2016 mid-year report

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The first half of 2016 hasn’t been anywhere as interesting as 2015’s, but we’ve gotten some great new tracks and albums from producers as varied as Tatsuro Yamashita and Max Martin, as well as some up-and-coming producers from all over the world. I’ve chosen to focus on East Asian pop in this post, and have spent the last couple of weeks frantically catching up on everything I might have overlooked; still, I’m sure I missed a few things that will hopefully make its way to my ears by the end of the year. Until then, I hope you’ll find one or two things you might have missed here as we take the time to reflect on the last six months in music. As always, you can follow the notable releases tag over at the tumblr to keep up in real-time.

K-pop: The Gold, and the Silver

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Is there such a thing as a Silver Age? If so, K-pop might be in it. You might be disheartened enough to argue that we’re actually in a Bronze Age but it hasn’t come to that yet; let me make a case.

There have been signs of K-pop’s demise for a couple of years now, signaled by what Jin Min-Ji calls a “generation shift” caused by the expiration of the contracts many idols signed at the era’s beginning. “A multitude [of] second generation members’ contracts, which usually last seven years, have either terminated or are close to termination. An So-hee from Wonder Girls, for example, left the group in 2013 after her contract expired with JYP Entertainment. Other singers that left their groups are Jia from Miss A last month and Sulli from f(x) in August 2015.” In addition, members who have stuck around long enough to find out that the entertainment world isn’t all glitz and glam, are burning out and leaving to find other lucrative work that’s less stressful, demanding, and sometimes, the equivalent of unpaid labor.

Jessica’s departure from SNSD has turned out to be something of a game-changer: since then, we’ve seen Golden Age groups 2NE1, BEAST, and 4minute split, as members have departed on somewhat shaky terms. This leaves room for a new crop of K-pop groups, many which are attempting to imitate the sounds of their forerunners. For example, OH MY GIRL, Lovelyz, and G-Friend, all of which released solid EPs this year, are really just attempting to recreate the magic of the early years of a group like Girls’ Generation, while TWICE is exploring an edgier side in the style of 2NE1. Their efforts are rather admirable, particularly A New Trilogy and Snowflake, but it remains to be seen if a new crop of producers and songwriters will emerge parallel to this “second” generation to carry on the torch of a Teddy Park, E-Tribe, or Shinsadong Tiger; in fact, it seems K-pop is tending to outsource a lot more of its songwriting now, which is not a criticism, but an observation that it might be harder to find writers of hits as prolific as there once were. In addition, now that record companies and agencies finally have some working statistics for modern K-pop, many glitches and experiments can be ironed out, or expanded upon, even pushed to its very limit. This all has the potential to change the look and sound of K-pop as it moves forward.

Because a lot of groups that have managed to stay together are losing popularity, or simply, running out of ideas (BIGBANG comes to mind) there has also been a clear shift this year to giving surviving members solo opportunities. This is notable, since K-pop’s modus operandi is single-sex boy and girl groups, rather than solo artists. This year, we got additional solo work from AMBER (f(x)), Tiffany (SNSD), JONGHYUN (SHINee), Taemin (also SHINee), Luna (f(x)), Jun Hyo Seong (Secret), and an uncomplicated bit of J-pop from former KARA member NICOLE’s Japanese debut album bliss. Tiffany’s and Taemin’s stand out in particular, as SM Entertainment rarely disappoints (SNSD’s Taeyon’s solo effort notwithstanding, aside from last year’s lead single “I” — her next solo effort comes out in a few days as of this writing). “I Just Wanna Dance,” received mild reviews, but I find the song, and its sister follow-up “Heartbreak Hotel,” a slice of ethereal pop. It can easily be too slow for some listeners, and too fast for the others, but its mid-tempo essence is refreshing, and the fact that they held back on letting Tiffany go too crazy with the vocals is a sign of a wise restraint.

Taemin’s “Press Your Number,” on the other hand, channels his group SHINee’s endless, and welcome, repetition of Michael Jackson’s greatest hits. I gushed a bit about the music video earlier, and the dance version of the PV is worth taking a second or third look, just to admire the grace and power Taemin brings to every step of the choreography. The album, too, is full of smooth R&B hooks, and stiller moments, like the lovely little balled “Soldier.” In other words, it’s nice to see that Jo Kwon’s solo album I’m Da One was good for something, even if it was just setting the precedent for seriously fun male solo albums.

