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.

Hikaru/MEG Leaving Music Behind Indefinitely Maybe: A Meditation on Going Away

“Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” -Don Draper

“Half of life is fucking up, the other half is dealing with it.” -Henry Rollins

There is something very romantic about leaving it all behind and starting new somewhere else. Artists have engaged in metaphorical rebirth and image overhauls and anticipated comebacks since the dawn of expendable income. Bands have split, have reunited, have gone on hiatus, and have engaged in solo projects so often it’s practically a necessary cycle for emotional band-culture cred. Perhaps, more so than the leaving, than the indulgent, narcissistic dream of holing up somewhere in Paris or a remote nook of the United States, perhaps taking up a craft or learning a new skill or just lazing about reading books and visiting museums or having really long, indulgent conversations fueled by cheap beer and bad decisions or whatever your idea of “human activities” versus “artist activities” is, or the words you want to use for “not being held accountable for shit for a while,” is the coming back. Because somewhere in the leap between gone and not-gone is the illusory fable of cocoon-and-butterfly and the joyful embrace by eager garland-holders ready to be obsessively forgiving in the wake of your absence. The idea of starting all over again is enriched by the impossibly high standards thrust upon vacations and sabbaticals, created by those who are afforded the excesses of doing nothing in particular.

Our contemporary culture is filled with narratives of forged identities and reinventions, from Christina Aguilera, who doesn’t want to be herself tonight, to our own glamorized Don Draper, nee Dick Whitman: liar, cheater, and, to millions of viewers, overall bad-ass. Our books and movies are littered with small-town folk seeking greener pastures in metropolitan high rises and dozens of makeover shows that desperately seek to unite the outward metamorphosis with inward overhaul into a reconciled new and other. Better. Regardless, it always boils down to the single notion that in going away (physically, mentally, spiritually), one will come back different, changed, restored, whole. New.

And so, some sort of mythological restorative power has been granted the hiatus, nevermore so than for artists and other self-proclaimed creators. And why should Hikaru Utada and MEG be any less susceptible? Two highly successful women in their chosen labels (pop star, eccentric-electro singer cum fashion designer cum tweeter), both Utada and MEG probably have some serious questions about Life they’d like to go and think about without worrying about crafting the perfect crossover. In an ideal world, we’d all be afforded the luxury of going away, far away, and in that span of dead space, doing more than catching up on sleep, or sleeping to forget, or sleepwalking through all the important things we think we should be doing with our free time but are really just distracting us from the pain of coping and dealing and healing in any useful kind of way. Half-drugged on the hope of transformation, we yearn to return as corrected versions of our former selves and sometimes entirely different selves that look better, speak better, and write songs better. Dealing with it might be a little too far-fetched for us right now, not something we can handle; we’d rather just cover up or sweep aside and move on, step into our inner Sasha Fierces and accomplish all the amazing things the skin we wriggled out of wouldn’t let us carry out. We will put on costumes and become heroic, kick-ass vigilantes and then be disappointed that we’ve spent so long crawling on our bellies only to be faced with the reality of our navels.

But hopefully there is some sort of unspoken agreement on the disappointment when the alluring fiction of running away and not ever coming back reveals the catastrophe of our personalities have not become beautiful again, or even beautiful to the ones that matter, but just about the same to everyone but ourselves. Let’s not expect that this will somehow make us monumentally different or better human beings, that it will or should mean anything to anyone but ourselves. Let’s fuck up only if we promise to deal with it. Then let’s move forward like it happened.

BoA vs. Utada: Graphing the inevitable

This may be the least appropriate way to do this, but it’s also the most satisfying; I could talk for hours about  where  Utada’s (nee Hikaru Utada) second attempt at crossing over failed, but I don’t have much to say about BoA’s  successful English debut. However both deserve to be acknowledged in some capacity: BoA’s, for its simple elegance and Utada’s, for its complete clumsiness.

Cover art: This is kind of a moronic category, but if we still buy into the notion that people judge things by covers (and they do), then Utada’s is likely to turn heads the most, if only because it looks like it was done by a seven year old using an outdated version of Photoshop (don’t forget to bold and italicize the font!). Might as well slap a Bargain Bin sticker on this sleeve already. Utada’s covers have famously hit the snooze on every chance to be  memorable, instead opting for uncomfortably close head shots (see: First Love, Distance, ULTRA BLUE, etc). BoA’s isn’t significantly different; sure, there’s a disembodied hand on the cover with a giant ring in the process of digesting her fingers, but sitting up there next to Utada’s album, it might as well be The Sistine Chapel.

