Great pop music denied to Japan in 2011: Kara’s Step

While I was putting together my gleefully self-indulgent 2011 Top 10 girly bubblegum pop tunes list, there was one song that I didn’t include but perhaps should have. It was by probably the most successful Korean group in Japan at the moment, who had a string of Number 1 hit singles and two albums in Oricon’s end of year charts. All of which, needless to say, were utter crap.

That group was Kara, who are notable as the Korean group who have gone furthest to ingratiate themselves into the Japanese way of doing things, by throwing out everything that made them refreshing and exotic in the first place and trading it all for some thinly produced, sub-AKB48 J-pop-by-numbers and a pointless TV show. Kara are a case study that can be held up to the bleating fanboy crowd exemplifying the poisonous influence Yasushi Akimoto and AKB48 exert over the Japanese pop market. With their beyond-cynical multiple-purchase marketing model, their blanket coverage across all possible media, and their relentless goose step down the Champs Elysee of the singles charts, they hold themselves up as the definitive example of “what-Japanese-like” and as a model of “how-things-should-be-done”.

That groups like Kara are buying into this notion of bland, lobotomised antimusic as their pathway to success in Japan doesn’t bode well for the future direction of pop music in this country. That Kara’s dreadful Super Girl album outsold fellow Korean invaders Girls’ Generation’s far more forward-thinking self-titled album (on first week sales at least) raises the danger that this approach might in the future become a standard approach to the Japanese market.

The truth is probably that it doesn’t much matter in terms of sales what kind of music a group makes. Kara have been in the Japanese market for longer than Girls’ Generation and comparing their second album to Girls’ Generation’s first is to compare groups at different stages of their initial growth. The structure of the market is such that the future of both groups in Japan will depend more on how much money and effort goes into promotion than on what kind of music they make, which makes DSP Media’s decision to go the full AKB on Kara’s music pointless as well as musically reprehensible.

To drive this home and to make clear the contempt in which DSP clearly hold the average Japanese listener’s taste, Kara also released a Korean language album this year which included possibly the group’s best song, Step:

It didn’t make my list because Japanese audiences were denied it (unless they bought the limited edition of Super Girl or, as thousands did, imported the Korean album), but it was one of the pop songs of the year, with its aggressively energetic 80s synths, la-la-las and shiny, glittery everything-on-max production. If I were Japanese, I think I’d be pissed off with DSP Media that they have such a low opinion of my taste, and perhaps a little ashamed at my country’s pop establishment for having given them that impression.

(Oh, and just in case you think I’m laying it on thick with the girl groups here, I’d also have picked GD & TOP’s “Knock Out” as one of my songs of the year, but apparently Japan isn’t ready for so much swag yet.)

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