Supernatural sound: Stranger Things and the Sony Walkman

Max possessed

At heart, Stranger Things is a show about growing up: season 1 opens with a group of four kids on hour ten of a robust Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Adjacent plots involve navigating the complex webs of friendship, jealousy, bullying, crushes, and love triangles all while getting sucked into the equally messy world of government cover-ups, conspiracies, and a hidden underworld known as the Upside Down. While we get a host of complicated and interesting adult characters as well, the core of the story revolves around our original four heroes: dungeon master Mike Wheeler, late-bloomer Will Byers, headstrong Lucas Sinclair, and eccentric loud-mouth Dustin Henderson. In season 2, we’re also introduced to new-in-town, skateboarder extraordinaire Max Mayfield.

As the cast has aged in real life, so do writers and creators the Duffer Brothers age their characters, taking them from the precocious kids who biked the suburban idyll of small-town Hawkins, Indiana, to monster-fighting detectives and superheroes breaking into psychiatric hospitals and stealing mobile homes, nothing which exempts them from the horrors of dealing with adolescence, too. In fact, as the series progresses and the stakes get higher, the characters are left dealing with the fallout of several tragedies, including the death of Billy Hargrove, Max’s step-brother, in season 3. Billy’s death leaves Max understandably awash in myriad emotions: grief at his lose, anger at the legacy of his abusive behavior, guilt over the manner in which he died, and confusion over the conflicted feelings of both relief and regret at his passing.

As Max and her friends enter high school, she becomes withdrawn, isolating  herself from her boyfriend Lucas as well as her friends, who have themselves become preoccupied with the distractions and temptations of high school: after-school clubs, sports teams, and social hierarchies. Throughout the series, Max is portrayed as an outsider, with our first highlighted scene of her current mindset introducing the key leitmotif: the song “Running Up That Hill,” by Kate Bush. The music first appears as incidental music that cuts from the scene of a traumatized Eleven storming out of a classroom, to Max as she wanders the hallway of a high school halfway across the country in a sullen, detached way. We see her looking around in equal parts disaffected ennui, and angry resentment as it becomes apparent that the music is actually diegetic, playing through a set of headphones attached to her Walkman. The very cinematic quality of the shot is one that both the character and the viewer experience simultaneously, an experience still just newly available to teens in the mid-80s with the invention of what was still a bit of a technological phenomenon: the Sony Walkman.

Press play

The Sony Soundabout

Sony Walkman TPS-12There are conflicting origin stories regarding the invention of the Walkman, but, as chronicled by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow in Personal Stereo the most likely involves a wish by Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka to have a cassette player that was less bulky that the tape recorders he was lugging around so that he could listen to music without annoying the people around him. It’s what was termed a “non-obvious” invention: strip down a tape recorder to only it’s playback qualities, enhance those features, and build a lighter headphone to accommodate it. The first model was the TPS-L2, and it was released in Japan in the summer of 1979. It made its debut in America at the end of the year, a superb new tech gadget ready to hit shelves just in time for the holiday shopping season, as long as you could afford it — a hefty $200, or yikes, about $700 in 2022 money.

With a price like that, the Walkman was first marketed to career-oriented middle-class adults (read: yuppies), who used it for the convenience of multi-tasking: catching up on missed business meetings recorded by organized secretaries, or learning new languages as they boarded international flights. But as the Walkman gained popularity and began selling by the thousands, the device became more accessible to a younger and wider audience. As Tuhus-Dubrow writes in Personal Stereo:

By the mid-1980s, it was clear that what was sometimes called the “Walkman revolution” was far more than a short-lived fad. Personal stereos were no longer a novelty but essential equipment for millions of people and a fixture of urban life around the world. (50) […] By 1989, 50 million units had been sold sold, with an increasing variety of looks and features like noise reduction, bright colors, and AM/FM radio support. Competitors were also manufacturing often cheaper, low-budget models to the tune of over 30 million units per year. (50-51)

So it’s no surprise that a character on this era’s preeminent 80s nostalgia-vehicle Stranger Things would be seen locked between the pads of two Sony personal speakers.

Supernatutural Sound

The Walkman effect

Personal Stereo by Rebecca Tuhus-DubrowMusic and music culture has always sparked a significant social and emotional resonance in the lives of teenagers, especially since the years of the vinyl record, which was appropriately marketed to legions of screaming Frank Sinatra and Elvis fans. The introduction of headphones made that listening experience even more insular, contributing to the creation of the bedroom as the location par excellence of the teenager, particularly the moody teenager (but who isn’t?). But the Sony Walkman took that experience outside: it allowed listeners to tune out the noise around them and plug into their favorite music. The experience was unprecedented, and almost immediately prompted a growing concern over issues of isolation, rude behavior, and detachment, known popularly as the “Walkman effect.”

“The fundamental strangeness of the Walkman experience has to do with the disjunction between sight and sound. […] [W]hereas usually music came from some clearly external source — whether speakers at a concert or the stereo system in your living room — with headphones it almost felt like the sounds were originating in your own head.” (46) […] “[C]rucially, you could (and did, whether intentionally or not) erect a barrier between yourself and your surroundings. This feature impeded social interactions and affected public space in a way that was subtle but unsettling.” (54)

This unsettling experience is captured in that moment Sadie Sink’s character Max Mayfield marches moodily down the hallway of Hawkins High to the meeting with the school counselor, observing the private and public moments of a typical day in high school with detached numbness: friends laughing over a joke, a couple making out, an ex-boyfriend’s vanishing smile as she approaches and then continues silently walking past. Everything and everyone seems out of reach, as both character and viewer collaborate as spectators, rather than participants. The music becomes her own personal soundtrack, muting the din as it does for the viewer, and replacing it with the sonic boom of the synth-heavy track, which enhances the drama of an already tension-filled scene. Not for nothing are teenagers considered overly-emotional and self-absorbed, but many of us have undoubtedly had a similar experience, either with a Discman, iPod, or smartphone. The scene only ends when we see Max sitting across from her counselor, who signals for Max to remove her headphones. She quickly presses the stop button and a jarring silence sends us all crashing back to the very real world of depression and grief, one which Max is reluctant to confront and deal with, preferring to hide in the aural equivalent of a safety blanket.

Max MayfieldThroughout the following episodes, we never see Max without this blanket, her trusty Sony WM-8, strapped to her hip at all times. It leads to the key emotional moment in the series, occurring at the end of episode four titled “Dear Billy.” This is the moment when Max, upon learning that she has less than 24 hours left to live, finally makes sense of the emotional maelstrom that she has been dealing with since the end of season 3. In a letter that she writes and reads out loud to the headstone of her deceased step-brother, she describes the emotional weight that she has been carrying around and making her feel that she had to cut herself off from the people who care the most about her. It is in this devastatingly vulnerable moment that Vecna decides to move in for the kill.

Involuntary memory

Preying upon the guilt and trauma of teenagers, Vecna crawls into Max’s mind, spouting the words that she herself has probably repeated to herself over and over the last few months, as if depression itself had become a physical entity. “They can’t help you, Max,” he insists, referring to her friends just at the outer edge of her vision. “There’s a reason you hide from them. You belong here with me.” But now that Max has confronted her feelings and taken ownership of her emotions, she’s finally open to the hope and help that she had been denying herself all season. She hears her friends screaming for her, and more importantly, she hears her favorite song, thrumming through the headphones snapped onto her head only moments before. It’s an ingenious plot device: who hasn’t ever felt the healing power of music, especially at a young age? It’s a universal feeling that transcends age, gender, and social status. (In fact, the saving power of music is made even more obvious, when Eddie plays Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” in the series finale to distract the demobats from attacking Nancy, Robin, and Steve, literally saving lives in the process.

In fact, the music, til then had served as a sort of personal therapy for Max. As the Duffer brothers explained in an interview with IndieWire, “That’s us going “OK, Max is in this dire state. How can we get her out of it?” And researching comas, and seeing that music as therapy can make a difference.” Inside Hook went further and spoke with a music therapist to further explore “the way music can help us cope with grief, stress, cognitive issues and a slew of mental illnesses ranging from depression and bipolar disorder to schizophrenia and autism.”

[I]t’s definitely the most visibly transformational work I’ve been a part of, where you have people who are more or less nonverbal or disengaged from their environment and socialization and that type of thing, and then if you play a piece of music that they experienced when they were younger or have a particular personal connection to, they can really just physically come to life, even saying words and melodies when they would otherwise be more disengaged.

The Walkman captures that experience unlike anything else could: it locks the listener into their own headspace, creating a central irony. It isolates Max from the present physical environment and traps her into her own head replete with self-defeating, negative thoughts, but it also has the power to liberate her from her torment.

Michael Bull, professor of Sound Studies at University of Sussex interviewed forty British adolescents about their use of the Walkman and summarized his findings in Sounding Out the City: Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life. Among their most popular uses, teens reported using their Walkman to energize them, domesticate their surroundings, and as a form of company. But most tellingly,

“subjects reported that they used their personal stereos to vividly evoke fond memories. After all, music, like the sense of smell, has the power to trigger what Proust called “involuntary memory,” which is visceral and emotional, and much more powerful than its voluntary counterpart, the memory of the intellect. With the press of a button, listeners could relive a recent party or summon a feeling from childhood. While other sound systems could serve the same purpose, the intimacy of the personal stereo made it particularly conducive to reminiscence.” (81)

Flooded with the memories of happier times that the music evokes (the school dance, her friendship with Eleven), she not only chooses, but fights, to stay alive, escaping the deadly fate Vecna had in store for her, one built on his own misery, resentment and psychosis. It’s from that moment, as Max is warmly received by the friends that never gave up on her, that Max can finally begin the process of repairing her friendships by dealing openly and honestly with her problems, little by little. This music-as-loophole runs throughout the rest of the series, being the only way to save a potential victim from death by Vecna.

Sony Walkman D-E330

Press play

While the plot twist is made possible by a technological device manufactured and made popular in the 1980s (Tuhus-Dubrow also points out its prominent role in popular media of the time such as Duffer Brothers-favorite Back to the Future), it’s a device that has been improved upon and updated for modern listeners, who can relate via Discman, iPod Nanos, and smartphone. I myself am old enough to have grown up with several different Walkmans (my favorite was an off-brand that was made of marvelous transparent neon-pink plastic which gave you a neat glimpse at the device’s guts), at least two different Discmans (one had the special shock absorber to keep CDs from skipping every time the device was lightly bumped), and an iRiver that changed the entire way I consumed music (I still use this remarkable, outdated device regularly, and probably will until the day I die or they stop manufacturing the battery for it — I hope I die first). These devices went everywhere with me, their mobility, more than their limited and then seemingly limitless capacity, a testament to their usefulness and eventual essentialism. It’s hard to imagine something both more and less hokey than music as a loophole that a teenager from any era could conceivably believe could save their lives, and to that end the show really continued to tap into something universal about growing up.

Thus the Walkman becomes an essential device that moves the entire plot of the fourth season of Stranger Things forward, one made possible by a piece of equipment invented only years before, halfway across the world by a company that built upon the increasing popularity of home-listening devices to its very polite and very personal conclusion. Despite its age, the show’s depiction of music-as-therapy, with the Walkman serving as a magical talisman as powerful as the sword Jim Hopper uses to slay a Demagorgon, still resonates today.  As a Disques editorial from the distant galaxy of 1931 summarized upon the advent of the first personal listening device, the phonograph, puts it:

“[A]ll the unpleasant externals are removed: the interpreter has been disposed of; the audience has been disposed of; the uncomfortable concert hall has been disposed of. You are alone with the composer and his music. Surely, no more ideal circumstances could be imagined.” (15)

Notes
[ Image sources are from here, here, here, here, here, and here.   Any factual information, quotes, and additional sources/quotes not immediately cited have been pulled from Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow’s Personal Stereo, one of my favorites entries in the Object Lessons series. I recommend them all, including Compact Disc which makes a nice companion to this! ]

Johnny’s, KinKi Kids, and a Macro Snapshot of J-pop History

KinKi Kids

As one of the most prolific and popular talent agencies in Japan, Johnny’s Jimusho is a household name in the country, boasting a lineup of trainees, juniors, actors, singers, dancers, and even gymnasts. It takes a lot of time and development before an individual is finally chosen to debut, but that’s exactly what Koichi Domoto and Tsuyoshi Domoto of KinKi Kids finally did in July 1997, the first group to premiere under the new Johnny’s Entertainment, Inc. record label (before then, music was released under various second-party labels like Pony Canyon). Needless to say, the sheer market saturation and beloved reputation of a Johnny’s group was enough to propel the duo into overnight success.

