Some luck, but mostly effort: The anomaly and allure of BABYMETAL

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Marty Friedman was both right and wrong: J-pop idols are pretty amazing, and he emphasized this point when he enthused that “all the stuff I introduced to you from Japan is going to make it outside of Japan, and soon. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already. I’m talking this year, or next year something is going to explode because this stuff is too good.” Four years later, we’re seeing a tiny, almost barely-perceptible fissure in the musical landscape. Perfume is successfully touring Europe and North America, adding major cities to their stops over time, while metal idols BABYMETAL are catering to both the LOLJapan crowd, and prurient hipsters, ever on the prowl for the new and different. The latter is nowhere more telling then their appearance in the entertainment issue of this week’s New Yorker, buried in the back in the teenage tastemakers article, Teenage Dream, by Matthew Trammell.

“Teen-agers with their serial rebellions, romantic infatuations, and unabashed experimentalism, have proved to be adept at reworking pop’s core provocations. Technology, meanwhile, has made it easy for teens to inject their aesthetics into the mainstream, with or without the guiding hand of managers and record labels.” (70)

newyorkerappThat last point is a stretch, and none of the artists briefly profiled could be considered to have gained “mainstream” success (Rappers Novelist and Kodak Black, piano prodigy Joey Alexander, popster Låpsley, etc.), but the New Yorker wouldn’t be the New Yorker if it didn’t purport to being on the absolute up-and-up. As in TIME‘s special Fall 2001 issue, which featured Hikaru Utada, (notably, she was working on her American debut with Foxy Brown and the Neptunes and planning to retire very young, around 28, probably to become a neuroscientist), articles like these tend to be peak Western exposure for said artists, rather than the beginning of a phenomenon, though BABYMETAL does get relatively considerable space. Writes Trammell,

“Though the songs are addictive, Babymetal’s sharpest asset is its singular combination of J-pop’s theatrical pageantry and metal’s primal sprint. Adherents of each genre are becoming fans: Babymetal has enjoyed huge success in Japan, and its fame is growing in the United States and in London. […] Babymetal’s act, like much of the best pop, is at once recognizable and profoundly new.” (78)

This is a singularly Western explanation; in fact, for fans of J-pop, young teenage girls dancing and singing in a genre they never heard of, or downright dislike, is nothing new, and has been done, often, if not, arguably, better, by Japanese idol groups before them. The “profoundly new” angle is only new to American pop, where metal remains the domain of a largely male demographic. This, too, was true in Japan, until a meeting of the minds pinpointed a great way to sell idols units to otaku male audiences (the, ahem, most important, ones) and their skeptical friends even quicker: by making young female idols the mouthpieces of a traditionally “masculine” genre, they created the jarring allure and unexplored juxtaposition of teenage girls belting out aggressive metal songs, and lured fans’ wallets with something they could enthuse about publicly. This opened the idol business to even more mainstream revenue: suddenly it was just a little less unseemly for young and older men alike to collect posters and photo cards, attend handshake events, and attend concerts to see their idols because the music wasn’t soft rock or bubblegum pop: it was heavy and authentic and respectable and composed by real virtuosos of the genre with immeasurable skill and talent. While the genre (here, idol pop as an all-encompassing umbrella term) has always had both male and female fans, the female fans tend to be outliers: female idols, especially those who are front women for increasingly edgier hard rock or metal music, are first and foremost catered to a male audience, most especially an older male audience, who has the buying power to keep up with the sale of related merchandise. Female fans are the superfluous extra perks, a welcome byproduct, but hardly the target, which is why you get a lot of lyrical content that is usually either a) specific to men’s interests, especially, as the market saturates, super-niche interests — see Momoiro Clover Z — or b) specific to what boys and men think girls think, talk, and daydream about.

There are very few actual female idol groups marketed to girls and women, and most of them aren’t pure idols, skirting the broader definitions that prefer terms like girl group, or dance group, like E-girls or Fairies. Female fans are steered in the direction of Johnny’s idols, where young boys and men release softer, more heartfelt, treacly pop music, the type women are typically assumed to like: photoshoots present male idols as nonthreatening, cute, and cuddly, and their singles and albums reinforce this. While a crop of new K-pop-imitators like Da-iCE and Choshinsei, are struggling to redefine the preconceived notions of idol boy bands, they are still the exception, outnumbered by their best-selling rivals. Even groups like EXILE, KAT-TUN, and lately NEWS, lean toward heavy dancepop at its most aggressive; another genre traditionally undervalued in the critical world.

babymetaltrivappIn many ways this is a sign of the outrageous gender binaries that comprise the marketing and distribution of Japanese idols; for purposes of the music itself, it also reinforces the notion that genres that comprise huge male audiences (hard rock, metal) can be deemed authentic and worthy of critical attention, while those that women enjoy are considered fluff that no one would ever take seriously. Under that idea, it’s hardly surprising that a group like BABYMETAL could make it in the circles of certain American subcultures, and less so that articles in the Western media feel the need to justify their interest in the group by constantly reminding readers that their material was written by veterans of the metal genre (Nobuki Narasaki, Herman Li, Sam Totman, Takeshi Ueda, etc.), or that the girls themselves are influenced, or appreciated by, everybody from the members of Metallica to Slayer. There are few that don’t, and in many ways, these men serve to legitimize their existence. Under these caveats, it’s hard to imagine an equivalent Japanese male group/boy band (who don’t write their own music or play instruments) could make it stateside, not even if like Jimi Hendrix came back from the dead to write an album for them. Because it seems to be acceptable, if not preferable, for women to be mostly muses and good-looking faces for the music, a group like Perfume can get a lot of critical praise because of their music producer Yasutaka Nakata, but it rarely goes the other way for boy bands, who can’t seem to catch a break unless they’re more in control of their music and image, for example G-Dragon of K-pop group BIG BANG.

