Some luck, but mostly effort: The anomaly and allure of BABYMETAL

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Marty Friedman was both right and wrong: J-pop idols are pretty amazing, and he emphasized this point when he enthused that “all the stuff I introduced to you from Japan is going to make it outside of Japan, and soon. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already. I’m talking this year, or next year something is going to explode because this stuff is too good.” Four years later, we’re seeing a tiny, almost barely-perceptible fissure in the musical landscape. Perfume is successfully touring Europe and North America, adding major cities to their stops over time, while metal idols BABYMETAL are catering to both the LOLJapan crowd, and prurient hipsters, ever on the prowl for the new and different. The latter is nowhere more telling then their appearance in the entertainment issue of this week’s New Yorker, buried in the back in the teenage tastemakers article, Teenage Dream, by Matthew Trammell.

“Teen-agers with their serial rebellions, romantic infatuations, and unabashed experimentalism, have proved to be adept at reworking pop’s core provocations. Technology, meanwhile, has made it easy for teens to inject their aesthetics into the mainstream, with or without the guiding hand of managers and record labels.” (70)

newyorkerappThat last point is a stretch, and none of the artists briefly profiled could be considered to have gained “mainstream” success (Rappers Novelist and Kodak Black, piano prodigy Joey Alexander, popster Låpsley, etc.), but the New Yorker wouldn’t be the New Yorker if it didn’t purport to being on the absolute up-and-up. As in TIME‘s special Fall 2001 issue, which featured Hikaru Utada, (notably, she was working on her American debut with Foxy Brown and the Neptunes and planning to retire very young, around 28, probably to become a neuroscientist), articles like these tend to be peak Western exposure for said artists, rather than the beginning of a phenomenon, though BABYMETAL does get relatively considerable space. Writes Trammell,

“Though the songs are addictive, Babymetal’s sharpest asset is its singular combination of J-pop’s theatrical pageantry and metal’s primal sprint. Adherents of each genre are becoming fans: Babymetal has enjoyed huge success in Japan, and its fame is growing in the United States and in London. […] Babymetal’s act, like much of the best pop, is at once recognizable and profoundly new.” (78)

This is a singularly Western explanation; in fact, for fans of J-pop, young teenage girls dancing and singing in a genre they never heard of, or downright dislike, is nothing new, and has been done, often, if not, arguably, better, by Japanese idol groups before them. The “profoundly new” angle is only new to American pop, where metal remains the domain of a largely male demographic. This, too, was true in Japan, until a meeting of the minds pinpointed a great way to sell idols units to otaku male audiences (the, ahem, most important, ones) and their skeptical friends even quicker: by making young female idols the mouthpieces of a traditionally “masculine” genre, they created the jarring allure and unexplored juxtaposition of teenage girls belting out aggressive metal songs, and lured fans’ wallets with something they could enthuse about publicly. This opened the idol business to even more mainstream revenue: suddenly it was just a little less unseemly for young and older men alike to collect posters and photo cards, attend handshake events, and attend concerts to see their idols because the music wasn’t soft rock or bubblegum pop: it was heavy and authentic and respectable and composed by real virtuosos of the genre with immeasurable skill and talent. While the genre (here, idol pop as an all-encompassing umbrella term) has always had both male and female fans, the female fans tend to be outliers: female idols, especially those who are front women for increasingly edgier hard rock or metal music, are first and foremost catered to a male audience, most especially an older male audience, who has the buying power to keep up with the sale of related merchandise. Female fans are the superfluous extra perks, a welcome byproduct, but hardly the target, which is why you get a lot of lyrical content that is usually either a) specific to men’s interests, especially, as the market saturates, super-niche interests — see Momoiro Clover Z — or b) specific to what boys and men think girls think, talk, and daydream about.