Despite music being only a piece of the wider component of a Johnny’s group, it wouldn’t have helped if it was terrible, so it was to the company’s benefit to pay attention to singles by employing skilled writers and producers. As a testament to that commitment, the group teamed up with some of the most iconic, legendary songwriters and producers in Japanese pop history. It was a big, bold statement by the company, and a rare show of power that committed to the group’s, and thus the label’s, importance, boasting of their buying power and influence by uniting the twin conceits of business and art in an astronomical show of money and talent. Three prominent examples of this can be found in the group’s early singles, which were composed by city-pop pioneer Tatsuro Yamashita, gentle disciple and disruptor Koji Makaino, and prolific composer and hit-record holder Kyohei Tsutsumi. By marketing the group with music created by an ascending ladder of Japanese pop royalty already nationally recognized, Johnny’s Jimusho intentionally took its seat at the head of the table, coupling Japanese music history with its future in their own company.

Tatsuro YamashitaGlass no Shounen

The group’s debut single “Glass no Shounen” was written and arranged by none other than recent city-pop celeb/godfather, Tatsuro Yamashita. Now recognized around the world for his hits from as far back as the 70s, he, along with artists like Eiichi Ohtaki, are credited for helping to create, and embodying the quintessential sound of, city-pop, the hybrid of pop, jazz, and soft rock that gained prominence in the “economic miracle” of Japan’s comeback success in the 1980s. It reached #1 on the charts, and is the group’s best-selling single to date with over 1.7 million units sold, though the song itself gives no indication as to why, with its bitter, milquetoast admonishments to a woman who sold out her future for a new love and a shiny ring. Yamashita cropped up again on singles like the Sandals-esque jingles “JETCOASTER ROMANCE” and “Happy Happy Greeting.” This was not a high point for him, though I wonder how much of his work for KinKi Kids was heavily edited under strict boy-band company policy (it’s also worth noting he recorded his own version of the latter that ended up on the Rarities album, and it doesn’t sound much improved). Maybe it’s giving too much credit to the overlords at Johnny’s, but suffice to say, after the resurgence and worldwide respect given to city-pop in the last decade, Yamashita was given a redemption arc to exercise his unique and distinctive sound palette for the label much later, on one of the greatest pop songs in recent memory, Arashi’s “Fukkatsu LOVE.”

Aisareru Yori AishitaiKoji Makaino

Their sophomore single, “Aisareru Yori Aishitai” was written by a personal favorite, Koji Makaino, also a seasoned veteran who began his career in the 70s penning album cuts on the less-popular releases for idols like Megumi Asaoka (“Sayonara no Kawari ni,” “Yuuwaku no Toshigoro“), and who peaked in the Golden Age of the 1980s writing incredible songs for Yu Hayami (“HONEY na Hirusagari“) and magical girl anime like Mahou no Tenshi CREAMY MAMI (all of them, actually, but the ones everyone remembers and loves best, too). Makaino was versatile: despite often being connected with idols and idol culture, he was born into a musical family and also composed countless scores for TV, film, and anime like The Rose of Versailles and Bubblegum Crisis, the latter franchise of whose music comprises what are some of the most definitive 80s-sounding tracks of all time (I imagine the recently remastered box set is a real treat for fans who can afford it!). His contribution here illustrates his adaptability, with a pop song steeped in modern techno, as intricate and robust as its accompanying choreography. It’s a sonically delightful romp for someone as clearly dedicated to craft as he is the modern-day currency of popular sound among teens – the hit might now be as dated as any of the others on the first KinKi Single Selection, but twenty-five years ago it was a boy-band banger to rival the likes of the Euro-influenced Backstreet Boys.

Yamenaide, PUREKyohei Tsutsumi

Finally, we have Kyohei Tsutsumi on “Yamenaide, PURE.” Tsutsumi, an absolute song-writing monster, started his career in the 1960s, scoring #1 hits for dozens of artists like Ayumi Ishida (“BLUE LIGHT Yokohama“) and teen idols Hiromi Go and Iyo Matsumoto, up through the 2010s. His catalog runs so deep, that hours-long YouTube videos have been sliced over multiple segments to cover the sheer depth of his songbook (though he did have a noticeable habit of launching artists, sticking around for their peak years, and peace-ing out just before the public lost interest in them). You could spend hours swimming in that sea, so let’s keep it brief: part of what made Tsutsumi so successful is that there is no signature Tsutsumi sound, save one as vague as the definition of pop music itself. If anything, his style, like those already mentioned, was nurtured in an environment that valued colorful melody rather than a good beat, giving him the ability to mold  kaleidoscopic notes to technical developments in modern sound, which has cemented his reputation as an evergreen composer who was still writing hits for kids while in his 60s. At what point this went from genuinely great music, to a silent, assistant-heavy boost by younger arrangers, to respectfully, but maybe sheepishly, kissing the ring, is anyone’s hot take, but needless to say, here at 59, his name is behind the most hip-hop-leaning of the trio thus far, bringing a somewhat old-fashioned melodic approach to an unfortunate JNCO-inspired wardrobe choice.

And so on

Rounding things out, there was Takuro Yoshida (“Zenbu Dakishimete“), who helped an idol group like CANDIES grow up, newly-minted producer HΛL (“FLOWER“), who would go on to establish himself at a little indie label called Avex Trax with rising star Ayumi Hamasaki, and lesser-known names, including member Koichi himself (“Suki ni Natteku Aishiteki“). With a roster like that, it’s easy to see how ambitious and eager the team behind KinKi Kids was, ironically bowing to history and tradition with their forward-looking, modern J-pop duo. It’s no wonder that their first single collection sold so well and remains one of the group’s hallmarks — you are guaranteed to find at least fifteen copies in the KinKi Kids section of any used record store today. Nothing would imitate this run of composers in the group’s career ever again, though they continue to enjoy recognition to this day, regularly releasing singles and albums since, and dutifully make the rounds to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their debut this summer.

The only downside is that despite the names involved, all of these great songwriters were either already considered beyond their best days, or hampered by what I imagine was a strict adherence to the Johnny’s sound. One case in point is that so many of these songs carry the same style and feel to them, like being run under day-one Instagram filters, rather than bearing the distinctive thumbprints of their creators — one imagines Johnny himself popping in at the end of each recording session to remind everyone who was signing the checks. Tsutsumi and Makaino might have always been more flexible in their sound, adapting to the trends and technical capabilities of their current era, but a Tatsuro Yamashita song almost always sounds like a Tatsuro Yamashita song. Or rather, it does now that this is exactly what people want and expect from him.

But from 1997-1999, a more bland and consistent sound with the edges smoothed out was the order of the day, with most of the songs typical of what Make Believe Melodies dubbed the “Johnny’s house style”: upbeat, fluffy pop with heavy influences from disco, Latin styles like samba, and, at least in the last three years of the century, Euro-pop, with its safe major keys and hints of synth cheese. KinKi Kids illustrate that well enough on these slightly blurry debut singles underlining their epic mission by a series of absolute legends, hired to do what they now could do in their sleep, for an agency with more power and pull than most people wanted to believe, for that evergreen institution known as a boy band, at a time when that institution was enjoying the last of the kind of success it would ever see again until the explosion of K-pop.

Notes
[ The banner is an edit of a personal scan from the album KinKi Single Selection. The single covers are from here, here, and here. ]

JUNK STORY

At the end of 1997, hide took a break in the studio from working on his soon-to-be-released single “ROCKET DIVE,” the first under the new recording moniker hide with Spread Beaver, which finally credited the band he had been touring with since his solo debut in 1993, to chat about the busy year ahead of him, including two new albums and a national tour.*

“I just finished a meeting with the staff about what to do next year. I can’t tell you any more, but I think I’ll be busy next year. I have full schedules from January to December. Next year, I’ll release a single [“ROCKET DIVE”] that I’m making now. As I said in the magazine interview, I formed another new band [Zilch] based in L.A. I’ll also release the band’s album and perform live concerts. And after the third solo album, with this song “ROCKET DIVE,” comes out next spring, it will be early summer. What will be the schedule from early summer to the end of the year? I’m going on a six-month tour.”

Everything proceeded roughly as hide outlined, beginning with the release of “ROCKET DIVE” on January 28, 1998. Following the single’s release, hide flew to Los Angeles to film the music video for the follow-up, “PINK SPIDER,” and to finish working on his third solo album, which would come to be called Ja,Zoo. Much of the making of the album and its music videos, as well as the funeral ceremony, footage and interviews recorded around L.A. (including Tower Records, which closed in 2006, and Jerry’s Famous Deli, which closed late last year due to the pandemic) and at Sunset Sound Studio on April 2, as well as extensive interviews and footage of his final performances pre-recorded for television on May 1, was filmed and officially documented in the video releases hIS iNVINCIBLE dELUGE eVIDENCE (1998) and hide A STORY 1998 hide LAST WORKS~121 Nichi no Kiseki (1999).

But today we know that less than half of his plans came to fruition. On the morning of May 2, 1998, hide’s brother Hiroshi Matsumoto dropped hide off at home after a night of celebrating at a wrap-up party for the television recordings. While heavily intoxicated, hide accidentally self-asphyxiated while attempting to perform a routine muscle-relaxation technique for the particular neck and shoulder strain that develops from frequent guitar playing.** It was a tragedy the likes for which the Japanese music world was unprepared.

Since the footage of his last months and days alive were released to the public, little of quality worth has been released from those in charge of preserving hide’s memory and life work. Over the last two decades, in addition to numerous plush toys, plastic key chains, and figurines, we’ve gotten a number of tribute albums, compilation albums largely comprised of the same handful of songs, and a few demo tracks, re-recorded, re-mixed, and in the case of 2014’s “Co GAL,” a single that recreated hide’s voice using Vocaloid technology, a popular bit of 21st century technology that ends up sounding as uncanny valley as predicted.

Finally, in 2015, on what would have been hide’s 50th birthday, we got the documentary hide 50th anniversary FILM “JUNK STORY.” The film is notable for telling hide’s life story through interviews, photos, and behind-the-scene clips. The interviews are particularly telling, and largely include hide’s brother (who was something of hide’s personal assistant/chauffeur), former band members, and other staff, including stylists and photographers. Sadly, the film chooses to largely skip over hide’s time in X Japan after the initial anecdote of his joining the group. (I assume this is because the producers didn’t want to conflict with a separate documentary about the band, We Are X, released one year later, and whose production, I believe, was already underway, but hide’s story here suffers for the omission, as it is hard to understand the impact the group and its disbandment had on him later without the details.)

One bit of ominous, and somewhat tone-deaf, foreshadowing occurs early on in the film, when various friends provide sketches concerning hide’s drinking, which hide himself referred to as nearly uncontrollable, (“Once I start drinking, I drink a lot”), including his out-of-character and often violent behavior when under the influence. Here is one story related by former Spread Beaver-member I.N.A, a key figure in the documentary as one of hide’s closest colleagues and musical collaborators:

“I didn’t go out of the room because hide seemed to be completely drunk. I looked out through the door view and he was rioting. He suddenly picked up a fire extinguisher and hit the door of my room. Bang! Bang! I was really scared. Eventually the hinge was broken. So I blocked the door from the inside. After a while, he went back to his room. This is what I heard later, but they said that hide threw many things at the window.”

He was also described as going on “rampages” and for expressing guilt and remorse the following day, often having blacked out and been unable to remember anything, let alone what exactly he was apologizing for. It’s a chilling moment in the film, as stories are told with smirks and resigned chuckles, the sort of words couched in the somewhat sheepish, but entirely mischievous winks steeped in culturally-sanctioned substance abuse. Not that any one individual is to blame, but it gives room for pause to consider what hide’s life could have looked like if peer-approved binge-drinking has been less a part of his life to the point of serious bodily injury that landed him in the hospital and “comical” odes like 1994’s “D.O.D. (Drink Or Die).” In this light, hide’s death becomes a prolonged tragedy with multiple levels that spanned a longer time frame than the wee hours of May 2.

As any good documentary, hide’s offers a handful of new questions and grist for the thought-mill, while also answering some of the most enduring: how hide’s life and art touched the lives of so many, from friends and family, to fans and staff members, to the important work each one has done to preserve his memory and contribution to Japanese music and culture, and how seemingly random and unfair tragedies ripple throughout time and space. It’s hard not to speculate upon whether or not hide’s English-language band would have made any significant impact in the U.S., or if it would have bombed as spectacularly as every other American-crossover; if he would have grown as an artist and released better material as the years went on, or would have lost his musical touch; if he would have remained as respected and beloved a figure with the same opportunity of additional decades to lose the plot as some of his contemporaries have, or if he would have faded, a cultural icon and dinosaur of the 1990s, subsumed by a wave of indie-rock, neo-visual kei, and idol-pop too big to surf.

