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.)

Top ten albums of 2015, #7: PASSPO☆’s Beef or Chicken?

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passpobeefappPASSPO☆: Beef or Chicken?

We reached peak-idol a few years ago, so why are we still clinging to groups who keep shuffling members, graduating them off, or sparking sub units in the hopes they’ll branch out into worthy successors? There’s no shortage of them, and the number only grows: they become more niche, more esoteric, and more attention-grabbing — it doesn’t get any worse than a group like LADYBABY, who combine the now-banal dichotomy of cute girls singing hard rock or metal songs, but with the added eye-sore of a masculine, bearded-wrestler wearing the same outfits and pigtails as his group mates warbling out signature death metal growls. It’s maybe why I’d like to take the time to luxuriate in Beef or Chicken?, the very-likely last great PASSPO☆ album (the first being One World). The album title is another push in the gimmicky air-hostess direction, but the songs are as hard and fun as ever. And there’s nothing so fun as lead single “HONEY DISH,” a combo hard rock-and-girl-pop number whose overwhelming sweet tooth is balanced out by the heavy guitars. The rest of the album is classic PASSPO☆: gritty rock and make-no-mistakes-about-it metal. The group is signed to a major label, so skilled session musicians and writers are at their disposal to conjure the retro Americana diner of the album jackets without sacrificing the sound we’re used to. It offers something of a varied menu, like the touch of Southern rock in “Itazura Rock n’ Roll,” grungy metal in “Not in theory,” and a softer glow on “Shiny Road.” All the signature speed and energy of the group is there, despite this being the shortest PASSPO☆ album to date. Following this amazing release in May, the group took a (relatively) long hiatus, after which they announced both a graduation and a label change to Nippon Crown at the end of the year. So long and goodnight PASSPO☆?

2015 mid-year report

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

The Annual Yasutaka Update

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

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

Girls On Top

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

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

K-pop

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

Idol Corner

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

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

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

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

Special mentions

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Shout outs to the following fun records:

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

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

On the horizon

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

TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE: What we talk about when we talk about idols Pt. 2

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On December 20, 2014, leading Avex Trax idol group TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE announced that they would be leaving their idol status behind them and moving forward as “artists.” There is quite a difference between artists and idols, one that goes beyond that alarming moment the camera pans over the audience and you notice it’s 98% male. Unlike other records labels, Avex Trax is fairly new to the idol scene, instead traditionally known for producing solo artists and dance groups. While project director Yoshiyasu Satake explains the distinction by saying that the girls “will no longer perform in idol festivals, appear in idol-specific magazines, and will no longer perform their songs “Onnaji Kimochi” and “Ganbatte Itsudatte Shinjiteru,”” the more specific truth is that the ways an artist or group are marketed, or promoted to target audiences are pretty much the means by which they will be regarded and consumed. This includes everything from the lyrical content of songs, to the costuming, to the type of promotional tie-ins and product endorsements, down to the age of the members themselves.

Arguably, one of Avex Trax’s most successful idol groups to date has been SweetS, whose members were 13 and 14 years old at the time of their debut. While they could be interpreted as just another singing and dancing group, their target audience definitely skewed to the older male demographic; I remember a certain now-defunct J-pop forum’s SweetS thread to be almost bewilderingly comprised of older men, the types with good paying full-time jobs who pre-ordered every last single and posted images of their CD collections and posters before digital and phone cameras made this easy and ubiquitous — in 2003, you had to love an idol group with so much unabashed pride you’d be willing to purchase a not-cheap scanner to upload your Polaroids after waiting an hour to have them developed. At best, these guys had a sense of humor about their hobby; at worst, a sense of guilt that made them particularly defensive. But it was a  club I knew I would never join, at least not on a high school student’s budget. My people hung out in the ‘What was your latest purchase?’ thread where we’d boast about being able to buy Hikaru Utada’s second-newest single and that one Every Little Thing remix compilation that came out two years ago. When someone scored concert merchandise on Ebay, even just a dinky rabbit’s foot key chain, we’d all enthusiastically gush in admiration and jealousy with just as much, if not more, awe than we did for those who posted pictures of gigantic boxes of CD Japan orders.

With song titles like “LolitA☆Strawberry in summer,” SweetS’ innocence-as-invitation come-ons were plastered across billboards in poses that would mostly attract these older fans. Of course, in the era of post-AKB48, the group almost seems quaint now, rather hinting at the aberrant, where AKB48 — which perfected the practice of objectifying members and treating young girls like expendable, interchangeable cogs in a giant machine — ushered in an era of tight control, structure, rules, and overt agenda. To many who look back, SweetS’ short career is covered in a gauzy veil of nostalgia. On the Is it an idol? blog, the post “SweetS Reincarnate: Tokyo Girls’ Style- doomed to fail?” says “The group seemed to have it all: Fresh-faced, adorable pre-pubescent [sic] members, two strong lead vocalists, and an extremely catchy (although slightly controversial) debut single” and earlier in the post, as “a dream deferred.”

TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE was created to be the group’s successors, being one of the first Avex groups created specifically as idols in many years: indeed, their early discography is littered with SweetS covers like “LolitA☆Strawberry in summer” and “Love like candy floss.” Their early promotional videos are geared especially to a male viewing audience: in “Ganbatte Itsudatte Shinjiteru” the girls play cheerleaders who spend the video swooning over their male classmates and gathering up enough courage to talk to their crushes, not unlike early SweetS songs that focused on the internal dilemma and excitement of falling in love with someone who is hinted at being forbidden. If you were a female trying to get into the group early on in their career, there would be very little to draw you in besides catchy music: since the group was created for the creepier fantasies of boys, everything from the way the girls’ acted, to the content of the lyrics, addressed, and solely catered to this audience. Unlike Namie Amuro or Ayumi Hamasaki, who wore the hippest clothes, sang songs about themselves, their friends, and their own real-life issues, in turn providing more authentic role-models and behavior that was aspirational, idols like TGS create fantasies so even the nerdiest, shyest boy feels desirable, liked; his every behavior and thought, whether deviant or not, justified. For these men, artists like Kumi Koda seem intimidating, even vulgar. It’s not uncommon to hear many of those same boys call her music videos and stage shows crass, unbecoming, or “slutty,” where others, particularly women and homosexual men and women, see it as an expression of sexual freedom, agency, independence, and an alternative to the pliable, simpering behavior that many idols are paid to trade in. That is to say, images are powerful, and the way artists and idols are projected is highly calculated. Unfortunately, this also creates an idol industry that excludes an entire population at the risk of potentially greater monetary rewards: who can afford to buy 4 copies of the same CD to collect all the different covers? Who is willing to buy dozens of copies of the same album to ensure his favorite idol wins the next senbatsu? Of course, this comes at the risk of these groups becoming something of pariahs in the industry, condemned to their corner of the music world, where any outsiders venturing in are forced to feel somewhat ashamed by taking a peek inside.

But in many other ways, TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE has always been your average “girls dance and vocal group” as Satake puts it. As early as their 2013 Budokan concert, the group already exhibited so little of the idol spectacle we’re used to: while many idols cash in on their lack of talent and sloppy choreography, TGS quickly developed remarkable skill in their choreography. They also have a small hand in their musical material, through lyric writing, and playing instruments. Some of the members cite BoA and Ayumi Hamasaki as their influences, perhaps a nod to the professionalism, candor, and wide-reaching audience that the group hopes to mimic themselves. Anyone who heard their 2014 album Killing Me Softly could have seen this move in a new direction coming. The album’s softer, melancholy tones shifted their sound into more seasoned territory, relying less on unsophisticated cliches, though I’ll admit the change was gradual, with Avex hesitant to turn the switch off for their loyal audience: the 2013 PV for “Partition Love” depicts a hackneyed plot involving a girl’s crush on an older teacher, eventually showing up at his door in the middle of the night. But if the music itself didn’t tip you off, their collaborations would. “In an effort to market them even more to the indie crowd, Avex Trax had TGS team up with trendy internet label Maltine Records in January for a special collaboration album, Maltine Girls Wave” says Jacques over at arcadey. In many ways, when the traditional route clogged the yen stream to Avex, maybe for not walking the  exploitative path other idol labels find it so easy to go down, they switched TGS to being the “cool” idols, the ones who released exclusive 7″ vinyl singles. Or was this the point all along? A bit of pandering so Avex could go back to doing what they do best?

While the country has fluxed in waves, in Japan’s music market today, idols have been where the money is. But if popular opinion is any indication, this seems to be gradually changing, as group’s distance themselves from the “idol” label as much as possible, and big record companies concentrate on developing groups that are marketed toward girls and young women, giving them things they want to see and participate in. When a recent idol group was rumored to be formed for the opening ceremony performance of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, many public figures reacted in horror, calling groups like AKB48 everything from “the shame of Japan” to “child pornography.” Writes Patrick St. Michel in “Tokyo 2020 Olympics and AKB48: The J-pop Idol Group Controversy,”

“[T]he response to Japan48 highlighted a schism taking place in the Japanese music landscape. For the last five years, Japan has experienced an “idol boom,” spurred by the success of AKB48 and resulting in dozens of new groups composed of young women singing upbeat pop while dancing. In recent months, however, sales have lagged and general interest in such groups has dropped, while a new wave of bands has claimed cultural relevance. Japan’s infatuation with idol groups has started to fade.

