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.

 

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Top ten albums of 2015, #6: Negicco’s Rice & Snow

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Negicco: Rice & Snow

There’s been no shortage of words spilled over Negicco’s origin story: to sum up, they’re often painted as the humiliated local ambassadors of onions who gained critical appeal after a few strategic collaborations with Yasuharu Konishi and other indie-approved creatives. Their early singles were simple at best, utilizing the resurging idol boom without any particular focus on what made Nao, Megu, and Kaede different. Initially, there wasn’t much, and even today, it’s a scramble to identify what makes any of the three girls unique. What makes Negicco, as a unit, stand out, has very little to do with the three girls themselves, and almost everything to do with their roster of producers who have created an airtight homage to the girls’ roots (snow and rice being hometown Niigata’s main exports). In fact, the central marketing technique involves pushing these names to the forefront; as Memories of Shibuya writes: “Far from the usual idol-group scenario of songwriters being kept behind the scenes as the girls take center stage, the press for Rice&Snow loudly trumpets the assortment of Shibuya-kei luminaries handling composition duties on the album.”

And Rice & Snow is indeed all very shibuya-kei, with its hallmark array of genres and sounds. Sparkling pop standard “TRIPLE! Wonderland” opens the album followed by respites in bossa nova (“CREAM SODA Love”), 80’s synth (“Futari no Yuugi”, Hiroyasu Yano in a clear nod to Haruomi Hasono), drum n’ bass (“BLUE, GREEN, RED AND GONE”), and atmospheric electronica “(Space Nekojaracy”). There’s at least two songs that utilize hand claps, and a few more that capture the same sing-along spirit. The magic is that you don’t actually have to care why that makes this album more “hip” than say, E-girls’ E.G. TIME. They’re light, sentimental pop songs you can enjoy without any of the baggage that comes with every other idol group, and as long as they keep a tight line-up of producers, the girls might stand a chance at  a lifespan just a bit longer than them, too.

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

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In the introduction to Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture, Patrick W. Galbraith and Jason G. Karlin outline the vast media intertextuality that makes audiences outside Japan find it difficult to understand the country’s pop culture. “The idol, as a multimedia performer, is always operating within a system of meanings and codes that are referencing other texts” (19). This occurs in four ways: (1) the way that idols perform across genres and platforms (appearing in dramas, sports events, and on game shows, releasing singles, appearing in commercials, etc.), (2) idols’ appearance in fictional and nonfictional contexts that reference both their real and onscreen lives, (3) the multi-platform appearances that link media forms for the purpose of promoting and selling other media, and (4) the way that intertextuality encourages nostalgia based on a shared cultural framework of texts (10-12). It’s that last point that will be most important here, and is summed up so succinctly:

“Without the intertextual knowledge that comes from a shared understanding of the cultural codes that circulate across media forms within Japan, the idol is reduced merely to his/her ability as a singer, dancer, or actor, which is limited. As a result, Japanese popular culture does not translate well cross-culturally, since its forms are overdetermined by the self-referential structures of the domestic media landscape.” (12)

That’s a rather large batch of quotes and summaries, but makes sense when you think of how often you see bewildered expressions or LOLJapan memes that circulate when readers or viewers are provided information on Japanese idols, bands, or fads without any of the relevant context. And bereft of context, we often get disdain, fear, or general apathy.

A great example of this intertextuality is Negicco’s latest single “IDOL Bakari Kikanaide.” Released this May, the single provides more than the usual number of references. Let’s break it down as coherently as possible:

(1) Japanese idols are heavily promoted media personalities that combine singing, dancing, acting, modeling, and advertising into careers that may last as little as a couple of years to decades. They’re generally attractive, particularly cute, and are usually considered pure or innocent, an image that will be consistently torn down by scandals or tabloids. The whole point of modern Japanese idols that separates them from other equivalents is that they are generally more valuable based on their potential. That is, an idol is valued if he or she starts out with moderate talents and abilities, but is shown through his or her career to develop and grow, a process fans are eager to participate in by supporting their chosen idols. Idols generally began appearing in the early 1970s, reached a peak in the 1980s, were replaced by more ambitious artists like Namie Amuro, Hikaru Utada, and Ayumi Hamasaki in the 1990s and early 00s, and have slowly begun an ascent once again.

(2) Shibuya-kei is a genre of music made popular in the 1990s. As Simon Reynolds puts it in Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, “The term came from the Shibuya area of Tokyo, in which were clustered record stores like Tower and HMV that stocked a lot of imports, along with ultra-hip record boutiques. The upper middle-class, privately educated kids who frequented these stores bought loads of import records from the UK and esoteric reissues of all kinds, then created music that was a portrait of themselves as exquisitely discerning consumers.” In other words, Shibuya-kei was a nod to forgotten, hip genres as varied as French ye ye, bossa nova, jazz, disco, and other pop styles, with the look and feel of 1960’s retro-futurism. Popular artists included Pizzicato Five, Flipper’s Guitar, Cornelius, and Karie Kahimi.

