Mirror, mirror on the wall: Koda Kumi’s raison d’etre

My biggest downfall as a music writer (or blogger, whatever) barely makes sense at first glance: I probably read a greater variety of music-related articles and books than I listen to their actual musical outputs. Example: I read the 500 page Bob Dylan biography Down the Highway and was fascinated but I have never listened to a single album of his in one sitting (though Blonde on Blonde‘s tracks definitely have had the highest ratio of success for me). If someone gave me the choice of reading 800 words on Led Zeppelin or listening to five of their songs, I would choose the former. I cannot help it: if written correctly, the best music writing can trump the music itself. Similarly, I’ve never actually listened to a total album of Koda Kumi’s until Kingdom back in January, but I’ve read mostly everything I’ve come across that mentions her name. What this basically equates to is a whole lot of knowledge on a Japanese pop phenomenon that, as it turns out, doesn’t require a basic handle on the songs to back-up.

We’ve all seen the videos, or heard about them anyway; Kumi was already pegged for success several years ago as a top contender for Japanese (urban) queen just as Ayumi Hamasaki was submitting to a slow dethroning (Pink Wota already mentioned the symbolic aspect of Kumi’s latest album cover which depicts the singer in her best regal pose atop a fur-lined throne, complete with a crown and a hand of not-so-subtle playing cards, so I won’t beat the dead horse) as avex’s number one provider; clearly the shoes were tough to fill, but it seemed fans were more than willing to root for Koda’s feet as she stomped, strutted, and gyrated through countless music videos and television appearances. It’s hard to take something like her image seriously when it’s more than clear that Kumi’s role as imitator and not trend-setter accounts for much of her popularity: she is hardly paving the way for dozens after her, but offers an audience a citation for the urban glam that has been sweeping Japan for some time. But if we didn’t take it seriously, than nothing could be taken seriously at all and since musical criticism relies on this seriousness regardless of genre (even hair metal gets the treatment), it’s best to break down Kumi the same way a retrospective look at Britney Spears’ career might: both women are icons and both have scandals backing up their tough personas (Kumi’s hardly worthy comment about women’s fertility; Spears’ everything post-K-Fed), but what is the appeal?

Taking the time to actually watch Kumi’s newest music video for “That Ain’t Cool” featuring Fergie and listening to her newest single MOON has only reinforced my somewhat negative reaction; I’ve seen snippets of some of her early videos, but was truly initiated with “Under” and subsequently baffled by Kingdom: her entire musical career is fraught with so much visible effort, I’m hard-pressed to understand the devoted nature of her fans and more often left awaiting the punchline that never seems to come. It’s easy to step back and respect certain artists without being a fan (Prince is a requisite, I guess Radiohead, and even Hikaru Utada post-DISTANCE, to inject some Japanese pop back into this), but it’s sometimes too easy to judge an artist by their fans (the more obsessed and well, fanatical, the more I tend to discriminate), but Kumi is neither wholly talented or innovative and her fans are more than simply dedicated. The appeal continually astounds me: sure, Kumi plays the sexpot nearly every time and she can carry a tune some of those times, but there is little to nothing genuine or sincere in her delivery. While it’s easy to mistake that idea and critique the sincerity of her attitude in terms of its relevance to her genuine attitude, it is important to remember that a) most people don’t care and b) the two are mutually exclusive; what is important is how well she sincerely portrays the chosen attitude regardless.

And like a child playing with her mother’s makeup, Kumi’s sexiness isn’t so much plausible as her effort is visible; in “That Ain’t Cool” she actually makes Fergie seem like a successful veteran of the genre. Her vocals are a mash-up of staccato and struggle and the dances are designed to do nothing but imitate moves we’ve seen done better. What is even stranger is the fact that Kumi should be a veteran herself, but belies any accumulation of experience. In a recent post I discussed the collaboration between Namie Amuro and DOUBLE on the track “BLACK DIAMOND” and later happened to come across a few posts that pinned the two ladies against each other in terms of experience in both singing and dance. The winner usually came out to be Amuro, the argument being she is more experienced, and I probably said something to the same effect. But after a few weeks of re-listens and re-watches, I’m actually quite positive the two complement each other nicely. The two never dance in complete sync but it’s probably because they’re both so sure they’ve got it right and they do; experience is never the only adequate reason for talent. Kumi never seems to get it right at all and even her experience doesn’t help.

The failure of able choreographers (I’d say mediocre here, but way better than Ami Suzuki’s) and composers (again, Kumi’s songs aren’t groundbreaking and her vocals are a testament to marketable image before marketable talent – “Moon Crying” was more than a little difficult to sit through and she often falls into what seems a fallback falsetto) all seem to indicate Kumi’s popularity stems little from originality and mostly from her mirror-like capabilities; she is an icon because she gives her fans another good reference to be who they are.


3 thoughts on “Mirror, mirror on the wall: Koda Kumi’s raison d’etre

  1. vinyabarion June 6, 2008 / 12:27 pm

    God, you are amazing.

    Seriously, that collaboration with Fergie was almost hideous… I sure hope that she doesn’t even attempt to put that into the American music market… nothing in that video works for her, and it barely works for Fergie.

    On the Amuro/DOUBLE pairing, I have to say that after a couple of re-listening/watching, I find DOUBLE to be so vastly under staffed in the terms of dancing that at certain parts, the lack of control she exerts over body makes her look like she’s having some sort of seizure, where Namie looks fluid and well-rehersed. Vocally, neither one seems very adapt at nothing more than carrying the tune. (I’m just one of those fanatical fans of Namie’s… so, I like it regardless…)

    On Koda’s ballads, I’ve been saying since I heard ‘you’ that they all sound the same, but I disagree that her vocals aren’t up to snuff… they sound gritty, yes; strained, yes; emotive, yes; a bit on the side of gaudy, most likely. Though the falsetto keeps her from screaming as her range, like mine, is mostly do the that falsetto. Without falsetto my range is from the C below middle C to a G/A on a good day… with it, the upper register grows tremendouly and I feel she does an awfully good job controlling it. I enjoy it. What I don’t enjoy is the lack of creativity put into them, so we agree on that.

    As alwaysmt, is an absolute joy to read your articles,

    Who’s Afraid of Music?

  2. ChaosAkita June 9, 2008 / 7:24 pm

    Considering how Koda was the one who got me into J-pop with “1000 no Kotoba”, it’s really a disappointment to see how mediocre of an artist she is. Your article really shows it.

  3. blackmager June 10, 2008 / 1:06 am

    Oh damn.
    That was quite an interesting read.
    Although I will agree that she isn’t as talented as everyone says she is.

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