There are very few actual female idol groups marketed to girls and women, and most of them aren’t pure idols, skirting the broader definitions that prefer terms like girl group, or dance group, like E-girls or Fairies. Female fans are steered in the direction of Johnny’s idols, where young boys and men release softer, more heartfelt, treacly pop music, the type women are typically assumed to like: photoshoots present male idols as nonthreatening, cute, and cuddly, and their singles and albums reinforce this. While a crop of new K-pop-imitators like Da-iCE and Choshinsei, are struggling to redefine the preconceived notions of idol boy bands, they are still the exception, outnumbered by their best-selling rivals. Even groups like EXILE, KAT-TUN, and lately NEWS, lean toward heavy dancepop at its most aggressive; another genre traditionally undervalued in the critical world.

babymetaltrivappIn many ways this is a sign of the outrageous gender binaries that comprise the marketing and distribution of Japanese idols; for purposes of the music itself, it also reinforces the notion that genres that comprise huge male audiences (hard rock, metal) can be deemed authentic and worthy of critical attention, while those that women enjoy are considered fluff that no one would ever take seriously. Under that idea, it’s hardly surprising that a group like BABYMETAL could make it in the circles of certain American subcultures, and less so that articles in the Western media feel the need to justify their interest in the group by constantly reminding readers that their material was written by veterans of the metal genre (Nobuki Narasaki, Herman Li, Sam Totman, Takeshi Ueda, etc.), or that the girls themselves are influenced, or appreciated by, everybody from the members of Metallica to Slayer. There are few that don’t, and in many ways, these men serve to legitimize their existence. Under these caveats, it’s hard to imagine an equivalent Japanese male group/boy band (who don’t write their own music or play instruments) could make it stateside, not even if like Jimi Hendrix came back from the dead to write an album for them. Because it seems to be acceptable, if not preferable, for women to be mostly muses and good-looking faces for the music, a group like Perfume can get a lot of critical praise because of their music producer Yasutaka Nakata, but it rarely goes the other way for boy bands, who can’t seem to catch a break unless they’re more in control of their music and image, for example G-Dragon of K-pop group BIG BANG.

Setting aside the gender breakdown of the critical music sphere for a second, any writer putting together an article about BABYMETAL deserves applause, since nothing gives away their idol-ness more than an interview, where stock quips and rehearsed nothings are the order of the day. Says Moa Kikuchi, when asked about the international reach of their fans, “Everyone loves music. I think music is the common language of the world. Music is a wonderful connection for all people – it brings people together.” These are hardly the insights of seasoned performers, though it speaks to their unique perspective, both as teenagers and Japanese teens, which they are very quick to take pride in (Yui Mizuno: “BABYMETAL music is a blend of hard music and metal music with Japanese pop and sounds. If we were not from Japan, we’d be a totally different band with totally different fans”).

artravebabvy2While Marty Friedman believed that Japanese pop music would only reach an audience outside Japan “with luck” and “timing,” and other factors that couldn’t be planned, BABYMETAL, has been a slow, methodical climb to relevance, not least of which included shows in Paris, New York, and the UK, and opening for Lady Gaga’s ArtRave: The Artpop Ball tour starting back in 2014. Noisey did a brief introduction back in the same year, while Jake Cleland at Pitchfork picked “Gimme Choco!!” as one of his favorite tracks of 2010-2014. All said and done, BABYMETAL, originally conceived of as a subunit of uber-traditional idol group Sakura Gakuin, has done well for itself, and not just because of luck and timing.

In fact, idol groups like BABYMETAL flourish in Japan, many of them far superior to the group, who are getting the attention and accolades that many Japanese idols simply don’t care about, or can’t be bothered with. PASSPO☆, in particular, has some of the highest quality, and variety, of hard rock and metal on their albums, especially on the legendary One World, and last year’s Beef or Chicken? Other examples include BAND-MAID, Momoiro Clover Z, and BiSH, all bands that might be considered too niche to crossover in America (it would surely involve a lot of context and explanation).

