millennials) in January of 1997, with the “Generation Next” campaign.

The jingle “Generation Next” written by Mary Wood and Clifford Lane of BBDO, is a dizzying hybrid of pop, rock, and dance styles, blatantly calling out dad-rock styles of its time like punk, rap, and metal and instructing listeners to “do it over, cause that’s over.” An extended version of the track was later co-written by the members of the Spice Girls, then the most popular girl group in the world, whose audience hit Pepsi’s sweetest spot. A massive Spice Girls fans at the time (their debut Spice was actually the very first CD I ever bought for myself, a momentous and life-changing occasion for someone who only had access to records and cassette tapes til then), I consider myself part of that demographic: a kid still mostly unaware how marketing worked and ripe for persuasion. The group’s rumored $100 million contract included rights for an exclusive single, TV ads, and on-can promotions (collecting the pull tabs won you a free CD with the until-now unreleased track “Step To Me“), and what would be their first performance in Turkey.

Spiceworld

But perhaps one step too far was the inclusion of the song on their long-awaited follow-up album Spiceworld, released in November of 1997. “Move Over” was squeezed in between “Never Give Up on the Good Times” and “Do It,” right in the center of the 10-track album, a sort of crown jewel that like “Spice Up Your Life,” functioned as an extended advertisement for the group and its consumer-driven lifestyle — not just Pepsi, but Sporty’s track pants, Ginger’s platform boots, and Baby’s glossy eye shadow. Tapping into this lifestyle-over-product strategy, it anticipated a future of loyal Pepsi drinkers by calculatedly sandwiching the song inconspicuously between anthems to having a great time, staying positive, and trying new things (some sample lyrics that could have just as easily been featured on “Move Over” include “Livin’ it up is a state of mind,” “Who cares what they say, because the rules are for breaking,” and “Don’t care how you look, it’s just how you feel / Come on and do it!”), all statements tailor-made to impressionable Millennial girls, “[b]orn primarily in the mid-to-late 1980s” on an album that would go on to become what is probably the best-selling album by a girl group of all time.

Brian Swette, then executive vice-president and chief marketing officer of Pepsi described the ad as “positive, in control, and lay[ing] claim to the future — the antithesis of Generation X.” Pepsi and Virgin wanted my money and they wanted it bad; history and a cursory glance at the various merchandise available for sale at the time (Spice Girls-branded school supplies, wristwatches, dolls, tape decks, headsets, and a really cool standing microphone that I spent way too much time pretending to be Emma Bunton with) reveals that they got it.

To its credit, “Move Over” is a fantastic pop sorbet of various styles, anticipating the electronic renaissance and making the future seem as exciting, bold, and completely within one’s control as any good PR campaign. The torch was passed on to a number of other mega-stars over the years, like Britney Spears, Beyonce, and Christina Aguilera, but the one by the Spice Girls is the one that hit closest to home — as the years pass, people naturally start catching on to the soft sell. And of course, all of this now seems almost comically absurd considering what ended up happening to Generation Y in the future, as yet-unseen developments like social media, a global recession, and culturally-encouraged toxic work habits tipped Millennials into what some people now refer to as the burnout generation. But certainly nothing signals the end of youth quite like a mega corporation no longer interested in appealing to you and your money.

Chloe Bailey sells Pepsi

In October, Pepsi unveiled its newest pop-star partnership with Chloe Bailey, Generation Z’s amazingly talented It Girl. The ad re-launches the Pepsi-Cola Soda Shop brand with an updated take on I guess what kids in the 20s now consider “classic” music (no mind that soda shops were popular in the 1950s). This mix of the old and the new, where the “old” is the 1984 hit “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins, and the “new” lifts its sentiments straight from the pages of think-pieces on The Great Resignation and posts on the r/antiwork subreddit:

“Been workin’ so hard, we’re punchin’ our cards,
Eight hours for what? Oh tell me what we’ve got
I’ve got this feeling that time’s just holding us down,
I’ll hit the ceiling, or else I’ll tear up this town.”

Like Pepsi campaigns before it, it focuses on taking a sliver of truth and making it as wildly optimistic as possible: Life sucks? Nothing a sugary beverage and dancing with your friend can’t solve! It’s pure still-has-no-major-responsibilities, fantasy logic. Move over, indeed.

