I wish that the concept of serious Japanese pop and rock criticism was, on the whole, more prevalent. I might even venture to say I wish it existed at all. There are of course, numerous problems with why criticism of Japanese music is in absentia, the most important which is obvious: everything about music criticism has stemmed around the Western world of music. The arguments are clear: (1) a lot of people speak English, some people speak Japanese; (2) if analyzing involves deconstructing the music within a cultural context, the Japanese culture is too far removed to do any of the analyzing unless you were born and raised within that culture. I’ll share an example.
In the introduction to Chuck Klosterman’s heavy metal odyssey Fargo Rock City, Klosterman claims that music criticism has been largely restrained to pop, blues, jazz, and the like, while intellectual criticism about heavy metal has been pretty moot. So he thought, well, I’m fairly intelligent and I like heavy metal, why don’t I write about it? So he did. It’s at this point I thought about pursuing the same thing in regards to Japanese pop. Hey, I’m fairly intelligent and I like J-pop. I could even narrow this down and do an entire study on Ayumi Hamasaki, considering I know more about her music and persona than any other artist I’ve listened to and researched. If I followed Klosterman’s example, I would then delve into how she affected my culture, my friends, and my life. But that’s the problem: Ayumi Hamasaki never affected my culture, she never affected the people around me, and so can she really have affected my life?
On a personal note, absolutely. Hamasaki’s music and persona seeped into every inch of my existence since I was a twelve year old kid listening to “Boys & Girls.” But Ayumi is not a part of my culture, no matter how much she sounds, looks, and acts the part. I have never walked down the street and glanced at billboards advertising A BEST. I have never stepped into a CD store with the knowledge that I would easily obtain her latest single. I have never turned on the radio and heard her songs on Top 40. I have never turned on the television and seen her advertising Visee Kose or a Panasonic camera; Ayumi is part of a culture, but it’s not mine.
But even if I did choose to write serious criticism on contemporary Japanese pop regardless, where could I even hope to be published outside of my own blog? Just who is the largest demographic of English-speaking Japanese pop and rock fans? And I’m left with the (sad) realization that it’s probably anime fans.
In 2003, a short year after the first incarnation of my (largely Japanese pop oriented) music blog appears was born, I received an E-mail from a representative of Tofu Records asking if I would help by advertising the releases of their albums, to which I politely declined on the basis that I believed (and still do) that their mission statement was outrageous. Tofu Records had a simple, albeit ambitious goal: to bring Japanese music to the United States by releasing Japanese pop artists’ albums in North America. A brilliant idea, except that the angle was to connect Japanese pop to anime. The idea was that kids and teenagers who watch anime are already primed to appreciate a facet of Japanese culture that would enable them to transition and be the likeliest foundation audience, hence, getting Japanese artists to perform at anime-cons. Well OK, some people who watch anime do listen to East Asian pop. The problem is that they are only a tiny fraction of people who listen to music in general and to say the two have any business being singularly attached at all is like using a Flaming Lips song to promote Mitsubishi. Using this approach, Tofu Records closed in 2007, less than five years later. So how do we successfully market a country’s musical oeuvre while allowing it to keep its integrity? How do we make it accessible and appealing to those not completely taken with Japanophilia, who just enjoy music without the anime attachment that may give them reason to judge before even hearing something they probably weren’t even aware existed? How do we get serious students, listeners, writers, and critics of music to pay attention in a country not very open to musical imports?
The cultural imperialism analysis puts things into a bit of perspective – Western culture influences everything and therefore, everything seems to be Western, if not simply American. But what Eastern countries like Japan have (amazingly) done is invite these ideologies without submitting their culture: the Oricon charts (similar to Billboard) feature both Western and Eastern artists, they eat at Western fast food restaurants, but their primary staple is still rice, they wear jeans and T-shirts, but don kimonos during formal events. These are just a few of the shallow aspects I’m pointing out – there is a lot of self-preservation within the country. Ayumi Hamasaki is a product of this unique culture and after all that, Ayumi can come to America, study our culture, and even speak our language fluently, but does that really make her a certifiable authority on our culture? If she chose to write criticism on say, some movie like There Will Be Blood in relation to our culture, would we take it seriously? Well, forgetting the fact that she’s a pop star, maybe.
First of all, America is built on that sort of acceptance; anyone can be American because our culture reaches beyond our borders and influences every aspect of non-Americans. But second of all, while Ayumi can conceivably “become” American, an “American” can never conceivably become “Japanese.” You can study the language, you can visit the country, you can live there for twenty years and make it your home, but if you weren’t raised there, can you really embody the true spirit of someone who’s gone through the cultural process of growing up in a country that, though very Westernized, is still undeniably different? Will you ever be more than just a gaijin oddity?
