April 2020: Highlights

It’s been another long month of uncertainty, stay-at-home orders, and streaming concert videos, the last a somewhat soothing balm to ease the blow of a virus that has wiped out any sense of security basically everywhere except South Korean, and not getting that Lady Gaga album that might have made it all just a little easier to deal with. Predictably, the music industries around the world scaled back and postponed in anticipation of more lucrative times, and we were left with a fraction of the music that would normally be rolled out to start heralding the great Song of the Summer Battle. But it hasn’t been a total blank and we did get some interesting releases in a variety of genres — here are a few that stood out.

(G)I-DLE: I Trust
(2020.04.06)

Up until now, (G)I-DLE has been the group to go to for straight-up tough-girl bangers like “Maze” and “Latata.” Their follow-up EP, I Made, paved no inroads, delivering more of the same generic, tropical-house that has been clogging K-pop the past few years. Luckily, the group has done a minor overhaul with I Trust, taking the moody lust of last year’s one-off “Lion,” and creating a whole EP around a sound less focused on getting bodies out of seats, than taking people outside of their bodies altogether. “Oh my god,” the lead track off of I Trust, is something of a red herring, not as cerebral as it wants to be, but certainly more dramatic, shifting the tempo abruptly into neutral just as soon as it seems to be taking off. These moments that give pause are scattered throughout this more somber side of (G)I-DLE. While the collection does rely a bit too heavily on trendy trap-hooks that set a very short expiration date on its longevity, it’s a nice, new color for the group, the more serious right of passage on any girl-group’s mood ring. (G)I-DLE wear it well, as I expect they would a big summer bop and winter ballad, too.

Anly: Sweet Cruisin’
(2020.04.08)

It would seem like the Anlys of the world are a dime a dozen now, so ubiquitous you can’t click a Related Artists link on Spotify without being bombarded by the same ten or so indie-bent singer-songwriters signed to major labels. Okinawa-born Anly’s origin story isn’t unique: the Millennial fairy tale-template is strong in this artist who grew up listening to her father’s music collection and began releasing and playing her own songs straight out of high school, gaining traction with modern gimmicks like iPhone-filmed music videos, pushing the “genre-less” party line, and boasting large streaming numbers. She was signed to a major on the promise of just two singles. But the music holds up well, though I’m not sure if “genre-less” is the correct term for Sweet Cruisin’, so much as “indecisive,” the kind of record that careens between swinging acoustic-prominent J-pop jams like “We’ll Never Die” and “Sunshine,” and mellow hip-hop like “Sleep” in an attempt to distinguish itself from more over-produced outfits by purposely maintaining a bit of a rough, DIY aesthetic that offers the illusion of authenticity, a sound now as marketable as any idol’s. There’s an audience for this kind of music, and while I might not be it, I can appreciate what Anly is doing within the confines of the box she’s built herself into.

Spell: Opulent Decay
(2020.04.10)

A minor avalanche of great metal albums have been release throughout April, so it’s a real shame that I just haven’t been in the mood to listen to and enjoy them as much as I normally would. I don’t have any explanation for this, aside from the inability to give the genre the concentration and consideration it deserves lately. Aside from Dawn of Solace’s Waves and Stallion’s Slaves of Time, Spell’s Opulent Decay is the first metal album I’ve enjoyed since 2020 kicked off, and even now I’m at a loss to articulate what distinguishes it from other albums in its sub-genre. The album is steeped in early 80’s hard rock, with its immediate influences being groups like Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult, though I hear a lot of debut-era Ghost in these songs, too (themselves drawing from the same wells in their first years). It’s full of decent hooks covered in a tell-tale funereal gloom, and guided first by the dominant guitar work and then the thin, somewhat incongruous vocals. But it all works, even when nothing feels particularly original, and while I’m under no impression this will be making many year-end lists, I have found it a treat to chew on this past week, a kind of aperitif that I hope will stimulate my appetite for more in the coming months.