For many idols, the template is Perfume: do your time serving as an idol, then gradually mature into “real” artists, the type that can be taken seriously by those beside otaku. Negicco, originally a small, local idol trio, are now collaborating with seasoned producers, developing a more cultivated, Shibuya-kei sound that is attracting a wider, hipper audience. And for some, the chance to be taken seriously can happen right out the gate: groups like E-girls, and their original units like Dream and FLOWER are marketed towards young women, with an emphasis on style, personality, ambition, and talent: any boys or older men who come along for the ride are welcome, but not without the unspoken agreement that their world is first and foremost, a space for girls to feel safe and valued (as a plus, groups like E-girls and TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE both tour with all-girl backing bands, an intentional nod to the talent women can bring not only to singing and dancing, but playing instruments). Like certain K-pop groups and anti-idols, these groups are reinventing the idea that idols always need to be purposefully inept, demure, coy, or pliable to the passing whims of a male audience. TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE, who have been prepping for months, seem to be more than happy to join this brave new world, and will hopefully not lose their popularity or success in the coming years — or even, perhaps, gain in respect what they could never quite make in sales (to this day TGS has never had a #1 anything on the Oricon charts).

For in some ways, the crawl out of the idol underground is still a slow, uneven slog, where “artists” like Fairies and FAKY aren’t getting the recognition they deserve, being unable to find a sizable foothold in the market, leaving Avex to desperately churn out a decent, but very much-idol group like Dorothy Little Happy in hopes they can still crack that idol code someday. And unfortunately, even after girls put in all the hard work, time, and patience necessary for success, they’re still left finding no other work but to pose for pictorials and videos in the seedy, but still booming men’s gravure and AV publications world after being forcibly “graduated” out of a group to make way for the next pretty face. Not every idol group can follow the Perfume plan, nor can they hope to find both respect and success in a market whose buying power is still, even years and years after certain J-pop forums collapse, concentrated in the hands of older, well-off men who are used to having things their way, and able to front the money to get it.

Read Part 1 here: Momoiro Clover Z: What we talk about when we talk about idols.

Japanese pop culture and intertextuality: Negicco’s “IDOL Bakari Kikanaide”

negicco1

In the introduction to Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture, Patrick W. Galbraith and Jason G. Karlin outline the vast media intertextuality that makes audiences outside Japan find it difficult to understand the country’s pop culture. “The idol, as a multimedia performer, is always operating within a system of meanings and codes that are referencing other texts” (19). This occurs in four ways: (1) the way that idols perform across genres and platforms (appearing in dramas, sports events, and on game shows, releasing singles, appearing in commercials, etc.), (2) idols’ appearance in fictional and nonfictional contexts that reference both their real and onscreen lives, (3) the multi-platform appearances that link media forms for the purpose of promoting and selling other media, and (4) the way that intertextuality encourages nostalgia based on a shared cultural framework of texts (10-12). It’s that last point that will be most important here, and is summed up so succinctly:

“Without the intertextual knowledge that comes from a shared understanding of the cultural codes that circulate across media forms within Japan, the idol is reduced merely to his/her ability as a singer, dancer, or actor, which is limited. As a result, Japanese popular culture does not translate well cross-culturally, since its forms are overdetermined by the self-referential structures of the domestic media landscape.” (12)

That’s a rather large batch of quotes and summaries, but makes sense when you think of how often you see bewildered expressions or LOLJapan memes that circulate when readers or viewers are provided information on Japanese idols, bands, or fads without any of the relevant context. And bereft of context, we often get disdain, fear, or general apathy.

A great example of this intertextuality is Negicco’s latest single “IDOL Bakari Kikanaide.” Released this May, the single provides more than the usual number of references. Let’s break it down as coherently as possible:

(1) Japanese idols are heavily promoted media personalities that combine singing, dancing, acting, modeling, and advertising into careers that may last as little as a couple of years to decades. They’re generally attractive, particularly cute, and are usually considered pure or innocent, an image that will be consistently torn down by scandals or tabloids. The whole point of modern Japanese idols that separates them from other equivalents is that they are generally more valuable based on their potential. That is, an idol is valued if he or she starts out with moderate talents and abilities, but is shown through his or her career to develop and grow, a process fans are eager to participate in by supporting their chosen idols. Idols generally began appearing in the early 1970s, reached a peak in the 1980s, were replaced by more ambitious artists like Namie Amuro, Hikaru Utada, and Ayumi Hamasaki in the 1990s and early 00s, and have slowly begun an ascent once again.

