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.

Cool Japan vs. Hallyu: The long, loud road to soft power

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Like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu before them, Perfume is all set to make their North American debut this fall on a tour that includes stops in Los Angeles and New York, as well as an international release of last year’s album LEVEL3, which will include two bonus remixes. The Internet has been predictably awash in both pleasant surprise and utter horror — worries FilmiGirl, “Their songs are tied up in their intricate visual choreography but I’m afraid that part won’t be clear to the Western arts types trying to write about them.” While South Korea has had a fruitful K-culture export strategy, Japan has been less successful, for several reasons I’ve gone over before in this blog, and that others have reiterated across the Internet. But the one point it always comes back to is that Japan lacks effort because they simply do not care. Japan still holds the distinction of being the second largest music market in the world with physical sales of CDs still trumping digital by leaps and bounds. At least for the time being, Japan’s business strategy works for the music entertainment industry in their favor.

Yet we still see the occasional group or singer attempt an American, or international, crossover. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has toured the US and released an international version of Pamyu Pamyu Revolution, globe-trotting on her brand of Harajuku fashion and artistic, sometimes off-the-wall visuals. But crossovers have gone all the way back since Hikaru Utada, Mai Kuraki, Pizzicato Five, Seiko Matsuda, Pink Lady, and so on. Despite these artists sharing Western styles of music and performance, rather than Japan’s abundance of idols and idol pop, rarely has anyone been able to attain a palpable sense of popularity, perhaps one of the reasons that crossovers tend to stay local, with Asian artists focused on growing a fan base in other East Asian countries like China and Singapore.

Japan, and, especially, Korea have attempted to rectify their low cultural influence outside of Asia with initiatives like Cool Japan and what is known as Hallyu, or the Korean Wave. Both of these tactics are similar, with government funding initiatives to pump up soft power: food, television, cinema, music, and electronics are only some of the positives the countries want associated with themselves, banking on the idea that foreigners will eventually form positive opinions of their country through this coercion, rather than force (hence the term “soft power”). Japan is investing $500 million in a 20-year plan, most likely in response to Korea’s enormous gain in the international pop culture wars — while Japan used to be Asia’s predominant taste maker, Korea has caught up in a phenomenally short amount of time.

koreancoolappIn The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture, Euny Hong outlines the reasons Japan’s reign has come to an end:

“First of all, Japanese pop culture, like the Japanese archipelago itself, is too isolated from the rest of the world to have remained a sustainable global influence. […] Others, like pop culture critic Lee Moon-won, point out that Japan is a big enough consumer market as it is (the population is 100 million) and is less dependent than Korea is on foreign exports. For many Japanese companies, it’s not worth the huge risk of a very, very costly overseas marketing campaign.” (200-201)

In addition, she cites that “many of Japan’s video games are for the Japanese market only,” the Japanese are reluctant to learn English (“J-pop bands don’t strategically include non-Japanese members, for example”), the presence of online distribution channels like YouTube and the use of subtitles which Japanese companies refuse to take advantage of, and the practice of grooming potential stars much differently than their Korean counterparts (201-202). Korean agencies churn out K-pop stars in a factory system, training idols from a very young age in dancing, singing, and media presence, and sending them out into the world as polished and professional as most audiences would expect. On the other hand, Japanese idols start out at a young age to purposely appear green: their real marketing push is to debut somewhat untalented so they can hone their skills in the public eye, giving the audience a sisterly or brotherly pull to support them. This creates a sort of emotional (and financial) bond unique to J-pop idols. In addition, it’s worth mentioning that Japanese idols are valuable less for their singing or dancing skills, than their ability to effortlessly float across media platforms, such as dramas, variety shows, and advertising.

W. David Marx writes in “The Jimusho System: Understanding the Production Logic of the Japanese Entertainment Industry“: “In pursuit of profit, they [agencies] maximize entertainers’ incomes through a wide variety of activities, most deeply focused on product sponsorship. […] Idols are products of their jimusho, [agency] and the jimusho work to create idols who have the greatest economic potential (37).” This “economic” potential is difficult to parlay into an overseas net value where the same advertising tie-ins would be highly difficult to obtain, and artists would, instead, have to rely solely on their music and performances. In that case, it would be a Sisyphean task to attempt to cross over hugely successful groups like SMAP, Arashi, or AKB48. Furthermore, it makes little sense from a business standpoint to drop what is already such a lucrative endeavor that needs no explanation at home, to a country such as the United States, that would require footnotes at every step (see my post Japanese Pop Culture and Intertextuality to get a sense of what we’re dealing with here).