Setting aside the gender breakdown of the critical music sphere for a second, any writer putting together an article about BABYMETAL deserves applause, since nothing gives away their idol-ness more than an interview, where stock quips and rehearsed nothings are the order of the day. Says Moa Kikuchi, when asked about the international reach of their fans, “Everyone loves music. I think music is the common language of the world. Music is a wonderful connection for all people – it brings people together.” These are hardly the insights of seasoned performers, though it speaks to their unique perspective, both as teenagers and Japanese teens, which they are very quick to take pride in (Yui Mizuno: “BABYMETAL music is a blend of hard music and metal music with Japanese pop and sounds. If we were not from Japan, we’d be a totally different band with totally different fans”).

artravebabvy2While Marty Friedman believed that Japanese pop music would only reach an audience outside Japan “with luck” and “timing,” and other factors that couldn’t be planned, BABYMETAL, has been a slow, methodical climb to relevance, not least of which included shows in Paris, New York, and the UK, and opening for Lady Gaga’s ArtRave: The Artpop Ball tour starting back in 2014. Noisey did a brief introduction back in the same year, while Jake Cleland at Pitchfork picked “Gimme Choco!!” as one of his favorite tracks of 2010-2014. All said and done, BABYMETAL, originally conceived of as a subunit of uber-traditional idol group Sakura Gakuin, has done well for itself, and not just because of luck and timing.

In fact, idol groups like BABYMETAL flourish in Japan, many of them far superior to the group, who are getting the attention and accolades that many Japanese idols simply don’t care about, or can’t be bothered with. PASSPO☆, in particular, has some of the highest quality, and variety, of hard rock and metal on their albums, especially on the legendary One World, and last year’s Beef or Chicken? Other examples include BAND-MAID, Momoiro Clover Z, and BiSH, all bands that might be considered too niche to crossover in America (it would surely involve a lot of context and explanation).

stephenbabyappThat being said, in rare cases the music can transcend context, as BABYMETAL’s fantastic new album, METAL RESISTANCE, does. There are some truly epic and astounding risks the album takes and pulls off, particularly with lead tracks “KARATE” and the mostly-instrumental “From Dusk Till’ Dawn.” As Ryotaro Aoki points out in his review, the album has “more nods to 1980s hair metal and symphonic metal, which are perhaps more suited for mixing with J-pop than metal’s edgier subgenres” and fulfills “the crux of idol music; they know what you like, and they can convincingly make it exactly the way you like it.” It will be interesting to see how long BABYMETAL can sustain their novelty act in a country where trends come and go, Japanese pop culture is not often taken seriously, and the majority reaction is still more laugh-at-them than laugh-with-them (to be fair, homegrown girl groups aren’t having it much easier, even as they look to edgy K-pop for inspiration, but Fifth Harmony and Little Mix, bless their souls, are trying). While seeing the girls on Stephen Colbert was pretty exciting, simply appearing on late night portends nothing; just ask Girls’ Generation. The goal is always that music from other parts of the world can be appreciated and enjoyed for what it is and what it’s trying to do, rather than fit a predetermined, acceptable mold, regardless of which audience it’s attracting and why, and at least in that sense, BABYMETAL are chipping away at America’s icy heart proudly, and on their own terms.

(Photo credit.)

A different level of rock star: The Yoshiki Show rolls on with documentary film We Are X

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By now, everyone has heard about We Are X, the documentary film about one of Japan’s most legendary rock bands, X Japan. The film already won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Best Editing by the Sundance Institute, and extra buzz picked up speed when it was announced that the movie would be screened at this year’s SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas last week. SXSW describes the movie as “the arc of X – from phenomenal origins through tumultuous super-stardom and premature dissolution up to present day, as the band prepares to reunite for a show at the legendary Madison Square Garden while struggling to reconcile a past haunted by suicide, injury and cultish extremism with the insatiable thirst for perfection.” It’s the stuff of high drama and theatrics, just the kind band leader, drummer, and pianist Yoshiki lives for.

Here’s what I knew about X Japan by the time I purchased their first CD over a decade ago: hide was the most interesting, Yoshiki was the most tortured, and almost none of it mattered because the band had already broken up. hide was dead. Toshi was in a religious cult. And Heath and Pata were scrambling to cobble together new projects.

xjapanapp1The band cited few reasons for breaking up, but it was obvious that even before the release of their last studio album, DAHLIA, most of the members were unhappy. hide achieved the most success in his solo project, combining a different, less serious and more blithe aspect into his work, which incorporated more and more progressive and industrial sounds into the mix (he was a big fan of Garbage); in fact, hide’s signature loud and fun colors and style were the only remaining “visuals” in X Japan as the years wore on — pink hair and neon green latex suits were hard to miss standing next to everyone else in black. Toshi had started to second guess his fame and fortune, struggling with his identity and place in the world. And Yoshiki was too busy controlling every aspect of every facet of every second of every piece of song that made the cut; “perfectionist” might be one way to describe him. Control-freak would be another. Domineering, also a good one. Hogging the spotlight wouldn’t be too far-fetched either.

Before long, the credits on the track lists stopped featuring all the members and only Yoshiki’s name appeared. The other members stopped getting solos. Their songs were cut or heavily edited. Yoshiki, a classically trained pianist, dropped the others’ songs out to make room for more of his signature ballads. The band’s last album, featured two songs written by hide, one written by Heath and Pata, and seven songs written by Yoshiki. It’s not hard to see where disagreements and artistic differences started to crop up.

xjapanapp2Watching the trailer for We Are X is like seeing the evidence come to life all over again two decades later: I’m not sure what the movie actually features since I haven’t seen it yet, but the trailer is nothing short of the Memoirs of Yoshiki. His voice, or rather, his story and his point of view, narrates the entire time: like the last five minutes of all of his ballads, it is a creation of his mind, a rehearsed poem, with special attention paid to the darkest nights of his soul, and the highest peaks of success — which are now, naturally, even though they haven’t released an album of new material in almost 20 years (despite Yoshiki promising said album for nearly as long). “Why am I here? Why am I in this world?” he asks as the trailer starts, and we strap ourselves in to find out why Yoshiki’s existence alone matters in a movie about a band of five.

His ego knows no bounds: his talking head crops up countless times, while the other members don’t speak at all (the language barrier shouldn’t be a  problem when other voices get subtitles). Understandably, X was a band Yoshiki started with his childhood friend, but to take all the credit is nearly sacrilegious. This is not a movie about one of the greatest rock bands of all time, this is a movie about Yoshiki: Yoshiki the musical genuis, Yoshiki the frail, injured victim who seeks the medical help of doctors for tragic plot development (as already frequently chronicled on his Instagram and Facebook — cue the far away, searching look in his eyes as he delicately cradles his arm and looks out the hospital’s window for his staged photo), and Yoshiki the actor, taking his role in the spotlight once again, playing the part he’s been rehearsing since the days of Vanishing Vision.

