Classic Pop Corner — Saori Minami/Chisato Moritaka: 17-sai

It’s a bit of a recurring theme from me that mainstream pop in Japan peaked in the 1970s and never really recovered that sense of melodic depth, economy and vitality. This song, 17-sai (“Seventeen years old”) is an interesting one in that it brackets what we might call the “kayoukyoku era” with two quite distinct versions.

The first was by the Okinawan singer Saori Minami, so let’s have a listen to her version here now:

Saori Minami: 17-sai

It represents an interesting period in Japanese pop, where Japanese songwriters were beginning to mutate the influence of Western pop into something different. As Minami’s first single (released in 1971), it’s also significant as possibly the first piece of Japanese idol pop ever, and at the heart of that lies a conflict of sorts too. Minami herself never had any desire to be an idol, preferring to avoid overt cutesiness, and her songwriting team generally understood this, tailoring her songs to appeal to Minami’s own sense of what she wanted to do as best they could within the constraints of what her agency, the notorious Burning Production, would allow. In this case, songwriter Kyohei Tsutsumi wrote the song with the image of American country singer Lynn Anderson’s (I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden in his head after Minami praised the song in their initial meeting.

The resulting song comes in at a bit under three minutes, which is how long a pop tune should be, and while it’s far from Minami’s finest work, it’s a charming little pop tune with a memorable melodic hook.

Now we’re going to jump forward to 1989, at the death of the idol era, where the song was reworked and covered by Chisato Moritaka. Let’s have a listen to her version now:

Chisato Moritaka: 17-sai

Moritaka comes across as an aggressive pastiche of an idol singer in this song with her lower half all ridiculous puffy dress and proto-K-pop legs that go on for miles, and then her top half an exaggerated parody of a late 80s power suit. The music matches this, taking Tsutsumi’s melody, working it into a New Order/Vince Clarke-influenced synthpop disco track and stretching it out to just short of five minutes.

Because the truth of the matter was that idols were dead in 1989, and Moritaka was never really meant to be an idol. She existed in a strange sort of limbo between the end of kayoukyoku in the late 80s and the birth of J-pop in the early 90s. There was a demand from audiences for something more grown-up, which the labels and talent agencies were just waking up to, but they were unsure of how to go about delivering it.

In the end, they looked abroad, primarily it seems to Europe. Moritaka’s contemporaries, the idol duo Wink, had hits covering Kylie Minogue’s Turn it into Love (as Ai ga Tomaranai) and Slovenian synthpop group Moulin Rouge’s Boys Don’t Cry (as Namida wo Misenaide), and it was the nascent Avex Trax label with its importing of Eurobeat records and the sound’s subsequent adoption by producer Tetsuya Komuro that eventually gave birth the the J-pop sound that defined the 1990s, and which groups like AKB48 have never fully forgotten.

While Wink fell by the wayside, Moritaka went on to lose the disco and make the transition into a successful mainstream pop artist throughout the 90s, but this curious hybrid of classic 70s pop and almost-modern European disco-synthpop is a curious period in the history of Japanese pop.

Now the reason this is significant, is that I think at the moment, the popularity of Korean pop in Japan at the moment  represents a similar period of transition, or at least the potential for one. The fact that people are becoming enthused over something from overseas should be a warning sign to domestic producers that audiences think they’ve become stale. Arguing that this is simply a case of companies shoving K-pop down people’s throats misses the point. Japanese talent agencies tried their best to shut out Korean music, with Johnny & Associates threatening to pull their artists from any TV shows that presented Korean boy bands at one point, but people kept buying them. Korean artists were selling comparable numbers to Japanese groups on import alone, and little shops in the Korean district of Shin-Okubo were making crazy sales just as HMV were sliding into bankruptcy. Japanese talent agencies had to join up with their Korean counterparts to sell this stuff.

The problem is that since Kylie Minogue never bothered to learn Japanese or tour extensively here, Japanese versions of her songs, or at least some equivalent sound by Japanese artists, became a necessity. Korean groups are self-contained, they contain at least one or two fluent Japanese speakers among the group, and they are happy to re-record their back catalogue in Japanese. So what’s there for Japanese artists to do?

The answer has to be to recognise that K-pop offers something different and attractive to Japanese audiences, but to make something different. To synthesise that sound and mutate it, as Kyohei Tsutsumi did in 1971, and as Chisato Moritaka’s people did in reverse in 1989, to make something that can push Japanese pop forward in a new direction.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Classic Pop Corner — Saori Minami/Chisato Moritaka: 17-sai

  1. miffy

    Did a google search and found out that Chisato Moritaka is still with Up Front Group which spawned Morning Musume. Odd coincidence there as there were the last listenable (2 songs only) idol group pre-Perfume.

    How bout rock bands? Sakanaction, 9mm and Ling Toshite, have topped the charts in Japan so maybe they be the progenitors of change. Or maybe not.