In 1997, the Spice Girls sang of “the next page, next stage, next craze, [and] next wave,” at a time that I was that next wave. That wave was 25 years ago, when the Spice Girls were the biggest group on the planet and the thought of a 25th anniversary re-release of Spiceworld seemed outlandishly far away, as distant and impossible as retirement does to me today. But as surely as Chloe’s debut album (she hasn’t even released her debut solo album yet!) will celebrate its own anniversary 25 years from now, amid op-eds looking back at all we didn’t do to save the planet, time comes for us all. Or as a depressingly-relatable Grandpa Simpson reminds us: “I used to be with ‘it’, but then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now what I’m with isn’t ‘it’ anymore and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary to me. It’ll happen to you!”

Notes
[ Image sources are from here, here, here. The 25th anniversary edition of Spiceworld was released digitally on November 4, and will be released on CD in December; among the bonus tracks is two versions of the Pepsi pull-tab mail-in promotion-exclusive single “Step to Me.” My favorite track on Spiceworld was, perhaps sadly, “Move Over,” followed by “Viva Forever.” ]

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Supernatural sound: Stranger Things and the Sony Walkman

Max possessed

At heart, Stranger Things is a show about growing up: season 1 opens with a group of four kids on hour ten of a robust Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Adjacent plots involve navigating the complex webs of friendship, jealousy, bullying, crushes, and love triangles all while getting sucked into the equally messy world of government cover-ups, conspiracies, and a hidden underworld known as the Upside Down. While we get a host of complicated and interesting adult characters as well, the core of the story revolves around our original four heroes: dungeon master Mike Wheeler, late-bloomer Will Byers, headstrong Lucas Sinclair, and eccentric loud-mouth Dustin Henderson. In season 2, we’re also introduced to new-in-town, skateboarder extraordinaire Max Mayfield.

As the cast has aged in real life, so do writers and creators the Duffer Brothers age their characters, taking them from the precocious kids who biked the suburban idyll of small-town Hawkins, Indiana, to monster-fighting detectives and superheroes breaking into psychiatric hospitals and stealing mobile homes, nothing which exempts them from the horrors of dealing with adolescence, too. In fact, as the series progresses and the stakes get higher, the characters are left dealing with the fallout of several tragedies, including the death of Billy Hargrove, Max’s step-brother, in season 3. Billy’s death leaves Max understandably awash in myriad emotions: grief at his lose, anger at the legacy of his abusive behavior, guilt over the manner in which he died, and confusion over the conflicted feelings of both relief and regret at his passing.

As Max and her friends enter high school, she becomes withdrawn, isolating  herself from her boyfriend Lucas as well as her friends, who have themselves become preoccupied with the distractions and temptations of high school: after-school clubs, sports teams, and social hierarchies. Throughout the series, Max is portrayed as an outsider, with our first highlighted scene of her current mindset introducing the key leitmotif: the song “Running Up That Hill,” by Kate Bush. The music first appears as incidental music that cuts from the scene of a traumatized Eleven storming out of a classroom, to Max as she wanders the hallway of a high school halfway across the country in a sullen, detached way. We see her looking around in equal parts disaffected ennui, and angry resentment as it becomes apparent that the music is actually diegetic, playing through a set of headphones attached to her Walkman. The very cinematic quality of the shot is one that both the character and the viewer experience simultaneously, an experience still just newly available to teens in the mid-80s with the invention of what was still a bit of a technological phenomenon: the Sony Walkman.

Press play

The Sony Soundabout

Sony Walkman TPS-12There are conflicting origin stories regarding the invention of the Walkman, but, as chronicled by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow in Personal Stereo the most likely involves a wish by Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka to have a cassette player that was less bulky that the tape recorders he was lugging around so that he could listen to music without annoying the people around him. It’s what was termed a “non-obvious” invention: strip down a tape recorder to only it’s playback qualities, enhance those features, and build a lighter headphone to accommodate it. The first model was the TPS-L2, and it was released in Japan in the summer of 1979. It made its debut in America at the end of the year, a superb new tech gadget ready to hit shelves just in time for the holiday shopping season, as long as you could afford it — a hefty $200, or yikes, about $700 in 2022 money.

With a price like that, the Walkman was first marketed to career-oriented middle-class adults (read: yuppies), who used it for the convenience of multi-tasking: catching up on missed business meetings recorded by organized secretaries, or learning new languages as they boarded international flights. But as the Walkman gained popularity and began selling by the thousands, the device became more accessible to a younger and wider audience. As Tuhus-Dubrow writes in Personal Stereo:

By the mid-1980s, it was clear that what was sometimes called the “Walkman revolution” was far more than a short-lived fad. Personal stereos were no longer a novelty but essential equipment for millions of people and a fixture of urban life around the world. (50) […] By 1989, 50 million units had been sold sold, with an increasing variety of looks and features like noise reduction, bright colors, and AM/FM radio support. Competitors were also manufacturing often cheaper, low-budget models to the tune of over 30 million units per year. (50-51)

So it’s no surprise that a character on this era’s preeminent 80s nostalgia-vehicle Stranger Things would be seen locked between the pads of two Sony personal speakers.

