Ai Otsuka’s “LOVE TRiCKY”

aiotsukaapplovetrick

Ai Otsuka / LOVE TRiCKY / April 22, 2015

What does it take to make a successful comeback? According to Avex Trax, it’s a mix of collaborations and dance music. In the late 00’s, Namie Amuro’s hip-hop style tapered off until reaching the electronic zenith of 2013’s FEEL (not necessarily a big change, rather than a step back to the type of music the superstar debuted with). Last year, Ayumi Hamasaki collaborated with a whole roster of international dance producers after a slew of unsuccessful albums that were poorly received by both critics and fans. hitomi’s last few albums, Ami Suzuki’s DOLCE and Supreme Show…Avex practically has an emergency roster of producers behind glass, ready and waiting to assist. But whether they’ve been “successful” or not is, in fact, a tougher question of audience reception versus actual sales numbers.

Because there are no fresh faces in J-pop primed to take over (let’s pause for a chuckle over those few naive years we thought Meisa Kuroki was maybe, possibly, could have…nope), our perennial pop stars continue to fight for relevance, some bitterly, some gamely. Ai Otsuka would never be the artist anyone would associate with dance music: since a young age, Otsuka has composed and produced her own music, some fluffy pop songs, others more acoustic, all the while known for her adorably tender ballads usually accompanied by soaring piano chords. However, even in last year’s LOVE FANTASTIC, a slightly more evolving sound could be heard emerging. Unfortunately, while musically it was a solid, albeit not extraordinary, album, it only debuted at #22 on the Oricon chart, and fell rapidly from there. This year’s LOVE TRiCKY makes no compunction about its scramble for victory. Veteran Avex Trax producer, Abe Noboru, known as STUDIO APARTMENT, was brought in to produce the album, and his style is both obvious, and critical, to what has made this album such a triumph.

Standout tracks “laugh” and “affair” drive home the album’s thesis: the former a fantasy-destination, propulsive EDM number, the latter the kind of song that would have been less than compelling, but in the hands of Noboru becomes a haunting, almost violent song, coaxing Otsuka into actual wails. While her vocals may not always be up for the task before her, there’s something provocative about these songs: it’s not the themes of love we’re used to hearing Otsuka explore, as if this album is her mature understanding of how complicated and sticky the word can get when we open ourselves to temptations and succumb to cravings. Yet it’s manic and lusty without being  rapacious. The “old” Ai Otsuka isn’t so much dead and gone, as living vicariously through her riskier avatar. Delicate tracks are still present (“summer lovely days,” “reach for the moon”), but function more as afterthoughts.

Whether or not LOVE TRiCKY is a permanent musical change, or just an exercise in reaching out to a new audience and reconnecting with fans who had grown up and went astray (hint: the album only debuted this week at #24), the album is an accomplishment: an accomplishment for pop music, for dance music, and for Ai Otsuka. Avex Trax might have a formula to address their artists’ panic, but it can work. History shows that others haven’t always followed up — Ami Suzuki, hitomi, and  recently Ayumi Hamaski’s careful and deliberate switch back to a familiar style on A ONE. Regardless, these collaborations, like LOVE TRiCKY, are audacious, beautiful achievements, even in the short term, even just for the length it takes for the CD to play from start to finish.

TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE: What we talk about when we talk about idols Pt. 2

tgsapp1

On December 20, 2014, leading Avex Trax idol group TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE announced that they would be leaving their idol status behind them and moving forward as “artists.” There is quite a difference between artists and idols, one that goes beyond that alarming moment the camera pans over the audience and you notice it’s 98% male. Unlike other records labels, Avex Trax is fairly new to the idol scene, instead traditionally known for producing solo artists and dance groups. While project director Yoshiyasu Satake explains the distinction by saying that the girls “will no longer perform in idol festivals, appear in idol-specific magazines, and will no longer perform their songs “Onnaji Kimochi” and “Ganbatte Itsudatte Shinjiteru,”” the more specific truth is that the ways an artist or group are marketed, or promoted to target audiences are pretty much the means by which they will be regarded and consumed. This includes everything from the lyrical content of songs, to the costuming, to the type of promotional tie-ins and product endorsements, down to the age of the members themselves.