Furthermore, celebrity endorsements work differently in Japan anyway. Jason G. Karlin writes in “Through a Looking Glass Darkly: Television Advertising, Idols, and the Making of Fan Audiences” that

“[u]nlike celebrities in the US, Japanese [talents] do not endorse products. Instead, image characters lend their star image to the brand, but without implying any direct endorsement or testimonial. The Japanese celebrity is not making any claims or representations for the product. Indeed, in most commercials, the celebrity never even mentions the name of the product.” (74-75)

To sum up again, we’re looking at a culture that is financially stable in its own system that, at least for the time being, works in their favor. To move outside Japan, Japanese companies would be losing control of large amounts of income and the enormous influence they yield over broadcast networks and other companies by providing stars that earn those companies revenue in return.

On the other hand, K-pop idols are much more willing to play the long-game and adapt to their Western counterparts in both business practice and image. This is especially easy when K-pop is already so familiar and hip to an international audience that recognizes its references immediately without needing to Google eight separate pieces of background information to get an idea of what’s going on with the sounds or visuals. Perhaps this is why Perfume in particular have been chosen as the next torchbearers: their sound is largely irreverent of current J-pop trends, capable of being enjoyed in as basic a vacuum as you can get when it comes to J-pop. They are also not idols in the traditional sense, yet they do bring a sense of something wholly unique and Japanese, that Yasutaka Nakata sound that is so difficult to replicate and so chillingly important in a music market that sounds more and more homogenous. While they don’t have Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s fashion cred, they do have a uniform look and appeal that remains classic, and a forward-looking visual aesthetic that can be as breathtaking as it is innovative. They are, in short, one of the best musical groups Japan currently has to offer and continuing to send them off into the world is the only way to keep the party going when domestic sales start to flutter.

hellokiappIt’s also a way to promote Japanese pop culture without using the words many already associate with Japan: anime, cute, kawaii, Hello Kitty, etc. While none of those things are inherently bad unto themselves, Japan already has a PR campaign focused on nurturing kawaii. In “Wink on Pink: Interpreting Japanese Cute as It Grabs the Global Headlines” Christine Yano lists everything from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs using the robot kitty Doraemon as its mascot, to Hello Kitty for its tourism, to using three young women, Misako Aoki, Yu Kimura, and Shizuka Fujioka, to model Lolita, Harajuku, and schoolgirls-in-uniform fashion at Japanese global events to showcase how “Japanese cute – including its tease of youth and femininity — has become part of official policy in creating a new face that beckons the overseas customer (685).” While there is something of a tongue-in-cheek way that these fashions and messages are worn by consumers (the “wink” in the article’s title), it’s still a wonder to see three girls like Perfume promote something other than a stereotype: indeed, the girls are hard-working and talented and feminine and strong and they don’t have to wear a maid uniform to get your attention or represent their country. Progress.

Regardless, none of this points to absolute success, where success is defined by the acceptance of a widespread Western audience: for example, while the Japanese lyrics are part of the appeal, it may be difficult for a broader audience to accept the authenticity. In fact, historically we have nothing to predict this will catapult Perfume into global stardom, rather than do the same thing groups like Girls’ Generation have done: bring happiness and delight to a small niche audience, maybe open a few new eyes and ears to something new and different (in this case, recruiting English speaking members is a plus when you plan on conducting interviews and making audiences more comfortable with English-language albums). Maybe get the ball rolling for more, mostly insignificant, collaborations, or spark the hope that a person or persons of Asian background can become celebrities outside their respective countries. At best, get “Gangnam Style” out of their heads. This is why fans that fear the group will change, or that they’ll lose something fragile and precious, as if they own trends or people and would rather hold them back to the detriment of their overall success, probably don’t have much to worry about.

