This Saturday, new Japanese indie music web site Kiwa Kiwa is organising a music festival at Club Asia and I previewed it for The Japan Times. Over on this blog I focus mostly on the leftfield extremes and the poppier idol music extremes and generally avoid the kinds of indie bands that are actually popular. The main reason for this isn’t that most of them are shit so much as that most of them are just OK. If I ever think of something interesting to say about Buffalo 3, I’ll say it, but that’s not going to happen until they stop sounding like a kind of dead-end Hoxton indie band circa 2004.
What’s interesting about this event is that I think it does do a good job of laying out a map of what the Tokyo indie scene sounds like in the year 2012 that’s free of the art-punk snobbery of people like me or the chillwave/beach pop fetishism of other aspects of the indie scene. That stuff maybe important creatively, but none of it is really that important to audiences at this time. There are good bands like Uhnellys, Africaemo, Vola & The Oriental Machine, Give Me Wallets and Nile Long at Kiwa Kiwa Festival, but more than that, it’s a good summation of what’s happening in the real world of Tokyo indie.
I never really got The Brixton Academy. It may have been down to the awful, try-hard London hipster wannabe band name, because whenever I saw them there never really seemed to be anything in particular wrong with them. Something never really clicked though, musically or conceptually. It felt like there was something formless and meandering about them without the compensation of the kind of unexpected turns or raw minimalism that characterise the best experimental music. They were all right, and if I’d put in the effort, I might have come to genuinely like them, but I didn’t and as a result, when they split up, it barely even registered with me.
Now assuming that they weren’t planning to become mountaintop hermits, this was never going to be the end for all the members concerned, and sure enough, Nile Long have now emerged from the wreckage with this rather fine piece of 80s styled synthpop and its Apple-fetishising video. It’s one of those songs that sounds like something you’ve heard before and it’s been tormenting me exactly what song it is (seriously, suggestions below, please). I’m getting lots of Erasure/Yazoo period Vince Clarke (the synth from Don’t Go and the beat from Chains of Love), New Order and The Pet Shop Boys (pretty much the whole of the album Actually) are in there somewhere, but I can’t put my finger on exactly what.
The problem is that all this hunting through 80s synthpop classics it set me off on ended up putting Nile Long in some pretty unassailable company and sat next to Clarke, Tennant et al at their finest, “See Your Eyes” sounds like a demo for a more polished and melodically developed song rather than the finished item in itself. Which is unfortunate because in the company its most likely going to sit (that of the group’s contemporaries in Japan’s indie rock scene) this really is a cut above most of the posers.
The vocals wisely stick to prodding the listener with hook after hook, augmented by equally hook-laden backing vocals and synth/sequencer loops. The way they hold off on the introduction of the guitar until half way through the song is a well-worked application of an old trick too, and it helps add to the feeling of meeting an old friend that the song creates with this barrage of familiar but effective motifs. In the end, See Your Eyes is simple and catchy enough to stand out from the pack, and it demonstrates a commendable dedication to developing the group’s songwriting in a more commercial direction without descending into J-pop mulch.
After weeks of coy teasers and less coy massive billboard posters all over Tokyo, and with the AKB48 elections now firmly out of the way, the by now pretty much undisputed queens of K-pop (in Japan at least), Girls’ Generation, have finally started blitzing us with their new product, and any response other than rank submission is simply not acceptable to them.
It’s clear that they’ve tried to make this an “event video” what with the premiere on the big screens by the Shibuya crossing and the silly Torville & Dean/Gene Kelly intro music combo. It’s nonsense of course, but it tells us something about how Girls’ Generation (and by that I mean SM Entertainment or whoever is behind their marketing) want the group to be perceived, and the message it sends is a mixture of “We’re playing with the big boys,” and “We’re desperate to be associated in some way with Lady Gaga.”