Arguably, one of Avex Trax’s most successful idol groups to date has been SweetS, whose members were 13 and 14 years old at the time of their debut. While they could be interpreted as just another singing and dancing group, their target audience definitely skewed to the older male demographic; I remember a certain now-defunct J-pop forum’s SweetS thread to be almost bewilderingly comprised of older men, the types with good paying full-time jobs who pre-ordered every last single and posted images of their CD collections and posters before digital and phone cameras made this easy and ubiquitous — in 2003, you had to love an idol group with so much unabashed pride you’d be willing to purchase a not-cheap scanner to upload your Polaroids after waiting an hour to have them developed. At best, these guys had a sense of humor about their hobby; at worst, a sense of guilt that made them particularly defensive. But it was a  club I knew I would never join, at least not on a high school student’s budget. My people hung out in the ‘What was your latest purchase?’ thread where we’d boast about being able to buy Hikaru Utada’s second-newest single and that one Every Little Thing remix compilation that came out two years ago. When someone scored concert merchandise on Ebay, even just a dinky rabbit’s foot key chain, we’d all enthusiastically gush in admiration and jealousy with just as much, if not more, awe than we did for those who posted pictures of gigantic boxes of CD Japan orders.

With song titles like “LolitA☆Strawberry in summer,” SweetS’ innocence-as-invitation come-ons were plastered across billboards in poses that would mostly attract these older fans. Of course, in the era of post-AKB48, the group almost seems quaint now, rather hinting at the aberrant, where AKB48 — which perfected the practice of objectifying members and treating young girls like expendable, interchangeable cogs in a giant machine — ushered in an era of tight control, structure, rules, and overt agenda. To many who look back, SweetS’ short career is covered in a gauzy veil of nostalgia. On the Is it an idol? blog, the post “SweetS Reincarnate: Tokyo Girls’ Style- doomed to fail?” says “The group seemed to have it all: Fresh-faced, adorable pre-pubescent [sic] members, two strong lead vocalists, and an extremely catchy (although slightly controversial) debut single” and earlier in the post, as “a dream deferred.”

TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE was created to be the group’s successors, being one of the first Avex groups created specifically as idols in many years: indeed, their early discography is littered with SweetS covers like “LolitA☆Strawberry in summer” and “Love like candy floss.” Their early promotional videos are geared especially to a male viewing audience: in “Ganbatte Itsudatte Shinjiteru” the girls play cheerleaders who spend the video swooning over their male classmates and gathering up enough courage to talk to their crushes, not unlike early SweetS songs that focused on the internal dilemma and excitement of falling in love with someone who is hinted at being forbidden. If you were a female trying to get into the group early on in their career, there would be very little to draw you in besides catchy music: since the group was created for the creepier fantasies of boys, everything from the way the girls’ acted, to the content of the lyrics, addressed, and solely catered to this audience. Unlike Namie Amuro or Ayumi Hamasaki, who wore the hippest clothes, sang songs about themselves, their friends, and their own real-life issues, in turn providing more authentic role-models and behavior that was aspirational, idols like TGS create fantasies so even the nerdiest, shyest boy feels desirable, liked; his every behavior and thought, whether deviant or not, justified. For these men, artists like Kumi Koda seem intimidating, even vulgar. It’s not uncommon to hear many of those same boys call her music videos and stage shows crass, unbecoming, or “slutty,” where others, particularly women and homosexual men and women, see it as an expression of sexual freedom, agency, independence, and an alternative to the pliable, simpering behavior that many idols are paid to trade in. That is to say, images are powerful, and the way artists and idols are projected is highly calculated. Unfortunately, this also creates an idol industry that excludes an entire population at the risk of potentially greater monetary rewards: who can afford to buy 4 copies of the same CD to collect all the different covers? Who is willing to buy dozens of copies of the same album to ensure his favorite idol wins the next senbatsu? Of course, this comes at the risk of these groups becoming something of pariahs in the industry, condemned to their corner of the music world, where any outsiders venturing in are forced to feel somewhat ashamed by taking a peek inside.