femmappAs for where J-pop is going, it is indeed interesting to watch the music market evolve with the influence of K-pop. I’ve written before how groups like Fairies are borrowing some of the look and style of K-pop groups. Earlier, I quoted Euny Hong stating J-pop groups are reluctant to learn English (“J-pop bands don’t strategically include non-Japanese members, for example”), but this also seems to be changing with groups like FAKY and GENERATIONS from EXILE TRIBE. Both groups are under the record label avex trax and include non-Japanese members that were born outside the country or are of mixed background. It’s worth noting that avex trax might be one of the few labels that can attempt to experiment with the market: as one of the most successful independent record labels in Japan, they have the reputation and the funds to put things like hyper-experimental (and oh my god amazing) “mannequins” FEMM out into the world. All of these are responses to the K-pop model of music, a mutation in the J-pop virus that churns out uber-pop boy and girl bands for the sake of banking on present trends rather than taking a chance on the future, or rather, creating one. However, this is still not the typical practice of Japanese record companies.

Japan needs to remember that as it leads the world in music sales, it also has the responsibility to remain as diverse as it always has, to support not only its huge corporations but its budding indie labels and future taste makers, to utilize social media and not fear the big, bad, icky feeling of not being able to dictate how their audience will buy, share, view, or consume their products at all times. Because of the lose of control of their performers, over segments of the industry as a whole, and the extra revenue generated from crossover platforms, exporting Japanese culture would need to transcend the bottom line for the ideals of national pride and a genuine desire to share culture across borders rather than to niche audiences like fans of anime or Harajuku fashionistas. Perhaps “the ultimate question of whether “Cool Japan” can really pose a challenge to Hallyu lies in whether people even want the Japanese brand of cool when Korean cool seems to be working so well already,” writes sophie at Beyond Hallyu. Nonetheless, whether or not Cool Japan has the potential to catch up with or surpass the Hallyu wave depends on all of this, in addition to how willing the country will be to let go of business-as-usual and dare to try new things – or decide it’s worth it in the first place.

Perfume’s “LEVEL3”

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Perfume / LEVEL3 / October 02, 2013

It’s easy to think Yasutaka Nakata has lost his mind: his recent work with Harajuku fashionista Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is filled with the type of nightmare-tropes-made hip that give his particular brand of electropop a boost of the unwanted grotesque. It appears he’s honing his technique on subject matter (ninjas, fashion monsters, bonbons, eyelashes, onomatopoeia) set to the kind of stuff you’d hear at library story time, but remixed by a producer whose gift lies in empathizing with, rather than mocking, teenage girls. One would almost think he wishes he could be one. While the work he does for Kyary is an acquired taste, Perfume is still a standard, one of the few constants in Nakata’s career. Fans of Perfume have grown up alongside the trio, past their sweet donuts phase, through a one room disco, and now, in their most mature work to date, LEVEL3.

Visibly, Nocchi, Kashiyuka, and A~chan have surpassed their peers. They’ve developed a stage persona and personal aesthetic that is instantly recognizable and forever classic. Fans have come to rely on their sense of wonder, excitement, and gratitude alongside their trademark fashion silhouettes and immutable hairstyles. But to forget that all their hard work wouldn’t be possible without Yasutaka Nakata is to gravely mistake the power of great PR over the power of prodigy: the undeniably brilliant songs that Nakata pumps out at a rate Joyce Carol Oates would be proud of, and rarely hitting stumbling blocks that can’t be turned into stepping stones. These are Nakata’s best trademarks: synths, auto tune, whimsy, pretty females with airy vocals, and making the impossible look easy enough to create between naps.

While dance music has always been Nakata’s primary sound, it’s mostly hovered in capsule’s ouevre, the more experimental work that offers listeners a chance to see what the producer has been playing around with. But the work he’s done everywhere else, namely with Ami Suzuki, MEG, Kyary, and, especially, Perfume, has been solidly rooted in the pop tradition. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, etc. and maybe a dance break in the middle has been the modus operandi of Supreme Show, GAME, BEAM, JPN, and Pamyu Pamyu REVOLUTION. LEVEL3 is a mix of purer dance elements: the repetition of vocal lines, free flowing structure, major key changes throughout, musical elements slowly added, stripped down, and added again.

