An appears 2017 tumblr year-end round-up

Due to the low number of posts on the main blog here this year, enjoy this round-up of a few longer-form posts over at the appears tumblr!

The beauty of Seohyun’s “Don’t Say No”
Futuristic Tokyos in Ai Otsuka’s “Watashi” and Perfume’s “TOKYO GIRL”
Avex girl groups: Def Will’s “Winding Road”
Max Martin et al. crafts pop perfection in Katy Perry’s “Chained to the Rhythm”
Better than CL: Kumi Koda’s W FACE ~outside~
A sisterhood of survivors: E-girls’ “All Day Long Lady”

How to fashion a rock phase out of Ayumi Hamasaki videos: Koda Kumi’s “Can We Go Back”

Call it The Ayumi Hamasaki Effect: ever since Hamasaki has skyrocketed to fame, there have been dozens of acts attempting to repeat the formula, sometimes with variation, sometimes barely concealed, all in an attempt to hit the same idol jackpot. In the case of Rina Aiuchi, even when you model your first two albums off said artist’s first two in an attempt to experience the same popularity (although the first album is less a copy than another one of the proverbial uncomfortably close head shots that littered the streets of 1999 like Parliament cigarette butts outside a Spoon concert), you still end up plunging so far down the popularity chain, you forgo your rock phase for adult-contemporary lite and the next average to middling anime theme. And while Koda Kumi has managed to pull herself up by her own dominatrix bootstraps instead of wide-eyed staring in T-shirts and jeans, she’s still not different enough to pass up a chance to have her diva-rock phase, all seemingly culled from the back catalog of Japan’s own Empress of Pop.

From 2001’s “NEVER EVER” to 2007’s “talkin 2 myself,” Hamasaki has gone through all the permutations: mud-caked soul-searching, bouncy pop rock, faux-hawk, leather, and studs, mostly with anger. Lots of anger. Except when it’s sad. Then it’s not just sad, it’s slit-your wrists depressed. Koda Kumi’s new single “Can We Go Back” may not have the lyrical weight of a Hamasaki creation, but it certainly knows where to go for the appropriate pissed-off imagery (besides, of course, that very strange flag-raising thing, brought to you by Coldplay).

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Koda Kumi’s TRICK Live Tour 2009

Koda Kumi / TRICK Live Tour 2009 / Oct 21, 2009
That Ain’t Cool / Venus

Shock for the sake of shock wears thin fast: if you’re wondering why more and more critics are rolling their eyes at Antichrist it’s the promise of jolting incredulity gone flaccid through hype and expectation. By the time the pivotal scenes arrive, you’re already comparing it to things you’ve seen worse, to things done worse better, and wondering if anything has the power to make you recoil anymore. The headlining tours of divas are the same. No, you won’t find any genital mutilation in the choreography, but you’ll find the usual mimed sexual theatrics; even though Koda Kumi’s TRICK Live Tour 2009 makes Basic Instinct look like a Sesame Street segment, it’s all pretty yawn inducing.

Freak shows, circuses, fun houses…in 2009, divas around the world recycled mythologized forms of entertainment for their shows over and over and over again. But while Koda Kumi may have intercepted a few memos for her own greatest show on Earth, there remains something distinctly Avex J-pop about the whole experience. And I’m not just talking about the audience, who could be found weeping hysterically at the sight of her when they weren’t thrusting their TRICK baubles in the standard form of adulation: if you’ve seen a recent Ayumi Hamasaki concert, you’ve seen TRICK.

There’s the standard ridiculous costumes, complete with plumage, glitter, and ruffles, like a spoiled princess’s closet burst at the seams, computer graphics-heavy movie interludes, the uncomplicated synchronized dance moves, the obligatory drive through the crowd on a giant platform, the moment where pop diva turns rock star in leather, the magnificent mile of lights trailing down a ridiculous dress for the slow number, wigs, wigs, wigs, and the laid-back jeans/sweatpants encore, all clocking in at over two hours, which I’m sure makes the high price of a ticket seem fair, but makes for a very long-winded home viewing experience. Koda Kumi doesn’t leave much to your imagination, disposing of the myriad uses for the term trick, instead handing you a decent enough present but without any wrapping paper (this is an arena, after all, not a parlor). A few things will seem interesting, nothing will surprise you, and someone gets abducted.

