The decade in East Asian pop: a few preliminary, scattered notes

Frank Kogan is writing an essay about the past decade in music and among the suggestions he asked for in the comments section, is this little gem posted by girlboymusic:

The arc of pop music is long, but it bends toward weirdness. We started the decade with relatively neat ‘n’ clean stuff from ‘NSync and Britney and the like. And then we had this movement toward messiness — Avril and Ashlee and their rebellion against “cookie cutter” pop, Pink and Christina making grabs for credibility/authenticity/etc. with their confessional rock and assless chaps, Britney working with the sonically out-there Neptunes. ‘NSync randomly teamed up with rappers and then split so Justin could get all staccato with Timbaland and JC Chasez could release stuff like “Some Girls (Dance with Women).” B’Day happened. Missy Elliott was in there somewhere. Fall Out Boy and their long-titled ilk became the new teen pop. It became all about the clever, the quotably bizarre — a line you could put on your Twitter, stuff you could reblog. See: Black-Eyed Peas, The. See also: Racist, Das. And even now, on its last legs, the decade just keeps pushing toward the aggressively unique, the aggressively personal. Lily Allen. Katy Perry. Britney’s last two albums have been thinly veiled references to how fucked up she is. Rihanna’s latest is a not-at-all veiled reference to how her boyfriend beat her up before the Grammys. Lady fucking GaGa.

It got me thinking, not only about this past decade in music and how awful it is to sum things up in neat decade blocks when movements, styles, etc. aren’t privy to coloring within the lines, but also about how sadly stagnant Japanese pop music has been in comparison. Clearly we’re looking at two fairly different cultural models (it’s beyond apples and oranges; more like apples and Oreos) that require taking audience into consideration and the fact that, you know, Japanese pop tends to borrow a lot of its concepts from its proven-successful Western peer.

But even the music completely unique to the island hasn’t evolved much. In the span of a decade, divas (Hamasaki, Utada, Kumi, Amuro) and Dir en grey have risen and either fallen, released poor English-language albums, or begun working within completely Western frameworks, girls fronting rock bands still demand upbeat, super-charged drums to match their wispy, kawaii vocals, visual kei is still visual kei but with less verve, pop music is still acoustic-lite, at some point super eurobeat was replaced with electro/shibuya-kei (capsule, MEG, Perfume, immi), and boy/girl bands have grown up, changed a few members, but essentially rewrote every third song in their canon.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been a few moments here and there that have stood out, that proposed shifts in attitudes and styles, but for the most part, Japanese pop in 2009 looks a lot like Japanese pop in 2000, with a larger budget and a handful of really great Korean artists jostling to hit the charts: in summary, a lot of good or really great things have ended rather than begun.

That last observation might be a tad subjective, though, because lately I feel the majority of significantly altered musical terrain in Asia is taking place by South Koreans, who have tweaked their agenda more significantly in the past three years or so than the Japanese in the past decade. They may be dressing it up in hypersexed young boy/girl bands, but the music has both innovation (musical and in the merging of other mediums like fashion and video) and a dose of Western influence without entirely submitting to the paradigm. The decade started out with groups like Koyote, Baby V.O.X., and the playing-it-safe BoA, and has ended with 2NE1, SNSD, Big Bang, and the amazingly forthright G-Dragon, a Lord Gaga if I ever saw one. G-Dragon, who recently won the Album of the Year Award for Heartbreaker at the Mnet Asian Music Awards, may be considered more camp and out there than any other Korean pop act, and guys, we’re looking at a country that has embraced the utilisation of eight different fashion movements for every one outfit, but whether or not you actually like Lady Gaga is irrelevant: he’s different; he’s change. Whereas Japanese pop acts who’ve shown any sign of popularity are allowed to hang around as long as they feel like playing the loyalty card out of their record companies, Koreans are rolling out the electric-red carpet for new face after new face. We might be apt to discuss quality here, a feature in which Japanese pop tends to stay very consistent while its Korean counterpart sometimes misses the mark or doesn’t bother aiming at all, but which it exchanges for the courage to gamble on musical risks: Korean pop takes chances, Japanese pop is waiting for Hamasaki’s second generation.

So much like Frank Kogan’s entry, I encourage you to share what, for you, has been the most significant musical shifts of the last decade in East Asian pop music (Japanese, Korean, Chinese, whatever) in the comments sections. Feel free to refute or tear down any of the above arguments I’ve made and point out things I’ve overlooked or forgotten.


9 thoughts on “The decade in East Asian pop: a few preliminary, scattered notes

  1. Espa December 5, 2009 / 2:22 am

    While I do agree with you on 99% of your post, the other small 1% of me wonders about South Korea. Yes, by comparison to many other music markets (especially Japan,) what they’re doing/turning into may be a breath of fresh air. I’ve been blasting the likes of Brown Eyed Girls and 2Ne1 non-stop.
    Musically, they’ve kicked Japan’s ass this year, and even the S. Korean music moguls themselves are admitting that the world’s awaraness of Kpop has risen drastically in the last few years (though to be fair, the popular media in S.Korea has always been known for overexaggeration.) But when one gets to the core of things, is what we’re seeing really the result of a push for bombast and change? All I see are a bunch of management crews chasing after trends.