But this is the big question: can I legitimately dissect and analyze the influence of Ayumi Hamasaki on culture (or in general) when her culture is not my culture? When I have not been to Japan, have not exhaustively studied the language and only have a deeper understanding of the culture…to a certain extent? To just say it’s impossible is of course both stupid and short-sighted. But then there’s the question of who would read the analyses anyway.
The Japanese pop and rock culture is almost exclusively based on the Internet. For argument’s sake, the Internet is a concept and not a reality (I’ve read the phrase “in the real world” so many times on blogs, I find this argument beyond justifiable). That’s not to say it doesn’t exist at all – there are a handful of genuinely superb Japanese pop and rock blogs or web sites (but again, just a handful) and even a few “communities” that discuss the music in general, but I have yet to find any sort of transcendent, intellectual, and serious agenda on said subject matter. Pleasure Principled attempted this with its “revealingly articulate idol worship,” but the site hasn’t been updated in a long time, and even when it was, it focused almost exclusively on the “idol” community instead of embracing the full spectrum of J-pop. That’s not to say these casual fan blogs are somehow wrong or useless; personal journals are meant to be conduits of very personal, emotional, and unprofessional reactions and opinions, many of them launched to have fun with no serious aspirations attached. They allow fans to come together to discuss and interact, no matter what they have to say and how they choose to go about saying it. But where is its academic counterpart: the all-encompassing, articulate, savvy prose on all things Japanese pop, ie; where is the English-speaking J-pop version of Pitchfork? Hell, where is the English-speaking J-pop version of Rolling Stone or NME?
The Internet is already primed for this community; with no one else to talk to in the immediate, real world vicinity, English-speaking fans of Japanese pop found their allies through the Internet back in the day when the word anime still returned hollow, questioning stares. In fact, one can make the claim that Japanese music in America is a total Internet phenomenon; almost no one I’ve ever met who listens to it has discovered it without a decent ISP. This has bourgeoned into today’s mélange of blogs and message boards that post and discuss everything from Namie Amuro’s latest commercial endorsement, to the cutest member of Morning Musume. But if this is supposed to be “my” community, why does it sometimes embarrass the hell out of me? I would be loathe to claim superiority, intellectual or otherwise (though it can be argued that my entire stance in this essay stems from at least a certain type and degree of elitism), nor do I claim some sort of encyclopedic knowledge of all things J-pop; if anything, exposure to these blogs has taught me how much I have yet to listen to and learn. However, it’s also taught me how shallow, inhibited, exclusive, and unstimulating the core collective of English-speaking Japanese pop writers are; a lack of critical thinking, analyzing, and perceptive discussion plagues the very community I have never truly felt a part of. I’ve been listening to Japanese pop for eleven years now, during which my tastes have grown, changed, expanded, and matured, and yet it seems all of my peers have remained perpetually thirteen years old. How they can expect anyone else to take it seriously if they don’t either?
Again, there are huge exceptions here; it’s not my intention to cut down a community that, though never truly wrapping its arms around me, has always acknowledged my interest and ambition, even when they call my opinions “biased” as if they’re not, you know, opinions. There are great blogs out there with insightful comments and worthwhile niche communities: there’s jrockynyc, a veritable goldmine of humor, knowledge, and experience; Pink Wota, a witty, stream-of-consciousness take on pop; unchained, an intellectual oasis for some of the more obscure, indie titles; and International Wota, a community that connects all of these blogs with a feed keeping readers abreast of the salient topics du jour. But though there are a few more I don’t have the space to include, I’m still left with a plethora of blogs that recycle the same singles and albums from J-pop .rar blogs, most of who write reviews as if to recreate songs using uninventive, poorly stringed words after one or two listens, and never place any of the music in cultural or artistic contexts, let alone elude to a bigger picture. The poorly written comments that lash out in juvenile, unconstructive ways is a whole other beast. Plus, most of the writers are relatively young; I’m young myself, but that’s kind of the point. There are thousands of records I haven’t heard and books on music journalism I haven’t read and it’s only with time that I can hope to get through some of them and gain a more well-rounded understanding that will contribute to the way I listen to and analyze a piece of music, not to mention the way I choose to express that. Shouldn’t our community strive to be defined by just as much maturity and experience as Western criticism?