stephenbabyappThat being said, in rare cases the music can transcend context, as BABYMETAL’s fantastic new album, METAL RESISTANCE, does. There are some truly epic and astounding risks the album takes and pulls off, particularly with lead tracks “KARATE” and the mostly-instrumental “From Dusk Till’ Dawn.” As Ryotaro Aoki points out in his review, the album has “more nods to 1980s hair metal and symphonic metal, which are perhaps more suited for mixing with J-pop than metal’s edgier subgenres” and fulfills “the crux of idol music; they know what you like, and they can convincingly make it exactly the way you like it.” It will be interesting to see how long BABYMETAL can sustain their novelty act in a country where trends come and go, Japanese pop culture is not often taken seriously, and the majority reaction is still more laugh-at-them than laugh-with-them (to be fair, homegrown girl groups aren’t having it much easier, even as they look to edgy K-pop for inspiration, but Fifth Harmony and Little Mix, bless their souls, are trying). While seeing the girls on Stephen Colbert was pretty exciting, simply appearing on late night portends nothing; just ask Girls’ Generation. The goal is always that music from other parts of the world can be appreciated and enjoyed for what it is and what it’s trying to do, rather than fit a predetermined, acceptable mold, regardless of which audience it’s attracting and why, and at least in that sense, BABYMETAL are chipping away at America’s icy heart proudly, and on their own terms.

(Photo credit.)

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My Rolling Stone, my self

I never thought I would like the Rolling Stones, but I do. I listen to “Gimme Shelter” when I pick up around the house, “Emotional Rescue” when driving my car, and “Moonlight Mile” as I fall asleep. Snatches of albums here and there because I can only tolerate them in doses, mixed in with artists less Crypt Keeper-esque. My journey down the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (begun in June ’09) has been less an indication of my capabilities to tolerate anything and more a reflection of where I happen to be in life; sometimes I think I subconsciously seek out songs that say something to me, that I can relate to, but then I like “Sister Morphine” a lot and I can’t relate at all. I started to skip around a bit, but I got through #500-450 and I only rated one album 5/5 (Def Leppard’s Hysteria – it’s personal). Elton John’s Elton John (1970), Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes (1972), and The Drifters’ Golden Hits (1996) came very close, though. But my real point is: this list needs to be updated. Any list is expired by the time it’s published, but if the magazine had waited even two years to put it together, we’d be looking at a completely different list. Or maybe not. Rolling Stone is stubborn like that.

But right now, none of those songs are my favorite. My favorite is a dumb song about lost ambitions by some Norwegian band that I will overplay and in two weeks will be lucky to moderately tolerate. But my rate of musical consumption makes it easy to know that in a few days, I will have found my new favorite song and probably the three or four after it, too. So I know I’ve hit something when I listen to an album for three weeks straight, four weeks straight, five weeks straight… Lester Bangs once wrote that our relationship with recorded music is the search for that “priceless moment” when you truly believe that a song can (or has) fundamentally change(d) you (I realize this is like the third time I’ve quoted this, but as interesting a read as Bangs is, he is tragically unquotable). But then Bangs was also kind of dense, never accounting for his own inability to not just experience those moments, but hold on to them; constantly doubling back on himself, ripping apart albums based on the cover art instead of the music, making inappropriate, sexist remarks about women…he was kind of a jackass, really. But he was a good writer, when he was good (I disagree, of course, about his stance on the mythic superstar. I live for that stuff. Or at least, I used to) and I do still agree about the whole “restless pursuit” business.  And like him, I think it’s only natural and probably best to write things in the heat of the moment, instead of waiting months or years to write about it, which is why I think music criticism, unlike other media criticism (except maybe video games), has a very rapid shelf-life. Movie blogs are chock-full of writers who view and then ponder classic cinema, but that approach doesn’t work very well for aspiring music writers. Pity.

One of my favorite things to do recently has been to read old reviews from music magazines as I travel down the Greatest Albums list. I think a lot about the differences in criticisms between mediums as I scour archives for analytical pieces, which is increasingly scarce when there’s just so much music it’s necessary to weed through all the crap and by the time people get around to finishing that, there’s not much time to discuss what any of it means. I guess movies aren’t like that. One dude with one keyboard can write an entire album and post it on MySpace before breakfast but even the crappiest, low-budget movies takes a team of people and a studio to distribute it, and so people will always take movies more seriously than they will music. Pitchfork posts twenty-five album reviews a week and that’s just indie stuff (except, of course, for the pop albums they deem special enough to award a review – which, by the way, this week was Duran Duran’s remastered Rio. Duran Duran! Now irritating in quality stereo).

