Fat Fox Fanclub: Good Job

If you want to get yourself known in the Tokyo indie scene, you might as well know that these days it has no time for moping. Lately the events with the buzz about them have been all about fun and frolics, and be damned if you take yourself even remotely seriously. As you might expect, this leads to stuff that is irritating and frustrating just as often as it does simple charm and easy thrills. Fat Fox Fanclub are fortunately in the latter camp. Trading in a sort of funky, mutant disco goofiness, Good Job sees the antropomorphic amazons in fine Talking Heads-via-Was Not Was party form. As an Easter egg for Tokyo indie bandspotters, yes, that’s Xiroh from Buddy Girl and Mechanic in the wonderful video (she used to play in the magnificent LoveBuyLove with FFF’s bassist).

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Page views, AKB48, and the economic right to bore

One of the key differences between writing on the Web and writing for a magazine or paper is the speed and precision of feedback, and this undoubtedly has an impact on the form the writing takes. In print media, the reader may choose one title over another, and may choose to skim over one article in favour of another, but in the end, they’re at the mercy of the editors when it comes to what they see. A music magazine could be able to reel readers in with attractive cover stories featuring artists readers already like, and then once captured, introduce them to the artists the editors think they should like. Readers’ natural bias against reading about the unknown is overruled by the fact that they’ve already paid for the magazine and so might as well get their money’s worth out of it.

On the Web, the power dynamic has shifted over to the readers’ side, and media must now compete for their attention. Great! Democracy! Smash the elites! Except no. Readers are lazy, conservative creatures, and will always click on something that reinforces their pre-existing biases than something that challenges them. This is well observed in political journalism, but equally true in pop culture. People will always click on something about an artist they already know about over something new, and ideally that article should be parroting something they already feel about that artist.

For the online media outlets, their stats provide instant feedback on what’s getting page views, and over time, there’s always pressure to cater to that stuff. When the Japanese music web site Natalie started, it had high ideals – it would be bilingual, and give coverage to independent musicians that the mainstream music press ignored – but sure enough, once the page view stats started rolling in, the English page was the first to go, and then the content became overwhelmed with idol music and popular rock music. MTV 81, which I have on occasion written for, still publishes some interesting stuff but has followed more or less the same path. It’s not personal, kid, it’s just business.

I get the same pressure on this blog too. Whenever I write about Perfume or Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, or Momoiro Clover Z or Babymetal, my page views spike, and I get that little nagging voice asking, saying, “Finally, this site is getting popular! Now maybe if I just wrote a bit more about this kind of stuff…” before my rational brain takes over again and reminds me that since I’m not making any money out of it at all, my idiot audience can go hang. Anyway, the fact remains that Akihabara and Harajuku are what get the clicks, and any media that considers itself a business is going to be under immense pressure to pander to these audiences.

The one case where these idol-induced spikes fail to occur is when I write about AKB48. Now part of this is perhaps that AKB48 just aren’t cool in the way the acts I mention above are. Another might be that I’ve been so beastly about them in the past that their coterie of English-speaking fans has been definitively warned off this site (and good riddance). AKB48 are such a divisive presence in Japanese pop culture that you’re either a mad, frothing-at-the-mouth fan of them, or you just don’t want anything to do with them – either way, it doesn’t translate into shares or retweets. People like me who have zero interest in either their music or the girls themselves as characters, but find what they represent on a pop cultural level fascinating simply don’t fit into the equation (again, no problem with that).

What there is a demand for in the clicks marketplace is analysis of otaku-related culture that gives a supportive critical foundation to widely derided, usually for reasons of perceived sexism or outright creepiness, pop cultural artefacts or trends, giving fans a sort of intellectual shield behind which they can carry on consuming just as before, without allowing their bubble to be pierced by unwelcome alien ideological critiques or reflecting on any subliminal ideological assumptions their own consumer behaviour might be predicated on. These kinds of articles are the intellectual big guns that fanboys van wheel out and then duck behind whenever their hobby penetrates the mainstream consciousness with something outright icky, like the 2013 AKB48 hair shaving incident, or easily mockable viral curiosities like Babymetal or Hatsune Miku. Partly this is to be expected because of the way so many observations from outside come at otaku culture, idol culture or whatever from an inverted version of precisely the same mindset: revulsion followed by a need for an intellectual foundation for that instinctive reaction rather than any real need to deal with the assumptions and ideological predicates underlying it.

These two poles are essentially moral rather than analytical arguments, and the fighters on both sides are really just driving each other further and further into their trenches rather than making any progress. The comments under my Japan Times article on Babymetal earlier this year demonstrated this pretty well. I don’t feel entirely comfortable with Babymetal, but I tried to come at it from an explanatory point of view, so that newcomers will at least have some understanding of what kind of mechanics are going on behind the scenes. Fans liked my article because they felt shielded by it, while critics just ignored most of it and continued to focus on paedophilia as their main concern. Matt Alt’s very good article for The New Yorker on Takashi Murakami, lolicon, and Pharrell’s new video had a similar effect in discussions I saw. It’s understandable, because when issues of underage sexuality loom so large in the wings as they do in idol music and lolicon, it’s difficult to simply put that aside and have a disinterested debate about the semiotics and pop cultural meta-discussion that’s going on. Still, get into one of those debates and don’t expect it to go anywhere fast.

