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.