These are the hallmarks of LEVEL3, the type of thing “edge” tried to be back in ’08. “PARTY MAKER” is one perfect example with almost four minutes of crescendo before the brilliant, satisfying drop. “Spending all my time (Album-mix)” a second. These album mixes are, no really, new mixes, as if they were lovingly tweaked to flow smoothly into an album that could easily have been made with no track gaps. “Spring of Life (Album-mix)” starts off with the song’s break down, killing suspense to focus on groove and letting the vocal elements coast, while “Magic of Love (Album-mix)” has a whole new synth line. The album also has quiet moments, like the melancholy of “1mm” and “Furikaeru to Iru yo;” more subtle, ever dazzling. A lot of this was probably the influence of the members, who offered input. “We requested like, “We’d like a track that can match the Dome concert where we can build large sets” or “Can we have a song in which we can make various directions, rather than just dancing?” and so on. All of the new songs on this album are very suited with our requests,” said A~chan in a recent interview. I can see the laser lights already.

While it’s difficult not hearing “Hurly Burly” instead of “Mirai no MUSEUM,” LEVEL3 is as close as ever to yet another Nakata classic. Woe to those who have forgotten Perfume has four members, not three.

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

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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?

Momoiro Clover Z: What we talk about when we talk about idols

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If this is AKB48’s world and we’re just living in it, Momoiro Clover Z has an even greater task on their hands: tweaking the standard just enough to keep it different, without ever abandoning true blue idol pop. I should confess that AKB48 is my least favorite thing to happen to Japanese pop music in the past decade. This includes, by the way, teen boy bands, Funky Monkey Babys, and Ayumi Hamasaki’s last single. Because we have yet to crown a new diva, one who hasn’t been born before 1990, the Oricon charts and pop culture conversation revolves around girl groups and subgroups. Unfortunately, AKB48’s success may have unleashed an ever larger number of idiosyncratic idol groups, but it’s become difficult to mess with the formula in any substantial way. Take Perfume, an idol group by any definition, who have never truly fit the mold: their best feature — music that doesn’t succumb to traditional idol pop — has also been their commercial downfall. It’s easy to think of Perfume as wildly successful because of their vociferous niche community, but their last number one single was 2009’s “ONE ROOM DISCO.” And more than chart status, looking at a group’s ripple effect is a better indicator of the kind of popularity we’re dealing with. When Perfume hit it big, a spat of similar artists mopping the classic Yasutaka Nakata electro-pop sound debuted, hoping to get their foot in the door it took Perfume almost six years to pry open. In recent years, these groups and solo artists are almost all but forgotten.

apppassorIn their place are groups like PASSPO, whose shtick is travel in general and flight attendants in particular. In addition to the costumes and lyrical content, the group has also invented a dubious vocabulary to make them stand out from groups with other, less classy angles. From their generasia profile: “Their live events are called “flights” while those who are attendance [sic] are usually called “the passengers” who can earn points, called “frequent flier miles.” […] The group releases three versions of their singles, each name [sic] Business Class, First Class, and Economy Class, with different material inserted in each version.” Lest thou be fooled by the group’s aggressive marketing tactic, rest assured that this is your garden variety idol group, bubbly rock-pop and requisite graduations (may I suggest “that great gig in the sky”?) included.

appsaintfourrOf course, groups rocking a large number of members is nothing new. AKB48 had a predecessor in similar idol groups like Onyanko Club and Bishoujo Club 31. Momoiro Clover Z owe a debt to a rarer kind of ancestor like SAINT FOUR. That short-lived idol group churned out spunky synth-rock numbers in colored costumes while performing acrobatic dance routines to rival professional gymnasts. Unlike other groups that emphasized a coy vulnerability, they met the stage head on, bouncing around like loose springs in spandex costumes that evoked superheroes, or Super Sentai knock-offs. These girls didn’t whimper, they roared.

Momoiro Clover Z might be known for trolling the same geek circuit, but they also challenge the AKB legacy and its current spokeswoman Minegishi Minami. Both groups pander to an audience: in Z’s world, it’s what Patrick Macias explains are “bonkura.” To distinguish it from your run of the mill otaku, he says, “Bonkura guys are not anti-social. They will seek out and immediately bond with others who share the same wild enthusiasm for junk culture as they do. [..] All they want out of life is raw stimulation and to satisfy the unsophisticated desires of their eternal teenage boy within.” We’ll get back to that last thought in a second, but to sum up: Junk culture. Raw stimulation.