Nanaka Suwa: So Sweet Dolce
(2020.04.15)

If you’re a young seiyuu looking to make the transition to solo idol star, the history of the genre has ensured there are plenty of models available to emulate. Nanaka Suwa seems to be pulling from a variety of sources, among them veterans like Luna Haruna and Aya Uchida, but especially Ayami Muto and Yui Ogura. The latter is proving a particular inspiration, not just in visuals, but in sound. Suwa’s debut album So Sweet Dolce is something of a concept album, with each song focused around exactly what its titles suggest: sweets. With titles like “Donut Ring World,” “CHOCOLATE PHRASE,” “MACAROON LOVE,” and “POPCORN no Kumo (Popcorn Cloud),” the album goes all in, though the lyrical content and music itself isn’t anything different than so much upbeat idol-pop before it. While the album trades in a sound as expendable and nutritionally deficient as its thematic content, I’d argue that its sincerity and commitment give it some lee-way: junk food never promises anything more than a pleasing and evanescent mouth-feel and delicious sugar rush, followed by a crash that leaves the consumer lethargic and unsatisfied. On that front, this album comes fresh out of Wonka’s factory, perhaps all the better to keep it so short and so sweet. Suwa doesn’t bring anything new to this genre that you can’t already get from someone like Ogura, but for those who can’t get enough of this sound, and the endless parade of pretty women in crinoline who represent it, then as the title track says, prepare for some “uncontrollable crush vibes.”

Who-ya extended: wyxt.
(2020.04.15)

Anime tie-ins won’t be the first or the last time I will see Who-ya on my radar if they keep this up: sampled at random, the debut album wyxt. took me a bit by surprise. Not much is known about Who-ya except that it features the voice of a gifted 20-something who hits all the right dramatic heights for the type of guitar-driven themes common in shounen. The album also incorporates just enough synths to keep things clipping at a very nice, quasi post-hardcore pace. I listened to this one around the same time as the new miyavi album, so while I’m bound to draw some comparisons, this album has a lot more studio spit-and-polish than the latter’s just plain polish, incorporating more bells and whistles like on “REC ON,” where some dubstep-lite makes an unfortunate appearance, or on “G.O.A.T” where all the hooks are electronic. It’s a true hybrid of an album, fusing rock, balladry, and electro in a way that shows modest promise.

CHUNG HA: “Stay Tonight”
(2020.04.27)

I have been waiting all year for K-pop to wake up, to give me the first glimpse of a genuine heart-pounding, intergalactic, stars-collide hit. I really did not expect that hit to come from CHUNG HA, who until now, has released some pretty good dance-adjacent solo songs after a stint in short-lived girl-group I.O.I., but nothing of the caliber of a “Stay Tonight.” The energy of this song reminds me a lot of my favorite song of 2013, Kim Sori’s “Dual Life.” It’s a knock-you-on-your-backside song from a somewhat out-of-left-field performer that you never thought would be good enough to attract the kind of songwriting that could elevate them from the lower tiers. That’s not to say this will send CHUNG HA to the top of the heap — after “Dual Life,” I never heard anything about Kim Sori again, but wow, wouldn’t it be nice? In addition, the music video for “Stay Tonight” takes this bouncy house song to another level: the precision of the choreography accompanied by some clever visuals and cuts make this a feast as much for the eyes as the ears. This is the first time I have really felt the spirit of K-pop this year, and though it’s sad that it took until late April, that click you hear is the resounding connection of the hope of normalcy restored.

April: Da Capo // OH MY GIRL: NONSTOP // GWSN: the Keys
(2020.04.22) // (2020.04.27) // (2020.04.28)

K-pop has become one of the few East Asian music industries that relies on overseas sales to float, so it’s not surprising that with that particular market (both nearby Japan, and far away Europe/United States) off-limits during the coronavirus pandemic, K-pop is eager to start getting back into the release cycle to churn out whatever revenue they can wring out of their groups. And since South Korea is one of the few countries to have managed their outbreak competently they can afford to — the last half of this month has finally seen glimmers of a return of regular, bigger-ticket brands, and release schedules, with mini-albums by girls-groups (G)I-DLE, Apink, April, OH MY GIRL, and GWSN. It was a nice surprise since the three latter are all groups that I regularly follow and have a genuine interest in. It’s fair to say most of them started out as spackle to fill the space left behind by Girls’ Generation, but have put a lot of effort towards breaking out of the mold. None of these is a game-changer, but they are undoubtedly strong, with April’s “LALALILALA” being the big standout for me. The track relies on a 90’s eurodance via T-ara hook that shimmers in all the right, bubbly places, not unlike one of WJSN’s summer hits (or even Apink’s own, “Dumhdurum“). OH MY GIRL’S “Saljjak Seollesseo (Nonstop)” is the most forgettable, shooting for a broad, tropical-house vibe that, while fun, leaves it rather indistinguishable. That leaves GWSN’s “BAZOOKA!” squarely in the middle of the two, the ultimate palette cleanser. What matters most in the end is that getting to compare, contrast, dissect, and pick a favorite among multiple comebacks is the real victory here, one of the first and few luxuries fans can indulge in after a bleak winter of bad news and an industry reluctant to roll out any significant music during a time very few people were paying attention. We’re not out of the desert yet, but what a welcome oasis.

