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 the comforts of 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.

The baddest female: The rise and fall of CL

There are only a few K-pop groups that have the ability to say they’ve been there since the beginning. 2NE1 was not one of them, but they did usher in the second generation, and lay the groundwork for BTS and the rest of the third wave we’re all currently riding. Among them were groups like Girls’ Generation (SNSD), BigBang, Super Junior, Kara, 2PM, Wonder Girls, Brown Eyed Girls… There were a lot of amazing groups in that generation, many of them only now brought up on the break-up, scandal, or contract-ending news cycle beats, but 2NE1 was one of the best. They were YG’s answer to SM’s hyper-cute and feminine Girls’ Generation: they were there to sell a street-savvy, hip-hop, “ugly” image in a country where there was no historical precedent for genuine hip-hop. In this way, even though they were marketed as “real,” they sold a fantasy world just as much as SNSD did. And they did it so well.

Unlike many of the interchangeable members of K-pop groups, each member of 2NE1 was given a distinct personality: a hook that could appeal to many different audience members across the spectrum, but especially any one looking to be a bit more bad-ass than they were in real life, which is pretty much everyone. While this did initially reduce the women down to types, it never took over any more than any performer’s carefully-crafted image. Perhaps we loved them all the more for this image they presented, and the way their odd-shaped pieces just seemed to fit together so well. There was Bom Park, the classy, quiet siren of song. There was Minzy, the youngest and the one with the sickest dance moves. There was Dara, the bubbly effervescent hype-girl that exuded light like a bonfire. And then there was CL, the undisputed center to which all spotlights gravitated, the one you knew would claw her way out of a box-shaped girl group to do what she was meant to do: take over the world.

The group released a number of hit singles beginning exactly ten years ago, starting with the tepid “Fire,” through the blazing “Nal Ddara Haebwayo (Try to Follow Me),” all the way to the inferno that was “Naega Jae jal Naga (I Am the Best).” That last one is the one that gained traction overseas years after its initial popularity had already propelled it to iconic status in its home country. One night, I sat in a movie theater and heard it play over an advertisement, bemused and surprised but also thinking, Yes, of course.

It was around this time, that I began predicting 2NE1 would be the K-pop group to make it huge (so I guess blame me because I am notorious for getting it wrong, every single time). English-language publications began to pick at the “Hallyu wave,” publishing think pieces about and decrying the idol “factory” system. Pitchfork published their first K-pop feature, To Anyone: The Rise of Korean Wave, by James Brooks, featuring screen shots from “Naega Jae jal Naga (I Am the Best),” where he says, “the group grabs you by the throat and demands [your attention]. Firing AK-47s at the camera, smashing their own records with baseball bats, and brandishing a WWE Championship Belt, 2NE1’s four members each exude the manic, larger-than-life charisma of peak-efficiency Nicki Minaj.” Many writers were still falling back on the compare-it-to-a-well-known-Western-figure/phenomenon, (especially Beatlemania, if you can, please) to give those new to the scene a foothold, but it was enough to get people talking. Now that Pitchfork was a bandwagon-jumper themselves, it was merely seconds before they upped their coverage with companion K-pop editorials and adjacent East-Asian music coverage.

Unfortunately, this seemed to be the sole purpose of 2NE1, and once they completed their mission of grabbing attention, and the novelty of “Naega Jae jal Naga (I Am the Best)” finally expired well past its due date, they fell rapidly off the radar. YG Entertainment fumbled at this point, denying the girls any worthy follow-up, while other agencies began preparing for international domination. Instead, they continued to focus on the Japanese market, releasing petty-good songs like “SCREAM” and “Crush.” Their last really great song was 2012’s “I Love You.” It was also at this time that members began to leverage popularity by releasing solo material.

In predicted fashion, CL’s was the most hotly-anticipated. Her debut single was “Nappeun Gijibae (The Baddest Female),” (known for the infamous line “Not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good, you know?”) and it was spectacularly fine, with a typically overwhelming music video that was at turns breathtaking, ironic, fun, and problematic. It was classic YG, but it lacked a strong hook. That was okay, though, because it did the important work of getting her noticed by some important names overseas, namely Scooter Braun (you’ve probably heard a lot about him this week – he’s the reason Taylor Swift is floating rumors about re-recording her entire back catalog and can’t perform her old material at the AMAs now). We all held our breath; this was it. It was only a matter of time before an Asian artist became an international household name in music, and as CL bode her time making minor appearances on tracks from Skrillez, et al., hopes and spirits were high. She had paid her dues in 2NE1 and spent years in a musical limbo that seemed to prevent her from releasing anything of worth, but if anyone was going to crossover successfully, it would be her. She seemed to have the support and pull from the industry, not to mention the quadruple threats of voice, beauty, stage presence, and the kind of fearless energy you just can’t teach.

