Bold & ambitious: Innovation in Ayumi Hamasaki’s (miss)understood

On January 1, Ayumi Hamasaki marked the 15th anniversary of her seventh studio album (miss)understood, which seems as good a time as any to celebrate one of her last truly great, ground-breaking, and all-around amazing albums.

It’s amazing how observing wild animals in their natural habitat can help lend clarity to human behavior. In his New York Times-Notable Book of the Year, Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace, Carl Safina observes sperm whales, scarlet macaws, and chimpanzees, drawing fascinating parallels between their world and that of humans. Here’s one line of thought that I kept circling back to in the course of reading: is it inevitable that cultural innovators will become conformists over the course of time? It started with Safina’s rumination on “culture”:

One definition of culture that is pretty good is: “the way we do things.” Behavior is what we do; how we do it–is culture. […] But one big thing is missing from that definition: to have culture, someone must do something that is NOT the way we do things. We live in an automobile culture, but only because an innovator invented an automobile. We listen to rock music, but one person electrified the age-old guitar. Ironically, culture–a process of learning and conformity–depends on individuals who don’t entirely conform to the way we do things. Culture depends both on doing what you’ve seen done–AND on someone, at some point, doing what no one has ever seen done.” (47)

Not only in terms of sheer numbers, but in reach and depth, it is inarguable that Ayumi Hamasaki was one of the great innovators of J-pop culture in the early 00s, and I would argue that (miss)understood was one of the last times she released an album unlike anything else in the genre, and unlike anything she herself had ever done. It was one of the last times her music, and not just her fashion or personal life, made an impact on the industry, changing the way record labels approached the creation and packaging of solo artist/performers, due to both circumstance (the resurgence of idols and idol groups like AKB48, who were just about to release their debut single “Sakura no Hanabiratachi,” and decline of female solo artist/performers as we knew it, notably marked by Hikaru Utada’s hiatus two years later) and the beginning of her focus on other aspects of her career at the expense of the music, which she no longer had a hand in composing by her sixth album MY STORY (though she continued to write lyrics). (miss)understood, was, in many ways, the last time Ayumi Hamasaki seems to have effectively (hang on, Colours-fans) created an album with a risky, over tried-and-true, approach, taking a chance on a style she had till then never explored. It is an album that demonstrates exactly how Ayumi was the massive star she was, and why she deserved the recognition and status as a massive force and principal creator — that fabled “innovator” Safina is referring to — in Japanese pop culture for nearly a decade.

This is not to say that Ayumi stopped releasing great albums or songs, but rather that she found a musical space within which comfortable and safe slowly started to take precedent over experimentation. The difference between all four of her first albums, from A Song for XX to I am…, all sound vastly different from the one next to it, while the sound and production of Secret and GUILTY sound very similar, as does nearly everything from Love songs to M(A)DE IN JAPAN. A couple of albums (and singles) stick out in terms of quality, with a few going the extra mile in terms of concept, like NEXT LEVEL or Party Queen, but nearly all carry the distinctive hallmarks springing from the foundation she laid down in the early 00s. In 2002, everyone wanted to be and sound like Ayumi, but by 2012, the musical and cultural landscape had changed so wholly, from Yasutaka Nakata and the emergence of electronic music, to the influence of K-pop, that Ayumi was now a stark alternative rather than a driver of any one of these trends. To her admirable credit, with only a few exceptions, she rarely jumped onto any bandwagon, choosing instead to forge her own path, for better or worse; as she famously quipped in response to a press inquiry about K-pop: “I don’t really care if it’s trendy or not. I (stick) to my own style.”

While I never stopped being a fan, (miss)understood did mark a line for me, one from where I could never cross back. The moment “Startin’” and its music video were released, was one in which the rose-colored glasses of naive, uncompromising fandom could never overshadow the critical antennae necessary for deep analysis. It would take a few years before I learned that a critical eye doesn’t spell doom for our most treasured past times and pop stars, that instead, it does the important work of allowing one to question and examine closely with intelligence and detail, and that it can deepen empathy and a better understanding of people, and celebrities in particular, in all of their flawed and very real humanity. It is, in fact, programmed to reveal complexity and heighten appreciation. But in between that time, both history and I had changed.

Which is all to say: it wasn’t really Ayumi’s fault. Any analysis of album sales and popularity will show a natural decline in sales and quality across almost all recording artists. Human beings are designed to seek out novelty and many a star’s continued success has depended on trust and loyalty, two hard-won virtues that can only be gained by a sincere devotion to craft, a strong work ethic, and frequent, heartfelt gratitude to the fans who continue to make their object of devotion relevant. Ayumi Hamasaki is 3/3. So while I spent 2006 and 2007 going through major changes in the way I approached listening to and writing about music, it was inevitable that the simple and natural act of growing up would be doing most of the subconscious work for me, silently hacking away at the kind of unquestionable idol worship every kid is free to indulge in before they reach adulthood and come face to face with the stuff beyond the theater of life’s surface.

This is a birthday, not a funeral

With the release of the 20th anniversary edition of her sophomore album, LOVEppears, in 2019, Ayumi Hamasaki has firmly settled into legacy mode. While this status update might have once elicited a gasp of horror, it brings a kind of relief now. As I’m sure many artists who have found themselves in this privileged sphere have come to realize, it’s like falling into the perfect bathwater at the end of a really long, really hard day, one that offers time to reflect on amazing accomplishments while resting weary old joints. So let’s reflect and pour some love all over it: (miss)understood, one of the best albums Ayumi Hamasaki ever released, one that distinguished her as what Safina would label an “original innovator.”

The singles

There were four major singles released in the run-up to the album’s release: STEP YOU/is this LOVE?, fairyland, HEAVEN, and Bold & Delicious/Pride. At this point, Ayumi was well past her remix-phase, having stopped the practice of album-length maxi-singles in 2002 with Daybreak. What followed was a series of conservative or triple A-sides, with the gradual integration of a standard A-side/B-side duo beginning with INSPIRE.

Physically, STEP you/is this LOVE? is notable for being the last single to feature the same cover art on both its CD and CD+DVD versions (actually, this happened only twice, with this one and 2004’s CAROLS — why offer one or the other when you can sell both?). Musically, it’s a doozy – the A-side features one of the most propulsive pop songs in Ayumi’s catalogue, while the B-side boasts one of her finest hard rock tracks. This tight duo is a nearly perfect combination of a sound that was unlike almost anything else in J-pop at the time. The music video for “is this LOVE?” utilizes some of the coolest effects she would ever feature in a PV, because let’s face it, slow motion makes everything cooler, especially when it’s exploding. The DVD also features the music video for “my name’s WOMEN,” a track off of her previous album, MY STORY. It’s one of the few music videos Ayumi has ever shot to feature a back story before the music kicks in. It’s not my favorite track or song, and the delivery of its message is a little confused, but it’s fun and gives her the obligatory showgirl moment that every diva is obligated to have at some point in their career.

fairyland, released four months later, is one of many summer-themed singles, notable for its music video, which was the most expensive at the time. Shot on location in Hawaii, it features gorgeous panoramic shots of the islands’ colorful flora and fauna, as well as an entire building that catches fire and burns to the ground (also in slo-mo, naturally). Its B-side was the wholly A-side deserving track “alterna,” one of many songs Ayumi used to portray her career-long struggle with fame and celebrity. It draws from her ongoing inspiration, Madonna, and contains one of her most literal experiences of the entertainment industry, with plastic Ayu-dolls being assembled in a factory, the suits and media portrayed as clowns, who raise her up only to throw her in the garbage dump later, and the whole thing wrapped up in surreal, storybook portrait frames. It’s Ayumi as Aesop, a moral she had to learn the hard way. (One of my favorite shots is the newspaper headline that reads “Almost Human!!,” a succinct phrase to describe the way women have been treated in the media, especially in the mid-00s). It’s basically brilliant and I still marvel at how she managed to get away with it; nobody was this candid about the industry in Japan without some fallout, yet it only boosted respect for her willingness to be forthright and transparent.