The following are five moments that stood out for me. Not necessarily good moments, not necessarily bad moments, just moments, worthy of mention and some rumination.

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Koda Kumi’s “Physical Thing” PV

The title track of Koda Kumi’s forty-fifth single Alive is about as exciting as dishwater. Ballads have never really been her strong suit, after all, she doesn’t have the smoothest of voices, instead flourishing in sounds that easily drown her vocals in bass. But just when you think she has reached the apex of boundaries’ final frontiers, she turns into Darth Kumi.

And now, your Monday Evening Phallic Imagery brought to you by the the c/w track “Physical Thing” and Rhythm Zone (I’ve never said this before, but seriously, it’s probably not safe for work).

Physical Thing PV ░ [ View ]

But what, no fake smoke to go with the fake cigarette? Not even a little?

“It seems crazy to cut smoking out of textbooks but within a few years they won’t be allowed in movies either. A woman can throw her newborn child from the roof of a high-rise building. She can then retrieve the body and stomp on it while shooting into the windows of a day care center, but to celebrate these murders by lighting a cigarette is to send a harmful message. There are, after all, young people watching, and we wouldn’t want them to get the wrong idea.” (David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, pg 251)

Koda Clueless has never been good with subtlety, often misunderstanding the line between sexy and sex, and there is little she hasn’t done for shock value. But unless there are sex tapes yet to be released, we’re going to have to be content to snark anything she brings near her promotional video-d lips, including that cigarette. Ah, cigarettes, one of the last bastions of moral rectitude. It’s almost the last “controversial” object or action she hasn’t been filmed singing with or doing, until they put together one of those mock-docs and we see her do a line on a sheet of lyrics.

But the whole thing looks unrealistic and clumsy, and the fact that it’s done purely as a means to put both parents’ and fans’ knickers in a twist is what upsets me. In some ways, it makes it twice as less threatening, turning it into something of a joke (the pressing question becomes: will it or will it not tumble from her teeth in the middle of a dance step and set the room ablaze?). Clearly, I have fallen prey to it: the conversation generated by one cigarette that doesn’t burn or ever seem to ash is the conversation they want you to have. But still, the cigarette-a-look-alike is only shocking in so far as most teens today are of the truth generation, already forgetting that smoking was common on television and movies until fairly recently.

In reality, the cigarette is only distracting us from the real problem of this video. Forget the music, I can’t hum a single bar of this vacuous song after watching this twice, but the image of her red wig and wine bottle hand-jobs has been sealed like a cattle brand to my retinas. But then I’m an old-school feminist; if you really want to assert your sexual freedom, go burn a bra or something.

Mirror, mirror on the wall: Koda Kumi’s raison d’etre

My biggest downfall as a music writer (or blogger, whatever) barely makes sense at first glance: I probably read a greater variety of music-related articles and books than I listen to their actual musical outputs. Example: I read the 500 page Bob Dylan biography Down the Highway and was fascinated but I have never listened to a single album of his in one sitting (though Blonde on Blonde‘s tracks definitely have had the highest ratio of success for me). If someone gave me the choice of reading 800 words on Led Zeppelin or listening to five of their songs, I would choose the former. I cannot help it: if written correctly, the best music writing can trump the music itself. Similarly, I’ve never actually listened to a total album of Koda Kumi’s until Kingdom back in January, but I’ve read mostly everything I’ve come across that mentions her name. What this basically equates to is a whole lot of knowledge on a Japanese pop phenomenon that, as it turns out, doesn’t require a basic handle on the songs to back-up.