But her big debut, “Hello Bitches” hit with all the force of a flat tire, leaving fans bewildered and bummed out. To be blunt, it was kind of a mess. The track lacked any real substance, relying instead on a video with the superstar power of CL’s performance and heavy inclusion of Parris Goebel’s choreography and crew, who were riding off the high of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” video. CL was astounding in the video, a kinetic energy who sold every second of those insane three minutes, but naturally the song, an in media res mix of an extreme personality, bereft of a proper introduction or context, for its target audience, did not chart well and was largely forgotten as soon as one month later when year-end lists starting coming out. Looking back, this song isn’t as bad as I remember, and I can see the magic struggling underneath it, but it hasn’t had any longevity, and I know critics who will argue that CL’s best solo was still “Menbung” off of CRUSH. That seemed to be her one big chance, and the label having set all their chips on one square, gave up. The big lackluster follow-up, “Lifted,” though it set a record for a female Asian artist, only made it as high as 94 on the Billboard Hot 100. No one can argue that was a great song.

CL was pushed onto increasingly C-level collabs as low as the My Little Pony franchise before it started to become clear that there were other, more lucrative K-pop stars to begin investing in, namely, boy bands. YG themselves started over again with 2NE1-clones BLACKPINK, who carried the torch all the way to Time Magazine and other decent Western coverage. CL got the ultimate consolation prize when she performed at  the 2018 Winter Olympics closing ceremony at Pyeongchang with EXO, a fitting, but sad, farewell to a female performer with more solo potential than 95% of current girl-group members (it doesn’t help that the performance itself was…not great). Furthermore, there was no where to return: like many of their second-generation peers, 2NE1 began losing members, became plagued by scandal, and officially disbanded in 2016. CL was stuck signed to a company that suddenly stopped supporting her work and gave her no opportunities for growth.

The news everyone expected dropped on November 8, 2019, a decade after 2NE1’s debut: CL was no longer with YG Entertainment. What once would have been horrifying news resounding with a sudden, disturbing crash, has fallen in a deserted forest, being mostly met with ambivalence and shrugs from the fans of this third-wave of K-pop for whom CL barely registers. This is the unfortunate and natural result of a pop machine that is ever-moving, filling and re-fitting trainees into the cog of dance practice, vocal lessons, and media handling, of huge sums of money being spent, being invested, being blown, being dried up. Of the next young shiny thing coming down the stairs after you, willing to kick harder and sing louder. Of the only thing separating you from them being the unpredictable sliver of luck inherent in timing, places, and connections. Quite frankly, CL deserved better. It was a drawn-out, bitter end to a decade of passionate effort, relentless work, and enormous talent. Quintessentially, it’s the story of K-pop, and it’s coming for them all, one by one.

LOVEppears: A (personal) history

There are many albums I have listened to over the course of my life that have gradually peeled back the layers of my passion for music, revealing, with each successive tier, a broader, wider, and deeper appreciation and curiosity. This happened over the course of so many years, that it’s difficult to pinpoint when any one album spun me off into a whole new direction. These special albums are rare, but I can think of a few of them, the ones that have actually changed my life, stretching all the way back to a vinyl record of ABBA’s Super Trouper, a cassette tape of Natalia Kukulska’s Natalia, and Ace of Base’s The Sign. Certainly the Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon Sailor Stars Best Song Collection CD set me permanently on the road I would travel for the rest of my life. And definitely X Japan’s Silent Jealousy, which I came across in the dusky bowels of a now-deceased (duh) brick-and-mortar music shop (I think it’s used for university housing now). And Ayumi Hamasaki’s LOVEppears. Now that’s special.

I remember surfing the Internet in the early 00s, desperate to find any information I could on Japanese pop music, and to get my ears on any RealAudio snippet I could find before committing to a $35 album from a little shop called YesAsia that I learned about from flipping through Animerica. This was before we all got used to typing credit card numbers into any box that told us to, and any way, there was no way my parents were going to let me use theirs, so after having my interest piqued when coming across numerous pretty single covers and spending an hour waiting for “SURREAL” to finish downloading, I remember painstakingly printing out an order form, filling it out, walking to the bank for a money order, stuffing it all in an envelope, and patiently waiting by the door for the next eight weeks until my big gamble arrived: a copy of a maxi-single called Far away, and a full-length album called LOVEppears, by Ayumi Hamasaki.

By this point, I had already bought the evolution single, my very first Ayu purchase, from the import section of Virgin Records Megastore on Michigan Avenue, but that didn’t alleviate any of the apprehension: “evolution” didn’t sound like any of the other Ayu material I was hearing. But when you’re a pre-teen, you don’t have the intelligence to abstain from pinning all your hopes on something as inconsequential as a compact disc. Till then, I had enjoyed music from T.M.Revolution, and lots of other opening and closing anime themes, plus some visual-kei and J-rock like X Japan and hide. But pure, non-sieyuu J-pop was still uncharted territory. Admittedly, my memory is fuzzy on the timeline, but I know that I was at a turning point where Japanese music was still just an option, rather than the norm. Ayumi Hamasaki helped change all of that, and if it wasn’t already for evolution and a dozen dance remixes, than it was for one of her most beloved studio albums: LOVEppears.