Supernatutural Sound

The Walkman effect

Personal Stereo by Rebecca Tuhus-DubrowMusic and music culture has always sparked a significant social and emotional resonance in the lives of teenagers, especially since the years of the vinyl record, which was appropriately marketed to legions of screaming Frank Sinatra and Elvis fans. The introduction of headphones made that listening experience even more insular, contributing to the creation of the bedroom as the location par excellence of the teenager, particularly the moody teenager (but who isn’t?). But the Sony Walkman took that experience outside: it allowed listeners to tune out the noise around them and plug into their favorite music. The experience was unprecedented, and almost immediately prompted a growing concern over issues of isolation, rude behavior, and detachment, known popularly as the “Walkman effect.”

“The fundamental strangeness of the Walkman experience has to do with the disjunction between sight and sound. […] [W]hereas usually music came from some clearly external source — whether speakers at a concert or the stereo system in your living room — with headphones it almost felt like the sounds were originating in your own head.” (46) […] “[C]rucially, you could (and did, whether intentionally or not) erect a barrier between yourself and your surroundings. This feature impeded social interactions and affected public space in a way that was subtle but unsettling.” (54)

This unsettling experience is captured in that moment Sadie Sink’s character Max Mayfield marches moodily down the hallway of Hawkins High to the meeting with the school counselor, observing the private and public moments of a typical day in high school with detached numbness: friends laughing over a joke, a couple making out, an ex-boyfriend’s vanishing smile as she approaches and then continues silently walking past. Everything and everyone seems out of reach, as both character and viewer collaborate as spectators, rather than participants. The music becomes her own personal soundtrack, muting the din as it does for the viewer, and replacing it with the sonic boom of the synth-heavy track, which enhances the drama of an already tension-filled scene. Not for nothing are teenagers considered overly-emotional and self-absorbed, but many of us have undoubtedly had a similar experience, either with a Discman, iPod, or smartphone. The scene only ends when we see Max sitting across from her counselor, who signals for Max to remove her headphones. She quickly presses the stop button and a jarring silence sends us all crashing back to the very real world of depression and grief, one which Max is reluctant to confront and deal with, preferring to hide in the aural equivalent of a safety blanket.

Max MayfieldThroughout the following episodes, we never see Max without this blanket, her trusty Sony WM-8, strapped to her hip at all times. It leads to the key emotional moment in the series, occurring at the end of episode four titled “Dear Billy.” This is the moment when Max, upon learning that she has less than 24 hours left to live, finally makes sense of the emotional maelstrom that she has been dealing with since the end of season 3. In a letter that she writes and reads out loud to the headstone of her deceased step-brother, she describes the emotional weight that she has been carrying around and making her feel that she had to cut herself off from the people who care the most about her. It is in this devastatingly vulnerable moment that Vecna decides to move in for the kill.

Involuntary memory

Preying upon the guilt and trauma of teenagers, Vecna crawls into Max’s mind, spouting the words that she herself has probably repeated to herself over and over the last few months, as if depression itself had become a physical entity. “They can’t help you, Max,” he insists, referring to her friends just at the outer edge of her vision. “There’s a reason you hide from them. You belong here with me.” But now that Max has confronted her feelings and taken ownership of her emotions, she’s finally open to the hope and help that she had been denying herself all season. She hears her friends screaming for her, and more importantly, she hears her favorite song, thrumming through the headphones snapped onto her head only moments before. It’s an ingenious plot device: who hasn’t ever felt the healing power of music, especially at a young age? It’s a universal feeling that transcends age, gender, and social status. (In fact, the saving power of music is made even more obvious, when Eddie plays Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” in the series finale to distract the demobats from attacking Nancy, Robin, and Steve, literally saving lives in the process.)

Until then, the music had served as a sort of personal therapy for Max. As the Duffer brothers explained in an interview with IndieWire, “That’s us going “OK, Max is in this dire state. How can we get her out of it?” And researching comas, and seeing that music as therapy can make a difference.” Inside Hook went further and spoke with a music therapist to further explore “the way music can help us cope with grief, stress, cognitive issues and a slew of mental illnesses ranging from depression and bipolar disorder to schizophrenia and autism.”

