predia’s “Kindan no MASQUERADE”

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It’s hard to compete with E-girls, who are one of the best J-pop groups we have right now (that the biggest influence on E.G. CRAZY/”E.G. COOL” is 1990’s Janet Jackson, makes it all the better), but I’m slowly warming to predia. They’re striving to have the same kind of edge without the benefit of distinctive and well-known individuals in their group — and the word individual is important here; we can instantly pick out faces and personalities like Ami, Reina Washio, and YURINO (or at least, personalities as they’ve been sold to us), but does a casual fan know any of the members of predia? The latter functions more like a collective unit than E-girls does, and its telling that an inability to connect with the group on any level other than superficial is mostly because none of the members stands out as more talented, or particularly interesting, than any other. I’m sure more enthusiastic fans beg to differ. Furthermore, because predia doesn’t have the advantage of sub units, like E-girls’s conjoining of dream, Happiness, Flower, etc., there’s less chance to see different sides of any of the members in other iterations.

Still, predia functions along much of the same ideology: a tougher, more-than–just-idols group (Avex would call them a “dance group,” I guess) that is built to increasingly appeal to female fans rather than male ones. It’s part of what I like about them so much. The other part is their music, which in a bid to compete against a group like E-girls, increases the chances that they’ll come out with something I like. Their new single “Kindan no MASQUERADE” is a great example of the type of aggressive pop that has become their hallmark. It’s nowhere in the realm of the funky-dance and cool that a group like E-girls now pulls off backwards and in heels, but there’s a studied skill and sharp attention to detail in the choreography, and the absence of a make-believe coyness, the sugar-coma levels of cute of a group and song like, say, Country Girls’ new “Peanut Butter Jelly Love.” They’re essentially incomparable, is what I’m saying, an instant plus.

I doubt that any one member of predia will eventually make inroads like former label-mates PASSPO☆ did, but it’s an appreciated alternative, and if their producers can break through the business-as-usual pop songs to release something that transcends their niche among the more mature sounds of groups like Da-iCE (say, a “Pink Champagne” or “E.G. Anthem“), they might prove some staying power beyond what anyone could easily estimate as their shelf-life. And hey, E-girls aren’t perfect either: they could take some tips on ways to fit all the girls on a jacket sleeve without resorting to terrible Photoshop templates.

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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.

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)

Above & Beyond’s “Sun & Moon”

Above & Beyond / Sun & Moon / March 21, 2011
01. Sun & Moon

For one month in January, all of East Asia agreed: keep your head down. That the song, another take on the inexhaustible template of bad break-ups, was so popular it was performed for several weeks on South Korean music shows, translated into Japanese, hit number one on the Oricon, and then sputtered out as if it never existed, is just another demonstration of how pop music brings together so quickly and fades away twice as soon. There is obsession, followed by post-partum, followed by an even lengthier indifference. But “Sun & Moon” is not pop music. There is no moving on. There is only the courageous acceptance that you will never move on; you will never get over it.

It’s ironic that the album featuring this single is titled Group Therapy when the music video effectively exhibits how being alone with the music can take on brief, but therapeutic results. But the overarching genre of trance is meant to be played in large venues for huge crowds and it’s this ambitious title that shows Above & Beyond’s progression from helping to create the genre, to defining it. After all, in terms of function, the term “group therapy” is practically as self-explanatory as drum and bass in defining their particular brand of trance. It’s this ability to highlight the group’s astounding achievement in dance music without breaking the formula that makes “Sun & Moon” a doubly compelling narrative: if Anjunabeats had a tumblr, its tags would consist entirely of #trance for beginners, #brutally simple but effective lyrics, #oont oont oont, #dance music to cry to. Here’s another one: #dance therapy.

On my tumblr, the tags are simply #perfection, #everything I love about trance.

DBSK’s “Wae (Keep Your Head Down)”: A Defense

DBSK / Wae (Keep Your Head Down) / Jan 03, 2011

It would be easy to sit here and poke fun at the promotional video, one of the ugliest in the history of pop music, but there’s so much going on musically here that I’m going to ignore the ridiculous costumes and the fake fire and the persistent, eerie trope of male solidarity via face-offs between the two surviving members and talk about the song.

The structure: there is none. I listened to this song for an hour straight at one point and I still have no idea what’s going to come next at any moment: a verse, a chorus, some rap, perhaps a marching-band interlude? Like any relationship experiencing pent-up frustration, it’s messy and made up entirely of visceral reactions, a scribbled laundry list of grievances and accusations meant to inflict as much hurt and damage as possible.

This month we’ve been seeing a lot of puppy-love pop songs, stuff about shy boys and visual dreams, but this is one of the rare aggressive songs to come lumbering out of SM Entertainment. There are no tears here: no pining, no pleading, just hatred from the gut and raps with enough spite to fill that massive bass. There’s a notable repetition of rhetorical questions, the restless need to go over the same territory again and again until it resembles a broken record of resentment. Finally he bids her goodbye, this two-faced, lying, immature woman who made him the bad guy before he even knew she left and wishes her happiness, by this time a sarcastic, poisonous farewell, a promise of revenge he would carry out if she wasn’t already dead to him.