“After my father died, my mother bought me a drum set. Instead of breaking things, I started banging drums,” Yoshiki begins, and we’re immediately transported to one of his “Tears” sagas: a carefully practiced tale of sadness and woe. When the band segues into hide’s suicide, we get a shot of sad-Yoshiki, looking forlorn into a mirror while the facts are smeared to aid in the drama (hide was not a member of X Japan at the time of his suicide on May 2, 1998, as the band had already officially broken up in December of 1997). When we hear him say “X Japan’s era was over,” we get a cinematic shot of Yoshiki, walking alone down a crowded street. Pata who? That bassist guy, what was his name again? Even when Marilyn Manson chimes in with an informative soundbite, we see pictures of Yoshiki, pretty odd when hide was the known Manson fan. It’s not until about 1:50 in that we even see a single shot of any of the other surviving and current members.

xjapanapp3There is no doubt in my mind that X Japan was one of the best and most influential Japanese rock bands of all time, and this movie is a long-overdue recognition of the talent, skill, hard work, luck, and perseverance that are all hallmarks of the greatest bands since the dawn of time. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons a comment like Gene Simmons rankles so much: “If those guys were born in America, they might be the biggest band in the world.” But they weren’t. They were born in Japan, into a very unique time in history where their style of music and dress were able to resonate: influenced by KISS, they started out as a speed metal band  dressed in flamboyant hair and makeup, at a time when equivalent “hair metal” bands were already going out of style in America and the simplicity and dressed-down nature of grunge was gaining popularity. This creation of what would come to be called “visual-kei” would go on to influence countless number of Japanese bands from Dir en grey to Due le Quartz to Malice Mizer. America was already over it, trading in one type of cool for another. If they were born in America they wouldn’t be X. They wouldn’t be X Japan. And in the end, it’s a shame that particular pride is missing, when so much of the movie seems to concentrate on Yoshiki’s very personal emotional journey and comeback. In that sense, the movie seems like it’s going to be less factual documentary, than a curated collection of highlights that seek a predestined agenda and work off a script, one that clearly paints Yoshiki as the hero and savior of the band. One wonders why Yoshiki didn’t just drop the humble brags and false modesty, call the movie I Am X, and have done with it.

Yamapi: An alternative greatest hits collection

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Last week on January 27, Tomohisa Yamashita released his first greatest hits collection. As one of the few male solo singers in J-pop getting it right, it’s a shame that the album is such a pitiful example of the best this guy has to offer. Caught between traditional Johnny’s-pop and more mature dance music, I’m surprised this greatest hits isn’t spread across two discs! Yet, somehow, despite the wealth of singles, styles, and sheer number of songs to his name, apparently his record company was only able to find ten songs that they thought exemplified the best he has to offer. That’s right. Ten.

In case you’re looking for a complete starter kit on Yamapi, here’s a better collection of songs to get you started (I did the best I could, but apologies in advance for the lack of samples – he’s Johnny’s, which means you won’t find any of his work easily on YouTube, if at all). Let’s start with singles, because there are a lot of them, and it’s important to filter out the duds upfront so we can be honest about where things went wrong.

First there’s “Daite SENORITA.” Arguably Yamapi’s most well-known song, “Daite SENORITA” was also his debut single released ten years ago. Yamapi was still a member of the boyband NEWS at this point — actually, he didn’t leave until 2011, which is perhaps why so many of his later releases started doing poorly. Without the added benefit of NEWS fans, it was hard for him to gain a whole new set of fans, which left him scrambling to find them while still providing for the old with his more signature Johnny’s sound. This double life basically defines this guy’s career, so get used to picking through the mess to find the songs that speak to you. It was hard to find any songs off of Loveless worth adding here; there’s six to choose from, and none of them are bad, but none of them became fan favorites. All of these songs signaled Yamapi’s desire for a more “mature” sound, where “mature” means R&B, I guess.

Finally, Yamapi struck gold with “One in a million.” This is pop music at its best: it’s a love song, it’s a dance song, it’s the beginning of songs in the vein of old-school teen heartthrob odes, but with an updated sound. You can’t not include this song: it’s almost genius, and the only thing that could improve this collection is adding the remix he performed in concert as a bonus track. Shortly after this, Yamapi embarked on an epic American road trip across Route 66 to find himself and brought back “Ai, TEXAS” as a souvenir. While that explains the nature of this somewhat gimmicky single, with its twangy Americana, it’s still a great song. The B-sides “Candy” and “PERFECT CRIME” are even better. But since we’re running out of room, we’ll have to leave them behind and tack on “LOVE CHASE” and “NOCTURNE” to represent the EDM-vibe we’ll be hearing more of in a second. I’ve left “Ke Sera Sera” for the purists instead of “Beating,” but let’s just admit it’s a way better song. And I put “ERO -2012 version-” on there, though I couldn’t tell you why. It’s not particularly interesting. I’ve also included the one-off single he did under the name The MONSTERS with Shingo Katori from SMAP. It’s not a bad song and it has genuine gravitas with Katori on it.

You’ll notice that five singles are already on YAMA-P, with the exclusion of “Hadakanbo” (seriously, screw this single, does anyone even remember this song?), anything off Loveless, “One in a million,” (WHAT WHY), and “Ai, TEXAS” (HOW). It’s inconceivable how “One in a million” wouldn’t make the cut; I honestly can’t even speculate upon this matter. If they couldn’t include the original, why not that amazing, unreleased remix that was featured on the 2013 -A NUDE- tour? The world will never know.

So we still have tons of space left now for some of the edgier cuts from his albums; I doubled down so we could fit it all onto one disc. This is where I’m sure everyone’s opinions will diverge. I promise you, this is just my personal preference, so when you put your own playlist together for a friend, you can substitute twelve of your own songs. I’ve chosen a collection of fan favorites, with a balance of standard J-pop and more dance-pop (with help from which songs get the most love during concerts).