Marketing: I left these both empty, as neither albums received very good marketing, or, I think, any marketing at all. There was a promo video going around for Utada’s album where she talks about being really huge in Japan, but relatively unknown in the U.S. and then she shares a boring anecdote about how someone told her this album was going to be “the one” and she thought it was brilliant that she had already decided on the title of the album as This is the One and how hard she managed to squeeze out a “mainstream sound,” which is ironic only because this is the one that is going to be remembered in Japan as the album that sucked and in America not at all. There’s a similar video where BoA harps on about dreams and learning English and it’s equally lost. The point is: nobody I know who hasn’t been following these two women’s careers already had any idea that these album were going to be released. Which is really sad in BoA’s case, because this album is the one. More on that in a minute.

Mainstream accessibility: For all of Utada’s chatting about managing to write a really mainstream album, its content appeals to zero senses. None of the songs are memorable; I listened to this album once through and had no desire to repeat any of the songs, nor did I understand to which demographic this album was aiming. The attempt to grab everybody’s sensibilities ends in grabbing no body’s sensibilities; this album is neither pop nor rock nor hip hop nor dance. It’s just really dull. BoA’s self-titled album, on the other hand, finds a niche: hip-pop. It sticks to a basic formula of short, quick hits with catchy hooks. This is an album for dancing and there are no ballads, no slow songs, and no attempts to be something it’s not. BoA has always been a product of a recording company and handles management well; Utada seems to have gotten lost in coercions to pen something really MTV-able instead of trusting her high-brow, pop musical instincts that have written such fantastic, friendly singles as Keep Tryin’. Plus BoA dances, speaks a couple of extra languages, and isn’t ashamed of being a creation instead of a creator.

Lyrics: The lyrics on This is the One sound like freshmen college poetry; they’re earnest, but they’re also dense,  prosaic, and in most cases, dubious. In “Apple and Cinnamon,” the song that will be forever remembered for anthropomorphizing spices, she rhymes cinnamon with innocent to describe chemistry in a relationship. Identity becomes confusion in “Come Back to Me,” where she alternately takes on the role of first and third person (“She goes shopping for new clothes / And she buys this / And she buys that”/”I admit I cheated / Don’t know why I did it / But I do regret it”). In “Dirty Desire,” she’s painfully obtuse and even makes lyrics like “Doing my nine to five / I’m thinking six and nine” sound neutered. As in Exodus, she tries to be both intellectual and street smart (“Like Captain Picard / I’m chilling and flossing”), but ends up sounding desperate (“Sexy stiletto boots, tight jeans, no panties on / Oops, did I turn you on?” in “Poppin,'” “I kept on givin’, baby / Because the sex was so good” in “Taking Back My Money”). The lyrics on BoA aren’t any better, but they function in context. The attempt to portray her as an aggressive, liberated 21st century woman usually ends up making her sound like the social networking marketer’s every-girl: she’s confessional (“I Did it for Love”), hyper-sexual (“Eat You Up”/”Touched”), self-involved (“Girls on Top”), and slightly obsessive (“Obsessed”). Oh, and she likes to dance (“Hypnotic Dancefloor”). There’s nothing particularly stimulating or unique about the lyrics, but the sound isn’t built for it; the textbook script works with the textbook plot.

Music: This is the One is an exercise in musical regression. While Utada’s music has successfully obtained art-pop status (quirky, lovable, kinda cute, even kinda serious), This is the One almost triumphantly obliterates her last two Japanese-language releases. “Come Back to Me,” the lead single, is lifeless and its attempt to be heartfelt leaves it as empty as Ghandi’s bar tab. The melodies are simple, resourceful and the instrumentation unnecessarily sparse. On the other hand, BoA’s album is energetic and dynamic. The first single “Eat You Up,” is almost heavy. The choice to include an English version of “Girls on Top,” although not as potent as the original, is still brilliant. The songs are fun and catchy, without taking the conceit too far. The auto-tune could have been used less liberally, but even then, it’s used more for effect than necessity. It is a shame this album hasn’t been promoted properly, as it is the album that would have gone places where Exodus only hypothetically dreamed.

BoA Official Site
Hikaru Utada Official Site

February singles catch-up: Noriyuki, Hikki, Adam K

You know February has been bad for music when Noriyuki Makihara’s single “Firefly ~Boku wa Ikiteiku” is the best release all month. I mean really. The only work I know by this guy is 1999’s “Hungry Spider.” Isn’t he more of an adult contemporary artist? Jesus. By the end of the performance he looks like he’s going to pass out (but it’s so cute when he claps his hands, it’s forgiveable). Also, he’s not trying to be ironic with the sweater, is he? A brilliant song, though, subtly based on piano and consistently orbiting acousics and heavy drums (fake, real, who cares). I won’t bother debating this great song, it’s probably the one thing I’ve been the most sure about in the past four weeks.