But even so, today Lester Bangs would probably not get hired by Rolling Stone and would just be another blogger, maybe with a few thousand extra hits than other popular blogs, and would spend his life in that self-imposed aloneness he enjoyed so much without having to worry about leaving his house just to buy records – Amazon! Because his style was only special in that it was new, and albums like Elton John and All the Young Dudes no longer sound “new.” Even that Leighton Meester song that came out three days ago isn’t “new” anymore.

But the magazine format isn’t just no longer new, it’s inconvenient. Most of them are monthly (Rolling Stone is bi-monthly), yet still insist on printing news sections that are already old and review blurbs as if anyone reads those things to actually get advice on which albums are worth listening to. A subscription for Rolling Stone now only costs $25.94 for two years; that makes each issue worth $0.49. But not only is Rolling Stone almost cheaper than a roll of toilet paper, it’s also outdated and extraneous; it’s cliche to point out that MTV has stopped playing music, but it’s just sad to point out that Rolling Stone doesn’t write about music.

It would be redundant to dwell very long on the issue of females vs. males on the covers (suffice to say, Sean Penn wasn’t licking an ice cream cone with his Milk co-star) as the charge is as old as Rolling Stones‘ freshly printed news bits; Internet publications like Idolator have pretty much eliminated the relevance of that section. The cover stories are well-written, but the topics are questionable and the magazine often delves into subjects it has little business exploring, i.e. I1075’s “100 Agents of Change” article, some sort of self-congratulations to its inflated arrogance and skewed priorities. The top ten features Steve Jobs, Kanye West, Bono, and Tina Fey. In addition, readers are supposed to believe Sri-Lankan rapper M.I.A., Sacha Baron Cohen, and freaking Radiohead have changed the world more than figures who search for cancer cures and are attempting to resuscitate the electric car. Why is Andy Samberg or Judd Apatow (#14!) on this list at all? One has been responsible for an SNL-skit that deserved nothing more than a polite chuckle, and the other has managed to reinforce and laud the lazy, stagnant  man-child as charming, noble, and inspirational.

The Internet is changing the way music criticism and journalism is being done and Rolling Stone clearly refuses to get on the bandwagon. Music magazines have always been the primary source for musical criticism and journalism as a whole, and their reputations aren’t without credit: the authors are usually extremely dedicated music fans who not only love what they’re doing, but write about it in genuinely interesting, innovative ways (again, the cover stories, when they’re not spending six pages summarizing the central conceit in Gossip Girl). But nobody is buying these magazines anymore, and with the availability of music on the Internet, not a lot of people are reading about music in general. In terms of criticism, its job has always been to steer people to places that are worth their time and money, but it takes ten seconds to download an entire album now; it’s faster for kids to download an album and skim the tracks than read about it. Music criticism should focus on the new reader, the dedicated, sometimes obsessive, music fan who enjoys reading about music, but probably does so after listening to a piece of work to find a starting ground for discussion or to enjoy new insights he or she didn’t notice before (hence the shift from deciding whether something is simply good or bad, and focusing on what it’s trying to accomplish). There’s no use appealing to the casual reader, as he or she has probably stopped reading a long time ago. In addition, music blogs and places like Pitchfork are setting the standards on free and giving readers access to enthusiastic niche communities that Rolling Stone puts a halt on by appealing to the largest demographic possible (keeping sales up: a tough job).

On the flip side, there will always be a need for big names like Rolling Stone because the quality of the writing is infinitely better than the average music blogger and provides intimate access to artists and events that people who blog from home will never have, no matter how enthusiastic they are.  Of course, there’s a distinction here between criticism and journalism; Rolling Stone will always be around in some form because of the quality of their work in journalism. The key is expanding the analytical writing and dropping the US Weekly-esque photo caption sections (guess what other magazine Jann Wenner owns) and micro CD reviews, born out of fear that the Internet is killing our attention spans (remember that failed new design of Spin that looked like a tabloid?)  – shouldn’t the media set the standard and not kowtow to it?