May 2, 2021 marks the 23rd anniversary of his death, a number just as uneven, odd, and idiosyncratic as the event it marks. It’s an anniversary shadowed again by the pandemic that continues to rage globally. Still there’s tentative hope around the corner as vaccines have begun their slow, and uneven rollout. And 2021 will also mark a very important anniversary, one that we don’t have to spend asking questions and wringing our hands over, as it celebrates the 25th anniversary of hide’s biggest, most ambitious, and critically-lauded album, 1996’s PSYENCE. Let’s treat ourselves when we get to it.

I wrote a previous tribute for hide back in 2010, which can be read here.

Notes

*All of the quotes here have been pulled from the subtitles of VisualKei Jrock’s translation of JUNK STORY. They have been edited for grammar when needed. So much thanks goes to them for translating and posting the video.

**I’m sure it appeared before, but the first time I have seen this reason for death officially recognized was in the documentary. When the news first broke, and for a long time after, the official cause of death was always cited as suicide, with the caveat of the relaxation technique treated as important and likely speculation, but not fact. The documentary’s official take on this says it was “sudden accident by doing cervical vertebra traction treatment during drunkenness.”

Bold & ambitious: Innovation in Ayumi Hamasaki’s (miss)understood

On January 1, Ayumi Hamasaki marked the 15th anniversary of her seventh studio album (miss)understood, which seems as good a time as any to celebrate one of her last truly great, ground-breaking, and all-around amazing albums.

It’s amazing how observing wild animals in their natural habitat can help lend clarity to human behavior. In his New York Times-Notable Book of the Year, Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace, Carl Safina observes sperm whales, scarlet macaws, and chimpanzees, drawing fascinating parallels between their world and that of humans. Here’s one line of thought that I kept circling back to in the course of reading: is it inevitable that cultural innovators will become conformists over the course of time? It started with Safina’s rumination on “culture”:

One definition of culture that is pretty good is: “the way we do things.” Behavior is what we do; how we do it–is culture. […] But one big thing is missing from that definition: to have culture, someone must do something that is NOT the way we do things. We live in an automobile culture, but only because an innovator invented an automobile. We listen to rock music, but one person electrified the age-old guitar. Ironically, culture–a process of learning and conformity–depends on individuals who don’t entirely conform to the way we do things. Culture depends both on doing what you’ve seen done–AND on someone, at some point, doing what no one has ever seen done.” (47)

Not only in terms of sheer numbers, but in reach and depth, it is inarguable that Ayumi Hamasaki was one of the great innovators of J-pop culture in the early 00s, and I would argue that (miss)understood was one of the last times she released an album unlike anything else in the genre, and unlike anything she herself had ever done. It was one of the last times her music, and not just her fashion or personal life, made an impact on the industry, changing the way record labels approached the creation and packaging of solo artist/performers, due to both circumstance (the resurgence of idols and idol groups like AKB48, who were just about to release their debut single “Sakura no Hanabiratachi,” and decline of female solo artist/performers as we knew it, notably marked by Hikaru Utada’s hiatus two years later) and the beginning of her focus on other aspects of her career at the expense of the music, which she no longer had a hand in composing by her sixth album MY STORY (though she continued to write lyrics). (miss)understood, was, in many ways, the last time Ayumi Hamasaki seems to have effectively (hang on, Colours-fans) created an album with a risky, over tried-and-true, approach, taking a chance on a style she had till then never explored. It is an album that demonstrates exactly how Ayumi was the massive star she was, and why she deserved the recognition and status as a massive force and principal creator — that fabled “innovator” Safina is referring to — in Japanese pop culture for nearly a decade.

This is not to say that Ayumi stopped releasing great albums or songs, but rather that she found a musical space within which comfortable and safe slowly started to take precedent over experimentation. The difference between all four of her first albums, from A Song for XX to I am…, all sound vastly different from the one next to it, while the sound and production of Secret and GUILTY sound very similar, as does nearly everything from Love songs to M(A)DE IN JAPAN. A couple of albums (and singles) stick out in terms of quality, with a few going the extra mile in terms of concept, like NEXT LEVEL or Party Queen, but nearly all carry the distinctive hallmarks springing from the foundation she laid down in the early 00s. In 2002, everyone wanted to be and sound like Ayumi, but by 2012, the musical and cultural landscape had changed so wholly, from Yasutaka Nakata and the emergence of electronic music, to the influence of K-pop, that Ayumi was now a stark alternative rather than a driver of any one of these trends. To her admirable credit, with only a few exceptions, she rarely jumped onto any bandwagon, choosing instead to forge her own path, for better or worse; as she famously quipped in response to a press inquiry about K-pop: “I don’t really care if it’s trendy or not. I (stick) to my own style.”

While I never stopped being a fan, (miss)understood did mark a line for me, one from where I could never cross back. The moment “Startin’” and its music video were released, was one in which the rose-colored glasses of naive, uncompromising fandom could never overshadow the critical antennae necessary for deep analysis. It would take a few years before I learned that a critical eye doesn’t spell doom for our most treasured past times and pop stars, that instead, it does the important work of allowing one to question and examine closely with intelligence and detail, and that it can deepen empathy and a better understanding of people, and celebrities in particular, in all of their flawed and very real humanity. It is, in fact, programmed to reveal complexity and heighten appreciation. But in between that time, both history and I had changed.

Which is all to say: it wasn’t really Ayumi’s fault. Any analysis of album sales and popularity will show a natural decline in sales and quality across almost all recording artists. Human beings are designed to seek out novelty and many a star’s continued success has depended on trust and loyalty, two hard-won virtues that can only be gained by a sincere devotion to craft, a strong work ethic, and frequent, heartfelt gratitude to the fans who continue to make their object of devotion relevant. Ayumi Hamasaki is 3/3. So while I spent 2006 and 2007 going through major changes in the way I approached listening to and writing about music, it was inevitable that the simple and natural act of growing up would be doing most of the subconscious work for me, silently hacking away at the kind of unquestionable idol worship every kid is free to indulge in before they reach adulthood and come face to face with the stuff beyond the theater of life’s surface.

This is a birthday, not a funeral

With the release of the 20th anniversary edition of her sophomore album, LOVEppears, in 2019, Ayumi Hamasaki has firmly settled into legacy mode. While this status update might have once elicited a gasp of horror, it brings a kind of relief now. As I’m sure many artists who have found themselves in this privileged sphere have come to realize, it’s like falling into the perfect bathwater at the end of a really long, really hard day, one that offers time to reflect on amazing accomplishments while resting weary old joints. So let’s reflect and pour some love all over it: (miss)understood, one of the best albums Ayumi Hamasaki ever released, one that distinguished her as what Safina would label an “original innovator.”

The singles

There were four major singles released in the run-up to the album’s release: STEP YOU/is this LOVE?, fairyland, HEAVEN, and Bold & Delicious/Pride. At this point, Ayumi was well past her remix-phase, having stopped the practice of album-length maxi-singles in 2002 with Daybreak. What followed was a series of conservative or triple A-sides, with the gradual integration of a standard A-side/B-side duo beginning with INSPIRE.

Physically, STEP you/is this LOVE? is notable for being the last single to feature the same cover art on both its CD and CD+DVD versions (actually, this happened only twice, with this one and 2004’s CAROLS — why offer one or the other when you can sell both?). Musically, it’s a doozy – the A-side features one of the most propulsive pop songs in Ayumi’s catalogue, while the B-side boasts one of her finest hard rock tracks. This tight duo is a nearly perfect combination of a sound that was unlike almost anything else in J-pop at the time. The music video for “is this LOVE?” utilizes some of the coolest effects she would ever feature in a PV, because let’s face it, slow motion makes everything cooler, especially when it’s exploding. The DVD also features the music video for “my name’s WOMEN,” a track off of her previous album, MY STORY. It’s one of the few music videos Ayumi has ever shot to feature a back story before the music kicks in. It’s not my favorite track or song, and the delivery of its message is a little confused, but it’s fun and gives her the obligatory showgirl moment that every diva is obligated to have at some point in their career.

fairyland, released four months later, is one of many summer-themed singles, notable for its music video, which was the most expensive at the time. Shot on location in Hawaii, it features gorgeous panoramic shots of the islands’ colorful flora and fauna, as well as an entire building that catches fire and burns to the ground (also in slo-mo, naturally). Its B-side was the wholly A-side deserving track “alterna,” one of many songs Ayumi used to portray her career-long struggle with fame and celebrity. It draws from her ongoing inspiration, Madonna, and contains one of her most literal experiences of the entertainment industry, with plastic Ayu-dolls being assembled in a factory, the suits and media portrayed as clowns, who raise her up only to throw her in the garbage dump later, and the whole thing wrapped up in surreal, storybook portrait frames. It’s Ayumi as Aesop, a moral she had to learn the hard way. (One of my favorite shots is the newspaper headline that reads “Almost Human!!,” a succinct phrase to describe the way women have been treated in the media, especially in the mid-00s). It’s basically brilliant and I still marvel at how she managed to get away with it; nobody was this candid about the industry in Japan without some fallout, yet it only boosted respect for her willingness to be forthright and transparent.

HEAVEN” was the last really great winter-ballad we got until 2009’s You were…/BALLAD combo. The quiet, gently-paced intro makes way for a breathtaking deluge of instrumentals and breathy vocals, sweeping the listener up in the expansive space created by longtime collaborator Kazuhito Kikuchi. One thing worth highlighting is her vocal performance: in 2005, whether it showed all the time or not, it was obvious Ayumi wasn’t settling for good enough, and still doing the regular work involved in being both a good singer and a good vocalist. Whoever coached this vocal performance out of her, in particular, did an incredible job of toning down some of the harsher aspects of her delivery that came out occasionally and is now done with frequency. The B-side, “Will,” was a very new kind of ballad for her, proving just how experimental she was still willing, and could afford, to be.

It also shows a confidence and trust in her audience, one manifested in somewhat riskier moves, like the 360° of the final single “Bold & Delicious,” which utilizes a full choir for the backdrop to it funk-based rhythm. We’ll get to Sweetbox, the composer of this track, later on, but what’s notable here is the production Ayumi and her team brought to the song, which far exceeds the original (later released on Sweetbox’s album Addicted, which also featured the original versions of B-side “Pride” and album track “Ladies Night“). The videos for this single were shot in New York City, a sort of homecoming for Ayumi, who first featured the city’s iconic skyline as a prominent character in the video for “appears” (Note: Behind-the-scenes photos for a feature in Ayumi’s exclusive Deji Deji Diary series for ViVi has photos of more sight-seeing that never made it to the video, particularly the iconic locales of several scenes from Sex and the City, which was still hugely popular in Japan at the time, including the Magnolia Bakery, and home of Carrie Bradshaw, a brownstone located between Park and Madison. It’s a very, very of-its-time, photograhic capsule of the period). The kind of risk-taking we hear on “Bold & Delicious” is euphoric, and needless to say, we never got another out-of-left-field song as wild ever again.

The album

One of the most interesting and frustrating things about Ayumi’s albums at this time for those who prefer a cohesive, consistent sound, was the sheer variety of musical styles that it offered. This workedboth  for and against the album: on one hand, it offered a something-for-everyone approach, reflecting both Ayumi’s diverse personality and maximalist approach to style, and causing a sort of disjointed listening experience, one that started with one of the most joyous songs she has ever done, “Bold & Delicious,” to hard rock, to gothic balladry (“Pride”), all the way to eager, sunshine-filled larks (“Beautiful Day”), followed by gloomy poems (“rainy day“). This style of sequencing began back on I am… (when a traditional rock song like “I am…” was followed by an upbeat interlude, which was followed by a straight-up trance song, which was followed by more rock), but is also something of a given, as singles in Japan are often composed and released independently over the course of a year until the rest of the album tracks are arranged, seemingly in a final, tight series of recording sessions. This means that many of the singles can seem to stick out among tracks that have a bit more of a cohesive feel to them.

Of course, the other particular reason for this new sound was Ayumi’s decision to work with Geo of Sweetbox for the album’s non-single tracks. Sweetbox were a fledgling German pop group/project formed in the 90s, who composed the tracks “Bold & Delicious,” “Ladies Night,” “In The Corner,” “Pride,” “Beautiful Day,” and “rainy day.” In fact, the only non-singles composed by someone other than Sweetbox were the title track (a rock song penned by Tetsuya Yukumi, a longtime collaborator who worked on six tracks for MY STORY), and “criminal,” by Kazuhiro Hara (who seemed to have been inspired by the big sound of “Bold & Delicious” and whom we’d see more of the following year on “Startin'” and “Born to Be…“), and the interludes.