LOVEppears capped off a whirlwind year for Hamasaki, which began back in February 1999, when she released the first single from the album, WHATEVER. While the production of “WHATEVER” is stylistically similar to the songs off of her debut album A Song for XX (many songs from that album were also written by Kazuhito Kikuchi), there was one very big exception: it was her first song to incorporate techno elements. No doubt an extension of her record label, Avex Trax’s, raison d’etre, this signaled a new sound that Hamasaki would explore throughout her career. Of course, Avex Trax had been pumping out dance music since the label’s inception, but this was new territory for an idol initially marketed as a sort of peer to label-mate Ami Suzuki, a sort-of anti-Hikaru Utada, whose background in American R&B and singer-songwriters was changing the mainstream landscape of J-pop. Avex wasn’t entirely convinced, hanging on to its bread-and-butter while letting the Western influences melt down into an artist like Namie Amuro, who was at one of the lowest points of her career. Instead, they began packing all their punches into two of their smartest potentials: Every Little Thing and Ayumi Hamasaki, both of whom received the star-studded Avex treatment replete with the best songwriters and marketing gurus, and an abundance of dance compilations with local and foreign DJs to give them a bit of global exposure. All of this would reveal itself in time, but for now, Hamasaki was at step one: “WHATEVER,” a modest bop promoted with two versions: a standard J-pop number, and the other, the delectably cold electronic version, as if cautiously gauging the audience’s reception. The waters proved warm, and her team got to work.

In the mean time Hamasaki got busy releasing a couple of safe winter ballads. The first was “LOVE~Destiny,” a song in collaboration with mega-producer Tsunku, who was hot off the success of his new girl group Morning Musume. The song’s music video is notable for depicting the first of many times Hamasaki would illustrate the loneliness of celebrity, featuring herself alone in several vast interiors, including a particularly chilly dressing room.

The second was Hamasaki’s last single to be released in the 3″ mini-CD format, “TO BE,” and written by D-A-I, whom Hamasaki would go on to work with for many years until 2002, when his appearances on albums became nearly scarce (as of this writing, the last song he wrote that appeared on an album was “Sweet Scar” on 2013’s Love again). Like all of Hamasaki’s singles, this one is particularly personal, with later speculation nearly confirming that the song was written for her then-producer Max Matsuura with whom she was rumored to have had a nearly life-long love affair (this is neither the space, nor time, to discuss her romantic life, but it also feels dishonest to leave it out completely, when it effects so much of her songwriting, especially in these early years when Matsuura had such a profound influence on her development as an artist. We’ll get back to him later). Musically, both of these ballads were typical of their time, and though I’ve never been a huge fan of “LOVE~Destiny~,” “TO BE” grew on me over the years. It has a quietly stunning production, with a richness to it that subsequent re-recordings have always failed to recapture, since it doesn’t play to Hamasaki’s increasingly strained vocals since it was recorded, particularly in the chorus, which highlights her worst vocal sin of camouflaging high notes outside of her reach in an ascending ladder of  exhaustive nasal gasps. For example, compare the calm and ease of hitting those notes in the original to her 10th anniversary re-recording on the Days/GREEN single, and you get a sense of this strange in-between period of Hamasaki’s vocal performance: still keen on improving with formal lessons, but navigating techniques that would help her stand out a little bit, for better or worse. That unique, and almost defiant, approach made its true mark on her third album Duty (“End of the World,” and “teddy bear” especially), and finally gave free reign on I am… But not yet.

Finally, it was time to roll out the album’s banner singles in the summer, beginning with “Boys & Girls,” Hamasaki’s first album-length maxi-single, and the only one to receive the dubious extinction of being released in an ultra-slim case without an OBI. It not only featured one of the most iconic singles of her career, but eight remixes, including two of her previous ballads. It was here that the blueprint for subsequent maxi-singles was laid, a model that would continue until her last maxi-single, Daybreak, in 2002. While none of the remixes are real standouts on here, except for that by the inimitable HAL, it was a bold move, one that no other mainstream J-pop artist was making. Stylistically, this single connected directly to her following single, A, by the threads that appear on the cover art (and eventually found their way into the booklet of LOVEppears).

A was released less than one month later, and made an even bigger statement as a quadruple-A side, along with remixes. It also used the first of many marketing gimmicks to cash in on and manipulate fan-devotion, by releasing one standard edition, and four limited-edition versions with varying colored discs and OBIs, and track lists. After the single sold 1 million, and then 1.5 million copies, additional gold versions were released in commemoration. Finally, the album featured the first incarnation of Hamasaki’s “A” brand logo, which here looked a little bit like an asymmetrical pi sign. Again, we have an artist still figuring out her place in the pop pantheon, working out an iconic symbol that could both identify and evoke feelings without a single sound or accompanying image. Like the fabled bowl of porridge, this one was either too hot or too cold, but the next one would be just right. More importantly, the songs on this single are more self-assured than ever: there’s “too late,” and “Trauma,” two more iconic singles that ended up becoming concert staples, the slower-paced and underrated “End roll,” and the abrasive “monochrome.”

All of these singles were accompanied by numerous promotional appearances on legendary music shows like Pop Jam,  Music Station, and Hey! Hey! Hey! Music Champ, on magazine covers like CD Data, GIRLPOP and SCawaii!, and a plethora of commercial tie-ins for consumer goods like makeup, scooters, chocolates, and flavored water. It was now becoming impossible to ignore Ayumi Hamasaki which meant only one thing: it was time to put an exclamation point on this era of her career with an album.

