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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The complete Retrospective round-up

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Things have been a little quiet here, but from the end of 2015, and through the first eight months of this year, I was busy writing a weekly series of retrospectives on a number of classic Japanese pop songs over at tumblr. I tried to approach the songs within broader cultural contexts, and/or providing some sort of different or new perspective on the history or legacy of the artist, song, or genre, thus covering a wide range of themes from K-pop crossovers, to the good and bad sides of idols, to nostalgia, to anime, to what it means to work with some of the greatest producers the world has ever seen. I limited myself only by a) singles I owned in my own personal collection, and b) keeping it at one song per artist (with the exception of Ayumi Hamasaki, where I was compelled to do two). This is not meant to be a complete history of, or primer, of J-pop — I ran out of time and energy to cover boy bands, a lot more rock music, and anything released earlier than 1980, for starters — but I’d like to think anyone new to contemporary J-pop would find some of these posts illuminating and helpful, while seasoned fans would enjoy looking back.

Here is the complete list in the order they were posted in case you don’t follow me over there, or missed any. (I also took a break one week to write about Amit Trivedi’s amazing “Rangaa Re” from the Fitoor soundtrack.)

01. T.M.Revolution: Heart of Sword ~Yoake Mae~ (1996)
02. Hikaru Utada: Movin’ on without you (1999)
03. Ayumi Hamasaki: evolution (2002)
04. globe: DEPARTURES (1996)
05. the brilliant green: Tsumetai Hana (1998)
06. Yukiko Okada: FIRST DATE (1984)
07. Namie Amuro: White Light (2005)
08. SPEED: Body & Soul (1997)
09. Tommy february6: Love is forever (2004)
10. Hiroko Yakushimaru: SAILOR Fuku to Kikanjuu (1981)
11. Morning Musume: Daite HOLD ON ME! (1999)
12. Hidemi Ishikawa: LOVE COMES QUICKLY ~Kiri no To No Ihoujin~ (1986)
13. Every Little Thing: NECESSARY (1999)
14. X Japan: THE LAST SONG (1998)
15. Kumi Koda: Koi no Tsubomi (2007)
16. Perfume: ONE ROOM DISCO (2009)
17. Imokin TRIO: HIGH SCHOOL LULLABY (1981)
18. Ai Otsuka: Neko ni Fuusen (2005)
19. Dir en grey: ain’t afraid to die (2001)
20. hide: PINK SPIDER (1998)
21. Yu Hayami: Natsuiro no NANCY (1983)
22. Ami Suzuki: FREE FREE (2008)
23. hitomi: Sexy (1996)
24. Zwei: Dragon (2005)
25. Sae: Kirari*Sailor Dream! (2003)
26. T-ara: Sexy Love (2013)
27. MY LITTLE LOVER: Shiroi Kite (1995)
28. Onyanko Club: SAILOR Fuku to Nugasanaide (1985)
29. Ayumi Hamasaki: July 1st (2002)
30. B’z: BE THERE (1990)
31. Nanase Aikawa: Lovin’ you (1998)
32. Akemi Satou: Itooshi Hito no Tame ni (1995)
33. Rica Fukami: Ai no Megami no How to love (1996)
34. Masami Okui: Rinbu-revolution (1997)
35. Takeshi Kaoru: VIOLENT BLUE/Aoi no Senkou (1992)
36. PUFFY: CIRCUIT no Musume (1998)
37. Seiko Matsuda: Natsu no Tobira (1981)

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.)

An appears tumblr year-end round-up

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Though this, the appears music blog, features all of my long-form writing and reviews, I have written some longer, interesting things over at tumblr, including my most popular post of the year. Please let me know if you’d prefer all the writing to stay over here or if you like having some “exclusive” content in the form of retrospectives and thought-pieces at the tumblr.

Here are some highlights of the year (and don’t forget you can browse the Notable Releases tag for new and upcoming releases):

Arrest of former AKB48 manager reveals illicit footage of members: A take on one of the most messed up stories in J-pop this year.

Ai Otsuka retweeted my review of LOVE TRiCKY!: Still as fabulous as the day it happened.

Dil Dhadakne Do: What looked good and bad about the title song.