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Some luck, but mostly effort: The anomaly and allure of BABYMETAL

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Marty Friedman was both right and wrong: J-pop idols are pretty amazing, and he emphasized this point when he enthused that “all the stuff I introduced to you from Japan is going to make it outside of Japan, and soon. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already. I’m talking this year, or next year something is going to explode because this stuff is too good.” Four years later, we’re seeing a tiny, almost barely-perceptible fissure in the musical landscape. Perfume is successfully touring Europe and North America, adding major cities to their stops over time, while metal idols BABYMETAL are catering to both the LOLJapan crowd, and prurient hipsters, ever on the prowl for the new and different. The latter is nowhere more telling then their appearance in the entertainment issue of this week’s New Yorker, buried in the back in the teenage tastemakers article, Teenage Dream, by Matthew Trammell.

“Teen-agers with their serial rebellions, romantic infatuations, and unabashed experimentalism, have proved to be adept at reworking pop’s core provocations. Technology, meanwhile, has made it easy for teens to inject their aesthetics into the mainstream, with or without the guiding hand of managers and record labels.” (70)

newyorkerappThat last point is a stretch, and none of the artists briefly profiled could be considered to have gained “mainstream” success (Rappers Novelist and Kodak Black, piano prodigy Joey Alexander, popster Låpsley, etc.), but the New Yorker wouldn’t be the New Yorker if it didn’t purport to being on the absolute up-and-up. As in TIME‘s special Fall 2001 issue, which featured Hikaru Utada, (notably, she was working on her American debut with Foxy Brown and the Neptunes and planning to retire very young, around 28, probably to become a neuroscientist), articles like these tend to be peak Western exposure for said artists, rather than the beginning of a phenomenon, though BABYMETAL does get relatively considerable space. Writes Trammell,

“Though the songs are addictive, Babymetal’s sharpest asset is its singular combination of J-pop’s theatrical pageantry and metal’s primal sprint. Adherents of each genre are becoming fans: Babymetal has enjoyed huge success in Japan, and its fame is growing in the United States and in London. […] Babymetal’s act, like much of the best pop, is at once recognizable and profoundly new.” (78)

This is a singularly Western explanation; in fact, for fans of J-pop, young teenage girls dancing and singing in a genre they never heard of, or downright dislike, is nothing new, and has been done, often, if not, arguably, better, by Japanese idol groups before them. The “profoundly new” angle is only new to American pop, where metal remains the domain of a largely male demographic. This, too, was true in Japan, until a meeting of the minds pinpointed a great way to sell idols units to otaku male audiences (the, ahem, most important, ones) and their skeptical friends even quicker: by making young female idols the mouthpieces of a traditionally “masculine” genre, they created the jarring allure and unexplored juxtaposition of teenage girls belting out aggressive metal songs, and lured fans’ wallets with something they could enthuse about publicly. This opened the idol business to even more mainstream revenue: suddenly it was just a little less unseemly for young and older men alike to collect posters and photo cards, attend handshake events, and attend concerts to see their idols because the music wasn’t soft rock or bubblegum pop: it was heavy and authentic and respectable and composed by real virtuosos of the genre with immeasurable skill and talent. While the genre (here, idol pop as an all-encompassing umbrella term) has always had both male and female fans, the female fans tend to be outliers: female idols, especially those who are front women for increasingly edgier hard rock or metal music, are first and foremost catered to a male audience, most especially an older male audience, who has the buying power to keep up with the sale of related merchandise. Female fans are the superfluous extra perks, a welcome byproduct, but hardly the target, which is why you get a lot of lyrical content that is usually either a) specific to men’s interests, especially, as the market saturates, super-niche interests — see Momoiro Clover Z — or b) specific to what boys and men think girls think, talk, and daydream about.

There are very few actual female idol groups marketed to girls and women, and most of them aren’t pure idols, skirting the broader definitions that prefer terms like girl group, or dance group, like E-girls or Fairies. Female fans are steered in the direction of Johnny’s idols, where young boys and men release softer, more heartfelt, treacly pop music, the type women are typically assumed to like: photoshoots present male idols as nonthreatening, cute, and cuddly, and their singles and albums reinforce this. While a crop of new K-pop-imitators like Da-iCE and Choshinsei, are struggling to redefine the preconceived notions of idol boy bands, they are still the exception, outnumbered by their best-selling rivals. Even groups like EXILE, KAT-TUN, and lately NEWS, lean toward heavy dancepop at its most aggressive; another genre traditionally undervalued in the critical world.

