Ai ♥ Otsuka and the fantastic fall of the Oricon charts

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Every month some new article pops up about the fall of Ayumi Hamasaki, often in terms of CD sales according to the Oricon. Sometimes it’s about Namie Amuro. Or Kumi Koda. They all end the same way: your favorite thing is no longer a thing. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to talk about a J-pop artist’s diminishing sales because a) CD sales are rapidly declining every year, especially since the early 00’s and b) most of the titans we talk about when we talk about “diminishing sales” have been around since just before the CD industry collapsed. Therefore, while the number of years an artist has been around and the decreasing number of sales might be correlated, we can’t really know just how deep the Oricon sales dip might be if it weren’t for digital sales and/or people no longer paying for music in general. Here’s a chart of what Ayumi Hamasaki’s CD sales have looked like since A Song for XX up until Colours (as of today’s date).*

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This might look familiar to you because basically every J-pop diva’s chart looks exactly the same.

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(You might also mistake these charts for that of Japan’s annual inflation rate.)

Rather than say an artist is losing popularity, it might be wiser today to notice, for example, how popular Japanese recording artists all seem to follow the same trajectory: building up to an explosive album sale only to rapidly lose selling power. Instead of assuming sales are a reflection of the artists or the musical content itself, it’s safer to state a host of other hackneyed platitudes: that the general public is fickle, that fame is fleeting, and that selling music today is a Herculean task for only the bravest of record labels. Or more certainly, that the Oricon chart is meaningless, telling you neither who is buying albums nor why, that digital sales are better markers, or even that selling music is less important than selling concert tickets, merchandise, or providing opportunities for an artist to sponsor other products.

aiotsukalovefancovappNowhere is this more obvious than in some of the music that’s contained on these incredibly low-selling albums. My personal vote for most underrated album of the year is already Ai Otsuka’s LOVE FANTASTIC, which as of this writing, debuted at #22, slipped to #113, and has only sold a total of 5,188 units in its first two weeks (the vast majority of sales occurred the first week — the second only yielded 770 units). These are scary numbers for an album that is a quintessential example of J-pop done right, including Otsuka’s lush signature ballads (“Gomen ne,” “Mawari Mawaru Mawareba Mawaro”) and quirky upbeat numbers (title tracks “LOVE FANTASTIC” and, especially, “LUCKY☆STAR,” which sounds like a hip indie band’s debut single). In fact, this is one of the most cohesive albums Otsuka has ever released, and certainly one of my favorites overall, down to the jacket art (let’s not pretend LOVE JAM isn’t just some outrageous garbage).

But perhaps the “love” gimmick is just getting too hard for anyone to buy into anymore. Perhaps not releasing an album for six years has caused the public to forget who exactly this talented musician is — and perhaps Avex staying busy promoting Namie Amuro’s BALLADA has left them with little time, or incentive, to give the album the extra push it needed. Releasing any album ever, anywhere, anymore is always going to be like starting over, like forgetting all the past numbers, like forgetting numbers altogether, and simply making music that can hold its head up with grace while the charts crumble.

*(All statistics have been gathered from generasia.com/wiki. Please note that although the graphics appear to reach extreme lows, none of the numbers reach zero, as it might appear to — it’s just hard to illustrate drops to the low thousands on a scale with such large numbers).

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The next great male J-pop artist will not be Keita Tachibana

Keita SIDE BY SIDE

It’s great when male idols escape their group for a while and go solo, especially when those efforts resemble something like Tomohisa Yamashita’s trajectory. He’s one of the few male idols being given a chance to do something with all that talent he’s got without fear of compromising his bland Johnny’s image (I’m thinking of all the stuff he gets to explore image-wise now, mostly, and not that entrance on a giant pair of lips wearing a full-length white coat on his Ero-P tour). Sure, the audience still has to endure those Johnny’s back-up dancers, the gimmicky underwear packaged with his latest album, and questionable collabs like “Monster,” but they also get to experience his nascent composition skills, such as awesome, ridiculous dance songs like “Hit the Wall” that couldn’t possibly come out of the hands of a person with such little experience. And yet.