The Internet is music criticism’s new playground and Rolling Stone would be smart to take better advantage of it. Opening borders to other cultural mediums (television, cinema, etc.) is all well and good until you forget what the point of your publication was in the first place. I don’t mean to sound as nostalgic as this entire Baby Boomer magazine is apt to be, mostly because I don’t think it ever had a Golden Age or flourished in a past decade; this magazine has cruised through fairly straight waters until recently. As for me, I will keep forging ahead. I will read the reviews. I will skim the blogs. I will scan the music glossies, no matter how much they annoy me, not because of what’s in it, but because of all that’s left out. I will think about it. I will write about it. I will keep searching. I’m like a musical sea diver, looking for that priceless moment in a list of music that’s supposed to be the greatest of all time, though the list is pretty much entirely  American/English artists and all I’ve really learned so far is that I still hate grunge, Public Image Ltd. is not a rap group, and the Rolling Stones are on this list a lot. Can’t wait until I have an excuse to keep listening to them.

The Trouble with J-pop: Revolutionizing the Western Community of Criticism

I wish that the concept of serious Japanese pop and rock criticism was, on the whole, more prevalent. I might even venture to say I wish it existed at all. There are of course, numerous problems with why criticism of Japanese music is in absentia, the most important which is obvious: everything about music criticism has stemmed around the Western world of music. The arguments are clear: (1) a lot of people speak English, some people speak Japanese; (2) if analyzing involves deconstructing the music within a cultural context, the Japanese culture is too far removed to do any of the analyzing unless you were born and raised within that culture. I’ll share an example.

In the introduction to Chuck Klosterman’s heavy metal odyssey Fargo Rock City, Klosterman claims that music criticism has been largely restrained to pop, blues, jazz, and the like, while intellectual criticism about heavy metal has been pretty moot. So he thought, well, I’m fairly intelligent and I like heavy metal, why don’t I write about it? So he did. It’s at this point I thought about pursuing the same thing in regards to Japanese pop. Hey, I’m fairly intelligent and I like J-pop. I could even narrow this down and do an entire study on Ayumi Hamasaki, considering I know more about her music and persona than any other artist I’ve listened to and researched. If I followed Klosterman’s example, I would then delve into how she affected my culture, my friends, and my life. But that’s the problem: Ayumi Hamasaki never affected my culture, she never affected the people around me, and so can she really have affected my life?

On a personal note, absolutely. Hamasaki’s music and persona seeped into every inch of my existence since I was a twelve year old kid listening to “Boys & Girls.” But Ayumi is not a part of my culture, no matter how much she sounds, looks, and acts the part. I have never walked down the street and glanced at billboards advertising A BEST. I have never stepped into a CD store with the knowledge that I would easily obtain her latest single. I have never turned on the radio and heard her songs on Top 40. I have never turned on the television and seen her advertising Visee Kose or a Panasonic camera; Ayumi is part of a culture, but it’s not mine.

But even if I did choose to write serious criticism on contemporary Japanese pop regardless, where could I even hope to be published outside of my own blog? Just who is the largest demographic of English-speaking Japanese pop and rock fans? And I’m left with the (sad) realization that it’s probably anime fans.

In 2003, a short year after the first incarnation of my (largely Japanese pop oriented) music blog appears was born, I received an E-mail from a representative of Tofu Records asking if I would help by advertising the releases of their albums, to which I politely declined on the basis that I believed (and still do) that their mission statement was outrageous. Tofu Records had a simple, albeit ambitious goal: to bring Japanese music to the United States by releasing Japanese pop artists’ albums in North America. A brilliant idea, except that the angle was to connect Japanese pop to anime. The idea was that kids and teenagers who watch anime are already primed to appreciate a facet of Japanese culture that would enable them to transition and be the likeliest foundation audience, hence, getting Japanese artists to perform at anime-cons. Well OK, some people who watch anime do listen to East Asian pop. The problem is that they are only a tiny fraction of people who listen to music in general and to say the two have any business being singularly attached at all is like using a Flaming Lips song to promote Mitsubishi. Using this approach, Tofu Records closed in 2007, less than five years later. So how do we successfully market a country’s musical oeuvre while allowing it to keep its integrity? How do we make it accessible and appealing to those not completely taken with Japanophilia, who just enjoy music without the anime attachment that may give them reason to judge before even hearing something they probably weren’t even aware existed? How do we get serious students, listeners, writers, and critics of music to pay attention in a country not very open to musical imports?