Plus, in 2011, Yamapi was also featured on Namie Amuro’s Checkmate!, a collection of collaborations she’s done over the years. “UNUSUAL,” her duet with Yamashita, was one of the new songs used to promote the album. Reader, this song is amazing. I have no idea why they wouldn’t put this on here: you had an amazing veteran of J-pop paired with a talented up and coming male solo singer and struck gold. I would rather have eight more collabs like this than any of the treacle m-flo comes up with. Namie Amuro performs this a lot on tour (without her partner, sadly), Yamapi not so much. One way of looking at it might be that this is more Amuro’s song: he’s guesting on her song, not the other way around. Let’s change that. Let’s put it on the greatest hits album and officially mark this as one of the greatest in J-pop for both of them. And there you have it. A much, much more precise, yet expansive, greatest his collection that both fans and newer listeners deserve. Take note, Johnny.

Singles:
“Daite SENORITA”
“One in a million”
“Ai, TEXAS”
“LOVE CHASE”
“NOCTURNE”
“Ke Sera Sera”
‘”ERO -2012 version-”
“MONSTERS”

SUPERGOOD, SUPERBAD
“Crazy You”
“Hadakanbou (Album ver.)”
“Saigo no LOVE SONG”
“PARTY DON’T STOP (feat. DJ DASK)”

ERO
“Hit the Wall”
“Baby Baby”

A NUDE
“SING FOR YOU”

YOU
“Birthday Suit”
“Konya ga Kakumei Zenya”

ASOBI
“HELLO”
“LET IT GO”

“UNUSUAL (with Namie Amuro)”

There it is. 20 tracks. The closest we can get to summarizing Yamapi’s career in one hour seventeen minutes and forty-three seconds.

TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE: What we talk about when we talk about idols Pt. 2

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On December 20, 2014, leading Avex Trax idol group TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE announced that they would be leaving their idol status behind them and moving forward as “artists.” There is quite a difference between artists and idols, one that goes beyond that alarming moment the camera pans over the audience and you notice it’s 98% male. Unlike other records labels, Avex Trax is fairly new to the idol scene, instead traditionally known for producing solo artists and dance groups. While project director Yoshiyasu Satake explains the distinction by saying that the girls “will no longer perform in idol festivals, appear in idol-specific magazines, and will no longer perform their songs “Onnaji Kimochi” and “Ganbatte Itsudatte Shinjiteru,”” the more specific truth is that the ways an artist or group are marketed, or promoted to target audiences are pretty much the means by which they will be regarded and consumed. This includes everything from the lyrical content of songs, to the costuming, to the type of promotional tie-ins and product endorsements, down to the age of the members themselves.

Arguably, one of Avex Trax’s most successful idol groups to date has been SweetS, whose members were 13 and 14 years old at the time of their debut. While they could be interpreted as just another singing and dancing group, their target audience definitely skewed to the older male demographic; I remember a certain now-defunct J-pop forum’s SweetS thread to be almost bewilderingly comprised of older men, the types with good paying full-time jobs who pre-ordered every last single and posted images of their CD collections and posters before digital and phone cameras made this easy and ubiquitous — in 2003, you had to love an idol group with so much unabashed pride you’d be willing to purchase a not-cheap scanner to upload your Polaroids after waiting an hour to have them developed. At best, these guys had a sense of humor about their hobby; at worst, a sense of guilt that made them particularly defensive. But it was a  club I knew I would never join, at least not on a high school student’s budget. My people hung out in the ‘What was your latest purchase?’ thread where we’d boast about being able to buy Hikaru Utada’s second-newest single and that one Every Little Thing remix compilation that came out two years ago. When someone scored concert merchandise on Ebay, even just a dinky rabbit’s foot key chain, we’d all enthusiastically gush in admiration and jealousy with just as much, if not more, awe than we did for those who posted pictures of gigantic boxes of CD Japan orders.

With song titles like “LolitA☆Strawberry in summer,” SweetS’ innocence-as-invitation come-ons were plastered across billboards in poses that would mostly attract these older fans. Of course, in the era of post-AKB48, the group almost seems quaint now, rather hinting at the aberrant, where AKB48 — which perfected the practice of objectifying members and treating young girls like expendable, interchangeable cogs in a giant machine — ushered in an era of tight control, structure, rules, and overt agenda. To many who look back, SweetS’ short career is covered in a gauzy veil of nostalgia. On the Is it an idol? blog, the post “SweetS Reincarnate: Tokyo Girls’ Style- doomed to fail?” says “The group seemed to have it all: Fresh-faced, adorable pre-pubescent [sic] members, two strong lead vocalists, and an extremely catchy (although slightly controversial) debut single” and earlier in the post, as “a dream deferred.”

TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE was created to be the group’s successors, being one of the first Avex groups created specifically as idols in many years: indeed, their early discography is littered with SweetS covers like “LolitA☆Strawberry in summer” and “Love like candy floss.” Their early promotional videos are geared especially to a male viewing audience: in “Ganbatte Itsudatte Shinjiteru” the girls play cheerleaders who spend the video swooning over their male classmates and gathering up enough courage to talk to their crushes, not unlike early SweetS songs that focused on the internal dilemma and excitement of falling in love with someone who is hinted at being forbidden. If you were a female trying to get into the group early on in their career, there would be very little to draw you in besides catchy music: since the group was created for the creepier fantasies of boys, everything from the way the girls’ acted, to the content of the lyrics, addressed, and solely catered to this audience. Unlike Namie Amuro or Ayumi Hamasaki, who wore the hippest clothes, sang songs about themselves, their friends, and their own real-life issues, in turn providing more authentic role-models and behavior that was aspirational, idols like TGS create fantasies so even the nerdiest, shyest boy feels desirable, liked; his every behavior and thought, whether deviant or not, justified. For these men, artists like Kumi Koda seem intimidating, even vulgar. It’s not uncommon to hear many of those same boys call her music videos and stage shows crass, unbecoming, or “slutty,” where others, particularly women and homosexual men and women, see it as an expression of sexual freedom, agency, independence, and an alternative to the pliable, simpering behavior that many idols are paid to trade in. That is to say, images are powerful, and the way artists and idols are projected is highly calculated. Unfortunately, this also creates an idol industry that excludes an entire population at the risk of potentially greater monetary rewards: who can afford to buy 4 copies of the same CD to collect all the different covers? Who is willing to buy dozens of copies of the same album to ensure his favorite idol wins the next senbatsu? Of course, this comes at the risk of these groups becoming something of pariahs in the industry, condemned to their corner of the music world, where any outsiders venturing in are forced to feel somewhat ashamed by taking a peek inside.