We’ve all seen the videos, or heard about them anyway; Kumi was already pegged for success several years ago as a top contender for Japanese (urban) queen just as Ayumi Hamasaki was submitting to a slow dethroning (Pink Wota already mentioned the symbolic aspect of Kumi’s latest album cover which depicts the singer in her best regal pose atop a fur-lined throne, complete with a crown and a hand of not-so-subtle playing cards, so I won’t beat the dead horse) as avex’s number one provider; clearly the shoes were tough to fill, but it seemed fans were more than willing to root for Koda’s feet as she stomped, strutted, and gyrated through countless music videos and television appearances. It’s hard to take something like her image seriously when it’s more than clear that Kumi’s role as imitator and not trend-setter accounts for much of her popularity: she is hardly paving the way for dozens after her, but offers an audience a citation for the urban glam that has been sweeping Japan for some time. But if we didn’t take it seriously, than nothing could be taken seriously at all and since musical criticism relies on this seriousness regardless of genre (even hair metal gets the treatment), it’s best to break down Kumi the same way a retrospective look at Britney Spears’ career might: both women are icons and both have scandals backing up their tough personas (Kumi’s hardly worthy comment about women’s fertility; Spears’ everything post-K-Fed), but what is the appeal?

Taking the time to actually watch Kumi’s newest music video for “That Ain’t Cool” featuring Fergie and listening to her newest single MOON has only reinforced my somewhat negative reaction; I’ve seen snippets of some of her early videos, but was truly initiated with “Under” and subsequently baffled by Kingdom: her entire musical career is fraught with so much visible effort, I’m hard-pressed to understand the devoted nature of her fans and more often left awaiting the punchline that never seems to come. It’s easy to step back and respect certain artists without being a fan (Prince is a requisite, I guess Radiohead, and even Hikaru Utada post-DISTANCE, to inject some Japanese pop back into this), but it’s sometimes too easy to judge an artist by their fans (the more obsessed and well, fanatical, the more I tend to discriminate), but Kumi is neither wholly talented or innovative and her fans are more than simply dedicated. The appeal continually astounds me: sure, Kumi plays the sexpot nearly every time and she can carry a tune some of those times, but there is little to nothing genuine or sincere in her delivery. While it’s easy to mistake that idea and critique the sincerity of her attitude in terms of its relevance to her genuine attitude, it is important to remember that a) most people don’t care and b) the two are mutually exclusive; what is important is how well she sincerely portrays the chosen attitude regardless.

And like a child playing with her mother’s makeup, Kumi’s sexiness isn’t so much plausible as her effort is visible; in “That Ain’t Cool” she actually makes Fergie seem like a successful veteran of the genre. Her vocals are a mash-up of staccato and struggle and the dances are designed to do nothing but imitate moves we’ve seen done better. What is even stranger is the fact that Kumi should be a veteran herself, but belies any accumulation of experience. In a recent post I discussed the collaboration between Namie Amuro and DOUBLE on the track “BLACK DIAMOND” and later happened to come across a few posts that pinned the two ladies against each other in terms of experience in both singing and dance. The winner usually came out to be Amuro, the argument being she is more experienced, and I probably said something to the same effect. But after a few weeks of re-listens and re-watches, I’m actually quite positive the two complement each other nicely. The two never dance in complete sync but it’s probably because they’re both so sure they’ve got it right and they do; experience is never the only adequate reason for talent. Kumi never seems to get it right at all and even her experience doesn’t help.

The failure of able choreographers (I’d say mediocre here, but way better than Ami Suzuki’s) and composers (again, Kumi’s songs aren’t groundbreaking and her vocals are a testament to marketable image before marketable talent – “Moon Crying” was more than a little difficult to sit through and she often falls into what seems a fallback falsetto) all seem to indicate Kumi’s popularity stems little from originality and mostly from her mirror-like capabilities; she is an icon because she gives her fans another good reference to be who they are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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