Like Ms. Gaga’s similarly titled offering there is the faux-1950s onscreen titling, newspaper headline visual motif and general electro edged production, and like Lady Gaga’s song, it seems to be more a cry for attention from the titular paparazzi than any serious criticism. On the other hand, and importantly, Lady Gaga’s video was a lot funnier (Gaga murders her boyfriend to get back on the front pages, while the fact Girls’ Generation “seem a bit nervous” is the most interesting thing the papers can find to say about them) and operates on a much higher conceptual level. The bells and whistles that surround Girls’ Generation in this video don’t combine to form any meaningful narrative — it’s Girls’ Generation the global pop phenomenon celebrating their own bigness but with nothing to say about what that actually means.
More importantly, the two songs are coming from rather different places musically. Gaga’s song is basically a 1980s pop tune wrapped up in just enough cutting edge synths and beats to sound modern without detracting from its essentially conventional, or perhaps we can say classical, pop song construction — it’s the kind of song you could play on an acoustic guitar and it would still be recognisable as pop music. Girls’ Generation’s Paparazzi on the other hand is every bit a contemporary electro-house-influenced piece of pop, beginning with the beats and with the actual tune squeezed into the gaps. It’s effective but it’s not classic songwriting.
Now this shouldn’t matter. 2NE1’s I Am The Best would have made Buddy Holly spin in his snowy mountain grave in terms of classic pop songwriting, but it was still one of the best pop songs of 2011, and its recently released Japanese version (which sidesteps the awkwardness of translating the original’s decidedly un-Japanese lyrics by translating most of them into English instead) is still wiping the floor with pretty much any other pop released here this year. And Paparazzi does work, both as a piece of aggressively modern dance-pop and as a piece of bubblegum pop with a simple, effective chorus and some catchy “boom boom boom”s like a not-quite-as-good Mr. Taxi.
What it lacks compared to 2NE1 is attitude. When CL reminds the listener of her group’s name, as she does in practically every song 2NE1 do, it comes over all swagger and look-at-me-I’m-awesome. When Girls’ Generation do it here and on last year’s The Boys, it’s like a desperate cry to the audience, “Don’t forget us!” Of course in both cases it’s really just in-song branding, but at the same time, the subtle difference in the ways the two groups carry off the same marketing trick reveals a fundamental difference between them. Girls’ Generation are more forgettable, and if you heard this song on the radio (remember that?) or in a club you’d probably be hard-pressed to know who out of a dozen or so K-pop groups it was.
In a way this is a trap that Girls’ Generation have laid for themselves. They’re the wholesome, good-girl K-pop group, standard bearers of Korean pop in its march into the global marketplace, which means that everything they do is shorn of its edges, is studiedly bland in its eagerness to avoid scandal in Korea’s puritanical fan culture even as they adopt every trapping they can safely appropriate of international pop culture. People like Lady Gaga and 2NE1 who have positioned themselves as freaks and outsiders from the start wear no such straightjacket and make themselves simultaneously more natural-seeming and more distinctive (and therefore easily marketable) as a result.
Now if this sounds like I’m down on them, I’m not. As one of the fake newspaper headlines in the video announces, Girls’ Generation’s “…style has become the Bible for fashion.” Where 2NE1 and Lady Gaga (and Japanese contemporary Kyary Pamyupamyu) are fashion icons for people wanting to stand out, Girls’ Generation are aspirational role models for dedicatedly ordinary girls and in that context, the sharp, flashy, high contrast style of both their image and electro synth sound is still something radical in the dead centre of Japan’s fluffy, pastel coloured and slowly dying mainstream. In addition, the fact that so many other Korean girl groups share a similar sound and are in general preferring not to compromise it for some imagined vision of what the Japanese market wants suggests that of the contrasting approaches taken by them and Kara, Girls’ Generation seem to be winning out.
While the jury is still out on Girls’ Generation’s attempt to crack the US, the fact is that they probably do as good a job as they could of balancing the varying expectations of their fans in the different markets in which they operate. What Paparazzi suggests, however, is that they may have taken that balancing act as far as it can go and that any move westward may require that they let some of those spinning plates drop.