But in many other ways, TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE has always been your average “girls dance and vocal group” as Satake puts it. As early as their 2013 Budokan concert, the group already exhibited so little of the idol spectacle we’re used to: while many idols cash in on their lack of talent and sloppy choreography, TGS quickly developed remarkable skill in their choreography. They also have a small hand in their musical material, through lyric writing, and playing instruments. Some of the members cite BoA and Ayumi Hamasaki as their influences, perhaps a nod to the professionalism, candor, and wide-reaching audience that the group hopes to mimic themselves. Anyone who heard their 2014 album Killing Me Softly could have seen this move in a new direction coming. The album’s softer, melancholy tones shifted their sound into more seasoned territory, relying less on unsophisticated cliches, though I’ll admit the change was gradual, with Avex hesitant to turn the switch off for their loyal audience: the 2013 PV for “Partition Love” depicts a hackneyed plot involving a girl’s crush on an older teacher, eventually showing up at his door in the middle of the night. But if the music itself didn’t tip you off, their collaborations would. “In an effort to market them even more to the indie crowd, Avex Trax had TGS team up with trendy internet label Maltine Records in January for a special collaboration album, Maltine Girls Wave” says Jacques over at arcadey. In many ways, when the traditional route clogged the yen stream to Avex, maybe for not walking the  exploitative path other idol labels find it so easy to go down, they switched TGS to being the “cool” idols, the ones who released exclusive 7″ vinyl singles. Or was this the point all along? A bit of pandering so Avex could go back to doing what they do best?

While the country has fluxed in waves, in Japan’s music market today, idols have been where the money is. But if popular opinion is any indication, this seems to be gradually changing, as group’s distance themselves from the “idol” label as much as possible, and big record companies concentrate on developing groups that are marketed toward girls and young women, giving them things they want to see and participate in. When a recent idol group was rumored to be formed for the opening ceremony performance of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, many public figures reacted in horror, calling groups like AKB48 everything from “the shame of Japan” to “child pornography.” Writes Patrick St. Michel in “Tokyo 2020 Olympics and AKB48: The J-pop Idol Group Controversy,”

“[T]he response to Japan48 highlighted a schism taking place in the Japanese music landscape. For the last five years, Japan has experienced an “idol boom,” spurred by the success of AKB48 and resulting in dozens of new groups composed of young women singing upbeat pop while dancing. In recent months, however, sales have lagged and general interest in such groups has dropped, while a new wave of bands has claimed cultural relevance. Japan’s infatuation with idol groups has started to fade.

For many idols, the template is Perfume: do your time serving as an idol, then gradually mature into “real” artists, the type that can be taken seriously by those beside otaku. Negicco, originally a small, local idol trio, are now collaborating with seasoned producers, developing a more cultivated, Shibuya-kei sound that is attracting a wider, hipper audience. And for some, the chance to be taken seriously can happen right out the gate: groups like E-girls, and their original units like Dream and FLOWER are marketed towards young women, with an emphasis on style, personality, ambition, and talent: any boys or older men who come along for the ride are welcome, but not without the unspoken agreement that their world is first and foremost, a space for girls to feel safe and valued (as a plus, groups like E-girls and TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE both tour with all-girl backing bands, an intentional nod to the talent women can bring not only to singing and dancing, but playing instruments). Like certain K-pop groups and anti-idols, these groups are reinventing the idea that idols always need to be purposefully inept, demure, coy, or pliable to the passing whims of a male audience. TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE, who have been prepping for months, seem to be more than happy to join this brave new world, and will hopefully not lose their popularity or success in the coming years — or even, perhaps, gain in respect what they could never quite make in sales (to this day TGS has never had a #1 anything on the Oricon charts).

For in some ways, the crawl out of the idol underground is still a slow, uneven slog, where “artists” like Fairies and FAKY aren’t getting the recognition they deserve, being unable to find a sizable foothold in the market, leaving Avex to desperately churn out a decent, but very much-idol group like Dorothy Little Happy in hopes they can still crack that idol code someday. And unfortunately, even after girls put in all the hard work, time, and patience necessary for success, they’re still left finding no other work but to pose for pictorials and videos in the seedy, but still booming men’s gravure and AV publications world after being forcibly “graduated” out of a group to make way for the next pretty face. Not every idol group can follow the Perfume plan, nor can they hope to find both respect and success in a market whose buying power is still, even years and years after certain J-pop forums collapse, concentrated in the hands of older, well-off men who are used to having things their way, and able to front the money to get it.

Read Part 1 here: Momoiro Clover Z: What we talk about when we talk about idols.