But in many other ways, TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE has always been your average “girls dance and vocal group” as Satake puts it. As early as their 2013 Budokan concert, the group already exhibited so little of the idol spectacle we’re used to: while many idols cash in on their lack of talent and sloppy choreography, TGS quickly developed remarkable skill in their choreography. They also have a small hand in their musical material, through lyric writing, and playing instruments. Some of the members cite BoA and Ayumi Hamasaki as their influences, perhaps a nod to the professionalism, candor, and wide-reaching audience that the group hopes to mimic themselves. Anyone who heard their 2014 album Killing Me Softly could have seen this move in a new direction coming. The album’s softer, melancholy tones shifted their sound into more seasoned territory, relying less on unsophisticated cliches, though I’ll admit the change was gradual, with Avex hesitant to turn the switch off for their loyal audience: the 2013 PV for “Partition Love” depicts a hackneyed plot involving a girl’s crush on an older teacher, eventually showing up at his door in the middle of the night. But if the music itself didn’t tip you off, their collaborations would. “In an effort to market them even more to the indie crowd, Avex Trax had TGS team up with trendy internet label Maltine Records in January for a special collaboration album, Maltine Girls Wave” says Jacques over at arcadey. In many ways, when the traditional route clogged the yen stream to Avex, maybe for not walking the  exploitative path other idol labels find it so easy to go down, they switched TGS to being the “cool” idols, the ones who released exclusive 7″ vinyl singles. Or was this the point all along? A bit of pandering so Avex could go back to doing what they do best?

While the country has fluxed in waves, in Japan’s music market today, idols have been where the money is. But if popular opinion is any indication, this seems to be gradually changing, as group’s distance themselves from the “idol” label as much as possible, and big record companies concentrate on developing groups that are marketed toward girls and young women, giving them things they want to see and participate in. When a recent idol group was rumored to be formed for the opening ceremony performance of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, many public figures reacted in horror, calling groups like AKB48 everything from “the shame of Japan” to “child pornography.” Writes Patrick St. Michel in “Tokyo 2020 Olympics and AKB48: The J-pop Idol Group Controversy,”

“[T]he response to Japan48 highlighted a schism taking place in the Japanese music landscape. For the last five years, Japan has experienced an “idol boom,” spurred by the success of AKB48 and resulting in dozens of new groups composed of young women singing upbeat pop while dancing. In recent months, however, sales have lagged and general interest in such groups has dropped, while a new wave of bands has claimed cultural relevance. Japan’s infatuation with idol groups has started to fade.

For many idols, the template is Perfume: do your time serving as an idol, then gradually mature into “real” artists, the type that can be taken seriously by those beside otaku. Negicco, originally a small, local idol trio, are now collaborating with seasoned producers, developing a more cultivated, Shibuya-kei sound that is attracting a wider, hipper audience. And for some, the chance to be taken seriously can happen right out the gate: groups like E-girls, and their original units like Dream and FLOWER are marketed towards young women, with an emphasis on style, personality, ambition, and talent: any boys or older men who come along for the ride are welcome, but not without the unspoken agreement that their world is first and foremost, a space for girls to feel safe and valued (as a plus, groups like E-girls and TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE both tour with all-girl backing bands, an intentional nod to the talent women can bring not only to singing and dancing, but playing instruments). Like certain K-pop groups and anti-idols, these groups are reinventing the idea that idols always need to be purposefully inept, demure, coy, or pliable to the passing whims of a male audience. TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE, who have been prepping for months, seem to be more than happy to join this brave new world, and will hopefully not lose their popularity or success in the coming years — or even, perhaps, gain in respect what they could never quite make in sales (to this day TGS has never had a #1 anything on the Oricon charts).

For in some ways, the crawl out of the idol underground is still a slow, uneven slog, where “artists” like Fairies and FAKY aren’t getting the recognition they deserve, being unable to find a sizable foothold in the market, leaving Avex to desperately churn out a decent, but very much-idol group like Dorothy Little Happy in hopes they can still crack that idol code someday. And unfortunately, even after girls put in all the hard work, time, and patience necessary for success, they’re still left finding no other work but to pose for pictorials and videos in the seedy, but still booming men’s gravure and AV publications world after being forcibly “graduated” out of a group to make way for the next pretty face. Not every idol group can follow the Perfume plan, nor can they hope to find both respect and success in a market whose buying power is still, even years and years after certain J-pop forums collapse, concentrated in the hands of older, well-off men who are used to having things their way, and able to front the money to get it.

Read Part 1 here: Momoiro Clover Z: What we talk about when we talk about idols.

Stay Girls: Not Quite a Decade of Girls’ Generation

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It’s almost the year 2015 and I still don’t know all the members of Girls’ Generation. In fact, there’s only a few I do know; there’s Hyoyeon — she’s the incredible dancer who doesn’t get enough screen time, presumably because she’s often ranked last in the attraction rankings; then there’s Sunny — the one who’s really good at aegyo; and now there’s Jessica — she’s the one who just got kicked out of the group, foreshadowing the end of Girls’ Generation and K-pop as we know it. Even though we’re well beyond the Golden Age of K-pop, Korean pop music has always had its defining starlets to keep the wave crashing just a little bit longer. But now that one of the longest running groups is finally experiencing turbulence with its line-up, it’s only a matter of time before Girls’ Generation finally stop being girls.