Capping off a successful year with an album sounds counter-intuitive to Western audiences, who in a reverse process, use albums to kick off blitzes of subsequent singles, appearances, and tours. But at this point in time, albums in the Japanese market tended to bring eras to a kind of close; aside from concert tours which followed album releases, all major promotions and singles connected with the album were brought to an end. This could sometimes leave albums feeling a bit anticlimactic, as anywhere up to half or more of the album could have already been previewed, leaving a mere handful of new tracks to await. By the time November 10 rolled around, LOVEppears would really only have five new full-length songs (plus a hidden bonus track) and two short interludes. But Avex had one last twist up its sleeve, and that was to turn what could have been an epilogue into an extended prologue.

On the same day that the album LOVEppears was released, Avex released the limited-edition maxi-single appears, another 12-track juggernaut packed with remixes. This was followed by the limited-edition maxi-single kanariya, which capitalized on the album’s hidden track to release yet more remixes, in addition to a vocal track to encourage fan remixes. A final victory lap, just bragging at this point, was the release of the limited-edition maxi-single Fly high in 2000, another album track that was given the promotional video and remix treatment. If any of this just seems like a moment to indulge in a drawn-out Wikipedia-like set of facts, it’s important to remember how unprecedented this was in the history of J-pop: virtually no major artist was releasing singles off of already-released albums. There was simply no point. The most important moment of an album’s release was the first few weeks, when it could make its biggest impact on the Oricon charts. By then, all the hard work and budget releasing and promoting singles had been put in and used up. Using data from the performance of singles and gauging public reaction to appearances was enough to predict an album’s performance.

There are a couple of interconnected conjectures that can be made as to why this strategy was employed, namely, that Avex Trax always did things a little differently. They may be an independent record label, but they are one of the most successful independent record labels of all time, and in many respects, remain “indie” by name only. Avex Trax was established on the bedrock of dance music, and their connection with the dance-music world of producers and DJs not only gave their music a distinctive edge, but influenced major business and creative decisions, including their compilations series like the SUPER EUROBEAT and cyber trance lines, not to mention finding work for many budding producers by commissioning remixes that would appear on various singles. Hamasaki’s singles took this fellowship to its ultimate and most capital conclusion: by using their extended personal network to create what were essentially promotional albums for DJs, but in disguise of one of Japan’s most successful brands. This was mutually beneficial: Hamasaki kept her name at the forefront of a continuous cycle of promotions, essentially selling fans the same product over and over and over again, but tweaked just a bit to give identity to underground artists who were grateful for the opportunity. In fact, only a handful of these artists became mainstream, popular names in their respective fields (namely Ferry Corsten, and later, Above & Beyond and Armin van Buuren). Later maxi-singles improved upon the quality of artists, but very few went on to have long-lasting, lucrative careers. In fact, none of these artists could have benefited monetarily from these maxi-singles, which were album-length and usually 10+ tracks, but still cost the same as any standard single at ¥1,260 (roughly, $10-12 at the time). What an extremely creative and cheap way to scratch multiple backs! Loyalty to your roots, helping your friends, and keeping the artist you’re pinning all your shares on in the local, and potentially, global public eye. Indeed, many of these producers were European and American, who were guaranteed to spin their remixes in their own sets overseas.

All this makes the whole thing seem cynical, and I hesitate to leave it this way. Peeking behind the curtain of the music business is not unlike spending an afternoon flipping through back issues of Billboard: you get up feeling a bit jaded, a bit letdown by the whole pursuit of artistic integrity. But in truth, no thorough assessment of the purpose of these maxi-singles and subsequent remix compilations can erase the fact that they were one of my favorite things about Ayumi’s early career, and without them, it might very well have taken me longer to come around. As I stated previously, evolution was the first Ayu single I ever purchased, followed by Far away, SEASONS, LOVEppears, and then back to the ayu-mi-x II series. I grew up on dance music and part of the appeal was the endless and diverse versions of club tracks to sample, and so importantly, at a price that was far more affordable than a $35 album in namely one unpredictable style that may or may not have ended up being good. My taste in grade school was unsophisticated and still developing, and having a hook to make the introduction was effective. That is to say, the process worked. Actually, the process worked like gangbusters.

By the time the year 2000 rolled around, just two years after her debut, when Hamasaki was preparing for her first major concert tour, she was a star. LOVEppears made that happen. Avex Trax made that happen. But, and this is important, Ayumi Hamasaki also made that happen.