The cultural imperialism analysis puts things into a bit of perspective – Western culture influences everything and therefore, everything seems to be Western, if not simply American. But what Eastern countries like Japan have (amazingly) done is invite these ideologies without submitting their culture: the Oricon charts (similar to Billboard) feature both Western and Eastern artists, they eat at Western fast food restaurants, but their primary staple is still rice, they wear jeans and T-shirts, but don kimonos during formal events. These are just a few of the shallow aspects I’m pointing out – there is a lot of self-preservation within the country. Ayumi Hamasaki is a product of this unique culture and after all that, Ayumi can come to America, study our culture, and even speak our language fluently, but does that really make her a certifiable authority on our culture? If she chose to write criticism on say, some movie like There Will Be Blood in relation to our culture, would we take it seriously? Well, forgetting the fact that she’s a pop star, maybe.

First of all, America is built on that sort of acceptance; anyone can be American because our culture reaches beyond our borders and influences every aspect of non-Americans. But second of all, while Ayumi can conceivably “become” American, an “American” can never conceivably become “Japanese.” You can study the language, you can visit the country, you can live there for twenty years and make it your home, but if you weren’t raised there, can you really embody the true spirit of someone who’s gone through the cultural process of growing up in a country that, though very Westernized, is still undeniably different? Will you ever be more than just a gaijin oddity?

But this is the big question: can I legitimately dissect and analyze the influence of Ayumi Hamasaki on culture (or in general) when her culture is not my culture? When I have not been to Japan, have not exhaustively studied the language and only have a deeper understanding of the culture…to a certain extent? To just say it’s impossible is of course both stupid and short-sighted. But then there’s the question of who would read the analyses anyway.

The Japanese pop and rock culture is almost exclusively based on the Internet. For argument’s sake, the Internet is a concept and not a reality (I’ve read the phrase “in the real world” so many times on blogs, I find this argument beyond justifiable). That’s not to say it doesn’t exist at all – there are a handful of genuinely superb Japanese pop and rock blogs or web sites (but again, just a handful) and even a few “communities” that discuss the music in general, but I have yet to find any sort of transcendent, intellectual, and serious agenda on said subject matter. Pleasure Principled attempted this with its “revealingly articulate idol worship,” but the site hasn’t been updated in a long time, and even when it was, it focused almost exclusively on the “idol” community instead of embracing the full spectrum of J-pop. That’s not to say these casual fan blogs are somehow wrong or useless; personal journals are meant to be conduits of very personal, emotional, and unprofessional reactions and opinions, many of them launched to have fun with no serious aspirations attached. They allow fans to come together to discuss and interact, no matter what they have to say and how they choose to go about saying it. But where is its academic counterpart: the all-encompassing, articulate, savvy prose on all things Japanese pop, ie; where is the English-speaking J-pop version of Pitchfork? Hell, where is the English-speaking J-pop version of Rolling Stone or NME?

The Internet is already primed for this community; with no one else to talk to in the immediate, real world vicinity, English-speaking fans of Japanese pop found their allies through the Internet back in the day when the word anime still returned hollow, questioning stares. In fact, one can make the claim that Japanese music in America is a total Internet phenomenon; almost no one I’ve ever met who listens to it has discovered it without a decent ISP. This has bourgeoned into today’s mélange of blogs and message boards that post and discuss everything from Namie Amuro’s latest commercial endorsement, to the cutest member of Morning Musume. But if this is supposed to be “my” community, why does it sometimes embarrass the hell out of me? I would be loathe to claim superiority, intellectual or otherwise (though it can be argued that my entire stance in this essay stems from at least a certain type and degree of elitism), nor do I claim some sort of encyclopedic knowledge of all things J-pop; if anything, exposure to these blogs has taught me how much I have yet to listen to and learn. However, it’s also taught me how shallow, inhibited, exclusive, and unstimulating the core collective of English-speaking Japanese pop writers are; a lack of critical thinking, analyzing, and perceptive discussion plagues the very community I have never truly felt a part of. I’ve been listening to Japanese pop for eleven years now, during which my tastes have grown, changed, expanded, and matured, and yet it seems all of my peers have remained perpetually thirteen years old. How they can expect anyone else to take it seriously if they don’t either?