It’s just as exciting to see Keita Tachibana of w-inds. get another chance at going solo, as he’s easily the most charismatic member of w-inds. (also the best looking, natch). Unfortunately, SIDE BY SIDE is less than memorable. Listening to this album is like being tricked into another w-inds. album: things are going great until all of a sudden they aren’t. There’s all those songs that would sound just fine if they weren’t so desperate to remake him into some kind of soulful, heartsick crooner. More importantly, it’s frustrating to see a Japanese pop album refuse to go all-in on a sound. The best moments are the common-denominator dance tracks that give some of the great K-pop numbers something to think about (that’s you “Shame on me”, rife with putting your hands up in the air like you just don’t care cliche, oont-oont minimalism), rather than almost everything after the mid-point, when the safer pop numbers kill the rest of SIDE BY SIDE‘s momentum.

I’m thinking now of somebody like Daichi Miura, a man with all kinds of technical ability, but maybe without the push of a team like Tachibana’s. This music video for “Right Now,” for example, is the greatest thing I’ve seen in a long, long time re: male solo singers. The choreography is amazing and Miura’s voice is so sharp when it needs to be, and softer when the lights go down, and then smooth, and then jazzy, and then he hits that falsetto and draws it out until there isn’t any air left in the song. It’s like he has eight different voices inside of him and knows the right time to use each of them. Yet this song barely cracked the Top Ten of the Oricon before it slid way, way down into obscurity, making nary a year end list.

There is room for male pop singers like Miura, Yamashita and even Tachibana. I only hope there’s more songs like “Shame on me” and “Thinking of you” in Tachibana’s future, probably two of the strongest tracks on an album named for one of the weakest. In a year where a lot of great singles are shadowed by unnecessary full-lengths, I’m hoping to see more hard-earned, quality competition for the next great male artist in Japan.

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.

Friday night Oricon (April 05, 2010)

An every Friday in a while look at the weekly Oricon Top Twenty Singles Chart.

East Asians love their ballads almost as much as they do their boy bands. Not power ballads, mind you, nor the restrained acoustic nonchalance that marks alternative, in case you didn’t start weeping yet here are some violins by way of example ballads, but the R&B trilling of rising cymbals and xylophone scales that appears twice as often as Ayumi Hamasaki channels Madonna.  Newcomers to East Asian pop may be just as disappointed as longtime fans who should know better to find the beat-driven lead single off a new album to be the only song of its kind among the dozen other tracks that feature vocal arias and a piano solo. Take for example S.H.E’s new album SHERO where the first two tracks are fit for any Top 40 and further push the techno rock repertoire the Taiwanese trio has cultivated since their inception, while the rest of the album aims for Korean drama territory, the type where someone lies dying of a terminal illness while family members watch on in guilt and sadness.

Girl and boy bands are particularly susceptible, maybe because they have a reputation of catering amour via lullabies to their young male or female fans or maybe just because they have enough people to make some interesting harmonies. Regardless, all of the cliches are present in the video for this week’s number one Oricon single, Tohoshinki’s “Toki wo Tomete“: dolorous colors in tan, black, off-black, dark black, beige, and gray, imploring gazes with overwrought lip-synching, faces crumpling as if physical torture is being leveled off camera, crazy-wide, but gentle!, arm gestures, and of course, a love interest. That the entire video takes place in a planetarium only highlights the crucial cosmically devotional aspect in case the lyrics weren’t helping. “Sometimes even little tiny things make me want to cry” they sing. Hear that ladies: These sensitive dudes need your love. Never mind that one single ago, they held the keys to their future and anything was possible: nothing is possible unless your “hearts sparkle as one.”