It doesn’t belong in a song: Amit Trivedi’s Shaandaar: Amit Trivedi’s first genuine flop as a music composer.

T.M.Revolution’s “HEART OF SWORD ~Yoake Mae~”: A retrospective.

Hikaru Utada’s “Movin’ on without you”: A retrospective.

Ayumi Hamasaki’s “evolution”: A retrospective.

Marty Friedman’s “What is J-POP?”: A response

Preface: I think it’s great that Marty Friedman is so enthusiastic about Japanese pop music. However, for someone who has apparently been living or traveling to Japan for so long and speaks fluent Japanese, it is astonishing how little he understands the full scope of it. And as a musician (former member of Megadeth, current guitar virtuoso), writer, and speaker, it’s even more astonishing how his lecture “What is J-POP? ~Exposing the Myth of Japanese Music Phenomenon” is partly a failure of articulation. Friedman has ideas, they just get tangled and sprout half-formed. His tone borders on less-than-conversational, barely scratching the surface of popular Japanese music, while exposing his biases and the kind of thinking that makes one believe everything off one’s radar doesn’t exist at all. So basically, it might sound like I’m tearing this to pieces, and I guess I am, but since Friedman takes the time to apologize for his tastes several times during the lecture, I guess I can take the time to do it at least once: this lecture just wasn’t my thing. Sorry.

“And the main reason why I want to do this is because now is the time that Japan and its music scene is going to begin to be well-known outside of Japan. I think it’s really beginning now and […] I believe Japan’s music is the future.”

Japanese popular music has pretty much been around as long as its American counterpart, as Friedman himself takes pains to discuss. However, why Friedman thinks that now is the time that Japanese pop will “explode” is unclear. If any country can be predicted to hold the future of the world’s music right now (and I hate that I keep returning here, but it’s inevitable), that would be South Korea. Besides the fact that South Korea is motivated by economic factors (Japanese musicians don’t necessarily need foreign sales to thrive — plus, as mentioned in the lecture, kids will buy three or four copies of a single to collect all the singles or get the trading cards, while the South Korean music market pales in comparison), it also has a brilliant PR campaign the likes of which Japan has yet to utilize. While Japan patrols YouTube like a nark, pulling uploads and refusing to post full-length PVs, South Korea has successfully exploited social media to create viral videos and establish a brand. Many artists are already mingling or collaborating with foreign musicians, itself an easy transition when K-pop sounds like the smartest, hippest pop music upgraded to 11. And unlike Friedman’s lumping of J-pop into one large genre as if AKB48, X Japan (though he does use the term “visual-kei” here — more on that later), and Perfume all have the same sound, K-pop does have the luxury of that label: contemporary Korean pop music and groups are certainly easier to lump together than Japanese pop will ever be.

Later in the lecture, Friedman takes this further by positing that the future is a lot closer than we might anticipate: “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.” It takes a lot more than a few punk rock secretaries to make a movement, and even with South Korea’s expert marketing campaign, it’s already taken several years of very determined, very aggressive action to gain the sliver of media attention that K-pop has gotten. Japan is already set for failure as there aren’t many record labels and entertainment agencies that care that much about making a name outside Japan. Furthermore, to expect groups like, say, a Johnny & Associates group or the AKB/NMB etc. trend to gain traction in the West without a grasp of context and culture, is unlikely. Where it’s already associated with anime tie-ins and appearances at comic cons, it has already failed miserably by equating music culture with otaku culture, as if the two are never one without the other. It will take much longer to reverse what has already become the mainstream idea of what “Japan” and “Japanese culture” denotes to the average American citizen because of a reluctance to change it and refusal to be militant in doing so. When Friedman says things like “not only because it’s so whacked and so freaking crazy but also so cool, so colorful and so happy,” he’s really not doing Japan any favors, and certainly not changing anyone’s mind regarding stereotypes. Furthermore, in reference to his later championing of visual-kei…it’s been around for decades. Which is a long time. Again, I’m happy he’s so enthusiastic about this, but it’s not going to “explode” in 2012. It’s had the chance to explode for many, many years. And it hasn’t.