Anyway, over the summer, another bit of AKB-related strangeness hit the news when a man attacked two members of the group with a saw (yeah, I know, a saw!) at a handshake event, where fans can line up to briefly meet and touch their favourite girls in exchange for purchases of goods. Coupled with this was the way the incident coincided with the annual extravaganza of the group’s “election”, and I felt there was a parallel between the two events in the way they both speak to the central problem the group has balancing the need to be credible as a mainstream pop cultural commodity and the need to maintain the illusion of connection with fans. If you want to see a stark visual evidence that this conflict exists, just check out the photos of a post-attack handshake event at the bottom of the page here.

Nippon.com published two articles about AKB48 this summer, both touching on different aspects of the same issue. In one of them Jun Mamiya I think correctly dismisses the notion that the group’s popularity has anything really to do with something zeitgeisty and forward-thinking in their music – the hits are a result of the popularity, not the other way round. Instead he discusses the group’s elections and fan meeting events in terms of people’s alienation from the democratic process. Mamiya projects the group as a largely positive force here, shining light on the failures of society through a carefully structured artifice of meritocracy that mirrors how fans wish the country still was. Whether it ever really was like that, and whether such ruthless competing for favour is desirable in the first place, is a question Mamiya doesn’t really discuss.

To get to this point, Mamiya has to put aside the saw-wielding fan and any question about what the sexuality/sexualisation issues that concern so many overseas observers. That doesn’t mean the issue has gone away, but clearly not every article can address it as the core of its argument. In the end, Mamiya’s article provides just the sort of legitimising analysis many fans of derided subcultures seem to need: “We’re not perverts. We’re just ordinary, good people disenfranchised by the elites.” (You see the same arguments made by the racists in the Tea Party and Ukip, so in that context, AKB48 might be pretty benign.)

Mamiya’s article is interesting, but what it provides first and foremost is a cultural explanation, and I’m instinctively suspicious of arguments that appeal to culture. The little Marxist homunculus that controls the levers in my brain always wants to think about the economic factors, and in my article I try to look at fan culture through the lens of the business model’s response to the changing economic conditions in which idol groups have had to work. In the end, economic and cultural factors will always intertwine. Extend Mamiya’s argument just a bit and you can perhaps see the disaffection he talks about more broadly from the sense of economic vitality and meritocracy in people’s professional lives due to an ageing society and stagnating economy. Take my discussion of idol music’s changing economic environment a step further and you have to question what underpins the changes in fashion that saw idol music drop out of the public eye to such an extent in the 90s.

Looking back on it though, I think one other reason for the attraction economic arguments hold for me is the way economics is a rare area of discussion in pop culture where its appeal to numbers, or at least the implication of a numerical underpinning, creates a framework for discussion that feels rational and disinterested – it provides an intellectual mooring amid the stormy conflict between the unthinking and the uninformed, between self-justification and knee-jerk outrage.

Of course this rationality is an illusion. Economic discussions are just as capable of dissolving into furious, spitting insanity, and they are (I think rightly and inevitably) just as ideological as cultural arguments at heart. Also, while I try to be openminded, I’m far from neutral in the cultural skirmishes that rage around idol and otaku culture: I just try to be honest with myself and conduct any argument I make in good faith, from as well informed and well thought-out a position as I can.

Not that any of that has an effect on page views. There as well, however, economics is my friend: where there’s no money at stake, there’s no obligation to please or court one group or another. I can insult, irritate and bore my readers all within the space of one rambling blog post and none of it matters one jot.

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Under: 4 girlls soooooon

Under is a difficult artist to write about because there is so little reason and rhyme in the prolific and seemingly indiscriminate way she releases her material that it’s hard to know what exactly to write about. The excellent short demo collection that was one of my picks of last year has already disappeared, absorbed anonymously into a pair of compilations that selectively round up a couple of years worth of work. That little act of house cleaning hasn’t stopped the flood of cryptically titled tracks from this enigmatic artist’s bedroom though, with this gorgeous collection of four songs the closest thing to a coherent EP or mini album to recently emerge from the clutter.

The atmosphere of misty rural sunrises that characterises almost everything Under records still dominates the sound, with the vocals this time buried so deeply in the pastoral drone that they are a barely distinct, yet still hypnotic presence, a Lady of the Lake singing hymns to Avalon from within her watery dwelling. The new material keeps emerging, but these are songs that work best sharing each other’s company rather than as discrete tracks and this little collection is all the more precious for its unity and shared context.

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Servals: /99

Servals are a relatively new band, formed as a spinoff from Yokohama’s still extant but recently less active Come to my Party and trading in a slightly harder, more driving take on the older band’s Supercar-influenced indietronic pop. /99 is a desultory dream pop disco, drenched in minor chords, with the same melancholy atmosphere of loss and longing, like someone at the moment of realising they are in a dream, desperately trying to stave off the morning. Just five more minutes, it seems to be saying from within the duvet of synth swirls, as the metallic blue-grey of the urban morning seeps through the curtains.