One of Momoiro Clover Z’s best known singles has the girls carousing around like drunk salarymen for “Rodou Sanka,” singing about the everyman giving it his best at work. Others have them traveling through outer space on bikes dressed as space pirates as a barrage of color hits the screen. When they’re not dressed up in color-coordinated boxing costumes, they’re endorsing anime like the newest reincarnation of Sailor Moon. Wacky and weird videos aside, before you start thinking they’re pushing the envelope with Edo period mythology, here’s another sample lyric: “Looky looky here, I want you to look here / When you look at me my heart pounds and I’m happy.” There’s that (teenage) male gaze again. These are idols, after all.

appmomocovrThe newest videos to promote the album 5th DIMENSION are a little different. At some point, in a crescendo mix of orchestra and dubstep, the members’ faces are covered completely by masks. In fact, the only way you could tell them apart (if you didn’t already know each girl by her distinctive height or movements) is by the signature color on their clothes. It’s hard to decide if this is a commentary on the bland, easily replaceable idol industry, or if the girls are just being eccentric again. Yet this isn’t the ridiculous fun of “Push” or “D’no Junjou“; they’re just wearing sparkly costumes with the equivalent of paper bags on their heads.

The real disappointment is the album itself. After the amazing teaser PV of “Neo STARGATE,” it’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking there’s genuine novelty about to happen in an idol group. 5th DIMENSION seemed like it would at least continue the trend of the group’s quirks, even if those quirks are just deliberately standing out from their peers. But the album is a collection of a lot of the same idol treacle with a few catchier stand-outs. It’s especially disappointing if you’re unable to reconcile the idea that Japanese idols created by a male-dominated industry for male-dominated audiences can’t be idols and also women and also positive role models in image and creativity.

One thing they do differently from other idols is put on children-only and women-only lives, perhaps to let minority fan communities get in on the fun without having to constantly rub shoulders with some of the seedier male fans, otaku and bonkura included. Don’t worry, guys get their own lives too, which is to say, Momoiro Clover Z wants you to have a good, safe time in a comfortable environment. But in essence, this also opens up the dreaded conversation about the extreme, less savory fans of idol groups, the ones that crop up the most in the media and make you just a little ashamed because you bought AKB48’s latest single for the song, not the election ballot.

app2ne1rI’ve spoken about the difference between Japanese and Korean idols before, but in an interview with Robert Michael Poole, the CEO of Something Drastic International Music Promotion, he finds it worth noting that “the majority of the audiences [for K-pop shows] are young girls, not boys. [ …] The Japanese pop market has typically been all about cuteness, presenting boys with the ideal submissive girl to treat like a doll rather than lust over.” And later: “The J-pop industry couldn’t create a K-pop style group, because Japanese girls being that edgy would be seen as wholly un-Japanese. [… ] It seems girl groups in Japan have actually become increasingly cuter, younger and presented as servants (maids being the ultimate example), with the likes of AKB48 and their many copycats.” While the general tone of the interview highlights J-pop’s innovative inertia, keeping a pop sound that wouldn’t be out of place two decades ago, the two short years since the interview has seen what is perhaps the Hallyu wave’s last crash. Worth noting is the difference in marketing tactic K-pop groups have taken, attempting to deliberately cater their image to reach that coveted male Japanese fan and his spending money at the expense of strong, independent, and mature role models girls might want to see (note T-Ara’s original video for “Bo Peep Bo Peep” compared to the Japanese version).

This is not to argue how much more noble the K-pop industry is — for one thing, the process of training idols has fallen under extreme scrutiny — but rather to examine the function of idols, the freedom of expression and options girls are encouraged to pursue, and what it says about a particular culture’s notions of what boys and young men should come to expect from the girls and women they are presented with, from entertainment, to the boring, mundane interactions of real life.

Are Momoiro Clover Z the same as their idol peers, or are they actually forcing us to question the predominant image of female idols? Are they presenting different choices for talented girls, or delivering the same message through a different medium? When Tomohisa Yamashita goes solo from NEWS and takes risks working with producers like Yasutaka Nakata to make atypical music, or we see the girls of Fairies performing in outfits rather than costumes encouraging listeners to “Flow like a hero” instead of waiting for one, are we seeing a future of optical and musical variety, or will it simply satisfy a tiny niche so the industry can stay busy catering to the male psyches that offer an unyielding mix of loyalty and money?