But then, I guess my aim has always been bigger. I’m not content to see Japanese pop and rock straddle the fringe, barely hanging on. I’m not willing to rest on the laurels that it’s the best we have, this J-pop community that’s content to remain a sort of cult hobby, that expresses horror and jealousy when a favorite pop star deigns to be just as accessible as Britney Spears. Shouldn’t our ambitions be higher? Shouldn’t we be aiming to put Eastern pop and rock on the same wavelength as its Western counterpart, without compromising it like, say, Dir en grey, without stripping it of its unique Japan-ness that causes us to love it so much or rob via the same impulse that wants the accessible, kitschy aspects of Japan only with the cute or eccentric filters on? Shouldn’t we be pushing it to be just as important, just as canon-worthy? Hell, to create a canon in the first place? To make sure Yellow Magic Orchestra and Happy End one day stand in the same hall of fame as Yes or The Beatles? I’m not saying it will be easy. I mean, even this desire to amass a legion of English-speaking J-pop savants forces Japanese music to succumb to the words and phrases of Western taste. Even something as simple as an album review requires filtering it through the Western mouth and spitting it out into some sort of ersatz reality, the one that claims any of us Westerners can truly be conduits of Eastern music culture when most of us have not been born, raised, or visited Asia, let alone speak any Asian languages; yes, music is a universal language, but it takes a lot more than just an I-like/I-don’t-like approach to write about it.
But I believe it’s possible. To look at something like a Buono! promotional video and critique it on the basis of talent and originality without submitting to cheap, easy shots at its sheer cuteness, or the sometimes endless Western desire to bemoan an utter lack of irony (hipsters, steer clear), and instead, see the unblemished sincerity not as a sign of ignorance, but, simply, as a whole different style of accessible, radio-friendly music contingent on the people in its culture is not easy, but it’s certainly reasonable. And we can’t take for granted the sheer amount of rock and indie that pervades the island either; the Kinks and the Rolling Stones shouldn’t be (and aren’t) the only progenitors of rock music. And as countless have studied their influence on counter and youth cultures, we, too, should look at the way a uniquely influenced country like Japan has managed to craft rock without use of as much blues as its Western contemporaries and what it meant for its listeners. Or the outcome of what a lack of a Western definition of a minority has on the emergence of Japanese hip-hop.
In the September 2007 issue of the Japanese version of Rolling Stone (which is barely three years old!), Kawasaku Daisuke compiled a list of the 100 Greatest Japanese Rock albums of all time – an absolute, groundbreaking first.
“The Japanese music magazine industry resembles what existed in America before the rise of Rolling Stone. That’s to say, record companies – the main advertisers – see their wishes strongly reflected on every page, and because of this, magazines’ main job is to praise new releases. Is that why we’ve never seen one of these lists? It’s a strange situation, almost like the entire industry is infected with the idea that they should not rank releases because it would “make the record companies angry.” […] We must change this ridiculous situation into something more normal.” (Daisuke)
That was in 2007. Has anything changed since then? Well, when Yasutaka Nakata, a prolific Japanese producer, songwriter, and DJ was interviewed for The Japan Times Online in August 2009, he said, “The power of music critics is less in Japan now. […] And partly this is because they’ll talk about music saying that ‘this’ or ‘that’ is really fashionable, but the [sic] themselves obviously have no sense of style, so people react like, ‘What? Why should we listen to this guy?’” No. Nothing has changed at all. Albums are reviewed with praise and high ratings so they sell well, when let’s be honest – not every album is worth buying, or even listening to. It’s time to make the big leap in establishing the canon with well-written, researched reviews, articles, and essays by professional, critical listeners and writers who live and breath music, while remaining sensitive to our own handicaps and restrictions, cultural or otherwise.
After all, to speak of LUNA SEA or Dir en grey’s influence is to speak of the culture they have affected – those hundreds of visual kei/metal/lolita/what-have-yous – of which I have never partook of and thus know very little of, regardless of the fact that I have been listening to Dir en grey for eight years, from its VK infancy, to the bastardized riffs of American nu-metal mimicry. Here’s that socio/anthropological question again: does analysis of art in a particular culture require cultural participation? And if it doesn’t, if we agree that Western fans of Japanese pop have just as much valid insight into the Japanese musical landscape as Japanese music writers who were born, raised, and live/publish in Japan (and again, the idea of actual Japanese music criticism by the Japanese vis-à-vis the Western paradigm is extremely, ridiculously recent, if at all), is the message really genuine, or like Namie Amuro’s Queen of Hip-Pop, can it simply reflect the culture to which it aspires?
Like any art, music is not made in a vacuum. In fact, if the purpose of art is communication (of ideas, of feelings, of shared values), music speaks directly to the social environment in which it was begat. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it and discuss it on a (relatively) superficial level (as many J-pop blogs do), but as Americans living across the ocean (even with really reliable Internet access), does it mean we’ll never be able to truly grasp its central conceit? And if it’s feasible, does it mean we repair, from the ashes of so many trivial Hello! Project and Johnny’s fan blogs, this unique community to which all J-pop fans belong? Or do we break off and revolutionize the way the world perceives Japanese popular music forever?
(Special thanks to Mike for helping me work out and edit the ideas here.)