The interludes on (miss)understood are another puzzle, one belonging to a whole other discussion: do interludes belong on pop albums? What role do interludes play on an album that feels wholly disassociated with them, as many do here? While the interludes on many of Ayumi’s albums began to feel pro forma by this point — a nod to the CD as a medium, and the freebies-feel of filling out the extra space of an 80-minute run time just because you could — it’s luck that many of the interludes on (miss)understood are…fine. Many funtion as mood-breaks, like short, moving sidewalks that carry and deposit the listener to the next section of the album, from part one’s mammoth hits, to the weightier second part mostly filled with ballads and heavier cerebral pieces, to the somewhat indecisive, mixed-bag that makes up the final trio. For Ayumi, that makes a conservative two, none of which are bad at all, but also none so great that they would invite extended mixes like “opening Run” (“JK’s extended mix” on the Daybreak single), or “Mirror” on GUILTY (which became the single “Mirrorcle world“).

Despite the wide array of musical styles, it is the lyrics that bring it all together. Though Ayumi mostly stopped composing her own music after RAINBOW, she never stopped writing her own lyrics. Her earlier work focused inwardly, using her own personal experiences and perspective as a sort of filter through which stories of pain and catharsis emerged, but her later work began taking on the more difficult task of turning outward. Despite the change, they have always remained true to her unique world view, the thread and stamp connecting and identifying any seemingly random music choice. As she said in an interview in the January 2006 issue of CD Data,

“I had a hard time trying to decide the sequence of the songs. (laugh) But, if I looked at the lyrics booklet while listening to the songs, I could hear them being sung by a cute girl, a girl who is worrying over love. Thus I was able to listen to them with a lighter heart, sort of like listening to background music flowing softly out of a room. Whenever I am thinking of many different things, or when I am looking to find myself, just looking at my lyrics booklet while listening to the songs really helps me to see the other side of things.”

The themes are consistent, with some of Ayumi’s favorites cropping up like perennials, among them the sublime awe and horror of mega-celebrity and the possessive, all-consuming, but also fickle, allure of fame, which she’s grappled with since A Song for XX through to promo campaigns for A BEST, and songs and videos like “ourselves,” “Because of You,” and “Don’t look back,” to the present. On (miss)understood, the title track and the video for “alterna” perform the heavy lifting, as does the title and overall concept of the album itself, as represented by the stiff, disingenous grin on the CD-version jacket, and the deliberately covered one on the CD+DVD version. Again, from CD Data, is Ayumi talking about the ephemeral quality of fads re: a popular television commercial, and a not-so-subtle dig at the industry and those quick to abandon when the next best thing comes along:

“But it’ll probably be forgotten soon with amazing speed, like all things. Just as if nothing had happened, and everything will settle down quietly again. Everything’s like this nowadays. When you fall in love with something, from the time you start liking it, you’ll spend all your time and energy pursuing it with all your spirit, concentrating on it totally. And when its time is over, you’ll withdraw from it, or discard it completely. That’s actually very scary when you think about it.”

That terror manifests through the loss, anger, confusion, and uncertain future present on the album. Even the moments of joy stem from fear, as in “Ladies Night,” when Ayumi takes a friend out to distract her from boyfriend troubles after the friend calls her up in tears. She ultimately pins the blame on her friend who refuses to see reality and have the strength to walk away from a bad relationship: “This so-called fight with your boyfriend / Is truly a fight with your inner self.” A night out with the girls ends in “laughing like we’re crying” and “singing like we’re screaming.” In “is this LOVE?” she berates herself for a love that doesn’t work out, “Why isn’t it me? I won’t ask / Such a ridiculous and trivial question.”

The looming threat of emptiness also pervades the album, as on “Pride,” where she recognizes the futility and somewhat pathetic effort of moving forward when others would have given up long ago. “Even if others laugh and call it pointless / Let’s go together, because there is / Nothing more frightening than giving up.” Sure, there’s bravery in moving forward into the unknown, but it offers no guarantee, something others might see as naive or even perhaps a bit stupid. It’s an admirable tenacity that speaks volumes about Ayumi’s determination and relentless perseverance. “You already know / That being beautiful doesn’t mean you will attain beautiful things,” she says in “Beautiful Day.” She doesn’t care: she feels the fear, ignores the doubters, and does it anyway. Beautiful days don’t just happen, she makes them happen.

The photo books

Ayumi’s career has been synonymous with travel since she moved to New York in the late 90s to undergo vocal training before her debut. For the album, she set out to New York again, notably to film the music videos for “Bold & Delicious” and “Pride,” as well as the photo for the jacket cover. However, it is her time in Hawaii, where she shot the video for “fairyland,” that makes up the content of the two special photo books, on my way and off my day, included with first-press editions of the album.

Photo books have cropped up serially throughout Ayumi’s career, from fashion books like A BOOK and uraayu, to the commemorative 15th anniversary book Tell All. We can gain some insight into the purpose of on my way and off my day from Tell All, as the latter was essentially a recreation of the former (of Tell All, said Ayu,”I want to create a booklet like the one we did for (miss)understood“.) Copies of the 70-page on my way were included with the first press editions of the CD+DVD versions, and showed “private,” behind-the-scenes photos. While it’s obvious all of these were purposely staged, they still offer insight into the type of image Ayumi wanted to project, riffing off of some of the popular “Stars! They’re just like us!” pages of tabloid magazines, with trips to the grocery store (in full hair and makeup), seeing the local sights, dinner with friends, and so on. off my day features behind-the-scenes photos of Ayumi working on the album.

Ultimately, there’s nothing as genuine and real here as Ayumi’s lyrics. Seeking to understand anything through what are essentially promotional vacation slides is a fool’s task, a red-herring dropped in Ayumi’s repeated quest to be heard, but also provide the fantasy the public came to expect, cornering her in an unavoidable trap. They’re nice photos, but they are, essentially, the “Hamasaki Ayumi” she referred to, as opposed to “the real ayu” (S Cawaii! April 2012), the “miss” before the “understood” (draw your own conclusions in connection to Tell All, and an album titled (miss)understood by someone who has stated “I’ve never wished for others to understand me. I aim to get through to others, to make them believe in me, but everyone is free to feel whatever they want.”).

The legacy

It’s easy to break down an album into its disparate parts and then reassemble it using hindsight, context, and the cooled-off distance that only time can lend, but harder in the moment, when the promo campaign is intent on exposure by any means possible: numerous magazine features, third-party commercial tie-ins, television appearances, photo shoots, and giant Shibuya billboards, all designed to drum up enough passion, hype, and excitement to get you to buy the album in the first couple weeks of its release for the bragging rights of units moved and numbers charted. It worked, I guess: (miss)understood debuted at #1 on the Oricon chart and stayed in the Top 10 for four weeks, the top 50 for eleven, and ended as the eighth highest-selling album of the year in Japan. Commercially, it was not her most successful album, falling just behind the sales of MY STORY, and the fourth album in a row to sell less than the previous one, a trend that would continue nearly indefinitely to today (in 2015 A ONE sold more albums than the previous year’s Colours). I, too, as a fan, reveled in the excitement and immediately purchased a copy when it was released, proceeding to listen to it not in fits and bursts, but almost non-stop for the first two months that it was out.

Because I was rooted in various fan communities and forums like LiveJournal blogs and the Ayumi Hamasaki Sekai forum, I understood that not all fans enjoyed the entire album from start to finish. This made sense considering the album’s departure from the sound that gained her popularity on LOVEppears and I am… To this day, Ayumi’s music has divided fans, causing not a few rifts and bemused debates on the freedom and duty an artist has to their fans. On the 15th anniversary of her debut in the industry, just seven years removed from (miss)understood, the author of the album’s photo books, Takako Tsuriya, marveled in Tell All at how much Ayumi had changed as a person, artist, and performer.

“It’s been 7 years since then… The [A]yu who spoke in stunted English had now become someone who could converse with the foreign staff in fluent English, without the help of an interpretor, and that was only one of the changes she had undergone. However, as I looked through the 2 previous booklets, the words I had written 7 years ago are still relevant to the person [a]yu is now. In a good way, it shows that her true self had withstood the test of time.”

Another seven years later, and we’re looking at an even bigger growth spurt: in addition to the events that prompted Ayumi to remark that she could never go back to the person she was before (twelve more singles; six more albums; twelve more concert tours; a Vegas marriage; a divorce; presumably friends, fans, and co-workers that came and went), she has released another four albums, embarked on nearly another dozen concert tours, married again, divorced again, had a child and conceived a second child — neither decision for which she felt the need to explain or defend — and saw the literal end of another era, as Heisei made way for Reiwa. At the end of it all, one presumes what she said in Tell All has held fast.

“I don’t need to be perfect, nor to protect myself anymore. I’m really afraid of nothing now. In the past, I created an iron wall with things such as hair and make-up, and felt safe when enclosed inside. Now, whenever I make myself up to be perfect, it just feels different and sort of lonely. Being perfect now feels incomplete.”

To be fair, (miss)understood, is not perfect, though it’s clear that was the ballpark for which Ayumi was aiming. It was astoundingly close. Today, the production still sounds as massive as any major release from one of the world’s biggest pop stars is meant to sound, but more importantly, it still sounds exciting. The songs sound fresh and promising, evoking joy and pathos. Most importantly, it comes from a place of honesty, that wish to communicate on a genuine level that marks all great works of art. At times assertive, vulnerable, insecure, headstrong, smug, self-satisfied, brave, and moved to grief, it highlights the myriad emotions and personalities that made up the woman behind a revolving door of expectations and personae crafted to entertain and satisfy. It would take several more years for Ayumi to stop striving for that perfection, to be comfortable in the mistakes and open wounds she shared with a public not always ready to forgive or treat with empathy, but (miss)understood is the sound of that beginning. The end of Ayu-chan, squeaky with high-pitched, awkward coquetry, to Ayumi Hamasaki, assertive, grown-up and at ease. Chasing after understanding and approval is the fruitless task of the young, something Ayumi has moved far past in life and in her career — it is the self-acceptance she feels closer to obtaining that resonates now.

“Either way, no matter how I am, it’s more important that everyone is enjoying themselves. It doesn’t matter if that means that I’ll be exhausted, and have to travel a long way, because that’s important to me. This thing, which seems so natural, is what I have chosen. When I realized that, I really became fearless.”

That fearlessness seems to have manifested not only in her personal life, but in the approach she takes to the once-crushing sense of obligation to fans and the public, for whom her current music and life choices never seem to be good enough. However, while the open sense of fresh novelty has long since worn off, with albums following this one ranging the gamut from solid, to surprisingly good, to disappointing, none have offered something as innovative, fresh and also successfully executed since (miss)understood. Put it plainly: we never heard from Sweetbox, or a  Sweetbox-equivalent, again.

In many ways, conforming to her own standards is a natural endgame of  anyone around long enough to no longer be chased by the necessity of capturing attention. Conformity, as Carl Safina points out, observing the behavior of chimpanzees within their social groups, provides refuge and safety. He tells the story of a line of wildebeests going to water who follow a straight line, one behind the other, without so much as deviating around a tree. Why? By the animal’s continued existence, that path was proven to be safe for the guy ahead of him. What happens to the free-spirited springbok who decides to take a risky sip in the middle of the night, on his own? He’s spotted by a lion and promptly eaten (257). However these two things have to co-exist.

“CULTURE is mainly about conformity, consistency, and tradition. Fact is: culture requires BOTH innovators, who create some new thing never before learned (and are often ignored and resisted), and adopters, who, by learning, narrow themselves and conform. […] Being conservative is safer than thinking freely. Safer than experimenting and innovating.” (260)

In this case, “safe” meant albums (as great as they were) like GUILTY and Secret. Like LOVE again and M(A)DE IN JAPAN.

I don’t know if conformity or caution is inevitable, a kind of by-product of growing older, the instinct or learned behavior to keep doing what works because it’s proven effective and not gotten you eaten by hungry mountain lions or offended music critics, but I can understand where it comes from. It’s all the more reason to remember and celebrate all those with the courage to take a chance on something fresh and unusual, even when it doesn’t always work or takes a few listens to appreciate (full disclosure: I didn’t like “Bold & Delicious” when I first heard it). After all, if Ayumi is conforming to any sound, it’s her own, one she created and perfected at the peak of her abilities.

Again, “[w]ithout some original innovator […] there is NO knowledge, skill, or tradition that can get shared; there is no culture to copy and conform to. Innovation is to culture what mutation is to genes; it’s the only way to make any progress, the root of all change” (47), so it’s worth underscoring: if anyone was out there setting standards in music and fashion in the early 00s, it was Ayumi Hamasaki. A lack of innovation after (miss)understood simply hit the brakes on the musical evolution, not necessarily quality or consistency. Ten years ago, it was kind of depressing. Today, considering what a gigantic back catalog she’s given us to listen to, and think and write about, and argue over, and love and hate in equal, sometimes maddening, measure, I’ll take a fulfilled, confident, well-adjusted, and happy Ayumi enjoying her well-deserved success, over chasing popularity and culture-resetting pop songs. She gave us LOVEppears, and Duty, and I am…, and Memorial address, and (miss)understood, and that’s not even the half of it. After all of that, and seven years removed from that previous statement where she placed the happiness of others over her own health, I hope she’s found found the confidence to switch the importance of “everyone” enjoying themselves, to Ayumi enjoying herself first. I’d like to think she has.

