Johnny’s, KinKi Kids, and a Macro Snapshot of J-pop History

KinKi Kids

As one of the most prolific and popular talent agencies in Japan, Johnny’s Jimusho is a household name in the country, boasting a lineup of trainees, juniors, actors, singers, dancers, and even gymnasts. It takes a lot of time and development before an individual is finally chosen to debut, but that’s exactly what Koichi Domoto and Tsuyoshi Domoto of KinKi Kids finally did in July 1997, the first group to premiere under the new Johnny’s Entertainment, Inc. record label (before then, music was released under various second-party labels like Pony Canyon). Needless to say, the sheer market saturation and beloved reputation of a Johnny’s group was enough to propel the duo into overnight success.

Despite music being only a piece of the wider component of a Johnny’s group, it wouldn’t have helped if it was terrible, so it was to the company’s benefit to pay attention to singles by employing skilled writers and producers. As a testament to that commitment, the group teamed up with some of the most iconic, legendary songwriters and producers in Japanese pop history. It was a big, bold statement by the company, and a rare show of power that committed to the group’s, and thus the label’s, importance, boasting of their buying power and influence by uniting the twin conceits of business and art in an astronomical show of money and talent. Three prominent examples of this can be found in the group’s early singles, which were composed by city-pop pioneer Tatsuro Yamashita, gentle disciple and disruptor Koji Makaino, and prolific composer and hit-record holder Kyohei Tsutsumi. By marketing the group with music created by an ascending ladder of Japanese pop royalty already nationally recognized, Johnny’s Jimusho intentionally took its seat at the head of the table, coupling Japanese music history with its future in their own company.

Tatsuro YamashitaGlass no Shounen

The group’s debut single “Glass no Shounen” was written and arranged by none other than recent city-pop celeb/godfather, Tatsuro Yamashita. Now recognized around the world for his hits from as far back as the 70s, he, along with artists like Eiichi Ohtaki, are credited for helping to create, and embodying the quintessential sound of, city-pop, the hybrid of pop, jazz, and soft rock that gained prominence in the “economic miracle” of Japan’s comeback success in the 1980s. It reached #1 on the charts, and is the group’s best-selling single to date with over 1.7 million units sold, though the song itself gives no indication as to why, with its bitter, milquetoast admonishments to a woman who sold out her future for a new love and a shiny ring. Yamashita cropped up again on singles like the Sandals-esque jingles “JETCOASTER ROMANCE” and “Happy Happy Greeting.” This was not a high point for him, though I wonder how much of his work for KinKi Kids was heavily edited under strict boy-band company policy (it’s also worth noting he recorded his own version of the latter that ended up on the Rarities album, and it doesn’t sound much improved). Maybe it’s giving too much credit to the overlords at Johnny’s, but suffice to say, after the resurgence and worldwide respect given to city-pop in the last decade, Yamashita was given a redemption arc to exercise his unique and distinctive sound palette for the label much later, on one of the greatest pop songs in recent memory, Arashi’s “Fukkatsu LOVE.”

Aisareru Yori AishitaiKoji Makaino

Their sophomore single, “Aisareru Yori Aishitai” was written by a personal favorite, Koji Makaino, also a seasoned veteran who began his career in the 70s penning album cuts on the less-popular releases for idols like Megumi Asaoka (“Sayonara no Kawari ni,” “Yuuwaku no Toshigoro“), and who peaked in the Golden Age of the 1980s writing incredible songs for Yu Hayami (“HONEY na Hirusagari“) and magical girl anime like Mahou no Tenshi CREAMY MAMI (all of them, actually, but the ones everyone remembers and loves best, too). Makaino was versatile: despite often being connected with idols and idol culture, he was born into a musical family and also composed countless scores for TV, film, and anime like The Rose of Versailles and Bubblegum Crisis, the latter franchise of whose music comprises what are some of the most definitive 80s-sounding tracks of all time (I imagine the recently remastered box set is a real treat for fans who can afford it!). His contribution here illustrates his adaptability, with a pop song steeped in modern techno, as intricate and robust as its accompanying choreography. It’s a sonically delightful romp for someone as clearly dedicated to craft as he is the modern-day currency of popular sound among teens – the hit might now be as dated as any of the others on the first KinKi Single Selection, but twenty-five years ago it was a boy-band banger to rival the likes of the Euro-influenced Backstreet Boys.