After playing Ikimonogakari’s “Arigatou,” Friedman says, “It’s just a gorgeous melody and it’s kind of sad in a different way than “sad” music is in Western music. When I think of sad music in Western music I would think of something like Adele or something like that.” I think the word he’s looking for is “nostalgia” (and possibly the overall theory of musical authenticity). Why the concept of nostalgia would not come to somebody who has apparently been listening to Japanese pop music for so long is strange, as it is an integral part of what constitutes Japanese pop culture. When he says this sound evolved from kayoukyoku music from “maybe 20-30-40 years ago” — well, which is it? Because that’s a huge chunk of time to be playing with, and Japanese pop music from the 80s, 70s, and 60s, all sounds extremely different and could be as easily lumped together as the contemporary styles are today: for Friedman, Japanese pop is no more dynamic than someone’s idea of Japanese culture consisting of geishas, rock gardens, and kabuki masks.

His giant theory of a unified J-pop extends into technical arenas as well, for example when he talks about Perfume’s “POLYRHYTHM.” “This is another thing about Japanese music is they can accept deep technical concepts within the context of ultra pop music.” “POLYRHYTHM” does indeed have some crazy-awesome time signatures going on, and it is arguably one of my favorite pop songs of all time, but using this song as an example of Perfume’s overall musical style is naive, as is calling Perfume’s music “the music of the future.” Technically, this is already the music of the past, as “POLYRHYTHM” was released five years ago. Furthermore, the group is still best known for their single “CHOCOLATE DISCO” which was released in 2007. Producer Yasutaka Nakata has since gone on to write and produce hundreds of songs with several artists, all with a similar, signature sound. That doesn’t diminish how great the music is, but it certainly no longer makes it worthy of being “the music of the future.” Sure, he’s spot on when he says “the main thing about this unit [Perfume] is the producer is a genius.” It’s probably the only 100% accurate statement in this piece. Unfortunately, he then goes on to call the founder of AKB48 a genius, which kind of takes away some of Nakata’s glory, and then basically calls the entire Japanese pop enterprise a genius, so the word loses its meaning and makes J-pop seem infallible, which is the least kind of logical argument someone can make for anything. Nothing is perfect and calling J-pop flawless takes away part of what it makes it so fun to listen to and discuss.

Friedman goes on to make an inadvertent testament to how Japanese pop really works when he moves on to Mr. Children, confirming that it’s “not going to sound like anything new, they’ve been around for at least 10-15 years. But every album is consistently a huge hit due to the quality of their song writing and performance.” Rather, I think Mr. Children’s popularity is due largely to the idea of loyalty that fans have to bands and artists that allow groups like Mr. Children and B’z to continue releasing music simply because there is a ready made audience that will buy the new single and the sort of respect legendary artists accumulate with time. But in the grand scheme of Japanese music, popular or otherwise, I would argue that Mr. Children and B’z have hit their stride years ago and remain faintly relevant, a perennial fixture on the landscape of Japanese pop.

“People in France might know X-Japan, because X-Japan is successful here and they toured outside of Japan, just like Dir en Grey did. But in Japan X-Japan are the ancestors, they brought it to the mainstream first. […] They are the Godfathers. They started it, they set the pattern of it. And now its 2012 and finally its making its way out of Japan.”

Is it though? And if X Japan are the ancestors, why are we still talking about them? Has visual-kei evolved so little that X Japan, who were popular twenty years ago, are still the most relevant example Friedman can offer? He then continues to namedrop more relics and claims visual kei is going through a “big boom” right now. But visual-kei never really went away; it’s not really experiencing a big boom, so much as it’s riding a pretty stable wave. Second of all, if it’s going through a big boom, where are all the great bands that haven’t been around for a decade? MUCC, Dir en grey, L’arc~en~Ciel…these are all bands I remember from when I was getting into Japanese rock fourteen years ago who had already been around for a while. Instead of trying to show how Japanese pop music is a flourishing, diverse enterprise, he’s really just showing how stagnant it’s gotten.