[I]t’s definitely the most visibly transformational work I’ve been a part of, where you have people who are more or less nonverbal or disengaged from their environment and socialization and that type of thing, and then if you play a piece of music that they experienced when they were younger or have a particular personal connection to, they can really just physically come to life, even saying words and melodies when they would otherwise be more disengaged.

The Walkman captures that experience unlike anything else could: it locks the listener into their own headspace, creating a central irony. It isolates Max from the present physical environment and traps her into her own head replete with self-defeating, negative thoughts, but it also has the power to liberate her from her torment.

Michael Bull, professor of Sound Studies at University of Sussex interviewed forty British adolescents about their use of the Walkman and summarized his findings in Sounding Out the City: Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life. Among their most popular uses, teens reported using their Walkman to energize them, domesticate their surroundings, and as a form of company. But most tellingly,

“subjects reported that they used their personal stereos to vividly evoke fond memories. After all, music, like the sense of smell, has the power to trigger what Proust called “involuntary memory,” which is visceral and emotional, and much more powerful than its voluntary counterpart, the memory of the intellect. With the press of a button, listeners could relive a recent party or summon a feeling from childhood. While other sound systems could serve the same purpose, the intimacy of the personal stereo made it particularly conducive to reminiscence.” (81)

Flooded with the memories of happier times that the music evokes (the school dance, her friendship with Eleven), she not only chooses, but fights, to stay alive, escaping the deadly fate Vecna had in store for her, one built on his own misery, resentment and psychosis. It’s from that moment, as Max is warmly received by the friends that never gave up on her, that Max can finally begin the process of repairing her friendships by dealing openly and honestly with her problems, little by little. This music-as-loophole runs throughout the rest of the series, being the only way to save a potential victim from death by Vecna.

Sony Walkman D-E330

Press play

While the plot twist is made possible by a technological device manufactured and made popular in the 1980s (Tuhus-Dubrow also points out its prominent role in popular media of the time such as Duffer Brothers-favorite Back to the Future), it’s a device that has been improved upon and updated for modern listeners, who can relate via Discman, iPod Nanos, and smartphone. I myself am old enough to have grown up with several different Walkmans (my favorite was an off-brand that was made of marvelous transparent neon-pink plastic which gave you a neat glimpse at the device’s guts), at least two different Discmans (one had the special shock absorber to keep CDs from skipping every time the device was lightly bumped), and an iRiver that changed the entire way I consumed music (I still use this remarkable, outdated device regularly, and probably will until the day I die or they stop manufacturing the battery for it — I hope I die first). These devices went everywhere with me, their mobility, more than their limited and then seemingly limitless capacity, a testament to their usefulness and eventual essentialism. It’s hard to imagine something both more and less hokey than music as a loophole that a teenager from any era could conceivably believe could save their lives, and to that end the show really continued to tap into something universal about growing up.

Thus the Walkman becomes an essential device that moves the entire plot of the fourth season of Stranger Things forward, one made possible by a piece of equipment invented only years before, halfway across the world by a company that built upon the increasing popularity of home-listening devices to its very polite and very personal conclusion. Despite its age, the show’s depiction of music-as-therapy, with the Walkman serving as a magical talisman as powerful as the sword Jim Hopper uses to slay a Demagorgon, still resonates today.  As a Disques editorial from the distant galaxy of 1931 summarized upon the advent of the first personal listening device, the phonograph, puts it:

“[A]ll the unpleasant externals are removed: the interpreter has been disposed of; the audience has been disposed of; the uncomfortable concert hall has been disposed of. You are alone with the composer and his music. Surely, no more ideal circumstances could be imagined.” (15)

Notes
[ Image sources are from here, here, here, here, here, and here.   Any factual information, quotes, and additional sources/quotes not immediately cited have been pulled from Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow’s Personal Stereo, one of my favorites entries in the Object Lessons series. I recommend them all, including Compact Disc which makes a nice companion to this! ]

Johnny’s, KinKi Kids, and a Macro Snapshot of J-pop History

KinKi Kids

As one of the most prolific and popular talent agencies in Japan, Johnny’s Jimusho is a household name in the country, boasting a lineup of trainees, juniors, actors, singers, dancers, and even gymnasts. It takes a lot of time and development before an individual is finally chosen to debut, but that’s exactly what Koichi Domoto and Tsuyoshi Domoto of KinKi Kids finally did in July 1997, the first group to premiere under the new Johnny’s Entertainment, Inc. record label (before then, music was released under various second-party labels like Pony Canyon). Needless to say, the sheer market saturation and beloved reputation of a Johnny’s group was enough to propel the duo into overnight success.