HEAVEN” was the last really great winter-ballad we got until 2009’s You were…/BALLAD combo. The quiet, gently-paced intro makes way for a breathtaking deluge of instrumentals and breathy vocals, sweeping the listener up in the expansive space created by longtime collaborator Kazuhito Kikuchi. One thing worth highlighting is her vocal performance: in 2005, whether it showed all the time or not, it was obvious Ayumi wasn’t settling for good enough, and still doing the regular work involved in being both a good singer and a good vocalist. Whoever coached this vocal performance out of her, in particular, did an incredible job of toning down some of the harsher aspects of her delivery that came out occasionally and is now done with frequency. The B-side, “Will,” was a very new kind of ballad for her, proving just how experimental she was still willing, and could afford, to be.

It also shows a confidence and trust in her audience, one manifested in somewhat riskier moves, like the 360° of the final single “Bold & Delicious,” which utilizes a full choir for the backdrop to it funk-based rhythm. We’ll get to Sweetbox, the composer of this track, later on, but what’s notable here is the production Ayumi and her team brought to the song, which far exceeds the original (later released on Sweetbox’s album Addicted, which also featured the original versions of B-side “Pride” and album track “Ladies Night“). The videos for this single were shot in New York City, a sort of homecoming for Ayumi, who first featured the city’s iconic skyline as a prominent character in the video for “appears” (Note: Behind-the-scenes photos for a feature in Ayumi’s exclusive Deji Deji Diary series for ViVi has photos of more sight-seeing that never made it to the video, particularly the iconic locales of several scenes from Sex and the City, which was still hugely popular in Japan at the time, including the Magnolia Bakery, and home of Carrie Bradshaw, a brownstone located between Park and Madison. It’s a very, very of-its-time, photograhic capsule of the period). The kind of risk-taking we hear on “Bold & Delicious” is euphoric, and needless to say, we never got another out-of-left-field song as wild ever again.

The album

One of the most interesting and frustrating things about Ayumi’s albums at this time for those who prefer a cohesive, consistent sound, was the sheer variety of musical styles that it offered. This workedboth  for and against the album: on one hand, it offered a something-for-everyone approach, reflecting both Ayumi’s diverse personality and maximalist approach to style, and causing a sort of disjointed listening experience, one that started with one of the most joyous songs she has ever done, “Bold & Delicious,” to hard rock, to gothic balladry (“Pride”), all the way to eager, sunshine-filled larks (“Beautiful Day”), followed by gloomy poems (“rainy day“). This style of sequencing began back on I am… (when a traditional rock song like “I am…” was followed by an upbeat interlude, which was followed by a straight-up trance song, which was followed by more rock), but is also something of a given, as singles in Japan are often composed and released independently over the course of a year until the rest of the album tracks are arranged, seemingly in a final, tight series of recording sessions. This means that many of the singles can seem to stick out among tracks that have a bit more of a cohesive feel to them.

Of course, the other particular reason for this new sound was Ayumi’s decision to work with Geo of Sweetbox for the album’s non-single tracks. Sweetbox were a fledgling German pop group/project formed in the 90s, who composed the tracks “Bold & Delicious,” “Ladies Night,” “In The Corner,” “Pride,” “Beautiful Day,” and “rainy day.” In fact, the only non-singles composed by someone other than Sweetbox were the title track (a rock song penned by Tetsuya Yukumi, a longtime collaborator who worked on six tracks for MY STORY), and “criminal,” by Kazuhiro Hara (who seemed to have been inspired by the big sound of “Bold & Delicious” and whom we’d see more of the following year on “Startin'” and “Born to Be…“), and the interludes.

The interludes on (miss)understood are another puzzle, one belonging to a whole other discussion: do interludes belong on pop albums? What role do interludes play on an album that feels wholly disassociated with them, as many do here? While the interludes on many of Ayumi’s albums began to feel pro forma by this point — a nod to the CD as a medium, and the freebies-feel of filling out the extra space of an 80-minute run time just because you could — it’s luck that many of the interludes on (miss)understood are…fine. Many funtion as mood-breaks, like short, moving sidewalks that carry and deposit the listener to the next section of the album, from part one’s mammoth hits, to the weightier second part mostly filled with ballads and heavier cerebral pieces, to the somewhat indecisive, mixed-bag that makes up the final trio. For Ayumi, that makes a conservative two, none of which are bad at all, but also none so great that they would invite extended mixes like “opening Run” (“JK’s extended mix” on the Daybreak single), or “Mirror” on GUILTY (which became the single “Mirrorcle world“).

Despite the wide array of musical styles, it is the lyrics that bring it all together. Though Ayumi mostly stopped composing her own music after RAINBOW, she never stopped writing her own lyrics. Her earlier work focused inwardly, using her own personal experiences and perspective as a sort of filter through which stories of pain and catharsis emerged, but her later work began taking on the more difficult task of turning outward. Despite the change, they have always remained true to her unique world view, the thread and stamp connecting and identifying any seemingly random music choice. As she said in an interview in the January 2006 issue of CD Data,

“I had a hard time trying to decide the sequence of the songs. (laugh) But, if I looked at the lyrics booklet while listening to the songs, I could hear them being sung by a cute girl, a girl who is worrying over love. Thus I was able to listen to them with a lighter heart, sort of like listening to background music flowing softly out of a room. Whenever I am thinking of many different things, or when I am looking to find myself, just looking at my lyrics booklet while listening to the songs really helps me to see the other side of things.”

The themes are consistent, with some of Ayumi’s favorites cropping up like perennials, among them the sublime awe and horror of mega-celebrity and the possessive, all-consuming, but also fickle, allure of fame, which she’s grappled with since A Song for XX through to promo campaigns for A BEST, and songs and videos like “ourselves,” “Because of You,” and “Don’t look back,” to the present. On (miss)understood, the title track and the video for “alterna” perform the heavy lifting, as does the title and overall concept of the album itself, as represented by the stiff, disingenous grin on the CD-version jacket, and the deliberately covered one on the CD+DVD version. Again, from CD Data, is Ayumi talking about the ephemeral quality of fads re: a popular television commercial, and a not-so-subtle dig at the industry and those quick to abandon when the next best thing comes along:

“But it’ll probably be forgotten soon with amazing speed, like all things. Just as if nothing had happened, and everything will settle down quietly again. Everything’s like this nowadays. When you fall in love with something, from the time you start liking it, you’ll spend all your time and energy pursuing it with all your spirit, concentrating on it totally. And when its time is over, you’ll withdraw from it, or discard it completely. That’s actually very scary when you think about it.”