Top Ten Albums of 2014

apptop1010. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: PIKAPIKA Fantajin

I’m under the impression that this is not the best Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has to offer; depending on who you ask that would be her debut Moshi Moshi Harajuku or Nanda Collection and let’s just say I didn’t care for Nanda Collection. Kyary can sometimes be a mixed bag of sounds, but we can aways expect producer Yasutaka Nakata to sprinkle her songs with child-like xylophones, even when her latest conceit is turning 20 and becoming an adult. Kyary represents the child in all of her fans, even when she’s clearly moving forward in “Yume no Hajima Ring Ring,” – only three albums old, and she can’t help nostalgically looking back before moving on. There’s beauty in that kind of hesitation, a gentle reminder that who we are comes directly from who we were. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu was and, until he takes someone else under his wing, always will be Nakata’s most divisive project, the kind you’re either upset to see occasionally sprouting in his other work like ugly weeds or happy to find expanding like interesting fauna.

apptop909. 2NE1: Crush

Too little, too late? Well maybe, but you almost can’t help but continue to love any project CL is attached to. For a while the promises of an American takeover derailed the group to the point of obscurity, releasing half-hearted singles like the Instagram filtered “Do You Love Me?” I certainly don’t think 2NE1 will ever surpass the highs they reached with 2011’s “Naega Jeil Jal Naga” (think about how it’s still hitting the shores of the West in commercials as if it’s brand-new while the rest of us yawn and try not let the hangover dilute its magic). Still 2NE1 tried their best with this one, and there are still remnants of what made the group a trailblazer: CL’s “Menbung” solo, for one, a song produced almost exclusively to be played loudly in a car with the windows rolled down. The one glaring omission is “I Love You,” replaced by a Korean version of Japanese single “SCREAM.” Even though 2NE1 was left behind in the great K-pop races, it’s nice to see them still soldiering on, despite how much it seems their hearts are no longer in it.

apptop808. Tomohisa Yamashita: Asobi

Yamapi is famous for his dual career aspirations: forever chained to focusing on the Johnny’s pop music that won over his diehard group of fans, he’s consistently dabbling in dance music, particularly in the songs he composes on his own: is Asobi Yamashita’s reward for playing by the rules? A bit of indulgence in a passion that satisfies him musically so he will continue to put out albums like YOU? While I think YOU isn’t necessarily a terrible album, it is safe, a lot more safe that his collaboration with house producers Shinichi Osawa and Yasutaka Nakata. Asobi is the perfect antidote for fans who prefer songs like “Hit the Wall” and “Turn Off the Lights” to “Daite SENIORITA,” and as a dance album, it holds its own against the EDM-heavy banquet that Top 40 still feasts on, years after the genre hit its mainstream peak.

apptop707. Ai Otsuka: LOVE FANTASTIC

As the Oricon charts become increasingly irrelevant, their reflection of both the everyday musical tastes of the common Japanese person, and the quality of music remain at odds. And though Avex Trax had an incredible year, they seem to have less luck with their roster of seasoned professionals than they do with newcomers and girl groups (often the same thing). LOVE FANTASTIC is not the best album Ai Otsuka has come up with, but it it the most complete. It illustrates the warmth and grace she brings to love songs (“Gomen ne.,” “Mawari Mawaru Mawareba Mawaro”) and the fun she has with upbeat pop/rock numbers that sound like indie circuit-approved staples (“LUCKY☆STAR” and “9”). She may not have had the sales numbers, but Ai Otsuka can still have it both ways when albums come packaged in such understated elegance.

apptop606. TaeTiSeo: Holler

TaeTiSeo is Girls’ Generation’s vocal powerhouse subunit, consisting of three of the group’s strongest singers: Taeyeon, Tiffany, and Seohyun. In their second mini album, they have ample room to show off their technical skills and range, though lead single “Holler” sometimes veers a little too close to K-pop’s fascination with endlessly recreating Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” My vote for favorite track goes to “Adrenaline,” a song whose drums double down with each escalating vocal track, truly capturing the thrill and excitement inherent with encountering a crush. Holler is a far step up from the poppy Twinkle, a showcase to SM Entertainment’s progress in action.