Despite music being only a piece of the wider component of a Johnny’s group, it wouldn’t have helped if it was terrible, so it was to the company’s benefit to pay attention to singles by employing skilled writers and producers. As a testament to that commitment, the group teamed up with some of the most iconic, legendary songwriters and producers in Japanese pop history. It was a big, bold statement by the company, and a rare show of power that committed to the group’s, and thus the label’s, importance, boasting of their buying power and influence by uniting the twin conceits of business and art in an astronomical show of money and talent. Three prominent examples of this can be found in the group’s early singles, which were composed by city-pop pioneer Tatsuro Yamashita, gentle disciple and disruptor Koji Makaino, and prolific composer and hit-record holder Kyohei Tsutsumi. By marketing the group with music created by an ascending ladder of Japanese pop royalty already nationally recognized, Johnny’s Jimusho intentionally took its seat at the head of the table, coupling Japanese music history with its future in their own company.

Tatsuro YamashitaGlass no Shounen

The group’s debut single “Glass no Shounen” was written and arranged by none other than recent city-pop celeb/godfather, Tatsuro Yamashita. Now recognized around the world for his hits from as far back as the 70s, he, along with artists like Eiichi Ohtaki, are credited for helping to create, and embodying the quintessential sound of, city-pop, the hybrid of pop, jazz, and soft rock that gained prominence in the “economic miracle” of Japan’s comeback success in the 1980s. It reached #1 on the charts, and is the group’s best-selling single to date with over 1.7 million units sold, though the song itself gives no indication as to why, with its bitter, milquetoast admonishments to a woman who sold out her future for a new love and a shiny ring. Yamashita cropped up again on singles like the Sandals-esque jingles “JETCOASTER ROMANCE” and “Happy Happy Greeting.” This was not a high point for him, though I wonder how much of his work for KinKi Kids was heavily edited under strict boy-band company policy (it’s also worth noting he recorded his own version of the latter that ended up on the Rarities album, and it doesn’t sound much improved). Maybe it’s giving too much credit to the overlords at Johnny’s, but suffice to say, after the resurgence and worldwide respect given to city-pop in the last decade, Yamashita was given a redemption arc to exercise his unique and distinctive sound palette for the label much later, on one of the greatest pop songs in recent memory, Arashi’s “Fukkatsu LOVE.”

Aisareru Yori AishitaiKoji Makaino

Their sophomore single, “Aisareru Yori Aishitai” was written by a personal favorite, Koji Makaino, also a seasoned veteran who began his career in the 70s penning album cuts on the less-popular releases for idols like Megumi Asaoka (“Sayonara no Kawari ni,” “Yuuwaku no Toshigoro“), and who peaked in the Golden Age of the 1980s writing incredible songs for Yu Hayami (“HONEY na Hirusagari“) and magical girl anime like Mahou no Tenshi CREAMY MAMI (all of them, actually, but the ones everyone remembers and loves best, too). Makaino was versatile: despite often being connected with idols and idol culture, he was born into a musical family and also composed countless scores for TV, film, and anime like The Rose of Versailles and Bubblegum Crisis, the latter franchise of whose music comprises what are some of the most definitive 80s-sounding tracks of all time (I imagine the recently remastered box set is a real treat for fans who can afford it!). His contribution here illustrates his adaptability, with a pop song steeped in modern techno, as intricate and robust as its accompanying choreography. It’s a sonically delightful romp for someone as clearly dedicated to craft as he is the modern-day currency of popular sound among teens – the hit might now be as dated as any of the others on the first KinKi Single Selection, but twenty-five years ago it was a boy-band banger to rival the likes of the Euro-influenced Backstreet Boys.