pizzicato2(3) One of the groups that epitomized the Shibuya-kei aesthetic, as mentioned, was Pizzicato Five, a group most popular with its incarnation of members Maki Nomiya and mastermind Yasuharu Konishi. It wouldn’t be erroneous to call Konishi the man with the vision: a look at P5’s discography puts you at the center stage of ironic, 1960’s retro-futurist musical genres, fashion, and general pastiche. Some would even go so far as to call Konishi’s music downright plagiarism. Suffice to say, Konishi understood this. His gigantic collection of vintage records that he relentlessly sampled wasn’t too far from what hip-hop had been doing for years. Regardless, Shibuya-kei did eventually reach a boiling point, most likely when books and manuals were published detailing all the minute references that took the pioneers forever to uncover, spelled out for even the simplest passing musical tourist to grasp. Suddenly, with a gigantic reference library of knowledge and specialist shops dedicated to the genre, crate digging for hours wasn’t as much fun, unique discoveries were impossible to make, and a new generation was onto something else. Or, to put it less lightly, “Through the mass media, the awareness of a particular celebrity or idol permeates national consciousness until it collapses under the weight of its own self-referential reproduction. […] As a result, the desire for novelty becomes engrained in Japanese media culture, guaranteeing stability and routinizing consumption” (Galbraith & Karlin, 17). Pizzicato Five released their last album, Ca et la du Japon, in 2001, symbolically ending their reign of the decade.

(4) Yasuharu Konishi continues to produce and remix things here and there. His latest work is for Negicco’s new single “IDOL Bakari Kikakanaide.” Besides the fact that this is a classic Konishi hyper-violin, go-go groove, we’ve also got a reference that turns in on itself back to the source: a song idols are singing to encourage a boyfriend to stop listening to idols so much (“I don’t care how much you love idols / But no matter how much you shake her hand / You can’t date that girl / Too bad!”). Clever, right?

(5): Handshake events are quite popular in Japan. Often access is obtained by purchasing singles or albums. It’s exactly what is sounds like: fans get a chance to meet and shake the hands of idols.

negicco2Yasuharu’s interest in the long-running idol group started back in February, when he supposedly “begged” their producer connie to write a single for them.

(6): It isn’t uncommon for professional and budding musical composers to write songs and submit them to idol agencies in the hope they get produced. It’s a little different than your standard single-producer complete-control regimen, but it certainly takes fan interaction to a whole new level.

Says Yasuharu: “I’ve played this monumental song close to a 100 times at home already. I always dreamt of writing a song for an idol from when I was a high school student. I want to take this song and make him (myself in high school) listen to it. It was like, ‘the Kyohei Tsutsumi inside me’ burst out of me.”

(7): Kyohei Tsutsumi is another popular record producer who penned Ayumi Ishida’s ridiculously popular song “Blue Light Yokohama” in 1968 and has since gone on to become one of Japan’s most prolific music composers. Humble, Konishi is not.

Says connie: “The first time I heard about the idea for the title, ‘IDOL Bakari Kikanaide’, was on our first meeting. When I heard that title, I liked it so much that I said, ‘Please go with that!’. Just imagining Negicco singing a song called, ‘IDOL Bakari Kikanaide’ (meaning, ‘don’t just listen to idol songs’), it’s such a great idea! It gave me goose bumps when I listened to the demo when it arrived a few days later. It was authentic Konishi melody, and Konish [sic] lyrics. I was moved by just that.” In true retro fashion, this single was also released on limited edition 7″ vinyl.

(8): Negicco isn’t the only group with a retro-idol vibe to be affiliated with Pizzicato Five. To name another, kawaii duo Vanilla Beans have covered Pizzicato Five songs such as “Baby Portable Rock” and “Tokyo wa Yoru no Shichiji” and have invited ex-P5 vocalist Maki Nomiya to compete with them for the 4th edition taiban project.

(9) By the way, the title of the song is also a reference to France Gall’s “N’ecoute pas les idoles.” Because Konishi.

(10) The promotional video might seem a little stiff and awkward. Speculation: the idol group is most likely influenced by seminal idol duo Wink, a style that lives on in many Wink-style performances. From the blog Kayo Kyoku Plus: “You might call Wink the anti-Pink Lady: emotion-drained faces, robotic moves utilizing mostly their upper bodies, and Lolitaesque dresses. They looked just like porcelain dolls given life.” Wink took bubbly 80’s dance-pop and turned it into a cool, robotic business of hand waves and blank expressions that lives on in idols today.

The song can certainly be enjoyed without peeling back all of the layers and finding the references within references, but it does reveal the intertextual layers one has to sift through to truly understand and contextualize Japanese pop culture. Rather than assume everything from Japan is wacky or strange, sometimes it takes some research and an open mind to figure out what’s happening. Really, (at least in terms of a “shared cultural framework of texts”) it’s no different than movies or sitcoms that rely on pop  culture references for humor, or the links posted here or anywhere that lead you down the rabbit-hole that build on other links: more difficult than Wikipedia, but easier and less hypertext-y than Nabakov’s Pale Fire, which a sadistic professor may have forced you to read in an undergrad pomo Lit class. As such, it can be difficult to write about Japanese pop culture without assuming the reader knows the basics or grasps certain aspects that would take at least five or six steps backward to comprehend.

As per past discussion, Korean pop doesn’t necessarily follow this formula: Korean idols are created to be less specific, with references that mostly stem to the universal and the shared, or skewed towards those of the Western world. Again, Japan doesn’t really seem to care too much about exporting their idol talent, or easing up on the subsequent colossal advertising tie-ins and cross-media promotions. With the revenue they generate within their own country, whatever they’re doing seems to be working for them, even if they have to bribe fans to buy CDs to vote in media-promoted idol elections. Wait, back-up. Should we break that down?