Like many fans, I came to know So Nyeo Si Dae (or SNSD, or Girls’ Generation, or even Shoujo Jidai, as they’re known in Japan) when they released the super hit “Gee.” Up until then, the group had mostly been coasting on being SM Entertainment’s latest and having one of the largest number of members in its group at that time. Their signature hit wasn’t only a spectacularly catchy pop song, but one that came with a list of grievances, no matter how many people try to find empowerment in its music video. The fact is, that like most of SNSD’s early hits, the songs are all about an object of infatuation, someone so cute, so handsome, so blindingly brilliant, that it renders the girls unable to sleep, stay still, or even make eye contact. Their hearts beat, they blush, they feel shy, oppreul saraghae etc. Their target audience is certainly the boys and men they’re singing about and to, but many young girls and older women love the group just as much. The coordinated outfits, long legs, constant makeovers, and overwhelmingly feminine visuals appeal to those looking not just for lust objects, but role models, someone to illustrate how to be an ideal woman: how she looks, acts, dresses, and flirts. Once you realize how tempting it is to just give in to the idea that the group was allegedly created for ahjossis (middle-aged men) is when you realize how that would ignore the hypocritical and sometimes infuriating messages it sends to girls and young women (and in this, there really is no suitable ranking — which is worse: churning out attractive girls in a factory-style system complete with requisite plastic surgery for the eyes and wallets of men, or in order to educate women on what the proper feminine form should look and act like? It’s a lose-lose).

Sometime after their initial popularity, SNSD slowly began morphing into something some see as empowering, and others as simply arrogance. This change surprisingly coincided with their Japanese debut, a country not exactly known for allowing their large-numbered female pop groups agency. Instead of sweet pop songs, their music took on an edge, a forceful, tough sound more in line with Western pop songs. They (where “they” means mostly male songwriters) also provided countless definitions and contradictions for who they, as girls, were and could be. In “BAD GIRL” on 2011’s GIRLS’ GENERATION, they claim to be the perfect bad girls, presumably a far cry from the blushing good girls who could only hoot hoot hoot when their boyfriend checked out someone in front of them: “You’ll become a prisoner soon / you’ll become a slave” to their unique style, they sing. Yet later on the album on “BORN TO BE A LADY,” they sing “Ah, even if I’m a tiny girl / who doesn’t have any strength / One day, I will become stronger.” In their Korean comeback that same year they proceeded to “bring the boys out” and stop their diet, but just for one day, because they felt like lazy girls. On the Japanese track “Gossip Girls,” they “put up a confident face; however / We are lookin’ for love all the time… / We are lonely girls.” But maybe the ultimate manifesto is the track on their second Japanese album “Stay Girls”: they know they have to grow up, yet “we stay girls / Innocent, pure hearts / no matter what the future holds / Don’t change who you are / Stay girls.” They want to stay girls and they’re going to stay girls, as long as the public demands it.

This isn’t just the indulgent wish of long-time fans: it’s the dream of almost every human being alive — to preserve youth and innocence, even if just on the inside. Ideally, idol groups would also stay young forever, churning out hit after relevant hit, rather than burning out, fading away, breaking up, changing line-ups, or worse: daring to grow older or move forward.

The three biggest entertainment agencies in Korea (SM, YG, and JYP) each have their own unique brand, and SM Entertainment’s hallmark has always been not just creating stars, but creating youthful, upbeat idols who sell charisma like it’s a product. It is a product. As an SM trainee, you are sold just as effectively as you will in turn Samsung phones. But just as there’s a shelf-life to any and all electronic products, so too do idol groups come and go, their purposes varying as far as to entertain, to empower, to delight, or to make you feel bad about that extra ten pounds you carry around. But even SM doesn’t have the power to stop a member from deciding that it’s time to go solo.

Although the announcement that Jessica would be leaving Girls’ Generation was met with some controversy, the general idea is that Jessica wanted out — whether to get married, or to pursue a career in fashion. That the decision was made while Girls’ Generation is still riding a massive wave all over Asia is more than just coincidental — it’s imperative. Says Kpopalypse:

“[W]hen your group is peaking, you’re more valuable. […] [Y]ou’ve got a better chance to sign a deal with favorable terms if you’re already hot in the marketplace as opposed to the newcomer with no bargaining power that you were when you first started training. It’s not uncommon to see the most ambitious members of a group start getting itchy feet especially in the Korean system, because not only are they mostly making fuck all money, they’re all aware that you can’t be an idol group member forever. Eventually your fan base will mature, someone younger and prettier than you is going to take that “idol” spot, and if you don’t have a backup plan, you might not end up with much.”

That Jessica was prematurely kicked out due to a case of sour grapes doesn’t preclude the fact that she would have left the group either by the end of 2014 or early 2015 regardless. Meanwhile, the rest of the girls have renewed their contracts for another three years — perhaps the last three years we might see new material from the group.

Regardless, their older material has already immortalized SNSD as forever-girls, the quintessential idols able to adapt new concepts and personalities by the month: from rainbow-colored skinny jean-clad mannequins, to “marines,” to 1960’s spy girls. In trying to be all things to all people (strong, aeygo, humble, weak, bold, shy, sometimes all in the span of one variety show appearance), we’ll never know how well we really knew any of these young women, except that they were hardworking, talented individuals who were sometimes coerced into doing things they might not have always wanted to, and always with a smile on their face. Because of this, it was easy to feel we owned them, and they owed us, when in truth, we were just lucky to live on the same planet. They weren’t always the girls you wanted your daughter or younger sister emulating, but theirs was probably still the album you turned on when you meant to start straightening up the house and found yourself dancing with the vacuum cleaner. Because in spite of the mixed messages, egregious double-standards, and questionable lyrics, their discography is filled with some of the greatest pop songs of the last decade: memorable, concise, upbeat, and best played loud.

Below the cut, is my personal ranking of my favorite SNSD albums and mini-albums (a very relative list, considering how amazing the discography is overall). I encourage you to build your own. Continue reading

Cool Japan vs. Hallyu: The long, loud road to soft power

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Like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu before them, Perfume is all set to make their North American debut this fall on a tour that includes stops in Los Angeles and New York, as well as an international release of last year’s album LEVEL3, which will include two bonus remixes. The Internet has been predictably awash in both pleasant surprise and utter horror — worries FilmiGirl, “Their songs are tied up in their intricate visual choreography but I’m afraid that part won’t be clear to the Western arts types trying to write about them.” While South Korea has had a fruitful K-culture export strategy, Japan has been less successful, for several reasons I’ve gone over before in this blog, and that others have reiterated across the Internet. But the one point it always comes back to is that Japan lacks effort because they simply do not care. Japan still holds the distinction of being the second largest music market in the world with physical sales of CDs still trumping digital by leaps and bounds. At least for the time being, Japan’s business strategy works for the music entertainment industry in their favor.