Yamenaide, PUREKyohei Tsutsumi

Finally, we have Kyohei Tsutsumi on “Yamenaide, PURE.” Tsutsumi, an absolute song-writing monster, started his career in the 1960s, scoring #1 hits for dozens of artists like Ayumi Ishida (“BLUE LIGHT Yokohama“) and teen idols Hiromi Go and Iyo Matsumoto, up through the 2010s. His catalog runs so deep, that hours-long YouTube videos have been sliced over multiple segments to cover the sheer depth of his songbook (though he did have a noticeable habit of launching artists, sticking around for their peak years, and peace-ing out just before the public lost interest in them). You could spend hours swimming in that sea, so let’s keep it brief: part of what made Tsutsumi so successful is that there is no signature Tsutsumi sound, save one as vague as the definition of pop music itself. If anything, his style, like those already mentioned, was nurtured in an environment that valued colorful melody rather than a good beat, giving him the ability to mold  kaleidoscopic notes to technical developments in modern sound, which has cemented his reputation as an evergreen composer who was still writing hits for kids while in his 60s. At what point this went from genuinely great music, to a silent, assistant-heavy boost by younger arrangers, to respectfully, but maybe sheepishly, kissing the ring, is anyone’s hot take, but needless to say, here at 59, his name is behind the most hip-hop-leaning of the trio thus far, bringing a somewhat old-fashioned melodic approach to an unfortunate JNCO-inspired wardrobe choice.

And so on

Rounding things out, there was Takuro Yoshida (“Zenbu Dakishimete“), who helped an idol group like CANDIES grow up, newly-minted producer HΛL (“FLOWER“), who would go on to establish himself at a little indie label called Avex Trax with rising star Ayumi Hamasaki, and lesser-known names, including member Koichi himself (“Suki ni Natteku Aishiteki“). With a roster like that, it’s easy to see how ambitious and eager the team behind KinKi Kids was, ironically bowing to history and tradition with their forward-looking, modern J-pop duo. It’s no wonder that their first single collection sold so well and remains one of the group’s hallmarks — you are guaranteed to find at least fifteen copies in the KinKi Kids section of any used record store today. Nothing would imitate this run of composers in the group’s career ever again, though they continue to enjoy recognition to this day, regularly releasing singles and albums since, and dutifully make the rounds to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their debut this summer.

The only downside is that despite the names involved, all of these great songwriters were either already considered beyond their best days, or hampered by what I imagine was a strict adherence to the Johnny’s sound. One case in point is that so many of these songs carry the same style and feel to them, like being run under day-one Instagram filters, rather than bearing the distinctive thumbprints of their creators — one imagines Johnny himself popping in at the end of each recording session to remind everyone who was signing the checks. Tsutsumi and Makaino might have always been more flexible in their sound, adapting to the trends and technical capabilities of their current era, but a Tatsuro Yamashita song almost always sounds like a Tatsuro Yamashita song. Or rather, it does now that this is exactly what people want and expect from him.

But from 1997-1999, a more bland and consistent sound with the edges smoothed out was the order of the day, with most of the songs typical of what Make Believe Melodies dubbed the “Johnny’s house style”: upbeat, fluffy pop with heavy influences from disco, Latin styles like samba, and, at least in the last three years of the century, Euro-pop, with its safe major keys and hints of synth cheese. KinKi Kids illustrate that well enough on these slightly blurry debut singles underlining their epic mission by a series of absolute legends, hired to do what they now could do in their sleep, for an agency with more power and pull than most people wanted to believe, for that evergreen institution known as a boy band, at a time when that institution was enjoying the last of the kind of success it would ever see again until the explosion of K-pop.

Notes
[ The banner is an edit of a personal scan from the album KinKi Single Selection. The single covers are from here, here, and here. ]

Top ten East Asian pop/rock albums of 2021

2021ban

My listening veered towards the familiar when it came to East Asian pop this year, with many of this year’s top artists making second or third appearances on these year-end lists. This is totally unremarkable, considering that the most pervasive feeling I have had lately is the nagging gloom that 2020 and 2021 have actually just been one very long year, and everything bleeding together makes it hard to distinguish this year’s J-pop from last. Treading water is what you do when you’re trying not to drown, not when the environment is conducive to innovation, and so we saw a lot of trends hanging on throughout 2021, from the lasting impact of The Weeknd’s sizzling synths in “Blinding Lights,” (RYUJI IMAICHI, Lexie Lu) to the last gasps of a certain kind of aggressive dance-pop unique to mid-00s (w-inds.), warm bubble-bath Johnny’s (SixTONES, Snow Man), all the way to a doubling-down of all the familiar tropes of idol- and K- and City-pop (Yufu Terashima, TWICE, YUKIKA). Here are my top ten favorite, in no particular order:

Lexie Liu: GONE GOLD // LatuLatu: Hyakkaryoransen

Morning Musume ’21.: 16th ~ That’s J-POP // YUKIKA: TIMEABOUT,

Yufu Terashima: SURVIVAL LADY // RYUJI IMAICHI: CHAOS CITY

GENIE HIGH: GENIE STAR // TWICE: Formula of Love: O+T=<3

NiziU: U // w-inds.: 20XX “We are”

