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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five disappointing albums of 2009

We’ve managed to get through the first week of December with nary a leak of the new Namie Amuro album, so for the record, it still has the possibility to make a revised version of this list (though I do very much like WILD, I’m already iffy on the promo clips of “LOVE GAME” and “The Meaning Of Us” – plus I’m still pretty mad about BEST FICTION thwarting the 60s 70s 80s single a proper album release). But if the weakest musical months are that dreary space between Thanksgiving and New Year when readers and writers are left maneuvering the sinking ship that is year-end lists and retrospectives, then who am I to abandon it at such a critical junction? Here is the first of my own: the five albums that disappointed me the most this year.

05. MEG’S BEAUTIFUL

MEG hit a low point in February when she ditched producer Yasutaka Nakata for Hadouken! on FREAK, a single so atrociously bad everyone pretended it never happened when BEAUTIFUL was released in May. But finally reunited with Nakata, the follow-up to 2008’s STEP was her first album to crack the Oricon Top Ten, a feat that would have been rendered impossible without the man behind the curtain. Magician to every female vocalist in his canon, Nakata’s precision and knack for finding just the right vocalist to suit each of his projects was already being taken for granted in 2009, a year which on one day alone (July 22) saw the release of four copycat albums (Mitsuka Aira’s PLASTIC, Ayaka Ikio’s Gossip, SAWA’s I Can Fly, and immi’s WONDER), rendering the entire genre expendable while exposing its redundancy. In 2008, MEG’s STEP was an appears top ten album with a B-side claiming the number one East Asian Pop/Rock spot: in 2009, MEG barely registered on the shibuya-kei radar. With mini-album Journey in August, she fell off entirely.

04. alan’s my life

alan’s first major stroke of popularity as vocalist for Red Cliff‘s theme song finally offered gravitas to a classically trained Tibetan; 2009 was turning out to be a flagship year when she scored her first crossover Top Ten Oricon hit with “Kuon no Kawa.” Without compromising her vocal talent or that monstrous Tibetan wail, so shrill it has the power to incinerate, alan proved that popular singers could be all things to all people: talented, intelligent, beautiful. Determined to stay in the comfortable ballad niche that was her hallmark, alan reworked most of her Chinese hits for her first Japanese-language album Voice of Earth. But by November, the record company was looking to expand the market on such a profitable young woman and stretched her repertoire to lite-pop as lifeless as a hangman’s corpses. alan could have been China’s answer to KOKIA or RURUTIA, but instead she became forgettable.

03. Perfume’s TRIANGLE

I’ve already discussed that icky, no good, very bad turn that shibuya-kei took in 2009, prostrating itself to the commercial gods in hopes of bandwagon success that eventually prompted Ian Martin of the Japan Times Online to predict that “the failure of any of these new electropop acts to reach anywhere near the success of Perfume suggests that it remains a niche genre and that supply may already be outstripping demand. In fact, with the appearance of an all-girl idol trio called Cosmetics, […] it looks like the whole genre has already descended into self-parody. Stereotyped and faintly sexist group names based on “things girls like” to look out for in the future include Accessories, Cooking and Rich Husband.” So let’s not revel in nostalgia. And anyway, TRIANGLE fans seem to be split down the middle, one half consisting of longtime listeners disappointed not so much with the sound, but with the lack of innovation, the inability to capture the spirit and elan that made GAME such a thrill, and newer fans unfamiliar with the group’s indie days, content to enjoy a pop record better than its mimicking peers. But I’m not complaining. It was great while it lasted: Yasutaka Nakata produced enough records in the past few years to solidify his reputation as a master of sound, one of those post-millenium everymen who oversaw a handful of wonderful projects and can ride the wave of dozens of hits without having to repeat too many during a DJ set. Perfume themselves worked incredibly hard to maintain their fan base this year: photo books, increasingly bigger live shows with precise choreography; they may yet resurrect from these ashes. Perfume is dead, long live Perfume.

02. AFI’s Crash Love

Rock music is in a sad place these days; toeing the line between electro and indie isn’t just tough to sell in a decade of music that’s so beyond hip it passed lame and went back to hip, it’s nearly impossible. And like Kill Hannah’s Wake Up the Sleepers, AFI’s Crash Love has yet to evolve past its major label debut to relevancy six years later. The problem really lies in the restrictions of guy-liner rock, a style which had its heyday when Panic at the Disco still used exclamation points. After the Blaqk Audio solo project by band mates Davey Havok and Jade Puget failed to produce more than one successful single that tapped into the decade’s electronic zeitgeist (follow-up pending), AFI reconvened to record Crash Love, essentially a duplicate of formulas that ditched punk aesthetics for upscale studio wizardry. The album is the mark of an entire genre on unsteady ground, stuck in the drippy anachronism of its past and afraid to pioneer a new, radical sound.