If boy bands aren’t your thing this week, SKE48 are here to set your rooftop plaid fantasies to life with the equally traditional J-pop chart topper complete with trumpet and average choreography. Arashi hold on to the chart at number five with “Troublemaker” (perhaps a future article entitled “J-pop Graveyard” will better sum up my feelings about this). Newcomer this week, Miliyah’s “BYE BYE,” a mid-tempo road trip reminiscent of Mika Nakashima, offers the most potential in the top ten, even with its dramatic photo-flying montage. With the inclusion of #11-20, this week’s Oricon chart covers all of its perennial bases: anime character songs, boy bands, girl bands, the rocker’s aging comeback, the indie-spirational chick, even some visual kei. But with no exceptions to the rules, this week is about as exciting as watching five young spirit-men serenade an oblivious human woman.

Billboard vs. Oricon, Round #1

I find it increasingly bizarre that the Black Eyed Peas are still #1 with “I Gotta Feelin’.” Twenty-six weeks after they debuted with “Boom Boom Pow” and moved in to replace themselves and that song still hasn’t gotten any less annoying (like, oh my gawd!). The Hot 100 is a bit sketchy to use as a comparison, having no real Oricon equivalent, but it’s the closest we’ll get before delving into those pesky genre dividers. But the Oricon Top Singles has a completely different turn over rate which tells us a lot about the fickle music choices of the Japanese. Westerners may spout cliches about constantly looking for the next big thing, but it seems to apply less to individual trends than the names behind them. In Japan, the opposite seems to hold true: #1 singles no longer hold the spot for longer than a week or two before the next single takes it place. But forget about hoping boy bands or idols will just go away; unless there’s a scandal involving drugs or a sudden death, you can be sure to find the same names still charting every three months or so.

While this may say more about the importance of the single in Japan than in America, where iTunes and radio play are really the only markers of track popularity (though the prediction about the death of albums increasingly point to the return of the single’s dominance), it also speaks to the larger conundrum of consumer interest. The longest #1 on the Oricon singles chart was Shiro Miya and the Pinkara Trio’s “Onna no Michi” in 1972, which reigned for sixteen weeks. Although data on these things are a bit tricky to find (so please correct me if I’m wrong), the most recent best selling single was Southern All Star’s “Tsunami” in 2000 which stayed at #1 for two weeks, was kicked out by B’z for one week, and then returned to #1 for three weeks. Three weeks! Even Mariah Carey’s “One Sweet Day” managed to stay sixteen weeks at #1 in 1995.

In Tom Ewing’s Pitchfork roundup “The Decade in Pop,” he says, “The appeal of pop, for me, is that its definition of effective keeps changing. […] The constant dance of “what’s great” and “what works” is what keeps me a pop fan: It’s as close as art comes to sport.” Although we can debate which artists have the means to steal the spot, with its constantly shuffling #1s, it seems the Japanese sport of pop is a lot more exciting.

Friday night Oricon (August 17, 2009)

An every Friday in a while look at the weekly Oricon Top Twenty Singles Chart.

Summer has always been the de facto best music release season; there’s just something about warm weather that motivates the song writers of so many idol groups. Indeed, in Japan it brings nothing less than shame to an artist who dare not release a ballad or something of sentimental value during the winter, and so it is The Summer Single that I anticipate to effectively wash away the grime of winter coats and snow boots that still cling like crusted salt to less than warm springs.

But though I admittedly enjoy the riff after the chorus, B’z’s “Ichibu to Zenbu”/”DIVE” (#1) is pretty unfulfilling. I’m tempted to play the irrelevance card, or even the age card, but the fact is that you really aren’t ever too old to rock, there just comes a point when you stop doing it as well. Let’s put it this way: if I went to see B’z play live, I would politely tolerate “DIVE” so I could hear “Easy Come, Easy Go” and “BAD COMMUNICATION.” And so it goes.