Again, there are huge exceptions here; it’s not my intention to cut down a community that, though never truly wrapping its arms around me, has always acknowledged my interest and ambition, even when they call my opinions “biased” as if they’re not, you know, opinions. There are great blogs out there with insightful comments and worthwhile niche communities: there’s jrockynyc, a veritable goldmine of humor, knowledge, and experience; Pink Wota, a witty, stream-of-consciousness take on pop; unchained, an intellectual oasis for some of the more obscure, indie titles; and International Wota, a community that connects all of these blogs with a feed keeping readers abreast of the salient topics du jour. But though there are a few more I don’t have the space to include, I’m still left with a plethora of blogs that recycle the same singles and albums from J-pop .rar blogs, most of who write reviews as if to recreate songs using uninventive, poorly stringed words after one or two listens, and never place any of the music in cultural or artistic contexts, let alone elude to a bigger picture. The poorly written comments that lash out in juvenile, unconstructive ways is a whole other beast. Plus, most of the writers are relatively young; I’m young myself, but that’s kind of the point. There are thousands of records I haven’t heard and books on music journalism I haven’t read and it’s only with time that I can hope to get through some of them and gain a more well-rounded understanding that will contribute to the way I listen to and analyze a piece of music, not to mention the way I choose to express that. Shouldn’t our community strive to be defined by just as much maturity and experience as Western criticism?

But then, I guess my aim has always been bigger. I’m not content to see Japanese pop and rock straddle the fringe, barely hanging on. I’m not willing to rest on the laurels that it’s the best we have, this J-pop community that’s content to remain a sort of cult hobby, that expresses horror and jealousy when a favorite pop star deigns to be just as accessible as Britney Spears. Shouldn’t our ambitions be higher? Shouldn’t we be aiming to put Eastern pop and rock on the same wavelength as its Western counterpart, without compromising it like, say, Dir en grey, without stripping it of its unique Japan-ness that causes us to love it so much or rob via the same impulse that wants the accessible, kitschy aspects of Japan only with the cute or eccentric filters on? Shouldn’t we be pushing it to be just as important, just as canon-worthy? Hell, to create a canon in the first place? To make sure Yellow Magic Orchestra and Happy End one day stand in the same hall of fame as Yes or The Beatles? I’m not saying it will be easy. I mean, even this desire to amass a legion of English-speaking J-pop savants forces Japanese music to succumb to the words and phrases of Western taste. Even something as simple as an album review requires filtering it through the Western mouth and spitting it out into some sort of ersatz reality, the one that claims any of us Westerners can truly be conduits of Eastern music culture when most of us have not been born, raised, or visited Asia, let alone speak any Asian languages; yes, music is a universal language, but it takes a lot more than just an I-like/I-don’t-like approach to write about it.

But I believe it’s possible. To look at something like a Buono! promotional video and critique it on the basis of talent and originality without submitting to cheap, easy shots at its sheer cuteness, or the sometimes endless Western desire to bemoan an utter lack of irony (hipsters, steer clear), and instead, see the unblemished sincerity not as a sign of ignorance, but, simply, as a whole different style of accessible, radio-friendly music contingent on the people in its culture is not easy, but it’s certainly reasonable. And we can’t take for granted the sheer amount of rock and indie that pervades the island either; the Kinks and the Rolling Stones shouldn’t  be (and aren’t) the only progenitors of rock music. And as countless have studied their influence on counter and youth cultures, we, too, should look at the way a uniquely influenced country like Japan has managed to craft rock without use of as much blues as its Western contemporaries and what it meant for its listeners. Or the outcome of what a lack of a Western definition of a minority has on the emergence of Japanese hip-hop.

In the September 2007 issue of the Japanese version of Rolling Stone (which is barely three years old!), Kawasaku Daisuke compiled a list of the 100 Greatest Japanese Rock albums of all time – an absolute, groundbreaking first.