apptop505. f(x): Red Light

No, it’s not Pink Tape, but SM Entertainment’s answer to one of the best pop albums of all time was more of the same, with surprisingly efficient results. I can understand how some might see Red Light, and K-pop in general, too clinical, with too much emphasis on production, order, and reliability, but I believe that is K-pop at its best. And Red Light has plenty to offer in terms of novelty: rare instrumentation, deliciously catchy choruses, and the right vocalist for every line, utilized for maximum synergy. Read more about this album here.

apptop404. Michiru Hoshino: E・I・E・N Voyage

There’s no shortage of idol groups reaching back into the Golden Age of Idols to resurrect the nostalgia and vivacity of an era that still marked the beginning of a brilliant future rather than the beginning of the end. Ever since idols and idol groups made a comeback in the 00’s after the 90s’ “artist” boom, it only made sense that producers and composers would look backward to see what worked. Mostly, that seems to be cute girls in mid-century fashion, back when we could still glamorize airplanes and stewardesses, those ever beautiful, slim, neatly pressed, highly-coiffed women who existed solely to bring us an extra pillow and refill our whiskey. There’s no shortage of this motif, from Girls’ Generation’s second album, to Vanilla Beans, to the group PASSPO☆ that banks its entire existence upon the concept. This goes hand in hand with the reemergence of shibuya-kei, which largely lagged behind when Perfume came along, now quickly catching up to help struggling idols like Negicco. So it makes sense that former AKB48 member Michiru Hoshino would embrace the concept as well, tackling the shibuya-kei aesthetic for her solo career. The album E・I・E・N Voyage is largely successful, for what it lacks in famous brands like Konishi Yasuharu or Yasutaka Nakata, it makes up for in pinning the atmosphere down to a science. You couldn’t hear greater horns or steel drums on an authentic bossa nova compilation, while the sparse production, sounding largely like it was made out of Hoshino’s bedroom on a budget computer program, adds the modern, 21st century touch (I’m thinking paricularly of “Hanshite…” or “Seikan Renraku-sen ~Night Voyage~.”). In that way, this isn’t shibuya-kei in the sense of nostalgia or a blatant recreation of 60’s jet set pastiche, but in the sense of aligning herself outside of the mainstream idol scene as if getting as far away from her recent past as possible. Many other idols would do well to follow this example, not because the mainstream is horrible, but because it really is just different, slower, anti-AKB pop music that reminds you, for a moment, what it was like when possibilities were more abundant than the number of girls in your super group. Natsukashiii~.

apptop303. YUKI: FLY

Having never been a YUKI fan, I was pleasantly surprised by the unexpected wonder of her seventh studio album. FLY is for the YUKI fans who loved the single “JOY” and wondered where the rest of the songs from that recording session ended up. The first few tracks of the album are light dance-pop at their most simple and effective, with the middle portion are reserved for more standard YUKI tracks with rock and jazzy influences. Unfortunately, the album isn’t given any space to breathe, and so is forced to take on more than it can handle: everything after around track ten might as well not exist, bringing the album’s momentum to a jarring stop in order to re-live the early 00’s worst production sin: just because you can fit up to 80 minutes of music on a CD doesn’t mean you have to.

apptop202. Far East Mention Mannequins (FEMM): Femm-Isation

Far East Mention Mannequins are not from this planet. We’re not exactly sure which planet in which galaxy would have the proper elements to nurture the lives of mannequins but astrophysicists are presumably working on it. Until then, we should just be glad they’ve managed to travel all the way out here and manage to assemble such a talented team of visionaries including LiKi inc., HIDALI, GM Atelier, maximum 10, EPOCH, OKNACK Films, and Avex Trax. While so many J-pop groups in the last half decade are cookie cutter girl and boy groups with little to offer outside of the usual, FEMM is one of the few innovative, truly experimental groups outside of the indie scene (technically Avex Trax is an indepenent label, but their business practices make them all but major label in theory): not only did they eschew physical CD sales to shack up with YouTube (a union that would make every other Japanese major label queasy just to consider), releasing singles in full, each accompanied by bright, splashy music videos that challenge the alliance between movement and music, fashion and the human body. Though I’m not sure how comfortable I am with women essentially posing as living dolls, with all the inevitable objectifying that comes with it, and the novelty of the genre — largely eletcro-pop with a heavy, trendy EDM influence — wears off, it doesn’t diminish how much it stands out from other popular Japanese music in the mainstream. Maybe like Lady Gaga, it’s not about how most of the music is just Euro-fluff the Swedes have been doing for decades, but about how we challenge norms (“Fxxk Boyz Get Money“), question the quotidian and illustrate how little you have to stretch to stand out when every other #1 Oricon single is an Arashi song. It helps if you’re meme-ready. By 2014 we were all dying to buy into the narrative of a pair of beautiful mannequins even if they could never take us home to their leader.