    • Shoko Aida from Wink also had some connection with Morning Musume. I think part of the early success and later failure of Tsunku is that he’s a romantic. He tapped into a strand of idol nostalgia after years of idol drought and had a hit with Morning Musume and related acts, but Yasushi Akimoto was smarter in how he recognised and marketed to the idol audience. You could summarise it by saying Tsunku really cares about idol music history and culture, whereas Akimoto has a better understanding of how to make money out of modern otaku.

      As for rock music, I suspect that might be a different article. I don’t have figures handy, but I’d hazard a guess that these might be a few key points.

      First, let’s be careful of chart positions. Sales throughout the Japanese music scene have been plummeting for the past 13 years. Getting to number 1 now means waaaaaay less than it did in 1998. K-pop is making big sales but nowhere near what Hikaru Utada and Ayumi Hamasaki were making in the late 90s. The importance of K-pop is more about who is buying than how many, and K-pop audiences are mainstream, ordinary girls (and sometimes boys). Who is the rock audience, and how many of them are there? I suspect it’s smaller, and has a narrower target area.

      Secondly, and this is totally anecdotal I suppose, but no one in Japan talks about Sakanaction, Lin Toshite Sigure and 9mm Parabellum Bullet. Ten years ago young university students were all into Supercar, Quruli and Number Girl, but there is no comparable rock music that has such wide popularity now. If those groups are successful, and I don’t doubt they are, it’s as part of a niche with a certain amount of buying power, but no wider cultural significance. Probably a niche called Rockin’ On Japan.

      It would be great if the music scene looked wider, but I doubt if rock music is its first choice right now.

  2. miffy

    Thanks for the reply. No idea how popular Supercar was but their first album was a great shoegaze-y album.

    But is there any Japanese artist that will do the transition to a new musical landscape? Back in the 70’s and 80’s, income was booming and there was a significant youth market. Now you have everything in reverse, with idols (JE and AKB) ruling the top 10. I say that it will take another 10 years for change as the rot is in the institutions and not just the product.

  3. I don’t know what Supercar’s sales were like either. They hovered around the top 20 or so, but as I said, chart positions are difficult to compare.

    I guess if there’s going to be a change, it’ll begin with Japanese talent agencies trying to rip off K-pop and the songwriters making an embarrassing hash of it, then gradually getting better at it, before finally evolving into something more distinctive. Good though some of Sakanaction’s stuff was this year, I don’t see anything in the rock scene at the moment that has the capacity to grab mainstream attention in the way J-pop (which initially at least was almost entirely a band movement) did in the 90s.

    That said, I’m not sure worrying about the mainstream is anything more than rearranging the deck chairs on the proverbial sinking ship. It could be that things like the Oricon chart, Kohaku Uta Gassen and such are zombie relics of a shared music culture that doesn’t exist now. AKB48 made a joke out of the 2011 singles rankings by taking all of the top 5 positions with SKE48 also in the top 10, so it might be that we need to look at a multipolar world and accept that stuff like AKB works on a marketing and sales model that just isn’t applicable or relevant to any other music (I see AKB48 as having more in common with the video game than the music industry). If so, then there need to be massive shifts in the system of delivery, because TV stations and advertising are still locked into the old way of doing things, and they’re what make hits.

    The demographic shift matters, but the sales declines happening at the moment are much faster than either declining birth rates or declining incomes. It could be that mainstream audiences buying music for its own sake are on the way out, and musicians are going to have to find sponsors from advertising, the games industry, and other media in order to get paid, with the resulting music then being passed around for free on the Web. Not a nice vision of the future, but I can see that being where it ends up.

    • miffy

      Nah, I don’t think Japanese agencies will be the arbiter of change not while AKB “has” great sales. Last I check, the music market, magazines, karaoke, tv and videogames are all contracting. AKB has a hand in all of those markets and yet there is no growth. Shows that their fanbase are showing loyalty via consumption for handshakes. And this applies to all other Jpop artist too.

      CDJapan and Yesasia Jpop sections’ are now dominated by Kpop. Once Kpop popularity dies down, there is nobody to fill in the void for those sites.

      A more likely scenario based on the current market, will be that the Korean talent agency will be debuting Japanese stars under their system in Japan. Or maybe a Western label. This all depends of course, on the current (declining) Japanese agencies holding out. Japan can’t repeat itself, this country sorely need to do something new

      • Sorry, another long one:

        But the Korean talent agencies are only in Japan because of the Japanese agencies. As far as I can work out, it’s just that Korean agencies submitted themselves to the Japanese keiretsu system. Girls’ Generation aren’t here because SM Entertainment somehow outwitted the Japanese music business, they’re here because they [ALLEGEDLY] cut a deal with Burning Production — the same people who did Saori Minami and who stole Hiromi Go from Johnny’s in the early 70s, the same people who made Kyoko Koizumi the biggest star of the early 80s, and the same people who quietly run most of the J-pop scene now. Girls Generation are [ALLEGEDLY] Burning Production’s bitches in Japan. That’s a condition of them being able to exist here.