Notes
[ All images original scans by author, except for magazine scans by iloveayu.com and AyuAlanis@NihonWa, which were posted to the AHS Forum a lifetime ago, and this gallery of scans. Special thanks to Misa-chan’s J-pop Blog for all of the amazing translated interviews and lyrics that provided so much insight. I understand that some of my parallels to the animal world stretch the imagination, but all of those far reaches are my own fault (even when I’m reading about the cultural differences between bonobos and chimpanzees, I’m thinking about music, and I think I’ve proven more than once on this blog that I can relate just about anything to Ayumi Hamasaki), not Carl Safina’s, whose book, Becoming Wild, is fascinating. I encourage everyone to read it and think deeply about its content (the section on whales and their songs is particularly good). ]

As luck would have it: SM Entertainment & SuperM

You can just imagine the increasingly horrific consternation crossing the features of SM execs over the past two years, as BTS, the K-pop boy band from not one of the Big Three, broke more barriers and records then any previous group before them. Being the first South Korean group to hit #1 on the Hot 100 (for two consecutive weeks) must have hit particularly hard for an entertainment agency that has carefully leveraged every last one of its resources into building a reputation for the nation’s best and brightest pop music. Building an empire takes a lot of time and meticulous planning, capital and vast resources, and enormous talent and likable personalities, but it also takes one fickle factor no one has any control over: luck. That last elusive ingredient has changed everything for BTS. In 2020, the boy band’s track record now includes high-profile appearances on American talk shows (day and night), award shows, magazine cover stories, and the privilege of having physical copies of their CD albums stocked in big stores with tiny, exclusive shelf space like Target. SM Entertainment might have laid the very important groundwork, but you can imagine how they might be seething over not reaping the same prestige and pride that Big Hit does for really cracking the code (what other purpose does giving SuperM the same initials as the company serve, other than ego?).

We’re now seeing changes and accommodations for K-pop in the music industry that fans could only dream about ten years ago, including category designations for major awards and charts (my favorite is Billboard’s new Global 200 and Global Excl. US). Certainly, K-pop can’t be credited on its own, not with the hard work and patience of groups with global-popularity like BABYMETAL and Perfume, but the popularity that BTS ushered in has done something unique in America — the very sloth-like, near-miraculous job of normalizing and reinforcing Asian pop music and celebrity, of folding it into mainstream culture the way anime and manga has been doing over the last few decades.

This tentative embracing of Asian culture and celebrities for the long-term benefits everyone: the leading trade publication in the US for music sales, has expanded its coverage in recent years to artists like Perfume, Kenshi Yonezu, and Arashi. Finally coming to terms with the enormous influence and success of the business overseas and its potential to generate revenue stateside, it created an entire K-pop subsection on its web site. These aren’t trifles, and it comes with its stumbling blocks (K-pop, for example, is still mostly “other,” and the creation of all of these separate categories says a lot about how it’s still handled in a way to keep it carefully segregated from everyday, Western pop), but it’s progress. All of these highlights are important not because Western coverage legitimizes East Asian pop culture, but because some of these changes acknowledge that it is more than a one-hit wonder or passing phenomenon stateside, and is here for the stay, with those at the top finally making an effort to ensure it. And if BTS’s lasting success in all of this is what is takes to keep that fire lit under SM, I’m all for it.

SM’s answer to BTS is SuperM, their “Avengers” super group, featuring members hand-picked from groups SHINee, EXO, NCT, and WayV. All of them bring good looks and particular talents to the group, from dance to vocals to affable personality as a group constructed solely for the purpose of courting the same kind of success in the US that BTS has. The obvious rivalry would be comedic if it weren’t so earnest. After dropping their first EP last year with the earworm-y “Jopping” (because not only are they here to prove that they are the better K-pop boy band, they are also the more innovative!), the group returns this month with their first full-length album Super One, which includes the digital singles “Tiger Inside,” and “100,” both sequels exploiting aggressive boy-band energy with slick, metallic CGI, typically masculine imagery (fast cars! motorcycles! predatory animals!), and the kind of fast-paced, robust choreography that makes two hours of cardio at the gym seem like a warm-up. Pay particular attention to the song titles and lyrics, purposely selected to exploit its fan base and maximize its brand. This is the kind of album as clinical in its musical approach as the group’s construction itself, which of course, makes it no less methodical than any other major-label pop album.

Super One is not perfect, but like its predecessor, it mostly checks out. Longtime fans will appreciate the SM hallmarks all over here: the polished hooks and spotless production, the professional approach to songwriting and structure down to a precise science but infused with the lustrous X-factor that makes a song not just a song, but a hit. There’s some filler (“Better Days”) and some obvious condescension to trends that annoy more than they succeed (“Drip”), but other songs, like the lead titles “One (Monster & Infinity),” while clearly re-hashed concepts from EXO, are no less fun or captivating for their lack of originality. It’s a very different approach than that of BTS’s, which is perhaps why though SuperM is doing well, they’re still not at the same level of fanatical popularity. SuperM lacks the organic chemistry of BTS, and the wide-eyed and earnest DIY approach to songwriting the group is known for. As an SM group, this is exactly what one would expect, and I don’t think we’d really want it any other way.

However it does highlight the company’s ongoing quest for that ever elusive ingredient: luck. SM refuses to give in to their lack of it, instead doubling down with Super One on skill, talent, money, the psychology of fans and consumers, and aggressive marketing campaigns. Concentrating on these objectives can give the company a sense of control in a situation almost completely out of their hands: the reception and embrace of fans and a wider audience outside of South Korea. Certainly doing all of the above gives them an enormous advantage, but it’s no fail-safe, and it will be interesting to see how the album does in the next few months with touring and meet-and-greets still unsafe in the U.S, and yet another new BTS album scheduled for release in November. While this story develops, stay tuned for a week of BTS on Jimmy Fallon!

[ Image credit ]

15th anniversary: The legacy of Namie Amuro’s Queen of Hip-Pop

There are few comebacks in J-pop history as important as Namie Amuro’s Queen of Hip-Pop. Released in July 2005, the album was the first in a gradual, then sudden, ascent from the depths of critical and popular derision that beset the singer following her first official comeback in 1998 after a pregnancy, quickie marriage, and family tragedy threatened to derail the singer’s career. A lot can happen in a gap year, including changing tastes, shifting trends, and broken allegiances: Tetsuya Komuro was well on his way to generating fatigue on the Japanese charts, his robust, and exceedingly familiar style coating Amuro’s early discography finally reaching its saturation-point while his numerous outfits and affiliated projects began losing their hold as dance music was replaced by hip-hop and R&B as the leading pop style. Two women, among many, were permanently changing the landscape of J-pop, chipping away at “TK” as a synonym for J-pop; Hikaru Utada and Ayumi Hamasaki, both of whom made their major-label single debuts in Amuro’s absence with “poker face” and “First Love” respectively.

This left Amuro and her team scrambling to re-strategize, first by courting denial and doubling down on TK’s production, shooting for a seamless transition between Concentration 20 and GENIUS 2000 with singles like “RESPECT the POWER OF LOVE” and “toi et moi.” It didn’t work. The spark was gone, any fire TK was able to light available only in the scattered ashes of vague memories and the brief embers of a bright hook. Amuro herself, now older and wiser, wished for a bit of distance from her former image that would allow for more freedom outside of the rigid constraints that sometimes trapped artists, as much as they provided for unheard of luxuries.

Luckily, she and her team recognized the need to adapt. With Ayumi Hamasaki now cornering the market on dance-pop, there was a vacancy in Avex artists going the hip-hop route and they seized the opportunity to do so. After testing the waters with producer Dallas Austin on GENIUS 2000, he and Amuro collaborated again on the tellingly-titled follow-up break the rules, where TK would take his final bows as chief producer. The truth is that Amuro took a huge risk by cutting him off: even with his declining popularity, TK was still a mostly sure-thing, a household name not above tugging at the heart strings of loyalty and premature nostalgia. Recruiting a number of no- and lesser-names was hardly the direction you would imagine Avex taking in the early 00s with their biggest star. But Namie Amuro was no longer their biggest star.

At the turn of the century, when the up-til-then J-pop sound was struggling on the charts, audiences and producers turned increasingly to the Billboard pop charts, full of boundary-pushing artists like Britney Spears, who released her racy single “I’m a Slave 4 U” in 2001. Just as TK was being pushed out by the passing of time itself, Max Martin’s signature teen-pop sound was being shoved aside by producers like The Neptunes, the dancehall and reggaeton beats of Sean Paul and Daddy Yankee, the trademark yowls of Lil’ Wayne, and the solo debut of Beyonce Knowles, who released the Grammy Award-winning Dangerously in Love in the summer of 2003. This was followed by Sean Garrett unleashing Usher’s “Yeah” into radio waves (a “hip-pop” track if there ever was one), in turn paving the way for a sound like the Pussycat Doll’s “Buttons” to soundtrack both summer carnivals and strip clubs. All of these accelerating and massively popular changes in the industry were exactly where artists turned to create fresh faces: all of the modern style and hype of this Western-borrowed, black-community-co-opted “urban” sound was being poured into newcomer Kumi Koda, who made her debut in 2000, and quickly dominated the market as Avex’s resident alterna-diva. But Amuro, eager to regain her standing at the top, wouldn’t stray too far from there to find her own missing ingredients in a (somewhat ironic) attempt to stand out against an ascending batch of equally talented and hungry young men and women.

One: Total confidence.

Any female singer worth her weight in enormous revenue will be dubbed an adjacent moniker by the media at some point in her career, whether laudatory, derisive, or calculated to spark unhealthy competition. Time magazine dubbed Ayumi Hamasaki “The Empress of Pop” in 2002, but Namie Amuro was mostly compared to artists like Madonna, a Japanese derivative. “Diva of the Heisei Era” would come much later — in 2005 Amuro needed a singular, self-serving title, and there is rarely any PR that works faster for image haul than re-naming. To lead her sixth studio album, the big comeback from 2003’s lackluster, bereft-of-personality STYLE, Amuro dubbed herself the Queen of Hip-Pop, taking cues from the pomp and ego of Western artists to market herself as “the finest in the game” someone so hot, so on top, that no one could catch up. It was an astounding, emphatic announcement, impossible to ignore, even if just for the audacity in a culture that values a degree of humbleness in its celebrities.

Two: Kitchen-sink sequencing.

It’s tricky to write about the West’s influence on popular Japanese music, but easy to examine in micro. Queen of Hip-Pop, a tiny world unto itself, is one example that openly, and cheerfully, took almost all of its influence from then-current black musical styles, creating a vibrant toy box of trends from the early to mid 00s. Lead single “ALARM” released in 2004, kicked off the album’s thesis statement, with its propulsive call to wake up and pay attention, though the song now plays more like a sound in the process of finding itself with its studio sheen and over-eager bass line. It’s the following singles that did the heavy lifting, with “GIRL TALK” and “WANT ME, WANT ME” expressing two seemingly dichotomous sides: the laid-back girl’s night in, and the club-ready bhangra beats night out. “WANT ME WANT ME,” in particular, is Amuro knee-deep in her reinvention, exuding a sense of weary, but cool know-how. Back when it was released, it came off as the kind of slick, emotional detachment women were encouraged to cultivate, though today it reads a bit more desperate in a frantic, rather than sad, way. Its strategy over sincerity, putting into question how much genuine fun Amuro was actually having with this new style.

But it’s the album as whole, with its mastery of several styles and propulsive sequencing, that brought it all together, charging in with the title track’s haughty, daring call to sexual satisfaction, and smooth transition to the giddy glee of “WoWa.” The softer songs, nestled towards the middle, offer a bit of respite from the harder beats, tucking the cozy blankets in under a girl’s night of gossip and Sex and the City marathons (side note: it is difficult to overstate Sex and the City‘s popularity at this point in time, and its heavy association with women as rampant, unabashed consumers of everything from the material to the emotional and sexual markets — even Ai Otsuka starred in a loose, PG-rated homage for the drama Tokyo Friends), before launching into the Lil’ Wayne sample slathered liberally all over “My Darling,” and the album’s coolest, flying-solo track “Free.” In between, there’s more posturing with a humble-brag nod to an adoring fan base, the instant gratification of a casual love affair, and a finale that ends the album on a high flourish. It’s a carefully planned execution, an album that utilizes every million cent’s worth of trend and resource at the disposal of a studio with the right amount of power and prestige to ensure maximum attention and profit.

Three: Reap and repeat.