Honorable Mentions

BANDMAID: Unseen World
Sakurako Ohara: l
FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE: FANTASTIC VOYAGE
Perfume: POLYGON WAVE EP
Key: Bad Love

Top ten pop/electronic albums of 2021

2021ban

Escape continues to be the name of the game, and pop music is always happy to deliver. In particular, as Bandcamp Friday continued to honor artists with well-deserved and actually useful recognition, it was easy to fall into the synthwave spiral again, where labels like New Retro Wave and Timeslave continued to feature the best in throwback nostalgia. There are a number of new artists here, too, like Sergey Lazarev, who continues to be the king of Eurovision-pop, and Nick Jonas, who continues to elude chart success despite my repeated streams of his most ridiculed work. I can’t say great taste is the engine of this particular list, but for a year that continues to be as unsettling as ever, you could do a lot worse. Here are my ten favorite of the year, in no particular order:

Red Soda: Metatron Chronicles // Roosevelt: Polydans

Doja Cat: Planet Her // WILLOW: lately, I feel EVERYTHING

New Arcades: In the Deepest of Dreams // Nick Jonas: Spaceman

Fury Weekend: Signals // Earmake: Comsic Hero 3

Sergey Lazarev: 8 // Khalid: Scenic Drive (The Tape)

Honorable Mentions


Zara Larsson: Poster Girl
Mariah the Scientist: RY RY WORLD
Summer Walker: Still Over It
Selena Gomez: Revelación
Droid Bishop: Into the Abstract

Top ten metal/hard rock albums of 2021

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This list trended more towards hard rock than metal this year, with many bands making their usual appearance. With a year as static as 2021, it’s no surprise that old standbys provided more comfort than newer finds: Legends Chevelle and Evergrey both released fine examples of longevity at its finest, groups like Beast in Black and Greta Van Fleet continued to mine the sounds of yore for their brands of throwback power metal and 70’s dino-rock respectively, and a group like Aephanamer just kept doing whatever incredible spell-casting they do to produce another album both beautiful in sound and sight. It wasn’t the greatest year for the genre by far, but it’s a sign of my enduring trust in it that I could still find ten albums that reminded me why I never give up on metal. In no particular order, here are my ten favorite:

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The Pretty Reckless: Death by Rock and Roll // Evergrey: Escape of the Phoenix

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Chevelle: NIRATIAS // Greta Van Fleet: The Battle at Garden’s Gate

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DIAMANTE: American Dream // Unto Others: Strength

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Angels & Airwaves: Lifeforms // Beast in Black: Dark Connection

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STARSET: Horizons // Aephanemer: A Dream of Wilderness

Honorable Mentions

Khemmis: Deceiver
Dee Gees: Hail Satin
Eastern High: Halo
IOTUNN: Access All Worlds
Orden Ogan: Final Days

Top ten original soundtracks/original scores of 2021

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While films were released in theaters again, a lingering sense of hesitation remained, whether intentional or not (well, until Spider-man, I guess), as if composers are only half-heartedly putting in effort for what they know will be mostly heard piping through standard audio equipment, laptops, and even headphones as many still balk at visits to a crowded hall, preferring to huddle in front of streaming devices at home. It makes for a frustrating listening experience. Nothing feels as big and bold as some of the releases from previous years, and more scores than usual made my disappointing list than in previous years. At the same time, I found myself selecting titles by composers that have never appeared on these lists before, and that’s always a welcome change. Here are my top ten favorite scores of the year, in no particular order:

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Leo Birenberg & Zach Robinson: Cobra Kai Season 3 // Roque Banos: Explota Explota

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Aaron Boudreaux: The Wanting Mare // Inon Zur: Syberia: The World Before (Original Soundtrack)

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Isabella Summers & Brian H. Kim: Panic //  Lorne Balfe: Black Widow

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Bartosz Chajdecki: Mistrz // Richard Jacques: Guardians of the Galaxy (Original Soundtrack)

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Hans Zimmer: No Time to Die // Yoko Kanno: Cowboy Beboy

Honorable Mentions

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Salvinsky: Narita Boy (Original Game Soundtrack)
The Blake Robinson Synthetic Orchestra: Lost in Random, Vol.1 (Original Game Soundtrack)
Mattie Bye: Young Royals (Soundtrack from the Netflix Series)
Chris Wong, et al: Camellia Sisters (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Dmitry S. Silantyev: Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous (Original Soundtrack)

Top ten debut albums of 2021

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2020 was a tough year to debut but 2021 wasn’t much better. The albums on this list represent all of the experiences on the spectrum, from those being carried on a wave bigger than they could imagine, to those taking a calculated risk, to those throwing caution to the wind and just hoping for the best. Some of these albums will cast long shadows, thresholds that will be hard to meet or surpass in the future (Olivia Rodrigo), while others fell just slightly short of the mark but hint at enormous potential (CHUNG HA). But the most important and horrifying thing all of these albums did was show how relentlessly time moves forward, a steady stream of novelty that (thankfully, sometimes regretfully) refuses to ebb.