Yet we still see the occasional group or singer attempt an American, or international, crossover. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has toured the US and released an international version of Pamyu Pamyu Revolution, globe-trotting on her brand of Harajuku fashion and artistic, sometimes off-the-wall visuals. But crossovers have gone all the way back since Hikaru Utada, Mai Kuraki, Pizzicato Five, Seiko Matsuda, Pink Lady, and so on. Despite these artists sharing Western styles of music and performance, rather than Japan’s abundance of idols and idol pop, rarely has anyone been able to attain a palpable sense of popularity, perhaps one of the reasons that crossovers tend to stay local, with Asian artists focused on growing a fan base in other East Asian countries like China and Singapore.

Japan, and, especially, Korea have attempted to rectify their low cultural influence outside of Asia with initiatives like Cool Japan and what is known as Hallyu, or the Korean Wave. Both of these tactics are similar, with government funding initiatives to pump up soft power: food, television, cinema, music, and electronics are only some of the positives the countries want associated with themselves, banking on the idea that foreigners will eventually form positive opinions of their country through this coercion, rather than force (hence the term “soft power”). Japan is investing $500 million in a 20-year plan, most likely in response to Korea’s enormous gain in the international pop culture wars — while Japan used to be Asia’s predominant taste maker, Korea has caught up in a phenomenally short amount of time.

koreancoolappIn The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture, Euny Hong outlines the reasons Japan’s reign has come to an end:

“First of all, Japanese pop culture, like the Japanese archipelago itself, is too isolated from the rest of the world to have remained a sustainable global influence. […] Others, like pop culture critic Lee Moon-won, point out that Japan is a big enough consumer market as it is (the population is 100 million) and is less dependent than Korea is on foreign exports. For many Japanese companies, it’s not worth the huge risk of a very, very costly overseas marketing campaign.” (200-201)

In addition, she cites that “many of Japan’s video games are for the Japanese market only,” the Japanese are reluctant to learn English (“J-pop bands don’t strategically include non-Japanese members, for example”), the presence of online distribution channels like YouTube and the use of subtitles which Japanese companies refuse to take advantage of, and the practice of grooming potential stars much differently than their Korean counterparts (201-202). Korean agencies churn out K-pop stars in a factory system, training idols from a very young age in dancing, singing, and media presence, and sending them out into the world as polished and professional as most audiences would expect. On the other hand, Japanese idols start out at a young age to purposely appear green: their real marketing push is to debut somewhat untalented so they can hone their skills in the public eye, giving the audience a sisterly or brotherly pull to support them. This creates a sort of emotional (and financial) bond unique to J-pop idols. In addition, it’s worth mentioning that Japanese idols are valuable less for their singing or dancing skills, than their ability to effortlessly float across media platforms, such as dramas, variety shows, and advertising.

W. David Marx writes in “The Jimusho System: Understanding the Production Logic of the Japanese Entertainment Industry“: “In pursuit of profit, they [agencies] maximize entertainers’ incomes through a wide variety of activities, most deeply focused on product sponsorship. […] Idols are products of their jimusho, [agency] and the jimusho work to create idols who have the greatest economic potential (37).” This “economic” potential is difficult to parlay into an overseas net value where the same advertising tie-ins would be highly difficult to obtain, and artists would, instead, have to rely solely on their music and performances. In that case, it would be a Sisyphean task to attempt to cross over hugely successful groups like SMAP, Arashi, or AKB48. Furthermore, it makes little sense from a business standpoint to drop what is already such a lucrative endeavor that needs no explanation at home, to a country such as the United States, that would require footnotes at every step (see my post Japanese Pop Culture and Intertextuality to get a sense of what we’re dealing with here).

Furthermore, celebrity endorsements work differently in Japan anyway. Jason G. Karlin writes in “Through a Looking Glass Darkly: Television Advertising, Idols, and the Making of Fan Audiences” that

“[u]nlike celebrities in the US, Japanese [talents] do not endorse products. Instead, image characters lend their star image to the brand, but without implying any direct endorsement or testimonial. The Japanese celebrity is not making any claims or representations for the product. Indeed, in most commercials, the celebrity never even mentions the name of the product.” (74-75)

To sum up again, we’re looking at a culture that is financially stable in its own system that, at least for the time being, works in their favor. To move outside Japan, Japanese companies would be losing control of large amounts of income and the enormous influence they yield over broadcast networks and other companies by providing stars that earn those companies revenue in return.

On the other hand, K-pop idols are much more willing to play the long-game and adapt to their Western counterparts in both business practice and image. This is especially easy when K-pop is already so familiar and hip to an international audience that recognizes its references immediately without needing to Google eight separate pieces of background information to get an idea of what’s going on with the sounds or visuals. Perhaps this is why Perfume in particular have been chosen as the next torchbearers: their sound is largely irreverent of current J-pop trends, capable of being enjoyed in as basic a vacuum as you can get when it comes to J-pop. They are also not idols in the traditional sense, yet they do bring a sense of something wholly unique and Japanese, that Yasutaka Nakata sound that is so difficult to replicate and so chillingly important in a music market that sounds more and more homogenous. While they don’t have Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s fashion cred, they do have a uniform look and appeal that remains classic, and a forward-looking visual aesthetic that can be as breathtaking as it is innovative. They are, in short, one of the best musical groups Japan currently has to offer and continuing to send them off into the world is the only way to keep the party going when domestic sales start to flutter.

hellokiappIt’s also a way to promote Japanese pop culture without using the words many already associate with Japan: anime, cute, kawaii, Hello Kitty, etc. While none of those things are inherently bad unto themselves, Japan already has a PR campaign focused on nurturing kawaii. In “Wink on Pink: Interpreting Japanese Cute as It Grabs the Global Headlines” Christine Yano lists everything from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs using the robot kitty Doraemon as its mascot, to Hello Kitty for its tourism, to using three young women, Misako Aoki, Yu Kimura, and Shizuka Fujioka, to model Lolita, Harajuku, and schoolgirls-in-uniform fashion at Japanese global events to showcase how “Japanese cute – including its tease of youth and femininity — has become part of official policy in creating a new face that beckons the overseas customer (685).” While there is something of a tongue-in-cheek way that these fashions and messages are worn by consumers (the “wink” in the article’s title), it’s still a wonder to see three girls like Perfume promote something other than a stereotype: indeed, the girls are hard-working and talented and feminine and strong and they don’t have to wear a maid uniform to get your attention or represent their country. Progress.