Finally, I just really like Luna’s Free Somebody. The title track, which was penned by “The Family,” a songwriting trio from the land of the universe’s reigning country of pop production, and also, surprisingly, JoJo (yes that JoJo) is a tribute to Europe’s easy way of slipping electro-house and nu disco into the mainstream. I could easily see this song fitting onto a Kitsune Maison compilation with no problem, and that fact tickles me.

Even though the continued demise of K-pop’s Golden Age is disappointing, it’s also bringing forth a new crop of groups, mostly-successful solo work, and interesting outside collaborations (it’s less surprising that Skrillex worked with 4minute this year, than that the group is breaking up immediately following it). Hopefully, these new shifts will eventually be brought into the fold, making way for positive developments. It’s jarring not to have a seemingly endless procession of amazing song after incredible rookie group debut after excellent song like we did in 2011 or 2012, but none of this is alarming enough to signal the end. Not yet. In fact, the only true disappointment is that in a year ripe with them, CL has yet to release her promised solo debut.

J-pop (Idols and otherwise)

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If you had told me as early as last year that my favorite song of 2016 would probably be by boy-band Arashi, I would have scoffed and continued finding the band as joyless and mediocre as ever. And yet, here we are, halfway through the year, and nothing has come close to “Fukkatsu LOVE” and its B-side “Ai no COLLECTION.” Sure, there have been songs that have been more upbeat, more powerful, and more fun (if you’re short of time, Namie Amuro’s “Mint” covers all of those bases), but none have rivaled “Fukkatsu” for atmosphere and production. The song, which was penned by legendary City Pop producer Tatsuro Yamashita, is similar to the general patterns of any Arashi song, and yet, completely different. For Yamashita, “smooth,” and “cool,” are less adjectives than steadfast principles to his success. The song, with which its throwback sounds to the early 80s could have been something of a risk for a group that has done phenomenal with its Johnny’s formula, adapts to the group’s somewhat elder statesmen status (the group debuted in 1999 — for all you collectors out there, it means their first single was issued on 3″ mini-CD, rather than the standard 5″ maxi). It’s a mature, relaxed look and sound for the group, with its subdued coloring and formal wear. Finally being allowed to act their age (the oldest member is 35) and associate itself closer to SMAP is doing this idol group a service, leaving the more strenuous tasks to juniors like Hey! Say! JUMP and A.B.C.-Z. Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for that Yuma Nakayama follow-up (one year since Tokoton and not a word).

Other male groups that have stood out to me have been Da-iCE, which has been a sort of slow burn. It’s not surprising that some of the most interesting music is coming from the groups that are competing with their Korean peers overseas: there’s big bucks and, seemingly, bigger respect from groups who can bring something other than the standard “idol sound” to the charts. Your preference is a matter of opinion: there’s interesting things on both sides of the divide, and generally, even an EVERY SEASON has its pitfalls (imagine, for a moment, a man like Daichi Miura getting his hands on a song like “Got Your Back” and how much it would have made a good song incredible). As a counterweight, there’s NEWS’ QUARTETTO, which I find a perfect blend of the two.

One of the most interesting developments of the year to watch has been Avex Trax’s entrance into the idol world. Japan’s biggest independent label is on record as one of my favorite labels of all time, if not number one. They’ve made inroads beginning a couple of years back, choosing, wisely to develop and sustain their roster of dance-pop oriented groups like FEMM, Fairies, and FAKY, but groups like X21 have done better than a few of those. Without a signature sound, the only way I can describe it is idol-pop with a sheer of professional polish all over it. Wa-suta’s The World Standard and Cheeky Parade’s second album are the highlights, bringing to the endless churn of singles put out by groups like AKB48 (whose year-defining senbatsu single “Tsubasa wa Iranai” didn’t come close to last year’s “Bokutachi wa Tatakawanai“) a bit more gravitas. The attention to detail is surprising for songs that don’t sound much different than their more experienced contemporaries over at places like King Record. Still, iDOL Street, the name of Avex’s subdivision dedicated to idols, is a growing and interesting venture for them. SUPER☆GiRLS , the first group signed, has been something of a mixed bag, but it’s worth looking out for Wa-suta, and in the coming months, BiSH, who were signed earlier this year.

