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.

An appears tumblr year-end round-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ayumi Hamasaki’s “evolution”: A retrospective.

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.

Ayumi Hamasaki’s “LOVE again”

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Ayumi Hamasaki / LOVE again / February 08, 2013

The consequence is one seeks love with a new person, with a new stranger. Again, the stranger is transformed into an “intimate” person, again the experience of falling in love is exhilarating and intense, and ends in the wish for a new conquest, a new love — always with the illusion that the new love will be different from the earlier ones. (Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving)

It’s no secret that Hamasaki’s 14th full-length album is love’s victory lap, a straight-up, no-frills rebound to 2010’s Love songs, that strangely earnest chapter in Ayumi’s memoir that makes follow-up Party Queen seem twice as fragile and practically toxic. Plummeting sales aside, LOVE again makes no qualms about reconciling the past with the present: Hamasaki’s lyrics have always been extremely vulnerable to interpretation. Her cover art more so — take a look at the color palette when love is involved: both Love songs and LOVE again employ hazy back light, pastel pinks and peaches, a warm, white fuzziness, cozily disheveled hair. We’re so close to tipping into Glamour Shots’ diffused glow territory it’s almost a tragedy there’s no sign of Aquanet. It’s like the break-up album never happened.

Unless you’re a new fan, reviews of LOVE again are mostly apologetic, or else a begrudging acceptance of the album’s marked difference to Party Queen. Says LoKi of podcast Gaijin Kanpai: “I feel that she’s not relevant anymore, and she’s trying really hard to be relevant.” Replies Jaylee, “You got her trying to be relevant off this album?” It’s not difficult to see Hamasaki’s work in the past few years as insignificant, unless you’re Ayumi Hamasaki herself. Most of what the reigning Empress of Pop does is akin to public scrap-booking: if you don’t know who she’s dating, check out her latest promotional video. If you want to know who she’s been hanging out with, check out her latest promotional video. If you want to know what designers she’s been into lately, you get the idea. Her tweeting habit alone is enough to make her seem practically furious: is there a word for relevance that only exists because you’re so legendary, no one is allowed to say “no”? Or the sadness one feels at the spectacle of it all? There’s got to be one in German.

Then there’s the music itself. “Wake me up” is sort of a perfect album opener: like (miss)understood‘s “Bold & Delicious,” it doesn’t tread lightly. Unfortunately, we’re rolling back into the deep of Hamasaki’s psyche for much of the rest of LOVE again. There are standard piano ballads, peppy rock numbers, and edgier songs like “snowy kiss,” a newbie’s “evolution” with its crazy poly-drums. These are nothing more than brief deviations. “Bye-bye darling” seems lost, kind of like “Love song” on Love songs — from whence did this come, and where can one findeth more? When the song titles aren’t limp (“petal,” “glasses,” “snowy kiss,”), we get vague references to Ayu-specific events (“untitled for her… story 2”), that we feel we’re supposed to know something about, but really know nothing about. Does someone as famous as Hamasaki get to choose what is made public and what is kept private? Have we ever figured out why there’s so much mutual violence in the “You&Me” and “snowy kiss” videos, or is this Ayumi’s new normal? Increasingly, we have to resolve that we’re all kind of trapped in Hamasaki’s dream/reality, the type of thing that happens when you’re so famous you can’t leave the house, but you have a big budget to create fantastical music videos with your future husband that may or may not be allusions to real-life events or fabricated nonsense. They’re usually both.

People fall in love many times in one lifetime: with friends, strangers, trends, music, films, themselves. It’s just as easy to fall out, maybe easier when you fall too fast and feel too much. It’s a therapeutic process to put those emotions into your work or art, as long as you don’t dramatically milk the concept more than once. And so unlike Love song‘s first-time sincerity, LOVE again is simply exhausting without any of the reward. It’s not as easy the second time: we fear the inevitable doom, the end, the fresh ink on divorce papers. It’s never easy to make poor choices in front of 866,283 followers and live your life through ViVi diary entries, but it’s difficult to applaud sheer effort after 15 years of pop stardom, or to love simply as a consolation, because it’s familiar. As Hamasaki is learning, rather than loving, the primary struggle is being loved. Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules to overcoming loneliness. Erich Fromm recommends discipline, concentration, and patience. Ayumi would also like to suggest a helmet.