01. Koyote’s Jumpin’

Most of the albums on this list aren’t necessarily the worst albums of the year, just low points in particular artists’ careers, ones for which I either had a lot of hope for or which I expected better, but this one is an exception: the ridiculous and flashy cover should be enough to convince you. Koyote started out as a pop trio in 1999, going through several permutations where the only consistent member involved female vocalist Shin Ji. Despite Koyote’s strong beginning, the group quickly spiralled into a series of reprised sounds, sticking to their 90’s Eurodance schtick instead of embracing the rising dominance of hip hop and electro influences that would later provide an increasing level of interest of Korean pop groups hoping to break the Japanese music market. By their sixth album, Koyote was a joke but with their tenth, 2009’s Jumpin’, they’ve become the aural equivalent of pity, their work now a pointless, non-existent discussion on no one’s Korean pop forum.

From weak to WTF: a triumvirate of bad choreography

On one hand, I understand the need to take music videos to the next level, to stand out, to be different; the music video has always been a kind of odd creation. Is it advertising? Is it art? Nevertheless, it seems PVs have been increasingly less about promoting artists and more about promoting concepts. But moving from Big Personas to Big Ideas has created some really poor choices, among them setting, effects, and choreography. Notable are the following recent promotional videos for Mitsuki Aira’s “BARBiE BARBiE,” MEG’s “SKIN,” and Chihiro Onitsuka’s “X,” which commit the heinous crime of making you remind yourself that not only is the choreography suspect, it was meant to be like that.

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MEG’s “FREAK”

MEG / FREAK / February 11, 2009
01. FREAK

“FREAK” is so annoying, and the music so uninspired, the only way I could ever describe it would be in a therapist’s office using dolls. It’s not enough to simply switch producers (Nakata, where did you go?), but the entire 80’s-electro bit is wearing thin in general, and with the sudden influx of artists riding the bandwagon, it’s like attempting to sift through every single banal album recorded in the 80s for the few Pet Shop Boys among them. But that’s just the thing: none of these bands will live to hone lucrative, long-term careers simply doing spin-offs. The jazzy club of MEG’s first two albums were novel and worked around her big-eyed, nasally vocals to make them seem nothing less than indispensable. “FREAK” is the epitome of an experiment that shouldn’t happen for at least two more albums; it’s annoying (“Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello!”), conventional, and makes poor use of keyboards that brings the term “techno velcro” to mind. “TOXIC” sounds like it was recorded stream of consciousness style and then slapped on as a b-side without editing. I imagine if this is the same direction Perfume will take for their next single, “One Room Disco,” we should all be prepared for disappointment and the longest bout of nostalgia-for-one-year-ago-itis.

Official Site
Buy FREAK

Top 10 albums/20 songs of 2008

01. Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours [ read full review ]
02. Ami Suzuki – DOLCE [ read full review ]
03. OceanLab – Sirens of the Sea [ read full review ]
04. PlayRadioPlay! – Texas
05. M83 – Saturdays = Youth
06. Perfume – GAME
07. Tiziano Ferro – Alla mia Eta
08. Britney Spears – Circus [ read full review ]
09. MEG – STEP
10. Santogold – Santogold

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MEG’s “MAGIC”

MEG / MAGIC / March 05, 2008
01. MAGIC

Without a doubt, the person who had the best 2007 was Yasutaka Nakata. Releasing three albums alone for his main project capsule, one new album for a side-project, COLTEMONIKHA, and producing phenomenal girl group Perfume‘s new singles and collaborating with Ami Suzuki on my personal choice for 2007’s best single FREE FREE… The dude is infallible. At this point, he could probably write a track for Morning Musume and make them worth listening to. Heck, he’s managed to take MEG, a somewhat mediocre pop singer and transform her music into ear-worthy melodies with the unmistakeable blend of lounge and club reminiscent of Nakata’s early (and arguably present) work (so yeah, that’s the other thing I’ve been doing while I’ve been gone…obsessing over this man).

In this case, the title track is inferior to the c/w track “MIRACLE” and the NEMESIS remix of “MAGIC” is superior to the original…don’t know who chooses these things, but regardless, they’re all fun tracks. Nothing on the single will top year end lists (unless you’re into b-side top tens or sumthin), but if February’s singles are any indication of this month’s, this will probably be one of the best we see in the next twenty-five days. Prove me wrong!

Official Site
Buy MAGIC