That terror manifests through the loss, anger, confusion, and uncertain future present on the album. Even the moments of joy stem from fear, as in “Ladies Night,” when Ayumi takes a friend out to distract her from boyfriend troubles after the friend calls her up in tears. She ultimately pins the blame on her friend who refuses to see reality and have the strength to walk away from a bad relationship: “This so-called fight with your boyfriend / Is truly a fight with your inner self.” A night out with the girls ends in “laughing like we’re crying” and “singing like we’re screaming.” In “is this LOVE?” she berates herself for a love that doesn’t work out, “Why isn’t it me? I won’t ask / Such a ridiculous and trivial question.”

The looming threat of emptiness also pervades the album, as on “Pride,” where she recognizes the futility and somewhat pathetic effort of moving forward when others would have given up long ago. “Even if others laugh and call it pointless / Let’s go together, because there is / Nothing more frightening than giving up.” Sure, there’s bravery in moving forward into the unknown, but it offers no guarantee, something others might see as naive or even perhaps a bit stupid. It’s an admirable tenacity that speaks volumes about Ayumi’s determination and relentless perseverance. “You already know / That being beautiful doesn’t mean you will attain beautiful things,” she says in “Beautiful Day.” She doesn’t care: she feels the fear, ignores the doubters, and does it anyway. Beautiful days don’t just happen, she makes them happen.

The photo books

Ayumi’s career has been synonymous with travel since she moved to New York in the late 90s to undergo vocal training before her debut. For the album, she set out to New York again, notably to film the music videos for “Bold & Delicious” and “Pride,” as well as the photo for the jacket cover. However, it is her time in Hawaii, where she shot the video for “fairyland,” that makes up the content of the two special photo books, on my way and off my day, included with first-press editions of the album.

Photo books have cropped up serially throughout Ayumi’s career, from fashion books like A BOOK and uraayu, to the commemorative 15th anniversary book Tell All. We can gain some insight into the purpose of on my way and off my day from Tell All, as the latter was essentially a recreation of the former (of Tell All, said Ayu,”I want to create a booklet like the one we did for (miss)understood“.) Copies of the 70-page on my way were included with the first press editions of the CD+DVD versions, and showed “private,” behind-the-scenes photos. While it’s obvious all of these were purposely staged, they still offer insight into the type of image Ayumi wanted to project, riffing off of some of the popular “Stars! They’re just like us!” pages of tabloid magazines, with trips to the grocery store (in full hair and makeup), seeing the local sights, dinner with friends, and so on. off my day features behind-the-scenes photos of Ayumi working on the album.

Ultimately, there’s nothing as genuine and real here as Ayumi’s lyrics. Seeking to understand anything through what are essentially promotional vacation slides is a fool’s task, a red-herring dropped in Ayumi’s repeated quest to be heard, but also provide the fantasy the public came to expect, cornering her in an unavoidable trap. They’re nice photos, but they are, essentially, the “Hamasaki Ayumi” she referred to, as opposed to “the real ayu” (S Cawaii! April 2012), the “miss” before the “understood” (draw your own conclusions in connection to Tell All, and an album titled (miss)understood by someone who has stated “I’ve never wished for others to understand me. I aim to get through to others, to make them believe in me, but everyone is free to feel whatever they want.”).

The legacy

It’s easy to break down an album into its disparate parts and then reassemble it using hindsight, context, and the cooled-off distance that only time can lend, but harder in the moment, when the promo campaign is intent on exposure by any means possible: numerous magazine features, third-party commercial tie-ins, television appearances, photo shoots, and giant Shibuya billboards, all designed to drum up enough passion, hype, and excitement to get you to buy the album in the first couple weeks of its release for the bragging rights of units moved and numbers charted. It worked, I guess: (miss)understood debuted at #1 on the Oricon chart and stayed in the Top 10 for four weeks, the top 50 for eleven, and ended as the eighth highest-selling album of the year in Japan. Commercially, it was not her most successful album, falling just behind the sales of MY STORY, and the fourth album in a row to sell less than the previous one, a trend that would continue nearly indefinitely to today (in 2015 A ONE sold more albums than the previous year’s Colours). I, too, as a fan, reveled in the excitement and immediately purchased a copy when it was released, proceeding to listen to it not in fits and bursts, but almost non-stop for the first two months that it was out.

Because I was rooted in various fan communities and forums like LiveJournal blogs and the Ayumi Hamasaki Sekai forum, I understood that not all fans enjoyed the entire album from start to finish. This made sense considering the album’s departure from the sound that gained her popularity on LOVEppears and I am… To this day, Ayumi’s music has divided fans, causing not a few rifts and bemused debates on the freedom and duty an artist has to their fans. On the 15th anniversary of her debut in the industry, just seven years removed from (miss)understood, the author of the album’s photo books, Takako Tsuriya, marveled in Tell All at how much Ayumi had changed as a person, artist, and performer.

“It’s been 7 years since then… The [A]yu who spoke in stunted English had now become someone who could converse with the foreign staff in fluent English, without the help of an interpretor, and that was only one of the changes she had undergone. However, as I looked through the 2 previous booklets, the words I had written 7 years ago are still relevant to the person [a]yu is now. In a good way, it shows that her true self had withstood the test of time.”

Another seven years later, and we’re looking at an even bigger growth spurt: in addition to the events that prompted Ayumi to remark that she could never go back to the person she was before (twelve more singles; six more albums; twelve more concert tours; a Vegas marriage; a divorce; presumably friends, fans, and co-workers that came and went), she has released another four albums, embarked on nearly another dozen concert tours, married again, divorced again, had a child and conceived a second child — neither decision for which she felt the need to explain or defend — and saw the literal end of another era, as Heisei made way for Reiwa. At the end of it all, one presumes what she said in Tell All has held fast.

“I don’t need to be perfect, nor to protect myself anymore. I’m really afraid of nothing now. In the past, I created an iron wall with things such as hair and make-up, and felt safe when enclosed inside. Now, whenever I make myself up to be perfect, it just feels different and sort of lonely. Being perfect now feels incomplete.”

To be fair, (miss)understood, is not perfect, though it’s clear that was the ballpark for which Ayumi was aiming. It was astoundingly close. Today, the production still sounds as massive as any major release from one of the world’s biggest pop stars is meant to sound, but more importantly, it still sounds exciting. The songs sound fresh and promising, evoking joy and pathos. Most importantly, it comes from a place of honesty, that wish to communicate on a genuine level that marks all great works of art. At times assertive, vulnerable, insecure, headstrong, smug, self-satisfied, brave, and moved to grief, it highlights the myriad emotions and personalities that made up the woman behind a revolving door of expectations and personae crafted to entertain and satisfy. It would take several more years for Ayumi to stop striving for that perfection, to be comfortable in the mistakes and open wounds she shared with a public not always ready to forgive or treat with empathy, but (miss)understood is the sound of that beginning. The end of Ayu-chan, squeaky with high-pitched, awkward coquetry, to Ayumi Hamasaki, assertive, grown-up and at ease. Chasing after understanding and approval is the fruitless task of the young, something Ayumi has moved far past in life and in her career — it is the self-acceptance she feels closer to obtaining that resonates now.