For now, it seems all idol groups and solo artists with their eyes on the charts can do is avoid releasing singles and albums the same week the AKBs do. Maybe Momoiro Clover Z, with their aggressive sound and daft intersection of idol and junk culture, will continue to provide alternatives to what has become a fetid industry. Idols as they are now want to relieve us of the burden of examination, from the responsibility of honoring the opposite sex with dignity, from looking at the presentation of young women, and men, in the media and what they say about our own attitudes and responses to the easy glamour of pop culture, and from the courage it takes to confront what doesn’t feel quite right.

Ayumi Hamasaki’s “LOVE again”

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Ayumi Hamasaki / LOVE again / February 08, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

33 1/3 draft introduction for Ayumi’s I am…

The 33 1/3 books, a series based around seminal albums, accepted proposals until the end of April this year, and although I only had two weeks to put one together by the time I heard about it, I thought it would be a fun experience to submit one. I considered Pizzicato Five’s the international playboy & playgirl record, which I thought might stand a better chance, as the band gained a cult following in America during the 90s, and of course, Ayumi Hamasaki, because I can’t stop talking about her. Since I figured neither would be chosen — the books are heavily bent towards the classic Western white rock canon — I took a chance and wrote about Ayumi Hamasaki’s  I am…, the album I think sums up everything Japanese pop was and wasn’t at the turn of the century.

I will not include the chapter summaries, only the first draft for the basic introduction, but I planned the book around each single in chronological order and focused on the one year that made Ayumi Hamasaki one of the most popular female musicians in Japanese pop history. Every piece of that year and those songs reflected a multitude of ideas: the Japanese idol factory, J-pop’s inability to reach a Western audience, musical authenticity, fashion and design, major record companies and artistic control, vocal techniques and musicianship, Japanese advertisements/celebrity endorsements, the global impact of 9/11, fame and its repercussions, and one of my favorite and often-returned to fascinations with the domestic and foreign DJs featured on all of those crazy, wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime maxi-singles and the merging of house, trance, and other electronic styles into the Japanese mainstream. All of that and more from a high school dropout.

This introduction wasn’t meant to be exhaustive or even beyond the basics: in many ways, I wrote it for an audience I was assuming had never heard of Ayumi Hamasaki and was unfamiliar with Japanese pop and pop culture. And once you take all of that into account, it leaves you with little else to do than place footholds that you want to come back to later. Most of you probably won’t learn anything new here, especially if you’ve read the Time interview and explored masa’s translations (where most of the quotes are taken from), but it’s honestly a legend I rarely tire of sharing. I had a lot of fun revisiting and re-contextualizing I am… with everything I have learned and experienced about music since I bought the album when it was released and knew it would be a grower, rather than an instant attraction. I think the introduction, for all its clumsiness, simplicity, and cliches (starting the intro with Hamasaki’s over-quoted “product” speech in Time? That two week deadline never seems more obvious) sums up the rest.

DRAFT INTRODUCTION/OPENING CHAPTER
Ayumi Hamasaki’s I am…

A note on capitalization and grammar: The Japanese have a particular and not arbitrary system for using lower-case and capital roman letters in song and album titles. In promotional material or in the liner notes themselves, they are always spelled a particular way: I have chosen to keep the artistic integrity of this practice and stay true to capitalization as it is written on the CD sleeves.

When Ayumi Hamasaki called herself a product in an interview with Time magazine in 2002, that in fact, it was necessary she be viewed as a product, she was summing up not only the state of Japanese idol worship, but her own already fruitful career spanning all of three years. By the age of 23, Hamasaki had already released twenty-six singles, four original studio albums (all Oricon chart number ones), twelve full-length remix albums, and a career-defining greatest hits collection. Though she would later come to regret the declaration, at this peak in her career, Hamasaki was selling out concerts, setting her sights on the rest of the Asian market, and taking unprecedented control of her music, image, and merchandising empire by selling herself as nothing short of a unit to be moved.

Hamasaki was certainly not the first female Japanese superstar: idol Seiko Matsuda, for example, held the record for the most consecutive #1 singles for a female artist for eighteen years, when Hamasaki broke it in 2006. But no other female idol managed to wring as much momentum out of her time at the top until Hamasaki began releasing singles at a bimonthly rate, in addition to limited runs of copies, multiple versions with alternative covers, and special remix albums — in both CD and vinyl format. Even her pop contemporaries, Hikaru Utada and Mai Kuraki, were unable to achieve five entries in the top twenty singles of that year in sheer sales.