Hamasaki spent months training in New York under the encouragement of her producer Max Matsuura, who pushed her to write her own lyrics, and it was this that endeared fans to her. Unpolished and at times awkward, Hamasaki’s lyrics were personal, and real; they are what today’s brand gurus would call “authentic” and “relatable” “content.” Before social media, they were the best way Hamasaki had to communicate with her audience. And just like her sartorial choices (endearingly cataloged in her 1999 fashion-book A BOOK), vocal style, and stage performances, her lyrics only matured and grew in time. If Hamasaki at all felt boxed in by the business or musical decisions being made around her, she always felt that her lyrics were hers, and she used to them express everything from her joys and victories, to her anxiety and frustrations. LOVEppears is not only the first glimpse we get of Hamasaki’s brush with the darker and lonelier side of fame, but the complex tender and forgiving experience of first love had and lost. Her whole approach to the album was a compelling mix of complete vulnerability and hidden depth: her famous commentary on the title track was that things are never as they seem, and what to outsiders might seem like happy moments, could in reality be painful, or harrowing ordeals. This is as succinct as any observation on fame, relationships, and life I can think of.

By the time the last maxi-single was released, the only true remaining album-only exclusives were the short interludes, the tremendous ballad “Who…”  which Hamasaki would belt out in tears to close out every concert tour, save one, for the next four years, and a curiously harsh sequel to “POWDER SNOW” entitled “P.SII” (not counting the slightly alternate take on “LOVE~Destiny,” titled “LOVE~refrain~,” which is nearly identical) The album also included a second disc, featuring promotional mixes from her first ayu-mi-x album and her upcoming SUPER EUROBEAT remix compilation. And in a very of-its-time move, the disc contained CD-ROM content that included a discography, commercial spots, behind-the-scenes photos, and random sound bites of Hamasaki speaking (you can view all this original content as it appeared at this official 20th anniversary site, minus the constant background hum of the GROOVE THAT SOUL MIX of “Trust”).

When you take into account the singer’s prolific career since this album’s release, it’s astounding to think that a mere fifteen months later Hamasaki was under the very scary, and sincere belief that her career was over. Yet what she has accomplished in the last twenty years is astounding: with her relentless work ethic, commitment to perfection, eye for detail, ear for striking melodies, and increasing control over her image and body of work, Hamasaki has done what few J-pop idols before her could: she became an artist and a legend. LOVEppears may be the most obvious album to commemorate, but it laid the foundation for the rest of her career, marking a beginning, an end, and a turning point, all at the same time. Neither artist nor fan could imagine the journey about to unfold, the musical gifts unleashed in increasing frequency throughout 2000 and beyond, the singular voice growing louder, more confident, and more bold than any surface-level nude album cover could express, and the trail blazed forth for the numerous female artists who followed. And for one kid about to be released into the horrors of junior high, a whole new world of music as exciting, and intriguing, and different, as anything she had experienced up to that point. Happy 20th Anniversary to this astounding, life-changing album, and thank you.

Still can’t crack the code: TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE’s “Hikaru yo”

It doesn’t take a grand feat of hindsight to see where it all went wrong for TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE, especially now that Avex is backtracking as fast as possible. When the members of the group grew up, their record label looked to be maturing them into more sophisticated “artists,” rather than idols with a big marketing ploy that involved declaring they would no longer be performing certain songs (“Onnaji Kimochi” and “Ganbatte Itsudatte Shinjiteru”), a transition out of their signature New Jack Swing sound into more electronic territory, and, eventually, the lose of a member. Avex was banking on the idea that after giving the market what it wanted (idols, more idols, just idols, all the time), it could take a loyal audience with them into territory where they were more comfortable, and leave the idol experimentation to sub-labels like iDOL Street. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a bit of a miscalculation.

This failure could be for any number of reasons, not least which is that the new material just didn’t live up to the old. While not horrible, it was jarringly different: musically speaking, TGS’s first four albums are near perfect at marrying peppy messages of positivity with idol what-have-yous to a classic 90’s TK, J-pop sound — it’s not an easy trick to pull off. But it seems that the team behind the group took it for granted, erroneously believing that, like many idol groups before them, the members themselves had established enough of a connection with fans that they would be followed anywhere they went, even into adulthood. But it seems that while fans primarily of idols and idol groups want to watch their biases grow, they don’t want them growing too much. Turns out there’s a line in the sand, when the unwritten contract between idols and their fans cease to exist regarding any number of expectations from behavior to lyrical content, that can cause a gradual erosion of loyalty. And when fans began to slowly abandon TGS after the abrupt set of changes, Avex didn’t necessarily try harder at marketing to a different audience — they just pushed forward and hoped for the best as the four women left in the group were forced to start from scratch. Yet now it seems an opportunity has presented itself.

First, two idol groups affiliated with Avex disbanded last year (GEM and X21). Second, none of Avex’s recently debuted non-idol groups (FAKY and Def Will) seem to have taken off. Though the group announced as early as 2017 that, just kidding, they’d like to be both “idols and artists”, it’s with the release of their new single, “Hikaru yo,” that it seems Avex is truly rethinking their strategy and steering TGS back into the services of full-on idol worship. The song and PV have no distinguishing features of which to name; instead, it is generic J-pop at its lowest common denominator, a song that could be sung by virtually any group, with a visual that includes an attempt to turn the clock back with a magical-girl transformation sequence that sees the members go metaphorically from very contempo-SPEED back to dolls. With neither the chunky beats present on their first four albums, nor the dance-heavy groove of their “post-idol/artist” era, the song is a blank canvas on which audiences can begin drawing, or re-drawing, their expectations (in case it isn’t clear enough, the B-side for this single is titled “Reborn”). Only a follow-up single just as formulaic and bereft of personality can confirm suspicions of the label’s intentions, but the prognosis doesn’t seem promising.