“Either way, no matter how I am, it’s more important that everyone is enjoying themselves. It doesn’t matter if that means that I’ll be exhausted, and have to travel a long way, because that’s important to me. This thing, which seems so natural, is what I have chosen. When I realized that, I really became fearless.”

That fearlessness seems to have manifested not only in her personal life, but in the approach she takes to the once-crushing sense of obligation to fans and the public, for whom her current music and life choices never seem to be good enough. However, while the open sense of fresh novelty has long since worn off, with albums following this one ranging the gamut from solid, to surprisingly good, to disappointing, none have offered something as innovative, fresh and also successfully executed since (miss)understood. Put it plainly: we never heard from Sweetbox, or a  Sweetbox-equivalent, again.

In many ways, conforming to her own standards is a natural endgame of  anyone around long enough to no longer be chased by the necessity of capturing attention. Conformity, as Carl Safina points out, observing the behavior of chimpanzees within their social groups, provides refuge and safety. He tells the story of a line of wildebeests going to water who follow a straight line, one behind the other, without so much as deviating around a tree. Why? By the animal’s continued existence, that path was proven to be safe for the guy ahead of him. What happens to the free-spirited springbok who decides to take a risky sip in the middle of the night, on his own? He’s spotted by a lion and promptly eaten (257). However these two things have to co-exist.

“CULTURE is mainly about conformity, consistency, and tradition. Fact is: culture requires BOTH innovators, who create some new thing never before learned (and are often ignored and resisted), and adopters, who, by learning, narrow themselves and conform. […] Being conservative is safer than thinking freely. Safer than experimenting and innovating.” (260)

In this case, “safe” meant albums (as great as they were) like GUILTY and Secret. Like LOVE again and M(A)DE IN JAPAN.

I don’t know if conformity or caution is inevitable, a kind of by-product of growing older, the instinct or learned behavior to keep doing what works because it’s proven effective and not gotten you eaten by hungry mountain lions or offended music critics, but I can understand where it comes from. It’s all the more reason to remember and celebrate all those with the courage to take a chance on something fresh and unusual, even when it doesn’t always work or takes a few listens to appreciate (full disclosure: I didn’t like “Bold & Delicious” when I first heard it). After all, if Ayumi is conforming to any sound, it’s her own, one she created and perfected at the peak of her abilities.

Again, “[w]ithout some original innovator […] there is NO knowledge, skill, or tradition that can get shared; there is no culture to copy and conform to. Innovation is to culture what mutation is to genes; it’s the only way to make any progress, the root of all change” (47), so it’s worth underscoring: if anyone was out there setting standards in music and fashion in the early 00s, it was Ayumi Hamasaki. A lack of innovation after (miss)understood simply hit the brakes on the musical evolution, not necessarily quality or consistency. Ten years ago, it was kind of depressing. Today, considering what a gigantic back catalog she’s given us to listen to, and think and write about, and argue over, and love and hate in equal, sometimes maddening, measure, I’ll take a fulfilled, confident, well-adjusted, and happy Ayumi enjoying her well-deserved success, over chasing popularity and culture-resetting pop songs. She gave us LOVEppears, and Duty, and I am…, and Memorial address, and (miss)understood, and that’s not even the half of it. After all of that, and seven years removed from that previous statement where she placed the happiness of others over her own health, I hope she’s found found the confidence to switch the importance of “everyone” enjoying themselves, to Ayumi enjoying herself first. I’d like to think she has.

Notes
[ All images original scans by author, except for magazine scans by iloveayu.com and AyuAlanis@NihonWa, which were posted to the AHS Forum a lifetime ago, and this gallery of scans. Special thanks to Misa-chan’s J-pop Blog for all of the amazing translated interviews and lyrics that provided so much insight. I understand that some of my parallels to the animal world stretch the imagination, but all of those far reaches are my own fault (even when I’m reading about the cultural differences between bonobos and chimpanzees, I’m thinking about music, and I think I’ve proven more than once on this blog that I can relate just about anything to Ayumi Hamasaki), not Carl Safina’s, whose book, Becoming Wild, is fascinating. I encourage everyone to read it and think deeply about its content (the section on whales and their songs is particularly good). ]

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.

2016 mid-year report

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The first half of 2016 hasn’t been anywhere as interesting as 2015’s, but we’ve gotten some great new tracks and albums from producers as varied as Tatsuro Yamashita and Max Martin, as well as some up-and-coming producers from all over the world. I’ve chosen to focus on East Asian pop in this post, and have spent the last couple of weeks frantically catching up on everything I might have overlooked; still, I’m sure I missed a few things that will hopefully make its way to my ears by the end of the year. Until then, I hope you’ll find one or two things you might have missed here as we take the time to reflect on the last six months in music. As always, you can follow the notable releases tag over at the tumblr to keep up in real-time.

K-pop: The Gold, and the Silver

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Is there such a thing as a Silver Age? If so, K-pop might be in it. You might be disheartened enough to argue that we’re actually in a Bronze Age but it hasn’t come to that yet; let me make a case.

There have been signs of K-pop’s demise for a couple of years now, signaled by what Jin Min-Ji calls a “generation shift” caused by the expiration of the contracts many idols signed at the era’s beginning. “A multitude [of] second generation members’ contracts, which usually last seven years, have either terminated or are close to termination. An So-hee from Wonder Girls, for example, left the group in 2013 after her contract expired with JYP Entertainment. Other singers that left their groups are Jia from Miss A last month and Sulli from f(x) in August 2015.” In addition, members who have stuck around long enough to find out that the entertainment world isn’t all glitz and glam, are burning out and leaving to find other lucrative work that’s less stressful, demanding, and sometimes, the equivalent of unpaid labor.

Jessica’s departure from SNSD has turned out to be something of a game-changer: since then, we’ve seen Golden Age groups 2NE1, BEAST, and 4minute split, as members have departed on somewhat shaky terms. This leaves room for a new crop of K-pop groups, many which are attempting to imitate the sounds of their forerunners. For example, OH MY GIRL, Lovelyz, and G-Friend, all of which released solid EPs this year, are really just attempting to recreate the magic of the early years of a group like Girls’ Generation, while TWICE is exploring an edgier side in the style of 2NE1. Their efforts are rather admirable, particularly A New Trilogy and Snowflake, but it remains to be seen if a new crop of producers and songwriters will emerge parallel to this “second” generation to carry on the torch of a Teddy Park, E-Tribe, or Shinsadong Tiger; in fact, it seems K-pop is tending to outsource a lot more of its songwriting now, which is not a criticism, but an observation that it might be harder to find writers of hits as prolific as there once were. In addition, now that record companies and agencies finally have some working statistics for modern K-pop, many glitches and experiments can be ironed out, or expanded upon, even pushed to its very limit. This all has the potential to change the look and sound of K-pop as it moves forward.