So is it “Firefly” or Hikaru Utada’s “HEART STATION” that gets top billing? I honestly couldn’t tell you. The thing about Utada’s single is that it was leaked about five years too early for it to matter too much come February. That doesn’t necessarily dispute its greatness, it was just greatness a month prior. Lots of soulful crooning and breathing on the title track, plus a stunning piano loop on “Stay Gold;” I couldn’t ask for much more in my art-pop diva. Her album by the same title comes out later this month and it’s one of the few releases that are sure to make a splash this March (aside from Cut Copy’s In Ghost Colours, which won’t make a splash anywhere, but which I’ll spend far too long gushing about anyway).

Best trance single this month is, by far, Adam K’s “Long Distance” (look, a shitty non-video). I don’t have words to back this up, and why should I? It’s an instrumental track that speaks for itself. First time I’ve heard harmonica (palatable harmonica) in a trance title without wincing. This paragraph now officially serves as nothing except proof that I listened to other singles besides Japanese pop this month (Son Ho Young is Korean, so there).

Hikaru Utada’s “HEART STATION” PV

Hikaru Utada has been hyping her new single HEART STATION for the past month already and the looming February 20 release date is creeping up slowly…ever so slowly. The world finally gets a glimpse of the PV tonight and all I can offer is a disappointed sigh. The song is brilliant, that much is for certain; Utada has been incapable of releasing anything less than “pretty good” since Deep River in 2002, and this is coming from someone who used to hate the woman. It’s art-poppy and nostaligic in the saddest, most brilliant possible way, with minimal synths and breathy vocals, the same season Ami Suzuki is releasing “Bitter…” to promote the upcoming album DOLCE and at what point does it stop being coincidence?, and frankly, I’m just satisfied those whiney winter ballads are finally out of the way (thanks denominational holiday). But for a song so rich in elegance, wherefore art thou meaningful promotional video?

Utada is depicted wearing white amidst a crowd painted black to resemble shadowed, non-entities. Ooh. Symbolismmm.

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Oh no, I’m horrible! I like a bit of dignity in my Jpop!

Note: I originally posted this as a response to a comment I received today on an article I wrote well over a year ago, on February 10, 2006. However, it ended up being quite long and I think it has a lot of interesting data relating marketing image and sales for the top-selling Japanese female pop artists and would be well worth posting here as an editorial, regardless of the fact that it doesn’t come equipped with any freebie music files.

Note II: During the wipe-out of ’07, all comments and discussions were erased, alongside the follow-up and second-part I had written to this. I have absolutely zero desire to revisit this debate and will simply leave this as is.

First of all, I appreciate you commenting on this entry in a coherent and grammatically correct manner, which makes your argument easy to read and legitimate. I respect your opinion and the dignity and poise with which you conveyed it (unlike the dude before you, whom I’m not sure has reached Conversational English in his textbook yet).

Second of all, to repeat something I wrote earlier: It’s worth noting that I find most opinions have a six to ten month expiration date before they need to be updated. Therefore, commenting on something I wrote almost one year ago is like assuming I am still drinking from the same milk carton I bought several months ago.

In other words, you have to understand I wrote this rant at a time when Ayumi had released the “my name’s WOMEN” promotional video followed by this, the “Startin’” PV, within a year. At the time, I was speculating on where Ayumi’s career was headed. Also, no one had yet foreseen her move back to friendly and PG-rated videos like “BLUE BIRD” and “JEWEL.” I still stand by my opinion that at that time, Ayumi had begun exploiting her sexuality as female musicians like Kumi Koda and Namie Amuro began following Western trends of exploiting their femininity as if to say, “I’m a liberated female who can dress as little and as sexy as I want and not be called a slut because it’s what I choose,” which, in my opinion, can be a misguided intent that can breed negative repercussions (I’m old-school feminist like that).

While I agree that “my name’s WOMEN” was not the focus of that particular single, it was significant enough to release a PV after an album had already contained the song. And in this case, I have to disagree; in this video, Ayumi was selling herself as a sexual object. And it worked. Sales records show her previous two singles, CAROLS and INSPIRE c/w GAME sold 340,000 and 329,145 units respectively. In 2005, STEP you/is this LOVE?, which contained the “my name’s WOMEN” promotional video, sold 401,000, and was actually her best selling single since 2003’s No way to say single. Sure, internet downloading may have something to do with it. Or a PV where Ayumi struts around with a whip and dances suggestively in a male strip club could have something to do with it.