babymetaltrivappIn many ways this is a sign of the outrageous gender binaries that comprise the marketing and distribution of Japanese idols; for purposes of the music itself, it also reinforces the notion that genres that comprise huge male audiences (hard rock, metal) can be deemed authentic and worthy of critical attention, while those that women enjoy are considered fluff that no one would ever take seriously. Under that idea, it’s hardly surprising that a group like BABYMETAL could make it in the circles of certain American subcultures, and less so that articles in the Western media feel the need to justify their interest in the group by constantly reminding readers that their material was written by veterans of the metal genre (Nobuki Narasaki, Herman Li, Sam Totman, Takeshi Ueda, etc.), or that the girls themselves are influenced, or appreciated by, everybody from the members of Metallica to Slayer. There are few that don’t, and in many ways, these men serve to legitimize their existence. Under these caveats, it’s hard to imagine an equivalent Japanese male group/boy band (who don’t write their own music or play instruments) could make it stateside, not even if like Jimi Hendrix came back from the dead to write an album for them. Because it seems to be acceptable, if not preferable, for women to be mostly muses and good-looking faces for the music, a group like Perfume can get a lot of critical praise because of their music producer Yasutaka Nakata, but it rarely goes the other way for boy bands, who can’t seem to catch a break unless they’re more in control of their music and image, for example G-Dragon of K-pop group BIG BANG.

Setting aside the gender breakdown of the critical music sphere for a second, any writer putting together an article about BABYMETAL deserves applause, since nothing gives away their idol-ness more than an interview, where stock quips and rehearsed nothings are the order of the day. Says Moa Kikuchi, when asked about the international reach of their fans, “Everyone loves music. I think music is the common language of the world. Music is a wonderful connection for all people – it brings people together.” These are hardly the insights of seasoned performers, though it speaks to their unique perspective, both as teenagers and Japanese teens, which they are very quick to take pride in (Yui Mizuno: “BABYMETAL music is a blend of hard music and metal music with Japanese pop and sounds. If we were not from Japan, we’d be a totally different band with totally different fans”).

artravebabvy2While Marty Friedman believed that Japanese pop music would only reach an audience outside Japan “with luck” and “timing,” and other factors that couldn’t be planned, BABYMETAL, has been a slow, methodical climb to relevance, not least of which included shows in Paris, New York, and the UK, and opening for Lady Gaga’s ArtRave: The Artpop Ball tour starting back in 2014. Noisey did a brief introduction back in the same year, while Jake Cleland at Pitchfork picked “Gimme Choco!!” as one of his favorite tracks of 2010-2014. All said and done, BABYMETAL, originally conceived of as a subunit of uber-traditional idol group Sakura Gakuin, has done well for itself, and not just because of luck and timing.

In fact, idol groups like BABYMETAL flourish in Japan, many of them far superior to the group, who are getting the attention and accolades that many Japanese idols simply don’t care about, or can’t be bothered with. PASSPO☆, in particular, has some of the highest quality, and variety, of hard rock and metal on their albums, especially on the legendary One World, and last year’s Beef or Chicken? Other examples include BAND-MAID, Momoiro Clover Z, and BiSH, all bands that might be considered too niche to crossover in America (it would surely involve a lot of context and explanation).

stephenbabyappThat being said, in rare cases the music can transcend context, as BABYMETAL’s fantastic new album, METAL RESISTANCE, does. There are some truly epic and astounding risks the album takes and pulls off, particularly with lead tracks “KARATE” and the mostly-instrumental “From Dusk Till’ Dawn.” As Ryotaro Aoki points out in his review, the album has “more nods to 1980s hair metal and symphonic metal, which are perhaps more suited for mixing with J-pop than metal’s edgier subgenres” and fulfills “the crux of idol music; they know what you like, and they can convincingly make it exactly the way you like it.” It will be interesting to see how long BABYMETAL can sustain their novelty act in a country where trends come and go, Japanese pop culture is not often taken seriously, and the majority reaction is still more laugh-at-them than laugh-with-them (to be fair, homegrown girl groups aren’t having it much easier, even as they look to edgy K-pop for inspiration, but Fifth Harmony and Little Mix, bless their souls, are trying). While seeing the girls on Stephen Colbert was pretty exciting, simply appearing on late night portends nothing; just ask Girls’ Generation. The goal is always that music from other parts of the world can be appreciated and enjoyed for what it is and what it’s trying to do, rather than fit a predetermined, acceptable mold, regardless of which audience it’s attracting and why, and at least in that sense, BABYMETAL are chipping away at America’s icy heart proudly, and on their own terms.

(Photo credit.)