Because a lot of groups that have managed to stay together are losing popularity, or simply, running out of ideas (BIGBANG comes to mind) there has also been a clear shift this year to giving surviving members solo opportunities. This is notable, since K-pop’s modus operandi is single-sex boy and girl groups, rather than solo artists. This year, we got additional solo work from AMBER (f(x)), Tiffany (SNSD), JONGHYUN (SHINee), Taemin (also SHINee), Luna (f(x)), Jun Hyo Seong (Secret), and an uncomplicated bit of J-pop from former KARA member NICOLE’s Japanese debut album bliss. Tiffany’s and Taemin’s stand out in particular, as SM Entertainment rarely disappoints (SNSD’s Taeyon’s solo effort notwithstanding, aside from last year’s lead single “I” — her next solo effort comes out in a few days as of this writing). “I Just Wanna Dance,” received mild reviews, but I find the song, and its sister follow-up “Heartbreak Hotel,” a slice of ethereal pop. It can easily be too slow for some listeners, and too fast for the others, but its mid-tempo essence is refreshing, and the fact that they held back on letting Tiffany go too crazy with the vocals is a sign of a wise restraint.

Taemin’s “Press Your Number,” on the other hand, channels his group SHINee’s endless, and welcome, repetition of Michael Jackson’s greatest hits. I gushed a bit about the music video earlier, and the dance version of the PV is worth taking a second or third look, just to admire the grace and power Taemin brings to every step of the choreography. The album, too, is full of smooth R&B hooks, and stiller moments, like the lovely little balled “Soldier.” In other words, it’s nice to see that Jo Kwon’s solo album I’m Da One was good for something, even if it was just setting the precedent for seriously fun male solo albums.

Finally, I just really like Luna’s Free Somebody. The title track, which was penned by “The Family,” a songwriting trio from the land of the universe’s reigning country of pop production, and also, surprisingly, JoJo (yes that JoJo) is a tribute to Europe’s easy way of slipping electro-house and nu disco into the mainstream. I could easily see this song fitting onto a Kitsune Maison compilation with no problem, and that fact tickles me.

Even though the continued demise of K-pop’s Golden Age is disappointing, it’s also bringing forth a new crop of groups, mostly-successful solo work, and interesting outside collaborations (it’s less surprising that Skrillex worked with 4minute this year, than that the group is breaking up immediately following it). Hopefully, these new shifts will eventually be brought into the fold, making way for positive developments. It’s jarring not to have a seemingly endless procession of amazing song after incredible rookie group debut after excellent song like we did in 2011 or 2012, but none of this is alarming enough to signal the end. Not yet. In fact, the only true disappointment is that in a year ripe with them, CL has yet to release her promised solo debut.

J-pop (Idols and otherwise)

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If you had told me as early as last year that my favorite song of 2016 would probably be by boy-band Arashi, I would have scoffed and continued finding the band as joyless and mediocre as ever. And yet, here we are, halfway through the year, and nothing has come close to “Fukkatsu LOVE” and its B-side “Ai no COLLECTION.” Sure, there have been songs that have been more upbeat, more powerful, and more fun (if you’re short of time, Namie Amuro’s “Mint” covers all of those bases), but none have rivaled “Fukkatsu” for atmosphere and production. The song, which was penned by legendary City Pop producer Tatsuro Yamashita, is similar to the general patterns of any Arashi song, and yet, completely different. For Yamashita, “smooth,” and “cool,” are less adjectives than steadfast principles to his success. The song, with which its throwback sounds to the early 80s could have been something of a risk for a group that has done phenomenal with its Johnny’s formula, adapts to the group’s somewhat elder statesmen status (the group debuted in 1999 — for all you collectors out there, it means their first single was issued on 3″ mini-CD, rather than the standard 5″ maxi). It’s a mature, relaxed look and sound for the group, with its subdued coloring and formal wear. Finally being allowed to act their age (the oldest member is 35) and associate itself closer to SMAP is doing this idol group a service, leaving the more strenuous tasks to juniors like Hey! Say! JUMP and A.B.C.-Z. Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for that Yuma Nakayama follow-up (one year since Tokoton and not a word).

Other male groups that have stood out to me have been Da-iCE, which has been a sort of slow burn. It’s not surprising that some of the most interesting music is coming from the groups that are competing with their Korean peers overseas: there’s big bucks and, seemingly, bigger respect from groups who can bring something other than the standard “idol sound” to the charts. Your preference is a matter of opinion: there’s interesting things on both sides of the divide, and generally, even an EVERY SEASON has its pitfalls (imagine, for a moment, a man like Daichi Miura getting his hands on a song like “Got Your Back” and how much it would have made a good song incredible). As a counterweight, there’s NEWS’ QUARTETTO, which I find a perfect blend of the two.

One of the most interesting developments of the year to watch has been Avex Trax’s entrance into the idol world. Japan’s biggest independent label is on record as one of my favorite labels of all time, if not number one. They’ve made inroads beginning a couple of years back, choosing, wisely to develop and sustain their roster of dance-pop oriented groups like FEMM, Fairies, and FAKY, but groups like X21 have done better than a few of those. Without a signature sound, the only way I can describe it is idol-pop with a sheer of professional polish all over it. Wa-suta’s The World Standard and Cheeky Parade’s second album are the highlights, bringing to the endless churn of singles put out by groups like AKB48 (whose year-defining senbatsu single “Tsubasa wa Iranai” didn’t come close to last year’s “Bokutachi wa Tatakawanai“) a bit more gravitas. The attention to detail is surprising for songs that don’t sound much different than their more experienced contemporaries over at places like King Record. Still, iDOL Street, the name of Avex’s subdivision dedicated to idols, is a growing and interesting venture for them. SUPER☆GiRLS , the first group signed, has been something of a mixed bag, but it’s worth looking out for Wa-suta, and in the coming months, BiSH, who were signed earlier this year.

In addition, Avex has their hands full with dance groups like GEM, whose debut album Girls Entertainment Mixture, following a number of singles since 2013, has been one of my most-played of the year. Even though they’re under the same umbrella as CP and S☆G, they’re still a basic Avex dance-group like Fairies. The biggest criticism at this point is that Avex seems to be scrambling to debut and develop as many groups as possible, in the hopes that one or two will make an impression long enough to stick around. In other words, hopefully FEMM won’t be tossed aside for a group like FAKY, which hasn’t fulfilled any of its promise (perhaps one or two of the members will get solo opportunities? They’re too talented to throw away), and will start work on their follow-up album (as of this writing, a new single has been announced, but not released). You can always tell when a group has made it by the imitators that follow; if they all sound like Faint Star’s “Never Ever,” I won’t complain.

That leaves me wondering where groups like Prizmmy☆, Dorothy Little Happy, X21, or TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE will fit into the coming year. The latter, in particular, is now at something of a deadlock. They were Avex’s first and most successful idol group in a long time, with amazing New Jack Swing albums to back them up, but with the official departure of member Ayano Konishi, they’re unsure which direction to take them now that they’ve declared themselves artists, rather than idols. So far, they’ve been spending most of 2016 performing overseas, pushing a dead album onto the masses. It’s been six months since REFLECTION and there’s been no sign of a new single in the works; the style and tone of it will be telling of the group’s future.