Before Ayumi Hamasaki was a household name, she was a high school dropout and struggling model cum actress pounding the pavement of Tokyo, shilling for banking companies and starring in low-budget films before trying her luck at the idol market — presumably, something to fund all those shopping trips to 109. Culminating in a failed recording contract with Nippon Columbia, the project has never been considered a part of the official Ayumi Hamasaki canon. The single, “NOTHING FROM NOTHING,” is an uber-nasal experiment in hip-hop that failed to illustrate any personality, its mere existence the base her label used to drop her. Where Nippon Columbia failed to put the time and effort into creating potential out of deeply concealed promise, Avex Trax producer Max Matsuura discovered her at a night of karaoke and proceeded to pursue her until she began taking vocal lessons. When she began cutting class, Matsuura sent her on a field trip to New York, where he finally succeeded in capturing her attention, as well as convincing her to write her own lyrics. Inspired by the challenge, Hamasaki released her first single with Avex, “poker face,” debuting in 1998 at #20 on the charts.

By the following year she was beginning her streak of #1s and amassing a teenage legion of imitators. While still not possessing the penchant for reinvention or the commanding stage presence that would take years to hone, her first two albums, A Song for XX and LOVEppears, nonetheless were quintessential pop success stories, notable for capturing the late 90s, early 00s Japanese pop zeitgeist with harmless 4/4 structures and riffs right out of the Johnny’s playbook. Unlike other idols, Hamasaki had neither dance ability, nor a predilection for vocal gymnastics: in this, she was both unlike and very much a clone of her Japanese contemporaries, where musical authenticity still meant so little as to be entirely inconsequential. In 1999, the most remarkable thing about Hamasaki’s persona was her changing hair color, but her most triumphant was her lyrics.

During an early All Night Nippon radio program hosted by the budding icon in 1998, Hamasaki related her fairytale without a hint of shyness: her earliest memory was of her father packing up and leaving in the guise of a business trip from which he never returned, and she credits her independence and acknowledged selfishness with her own mother’s subsequent inability to be very maternal. Notably, Hamasaki insists this was not something she noticed or even concerned herself with: “I’ve always accepted it as quite ordinary and not particular that I have no father and my parents were divorced.” However, her neighbors didn’t take so kindly: childishly referring to herself in the third person, Hamasaki reveals that she was often avoided by children her age. Her intimation of her first real friend at the age of 20 is somewhat sad, but only because there is nothing about Hamasaki that sounds out of the ordinary; though dropping out of school in a such an education-oriented society could make her somewhat of a social pariah, she did find enough kids to spend her nights clubbing and frittering away cash with at trendy nightclubs.

After her father, the one man who seems to have made the biggest and most lasting impression on her life was Avex Trax producer and now-CEO Max Matsuura. After catching her at karaoke and noting what a terrible singer she was, he sent her to vocal lessons and refused to give up until she finally succeeded in New York: fate would suggest he saw something Nippon Columbia bitterly regrets in their once-over. Again, in the third person, “Ayumi had always been told “Hamasaki can’t do anything” […] But then the man, Max Matsuura, said to Ayu, “You can.” […] It was the first time for Ayu to meet such a person. I was never told such a thing even by my parent. I met a person who expected [something of] Ayu for the first time and I was shocked very much. And I thought I would do my best.” It is worth noting that though these two stories are told in succession, it is related without a hint of allusion to the father-figure role he might have fulfilled for Hamasaki. He also prompted her to begin composing lyrics, what has since become Hamasaki’s trademark.

“Ayu doesn’t write on a paper basically. I’m always thinking in my mind. I feel scents of a city, people’s movements, the air, for example, in my own way.” Confessional and deeply sympathetic, Hamasaki’s lyrics often explore concrete experiences, straying far from ambiguity: in the specific, there was universality. Her most autobiographical song, “A Song for XX” sums up the quintessential qualities of Hamasaki’s lyrics, a sort of thought-process-in-song, not without its immaturities and sometimes-clichés. Though they are often simple enough to be taught at an elementary level, her lyrics are the place most go to argue and make claims of the personal and private variety, sometimes involving elaborately projected fantasies and absurd speculation. But as a self-proclaimed product, Hamasaki herself claimed both her words and her voice: “[M]y songs are my own. No one can take my songs away from me.” Rarely problematic, they do, however, require an open mind and the possibility of misinterpretation. Regardless, they are what fans most often point to as testament to her honesty and capability.