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Noriko Shibasaki: Follow my heart // Maggie Lindemann: PARANOIA

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Pink Sweat$: PINK PLANET // SG Lewis: times

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Olivia Rodrigo: SOUR // Jay Diggs: Jams

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BALLISTIK BOYZ from EXILE TRIBE: Pass The Mic // Kazaki Morinaka: Gekokujou

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Silk Sonic: An Evening with Silk Sonic // MIRAE: KILLA

Honorable Mentions

MyDearDarlin’: Dearest
Khirki: Κτηνωδία
KOTONE: RESIST
CHUNG HA: QUERENCIA
Spiritbox: Eternal Blue

Top ten remastered/reissued albums of 2021

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It’s always interesting to see what music is chosen to be exhumed by the likes of small vinyl labels, eager to press and preserve any and everything, and large corporate monoliths, eager to milk whatever they can out of streaming numbers. I respect some of these decisions and loathe others – a 25th anniversary edition of the Spice Girls’ debut album is both fun and fair, but if you’re going to re-release the Kimagure ORANGE☆ROAD soundtracks, can you please remaster them first, and include CD and digital versions? Also, how do you even categorize something like the extras from the incredible Wonder Woman 1984 soundtrack? It’s included here as it deserves recognition and fits none of the other thirty categories I’ve dreamed up to avoid just such a nightmare scenario. In any case, where all of these succeeded was in getting me to spend time with music that I hadn’t heard in a while, and to remember why I loved it so much. It also reinforced an appreciation for how the past shapes and informs the endless parade of new, an important part of any deep listener’s musical education. Here are ten of my favorite re-releases from the year, in no particular order:

Hans Zimmer: Wonder Woman 1984 Sketches // Queen Najia: missunderstood…still

Kimagure ORANGEe☆ROAD Original Soundtracks [Vinyl] // Jessie Ware: What’s Your Pleasure? Platinum Pleasure Edition

The Midnight: Endless Summer (5 Year Anniversary) // Metallica: Metallica

Ayumi Hamasaki: Cyber TRANCE presents ayu trance // Spice Girls: Spice 25

Taylor Swift: Red (Taylor’s Version) // Craig Armstrong: Love Actually (Original Soundtrack)

Honorable Mentions

Danny Elfman: Sleepy Hollow (Music from the Motion Picture)
Kylie Minogue: Disco (Guest List Edition)
SPEED: SPEED MUSIC BOX -ALL THE MEMORIES-
Rammstein: Herzeleid XXV Anniversary Edition
SHINee: : Atlantis

Top ten most disappointing albums of 2021

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It’s best to get the bad news out of the way, so let’s power through some of the worst listening experiences you could have: not the truly awful, but the ones that missed the mark, that ones that just didn’t hit the way you wanted them to, the ones that made you re-consider, even if just for a few minutes, why you called yourself a fan in the first place, the ones that make you question the weeks or months you spent in anticipation, only to be crushed by the weight of mediocre. This list has them all: YG’s much-anticipated new boy band that we haven’t seen or heard from again in the eleven months since THE FIRST STEP : TREASURE EFFECT underwhelmed back in January, maestros dropping the ball when it seemed as if the source material already did half the work (Lady Gaga, Hans Zimmer), and artists whose significant collaborations should have warranted a lot more than their net result (Halsey). And let’s not forget “official” debuts that deserved so, so much more (CL, aespa). Though to be frank, there was nothing more disappointing this year than the ubiquitous, unrelenting, and uninspired appearance of the colon in the titles of K-pop albums. Here are the other ten, in no particular order:

TREASURE: THE FIRST STEP : TREASURE EFFECT // Lady Gaga: Dawn of Chromatica

Hans Zimmer: Dune (Original Soundtrack) // aespa: Savage

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: CANDY RACER // Halsey: If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

Nicholas Britell: Cruella (Original Score) // Daniel Pemberton: Being the Ricardos (Original Soundtrack)

CL: Alpha // Red Velvet: Queendom