Yamenaide, PUREKyohei Tsutsumi

Finally, we have Kyohei Tsutsumi on “Yamenaide, PURE.” Tsutsumi, an absolute song-writing monster, started his career in the 1960s, scoring #1 hits for dozens of artists like Ayumi Ishida (“BLUE LIGHT Yokohama“) and teen idols Hiromi Go and Iyo Matsumoto, up through the 2010s. His catalog runs so deep, that hours-long YouTube videos have been sliced over multiple segments to cover the sheer depth of his songbook (though he did have a noticeable habit of launching artists, sticking around for their peak years, and peace-ing out just before the public lost interest in them). You could spend hours swimming in that sea, so let’s keep it brief: part of what made Tsutsumi so successful is that there is no signature Tsutsumi sound, save one as vague as the definition of pop music itself. If anything, his style, like those already mentioned, was nurtured in an environment that valued colorful melody rather than a good beat, giving him the ability to mold  kaleidoscopic notes to technical developments in modern sound, which has cemented his reputation as an evergreen composer who was still writing hits for kids while in his 60s. At what point this went from genuinely great music, to a silent, assistant-heavy boost by younger arrangers, to respectfully, but maybe sheepishly, kissing the ring, is anyone’s hot take, but needless to say, here at 59, his name is behind the most hip-hop-leaning of the trio thus far, bringing a somewhat old-fashioned melodic approach to an unfortunate JNCO-inspired wardrobe choice.

And so on

Rounding things out, there was Takuro Yoshida (“Zenbu Dakishimete“), who helped an idol group like CANDIES grow up, newly-minted producer HΛL (“FLOWER“), who would go on to establish himself at a little indie label called Avex Trax with rising star Ayumi Hamasaki, and lesser-known names, including member Koichi himself (“Suki ni Natteku Aishiteki“). With a roster like that, it’s easy to see how ambitious and eager the team behind KinKi Kids was, ironically bowing to history and tradition with their forward-looking, modern J-pop duo. It’s no wonder that their first single collection sold so well and remains one of the group’s hallmarks — you are guaranteed to find at least fifteen copies in the KinKi Kids section of any used record store today. Nothing would imitate this run of composers in the group’s career ever again, though they continue to enjoy recognition to this day, regularly releasing singles and albums since, and dutifully make the rounds to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their debut this summer.

The only downside is that despite the names involved, all of these great songwriters were either already considered beyond their best days, or hampered by what I imagine was a strict adherence to the Johnny’s sound. One case in point is that so many of these songs carry the same style and feel to them, like being run under day-one Instagram filters, rather than bearing the distinctive thumbprints of their creators — one imagines Johnny himself popping in at the end of each recording session to remind everyone who was signing the checks. Tsutsumi and Makaino might have always been more flexible in their sound, adapting to the trends and technical capabilities of their current era, but a Tatsuro Yamashita song almost always sounds like a Tatsuro Yamashita song. Or rather, it does now that this is exactly what people want and expect from him.

But from 1997-1999, a more bland and consistent sound with the edges smoothed out was the order of the day, with most of the songs typical of what Make Believe Melodies dubbed the “Johnny’s house style”: upbeat, fluffy pop with heavy influences from disco, Latin styles like samba, and, at least in the last three years of the century, Euro-pop, with its safe major keys and hints of synth cheese. KinKi Kids illustrate that well enough on these slightly blurry debut singles underlining their epic mission by a series of absolute legends, hired to do what they now could do in their sleep, for an agency with more power and pull than most people wanted to believe, for that evergreen institution known as a boy band, at a time when that institution was enjoying the last of the kind of success it would ever see again until the explosion of K-pop.