With so many of their all-girl idol groups folding and their dance groups not taking off, it looks like Avex still hasn’t quite figured out how to tackle the market in a musical environment where, despite predictions and best intentions, idols, rather than artists, still dominate. I am curious to see if TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE will survive a second re-branding, but skeptical, and overall disappointed at what their failure at moving forward as artists and young women says about the current state of J-pop.

[ Photo credit ]

Time Has Come: Namie Amuro to retire in 2018

With the world on fire, it seems self-indulgent to grieve over the announcement that a pop star is retiring. But then, since it’s our beloved Namie Amuro, allow me to indulge a bit.

After years spent commuting long distances to train at the famed Okinawa Actors Studio, Namie Amuro debuted in 1992 with the group SUPER MONKEYS. A natural star, the group’s name was shortly changed to highlight their strongest player to Amuro Namie with SUPER MONKEYS. Their debut single, “Koi no CUTE BEAT,” was a tribute to the growing popularity of European techno, a subgenre that would eventually gain fame in Japan as “para para,” or Avex’s trademarked “super eurobeat.” Both Amuro and her back-up dancers, now re-christened MAX, signed with Avex Trax and went their separate ways. While MAX sustained a modest career pursuing the eurobeat line, Amuro was taken under the wing of an already well-known prolific music producer, former TM Network-keyboardist and current trf-producer Tetsuya Komuro. “Body Feels EXIT” was released in 1995, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the 1990s, the Japanese pop music industry was changing rapidly, with Komuro at the helm. The bubble had burst, the Golden Age of Idols was a long-gone idyll, and consumers, especially women, were no longer content to settle for less. Putting on a cute dress and swaying back and forth, warbling off-key to 4/4 treacle, was no longer enough. While being cute might have been enough in the 1980s to delay adulthood and escape the expectations of growing up and getting married, Hiroshi Aoyagi in Islands of Eight Million Smiles: Idol Performance and Symbolic Production in Contemporary Japan (2005) notes that it “gradually lost its appeal as a form of rebellion. Moreover, there was an emergent perception that “cutesy” embraced fragile femininity, which continued to become objectified by adult men.” (98) A flurry of new fashion trends emerged to replace kawaii, styes that “conjured up the figure of an assertive, self-centered young woman who is in no hurry to marry and who maintains a stable of boyfriends to serve her different needs (Robertson 1998: 65).” (98) Among these styles, Aoyagi sites gyaru and all their sub types, including “Amuraa.” Amuraa was a style adopted by Amuro’s fans in 1995 and 1996, a whole movement that helped change women’s fashion and attitude, one pair of short pants and long boots at a time.

Because by the the mid-90s, Japanese pop culture was ready for their Madonna, for their Mariah Carey, for their Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson. They were ready for true artists, female solo singers not afraid to nurture their skills and show off real talent. The hours put into dancing, singing, and cultivating personal style, was just the minimum amount of effort necessary for the type of profession that required effortless grace, fearless confidence, and unapologetic ambition. Once, we had more than one of these women, firing simultaneously at the peak of their careers, changing perceptions of what it meant to be a woman living in modern Japan. But Namie Amuro was one of the first, and she made it look criminally easy.

With her modern, forward-thinking dance music, a style that eventually evolved into R&B, soul, hip-pop, and then back to dance, Amuro’s debut solo album, SWEET 19 BLUES was a landmark J-pop album that hinted at the iconic pop gems to come: “Chase the Chance,” “a walk in the park,” “CAN YOU CELEBRATE?“. It’s certainly not the strongest album of hers to date, but it cemented her central role as the new face of contemporary J-pop, the successful paragon of what producing and marketing a woman based on artistic ability and talent was capable of achieving. Whatever his faults (and there are many), Tetsuya Komuro’s business style at Avex Trax was critical in giving Amuro the platform to be more than an idol. Writing in Nippon Pop, Steve McClure quotes Komuro as saying, “The artist should come first. I always say so in interviews like this, in the hope that the Japanese music production system will change.” (87) Despite Komuro’s insistence that his protegees were still idols, they were to be “quality” idols (to be fair, his use of the term is dubious; he calls Michael and Janet Jackson both idols, which in terms of Japanese media culture, is an incorrect use of the term).

Amuro’s career since then was an exhilaration, a row of toppling dominoes sending stereotypes, prejudices, and the expectations of female performers tumbling. Seiko Matsuda struggled with criticism after continuing her career post-marriage and children in the 1980s, and as late as 1988, Agnes Chan was defending her choice to bring her son with her on national television, sparking a fierce debate over show-business etiquette and a woman’s role in politely, and humbly, mediating images of “good” women who didn’t date, marry, or have children publicly. Exactly one decade later, Amuro was passed the torch, announcing a marriage and pregnancy, defying any and all judgments of her choice. When she returned to show business, she was sorry-not-sorry, fighting to overcome the shock of her “scandalous” sabbatical and win her rightful place back in the entertainment industry with a more aggressive look and sound. She inked up, stripped down, and held on tight for the next 19 years, bringing J-pop into the 21st century alongside her labelsisters while the resurgence of hyper-kawaii idols and their countless imitators swept the charts and fought to set it back two decades, back to dependence and helplessness and exploitation.