Other groups that have failed to release follow-up albums, have been PASSPO☆, who so impressed me last year, callme, E-girls (just a greatest hits here), and palet, though I’m eagerly looking forward to any upcoming singles or projects that might still make it before the year is up. In the end, it’s been BABYMETAL’s continued success story overseas that has been J-pop’s crowning achievement of 2016 so far; the fact that METAL RESISTANCE is so great only makes it sweeter.

Going Solo

Here were the big solo releases of the year: Namie Amuro’s “Mint,” a grand pop gesture if there ever was one (hopefully, a new album follows her soon-to-be-released summer single), Ayumi Hamasaki’s M(A)DE IN JAPAN, which I’ve already discussed here (worth noting, though, is the constant cropping up of the term “renaissance” to describe this phase of her career, to which: maybe? Things like that usually only become clear after the fact, so I’ll sit tight for now), and the wild card, Mamoru Miyano’s “SHOUT!” He’s no Luna Haruna, but the anime-pop solo work of this voice actor has been a refreshing change from your everyday Nana Mizuki. Someone has to fill in for Yuma Nakayama.

Odds and Ends

One of the biggest stories in J-pop this year was the affair between Gesu no Kiwame Otome.’s Enon Kawatani and Becky, a talento. Unfortunately, the news overshadowed the release of the group’s album, Ryouseibai, a solid bit of J-rock, that runs just a bit too long to be truly outstanding. The J-rock album to beat this year has been uchuu,’s +1, a solid debut full-length from the indie group that graced us with HELLO, HELLO, HELLO, last year. I’ll be keeping my eyes on them.

But what is it good for?

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Which leads us to the biggest disappointments of the year. Of note, there have only been two: Perfume’s COSMIC EXPLORER and Negicco’s Tea for Three. Perfume’s is the least surprising, with the quality of Yasutaka’s Nakata’s compositions on a decline for the past few years; still COSMIC EXPLORER, unlike LEVEL3, left so little room for surprises, such as a “PARTY MAKER” or “Clockwork,” that its two interesting songs “Miracle Worker” and “FLASH” pale in comparison. Negicco, who showed such promise after years of toiling in obscure ridicule, set such a high bar with Rice & Snow that Tea for Three is less a disappointment, than a given. It’s an okay album for a group that released okay singles leading up to it, with a few stand-outs, like “Kounan Yoi Uta.” I’ll take it, but I’m not happy about it.

 

Top ten albums of 2015, #9: Ayumi Hamasaki’s A ONE

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Ayumi Hamasaki: A ONE

“I felt the past me was “already gone”, but now I feel ‘She’s still here. For good or bad, I’m still the way I was.’ […] I feel this album taught me that I haven’t changed much since I created A Song for XX. My surroundings may have changed, but there’s still a part deep inside of me that thinks ‘People are born alone and will die alone.’ The people who related to songs like A Song for XX have changed as well over the years, that’s what I thought. But with this album, I feel like we can say ‘In the end, we’re still the same’ to each other.” Ayumi Hamasaki, 109 News

ayuaoneapp2It has been more than ten years since one of Ayumi Hamasaki’s albums has landed in my best of the year list. Despite being one of my favorite recording artists of all time (maybe THE defining influence on my appreciation for Japanese pop music), her albums haven’t resonated with me since, truthfully, (miss)understood. But she’s remained a fascinating figure to watch develop, both personally and musically. Since her skyrocket to celebrity, she’s experimented with a wide palette of genres, even when those explorations haven’t proved successful (NEXT LEVEL, Colours) or noteworthy (Rock n’ Roll Circus, LOVE again). Love songs is the only recent album that sparked a bit of joy into her discography, thanks in large part to Tetsuya Komuro — to see these two perfectionists finally in the studio together is a Holy Grail moment in J-pop — even when her career tanked further during her Vegas-wedding and divorce. That’s when everything burst into flames: the poorly-received, scraped-together confessional, an ill-conceived rebound album (and boyfriend…which…), and the stretch for brand-name producers with capital EDM beats in a bid to remain relevant. Of this time in her life, Hamasaki recalls, “I feel like I was trying to run away from the biggest slipup [sic] in my life. ‘I’ve done something horrible’ — I couldn’t shake that feeling. And when I felt it would continue to shadow me my entire life, I just felt so pathethic [sic]. I felt ‘nothing makes sense no matter what I sing’ when making music.” It all but effectively burned her brand to the ground. Until atonement. Until A ONE.

Let’s assume for a moment that it’s not an L missing from that title, but a T. It’s penance, a musical redemption fit for a queen; royalty kneeling before us with all her weakness and vulnerability. The album’s track listing is stately, the songs almost all expansive ballads or power anthems, songs that fill first rooms, then stadiums, then quiet corners. Komuro and Hamasaki have managed to pull off an unlikely coupling of humility and bravado where once all we had was elaborate window-dressing: the pomp and flash of big hooks and bigger, more universal (read: generic) sentiments. There are still moments of intimate intensity, like fan favorite “The Show Must Go On,” but it’s not attention-seeking; it’s the honest statement of someone’s not always-pleasant reality. It’s the subtle ways we communicate the unspeakable truths of our every day. It’s the occasional detail that relieves us of shame, but with the grace that keeps our dignity intact. It’s the universal created by just the right personal reveals, a return to one’s “true core.” It’s the Ayumi I’ve known and loved, the album I’ve been waiting for over a decade to hear, a road map to the things she’s always been capable of if she could only remember what she’s fought to embrace – that everything she’s done was already enough.

2015 mid-year report

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2015 has offered a number of notable releases so far: so much so, in fact, that narrowing it down to discuss the highlights without resorting to a wall of YouTube videos is difficult. For the purposes of this blog, I’ve chosen to focus exclusively on Japanese and Korean pop, omitting digressions on American pop, electronic, and Bollywood soundtracks, which sometimes crop up here. I think you’ll find plenty to sample and I encourage you all to share anything you may have found particularly awesome that I missed.