apptop101. Jolin Tsai: Play

Up until this point, the closest Jolin Tsai has come to impressing me with an entire album was 2012’s MUSE, which unfortunately  contained one too many fillers that weakened the glue that made so much of the album’s wink-wink pop pretensions so fun. Without necessarily being able to articulate why, Play, which boasts equal number of ballads as it does dance-pop, feels like an almost perfect approximation of pop in 2014. First, there’s the delightful music video, one of my favorite of the year. While many of Tsai’s videos focus on magnifying pop trends to the point of satire, “Play” focuses on critiquing the image each one of us projects to the world: regardless of whether you’re a pop princess, a rich snob, or a frugal hipster, we’re all subconsciously competing for the scarce resources of attention, and the ultimate self-congratulations of surpassing our peers. Except, that is, for Jolin, who rises above it all, the incomparable, original superstar who can poke fun at herself and her career without missing a dance step. From the album’s cover art and packaging, to the ballads on the album, everything is big and everything is about how we present and look at women as objects, clothes hangers, lovers, and even, as actual people. Only skimming the surface would give the impression that Tsai is a lot more dense than she lets on, merely a puppet to be paraded about in couture. In response, Tsai collaborates with #1 Japanese diva Namie Amuro to say, “I don’t need you anymore / I’m not your girl.” Not to mention the truth bombs she drops all over “Play” and the graceful self-preservation of “Zi Ai Zi Shou“: “My moments of sweet happiness and lonely sadness are not someone else’s novel / Concerning the matter of my most private life, please do not listen to hearsay.” There’s also heartbreaking comfort in the album’s closer, “Bu Yiyang You Zenme Yang,” a tribute to the beauty, surrender, and courage of falling in love. This is an album concerned with more than just the surface, rewarding the effort it takes to unwrap and understand what lies beneath what only appears to be another pop star bending to the power of pornographic imagery to sell albums.

Honorable mentions under the cut. Continue reading

Stay Girls: Not Quite a Decade of Girls’ Generation

appgghead

It’s almost the year 2015 and I still don’t know all the members of Girls’ Generation. In fact, there’s only a few I do know; there’s Hyoyeon — she’s the incredible dancer who doesn’t get enough screen time, presumably because she’s often ranked last in the attraction rankings; then there’s Sunny — the one who’s really good at aegyo; and now there’s Jessica — she’s the one who just got kicked out of the group, foreshadowing the end of Girls’ Generation and K-pop as we know it. Even though we’re well beyond the Golden Age of K-pop, Korean pop music has always had its defining starlets to keep the wave crashing just a little bit longer. But now that one of the longest running groups is finally experiencing turbulence with its line-up, it’s only a matter of time before Girls’ Generation finally stop being girls.

Like many fans, I came to know So Nyeo Si Dae (or SNSD, or Girls’ Generation, or even Shoujo Jidai, as they’re known in Japan) when they released the super hit “Gee.” Up until then, the group had mostly been coasting on being SM Entertainment’s latest and having one of the largest number of members in its group at that time. Their signature hit wasn’t only a spectacularly catchy pop song, but one that came with a list of grievances, no matter how many people try to find empowerment in its music video. The fact is, that like most of SNSD’s early hits, the songs are all about an object of infatuation, someone so cute, so handsome, so blindingly brilliant, that it renders the girls unable to sleep, stay still, or even make eye contact. Their hearts beat, they blush, they feel shy, oppreul saraghae etc. Their target audience is certainly the boys and men they’re singing about and to, but many young girls and older women love the group just as much. The coordinated outfits, long legs, constant makeovers, and overwhelmingly feminine visuals appeal to those looking not just for lust objects, but role models, someone to illustrate how to be an ideal woman: how she looks, acts, dresses, and flirts. Once you realize how tempting it is to just give in to the idea that the group was allegedly created for ahjossis (middle-aged men) is when you realize how that would ignore the hypocritical and sometimes infuriating messages it sends to girls and young women (and in this, there really is no suitable ranking — which is worse: churning out attractive girls in a factory-style system complete with requisite plastic surgery for the eyes and wallets of men, or in order to educate women on what the proper feminine form should look and act like? It’s a lose-lose).