It’s a shame that the questions he received during panel were so thorough, because I don’t think Friedman takes the time to really consider them. For example, the first question asks how the Japanese can avoid falling into the traps of prejudice when trying to export their sound to the West. After talking around the issue, Friedman says, “I think a lot of it has to do with luck, a lot of it has to do with timing, the right person and the right song, I don’t think it’s something you can plan” (this probably coincides with his constant equating of “magic” with Japanese pop music, as if it sprouts from a land of mythical creatures). This doesn’t make any sense: it sounds exactly like the sort of approach that has already been taken and has failed miserably for it. He might as well claim he’s definitely going to win the lottery next year without having to buy a ticket. How much of South Korean pop music’s relative success has been due to “luck” and being in the “right place at the right time”? None of it. South Korean entertainment companies have used smart, consistent advertising techniques, employed expert use of social networks, and have probably had hundreds of meetings where strategies and goals have been calculated and re-calculated. This is not an endeavor that takes luck. It does not take the defeated strategy that you “can’t plan for something outside of your country.” His example is Yuki Saori, a young woman whose song was stumbled upon in a record store and led to her being invited to sing in London. That’s definitely a great way to get noticed outside Japan: hope your record is found in a 50 cent used bin somewhere and hope for the best!

Without offering any practical advice for how Japanese pop music will “explode” in the next year or two, Freidman comes off as a very enthusiastic, very sincere, fan whose obsession has blocked his ability to think rationally. Regarding the language barrier, he says Adele is difficult for Japanese listeners to get into because “they would have to really study the lyrics and have personal relationships that are similar to hers and that is hard because it’s in a different culture.” So how he thinks Japanese pop music can make that incredible leap is uncertain, especially when he later claims that the Japanese do not need to sing songs in English and should stick to their native language. Apparently, the Japanese can’t “get” us, but Americans will be able to “get” them right away.

And also: There is a (possibly unintended, but nonetheless, noteworthy for being so) fixation on female musicians, if not a simply patronizing tone toward females that escalates throughout the duration, none of which has a male counterpart anywhere in the lecture.

  • The fans of visual-kei are “about 90% females. Go figure, females listening to this kind of music.” Women can like metal, too. Go figure! Sometimes they even use the Internet. Go figure! (By the way, he concludes that girls just like the visual aspect, it’s guys who like the music.)
  • American music is “very kind of dull, it’s like subdued. It’s kind of like girls with candles in their room and incense and pillows and it’s not insane.”
  • SCANDAL, a four-member rock group whose schtick is wearing school uniforms would be huge in America because “you never think of cute girls playing rock.”
  • Nirvana was able to see the brilliance of Shonen Knife because “these were three tiny Japanese secretaries playing punk rock.”

Friedman likes cute girls, we get it. That’s not a bad thing. But the fixation on quiet girls with stereotypical quiet professions or lifestyles stops being quirky and starts becoming really condescending. During the panel, he answers a question saying that “in America the image of Japanese or Asian person is smart or brainy. They’re doing the best in school and they have a very good image.” This remark is made as if the image is inevitable and is the reason he “can’t see any Asian girl singer being like Beyonce or something like that, I just don’t see it happening.” Friedman has clearly never met Namie Amuro or Koda Kumi, two of the most popular female singers in Japan, whose attitude and image are nothing like AKB48, and, while probably not too much like Beyonce either, are certainly not what Friedman considers the ideal J-pop spokesgirl, the kind in SCANDAL or Perfume that he believes should be perpetuated in the West without necessarily introducing their dynamic, diverse equals.

By distilling Japanese pop music to the lowest common denominator in every single way, be it in genre, style, technique, or gender, Friedman actually perpetuates the real myth of Japanese pop music — that it is as stereotypical, static, and wacky as an average American might imagine. What he is “exposing” in this lecture is unclear and the myth actually takes on epic proportions as it continues (although I think his “myth” is that Japan doesn’t have it’s own music, let alone in such abundance, but I don’t think the existence of Japanese pop music is a myth anymore, so much as a fact people choose to ignore). Again, I love his enthusiasm for Japanese pop music and his vision of seeing it get more global attention, but these are exactly the type of incomplete ideas you don’t want presented in front of a large group of people meant to build a foundation for their ideas of Japanese pop music. I don’t know what Friedman’s actual knowledge of the history of Japanese pop music is, nor what his knowledge of its contemporary pop music is, but from this lecture, he comes off as the type of guy who recently discovered an AKB48 song, did a little bit of research on Wikipedia or the Oricon charts, casually browsed a major record store for something similar, and tried to find everything in the world that supported his theory that it’s the only type of music Japan does (or should do). Of course, this involves ignoring the multitude of Japanese pop artists and groups, the array of styles and techniques, the dissatisfaction many Japanese have with their own popular music, the very large indie scene, and the struggle many Japanese and Asians face regarding their ethnicity and/or gender. And that is a big deal.

