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”

apparashifukkatsu2

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.

The Empress’s New Clothes

ayumadeapp1

There was a time when Ayumi Hamasaki was a trend-setter, a pioneer in music, image, and business. In her long, storied career, she was known for trying new things, even when those things seemed gimmicky or never saw a repeat. For example, in 2009 she bundled limited editions of her album NEXT LEVEL onto a specially designed USB. The following year, a special edition of Love songs was released in deluxe, LP-sized packaging with a USB and micro-SD. In 2012, along with many of her label Avex Trax’s popular artists, her albums were re-released in the comically unnecessary PLAYBUTTON format, a literal button loaded with the album’s contents and a jack for headphones. And now, as Avex tackles the logistics of its own streaming service AWA, Ayumi Hamasaki’s new album M(A)DE IN JAPAN was launched in conjunction, a Beyonce-like drop that caught fans unaware stateside on a Friday morning (or Thursday night, depending on where you call home – it was released Wednesday, May 11 in Japan).

Hamasaki had made hints on her Instagram account (and to that she was a little late, preferring Twitter to the image-only app — she launched the account only recently to promote a concert tour, then reappearing to post behind-the-scenes photos of her recording sessions and stage rehearsals), captioning outtakes from the cover shoot with lyrics from the new songs. Though the release was unexpected, it wasn’t surprising: Hamasaki’s career has relied less and less on the music than on other aspects that keep it rolling along, like personal scandal and gossip, fashion and designer accessories, appearances for launch events, and of late, the massive stage shows that have become more and more technical and vigorous, first with added acrobatic elements and aerial specialists, then with Hamasaki tackling those same acrobatic stunts herself. Despite her overall declining popularity and diminishing sales, each arena show always looks packed, leading fans on the AHS forum to speculate that tickets are sold outside the show for cheap, or given away free to fill seats, all in an attempt to maintain appearances and keep the star blissfully ignorant of her current status. Is it true? One can only guess. Smaller stars with less-fawning entourage are guilty of worse.

Certainly, Hamasaki is no fool, and a case of Sunset Boulevard this is not. The artist might not draw in the same numbers, but her track record is nothing to scoff at: rumors that she refused to release any more singles so as not to taint her record-breaking streak of #1s were balanced by the fact that most stars aren’t releasing singles anymore at all. Not even Namie Amuro can be bothered to release singles regularly, and most of those songs don’t even end up on albums. After a two year hiatus, Hamasaki finally released one, watching her sales numbers almost halve. Anyway, singles are for newcomers and idols, not seasoned professionals. And professional is what Hamasaki is.

ayumadeinapp2J-pop’s reigning queen, a shrewd businesswoman, can play the game better than anyone else (I’ll allow for two exceptions); she didn’t become TIME‘s Empress of Pop by playing it safe or always being nice. Throughout her career, Hamasaki has bent others to her will, championing her own unique style, re-branding her image on personal whims, signing multiple endorsements, and standing back to watch the public buy every single camera, cellphone, and limited edition box of donuts not because of any need, but from an obsessive want to posses, in some way, that same charm and effortless beauty that she radiated. Tapping into that insecure desire, some would say exploiting it, was her specialty. But by some Machiavellian spirit, all was forgiven, because in the end, she always stayed true to an authentic, artistic vision in her music and in her relationship with her fans.

Her singles, and especially albums, were the touchstone. Even if a fan couldn’t afford to attend all four of her sold out Dome Tours, even if they could only buy one copy of the original A BEST, or one edition of a single, and not even the DVD version, but the regular edition that came with the least-pretty cover art, they could always feel like she was right there in the room with them, just by pressing play. It’s been written about many times: the songs and lyrics that comprise Hamasaki’s discography are some of the strongest of any female solo artist, and they have the added dignity of coming from a very personal, very carefully curated place in her life. Part confessional, part biography, part memoir, each song had a distinctive, quantifiable identity of its own, a little world that someone could spend days poring over, seeking all the various interpretations; a universe of possibility, wisdom, and truth. Overarching themes tackled everything from breakups, to unrequited love, to empowerment, to depression, to weakness, vulnerability, and all the myriad permutations of human relationships and the petty sins they could lead to. Getting down to the very thing of life itself was her specialty, and reward and respect is in order to a woman who could successfully balance the forces of hollow commerce with the depths of artistic integrity and insight.