This is the second week EXILE’s “THE HURRICANE ~FIREWORKS~” (#6) is on the charts, and listening to it again only solidifies my opinion that this song had a lot of potential before something went horribly awry. The whole traditional Japanese instruments against a contemporary beat is a bit overdone in the frenzied, happi-wearing, Japanese  masturi summer, but it’s a conceit I don’t hate as long as it’s done well (a personal favorite is 10nin Matsuri’s “Dancing! Natsu Matsuri!” – and by the way, I just watched that PV for the first time ever today and I feel really embarrased for them). I don’t necessarily hate EXILE, but it’s worth noting that they have released thirty-one singles and I have liked zero of them.

Speaking of zero, that’s how much potential GIRL NEXT DOOR has. There’s a sort of euro-dance vibe to “Be your wings” (#4) but the song is fatally flat. This group is relatively new, but as cool the PV was, I’m not holding out for anything spectacular.

I do like Alice Nine’s “Hana” (#8), though there is something desperately abingdon boys school about it. I haven’t listened to much Alice Nine since a few years ago and it’s kind of like, where did the VK go? I mean, the song is so tame, it’s almost housetrained. While suits don’t make guitar solos sound better, they do make you look classy in ways leather shorts and checkered uber-belts can’t, especially if you’re singing in front of a really large staircase on some old-timey estate. Even so, it’s like Sherlock Holmes without a pipe, or Joseph Chamberlain without a monocle; something’s just missing, you know?

On that note, my favorite single on the chart this week is STRAIGHTENER’s “CLONE” (#15). I’m not going to pretend that I’ve ever heard anything by this band before, because I haven’t, but this song is more than adequate. There’s something about the way the insistent drums belie the overall melancholy state that made me do a double-take. The guitars are a bit much, but it’s still the greatest song ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION couldn’t pull it together to write in the past three years. It may not have been the summer jam I was expecting, but at least it doesn’t rely on past glories or a gimmick.

Friday night Oricon (May 25, 2009)

An every Friday in a while look at the weekly Oricon Top Twenty Singles Chart.

If I were a Morning Musume fan, I might enjoy the banality of “Shouganai Yume Oibito” (#1), but since I’m not, the appears-approved track of the week is Mika Nakashima’s “Over Load” (#8); not because it’s particularly good, but because my diligent observation of the charts for the past six weeks has indicated how poor songs on the chart actually are; to personally rate a song higher than three on a five scale has become cause for joy. Increasingly, I’m becoming sensitive to rating within context: this song is less bad than that other bad song.

Kaela Kimura and her giant sweater-clad back-up dancers spend their second week in the top twenty with BANZAI (#18), a cute, late 90’s rocker grrrl track. THE ALFEE prove they are (barely) still alive! with single Sakura no Mi no Jukusuru Toki (#6); their appearance on May 8’s Music Station was like a sadly unironic aping of The Darkness (I’m referring to the glass-guitar wielding, pink-bell-bottom wearing, auburn-tressed vocalist) that was equal parts disturbing as it was embarassing. w-inds.’s are #2 with Rain Is Fallin’, a combination of pop, 80’s nostalgia, and Hammer time! fashion. JUJU’s low-key piano duet Ashita ga Kurunara is still in the top ten for the third week (and finally growing on me), which includes a cover of “The Rose.” Other covers include Hyde of L’arc~en~ciel’s side project VAMPS attempting Bowie’s “Life on Mars” on EVANESCENT (#4) and Kiyoharu’s “HELLO, I LOVE YOU” on Kurutta Kajitsu (#10) . All covers are, if not terrible, unnecessary.

Mika Nakashima’s single Over Load is the most entertaining of the singles this week, mostly because it’s surprising; from her role in the feature film Nana, to every pedestrian single she has released since 2001, Nakashima has been the shoulder to cry on when insomnia strikes. On her first number one single she says, “I was really surprised at first, but I assumed that that was the way it is, because I really knew nothing at all.” Which says nothing about anything. Just like this single, that I didn’t instantly hate. Again, I’m learning to judge within the system. It’s not easy.