The Trouble with J-pop: Revolutionizing the Western Community of Criticism

I wish that the concept of serious Japanese pop and rock criticism was, on the whole, more prevalent. I might even venture to say I wish it existed at all. There are of course, numerous problems with why criticism of Japanese music is in absentia, the most important which is obvious: everything about music criticism has stemmed around the Western world of music. The arguments are clear: (1) a lot of people speak English, some people speak Japanese; (2) if analyzing involves deconstructing the music within a cultural context, the Japanese culture is too far removed to do any of the analyzing unless you were born and raised within that culture. I’ll share an example.

In the introduction to Chuck Klosterman’s heavy metal odyssey Fargo Rock City, Klosterman claims that music criticism has been largely restrained to pop, blues, jazz, and the like, while intellectual criticism about heavy metal has been pretty moot. So he thought, well, I’m fairly intelligent and I like heavy metal, why don’t I write about it? So he did. It’s at this point I thought about pursuing the same thing in regards to Japanese pop. Hey, I’m fairly intelligent and I like J-pop. I could even narrow this down and do an entire study on Ayumi Hamasaki, considering I know more about her music and persona than any other artist I’ve listened to and researched. If I followed Klosterman’s example, I would then delve into how she affected my culture, my friends, and my life. But that’s the problem: Ayumi Hamasaki never affected my culture, she never affected the people around me, and so can she really have affected my life?

On a personal note, absolutely. Hamasaki’s music and persona seeped into every inch of my existence since I was a twelve year old kid listening to “Boys & Girls.” But Ayumi is not a part of my culture, no matter how much she sounds, looks, and acts the part. I have never walked down the street and glanced at billboards advertising A BEST. I have never stepped into a CD store with the knowledge that I would easily obtain her latest single. I have never turned on the radio and heard her songs on Top 40. I have never turned on the television and seen her advertising Visee Kose or a Panasonic camera; Ayumi is part of a culture, but it’s not mine.

But even if I did choose to write serious criticism on contemporary Japanese pop regardless, where could I even hope to be published outside of my own blog? Just who is the largest demographic of English-speaking Japanese pop and rock fans? And I’m left with the (sad) realization that it’s probably anime fans.

In 2003, a short year after the first incarnation of my (largely Japanese pop oriented) music blog appears was born, I received an E-mail from a representative of Tofu Records asking if I would help by advertising the releases of their albums, to which I politely declined on the basis that I believed (and still do) that their mission statement was outrageous. Tofu Records had a simple, albeit ambitious goal: to bring Japanese music to the United States by releasing Japanese pop artists’ albums in North America. A brilliant idea, except that the angle was to connect Japanese pop to anime. The idea was that kids and teenagers who watch anime are already primed to appreciate a facet of Japanese culture that would enable them to transition and be the likeliest foundation audience, hence, getting Japanese artists to perform at anime-cons. Well OK, some people who watch anime do listen to East Asian pop. The problem is that they are only a tiny fraction of people who listen to music in general and to say the two have any business being singularly attached at all is like using a Flaming Lips song to promote Mitsubishi. Using this approach, Tofu Records closed in 2007, less than five years later. So how do we successfully market a country’s musical oeuvre while allowing it to keep its integrity? How do we make it accessible and appealing to those not completely taken with Japanophilia, who just enjoy music without the anime attachment that may give them reason to judge before even hearing something they probably weren’t even aware existed? How do we get serious students, listeners, writers, and critics of music to pay attention in a country not very open to musical imports?