Queen of Hip-Pop was the bridge Amuro crossed to get back in the spotlight, and its success was understandably replicated in the follow-up album PLAY, which took its predecessor as a literal template, and was her last album to focus so strategically on the hip half of her new moniker. These two albums together comprise an interesting interstitial phase in Amuro’s career, one in which she was in the process of reclaiming her status, establishing a new fan base, and asserting her control at the top of the pecking order, before eventually returning to her roots as less queen-of-hip-pop, than general queen-of-J-pop, where she has regained both the respect and popularity lost during that very brief, turbulent moment in her personal life. The fact that she did it by borrowing artifacts from African-American and Western culture is one that can’t go ignored: what began with a series of SUITE CHIC collabs took its form in everything from the music, to the application of tattoos, to the choreography, fashion, use of rhyme schemes foreign to the Japanese musical traditional, to the heavy use of slang (“booty,” “coochie,” “baby boy”). The debt she owes is massive, not just in this context, but throughout her entire career — even in the 90s, Hiroshi Aoyagi points out that she was noted for “incorporat[ing] dances derived from black hip-hop artists” (Islands of Eight Million Smiles, 101). Without the cherry-picking all coming together on one propulsive advertising vehicle for Namie Amuro herself, it is unlikely she would have been given the opportunity to return to the dance-pop roots that propelled her back to #1 and not just commercial, but respectable superstar status, a prime signifier of pop itself, rather than remembered as one of the greatest artists of the TK-boom who was punished with obscurity for a few unpopular choices. It was a very desperate, very calculated, very smart move, one that she had a definite hand in, and one that she no doubt looks back on with at least some regret, if the decision to laser off the tattoos says anything (and not surprisingly, seeing her change her mind has made her even more relatable).

Actually, Queen of Hip-Pop is more than just a comeback: it’s a time capsule, a whole year of music and tabloid pop culture, and Von Dutch hats and velour tracksuits, and leaked sex tapes and that bizarre docu-series where Britney Spears was hooking up with Kevin Federline on television. The Amuro of Queen of Hip-Pop is a tremendous force of attitude, style, talent, a willingness to take risks and, like the greatest pop stars before her, sometimes sacrifice self to stand in for something so much bigger. It might not be her best album, but it’s one of her most iconic, the precise moment we witnessed the resurrection of a legend, the one that breathed life back into an ambitious, hard-working woman who always did anything and everything to succeed.

[ All images original scans, except for those credited to here. ]

March 2020: Highlights

March 2020, one of the longest months all of us have ever lived through, has been tough on us all. When Japan was first hit with the coronavirus and closed its schools for what is now looking like an optimistic two weeks, Avex Trax, perhaps to alleviate boredom, perhaps to atone for its string of live cancellations, began uploading several full-length HD concert videos on its YouTube page. This playlist is where I spent the majority of my free time this month, endlessly queuing up one video after another — discovering some new favorites, revisiting classics, mindlessly consuming any mix of audio and visual that had even a small chance of distracting me. Now this month will always be just as full of this memory for me, too, and for that I am grateful. And though I had a harder time concentrating on any hard rock/metal releases, and soundtracks are pretty much non-existent as theaters are closed and films have been postponed, we still had a month full of music releases to help us cope; here are some of the interesting ones.

Niall Horan: Heartbreak Weather
(2020.03.13)

Ex-One Direction members have unleashed a slew of solo records in the last four months, beginning with Harry Styles’s Fine Line in December of 2019, followed by Louis Tomlinson’s Walls in February, and now Niall Horan’s Heartbreak Weather this month. Each of these albums has taken on a distinct identity unique to the individual, but one thing they all have in common is their adherence to the 1D playbook. As Chris DeVille sums up, “[T]heir solo careers suggest they [want] to escape One Direction’s structure, not its substance.” This is not a complaint: all of these albums have been, to a degree, enjoyable, and all of them have had at least a couple of above-average songs. But while Styles carefully crafted a classic-rock Bowie persona and Tomlinson a 90’s Brit-pop avatar, Horan seems torn between two styles, which wrestle almost track by track on Heartbreak Weather. Which you like better will depend on how you prefer your pop: synth or acoustic. The two are sequenced throughout the album to ensure an equal distribution to avoid front- or back-loading either half, and though the soft-rock bits are okay, it’s the synth-pop songs that I find myself returning to over and over again. The arena-sized title track, “Arms of a Stranger,” “Cross Your Mind” — how perfect the album would be with more of this and less “Dear Patience.” It’s a nice follow-up to his largely forgettable debut, and as all of the albums released this month can attest to, it’s unlucky release date seems to have gotten it buried under the national traumas that are even now still rippling around the world. But for those of us looking for any form of comfort and taste of normalcy we can get, this album been an unexpected companion, the last breath we all took together before getting pulled under.

lol: lightning // Re:Complex: Neo Gravity
(2020.03.18)

Last month, I lamented the dirth of co-ed groups, noting that J-pop tends to be a tad friendlier toward the outliers, and in the wake of AAA’s hiatus, we got two torch-bearers in J-pop: a new album by their official replacements lol, and the debut of Re:Complex, the 13-member talent-competition winners from Kansai who released their debut single almost exactly two years ago. These two albums have a lot in common, most notably their styles — both use simple and frequent vocal trade-offs set to the kind of upbeat but generic dance-pop that AAA perfected in their early albums, but eventually moved past for a bit of personality. Both of these albums are extremely competent and enjoyable, but they lack something very important: a unique personality that elevates them beyond filler. Of course, competence is the preferable substitute for grand surface impression, the type of music that values face and personality over any attempt at shooting-for-average singles that run rampant in the idol industry, but really, who are these people? I can’t keep any of the members of either of these groups straight, and if lol’s 2018 concert tour -scream- is any indication, just about any skilled dancer and vocalist could have stepped in to understudy in the middle of the show and I wouldn’t have noticed. I’m not sure if this is a failure on the part of management, who can clearly spot talent, but not genius, or if it’s a reluctance to put in the resources to coax a star out of any one of these members who might just be waiting for the extra push. Or is the lukewarm response to a co-ed group like lol not worth the investment? Questions to ponder while these albums rotate in, enjoyable, but unmemorable.

The Weeknd: After Hours
(2020.03.20)

I’ve devoted enough space here to The Weeknd already, and the guy really doesn’t need any more press, so I’ll make this quick. After Hours is everything I’ve come to expect from Abel Tesfaye, for better and worse: the lead tracks are the sharpest knives in this shed, with all the glossy, stylized production only money can buy, while the album tracks go back to the Tesfaye of mixtape lore, slowing the album down considerably by soaking in the moody, navel-gazing bathwater that is now routine for him. I don’t mind these moments musically, though lyrically they leave a lot to be desired, but I prefer the album’s propulsive moments over the dirges, so the first half lags and the second half doesn’t feel long enough, and as a particular bone to pick, the synthwave bits don’t go in far enough or long enough to feel like a narrative vision, rather than shallow experimentation for novelty’s sake. So, it’s a lot like Starboy, with the best bits being better than the former’s best bits, and thankfully, not as long.

The World Standard: Wasuta BEST
(2020.03.25)

Every idol group has a gimmick, the thing that tries to make them stand out from the hundreds of groups they compete with for attention and sales. Wasuta’s, aside from having the classy, high-budget iDOL Street angle, is a mix of Dempa-lite and Momoiro-eccentricity, buffeted by the colorful bleeps of video game onomatopoeia and cat-ear headbands. It’s curious that a group with such a haphazard, kitchen-sink approach has managed to reach their 5th anniversary intact, when so many equally solid iDOL Street groups haven’t; Cheeky Parade, for example, was a first cousin to the aesthetic and they disbanded in their fifth year as well. Uh-oh…foreshadowing? A greatest hits collection like Wasuta BEST doesn’t exactly alleviate the fear. As a representation of a group’s best work, it doesn’t get more definitive than this: a 25-track odyssey through all of the fun, nonsense, and quirky curios the group has shared with us over the years, from debut single “Kanzennaru IDOL” to fan-favorites like “PLATONIC GIRL” (unless by “definitive” you mean “exhaustive,” in which case AAAs’ 15th Anniversary All Time Best -thanx AAA lot-, with over 70 tracks, takes the cake). At this point, Wasuta is one of the few existing all-in idol groups from whom I genuinely look forward to new releases, and it would be a real shame if they went the way of Kobushi FACTORY and GEM and PASSPO, though it seems inevitable. Being a fan of Japanese idol groups is often part guilty pleasure and part learning to cherish their ephemeral existence. Successful greatest-hits collections like these, though not essential, are able to wrap it all up in one neat, happily-ever-after, leaving us plenty to remember the group by when they inevitably pass into The Great Idol Beyond.

Haruka Kudo: KDHR
(2020.03.25)

Voice actress Haruka Kudo, not to be confused with former-Morning Musume member Haruka Kudou released her debut mini-album, and of all this month’s releases, aside from iri’s Sparkle, it has probably surprised me the most. I’m unfamiliar with the extensive work she’s done with the intimidating universe that is the BanG Dream! franchise, because like so many voice actors, it’s easy to get lost in the sheer amount of available content, but anyone who lists hide as a favorite guitarist and puts her money where her admiration is by actually playing guitar, gets an instant shift to the front of the line. I wouldn’t say KDHR makes exceptional on any of these promising bits of information, culminating in a sound that is very much like the bread-and-butter work of seiyuu before her, but I do appreciate the emphasis on the guitar work here, which in moments rips out riffs as hard as BAND-MAID, such as on opening track “MY VOICE,” when it’s not drowned in layers of synths. It’s a promising collection that hopefully foreshadows a full-length with just a bit more attention to originality.

Dua Lipa: Future Nostalgia
(2020.03.27)

Amidst the tragic, history-making events of March, Dua Lipa held an Instagram live chat on Monday, March 23 where she tearfully announced that her highly-anticipated sophomore album Future Nostalgia would be released at the end of the week, instead of the original release date of April 3. Releasing an album during a global pandemic is tough enough, but it looks like the primary impetus behind the decision was the album leaking in full online, a heart-breaking incident for any artist in the best of circumstances. Initial reviews for this album were nearly all raves: The Guardian called it “viscerally brilliant,” Rolling Stone, a “studio 54-worthy disco revival,” NME, “powerful pop perfection.” The album is a tight, LP-sized 37-minute long journey through Latin freestyle, early 00’s girl-group pop, swelling disco strings and cool, chunky synths set to slick modern production, culminating in heart-tugging anthems like “Don’t Stop Now,” “Levitating,” and the album’s show-stopping “Physical.” Mega-producer Stuart Price’s magic touch shimmers all over this record, and his influence is palpable even on the songs he isn’t a part of, with many songs like “Hallucinate” recalling the audacity of his work on Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor. It’s easy to think the universal praise is just over-hype, but lest the album seems too sterile, it does miss the bullseye in spots, most notably the final tracks “Good in Bed,” and “Boys Will Be Boys,” which joins Taylor Swift’s “The Man” in good intentions but dull execution. Unlike recent albums that tack on eight or ten extra filler tracks for streaming stats, Lipa practices a graceful discretion, one we can look forward to being appended by later deluxe editions full of tantalizing bonus tracks (which has already been confirmed) that will keep this album fresh in the ears of listeners who are craving more, or who might still be too distracted to tune in. But that’s hardly enough to take away Future Nostalgia‘s true accomplishment: making good on pop’s promise to create music that makes you smile, that makes you dance, and that makes you proud.

5 Seconds of Summer: CALM
(2020.03.27)

Boy-band concepts have evolved throughout the decades, from The Beatles, to Menudo, to *NSYNC, to 5 Seconds of Summer, but the point has stayed the same: to create music that makes people, especially young women, feel appreciated. 5SOS went all-in on this on 2018’s Youngblood, though by then they were already veterans of the genre. CALM packs the same lusty earnestness into its 40 minutes: “What a blessing to feel your love,” they sing in “Red Desert,” “Sometimes when I look at you, I see my wife,” in “Teeth,” and later, “I’ll make up for all of your tears / I’ll give you the best years,” and “You’re the only thing that I think I got right / I’ll never give you away.” These are psalms for lovers, odes to significant others, and devotionals for the rose-colored and deluded. While most songs linger in these early utopian stages of amour, they even make angst sexy, as on “Easier,” where even anger can’t help but melt into a helpless confession: “Right now, it’s so hard to blame you / ‘Cause you’re so damn beautiful.” They’re exactly what we expect from our boy bands, delivering on every front; it helps that the tracks keep it simple, the production sizzling with hooks and ardor. Like their predecessors, whatever CALM lacks in genuine self-awareness, it more than makes up for in heart.