Sometime after their initial popularity, SNSD slowly began morphing into something some see as empowering, and others as simply arrogance. This change surprisingly coincided with their Japanese debut, a country not exactly known for allowing their large-numbered female pop groups agency. Instead of sweet pop songs, their music took on an edge, a forceful, tough sound more in line with Western pop songs. They (where “they” means mostly male songwriters) also provided countless definitions and contradictions for who they, as girls, were and could be. In “BAD GIRL” on 2011’s GIRLS’ GENERATION, they claim to be the perfect bad girls, presumably a far cry from the blushing good girls who could only hoot hoot hoot when their boyfriend checked out someone in front of them: “You’ll become a prisoner soon / you’ll become a slave” to their unique style, they sing. Yet later on the album on “BORN TO BE A LADY,” they sing “Ah, even if I’m a tiny girl / who doesn’t have any strength / One day, I will become stronger.” In their Korean comeback that same year they proceeded to “bring the boys out” and stop their diet, but just for one day, because they felt like lazy girls. On the Japanese track “Gossip Girls,” they “put up a confident face; however / We are lookin’ for love all the time… / We are lonely girls.” But maybe the ultimate manifesto is the track on their second Japanese album “Stay Girls”: they know they have to grow up, yet “we stay girls / Innocent, pure hearts / no matter what the future holds / Don’t change who you are / Stay girls.” They want to stay girls and they’re going to stay girls, as long as the public demands it.

This isn’t just the indulgent wish of long-time fans: it’s the dream of almost every human being alive — to preserve youth and innocence, even if just on the inside. Ideally, idol groups would also stay young forever, churning out hit after relevant hit, rather than burning out, fading away, breaking up, changing line-ups, or worse: daring to grow older or move forward.

The three biggest entertainment agencies in Korea (SM, YG, and JYP) each have their own unique brand, and SM Entertainment’s hallmark has always been not just creating stars, but creating youthful, upbeat idols who sell charisma like it’s a product. It is a product. As an SM trainee, you are sold just as effectively as you will in turn Samsung phones. But just as there’s a shelf-life to any and all electronic products, so too do idol groups come and go, their purposes varying as far as to entertain, to empower, to delight, or to make you feel bad about that extra ten pounds you carry around. But even SM doesn’t have the power to stop a member from deciding that it’s time to go solo.

Although the announcement that Jessica would be leaving Girls’ Generation was met with some controversy, the general idea is that Jessica wanted out — whether to get married, or to pursue a career in fashion. That the decision was made while Girls’ Generation is still riding a massive wave all over Asia is more than just coincidental — it’s imperative. Says Kpopalypse:

“[W]hen your group is peaking, you’re more valuable. […] [Y]ou’ve got a better chance to sign a deal with favorable terms if you’re already hot in the marketplace as opposed to the newcomer with no bargaining power that you were when you first started training. It’s not uncommon to see the most ambitious members of a group start getting itchy feet especially in the Korean system, because not only are they mostly making fuck all money, they’re all aware that you can’t be an idol group member forever. Eventually your fan base will mature, someone younger and prettier than you is going to take that “idol” spot, and if you don’t have a backup plan, you might not end up with much.”

That Jessica was prematurely kicked out due to a case of sour grapes doesn’t preclude the fact that she would have left the group either by the end of 2014 or early 2015 regardless. Meanwhile, the rest of the girls have renewed their contracts for another three years — perhaps the last three years we might see new material from the group.

Regardless, their older material has already immortalized SNSD as forever-girls, the quintessential idols able to adapt new concepts and personalities by the month: from rainbow-colored skinny jean-clad mannequins, to “marines,” to 1960’s spy girls. In trying to be all things to all people (strong, aeygo, humble, weak, bold, shy, sometimes all in the span of one variety show appearance), we’ll never know how well we really knew any of these young women, except that they were hardworking, talented individuals who were sometimes coerced into doing things they might not have always wanted to, and always with a smile on their face. Because of this, it was easy to feel we owned them, and they owed us, when in truth, we were just lucky to live on the same planet. They weren’t always the girls you wanted your daughter or younger sister emulating, but theirs was probably still the album you turned on when you meant to start straightening up the house and found yourself dancing with the vacuum cleaner. Because in spite of the mixed messages, egregious double-standards, and questionable lyrics, their discography is filled with some of the greatest pop songs of the last decade: memorable, concise, upbeat, and best played loud.