The cultural imperialism analysis puts things into a bit of perspective – Western culture influences everything and therefore, everything seems to be Western, if not simply American. But what Eastern countries like Japan have (amazingly) done is invite these ideologies without submitting their culture: the Oricon charts (similar to Billboard) feature both Western and Eastern artists, they eat at Western fast food restaurants, but their primary staple is still rice, they wear jeans and T-shirts, but don kimonos during formal events. These are just a few of the shallow aspects I’m pointing out – there is a lot of self-preservation within the country. Ayumi Hamasaki is a product of this unique culture and after all that, Ayumi can come to America, study our culture, and even speak our language fluently, but does that really make her a certifiable authority on our culture? If she chose to write criticism on say, some movie like There Will Be Blood in relation to our culture, would we take it seriously? Well, forgetting the fact that she’s a pop star, maybe.

First of all, America is built on that sort of acceptance; anyone can be American because our culture reaches beyond our borders and influences every aspect of non-Americans. But second of all, while Ayumi can conceivably “become” American, an “American” can never conceivably become “Japanese.” You can study the language, you can visit the country, you can live there for twenty years and make it your home, but if you weren’t raised there, can you really embody the true spirit of someone who’s gone through the cultural process of growing up in a country that, though very Westernized, is still undeniably different? Will you ever be more than just a gaijin oddity?

But this is the big question: can I legitimately dissect and analyze the influence of Ayumi Hamasaki on culture (or in general) when her culture is not my culture? When I have not been to Japan, have not exhaustively studied the language and only have a deeper understanding of the culture…to a certain extent? To just say it’s impossible is of course both stupid and short-sighted. But then there’s the question of who would read the analyses anyway.

The Japanese pop and rock culture is almost exclusively based on the Internet. For argument’s sake, the Internet is a concept and not a reality (I’ve read the phrase “in the real world” so many times on blogs, I find this argument beyond justifiable). That’s not to say it doesn’t exist at all – there are a handful of genuinely superb Japanese pop and rock blogs or web sites (but again, just a handful) and even a few “communities” that discuss the music in general, but I have yet to find any sort of transcendent, intellectual, and serious agenda on said subject matter. Pleasure Principled attempted this with its “revealingly articulate idol worship,” but the site hasn’t been updated in a long time, and even when it was, it focused almost exclusively on the “idol” community instead of embracing the full spectrum of J-pop. That’s not to say these casual fan blogs are somehow wrong or useless; personal journals are meant to be conduits of very personal, emotional, and unprofessional reactions and opinions, many of them launched to have fun with no serious aspirations attached. They allow fans to come together to discuss and interact, no matter what they have to say and how they choose to go about saying it. But where is its academic counterpart: the all-encompassing, articulate, savvy prose on all things Japanese pop, ie; where is the English-speaking J-pop version of Pitchfork? Hell, where is the English-speaking J-pop version of Rolling Stone or NME?

The Internet is already primed for this community; with no one else to talk to in the immediate, real world vicinity, English-speaking fans of Japanese pop found their allies through the Internet back in the day when the word anime still returned hollow, questioning stares. In fact, one can make the claim that Japanese music in America is a total Internet phenomenon; almost no one I’ve ever met who listens to it has discovered it without a decent ISP. This has bourgeoned into today’s mélange of blogs and message boards that post and discuss everything from Namie Amuro’s latest commercial endorsement, to the cutest member of Morning Musume. But if this is supposed to be “my” community, why does it sometimes embarrass the hell out of me? I would be loathe to claim superiority, intellectual or otherwise (though it can be argued that my entire stance in this essay stems from at least a certain type and degree of elitism), nor do I claim some sort of encyclopedic knowledge of all things J-pop; if anything, exposure to these blogs has taught me how much I have yet to listen to and learn. However, it’s also taught me how shallow, inhibited, exclusive, and unstimulating the core collective of English-speaking Japanese pop writers are; a lack of critical thinking, analyzing, and perceptive discussion plagues the very community I have never truly felt a part of. I’ve been listening to Japanese pop for eleven years now, during which my tastes have grown, changed, expanded, and matured, and yet it seems all of my peers have remained perpetually thirteen years old. How they can expect anyone else to take it seriously if they don’t either?