In addition, Avex has their hands full with dance groups like GEM, whose debut album Girls Entertainment Mixture, following a number of singles since 2013, has been one of my most-played of the year. Even though they’re under the same umbrella as CP and S☆G, they’re still a basic Avex dance-group like Fairies. The biggest criticism at this point is that Avex seems to be scrambling to debut and develop as many groups as possible, in the hopes that one or two will make an impression long enough to stick around. In other words, hopefully FEMM won’t be tossed aside for a group like FAKY, which hasn’t fulfilled any of its promise (perhaps one or two of the members will get solo opportunities? They’re too talented to throw away), and will start work on their follow-up album (as of this writing, a new single has been announced, but not released). You can always tell when a group has made it by the imitators that follow; if they all sound like Faint Star’s “Never Ever,” I won’t complain.

That leaves me wondering where groups like Prizmmy☆, Dorothy Little Happy, X21, or TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE will fit into the coming year. The latter, in particular, is now at something of a deadlock. They were Avex’s first and most successful idol group in a long time, with amazing New Jack Swing albums to back them up, but with the official departure of member Ayano Konishi, they’re unsure which direction to take them now that they’ve declared themselves artists, rather than idols. So far, they’ve been spending most of 2016 performing overseas, pushing a dead album onto the masses. It’s been six months since REFLECTION and there’s been no sign of a new single in the works; the style and tone of it will be telling of the group’s future.

Other groups that have failed to release follow-up albums, have been PASSPO☆, who so impressed me last year, callme, E-girls (just a greatest hits here), and palet, though I’m eagerly looking forward to any upcoming singles or projects that might still make it before the year is up. In the end, it’s been BABYMETAL’s continued success story overseas that has been J-pop’s crowning achievement of 2016 so far; the fact that METAL RESISTANCE is so great only makes it sweeter.

Going Solo

Here were the big solo releases of the year: Namie Amuro’s “Mint,” a grand pop gesture if there ever was one (hopefully, a new album follows her soon-to-be-released summer single), Ayumi Hamasaki’s M(A)DE IN JAPAN, which I’ve already discussed here (worth noting, though, is the constant cropping up of the term “renaissance” to describe this phase of her career, to which: maybe? Things like that usually only become clear after the fact, so I’ll sit tight for now), and the wild card, Mamoru Miyano’s “SHOUT!” He’s no Luna Haruna, but the anime-pop solo work of this voice actor has been a refreshing change from your everyday Nana Mizuki. Someone has to fill in for Yuma Nakayama.

Odds and Ends

One of the biggest stories in J-pop this year was the affair between Gesu no Kiwame Otome.’s Enon Kawatani and Becky, a talento. Unfortunately, the news overshadowed the release of the group’s album, Ryouseibai, a solid bit of J-rock, that runs just a bit too long to be truly outstanding. The J-rock album to beat this year has been uchuu,’s +1, a solid debut full-length from the indie group that graced us with HELLO, HELLO, HELLO, last year. I’ll be keeping my eyes on them.

But what is it good for?

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Which leads us to the biggest disappointments of the year. Of note, there have only been two: Perfume’s COSMIC EXPLORER and Negicco’s Tea for Three. Perfume’s is the least surprising, with the quality of Yasutaka’s Nakata’s compositions on a decline for the past few years; still COSMIC EXPLORER, unlike LEVEL3, left so little room for surprises, such as a “PARTY MAKER” or “Clockwork,” that its two interesting songs “Miracle Worker” and “FLASH” pale in comparison. Negicco, who showed such promise after years of toiling in obscure ridicule, set such a high bar with Rice & Snow that Tea for Three is less a disappointment, than a given. It’s an okay album for a group that released okay singles leading up to it, with a few stand-outs, like “Kounan Yoi Uta.” I’ll take it, but I’m not happy about it.

 

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.