The Annual Yasutaka Update

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So here’s a first: Perfume released a new single and it barely registered. The trio has been getting more Internet buzz over their SXSW performance (I mean, it seems pretty cool, but it’s kind of hard to tell with all the annoying camera angles and visual effects splashing across the actual performance). For years now, Perfume has focused on live, especially overseas, performances, and songs that enhance those performances: singles aren’t so much indicative of Nakata himself, Perfume-as-statement, or even advertising anymore — they’re just the fuel that keeps the tour bus rolling. It’s hard to be completely disappointed by a Perfume single, though. Even when the A-side isn’t the newest addition to your workout playlist you were hoping for, the B and C-sides always offer alternatives. That said, “Relax In The City” isn’t bad, but it is largely superfluous next to “Pick Me Up” and “Toumei Ningen.” As Kashiyuka pointed out in an interview, it’s very Yasutaka Nakata to hide the more commercial crowd-pleasers at the back (remember “Hurly Burly” on Spending all my time?) He’s one producer who likes to dole out rewards only if you’re paying attention.

capsule’s latest original album, WAVE RUNNER, is something of a mixed bag with few really great standout tracks; it’s business as usual as the follow-up to the experimental CAPSLOCK. We also got Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s single “Mondai GIRL.” While I appreciate Kyary as an artist, I’m not always happy with Nakata’s work with her, but “Mondai GIRL” proves how perfect the pieces can fall into place when the producer steps away from the xylophones. As always, the kiddie orgel ticks and marching drums are almost completely absent from every great Kyary song: I’ll remember this every time Mito Natsume releases any music with Nakata and won’t even bother. Instead, it’ll be nice to see if Nakata produces any more one-offs like the excellent “Music Flyer” on E-girls’ E.G.TIME: I always enjoy hearing what magic he can conjure for artists outside of his usual roster.

Girls On Top

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Thanks to some wrinkle in time, we were blessed with four long-time top Avex female artists’ albums this year. Are you there God? It’s me, grateful. To halt anticipation, I’ve never been a Kuu fan, despite my repeated visits to her back catalog, so WALK OF MY LIFE is a non-conversation. To a large extent, neither is Ayumi Hamsaki’s A ONE. But the album has some really beautiful moments: this is the first Ayumi album in years that has felt like a solid, cohesive whole. It has some breathtaking moments (the last two minutes of “Out of control,” “The Show Must Go On,” the lively cover of “Movin’ on without you” — wow! What a gentle, grand statement that Ayumi covered a Hikaru Utada song to prove that any competition between those two was always fabricated by the record companies and not by the two women themselves) that really round out what have been some truly awful career lows.

Obviously, Ai Otsuka’s LOVE TRiCKY is my favorite of the four so far (read the full review here), but it’s worth spilling a few words on Namie Amuro’s _genic, an album so uniformly perfect, it’s almost not worth listening to more than once. This album is pure pop gold, but it offers little extra on repeat listens. As Otsuka’s album is dark and vulpine, Amuro’s is effortless and seasoned. _genic is trendy hooks, high production value, and class: it’s hard to find cracks in something that already seems iconic, songs that were precisely chosen to bewitch you in the first 20 seconds, except that it’s perhaps all just very glossy surface, and I imagine many people can find fault in that the same way some people prefer the pops, hisses, and scratches in a vinyl record over 320kbps mp3 files. You can’t please everyone.

K-pop

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Post-Golden Age, good, but not necessarily great, things are happening in K-pop. Ever since Jessica’s departure from Girls’ Generation, we’ve gotten a lot of artists mimicking their debut album in a very short nostalgia turnover: OH MY GIRL’s “Cupid” and G-Friend’s “Glass Bead” are the first that come to mind. The standouts for me this year so far have been AMBER’s solo EP BEAUTIFUL, miss A’s fun “Dareun Namja Malgo Neo” and BoA’s “Kiss My Lips” (the single, not the album, which is just okay). I get the feeling many people haven’t been wowed by BIG BANG’S MADE project, or maybe that perception is just an extension of my own disappointment. The group’s releases used to be events that seemingly everyone in the K-pop fandom could get behind. Now it just seems that stretching out singles over the course of a few months is tedious and suspect, kind of like splitting the last season of an iconic show in two. Sometimes it feels that the context of other songs on an album can really change your mind about particular songs that just seem off: now all these stand-alone tracks feel obvious and not a bit whelming. Just because G-Dragon composed it and T.O.P has a really cool new haircut doesn’t make it worthy of applause, or the music videos any less problematic. Basically I’ve largely ignored the new songs up until now due to meh.

Idol Corner

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OK guys, brace yourselves, we’re gonna crank this one out, because idols are everywhere now and you can’t download a rar file or follow a tumblr without stumbling across this stuff and it’s been my year’s goal to start embracing more idol-pop and I feel I’ve mastered the rhythms when I can make a statement like: And anyway, there’s some decent stuff out there. On principle I cannot in good conscience discuss AKB48 anymore, so let’s just say that whether or not you believe that good music can stand on its own, far apart from its commercial, or more prurient interests, AKB always manages to get in those one or two songs that surprise you: if among the deluge of choices on their new album Koko ga Rhodes de, Koko de Tobe! (with all editions packing thirty-eight songs) you can’t find at least two songs that make you hesitant to dismiss the music completely, maybe J-pop is not the genre for you.

We had fantastic albums from Negicco and Luna Haruna and an okay album from Avex idols X21, and more of the same from Johnny’s groups like Hey! Say! JUMP (again, again there’s usually at least one song I can sink my teeth into, and so it is with JUMPing car‘s “Boys Don’t Stop”). I’m not sure if Shoujo X is commendable just because X21 is an Avex group and I’m now so deeply invested that to reject outright any of their output without giving it an honest try is so repugnant that is sends me into lonely spirals of repeat listens, but it’s a group that I’ll be monitoring in the future.

PASSPO☆’s Beef or Chicken? has had the most repeat value for me this year, an album that I keep playing over and over because of how fun it is. The promo “Honey Dish” is the album’s highlight, lending it the vintage-y pop style the album was going for, without abandoning the group’s hard rock style or falling into the Meghan Trainer trap of cloying, wince-inducing brass as Yuma Nakayama’s “YOLO moment” — I genuinely like this guy and think he has potential as a soloist, but the YOLO reference feels dated and the 50’s soda shop-pop doesn’t feel fresh enough to be a classic, rather then just a hopeful, throwback. I’m on board for rolled up jean cuffs and ties under varsity jackets, but only if the angle is more than just earnest heartthrob: am I the only one who feels this is really more of an homage to the 80’s-referencing-the-50’s? It just screams 80’s teen flicks more than 50’s surf movies. I guess I just want to like the guy more than I do and will scale back my ire when it’s so hard to find good male solo artists.

And finally, here are some interesting newcomers to keep an eye out for: Maria’s “HURRICANE” is an adorable slice of “chame-rock” (playful/mischievous rock). I understand that after the perceived success of BABYMETAL et al., there’s a push for more rock/metal idols but even more hyper-specific, with just-that-little-bit-different angle, but this one seems a little more Blue Hearts than so many of the heavy metal idols coming out. Everyone’s Ramones bangs are a great backdrop for the song (a cover of Chanels/Rats & Star), even when the backpacks look like a pain to dance in. Cupitron and callme are both going for Perfume tributes here — callme even has the unoriginal primary colored square mod dresses going for them — but they’re both worth keeping an eye on. callme are Avex (yeah, there’s that) and are composed of former Dorothy Little Happy members. Cupitron’s outfits were designed by Tomoe Shinohara, which is enough to pique my interest. Ayumikurikamaki: This is just fun.

Special mentions

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Shout outs to the following fun records:

Hanae’s Jokyo Shoko
uchuu,’s HELLO, HELLO, HELLO, (token J-rock)
E-girls’ E.G. TIME
Sakurako Ohara’s HAPPY

For more great music I haven’t featured here, please browse the Notable Releases tag over at tumblr.