Again, there are huge exceptions here; it’s not my intention to cut down a community that, though never truly wrapping its arms around me, has always acknowledged my interest and ambition, even when they call my opinions “biased” as if they’re not, you know, opinions. There are great blogs out there with insightful comments and worthwhile niche communities: there’s jrockynyc, a veritable goldmine of humor, knowledge, and experience; Pink Wota, a witty, stream-of-consciousness take on pop; unchained, an intellectual oasis for some of the more obscure, indie titles; and International Wota, a community that connects all of these blogs with a feed keeping readers abreast of the salient topics du jour. But though there are a few more I don’t have the space to include, I’m still left with a plethora of blogs that recycle the same singles and albums from J-pop .rar blogs, most of who write reviews as if to recreate songs using uninventive, poorly stringed words after one or two listens, and never place any of the music in cultural or artistic contexts, let alone elude to a bigger picture. The poorly written comments that lash out in juvenile, unconstructive ways is a whole other beast. Plus, most of the writers are relatively young; I’m young myself, but that’s kind of the point. There are thousands of records I haven’t heard and books on music journalism I haven’t read and it’s only with time that I can hope to get through some of them and gain a more well-rounded understanding that will contribute to the way I listen to and analyze a piece of music, not to mention the way I choose to express that. Shouldn’t our community strive to be defined by just as much maturity and experience as Western criticism?

But then, I guess my aim has always been bigger. I’m not content to see Japanese pop and rock straddle the fringe, barely hanging on. I’m not willing to rest on the laurels that it’s the best we have, this J-pop community that’s content to remain a sort of cult hobby, that expresses horror and jealousy when a favorite pop star deigns to be just as accessible as Britney Spears. Shouldn’t our ambitions be higher? Shouldn’t we be aiming to put Eastern pop and rock on the same wavelength as its Western counterpart, without compromising it like, say, Dir en grey, without stripping it of its unique Japan-ness that causes us to love it so much or rob via the same impulse that wants the accessible, kitschy aspects of Japan only with the cute or eccentric filters on? Shouldn’t we be pushing it to be just as important, just as canon-worthy? Hell, to create a canon in the first place? To make sure Yellow Magic Orchestra and Happy End one day stand in the same hall of fame as Yes or The Beatles? I’m not saying it will be easy. I mean, even this desire to amass a legion of English-speaking J-pop savants forces Japanese music to succumb to the words and phrases of Western taste. Even something as simple as an album review requires filtering it through the Western mouth and spitting it out into some sort of ersatz reality, the one that claims any of us Westerners can truly be conduits of Eastern music culture when most of us have not been born, raised, or visited Asia, let alone speak any Asian languages; yes, music is a universal language, but it takes a lot more than just an I-like/I-don’t-like approach to write about it.

But I believe it’s possible. To look at something like a Buono! promotional video and critique it on the basis of talent and originality without submitting to cheap, easy shots at its sheer cuteness, or the sometimes endless Western desire to bemoan an utter lack of irony (hipsters, steer clear), and instead, see the unblemished sincerity not as a sign of ignorance, but, simply, as a whole different style of accessible, radio-friendly music contingent on the people in its culture is not easy, but it’s certainly reasonable. And we can’t take for granted the sheer amount of rock and indie that pervades the island either; the Kinks and the Rolling Stones shouldn’t  be (and aren’t) the only progenitors of rock music. And as countless have studied their influence on counter and youth cultures, we, too, should look at the way a uniquely influenced country like Japan has managed to craft rock without use of as much blues as its Western contemporaries and what it meant for its listeners. Or the outcome of what a lack of a Western definition of a minority has on the emergence of Japanese hip-hop.

In the September 2007 issue of the Japanese version of Rolling Stone (which is barely three years old!), Kawasaku Daisuke compiled a list of the 100 Greatest Japanese Rock albums of all time – an absolute, groundbreaking first.