Notes
[ The banner is an edit of a personal scan from the album KinKi Single Selection. The single covers are from here, here, and here. ]

2016’s song of the year: Arashi’s “Fukkatsu LOVE”

apparashifukkatsu2

It’s hard to believe we used to live in a time before Arashi: Arashi on variety programs, Arashi playing over the closing credits of dramas, Arashi acting in dramas,  Arashi making headlines for the perceived injustice of seeking out romantic relationships in their private lives, Arashi selling mascara and phones and cooking oil, Arashi’s promoting their new single, new concert, new album, and on and on. But when exactly did Arashi become the elder statesmen of Japanese boy bands? Is it just the logical conclusion to aging, to the company’s new marketing image that imbues the members with an impossibly smooth image of playful sophistication and wisdom, the kind that comes when you’ve seen it all and mastered each and every task the record label has thrown at you, from complicated dance moves, the proper time and way to tell jokes, to mentoring your juniors, and dressing up in giant foam popcorn hats?

Maybe it was LOVE or THE DIGITALIAN, but it seems as if Japonism was something of a turning point, as the group’s post-Tohoku album seems to have solidified their status as representatives of the nation, as torchbearers, as a solid and comforting definition of a nation and a pop culture in a time when people are happy to bond over comforting assurances of greatness in the same way generations have during the uncertainty and fear that follows natural disaster. The pride and unity worked, and not just because of the underlying message — even as months passed, it was hard not to return to the album time and again this year, to its Johnny’s-typical melodies and carefully interwoven traditional elements (taiko, shamisen, etc.) blasting through the same old sludge any Johnny’s album can often be. I never would have believed it myself, but here we are. Can I take back its honorary mention in last year’s list to include it in my top ten? It’s an album I keep finding new things to love about.

apptatsuroEven more than Japonism, was the group’s follow-up single “Fukkatsu LOVE,” which already promised to be amazing upon the announcement of its producer Tatsuro Yamashita’s involvement. Yamashita was a beast in the 80’s, the type of king who lorded over his tiny City Pop kingdom as a benevolent, jovial ruler who took the time to nurture his craft and give his songs the care and attention they deserved. Like the best pop music, his songs are deceiving. They’re simple: simple bars, simple melodies. The lyrics? We’re talking Japanese 101, the stuff you can translate after a few days of relaxing with the Oricon Top 10 and a couple lessons of survival phrases. So then why are they so addictive? How do they manage to so perfectly encapsulate their time and place in the canon? How do you resist snapping your fingers and tapping your toes when something like “Love Talkin’ (Honey It’s You)” comes on? And good luck not being bewitched by his work on “Fukkatsu LOVE.” There’s nothing even the most ardent indie-kid who eschews commercial pop for the dreck that Pitchfork sometimes hoists out of the nowhere-deep can do about the fact that despite City Pop’s long comeback on the fringes of independent and hipsters’ record players, it took a group like Arashi to make it more than just a trend in name.

You can break it down, from the first guitar riffs, to the call and responses, to the jazzy breakdowns, to the countless climaxes the song ascends to, all the way down to the lyrics. The lyrics! They contain not one, but two of the most quintessential lyrics in Japanese pop songs of all time. If you have listened to five J-pop songs, you will have heard “yume no naka e” or “ame no naka,” and the best ones will make these cliches sound not like the stale drivel that keeps the Oricon chart floating year after bloated year, but like actual narrative. The disco strings help. The disco strings are everything. Yamashita produced this tribute to his own craft with his first great single of 2016 (the second was “CHEER UP! THE SUMMER”), with subtle tweaks (the speed, for one, is just that bit faster than what he probably first envisioned). It’s both commentary on J-pop and celebration of it: the story of a wounded heart, a lost love, the pain and romance of longing, and the triumph of reunion. Tale as old as time, etc., but from the master of nostalgia, loneliness has never sounded so aspirational.

The B-side, “Ai no COLLECTION” is so successful at its attempt at stealing glory, it’s a wonder they didn’t save the song as a future single (or maybe they did that with “I seek”?); in fact, you can hear a few other songs that must have been composed around these session on their new album Are You Happy?: triple openers “DRIVE,” “I seek,” and “Ups and Downs,” which all feature the same kind of tasteful disco-pop before the album hits a comfortable groove with more of what we’re used to hearing from Arashi (“Bad boy,” “Mata Kyou to Onaji Ashita ga Kuru,” and that ballad that’s actually, really now, great). It’s a successful follow-up to Japonism, though nowhere in the same realm.