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Crunch: Simple Mind

Crunch have already released one of 2014’s most charming and melancholic pop-rock albums in January’s Futoshita Nichijyo no Koto, but they’ve already followed it up with this EP featuring two new songs and a remix, led by Simple Mind. While a towering, epic tribute to Jim Kerr and Glasgow’s finest would have been something to behold from the fragile Nagoya trio, Simple Mind follows on directly from where Futoshita Nichijyo no Koto left off, with a poppy, octave-straddling vocal melody over new wave-inflected guitars and a rhythm section that nods towards funk and dance music, but none of the constituent parts pull apart to the extent of compromising the essentially pop core.

Holiday is a more sparse affair, beginning with call-and-response vocals playing out over a lone guitar, the rest of the instruments gradually coming in to fill out the arrangement. Rather than being formed in a traditional verse-chorus structure, Holiday uses the interplay of the different layers to create its dynamic. The EP also features a remix by Nagoya electronic producer Fredricson that takes a similarly layered approach to reworking the title track, with the additional of a heavy, stripped-down beat and sparse synth loops and effects and cut-up vocal samples that on occasion reduce Noyiyo Hotta’s voice to more texture than words.

More an appendix to the band’s previous release than a next chapter, it’s nonetheless pleasing to see Crunch following Futoshita Nichijyo no Koto up so swiftly and Simple Mind suggests there’s more to come.

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Suiyoubi no Campanella: Mitsuko

As you might hope from a group who named a song on their first album Hikashu, Suiyoubi no Campanella seem to exist permanently at an angle slightly askew from the rest of the music scene in Japan. Other groups whose backing tracks were composed of similarly tastefully produced electronic pop would most likely do something wistful and dreamy with just a hint of weary disaffection over the top, while for groups with similarly charismatic vocal delivery (I’m not going to lie: I get a little thrill whenever vocalist Komuai says the words “call and response”) the default musical setting would these days most likely be something far more gaudy and brash.

So the combination of credibly sophisticated trackmaking and the offhand, offbeat half-rapping of the vocal performance is unusual and demands our further attention. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s still cute — the Abe administration recently introduced prison sentences of up to ten years for any Japanese female-led vocal music that doesn’t meet at least a minimal standard of “Cool Japan”-approved kawaii — but the important thing is that it’s not idol-cute. Beneath the hood it conforms and then some to the standard “girls group” formula of pretty girl out up front and anonymous guys not only hidden at the back but fully locked away in a room somewhere making all the music. This is really only correct, since if there’s one thing worse than some dreary looking dude in a trucker cap directing all the music behind the scenes, it’s a dreary looking dude in a trucker cap up there onstage, pretending to rock out from behind his MacBook. The physical disconnect between the performance and production aspects of the group then mirrors the awkward way the vocals hang over the track, both conceptually in their subtly contrasting styles, and technically in the flat, weirdly close-sounding way the vocals are pasted over the richer, more spacious synth and rhythm backdrop.

If this sounds like a criticism, it isn’t meant to be. With Mitsuko, Suiyoubi no Campanella manage to do two subtly contrasting things at once with the psychic abrasion they work on each other not only leaving both intact but also creating a playful dynamic of its own that lifts the track into becoming more than the sum of its already rather charming parts. 

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Quruli: Liberty & Gravity

It was around the time of their eighth album, 2005’s Nikki, that I gave up hope for Quruli. Shigeru Kishida had decided to try to make the band into this generation’s Happy End, leaving behind the experimentation and playfulness that had made The World is Mine such a glorious generational masterpiece in favour of earnest, wistful, sentimentally-tinted folk rock songs that just didn’t really seem to go anywhere. It was the perfect music for a generation whose greatest ambition appeared to be gently jogging on the spot and I hated it.

Which is why Liberty & Gravity feels like such a breath of fresh air. The folk influences remain but they take their place in a more eclectic mix. It’s still whimsical, but it’s also musically ambitious, playful and fun, rich in little musical nooks to explore without ever letting its complexity get the better of it.

The video is by award winning director Jun Tamukai (Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s Ponponpon), who is someone whose work I find unaccountably annoying – I think it’s got something to do with the choreography’s combination of ostentatious goofiness and self-consciously mannered presentation – but which people otherwise seem to insist on finding adorable so feel free to ignore grumpy old me on that point. Another gripe I have is with the way the YouTube clip’s accompanying text refers to the song’s parent album as the band’s eleventh, when it is in fact their thirteenth. This may seen like an insufferably nitpicky point, but it’s symptomatic of something I find quite poisonous in the Japanese music world: the way all indie releases are traditionally airbrushed from a band’s official history once they sign for a major label. So let’s just take a little moment here to say fuck you Victor Entertainment. Done that? Good.

Naturally none of that should be allowed to detract from the song itself, which is bright, catchy and brash enough that it even gets away with having a rap section. It’s also great to see that even this deep into their career, Quruli still retain the capacity to surprise, charm and delight. If only they showed it more often.

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