The Avex Apex: A Brief History of Trance-pop in Japan

Before the term “EDM” entered the mainstream, dance music has been an omnipresent fixture on the pop music panorama, ranging from Perfume precursors Candies and Triangle, to Yu Hayami’s transformation into an italo disco darling and up into the late 90s and early 00s, where house culture made its heavy crawl outside the club and onto the radio, becoming a Top 40 standard. But pop music is no stranger to the accusations of appropriation and it doesn’t take a Deadmau5-fueled rant on the cover of a mainstream magazine to complain about the mainstreaming of dance music to wonder what will happen when the fad cashes enough checks to move onto the next curiosity.

Japan had its own EDM mainstreaming in the late 90s and early 00s, when the import of trance music reached its eventual zenith, leaving behind a number of co-ed pop groups scrambling for relevance. In the 1990s, the mix-and-match of Shibuya-kei, a type of sound that embraced Continental retro-futurist styles, gained traction at the same time rising-star record label Avex Trax took one look at club culture and saw massive yen signs. While pushing their pop stars towards the then-popular freestyle genre, itself a kind of heir to italo disco, sub-label Rhythm Republic was established in 1994 to focus exclusively on dance music, beginning with the “SUPER EUROBEAT” series (that same year, they opened the nightclub Velfarre, one of the many hotspots Ayumi Hamasaki used to fritter away her teen years before being signed to the record label — to set the scene, she mentions German eurodancers Real McCoy receiving huge play).

While the name itself implies origins outside of Asia — and indeed, the sound itself was imported from Britian — the genre itself is mostly unique to Japan. Best described as a combination of house, happy hardcore, and Hi-NRG, the sound features lightening-fast BPM, electric guitars, and dizzying synths played on fast-forward. While the genre enjoyed its own unique labels and artists (a few J-pop groups included Two-Mix, Folder 5 and HINOI TEAM), the mass following of the series eventually found its way onto the reportoire of the label’s pop artists like Namie Amuro and her former backup dancers MAX. In the late 90s, it reached an even wider audience when artists received special remix compilations done in the style. By the time Ayumi Hamasaki was on the label, she received the deluxe “SUPER EUROBEAT” treatment herself.

One of the figures behind these developments was Tetsuya Komuro, who was then a music producer at Avex. If Yasutaka Nakata is credited as the modern-day genius who bridged the gap between Shibuya-kei and electro house, essentially bringing it to a Japanese audience, Tetsuya Komuro was the 90s equivalent to a much higher degree. In the mid-90s, Komuro abandoned his band TM Network to focus on producing a handful of other artists under the Avex Trax label, including Ami Suzuki (whose carer was later resurrected after collaborating with a roster of the most famous Japanese house producers, including RAM RIDER, STUDIO APARTMENT, and the aforementioned Yasutaka Nakata, who produced her album Supreme Show in its entirety). Instead of the pop music that constituted his new project globe, he was keen on exploring conventional dance narratives for the label. But globe (much like Nakata’s capsule) soon became Komuro’s creative and experimental outlet, eventually changing its style to reflect his newest obsession: trance.

Trance music originated in the 90s as a jumbled mess of house, techno, and classical music before its German roots took hold in Scandinavian countries and received the ultimate makeover. While the original style sounds very little like its modern day evolution, by the time godfathers Armin van Buuren and Ferry Corsten got their hands on it, trance music was ripe for entering the consciousness of an above-ground audience. While the sound still remained firmly underground for several years, Komuro was determined to be the face of Japan’s trance chapter. At the genre’s stylistic peak at the onset of the new millennium, van Buuren, Corsten, and groups like Above & Beyond, Marc et Claude, and Svenson & Gielen were commissioned to remix Avex artists like Ayumi Hamasaki and Every Little Thing under “SUPER EUROBEATS”‘s sister series “Cyber TRANCE.”