Later, set amidst those same sisters, most losing popularity from releasing unpopular album or facing personal setbacks, Amuro released a succession of brilliant singles, her albums getting sharper and more polished over time, her discipline and professionalism astounding even the most jaded and cynical while working the media to her advantage by abstaining from a strong social media presence and remaining coy about her personal life. And then, on September 20, 2017, amid of flurry of promotions for a documentary series set to debut on Hulu on October 1 and celebrations for the 25th anniversary of her debut, Amuro announced that she would be retiring on September 16, 2018. She promised to leave her fans one final album and a series of concert performances.

The announcement follows a legal battle to secure the rights to release music under her own record label, Dimension Point (still a sub label of Avex Trax), leaving many fans speculating as to whether or not she will continue working in the music industry after her retirement in a different role, perhaps paying it forward as a producer. It would be selfish to deny someone a break after the years she put in sharing incredible music and illustrating what it means to be real, genuine people whose lives sometimes get messy, but don’t have to get dirty. For more than two decades, she showed us how to deal with setbacks, pick ourselves up, and keep moving forward without losing a sense of self-worth. So despite any sense of anger or misfortune, despite the urge to linger over our own loss in the deal, the appropriate answer is: thank you.

Whether she chooses to relax, or to keep up her enviable work ethic, I know Namie Amuro will be able to pull off whatever she sets her mind to. There are 25 years that prove it.

2016’s song of the year: Arashi’s “Fukkatsu LOVE”

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It’s hard to believe we used to live in a time before Arashi: Arashi on variety programs, Arashi playing over the closing credits of dramas, Arashi acting in dramas,  Arashi making headlines for the perceived injustice of seeking out romantic relationships in their private lives, Arashi selling mascara and phones and cooking oil, Arashi’s promoting their new single, new concert, new album, and on and on. But when exactly did Arashi become the elder statesmen of Japanese boy bands? Is it just the logical conclusion to aging, to the company’s new marketing image that imbues the members with an impossibly smooth image of playful sophistication and wisdom, the kind that comes when you’ve seen it all and mastered each and every task the record label has thrown at you, from complicated dance moves, the proper time and way to tell jokes, to mentoring your juniors, and dressing up in giant foam popcorn hats?

Maybe it was LOVE or THE DIGITALIAN, but it seems as if Japonism was something of a turning point, as the group’s post-Tohoku album seems to have solidified their status as representatives of the nation, as torchbearers, as a solid and comforting definition of a nation and a pop culture in a time when people are happy to bond over comforting assurances of greatness in the same way generations have during the uncertainty and fear that follows natural disaster. The pride and unity worked, and not just because of the underlying message — even as months passed, it was hard not to return to the album time and again this year, to its Johnny’s-typical melodies and carefully interwoven traditional elements (taiko, shamisen, etc.) blasting through the same old sludge any Johnny’s album can often be. I never would have believed it myself, but here we are. Can I take back its honorary mention in last year’s list to include it in my top ten? It’s an album I keep finding new things to love about.

apptatsuroEven more than Japonism, was the group’s follow-up single “Fukkatsu LOVE,” which already promised to be amazing upon the announcement of its producer Tatsuro Yamashita’s involvement. Yamashita was a beast in the 80’s, the type of king who lorded over his tiny City Pop kingdom as a benevolent, jovial ruler who took the time to nurture his craft and give his songs the care and attention they deserved. Like the best pop music, his songs are deceiving. They’re simple: simple bars, simple melodies. The lyrics? We’re talking Japanese 101, the stuff you can translate after a few days of relaxing with the Oricon Top 10 and a couple lessons of survival phrases. So then why are they so addictive? How do they manage to so perfectly encapsulate their time and place in the canon? How do you resist snapping your fingers and tapping your toes when something like “Love Talkin’ (Honey It’s You)” comes on? And good luck not being bewitched by his work on “Fukkatsu LOVE.” There’s nothing even the most ardent indie-kid who eschews commercial pop for the dreck that Pitchfork sometimes hoists out of the nowhere-deep can do about the fact that despite City Pop’s long comeback on the fringes of independent and hipsters’ record players, it took a group like Arashi to make it more than just a trend in name.

You can break it down, from the first guitar riffs, to the call and responses, to the jazzy breakdowns, to the countless climaxes the song ascends to, all the way down to the lyrics. The lyrics! They contain not one, but two of the most quintessential lyrics in Japanese pop songs of all time. If you have listened to five J-pop songs, you will have heard “yume no naka e” or “ame no naka,” and the best ones will make these cliches sound not like the stale drivel that keeps the Oricon chart floating year after bloated year, but like actual narrative. The disco strings help. The disco strings are everything. Yamashita produced this tribute to his own craft with his first great single of 2016 (the second was “CHEER UP! THE SUMMER”), with subtle tweaks (the speed, for one, is just that bit faster than what he probably first envisioned). It’s both commentary on J-pop and celebration of it: the story of a wounded heart, a lost love, the pain and romance of longing, and the triumph of reunion. Tale as old as time, etc., but from the master of nostalgia, loneliness has never sounded so aspirational.