The Birthday Massacre: Diamonds
(2020.03.27)

There are fewer things more comforting during times of rapid, intense change than something familiar, something that offers a bit of stability. The Birthday Massacre have now released eight studio albums since 1999; I’ve been around for seven of those and I can confidently say that I’m always going to get exactly what I expect and want from this group: a nostalgic, early 00’s Hot Topic-goth aesthetic set to chunky 80’s-inspired synth-rock. The Birthday Massacre has become one of my most reliable go-tos, and this month, there was nothing more reassuring than an album that delivered nothing more than what a group has now mastered and knows best. Diamonds is not the best BM album — it’s not even as great as 2017’s Under Your Spell and feels a bit on the short side, but it’s as solid as it comes, and for fans who have been in it for the long-haul, it’s like a hug from a friend you haven’t seen in years. The Birthday Massacre might be short on original ideas at this point, might be relying a bit too hard on that iconic aesthetic to do all the visual work, and yeah, it’s hard not to argue that I’m giving them a pass, but no music is released in a vacuum, and Diamonds, an album by an independent group set to be even more hard-hit by the dip in album sales and touring revenue this spring, deserve recognition for making the brave choice to move forward with the release of this album, helping to keep at least one thing feeling consistent and reliable. If you like what you hear, don’t hesitate to support them.

Kalen Anzai: “FAKE NEWS REVOLUTION” PV
(2020.03.31)

Our eleventh-hour entry this month is the PV for new Internet-It Girl Kalen Anzai’s “FAKE NEWS REVOLUTION.” Anzai has generated a lot of buzz since she debuted last year with a slew of Y2K-inspired visuals and a face so digitally edited for perfection that it didn’t take long for rumors to start circulating that Anzai was a computer-generated cyber-idol: one of her first live performances that leaned heavily on holographic visuals didn’t help. But, as it turns out, Kalen Anzai is a real, flesh-and-blood woman, and her potential to generate capital has just rocketed thanks to the announcement that she would be playing Ayumi Hamasaki in a drama based on the “fictional” life story of the legendary J-pop singer’s rise to fame within Avex — the same label to which Anzai is signed. Till now, Anzai’s whole aesthetic has been turn-of-the-millennium nostalgia, a retro-futurist amalgamation of hyper-CGI, shiny metallic and rubbery-plastic couture, and boxy, vintage computer screens, an aesthetic that recalls the peak years of Avex Trax, and notably, the salad days of their female solo-singers like hitomi, Ami Suzuki, and Ayumi Hamasaki. It is the last that Anzai is most indebted to, especially in “FAKE NEWS REVOLUTION,” which, like her earlier singles, sounds specifically designed to evoke late 90’s/early 00’s Avex-pop from Favorite Blue to LOVEppears- and Duty-era Hamasaki, with its twinkling keyboards, soft, major-key production, and urgent twists in the chorus. As someone who grew up on this sound, I’ve been very intrigued with what Avex is doing with Anzai, even if Anzai herself just seems like an avatar at the moment, a convenient hanger on which to project an era she seems, by age alone, to be somewhat ignorant and disinterested in, and the tabloid-heavy drama that fans and non-cold-blooded humans are eager to witness. In that sense, the music video and song are a success, adding to the carefully-constructed narrative of her origins. But what really matters is what will happen once Anzai is allowed to move past M and let us see the person behind the persona, an identity tethered to the present — at least as much as Avex and pop, as an institution, allows any of that, as Ayumi can sit down and tell her all about.

Timing is everything

The Weeknd on SNL

How long should an album rollout last? This is the question buried in almost every review of The Weeknd’s After Hours, from Micah Peters at The Ringer to Tom Breihan at Stereogum. Both highlight The Weeknd’s exquisite, and now anachronistic, performances on Saturday Night Live, the former by starting his article saying that the night of March 7 “belongs to an entirely different era of human life,” the latter, “[i]t happened 12 days ago, and it belongs to a different age.” Most album rollouts aren’t going to get interrupted by a global pandemic, but every artist brave and unfortunate enough to release new music this month, from Adam Lambert, to 5 Seconds of Summer, to Dua Lipa, has seen their work sliced in half: the hope, joy, and careful anticipation that preceded the full set, and the mid-pandemic full-lengths brought into a world where everyone is reading the news more than ever, and listening to music less. You would think the sudden anxiety and fear gripping the world would have people turning to music as a palliative, a reassuring, escapist activity with the power to distract, but Rolling Stone confirms that “[d]uring the week of March 13th through March 19th — the week restaurants and bars across the nation closed and more Americans self-quarantined — streams dropped 7.6 percent. […] [and p]hysical sales plummeted 27.6 percent last week, while digital album sales dropped 12.4 percent.” According to Billboard, only 1.52 million records (combining CDs, vinyl records, cassettes, and digital) were sold in the last full week of March, with physical sales suffering the most at a 36% drop.

For many, if not most, people, music is a social activity, the sound that passes between bodies crammed into bars, movie theaters, festivals, sporting events, arenas, car trips, house parties, and senior proms. With all of these effectively verboten as social distancing measures are implemented to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the soundtracks pumped out by the music industry explicitly to facilitate and cushion these moments, have gone with it. Nothing has illustrated better what an outlier people who listen to music on their own — whether seriously, critically, or just because — actually are. One is not inherently better, or more valuable, than the other, but it’s an important distinction when we’re facing a near-future of further cancellations and postponements. Lady Gaga, whose big sound has always relied on the acoustics of stadiums with sprawling blue sky, has already pushed back the release of Chromatica, her highly-awaited comeback album that, as of this writing, is still scheduled to be promoted with the six-show Chromatica Ball tour.

There are two sides to this: while some major labels with banner-artists like Gaga are forced to postpone to a more lucrative time when people are, perhaps, more readily willing to lose their bodies and wallets to dance, in an effort to recoup the massive amount of money invested in these projects, other artists are either reluctantly rolling with the circumstances (The Weeknd, Adam Lambert, 5 Seconds of Summer), or taking the optimistic route of sharing the music in hopes of applying a sort of balm to the circumstances (Dua Lipa). With the exception of Lady Gaga, all of these artists campaigned long and hard on their albums, albums totally unmoored from what now seems a borderline-excessive promotional blitz: Lambert already released an EP with half of VELVET titled VELVET: Side A back in September of last year, complete with all of the glamour and glitter that usually accompanies his eras, 5 Seconds of Summer started releasing singles a year ago with the grungy, self-indulgent “Easier,” The Weeknd’s “Heartless” first dropped in November 2019, and Dua Lipa began what was (and make no mistake, is) her imperial phase with the disco-pop maximalist “Don’t Start Now” in November of 2019, followed by the brilliant “Physical” two months ago.

You can’t help wondering if all of these albums, obviously through no fault of their own, would have been better served if released in 2019 or early 2020, their buzz build-ups cut in half. The K-pop model is one extreme alternative: a comeback trailer is teased on a Monday morning and the album or mini-album usually drops anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks later. Short, sweet, simple. Of course we are dealing with a totally different business model in an industry that is explicitly designed to cycle through talent and songs as quickly as possible. What’s the point of keeping a singer busy promoting a mini-album for longer than two months when they can get more exposure and coin appearing on talk shows, dramas, and red carpets? The music can often be only one small portion of a K-pop celebrity’s overall revenue, the term “artist” a relative, loose term. Instead the West seems to be increasingly adapting Japanese business tactics: from releasing a number of singles before an album drops over a lengthy period of time, rather than after, to releasing multiple collectible versions to capitalize on the number of sales from hardcore fans. Taken as a whole, the Western paradigm we see in these luxurious rollouts are a testament to the game-plans for those who have their eyes on the long-term prizes of both critical and popular acclaim. And the prize, as illustrated by these recent albums, are worth fighting for.

The Weeknd’s After Hours is everything we’ve come to expect from Abel Tesfaye: slick and cool, the songs slide from self-indulgent R&B missives to the Max Martin-helmed, synthwave-heavy beats of “Blinding Lights” and “In Your Eyes,” all pummeled into line by Tesfaye’s magnificent, soaring vocals. Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia is the Kylie Minogue-comeback we’ve all been waiting for since Kiss Me Once, all credit to Lipa and her team who have wedded the sound of Latin freestyle to late 90’s/early 00’s pop, evoking both the titular nostalgia and a future that now hinges more than ever on our present response and action, the capacity to which Future Nostalgia offers a bit of emotional respite and hope, the tantalizing promise of a return to the things we might once have lamented and now long for: Normalcy. Ennui. A news cycle so slow that lifestyle pieces about Goop candles serve as national conversation. And for many people, the opportunity to put on their most expensive dress, uncomfortable shoes, and heaviest eye liner, step outside, and share less than a six-foot space with a beautiful stranger.

Spring and early summer are typically the months when big-name albums like these, hoping to cash in on all the warm-weather activities, begin their early chart climbs: claiming Song of the Summer is one of the most coveted, if not revered, music traditions in any country, and the climb can be a slow-burning one, best started early and accompanied by a touring schedule that supports enormous gatherings of young people looking to fill hot, empty vacation hours (it wasn’t until last week that The Weeknd and Dua Lipa finally hit #2 and #3 on the Hot 100 respectively). The extraordinary run of releases we’re looking at today just happened to fall in the middle and back-end of March, the same time, as Random J Pop says, Miss Corona set out on her own Contamination world tour. What kind of changes the long-term effects of an industry set to lose a lot of money and cachet in the months to come will wreak on our long-held musical traditions, if any, from physical releases to time-frames remains to be seen, though recent history can offer some hope.

In March of 2011, Japan suffered a devastating earthquake and tsunami that took and changed the lives of thousands of people, and understandably, the music industry was quick to step back during a time of national upheaval and mourning. Most music releases were postponed for weeks and some forced to make quick changes: Yasutaka Nakata’s group capsule was set to release its newest album, titled — and you want to talk about poor timing — KILLER WAVE (the album was quickly and generically re-titled WORLD OF FANTASY and new copies shipped, though you can still find old promo copies floating around on Ebay with the original title). But the country did find a way to heal and move forward, the albums were eventually released, and things returned to normal for many, many people, especially the many not directly effected. Perhaps it’s too optimistic to compare and hope the same of a disaster set to effect millions of more people around the entire world, whether on a psychological or economic level, but it does offer some semblance of light at the end of this dark tunnel.

As for what will happen to these albums, all phenomenal and now tragic in their own way, that is even more uncertain (some are even making quick changes a la capsule like Sam Smith, who is re-titling their new album originally called To Die For). What will happen to Chromatica or Haim’s Women in Music Pt. III isn’t any less certain, now looking to be welcomed in a post-pandemic world that in the present seems like it may never come, and will certainly feel fundamentally altered from the world we took for granted, the world we knew before, the one more amenable to leisurely, decadent rollouts that made eight months of anticipation feel exquisite, rather than pointless. As for the rest of us, the ones sitting in bedrooms and basements and kitchens alone, and who maybe always have, this music is a comfort that won’t soon be forgotten.

An overdue Valentine: The underappreciated Takanori Nishikawa

Some artists have been around for so long that it’s easy to take them for granted, their existence a ubiquitous modern convenience, like airplanes or light bulbs. And their origin stories seem so irrelevant, that they hardly seem worth questioning; like Moses floating on a riverbed, their delivery seems inevitable, a gift from the music gods that simply emerged one day among the cattails. Since they’ve always been around, it feels like they always will, and so it becomes easy to let interesting work slip through the cracks. Takanori Nishikawa can seem like that sometimes, each new release like a routine dental check-up — ah yes, it’s that time again — but in reality, he has done a lot of good, ground-breaking work, constantly reinventing his look (if maybe not his sound) with each release, and with some side-projects that still seem a tad ahead of their time, just a bit like they got swept under the rug of a household name whom by that point, was dismissed as a bit of a joke, and a little bit of a has-been.

In Taylor Swift’s Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, the singer laments how often women must reinvent themselves to stay relevant and interesting, especially as they age and are sentenced to “an elephant graveyard by the time they’re 35.” One would imagine Takanori Nishikawa, born in a country where the turnover rate for idols can cause vertigo, was introduced to the concept of reinvention at a young age and instead found his raison d’etre, a kind of freedom that he saw less as chains and more as the liberation to experiment and explore, a way to keep things fresh when they seemed stagnant. The singer has been evolving since he found a receptive audience, almost with each single, and he certainly didn’t limit it to the people with whom he worked.

In the beginning

Takanori Nishikawa began his career in the early 1990s in a visual-kei band, before getting his first big break when he teamed up with Asakura Daisuke. This fortuitous meeting led to the formation of T.M.Revolution, short for Takanori Makes Revolution. The purpose of the name was to include all of the musical creators who contributed to make Nishikawa one of the most successful male solo artists of the late 90s (and we know how scarce and coveted those are today). He scored his first #1 album on the Oricon with 1998’s triple joker, and celebrated in style by releasing one of the most fantastically trippy J-pop music videos of all time for his next single “HOT LIMIT,” in an outfit that has become so iconic, it now has its own homages and gross figurines, though it has also made him the tail-end of many jokes (which he luckily seems to take in good-humored stride). Till then, Nishikawa was increasingly, and understandably, relegated to the otaku-zone: occasionally, his work was peppered with slightly darker content, like “Slight faith,” and “AQUALOVERS ~ DEEP into the night,” but mostly his songs took on the often highly dramatic air of shounen animation, an amalgamation of the genre’s staple sounds – bright, speedy rock music with lyrical content that reflected the target audience: staying strong, moving forward, never giving up, and tapping into your inner power.