Below the cut, is my personal ranking of my favorite SNSD albums and mini-albums (a very relative list, considering how amazing the discography is overall). I encourage you to build your own. Continue reading

Tomohisa Yamashita’s “YOU”

tomoyouapp

Tomohisa Yamashita / YOU / October 08, 2014

Tomohisa Yamashita is either the greatest or worst experiment in current J-pop history. He’s one of those superstars that Johnny & Associates aren’t quite sure what to do with: on one hand, they want him to be the ideal J-pop heart throb, crooning mellow, buttery pop songs and indulging his fan club members (“Sweeties”) at every opportunity, whether by packaging his CDs with undergarments, or seductively unbuttoning his clothes on concert tours. On the other hand, he’s given the opportunity to release some of the most interesting electronic dance songs in J-pop, gems that are hidden away as B-sides that never see the light of an album release; yet we know the management company is aware of the treasure they’ve got, or else they wouldn’t be performed at every concert as if they were hit singles. Because of this, you can literally split Yamashita’s songs into two categories: typical Japanese pop, with a few R&B or Latin-inspired numbers, or heavily Western-influenced electropop. This has been the strategy since day one, when he released his first album, SUPERGOOD, SUPERBAD, a two disc set with the first featuring the former, and the second disc featuring the latter.

While I’m not too keen on the typical Johnny’s numbers, I will say they have grown on me, in the way that once you’ve decided you like somebody, you tend to be a lot more forgiving of his shortcomings. And I do like Yamapi, as he’s known to his fans — he doesn’t have the greatest voice or even a unique stage presence (a lot of his recent concepts, especially the 2013 A NUDE tour, have been inspired by/blatantly copied off of Michael Jackson, Johnny’s current obsession), but he is an incredible dancer and, whether or not he has much say in it, he is making a lot of bold choices in his discography. Are there really any genuinely popular, young male solo artists in Japan right now? And ones who, spur of the moment, apropos of nothing, release a limited edition dance EP with tracks produced by artists like Yasutaka Nakata and Shinichi Osawa? And then, as if remembering this is a member of Johnny’s, quickly following up with an album with zero trace of numbers like “Nocturne,” the amazing B-side to 2013’s meh SUMMER NUDE ’13? There really isn’t. Yamashita is the exception that underscores the rule that sticking to the playbook is what Japan believes is best.

And yet there’s an audible struggle here, between trying to please the young girls and their moms who spent years supporting Yamapi when he was in NEWS and appearing in countless dramas, and a performance artist trying to appeal to a wider, less niche audience. YOU, as almost all of Yamashita’s full-length albums, is a case of the former. Yamashita dedicated this album to his fans and the album is fittingly full of appeals and petty declarations to pretty girls in his more suave avatar (“Birthday Suit,” “Issho,” and “BRODIAEA”). There’s also a couple of rock and upbeat pop numbers, but overall, YOU is catchy and safe, the type of album with melodies so simple, you can start humming them after a single listen.

It appears as though Yamashita’s team will continue to release two types of music for the artist, either perpetually testing out the waters, or else just letting their star indulge in something he wants to do once in a while. It’s fairly doubtful that he would be willing to let go of his steady fan base for less lucrative, but perhaps more self-fulfilling, career choices, but it’ll never hurt to keep one eye on this guy at all times. Depending on which Yamapi camp you spend nights roasting your fantasy marshmallows in, this could be your new favorite album, or one you’ll find a lot more interesting once you see it performed live; it’ll certainly carry the less apologetic fans over until the next “LOVE CHASE” or Asobi. For those of us, it can’t come fast enough.

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

perfumecooljaapp2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ai ♥ Otsuka and the fantastic fall of the Oricon charts

aiotsukalovefanapp

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

ayualbumsalesapp

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

namiealbumsalesapp

kumikodaalbumsalapp

hikaruutaablsaapp

hitomialbumsalapp

aiotsukasalesapp

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

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

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

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

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