The B-side, “Ai no COLLECTION” is so successful at its attempt at stealing glory, it’s a wonder they didn’t save the song as a future single (or maybe they did that with “I seek”?); in fact, you can hear a few other songs that must have been composed around these session on their new album Are You Happy?: triple openers “DRIVE,” “I seek,” and “Ups and Downs,” which all feature the same kind of tasteful disco-pop before the album hits a comfortable groove with more of what we’re used to hearing from Arashi (“Bad boy,” “Mata Kyou to Onaji Ashita ga Kuru,” and that ballad that’s actually, really now, great). It’s a successful follow-up to Japonism, though nowhere in the same realm.

apploveforsalWe can argue and complain about how the past decade or so has seen a swift decline in the quality and variety of music that used to define modern Japanese pop music, largely due to groups just like Arashi and their female-idol counterparts in Akimoto-driven AKB-sister groups, even as we praise them for contributing to some of the most fun singles of the year (we all know “LOVE TRIP” was pretty fun). Pop music is nothing if not the definition of fast-paced change, with songs jumping in and out of relevance before we’ve even finished downloading them. Because of this, it’s sometimes easy to dismiss every big K-pop single as just the next song to tide you over until tomorrow’s rookie group debuts, or SM Entertainment unleashes SHINee’s tenth comeback. In Love for Sale: Pop Music in America, David Hajdu recalls how

“[P]eople of mid-century America talked about the body of songs that were currently popular as “the hit parade,” a phrase that vividly captured the fleeting nature of hits. They pass by, one after another. To experience hits is very much like watching a parade, and our impression of a song is like a moment impressed on the eyelids during a blink. Open your eyes, and a new part of the parade is in front of you. The things that caught your attention for one moment — the twirl of a baton, the turn of a melody — is gone, and something else — a decorated float, a pounding dance tune — has replaced it.” (pg 71)

So, too, in Japan, generations removed from 1940, we still live in a world constantly pining for what we don’t have just yet. And still, nothing else released after February 24 of this year has stayed with and impressed me as much as “Fukkatsu LOVE” and its B-side. There have been good songs, some great songs, and some really, really great songs, but none that have tugged at me so persistently that I’ve been forced to re-consider, recall and realize all over again what J-pop is, what makes it different and special, and so amazing, and what drew me to it in the first place.

J-pop needs a group like Arashi, now more than ever. With the demise of SMAP, and the schizophrenic nature of a group like Hey! Say! JUMP (are they standard Johnny’s? Are they K-pop Johnny’s? They have really great songs followed by okay-ish to not-so-okay pop that makes them seem a little hectic. A.B.C.-Z. and Johnny’s WEST might be terrible, but at least they’re consistent). Johnny’s is desperate to pass the torch with swift and silent fanfare to distract from the fact that their longest running, and arguably most successful Japanese boy band of all time has suddenly decided to call it quits because reasons, shaking the foundation of J-pop as we know it — even if you don’t care for SMAP, their ubiquitous presence has touched just about every corner of Japanese pop culture, an impressive feat not worth ignoring.

apparashiareyouHow much of Arashi’s popularity is real versus the careful manufacture of the  company’s almost dynastic, but slowly ebbing monopoly over media? (Think about their resistance to the Internet and its inherent power to equalize and neutralize and divide pop culture, while providing alternatives and putting the nature of its dissemination in the hands of fans and fandoms and ah, yes, I see your point Japanese entertainment companies, but the capitulation is inevitable and you’d be wise to find ways to make it work rather than sulk and refuse to find ways to make it work). I’m not talking about the members’ inherent talent, charisma, and good looks, which they have all so obviously spent years and millions making sure they have or appear to have. But what other boy band had Tatsuro Yamashita? SMAP did have Yasutaka Nakata, once, long ago now, but it was clearly one of his chopping-block singles. It might seem sinister or oddly disconcerting that pop greats like Yamashita would “deign” to work with just another idol group, but on the contrary, history has shown us that only the greats had the privilege of doing so. Perhaps we’re living in an age where the well-respected have decided to join ’em, rather than beat ’em, but maybe there’s something worth examining here. Let’s put it another way: will it be AKB48 or Perfume or Arashi performing at the 2020 Olympics?

Perhaps Hajdu is right and “[i]mpermanence is a necessity of the pop culture ecosystem” (77), and next year we’ll have forgotten about all of this year’s hits, as most of us did 1997’s and 2009’s. Maybe “Fukkatsu LOVE” was not meant to be enduring in any way beyond the space between when it was released and then usurped by its predecessor. But I can’t help but think that the greatest hit makers, Max Martin, TK, Yamashita, Ohtaki, and Nakata among them, somehow managed to crack the code of the medium, without compromising their approach from a place of love and respect for the form and its possibilities. The greatest pop songs last two minutes and fifty seconds with the capability of landing on many arbitrary lists, but the greatest ones linger on and on, longer than anyone ever planned.