Regardless, none of this points to absolute success, where success is defined by the acceptance of a widespread Western audience: for example, while the Japanese lyrics are part of the appeal, it may be difficult for a broader audience to accept the authenticity. In fact, historically we have nothing to predict this will catapult Perfume into global stardom, rather than do the same thing groups like Girls’ Generation have done: bring happiness and delight to a small niche audience, maybe open a few new eyes and ears to something new and different (in this case, recruiting English speaking members is a plus when you plan on conducting interviews and making audiences more comfortable with English-language albums). Maybe get the ball rolling for more, mostly insignificant, collaborations, or spark the hope that a person or persons of Asian background can become celebrities outside their respective countries. At best, get “Gangnam Style” out of their heads. This is why fans that fear the group will change, or that they’ll lose something fragile and precious, as if they own trends or people and would rather hold them back to the detriment of their overall success, probably don’t have much to worry about.

femmappAs for where J-pop is going, it is indeed interesting to watch the music market evolve with the influence of K-pop. I’ve written before how groups like Fairies are borrowing some of the look and style of K-pop groups. Earlier, I quoted Euny Hong stating J-pop groups are reluctant to learn English (“J-pop bands don’t strategically include non-Japanese members, for example”), but this also seems to be changing with groups like FAKY and GENERATIONS from EXILE TRIBE. Both groups are under the record label avex trax and include non-Japanese members that were born outside the country or are of mixed background. It’s worth noting that avex trax might be one of the few labels that can attempt to experiment with the market: as one of the most successful independent record labels in Japan, they have the reputation and the funds to put things like hyper-experimental (and oh my god amazing) “mannequins” FEMM out into the world. All of these are responses to the K-pop model of music, a mutation in the J-pop virus that churns out uber-pop boy and girl bands for the sake of banking on present trends rather than taking a chance on the future, or rather, creating one. However, this is still not the typical practice of Japanese record companies.

Japan needs to remember that as it leads the world in music sales, it also has the responsibility to remain as diverse as it always has, to support not only its huge corporations but its budding indie labels and future taste makers, to utilize social media and not fear the big, bad, icky feeling of not being able to dictate how their audience will buy, share, view, or consume their products at all times. Because of the lose of control of their performers, over segments of the industry as a whole, and the extra revenue generated from crossover platforms, exporting Japanese culture would need to transcend the bottom line for the ideals of national pride and a genuine desire to share culture across borders rather than to niche audiences like fans of anime or Harajuku fashionistas. Perhaps “the ultimate question of whether “Cool Japan” can really pose a challenge to Hallyu lies in whether people even want the Japanese brand of cool when Korean cool seems to be working so well already,” writes sophie at Beyond Hallyu. Nonetheless, whether or not Cool Japan has the potential to catch up with or surpass the Hallyu wave depends on all of this, in addition to how willing the country will be to let go of business-as-usual and dare to try new things – or decide it’s worth it in the first place.

Ai ♥ Otsuka and the fantastic fall of the Oricon charts

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Every month some new article pops up about the fall of Ayumi Hamasaki, often in terms of CD sales according to the Oricon. Sometimes it’s about Namie Amuro. Or Kumi Koda. They all end the same way: your favorite thing is no longer a thing. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to talk about a J-pop artist’s diminishing sales because a) CD sales are rapidly declining every year, especially since the early 00’s and b) most of the titans we talk about when we talk about “diminishing sales” have been around since just before the CD industry collapsed. Therefore, while the number of years an artist has been around and the decreasing number of sales might be correlated, we can’t really know just how deep the Oricon sales dip might be if it weren’t for digital sales and/or people no longer paying for music in general. Here’s a chart of what Ayumi Hamasaki’s CD sales have looked like since A Song for XX up until Colours (as of today’s date).*

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This might look familiar to you because basically every J-pop diva’s chart looks exactly the same.

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(You might also mistake these charts for that of Japan’s annual inflation rate.)

Rather than say an artist is losing popularity, it might be wiser today to notice, for example, how popular Japanese recording artists all seem to follow the same trajectory: building up to an explosive album sale only to rapidly lose selling power. Instead of assuming sales are a reflection of the artists or the musical content itself, it’s safer to state a host of other hackneyed platitudes: that the general public is fickle, that fame is fleeting, and that selling music today is a Herculean task for only the bravest of record labels. Or more certainly, that the Oricon chart is meaningless, telling you neither who is buying albums nor why, that digital sales are better markers, or even that selling music is less important than selling concert tickets, merchandise, or providing opportunities for an artist to sponsor other products.

aiotsukalovefancovappNowhere is this more obvious than in some of the music that’s contained on these incredibly low-selling albums. My personal vote for most underrated album of the year is already Ai Otsuka’s LOVE FANTASTIC, which as of this writing, debuted at #22, slipped to #113, and has only sold a total of 5,188 units in its first two weeks (the vast majority of sales occurred the first week — the second only yielded 770 units). These are scary numbers for an album that is a quintessential example of J-pop done right, including Otsuka’s lush signature ballads (“Gomen ne,” “Mawari Mawaru Mawareba Mawaro”) and quirky upbeat numbers (title tracks “LOVE FANTASTIC” and, especially, “LUCKY☆STAR,” which sounds like a hip indie band’s debut single). In fact, this is one of the most cohesive albums Otsuka has ever released, and certainly one of my favorites overall, down to the jacket art (let’s not pretend LOVE JAM isn’t just some outrageous garbage).

But perhaps the “love” gimmick is just getting too hard for anyone to buy into anymore. Perhaps not releasing an album for six years has caused the public to forget who exactly this talented musician is — and perhaps Avex staying busy promoting Namie Amuro’s BALLADA has left them with little time, or incentive, to give the album the extra push it needed. Releasing any album ever, anywhere, anymore is always going to be like starting over, like forgetting all the past numbers, like forgetting numbers altogether, and simply making music that can hold its head up with grace while the charts crumble.

*(All statistics have been gathered from generasia.com/wiki. Please note that although the graphics appear to reach extreme lows, none of the numbers reach zero, as it might appear to — it’s just hard to illustrate drops to the low thousands on a scale with such large numbers).