    • Anna December 7, 2009 / 11:32 am

      You have a point there, but even if they are chasing after Western ideas of sound, they’re adapting to it extremely well. I mean, if they are mimicking stuff over here, why am I so drawn to Korean pop as opposed to Wesern pop? It just seems to me that if there was one country to be on the lookout for in the 01’s, South Korea is going to be it.

  2. yuki December 23, 2009 / 6:05 pm

    I personally disagree. I think KPop is missing something – a signature style and MUSICALITY. Musically, a lot of KPop doesn’t make sense. It’s just autotuned “music” trying to mimick the rising trends in the US and pretty much every artist in there is just copying the other. I wouldn’t call it “innovative” – I mean, really. What’s new over there that wouldn’t be heard in any other part of the world? Jpop is much more creative and open and LARGE, by the way, and there’s something for everyone. It may not be as famous outside their country as KPop is now, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not better. That’s my opinion, and I respect yours, so please respect mine. Love your blog, btw.

  3. popreviewsnow December 23, 2009 / 6:26 pm

    I’m a kpop fan – I write about it on my blog and do my research on it but even if I personally like the genre, I disagree with what you’re saying.

    I have a very menial background in Jpop courtesy of my best friend and my addiction to DBSK so I hope I don’t get anything wrong when I start talking about Jpop.

    Yes, kpop is fast-paced and a whole hoard of new acts debut every week/month BUT you listen to the music and everything sounds the same. In kpop if one artist does it and it works, everyone starts the exact same thing.

    Take Super Junior’s ‘Sorry Sorry’ for example. The heavy processing (or ‘auto-tune’ as you call it) had been in use for a while already before it came out but that was the song that started it all this year. Countless other groups released carbon copies of the song hoping to cash in on the massive success of the single.

    The Brown Eyed Girls used to be ballad singers before they released a single last year and suddenly they were gigantic. ‘Abracadabra’ was one of the year’s biggest singles – because it sounded like everything else. But they started the whole ‘ballad singer turned eurotrash/techo-y’ fad – SeeYa followed suit.

    Then there are the acts who are simply talentless. There are some of them in every industry but in Korea it doesn’t matter if you can’t sing, as long as you look good in front of a camera or have what they call ‘appeal’, you’ll do. And they come in the hundreds.

    What’s more important in music? How you change your style every time you release something new and confuse the hell out of your fans eventually leading to your demise or how your music grows with you and you become a credible, long-lasting musician?

    In Korea, your talent company will lead you to self-destruction within a minimum of 5 years – that’s the shelf-life of a normal band now. FIVE YEARS? You think these bands can actually make a mark that’ll actually LAST within five years?

    Take what’s happening in SM right now. 3 members of DBSK sued the company trying to change their contracts – rumors of a split since only 3 sued were rampant. That was what happened with a senior band of theirs under the same company – H.O.T.

    DBSK are undeniably SM’s biggest earners at the moment. BoA is busy trying to crack the US and isn’t really bringing in a lot of money – DBSK were the 3rd biggest-selling artist in Japan this year. If a company can do that to their biggest cash cow, what else can they do?

    What I’m trying to say is that no matter how ‘diverse’ you think kpop is with the acts and the quantity of music that’s out, the Japanese industry is much, MUCH more sophisticated than it’s Korean counterpart.

    And by sophisticated I mean a value on music and actually making it – diversity.

    That was long.

  4. Mike M. January 17, 2010 / 4:27 am

    This last decade has been THE decade that introduced me to J-Pop, and in the best possible ways. The band that stands out the most for me is ZONE, who, in their all-too-brief career, managed to make a catalogue of songs that never… NEVER… fail to touch the heart. I never thought that I’d think so highly about the musical efforts of five high school girls from Sapporo… but I do.

    Pop music has always belonged to the young, and I can’t imagine five better representatives of the genre. Their story of their ambitions, their successes (they played Budokan before they graduated from school, and brought the house down that night), and their professionalism when they decided to disband all made for one of the most compelling stories in pop music, let alone J-Pop music.

    This last decade also gave us Ai Otsuka, who is, in my opinion at least, the most gifted songwriter and arranger currently working in J-Pop. Her PV’s are always classy and charming, and her sincerity in live performances is only outshone by her skill as a singer, and her first rate band.

    Next, we have Tommy (Tomoko) Kawase of BuriGuri. I like The Brilliant Green well enough, don’t care much for the Tommy Heavenly stuff, but have to say that her persona as Tommy February6 had me starstruck for a couple of years. There was this amazing reverence for the candy coated dance pop genre, which was offset by Tommy’s intelligence, wit, and charm. This is a very smart lady who knows exactly what she’s doing, and loving every minute of it. What’s not to love?

    So… there are three examples, off the top of my head, and from the bottom of my heart. It’s been a great decade!

  5. Gabby February 3, 2010 / 4:20 pm

    Yeah, as fun as I think Kpop is, to call the Korean music scene diverse and innovative at the expense of Japanese music is laughable, IMHO.

  6. Anna February 3, 2010 / 4:59 pm

    I guess the world “innovation” was kind of stretch, but I do still think that as far as singles go, Korean pop was quite consistent in producing good stuff, even though some of it may sound familiar. They have a formula and they stick to it. In addition, they have introduced a lot of new artists this decade, whereas Japanese pop was dominated by a lot of the same names charting week after week.

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