With globe, Komuro began releasing epically winding trance-inspired pop singles culminating in outernet, the group’s first true dance album and first spectacular bomb on the charts. Instead of taking a different approach, Komuro pressed forward, releasing fearless trance-pop songs like “try this shoot” that utilized the genre’s predilection for airy female vocals. However, unlike the traditional breakdowns of a trance song, Komuro fit the music into conventional pop structures and maintained his resident MC. He was also big on taking advantage of the maxi-single format to feature his own extended trance mixes that spanned 13+ minutes. In fact, the single’s move from the then-popular 3″ format allowed more space for karaoke versions and remixes, a trend that artists everywhere began taking advantage of. Before long it became impossible for even visual-kei bands like Dir en grey to forgo a remixed track of some blood-curdling song about death and dying — or else release whole remix albums (a couple era-defining remix albums at this time that employed the forgotten practice of wacky remix names like “Free Food Free Drink Mix” and “You’re Damm Touchable K-Mix” before DJ self-promotion became the norm: Tomoe Shinohara’s DEEP SOUND CHANNEL and T.M.Revolution’s DISCORdanza).

Of course, no one took as much advantage of the maxi-single format as Ayumi Hamasaki: from 1999’s Boys & Girls to 2002’s Daybreak, Hamasaki’s singles contained anywhere up to nine remixes from both domestic and foreign DJs, including Fantastic Plastic Machine, Izumi”D•M•X”Miyazaki, Junior Vasquez, and Hex Hector. While Hamasaki eventually dropped the maxi-single format, the “ayu-mi-x” series lives on to the present day, often including many of the same music producers alongside veterans. Nonetheless, it was her collaboration with trance artists like Above & Beyond (for single “M”) and Ferry Corsten (for “WHATEVER” and later on album I am… for “connected“) that eventually opened the doorway to recognition in Europe.

While Hamasaki represented a broad range of dance styles including trance, from minimal house to drum n’ bass, other artists took the globe route and attempted crafting their own trance makeovers. Label mates move, also featuring a co-ed group of two men and a lead female vocal, ditched their more eurodance sound to find a more trance-inspired influence on singles like 2001’s “FLY ME SO HIGH” and “come together“, resulting in album SYNERGY, which managed to chart at #10 on the Oricon. In addition, they also lent their songs to DJs like D-Z and 83key for their own numerous remix compilations in trance and eurobeat styles. In fact, the first few years of the 00s were turning out to be Japanese trance-pop’s most commodifying year, reaching an absurd peak in 2002 when former X Japan drummer and metal enthusiast Yoshiki joined globe, released a compilation of self-gratifying X Japan trance remixes (Trance X), and a charity compilation album for the 9/11 attacks entitled song+nation received a sprawling 2-disc trance makeover (song+nation 2 trance), peppered with Komuro’s own original material.

Then, in an astoundingly short period of time, globe’s albums dropped rapidly in sales until they ceased releasing altogether, move lost a member and began recording under the name m.o.v.e., Ayumi Hamasaki made a brief appearance at a Japanese Above & Beyond show before deciding she would no longer sing flighty, easily remixed pop songs, and Yasutaka Nakata’s group capsule made the softer sound of trance seem quaint next to his compressed, chunky electro-house sound.

While trance has continued to evolve and flourish in other countries, its brief moment in the Japanese pop forefront has diminished, save for a remix on a AAA single here and a compilation there. Today, trance maintains a steady fan base, growing both in sound and popularity in the West, particularly North America, where artists like Armin van Buuren, Ferry Corsten, and Above & Beyond still record and draw large crowds. Whether or not trance in its pure form will ever be as popular as some of the other genres now falling under the brilliant marketing term “EDM,” its rise and fall atop Japan’s pop scene in the early 00s and its unceasing ability to move forward predicts a healthy future, even after its one-shot DJs and bandwagon enthusiasts leave it for newer horizons.