I also agree that Ayumi does have a message in her lyrics. “my name’s WOMEN” does have some female empowering lyrics throughout the entire song, including “We are not just dress-up dolls,” and my favorite, “We are not such simple creatures, remember that.” So my question is, why turn this music video into a dancing S&M romp? It is completely unnecessary and she could have gone with an entirely different route to express the words in these songs much better (“Real me,” which also contained an empowering message for females, took place on a space ship with non-suggestive dance moves and modest attire…come to think of it, did this PV have anything to do with the lyrics?). But Ayumi, as she herself has said, is a product and she understands she has to market herself to compete with sales figures of artists who are beginning to take over her almost ten year reign as Queen of Jpop. So she shows a little skin. And then in “Startin’” she added some new dance moves, none of which, as far as I can tell, had much to do with the lyrics or gave some sort of message, unless she mentioned dancing provocatively in chaps somewhere in the song that I missed. Little was I to know that Ayumi had even more to say she as swung her way around a strip pole in 2006’s “1LOVE.”

This was, for all purposes, an opinion piece; in 2005, I was speculating on the reasons Ayumi was beginning to change her image from a fresh-faced, cutesy teen idol into a woman who can do a pretty good imitation of Britney Spears. Compare her “SURREAL” PV or “SEASONS” PV or “Boys & Girls” PV or any PV before 2005 to any of her PVs after 2005, and there is a huge difference; all which has to do with sexuality and expressing that sexuality in a stereotypically modern female fashion; you have never seen Kinki Kids or SMAP have to resort to the things Ayumi has had to do, ironic considering what she is trying to say throughout songs like “my name’s WOMEN” (although you have seen Gerard Way and Bert McCracken making out, but boys, you are not fooling me).

And finally, being an opinion piece, I was obviously expressing a huge one that I personally hold; that women do not need to resort to air humping or whip cracking to be sexy, beautiful, driven, aggressive, talented and successful entertainers. Unfortunately, this being the ’00s, most of the general public will disagree with me. Why? Western media being broadcast around the world has already desensitized most viewers to react to women acting in an overt sexual manner as normal. Most people don’t see a problem with Ayumi shaking her hips in “Startin’” because they’ve seen Christina Aguilera half-naked on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and rap videos where women wear barely-there shorts and halter tops, with their breasts hanging out, grinding against any (and many) number of men. Compared to that, sure, Ayumi looks downright chaste. However, in my article, I didn’t mention any of these things because I was attempting to display and focus solely on Ayumi’s progression through music videos. As I mentioned, she had already appeared naked on the cover of 2002’s RAINBOW and barely covered in leaves that same year on I am… but there was absolutely nothing sexual about these images in the way having people rub her breasts in “Startin’” was.

The reason I wrote this article was because I was obviously disappointed in the direction I thought Ayumi was headed in 2006, especially when what initially attracted Ayumi to me, besides the music and lyrics which came first, was the fact that she was at her most popular in jeans and a T-shirt, literally, as many witnessed in her encore of the DOME TOUR 2001 concert. It’s no doubt that Ayumi’s popularity has begun to wan, and it’s interesting that this side of her should come out at this time. Do I still listen to and enjoy her music? Yes. Do I still think she is one of the most creative, driven, beautiful, talented and self-made entertainers in the Japanese music industry? Absolutely. Do I think her wearing chaps and grinding the air is artistic? No, I really don’t, and I can’t see how art can be found in that in the same way that my brain tells me that the next step is a Puff Daddy video and there is zero art involved in that. This is my opinion. But I’m sure the marketers think it’s great peple love this, that it’s wonderful that so many male fans think she looks sexy and gorgeous while just as many women feel they have to resort to moves like that to be popular and have men find them sexy and attractive. Because it’s what sells. That’s what’s wrong.

I’m not going to stop calling myself an Ayu fan just because you say I shouldn’t in the same way I wrote this rant and don’t expect anyone reading to agree (although I’m finding it ridiculous that this is the post I have the most complaints and disagreements with). The only kind of person that makes a bad fan is somebody who never stands back and questions why they like what they like and if they are truly buying a product or a CD or watching a show or a movie and enjoying it because they want to, or because it’s being cleverly marketed towards them, or worse, because everything else the artist has done has been great, so they are, therefore, incapable of putting out crap. So what if Bob Dylan was phenomenal in the 60s, nobody was going to let him get away with those crap albums he put out in the 80s, and to give them high ratings just because his previous work was so great would be absurd; he might never have learned from his mistakes and put out Love & Theft and 2006’s Modern Times, his first #1 album since ‘76. Sure, we want to support artists in their not-so-great periods, but patting them on the back for their lackluster efforts is akin to stabbing them in the back.