apploveforsalWe can argue and complain about how the past decade or so has seen a swift decline in the quality and variety of music that used to define modern Japanese pop music, largely due to groups just like Arashi and their female-idol counterparts in Akimoto-driven AKB-sister groups, even as we praise them for contributing to some of the most fun singles of the year (we all know “LOVE TRIP” was pretty fun). Pop music is nothing if not the definition of fast-paced change, with songs jumping in and out of relevance before we’ve even finished downloading them. Because of this, it’s sometimes easy to dismiss every big K-pop single as just the next song to tide you over until tomorrow’s rookie group debuts, or SM Entertainment unleashes SHINee’s tenth comeback. In Love for Sale: Pop Music in America, David Hajdu recalls how

“[P]eople of mid-century America talked about the body of songs that were currently popular as “the hit parade,” a phrase that vividly captured the fleeting nature of hits. They pass by, one after another. To experience hits is very much like watching a parade, and our impression of a song is like a moment impressed on the eyelids during a blink. Open your eyes, and a new part of the parade is in front of you. The things that caught your attention for one moment — the twirl of a baton, the turn of a melody — is gone, and something else — a decorated float, a pounding dance tune — has replaced it.” (pg 71)

So, too, in Japan, generations removed from 1940, we still live in a world constantly pining for what we don’t have just yet. And still, nothing else released after February 24 of this year has stayed with and impressed me as much as “Fukkatsu LOVE” and its B-side. There have been good songs, some great songs, and some really, really great songs, but none that have tugged at me so persistently that I’ve been forced to re-consider, recall and realize all over again what J-pop is, what makes it different and special, and so amazing, and what drew me to it in the first place.

J-pop needs a group like Arashi, now more than ever. With the demise of SMAP, and the schizophrenic nature of a group like Hey! Say! JUMP (are they standard Johnny’s? Are they K-pop Johnny’s? They have really great songs followed by okay-ish to not-so-okay pop that makes them seem a little hectic. A.B.C.-Z. and Johnny’s WEST might be terrible, but at least they’re consistent). Johnny’s is desperate to pass the torch with swift and silent fanfare to distract from the fact that their longest running, and arguably most successful Japanese boy band of all time has suddenly decided to call it quits because reasons, shaking the foundation of J-pop as we know it — even if you don’t care for SMAP, their ubiquitous presence has touched just about every corner of Japanese pop culture, an impressive feat not worth ignoring.

apparashiareyouHow much of Arashi’s popularity is real versus the careful manufacture of the  company’s almost dynastic, but slowly ebbing monopoly over media? (Think about their resistance to the Internet and its inherent power to equalize and neutralize and divide pop culture, while providing alternatives and putting the nature of its dissemination in the hands of fans and fandoms and ah, yes, I see your point Japanese entertainment companies, but the capitulation is inevitable and you’d be wise to find ways to make it work rather than sulk and refuse to find ways to make it work). I’m not talking about the members’ inherent talent, charisma, and good looks, which they have all so obviously spent years and millions making sure they have or appear to have. But what other boy band had Tatsuro Yamashita? SMAP did have Yasutaka Nakata, once, long ago now, but it was clearly one of his chopping-block singles. It might seem sinister or oddly disconcerting that pop greats like Yamashita would “deign” to work with just another idol group, but on the contrary, history has shown us that only the greats had the privilege of doing so. Perhaps we’re living in an age where the well-respected have decided to join ’em, rather than beat ’em, but maybe there’s something worth examining here. Let’s put it another way: will it be AKB48 or Perfume or Arashi performing at the 2020 Olympics?

Perhaps Hajdu is right and “[i]mpermanence is a necessity of the pop culture ecosystem” (77), and next year we’ll have forgotten about all of this year’s hits, as most of us did 1997’s and 2009’s. Maybe “Fukkatsu LOVE” was not meant to be enduring in any way beyond the space between when it was released and then usurped by its predecessor. But I can’t help but think that the greatest hit makers, Max Martin, TK, Yamashita, Ohtaki, and Nakata among them, somehow managed to crack the code of the medium, without compromising their approach from a place of love and respect for the form and its possibilities. The greatest pop songs last two minutes and fifty seconds with the capability of landing on many arbitrary lists, but the greatest ones linger on and on, longer than anyone ever planned.