(2) Shibuya-kei is a genre of music made popular in the 1990s. As Simon Reynolds puts it in Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, “The term came from the Shibuya area of Tokyo, in which were clustered record stores like Tower and HMV that stocked a lot of imports, along with ultra-hip record boutiques. The upper middle-class, privately educated kids who frequented these stores bought loads of import records from the UK and esoteric reissues of all kinds, then created music that was a portrait of themselves as exquisitely discerning consumers.” In other words, Shibuya-kei was a nod to forgotten, hip genres as varied as French ye ye, bossa nova, jazz, disco, and other pop styles, with the look and feel of 1960’s retro-futurism. Popular artists included Pizzicato Five, Flipper’s Guitar, Cornelius, and Karie Kahimi.

pizzicato2(3) One of the groups that epitomized the Shibuya-kei aesthetic, as mentioned, was Pizzicato Five, a group most popular with its incarnation of members Maki Nomiya and mastermind Yasuharu Konishi. It wouldn’t be erroneous to call Konishi the man with the vision: a look at P5’s discography puts you at the center stage of ironic, 1960’s retro-futurist musical genres, fashion, and general pastiche. Some would even go so far as to call Konishi’s music downright plagiarism. Suffice to say, Konishi understood this. His gigantic collection of vintage records that he relentlessly sampled wasn’t too far from what hip-hop had been doing for years. Regardless, Shibuya-kei did eventually reach a boiling point, most likely when books and manuals were published detailing all the minute references that took the pioneers forever to uncover, spelled out for even the simplest passing musical tourist to grasp. Suddenly, with a gigantic reference library of knowledge and specialist shops dedicated to the genre, crate digging for hours wasn’t as much fun, unique discoveries were impossible to make, and a new generation was onto something else. Or, to put it less lightly, “Through the mass media, the awareness of a particular celebrity or idol permeates national consciousness until it collapses under the weight of its own self-referential reproduction. […] As a result, the desire for novelty becomes engrained in Japanese media culture, guaranteeing stability and routinizing consumption” (Galbraith & Karlin, 17). Pizzicato Five released their last album, Ca et la du Japon, in 2001, symbolically ending their reign of the decade.

(4) Yasuharu Konishi continues to produce and remix things here and there. His latest work is for Negicco’s new single “IDOL Bakari Kikakanaide.” Besides the fact that this is a classic Konishi hyper-violin, go-go groove, we’ve also got a reference that turns in on itself back to the source: a song idols are singing to encourage a boyfriend to stop listening to idols so much (“I don’t care how much you love idols / But no matter how much you shake her hand / You can’t date that girl / Too bad!”). Clever, right?

(5): Handshake events are quite popular in Japan. Often access is obtained by purchasing singles or albums. It’s exactly what is sounds like: fans get a chance to meet and shake the hands of idols.

negicco2Yasuharu’s interest in the long-running idol group started back in February, when he supposedly “begged” their producer connie to write a single for them.

(6): It isn’t uncommon for professional and budding musical composers to write songs and submit them to idol agencies in the hope they get produced. It’s a little different than your standard single-producer complete-control regimen, but it certainly takes fan interaction to a whole new level.

Says Yasuharu: “I’ve played this monumental song close to a 100 times at home already. I always dreamt of writing a song for an idol from when I was a high school student. I want to take this song and make him (myself in high school) listen to it. It was like, ‘the Kyohei Tsutsumi inside me’ burst out of me.”

(7): Kyohei Tsutsumi is another popular record producer who penned Ayumi Ishida’s ridiculously popular song “Blue Light Yokohama” in 1968 and has since gone on to become one of Japan’s most prolific music composers. Humble, Konishi is not.

Says connie: “The first time I heard about the idea for the title, ‘IDOL Bakari Kikanaide’, was on our first meeting. When I heard that title, I liked it so much that I said, ‘Please go with that!’. Just imagining Negicco singing a song called, ‘IDOL Bakari Kikanaide’ (meaning, ‘don’t just listen to idol songs’), it’s such a great idea! It gave me goose bumps when I listened to the demo when it arrived a few days later. It was authentic Konishi melody, and Konish [sic] lyrics. I was moved by just that.” In true retro fashion, this single was also released on limited edition 7″ vinyl.

(8): Negicco isn’t the only group with a retro-idol vibe to be affiliated with Pizzicato Five. To name another, kawaii duo Vanilla Beans have covered Pizzicato Five songs such as “Baby Portable Rock” and “Tokyo wa Yoru no Shichiji” and have invited ex-P5 vocalist Maki Nomiya to compete with them for the 4th edition taiban project.