But relying on the goodwill of the past can be a dangerous, feckless thing to attempt. The precedent was set before her: Japanese pop stars will always fade away before they burn out. The relationships that bind long-terms business associations are eternal. Loyalty will always trump a fresh new face. The brick foundations of relationships formed over time — those between artist and fans, producers and protegees, record labels and singers — are more than mere givens: they are long-term business strategies and even longer-term unspoken promises, more like blood, than ephemeral, contractual ties.

And in many ways Avex Trax is like a blood-bound family: famed producer Tetsuya Komuro, despite his own dubious, philandering behavior and illegal dips into money-making disasters, is still tucked under the record labels’ protective wing in deference to his legendary history of hit-making and artist-molding. We can never forget that if the term J-pop was coined by the media, it was Komuro who shaped it, gave it a weight and a wonder that is still being imitated today. Hamasaki garners the same due respect, though her longevity is now a telling sign that yes-men outnumber the taste makers and the common sense of a capricious public; whether or not anyone would approve, cares, or likes what she has to offer is of little concern. In many ways, it’s not just empowering or fearless, it’s flat-out amazing, yet in others, concerning, a ham-fisted, clumsy way of coming to terms with reality, rather than humbly forfeiting a personal vision for one that could bring in a younger, broader audience, or change public perception.

ayumadeinapp5Namie Amuro has been more successful at this. Since she never had a conflicting, self-motivated vision for her image and style, always choosing to opt for professional taste and image makers, ebbing and flowing with the current trends, she’s managed to remain not only popular, but relevant. In many ways, Amuro is doing the same thing she was doing fifteen years ago, but with the added heft of experience and visible maturity, both in the way she has grown as a performer, and in her handling of the public. It might just be an old-fashioned aversion to social media, a language she feels too old to learn, but her lack of any Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram accounts has also served to keep her mysterious and alluring, a femme fatale-superhero who swoops in by night to put on the world’s greatest show as if from nowhere, and exiting the stage as if into thin air. As Hamasaki imprints herself onto the public with bigger and bolder strokes, Amuro is retreating into the shadows, any outward sign of personal identity disappearing with her tattoos, so that what we’re left to identify with is something more elusive, but universal: an enduring spirit and attitude, a don’t-quit, never-say-die-diva who is able to have both the amazing career and the secrets. These aren’t mutually exclusive. In many ways, you can’t be a musician who mines personal experiences to make art without opening yourself to scrutiny and public reaction, both positive and negative.

The difference, and this is only speculation, is that Amuro has changed course when things haven’t worked, experimented with things she may not have always liked, and shifted focus to what worked in the past. This willingness to take in criticism and learn from her mistakes — for example the relationship with her backup dancer and brief career hiatus — has only benefited her. We know she’s a mother to an eighteen year old son, but to all of us, she’s our ageless drag mama, teaching us all how to work a sidewalk like a runway, perennially confident, poised, and graceful. Maybe she’s only these things because it’s what she’s given us to work with, or maybe we just need her to be these things because we can’t always be them ourselves; somebody needs to be the guiding light of inspiration. On the other hand, Hamasaki’s mistakes are never actually lessons in disguise, in fact, they’re worth repeating when things start to get too quiet. Rather than acknowledge any critical commentary, she plows ever-forward, a singular, but self-motivated vision. Exhilarating, but exhausting.