There’s only two of the five members left now and that’s what makes this all the more an oddity, maybe, that it’s possibly a message from the record company to the three members who filed lawsuits, that it’s the best song DBSK ever released, and that there’s an 85% chance this group will never release anything as relatable or as real as this again.

w-inds.’s “New World”

w-inds. / New World / December 09, 2009
01. New World / 02. Truth ~Saigo no Shinjitsu~

“Rain Is Fallin'” didn’t exactly set any new rules, nor was it a game-changing single – that would be the preceding single Everyday, w-inds.’s first single to sell more than 60,000 units since 2005. The problem was falling back on the time-honored winter ballad, a perennial cease and desist in the midst of bombing singles. As the 00’s round the corner and Korean pop bands begin their surge for Japanese chart dominance, many bands are realizing they can’t beat ’em and so choose to join ’em: in May, w-inds. teamed up with G-Dragon of Big Bang for “Rain Is Fallin'”, another one of those 80’s throwbacks to shutter shades and wayfarers. But it did the boys good: not only were they back on the media radar (and finally allowed a few guest television appearances by the almighty Johnny), but they were on my radar at all. To speculate whether or not the single would have done as well without G-Dragon is a disservice; like “New World,” the song is all Keita Tachibana, a figure so heralded that even a specially composed song by American R&B artist Ne-Yo only cuts it as the second track.

Tachibana’s talents as the leader of the group are never more apparent than in “New World”‘s PV, a mix of swanky choreography, classy wardrobes, and Chuck Bass inspired smirks. Though the song is heavily techno-influenced, it’s all borrowed for pop purposes without alluding to any of the usual techno casualties that made “Rain Is Fallin'” a trendy throwback instead of innovation. Tachibana may have won a prize for the best blog in 2006, but his real talents lie in popping, locking, and b-boying, and what he lacks in strong vocals, he makes up for in charm, something the other two members desperately seek in their respective vehicle songs (cue “Truth ~Saigo no Shinjitsu~”). But perhaps more importantly, the titular song strays far from the winter ballad mold, smartly setting the group apart from other charting singles.

If 2009 is any indication of Western hip hop artists appealing on behalf of “discovered” talents (see: Kanye West, Mr Hudson), then even Japanese groups, hugely popular all over Asia but virtually unknown in the West, aren’t immune; Ne-Yo composed “Truth ~Saigo no Shinjitsu~” after recognizing the band’s “musical potential,” as if they have culled a decade of popularity based on “potential” alone. As testament to the fallible approach, “Truth” is the least enjoyable of the single. Two other tracks, “Fighting For Love” and “Tribute,” the former which features a healthy violin line, and the latter which is a close approximation of a “Rain Is Fallin'” outtake, are both chorus-heavy, the type of radio-friendly songs that make instant hits. And instant hits are exactly what Japanese pop bands will need in the following decade, a time we’ll see extra effort to maintain domestic sales. Several artists aren’t slated to make the cut, but you can be sure w-inds. will be if they manage to continue their upward slope of relevant material in hopes of breaking out of the Johnny’s mold and finally writing a few rules of their own.

Official Site
Buy New World

Meisa Kuroki’s “SHOCK -Unmei-”

Meisa Kuroki / SHOCK -Unmei- / July 22, 2009
01. SHOCK -Unmei-

It had recently occurred to me that Namie Amuro has not released a single since March’s Wild; looking to fill this gap, I turned to Okinawan Meisa Kuroki, who released her debut album hellcat in April. The album may have lacked lyrical depth, but it was a likely successor to where Amuro’s PLAY left us in 2007 (though admittedly, most of the tracks actually sounded like outtakes from the Queen of Hip-Pop sessions). While in most cases I would be disappointed by the overt lack of vicissitude, innovation is hardly the key to amassing an audience and what Kuroki lacks in originality, she makes up for in sheer determination. You know, in a weird, submissive sort of way.

While writhing on a bed in undergarments and peering at the camera with half-lidded, soulful eyes behind an alarming array of hair extensions may be the way to capture a tepid audience’s expectations for generic over genuine (and most of the album’s tracks pander to the lowest common denominator, exemplified best by a track that simply goes under the title “SEX” in all caps), it wasn’t the music videos or television appearances that got me; it was the way these tracks aren’t actually bad. Perhaps more a sad, telling indictment of my own fallible tastes, hellcat was the first Japanese hip hop album of the year that didn’t have me taking cover in my copy of the AllMusic Guide’s Required Listening: Classic Rock, or worse, perusing Amuro’s recent releases again with a magnifying glass and sentimentality. In the end, I liked a majority of hellcat‘s songs and looked forward to hearing Kuroki infuse the Oricon with some healthy competition. Unfortunately, SHOCK -Unmei- is not that competition.

Almost desperately pandering to commercial success (literally – it’s featured in Kirin’s Cola Shock ads), the song lacks any of the impact it’s purporting to carry. While I have no problem with commercial tie-ins, the song has the same effect on me that Chris Brown’s “Forever” did in that it asks just how fine that blurry line between commercial success and commercial sellout straddles (I mean, I’m cool with songs being used in promotions to sell products, but what about when a company pays to have a song specifically written for it/about it – can we treat it with the same pop-minded respect and diligence, or do we build a new category for these tunes, perhaps appropriately dubbed Promo Pop, and imbue it with a whole new set of critical criteria? And what would that do to pop stars, who could go from a loosely endearing term of the word “artist” to literal musical vehicles?).  In addition, the track samples a piece of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, but it doesn’t take advantage of it nearly enough – and whether or not it’s some sort of really clever homage to patrons of the art and how even classical geniuses couldn’t escape music’s commercial verve (Kuroki asks, “Who’s the puppet? Who’s the master?”), the orchestral vibe never reaches its full potential, being bogged down by repetitiveness and weaker, competing synths (the composers probably should have studied S.H.E.’s “Yu Zhou Xiao Jie” a little closer). Regardless, “SHOCK -Unmei-” is more involved than most of its Oricon contemporaries, and the c/w track “Wasted,” in an attempt to round out the single, infuses something more natural on the disc with a simple melody and sparser arrangement.

But stepping back to examine what I think it’s satirizing (intentionally or not), I do find myself wondering if I just talked myself into liking it a little more.


Buy SHOCK -Unmei-