(9) By the way, the title of the song is also a reference to France Gall’s “N’ecoute pas les idoles.” Because Konishi.

(10) The promotional video might seem a little stiff and awkward. Speculation: the idol group is most likely influenced by seminal idol duo Wink, a style that lives on in many Wink-style performances. From the blog Kayo Kyoku Plus: “You might call Wink the anti-Pink Lady: emotion-drained faces, robotic moves utilizing mostly their upper bodies, and Lolitaesque dresses. They looked just like porcelain dolls given life.” Wink took bubbly 80’s dance-pop and turned it into a cool, robotic business of hand waves and blank expressions that lives on in idols today.

The song can certainly be enjoyed without peeling back all of the layers and finding the references within references, but it does reveal the intertextual layers one has to sift through to truly understand and contextualize Japanese pop culture. Rather than assume everything from Japan is wacky or strange, sometimes it takes some research and an open mind to figure out what’s happening. Really, (at least in terms of a “shared cultural framework of texts”) it’s no different than movies or sitcoms that rely on pop  culture references for humor, or the links posted here or anywhere that lead you down the rabbit-hole that build on other links: more difficult than Wikipedia, but easier and less hypertext-y than Nabakov’s Pale Fire, which a sadistic professor may have forced you to read in an undergrad pomo Lit class. As such, it can be difficult to write about Japanese pop culture without assuming the reader knows the basics or grasps certain aspects that would take at least five or six steps backward to comprehend.

As per past discussion, Korean pop doesn’t necessarily follow this formula: Korean idols are created to be less specific, with references that mostly stem to the universal and the shared, or skewed towards those of the Western world. Again, Japan doesn’t really seem to care too much about exporting their idol talent, or easing up on the subsequent colossal advertising tie-ins and cross-media promotions. With the revenue they generate within their own country, whatever they’re doing seems to be working for them, even if they have to bribe fans to buy CDs to vote in media-promoted idol elections. Wait, back-up. Should we break that down?

The next great male J-pop artist will not be Keita Tachibana

Keita SIDE BY SIDE

It’s great when male idols escape their group for a while and go solo, especially when those efforts resemble something like Tomohisa Yamashita’s trajectory. He’s one of the few male idols being given a chance to do something with all that talent he’s got without fear of compromising his bland Johnny’s image (I’m thinking of all the stuff he gets to explore image-wise now, mostly, and not that entrance on a giant pair of lips wearing a full-length white coat on his Ero-P tour). Sure, the audience still has to endure those Johnny’s back-up dancers, the gimmicky underwear packaged with his latest album, and questionable collabs like “Monster,” but they also get to experience his nascent composition skills, such as awesome, ridiculous dance songs like “Hit the Wall” that couldn’t possibly come out of the hands of a person with such little experience. And yet.

It’s just as exciting to see Keita Tachibana of w-inds. get another chance at going solo, as he’s easily the most charismatic member of w-inds. (also the best looking, natch). Unfortunately, SIDE BY SIDE is less than memorable. Listening to this album is like being tricked into another w-inds. album: things are going great until all of a sudden they aren’t. There’s all those songs that would sound just fine if they weren’t so desperate to remake him into some kind of soulful, heartsick crooner. More importantly, it’s frustrating to see a Japanese pop album refuse to go all-in on a sound. The best moments are the common-denominator dance tracks that give some of the great K-pop numbers something to think about (that’s you “Shame on me”, rife with putting your hands up in the air like you just don’t care cliche, oont-oont minimalism), rather than almost everything after the mid-point, when the safer pop numbers kill the rest of SIDE BY SIDE‘s momentum.

I’m thinking now of somebody like Daichi Miura, a man with all kinds of technical ability, but maybe without the push of a team like Tachibana’s. This music video for “Right Now,” for example, is the greatest thing I’ve seen in a long, long time re: male solo singers. The choreography is amazing and Miura’s voice is so sharp when it needs to be, and softer when the lights go down, and then smooth, and then jazzy, and then he hits that falsetto and draws it out until there isn’t any air left in the song. It’s like he has eight different voices inside of him and knows the right time to use each of them. Yet this song barely cracked the Top Ten of the Oricon before it slid way, way down into obscurity, making nary a year end list.

There is room for male pop singers like Miura, Yamashita and even Tachibana. I only hope there’s more songs like “Shame on me” and “Thinking of you” in Tachibana’s future, probably two of the strongest tracks on an album named for one of the weakest. In a year where a lot of great singles are shadowed by unnecessary full-lengths, I’m hoping to see more hard-earned, quality competition for the next great male artist in Japan.