        [ALLEGEDLY] Burning also did a deal with Kara’s people, which [ALLEGEDLY] massively pissed off Avex Management because Kara got some kind of 2010 “best new artist award” instead of whoever it was that Avex expected to get the award (I don’t remember the exact problem here). Hori Pro and some of the other agencies were also [ALLEGEDLY] massively pissed off because Burning snapped up the two biggest K-pop stars without sharing them out in a gentlemanly fashion as they had done in the past (like the way Hori and Sun Music [ALLEGEDLY] shared out the Star Tanjo winners like Momoe Yamaguchi and Junko Sakurada in the early 70s).

        To me this friction is indicative of a system that’s straining at the seams. Not to mention the problems in the leadership succession of Burning Production’s [ALLEGED] yakuza backers the Goto-gumi, which adds another level of uncertainty.

        (Hope no one shows up at my flat and breaks my legs now. Yikes.)

        In the past, it’s always been the friction between new media and old talent agency systems that have moved things forward. Watanabe Production ran the 60s but TV killed them in the 70s bringing Hori and Sun into the forefront, but Dentsu and the advertising industry killed that system in the 80s, bringing Johnny’s and Burning to the forefront. The next change is overdue, but it always seems to come from industrial concerns.

        The hope has to be that the periods of uncertainty and change cause the industry to widen its songwriting and recruitment net, bringing new blood into the system, giving it new life and vibrancy for a while. I think the popularity of Yasutaka Nakata is a positive thing, as is the success of Momoiro Clover. Japan actually made the best ever “K-pop” album a couple of years before K-pop in Immi’s 2008 album “Switch” (she went naff as soon as she signed to a major), so if the Japanese entertainment biz ever decides to grow up, the talent is there somewhere if they get desperate enough to tap it.

        As for your other points, the traditional Japanese games industry is dying, but mobile games are sucking up billions of spare yen. I’m not holding it up as any kind of hope for the future. Just saying that’s where a lot of the spare money’s going. My wife partly works in that business and its continuing success a source of constant suffering to her.

        CDJapan and YesAsia are meaningless to the Japanese music industry. They have never contributed any meaningful kind of sales to the Japanese industry music even when Japan was cool. Now they’re getting desperate, they’re going straight to iTunes (where they even notice there’s a problem).

      • In a related point, how are other companies to imitate the AKB model? It’s a standalone, unique, freak of marketing genius. It’s not an answer to the underlying problems of the pop industry. It’s like how Popstars and X Factor couldn’t coexist in the UK. One of them had to become king and the other had to die. That sort of business model is winner-takes-all. It’s like a parasite that feeds on a dying host, not a model that others can copy with any hope of the same success.

        You’re completely right though, if this is what you’re saying, about AKB48 being worthless in terms of growing the market. They’re just a very effective way of squeezing more money out of one particularly tragic sector.

  4. miffy

    Oh yeah, I forgotten the “complicated” web these agencies weave. And also those ALLEGEDLY anti social forces’ connections.

    I also forgotten to mention that Yesasia and CDJapan are the two biggest portals for foreign fans of Jpop to purchase goods. And these foreign fans are only interested in Kpop released in Japan (suprisingly). When Kpop popularity dies down, Jpop visibility in foreign eyes will take a hit as the current talent (and possible future talent) are stuck in the past. That’s why I brought it up.

    You seem to have a more positive view of Jpop than I do. I haven’t been impressed since Polyrhytm 4 years ago and Perfume hasn’t really gotten their mojo back.

    Not much I can say anymore without repeating myself so I wait in anticipation of your next article.

    And thanks for the long replies, it was educational.

    • I know those two companies are where most Asian pop sales go through. I just don’t think overseas sales have ever counted for much in the Japanese music industry. I think they should, I just don’t get the impression that they do — they certainly don’t seem to show much interest in foreign media. It seems like they’re not interested in dealing with markets and media organisations that they can’t control using their ingrained systems. I’m seeing hints of it changing now, but it’s painfully slow and no one seems to have any comprehensive idea of what they’re doing or even what they’re trying to so.

      I think we can all agree that the Japanese music scene generally needs to start looking further afield if it’s going to reverse its current creative and commercial decline though. Even if I’m not optimistic, I have to at least believe it’s possible and bang on about it as loudly as I can. Someone somewhere might one day listen — you never know!

      • nocchimochi

        I want to thank you for your blog and thoughtful opinions; however sporadic your entries may be I will continue to follow you and read threads like the above with great interest!

  5. Thanks both of you for commenting. It makes it much easier for me to refine my thoughts if there are people actually questioning and commenting on what I say, so cheers.

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