And as the music became more dramatic and anime-adjacent, his look became accordingly more cartoonish. Quasi-cos-play began to feature heavily into the way his work was marketed, from the jungle-animal-aesthetic of “WILD RUSH” (used to promote Teressa Jungle Jungle hair-care products), to “Burnin’ X’mas,” where he dressed as a kind of Dollar Tree-fashion Father Christmas for the jacket photo and promo appearances. The cover of his 1999 album, the force, featured the singer in two opposing looks — lounging in a hyper-flat fantasy Eden, abundant with fruit and birdsong, and a sly, skull-bearing demon. This very Shelley Duval’s Faerie Tale Theatre-production was just a taste of the visual components Nishikawa envisioned for himself and his music. But the singer seemed bored, and when pop stars get stuck in a rut, there’s one surefire way to spice things up.

It was around this time that he first put T.M.Revolution on hold to once again team up with old pal Asakura Daisuke for the end of genesis T.M.R.evolution turbo type D, or TMR-e, project. A one-off, this more moody, atmospheric music didn’t hit it off as much the duo hoped, and they soon parted ways. The diversion put a bit of a stumble in Nishikawa’s step, and he took a few years to regain his footing, releasing mostly bland, safe rock music after 2000’s incredible opus progress. As he rooted around for traction back in the world of anime, which had continued to explode with new talent like Nami Tamaki and Nana Mizuki, even as his peers began falling to the wayside (shout out to anyone who remembers and appreciates Two-Mix), he tried on a few new personae: that of stateside crossover with 2003’s coordinate, television emcee on beloved music show Pop Jam (RIP), and finally, nostalgia-bait with a slew of best-ofs and self-cover albums.

abingdon boys school

But one of his greatest creative outlets was the short-lived side-project abingdon boys school. The band, which consisted of T.M.Revolution members SUNAO (guitar), Shibasaki Hiroshi (guitar and principal composing), and Kishi Toshiyuki (synths, programming, composing), formed in 2005, and named themselves after the real-life Abingdon School located in Oxfordshire, England. Of course, Nishikawa never leaves things at a 5 when he can take it to 10, so the group went all in, dressing up in the uniforms of boys decades younger (the members were all in their mid-30s when the group formed), and posing next to vintage sports equipment and British automobiles in press material. This would all be a kind of cute lark if the music wasn’t a jump in quality from anything T.M.R. had been coming up with in the last few years. Not only that, but the cos-play angle was a bit novel for an all-male band[1]: with the startling number of J-pop girl groups marketed wearing school uniforms and other straight-male fantasy costumes (French maids, flight attendants), it could leave audiences wondering where the male equivalents were. Nishikawa seemed destined to fill this gap with what was now a long history of subversive, highly-stylized stage looks. Aside from the requisite make-up-heavy groundwork laid by visual-kei bands and the like, who pulled from vintage gothic-horror fashion movements that reflected the counter-cultural ethos and heavy music more than their implied servility to an audience (I would exclude a handful of artists, Gackt for example, who were also genuinely radical), there were few all-male groups that reflected the sartorial diversity of options for male performers, particularly in relation to their audience.

The only difference here, was that, being all-male, abingdon boys school, despite, and let me repeat this, being 30-year-olds wearing school uniforms, was never sexualized the way that female groups like AKB48 were, for which only one reason is that this look was chosen, rather than necessarily thrust upon them by the demands of a male-consumer driven market — it was an option, not necessarily a requisite, like their counterparts. Nishikawa was simply lucky in this sense — as long as he continued to play the game, he got away with it, without having his vision and music questioned or devalued by what he was wearing. Which is important when you think about how great abingdon’s music was.

Unlike the poppier, kid-friendly rock of Nishikawa’s early work, their music was louder, heavier, and darker, though still buffeted by Nishikawa’s signature resounding vibrato. Many of the songs were about having been treated badly by exes, or being unable to move on from broken relationships. They expressed angst, frustration, and even anger, all soundtracked to a propulsive wall of guitar feedback that only got more interesting as the singles piled up. abingdon boys school released their first self-titled album in 2007, drawing largely from Western hard rock and nu metal influences filtered through the inescapable J-rock major-chord cadence of bands like GLAY and L’arc~en~Ciel. Unlike many of T.M.R.’s songs, these were riff-heavy, and less concerned with adding a touch of symphonic grandeur, though pinches of those occasionally peeped out from corners like vigilant reminders of their origins.

The band released their follow-up album in 2010, their last, and though it did as well as their debut, they soon stopped releasing original material, only reuniting as a live band to play local rock festivals. Indeed, they just played a casual set at INAZUMA ROCK FES. in 2019, for which you’ll notice one glaring omission right off the bat: the absence of their trademark school uniforms. Perhaps it’s their age, or time itself, or the atmosphere of the festival, but it’s one gimmick that seems to have fallen to the wayside, a performance no longer required, stuck in the photo studios that forever captured and left us with one brief moment of an impeccable, Japanese rock band clothed in the gimmicky uniforms of those far younger than they were. It’s an interesting rewind from a man whose whole career is practically based on playing a part. But as they are now, they can be agenda-less, T-shirt wearing rock stars like their  too-cool-to-try-too-hard peers.

Still serving looks

Since the side-project’s demise (or not — do these performances mean there’s hope for a new abs album?[2]), Nishikawa has continued to release music, now notably, and finally, releasing under his own name. He also returned to creating novel looks and reinventing for his albums, releasing concepts like the jacket covers for UNDER:COVER 2 (itself a series of albums that musically re-envisions old hits) where he dressed in homage to various iconic female pop stars like Madonna, Amy Winehouse, and Katy Perry. Of particular note is the absence of underlying cruelty in these photos, the kind that usually accompany depictions where a man-dressed-as-a-woman is played for laughs to emphasize just how silly women are: though other photos of him do play up the hyper-feminine, commercialized form of womanhood, it comes off as sincere and fun, and, while still being used to sell a product, lacks any sort of punchline — it is presented as just another way Nishikawa wants to express himself — really, it is astounding how low these flew under the radar. Of course, with his body of work now looking like a long line of clues, this also prompted several questions by devoted fans and the general public about whether or not Nishikawa would, could, or even should confirm or deny his sexuality.

Yet it’s not just Nishikawa — we can look at a slew of pop stars, most notably my pick for our current great male solo singer, TAEMIN, whose androgyny is part of what fuels his whole career. It is not my place or intention to speculate on the private lives of entertainers who choose to neither confirm nor deny publicly for whatever reasons, reasons they are more than entitled to, but there are undeniably a number of men and women in K- and J-pop groups who are gay, trans, queer, etc., who, as long as they continue performing their assigned roles, reap the rewards of the system, both for themselves and their entertainment companies. This is not an accusation: again, there are many reasons to side-step inquiry, among which may involve the safety of self, family and friends, reputation, and careers, and to the livelihoods of giant corporations with many employees and share-holders, that go into these decisions. This is totally beyond the scope of this essay, but it would be remiss not to acknowledge the specter that hovers over this entire essay and the East-Asian (and Western) entertainment industry.

What is apparent, however, is that Takanori Nishikawa is fearless, and that he has done valuable, innovative work for an audience of all gender and sexual orientations. In choosing to just be himself and lead with an artistic vision that often falls outside the box, both musically and visually, he has done what only few in the J-pop industry have done before him. And still Nishikawa’s work is not done, having just released his first official solo album, Singularity, which dropped last year with a Photoshop-heavy, cyborg-inspired cover. The cyborg concept seems almost redundant for him at this point, but it’s nice to see that he is still inspired and having fun, rather than letting age dictate his level of taste or willingness to continue challenging norms. Despite reinvention being a sort of harness on celebrities, and it certainly is when forced upon or unwanted, pop stars like Nishikawa seem to thrive on it, giving audiences decades of interesting, novel looks and concepts that question everything from how men and women should look and dress, to the gender binary and double standard of the idol system. As an ever-present figure and cultural mainstay, his sometimes-groundbreaking work in the industry has largely gone under the radar: ignored, dismissed, shrugged off, or treated as a passing joke. One can only hope that one day, the disservice will be corrected and Nishikawa can get his due recognition as a creative artist, just like his biggest influence, Prince. Thirty years into his career, he might just be as omnipresent, and forgettable, as bands like Southern All Stars or Mr. Children, but it’s important not to take for granted, or forget, trailblazing icons like Takanori Nishikawa.

1 After decades of seeing (and admittedly, using) the phrase “all-girl band” as a reference to the “all-male band” as default, I just love when I get to use the phrase all-male band instead.

2 abingdon boys school is the one project of his that I wish we would see more of — there was just something about those particular four guys in a room that seemed to bring out the magical, musical alchemy of J-rock, both visually and aurally, that for a brief moment in time, re-framed both the genre and Nishikawa’s career; abs3, please.

[ All images original scans, except for those credited to here, here, here, and here. ]

Love. Angel. Music. Baby. 15th anniversary

I was a senior in high school when Gwen Stefani released Love. Angel. Music. Baby., and as clueless as I could be at that age, there was immediately something about the album that bothered me when it first came out: the blatant exploitation of Japanese culture on this album. Japanese street-fashion was having an international moment in the early 00s, with publications like FRUiTS gaining some worldwide recognition, while in the same year L.A.M.B. was released, Tyra Banks’s reality-television show America’s Next Top Model spent its international destination in Japan, committing one embarrassing faux-pas after another, flubbing Lolita-inspired looks, and being on the receiving end of many awkward, bewildered, but painfully polite interactions. If it wasn’t for the painful “Harajuku Girls” track, a perfect example of mythologizing a people as if they were magical creatures from another planet, it was the way Stefani paraded around every red carpet with a team of silent, dolled-up Asian women, as inconsequential as a handbag or other accessory to her “look.” Rather than a genuine appreciation of these women or the fashion culture, it was used as a way to enhance the exotic, cool appeal of Gwen Stefani herself. It’s not like they ever got to speak for themselves.

On top of it, the heavy throwback to 80’s synth-pop and italo disco was hailed as being innovative, when someone like Tommy february6, an actual Japanese woman, had already been doing it for almost half a decade. In fact, Tommy had already released her most iconic album, Tommy airline, and she didn’t have to borrow another country’s pop culture to make it interesting (she did use American cheerleaders in some of her promotional material, but this wasn’t exclusive — they were featured interchangeably with Japanese cheerleaders, too). But perhaps what annoyed me above all was how much I still couldn’t help loving some of the songs on the album. How do you reconcile appropriation and a general uneasy atmosphere with the music itself?

This album wasn’t original or smart, but it was catchy. I still skipped over the biggest hits like “Hollaback Girl” and “Rich Girl,” gravitating instead toward “Cool,” “Serious,” and “Danger Zone.” There were also some amazing remixes released for the single “What You Waiting For?” by Stuart Price (under Jacques Lu Cont) that introduced me to the prolific producer. The 80’s-influenced tracks on this album sound as zippy as ever, perhaps because they were meant to sound dated to begin with. The fizzy cartoon synths on tracks like “Crash,” and deep, hazy New Order guitars on “The Real Thing” are as sublime as the day they were recorded. I can’t say the same for all of the tracks.

I feel much the same now about the above-mentioned problematic elements, the easy use and discard of culture for the purposes of selling music albums: it has serious, long-term consequences that effect real people, and it’s a decision that has only aged worse over time. Nor can I say much for Stefani’s garbled reminiscences about the tracks, where re: “Harajuku Girls,” she says, “When it first came out, I think people understood that it was an artistic and literal bow down to a culture that I was a superfan of,” which is about as fantasy-inspired a belief as anything on this album. She continues, “I get a little defensive when people [call it culture appropriation], because if we didn’t allow each other to share our cultures, what would we be?” which just goes to show how deep of a misunderstanding people have of the term itself. There’s no easy way around it: it can’t be erased by denial or the omission of the track altogether. The two can’t ever be divorced. It has to coexist forever as a monument to doing better, to genuine recognition and sincere accountability.

The 15th anniversary remaster itself seems like an afterthought — it arrives one week after it’s official release date, and only digitally. I’m not sure technology has shifted so drastically in the last 15 years as to make a digital-only remaster necessary. Most people will stream it, and how big of a difference will you be able to tell streaming it on Spotify through $15 ear buds? Probably not much. Go big with a deluxe box set that includes bonus tracks, remixes, outtakes, and demos, or go home.