“The Japanese music magazine industry resembles what existed in America before the rise of Rolling Stone. That’s to say, record companies – the main advertisers – see their wishes strongly reflected on every page, and because of this, magazines’ main job is to praise new releases. Is that why we’ve never seen one of these lists? It’s a strange situation, almost like the entire industry is infected with the idea that they should not rank releases because it would “make the record companies angry.” […] We must change this ridiculous situation into something more normal.” (Daisuke)

That was in 2007. Has anything changed since then? Well, when Yasutaka Nakata, a prolific Japanese producer, songwriter, and DJ was interviewed for The Japan Times Online in August 2009, he said, “The power of music critics is less in Japan now. […] And partly this is because they’ll talk about music saying that ‘this’ or ‘that’ is really fashionable, but the [sic] themselves obviously have no sense of style, so people react like, ‘What? Why should we listen to this guy?’” No. Nothing has changed at all. Albums are reviewed with praise and high ratings so they sell well, when let’s be honest – not every album is worth buying, or even listening to. It’s time to make the big leap in establishing the canon with well-written, researched reviews, articles, and essays by professional, critical listeners and writers who live and breath music, while remaining sensitive to our own handicaps and restrictions, cultural or otherwise.

After all, to speak of LUNA SEA or Dir en grey’s influence is to speak of the culture they have affected – those hundreds of visual kei/metal/lolita/what-have-yous – of which I have never partook of and thus know very little of, regardless of the fact that I have been listening to Dir en grey for eight years, from its VK infancy, to the bastardized riffs of American nu-metal mimicry. Here’s that socio/anthropological question again: does analysis of art in a particular culture require cultural participation? And if it doesn’t, if we agree that Western fans of Japanese pop have just as much valid insight into the Japanese musical landscape as Japanese music writers who were born, raised, and live/publish in Japan (and again, the idea of actual Japanese music criticism by the Japanese vis-à-vis the Western paradigm is extremely, ridiculously recent, if at all), is the message really genuine, or like Namie Amuro’s Queen of Hip-Pop, can it simply reflect the culture to which it aspires?

Like any art, music is not made in a vacuum. In fact, if the purpose of art is communication (of ideas, of feelings, of shared values), music speaks directly to the social environment in which it was begat. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it and discuss it on a (relatively) superficial level (as many J-pop blogs do), but as Americans living across the ocean (even with really reliable Internet access), does it mean we’ll never be able to truly grasp its central conceit? And if it’s feasible, does it mean we repair, from the ashes of so many trivial Hello! Project and Johnny’s fan blogs, this unique community to which all J-pop fans belong? Or do we break off and revolutionize the way the world perceives Japanese popular music forever?

(Special thanks to Mike for helping me work out and edit the ideas here.)

the Time is Now, my revolutionary Western music critics

Ian Martin recently interviewed Yasutaka Nakata, one of the most prolific Japanese producers, as well as song-writer, DJ, and overall badass, for The Japan Times Online, and what strikes me as most important about the advertorial for capsule’s upcoming greatest hits compilation is the things he has to say about music criticism:

“Especially in Tokyo, […] someone who knows a lot about music, they play something and people think, ‘OK, this must be popular now.'”

“The power of music critics is less in Japan now. […] And partly this is because they’ll talk about music saying that ‘this’ or ‘that’ is really fashionable, but the [sic] themselves obviously have no sense of style, so people react like, ‘What? Why should we listen to this guy?'”

“In Japan, […] if something sells really well, the singers will be all over the TV and everywhere, but no one cares who made it. But overseas, when they hear the song, they think, ‘Who made it?’ not ‘Who’s singing it?’ Not just songwriters, but also the arrangers, the sound engineers — they respect all the people who are involved in making the music.”

I’ve been working on an essay this past week (it will be finished and posted eventually) about the (non-existent) state of  serious Japanese music criticism in the West, and this just reinforces all the points I’m making in three tiny blurbs: that Western style of music criticism/journalism is extremely respected, well-informed, and important, while the Japanese style is a joke and treated more like an almost pure hybrid of marketing and payola (and it’s no secret!), and that this respected, well-informed, and important style of music criticism has yet to be adapted to Japanese music (or East Asian pop in general). But I’ll save the rest for the essay.

Most profiles are generated with a desperate sense of summary and little original content, crafted to promote an artist and filtering sense or meaning out of what little a pop artist has to say, which is usually nothing about anything. But Yasutaka Nakata is addressing something that I think is fundamental to the English-speaking J-pop revolution.

Music critics of America, are you listening?