ayumadeinjpanaapp3Hamasaki would benefit from listening to honest judgment concerning her recent career choices, not because they necessarily need to change altogether, or cater exclusively to long-time fans (a demographic I will forever pledge allegiance to) or the whims of youthful trends as many artists past their prime do, but because it allows one to not just work harder (Hamasaki is already a notorious workaholic), but to grow and develop harder, rather than grasp at straws. These straws are how I view albums like Love again and COLOURS. In many ways, as much as A ONE was a wonderful album, the first Hamasaki album that’s felt like a Hamasaki album in as much as eight years, it is how I now view M(A)DE IN JAPAN, a competent album, a very Ayumi-album, with its hard rock, edgy guitars, and emphatic verbiage, its anger, pain, and domineering presence, but yet another companion to the aforementioned A ONE and sixxxxxx. Like sixxxxxx, it’s a collection of standards, not hits. It’s temping to be content with the humble offering (and it is very humble, at a restrained 10-tracks), especially when there’s so little to find fault with. The album’s biggest misstep seems to be the final original track, “Summer of Love,” which is actually a really great song, but for some other really great album, lacking the sound and feel of the other tracks. I can take or leave “Many Classic Moments,” which begs the question of whether or not dancey cover songs are the way Hamasaki will be ending all of her albums from now (is two a pattern, or do we have to wait for three?).

Furthermore, we can add M(A)DE IN JAPAN to the country’s other great national-pride-inspired albums which began cropping up in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake, from Kumi Koda’s JAPONESQUE, to Perfume’s JPN, to Arashi’s Japonism. Hamasaki’s album, too, boasts the traditional subtleties, with a very faint presence of Japanese instrumentation punctuating the modern sounds of pop and rock — a very apt metaphor for the country’s popular culture today, with its blend of old and new. And the songs are every bit as dramatic as we expect her songs to be, with a minimally fresh take on the standard formula that keeps the album interesting, moving from tear-jerkers to fist-pumpers, rather than the awkward bid for trendy relevancy that COLOURS sought (innovation only works when it’s done successfully).

Yet what is most significant, and infuriating and sad, is that M(A)DE IN JAPAN is the definitive end of an era, probably a personal one, but one that any long-time fan can identify with: the Ayumi-album-as-event that marked a generation of J-pop fans’ yearly calendars. Released as quietly as it was, with no promotional tie-ins, no crazy-huge posters in Shibuya, no cover art blazoned on trucks passing by, you could almost miss it, as I did last week, stuck at work all night and just catching the headline the following morning. The album might be released as a physical CD at the end of June, but the moment has already come and gone.

ayumadeinjapp4In many ways now, as for many seasoned artists, new work is immaterial, an insignificant blip that merely provides the excuse for a little bit of income and extended touring. It makes one wonder if Hamasaki has found a new, more immediate outlet for expressing herself, through the heady theatrics of her live shows that now stretch upwards of three hours long. The wild artifice and spectacle of her stage shows, even in an era of increasingly amazing pyrotechnics and computer effects, is still dazzling to see. In this environment, Hamasaki gets immediate attention and first-hand affection from fans in a reality-defying wave of all-consuming love. The costumes, the sets, the lights, and the song selection, a hyper-hardcore update of shows past, are just some ways that the bridge between audience and artist is crossed and re-crossed, destroyed and re-built, in the course of an evening. It is Hamasaki attempting to express her truth in ways we’ve only seen lately through her songs and lyrics, and sometimes, barrage of cryptic Tweets. Despite the number of things that could go wrong — especially now that pulleys and ropes and rings and precarious rigging of giant vats of water have been introduced — or maybe because of them, Hamasaki thrives on stage, commanding and in charge, forever demanding “Motto, motto!” from her audience.

While all signs point to the end of a musical era, it’s impossible to predict what the future holds for Hamasaki’s career as a whole, let alone the choices she might make. Marriage hasn’t slowed her down, nor has age or any other factor insignificant in the face of a persevering, born celebrity, beholden only to her fans, and is an unlikely predictor of any directions she might take; and yet, it’s unlikely that such a steep dip in sales and popularity can be ignored completely. Only time will tell when one of the most glorious artists and entertainers Japan has ever seen will break all our hearts and take her final bow. The show must go on, but it can’t go on forever.