“The Japanese music magazine industry resembles what existed in America before the rise of Rolling Stone. That’s to say, record companies – the main advertisers – see their wishes strongly reflected on every page, and because of this, magazines’ main job is to praise new releases. Is that why we’ve never seen one of these lists? It’s a strange situation, almost like the entire industry is infected with the idea that they should not rank releases because it would “make the record companies angry.” […] We must change this ridiculous situation into something more normal.” (Daisuke)

That was in 2007. Has anything changed since then? Well, when Yasutaka Nakata, a prolific Japanese producer, songwriter, and DJ was interviewed for The Japan Times Online in August 2009, he said, “The power of music critics is less in Japan now. […] And partly this is because they’ll talk about music saying that ‘this’ or ‘that’ is really fashionable, but the [sic] themselves obviously have no sense of style, so people react like, ‘What? Why should we listen to this guy?’” No. Nothing has changed at all. Albums are reviewed with praise and high ratings so they sell well, when let’s be honest – not every album is worth buying, or even listening to. It’s time to make the big leap in establishing the canon with well-written, researched reviews, articles, and essays by professional, critical listeners and writers who live and breath music, while remaining sensitive to our own handicaps and restrictions, cultural or otherwise.

After all, to speak of LUNA SEA or Dir en grey’s influence is to speak of the culture they have affected – those hundreds of visual kei/metal/lolita/what-have-yous – of which I have never partook of and thus know very little of, regardless of the fact that I have been listening to Dir en grey for eight years, from its VK infancy, to the bastardized riffs of American nu-metal mimicry. Here’s that socio/anthropological question again: does analysis of art in a particular culture require cultural participation? And if it doesn’t, if we agree that Western fans of Japanese pop have just as much valid insight into the Japanese musical landscape as Japanese music writers who were born, raised, and live/publish in Japan (and again, the idea of actual Japanese music criticism by the Japanese vis-à-vis the Western paradigm is extremely, ridiculously recent, if at all), is the message really genuine, or like Namie Amuro’s Queen of Hip-Pop, can it simply reflect the culture to which it aspires?

Like any art, music is not made in a vacuum. In fact, if the purpose of art is communication (of ideas, of feelings, of shared values), music speaks directly to the social environment in which it was begat. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it and discuss it on a (relatively) superficial level (as many J-pop blogs do), but as Americans living across the ocean (even with really reliable Internet access), does it mean we’ll never be able to truly grasp its central conceit? And if it’s feasible, does it mean we repair, from the ashes of so many trivial Hello! Project and Johnny’s fan blogs, this unique community to which all J-pop fans belong? Or do we break off and revolutionize the way the world perceives Japanese popular music forever?

(Special thanks to Mike for helping me work out and edit the ideas here.)

the Time is Now, my revolutionary Western music critics

Ian Martin recently interviewed Yasutaka Nakata, one of the most prolific Japanese producers, as well as song-writer, DJ, and overall badass, for The Japan Times Online, and what strikes me as most important about the advertorial for capsule’s upcoming greatest hits compilation is the things he has to say about music criticism:

“Especially in Tokyo, […] someone who knows a lot about music, they play something and people think, ‘OK, this must be popular now.'”

“The power of music critics is less in Japan now. […] And partly this is because they’ll talk about music saying that ‘this’ or ‘that’ is really fashionable, but the [sic] themselves obviously have no sense of style, so people react like, ‘What? Why should we listen to this guy?'”

“In Japan, […] if something sells really well, the singers will be all over the TV and everywhere, but no one cares who made it. But overseas, when they hear the song, they think, ‘Who made it?’ not ‘Who’s singing it?’ Not just songwriters, but also the arrangers, the sound engineers — they respect all the people who are involved in making the music.”

I’ve been working on an essay this past week (it will be finished and posted eventually) about the (non-existent) state of  serious Japanese music criticism in the West, and this just reinforces all the points I’m making in three tiny blurbs: that Western style of music criticism/journalism is extremely respected, well-informed, and important, while the Japanese style is a joke and treated more like an almost pure hybrid of marketing and payola (and it’s no secret!), and that this respected, well-informed, and important style of music criticism has yet to be adapted to Japanese music (or East Asian pop in general). But I’ll save the rest for the essay.

Most profiles are generated with a desperate sense of summary and little original content, crafted to promote an artist and filtering sense or meaning out of what little a pop artist has to say, which is usually nothing about anything. But Yasutaka Nakata is addressing something that I think is fundamental to the English-speaking J-pop revolution.

Music critics of America, are you listening?