On the horizon

Here are a few things I’m looking forward to in the rest of 2015: Girls’ Generation’s new album (sometime in July?), more singles from TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE (an album might not be imminent this year, but I guess anything’s possible), more stuff from Tomomi Itano (whose “Gimme Gimme Luv” will be a great summer single), Ayumi Hamasaki’s mini-album (August), CL’s debut (I don’t think this will necessarily make her a huge overseas contender, but I’m criminally curious what this will look and sound like), anything more that will or will not happen with f(x) this year, and finally, an honest to goodness fun Bollywood soundtrack, which has been seriously lacking this year.

Why the world needs a new “Feel the love” PV

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Although Ayumi Hamasaki’s 15th studio album, currently untitled as of this date, won’t be released until July, several previews have already been released, including the digital single “Hello new me,” the dub version of “Terminal” (produced by mega-trance mastermind Armin van Buuren), “Angel,” “What is forever love,” “NOW & 4EVA,” and “Lelio.” Based on the list of producers alone, including RedOne and Fedde Le Grand, the album is touting itself under the massive umbrella term “EDM,” perhaps in a bid to update Hamasaki’s typical sound, and step as far away from her last three albums as possible. This isn’t entirely new musical ground for Hamasaki, at least in terms of original material; remixes aside, 2009’s NEXT LEVEL was heavily influenced by electronic dance music and back in 2002, she collaborated with famed trance producer Ferry Corsten on “connected.”

What remains to be seen is just how much of this album is really a “new me” and how much of it is the same Hamasaki cocktail we’ve come to know and occasionally crave. What you’ve expected for the last ten years: pop/rock songs, heavy on the guitars, poppy ballads, drama, tragedy, grand-scales, heavy-handed declarations, specific references to who-knows-what events, personal revelations — but only behind an I know something you don’t know smile — and a handful of extraordinary risk takers, the few songs penned by new or unknowns that leave us wondering why someone didn’t push Hamasaki further into that vast territory of the au courant. Here are the missing variables: Is Hamasaki sabotaging herself by insisting on more of the same? Has she lost her touch for recognizing moving and exciting material? Is she resting on her “brand”? Does she seriously think “Hello new me” is anything new at all? Are the intriguing songs like “Lelio” just luring us into believing there is something of relevance here, or are they just echoes of a trendy genre, desperate to sit at the cool table? Maybe more than correcting the musical missteps of the recent past, there’s clearly a desire to correct the mistakes of the present.

The music video goes like this: A blonde, overweight girl with big glasses sits in her bedroom, taping a picture of herself onto another picture with a good-looking, fit, muscular man she has a crush on. She leaps up with determination, goes outside, and starts running. This profile shot of the girl running extends almost throughout the rest of the video, interspersed with an animated version of the girl swimming and/or doing anything else they didn’t have the budget to accomplish with live action. The girl stays the same size throughout her many days and nights of running, only stopping towards the end to get a haircut and go shopping for dresses (there is a scene where she dances a little, and another where she’s gnawing a chicken leg while running because overweight people just can’t stop, can they?). She runs into a park and sees the man from the photo, but he ignores her. She trips, and when she gets up, she’s Ayumi Hamasaki wearing a short, revealing pink dress. The guys sees her and immediately takes notice, amazed at her beauty. Ayumi makes girlish hand gestures, touches her face, winks, saunters over, and they walk off into the sunset together happily ever after. This is not irony, or satire. This is the actual music video for “Feel the love,” the Tetsuya Komuro-penned single released late last year.

In short, the video encourages changing the most fundamental things about yourself to be noticed by a man, the idea that a man will only accept you if you are thin and beautiful enough, a preoccupation with unnatural or unrealistic standards of beauty, and the willful acceptance that you are inferior and unworthy as you are.

A few weeks later, the “full version” of this promotional video was released. Hamasaki herself addressed fans’ concerns over the video by tweeting: “Of course I will listen all my loBely’s [sic] opinions anytime. But thing is that you all haven’t seen the real ending yet. Don’t worry ;)”. The “real ending” consisted of a four second epilogue where Hamasaki turns back into the overweight blonde girl mid-hug while the guy looks at her in disbelief, confusion, and possibly horror. Now, this obviously does not change or make any apologies for the rest of the video, including the part where the girl tries to run on a treadmill and falls on her face — presumably, because fat people are just really funny when they try to exercise. Even the most apologetic fans have to see this as mean-spirited, particularly after a video like “how beautiful you are” where people of all races, ages, genders, sizes, and sexual orientations are portrayed positively. Not every pop song or music video has to be a Statement piece, but when you are making one, your statement probably shouldn’t be: lose weight and all your dreams will come true. There is a way to promote health and fitness without using shame, portraying overweight women as caricatures, or using the attention of men as an incentive for weight loss. From Brown University’s Health Education web site:

“Then there’s the issue of romance. Media messages, particularly those from advertising, strongly emphasize the role of appearance in romantic success. “Getting” the guy or the girl is reduced to possessing a stereotypical set of physical attributes, with no appreciation for personality, background, values, or beliefs.”

In The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance is Hurting Women, Men-And Our Economy, Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett emphasize that “[t]he message to women and girls in all media is that their appearance should be, above all, tailored to the “the male gaze.” You exist at all times in a world where men are looking at you, and you must please them” (140).

Needless to say, the promotional video garnered a lot of mixed to negative reactions from fans after its release. Here are some reactions from fans on the Ayumi Hamasaki Sekai forum who weren’t really feeling the love:

“Dont know if it was funny or absolutely cheap and ridiculous” (Mirrocle Monster)

“Am I the only one who didn’t get the ending? When it finally seemed to me the girl accepted her body-shape…? What was that, if you run a lot and cur [sic] your hair you turn Japanese?” (Gustavopc)

“The main message is: Unless you change your body (and maybe your race), you’re a crap and the boy will run away from you” (Elednist)

“In my opinion, encouraging someone to change their appearance for someone they like under the guise of “working hard for something” is unhealthy and wrong.” (Becky)

“I don’t think they wanted the PV to look offensive but it can totally be seen as such.” (Maemi)

These comments were accompanied by several positive responses arguing that the music video is merely an encouragement to stay focused and work hard towards a goal. Working hard at what you want is a good principle to follow, but again, equating weight loss with success at anything other than weight loss, is a dangerous precedent. Reflecting on all her years of trying to lose weight, comedian and activist Margaret Cho remarked, “There were whole years that I missed. Those were the loneliest times of my life when I had the least amount of love. I just thought if I could get to a certain weight, then I could be alive. But that is a counterproductive idea. Like why can’t you just be alive now? … It took almost half my life to get there.”

Perhaps reacting to the negativity around the video, especially from girls who see her as a role model, Hamasaki is creating brand-new music videos for both “Feel the love” and “Merry-go-round” (why both is a bit of a mystery — the latter’s most egregious sin was being boring). Whether or not the damage can be repaired, it’s obvious Hamasaki is gauging feedback and using it to tailor an album that’s more satisfying for both its viewers and listeners, though perhaps at the expense of genuine creativity, change, or even insight.