While most idols had very little involvement with the songs that would eventually come to define their avatars, Hamasaki began writing lyrics at the outset of her career, an area where she excelled among fans and critics alike, and a sort of escalating trajectory through immaturity, understanding, enlightenment, and the responsibilities of craft that go beyond mere self-reflection. To wit, by I am… she was already reaping the benefits of working through issues that plagued her first three albums: loneliness, broken promises, roads not taken. As her music warped from sugar rushed adrenaline kicks and melancholy R&B ballads into hard rock with screeching guitars and rapid-fire drum machines, so, too, did her vocals lose their polished sheen of do-re-mi vocal lessons to become strained, broken, and full of vibrato. I am…, her first true rock album and composed almost entirely under the pseudonym CREA (named after one of her beloved pet dogs), was probably the closest representation of the sound Hamasaki was truly looking for all along, and with album sales in the millions, she was finally given the freedom to pursue her new found artistic impulses. Her trademark openings that crawled like lullabies would make way for an onslaught of noise and wailing guitars, crashing so resolutely they threatened to physically erupt from speakers.

For someone with the knowledge of the limited shelf-life of an idol, Hamasaki was already putting a lot of effort into a long-term sustainable career, most likely boosted by her record company Avex’s insistence of releasing a greatest hits collection: a signal Hamasaki took as the end of her career. While she openly grappled with her anger and vulnerability at the hands of Avex, expressed in songs like “Endless sorrow” and her decision to appear in tears on said collection, she also began understanding the true meaning of a timeless superstar.

After the September 11 attacks, Hamasaki changed the entire concept of her album, beginning with the cover art: “I had a completely different idea for the cover at first. We’d already reserved the space, decided the hair and makeup and everything. But after the incident, as is typical of me, I suddenly changed my mind. I knew it wasn’t the time for gaudiness, for elaborate sets and costumes.” Thanks to a last minute change of heart, we now have the iconic image of Ayumi Hamasaki, boldly confronting the world head-on as a symbol of peace and innocence, a statement of the strength in vulnerability, made all the more verbose by the perching of a white dove on her left shoulder. Despite her collaboration with singer keiko of pop group globe on a song meant to be dedicated to relief efforts and this seemingly new found dedication to social issues, the irony of the album’s title never belies how self-involved the album remains. As a summing up of an era, it is even better than Duty as accepting the totality of a life of servitude to fame and fans, and as a memoir, better than MY STORY, the ellipses separating it from a declaration, to an ongoing debate.

Despite such an initial nuanced grasp of her own evanescence, Hamasaki clearly began exacting more and more precise control over her image and business. Rejecting the flighty, mawkish pop songs of her peers, she began composing her own songs with what the West would arguably call a more “authentic” rock sound, even while treating her singles like commodities to be packaged and sold at highest volume. The maxi-single format of her singles beginning with Boys & Girls marketed her directly to the house and club scene, while also giving her a unique edge against other artists who would never dream of including so many cuts for the same price of what had up until then been the popular 3″ format. Her ties with both domestic and foreign DJs gave her the opportunity to work with dozens of producers, some of whom like trance act Above & Beyond would be given their first gigs or launch ever-more successful careers given the privilege of remixing her vocals. Her involvement in the club scene culminated in a collaboration with Ferry Corsten, the godfather of trance, on “connected,” an I am… cut that would eventually boost her popularity in the dance-heavy European market.

This proved that Hamasaki could be all things to all people, or at least most things to most people: whether it was a hard rock ballad, a rhythmic punk manifesto, a techno-ethnic drum n’ bass dirge, or a standard pop jingle tailor-made for selling cosmetics and flavored beverages, Hamasaki reflected exactly what the Japanese wanted from a pop star: not only a bag of options, but total and complete devotion to satisfying their need for more. Even after ten more studio albums and another twenty-five singles, after taking in 42.6% of Avex’s total revenues at her peak, after a failed Hollywood-like marriage to an Austrian model, and the loss of hearing in her left ear, I am… is perhaps not the greatest Japanese pop album of all time, but it is certainly the era’s greatest Japanese pop star’s greatest album: its most definitive, and its most revealing.