Your argument that I shouldn’t call myself a fan is the same half-witted argument that says people who don’t like something about America should leave the country. If you can’t critique and find fault, how can you improve and become better and fix what’s wrong? You can’t. And then you find that despite all the shimmying and juking, instead of focusing on developing the sound and cohesion of the music, your latest album Secret still only sold 804,000 units, and while sure, breast-baring Kumi’s 2006 Black Cherry sold 994,130, artists who never went the sexual route like Hikaru Utada, sold 906,202 units of 2006’s ULTRA BLUE and Ai Otsuka’s 2005 LOVE COOK sold 835,333 units. On the other hand, Namie Amuro struts her stuff in choreographed routines all the time wearing skimpy skirts, short-shorts and in her latest PV, a whip and tight leather. Her latest album, 2005’s Queen of Hip-Hop? 475,600 units. Interesting.

Big summer for Japan’s pop princesses: Ayu, Hikki, Namie

After a string of lackluster releases in the Spring and an absence of releases from some of my favorite artists, the summer is finally lookin’ up thanks to Japan‘s pop princesses (and yes, I am leaving out Koda Kumi and Ai Otsuka on purpose)…

It’s extremely uncommon for Ayumi Hamasaki to go on unofficial “hiatus,” and by that I mean, of course, release anything more than three or four months apart. For the past eight years of her career, Hamasaki has exclusively released tracks within months of each other, either through the medium of singles, remix albums, compilations, or albums. However, following the release of February’s A BEST 2, Hamasaki has ceased to release any new material, instead, spending her time touring outside of Japan in Asia for the first time. As her rigorous concert schedule has taken up most of her time this Spring, fans back home were left pining for new material. Fortunately, it has recently been announced that Hamasaki will release her obligatory summer single on July 18. Although the tracklist is still unconfirmed, it will contain at least two new songs, “glitter” and “fated,” both used in conjuncture with advertising conglomerates (a commercial tie-in for “glitter,” while “fated” will be used in the trailers and as the theme of upcoming movie Ghost Story – I don’t know much about the movie, but you can always check out the official site).

Already fans are speculating about the mood of the songs, as Hamasaki is known for her upbeat and almost nauseatingly summery releases, complete with promotional videos shot teeming with beach scenes and panoramic views of oceans. However, judging by the preview of “fated,” fans should rest assured about at least one half of the single, a slower number outside of “july 1st” or “BLUE BIRD” sentiment.

Kiss & Cry

Hikaru Utada is also slated to officially release a new single in July, however, the single was already up for grabs at Japan’s iTunes on May 31 and has subsequently made its rounds on the Internet. This song is notable for having an opening big-band orchestra feel with heavy drum beats…and most surprisingly, segueways into the melody of “Hotel Lobby,” a song already featured on Utada’s 2004 American crossover album EXODUS.

As per her last few lyrics, the song deals with themes like love that are universal despite a person’s background (“Delinquents, model students, teachers / are all the same when they fall in love“) and also, in vain of “Keep Tryin’,” comments, tongue-in-cheek, on the present face of society (“Dad’s layoff, brother’s internet, mom’s on a diet, diet, diet“). The official single will also contain a second song that fans will have to wait to hear.

Hide & Seek

And finally, in order to finish our big J-pop princess releases, I can’t fail to mention Namie Amuro’s new album, PLAY, set to be released at the end of June. Amuro’s last album, Queen of Hip-Pop made a big splash as the follow up to 2003’s STYLE, and contributed to the changing style of Amuro’s music which now centers around, what else? American-style hip hop, complete with imitations of Lil’ John’s “YEAH!” Since the album, Amuro has released a string of successful singles like “White Light,” “CAN’T SLEEP, CAN’T EAT, I’M SICK,” and most recently “FUNKY TOWN,” all which are confirmed to be present on the album alongside several new tracks. One new song, “Hide & Seek,” has already been released for radio-play and promotion. The song is another hip hop melody with plenty of synth streaks to round out the less than organic sound best played with high bass. Upbeat and with liberal use of Engrish, the song is bound to please fans of Queen of Hip-Pop.