Firstly, it goes without saying that Mirai no Classic is every bit the quirky new wave pop masterpiece that it always was, and that in fact repeat listens reveal more and more what a great, multi-layered piece of work this is. The song’s extra depth is largely down to Hiromi Kajiwara’s meandering guitar lines that wander through the verse before chiming in with a gorgeous descending line that perfectly offsets the chorus’ harmonies.
Of the other songs, the title track is a standout with its new wave disco beat, electro-funk synth bass and Kajiwara’s guitar playing the same flat, metallic, meandering game that was so effective on Mirai no Classic. Neon Sign is a softer-edged proposition, with vocalist Masami Takashima’s synth at the forefront and the guitar mostly confined to rhythm. There’s still a lot going on in a Sound Dust-era Stereolab sort of way, but it feels a bit lost coming after the one-two punch of the first two songs.
The remixes begin with Mirai no Classic (here referred to by its English title of Future Classic) slowed and stretched into a minimalist dub piece and close with News, playing up its electro-funk trappings, paring back the guitar and transforming itself into a synth-swooping space-disco number. Neither is exactly essential, but both do the job of a remix effectively (drawing out and refocussing aspects of the original in an interesting way) and together they round off this diverse, assured and generally thoroughly high quality collection neatly.
Amorphous are a boy/girl electronic pop due who I mentioned briefly in a piece I wrote about the Fukuoka music scene a year or two back. Unlike a lot of bands I recommend, who have an annoying habit of splitting up within six months of me committing record of their awesomeness to print, Amorphous are still around and still making music, including a couple of rather fine tracks over the past month.
It’s a band format that since the days of Pizzicato 5, through capsule, to any number of chirpy, cheerful chiptune and technopop acts nowadays has been a mainstay of Japanese dance music for a couple of decades and counting. Amorphous, however, take a less frenetic approach to their disco than many of their technopop and electro-fixated contemporaries, which sees them sitting at the third corner of a triangle that might have Yasutaka Nakata or similar at one corner and the the dreamy pop soundscapes of Tokyo’s Canopies & Drapes at another. It shares the slick, electro sophistication of the former without its relentless 128bpm intensity, and has a similar easygoing vibe to the latter without taking on the whole twee aesthetic.
The most recent of the two tracks is TheeDisco, a simple, laid back, almost minimalist disco groove with repetitive, mantric vocals and a neat little synth bass breakdown in the middle. It’s the kind of track that goes nowhere in particular at very much its own pace, like a hot summer evening sipping piña coladas by the beach.
Going up a couple of weeks prior to that was Same Hearts, which is structured along similar lines and shares much the same mood with its emphasis on simple, repeated phrases that float over a mid-paced groove. It’s a richer, busier production though, with multiple layers of synths, some some rather nice distorted vocals in the middle and some tingly bleeps and whistles. The group describe it as “psychedelic pop”, which it isn’t, but you can hear where they’re coming from, with the vocal echo and tastefully phased synthesisers that gradually come in as the song progresses. Like TheeDisco, there’s something languid and late-night about it, but with the fuller sound, it’s less chilling by the beach and more cruising the neon streets.
So apparently Japanese idol pop centipede AKB48 held their annual “election” (please imagine me pausing slightly, making big, wide air quotes and saying that word in a sneering, sarcastic voice) this Wednesday. Now my Japan Times colleagues Patrick St. Michel and Daisuke Kikuchi already covered a lot of it in their piece the other week so I shan’t go into the whole thing, and notorious J-pop hater that I am, I chose to spend that particular evening with my wife celebrating our wedding anniversary rather than submit to actually watching it, but I gather there were a few interesting things to come out of the whole charade.
Little Sister is Watching You
Firstly, there is the fact that Fuji TV’s blow-by-blow coverage was briefly suspended thanks to the inconsiderately timed death of Prince Tomohito. It’s a shame that it took the death of the emperor’s cousin to shift this graceless, vapid, money-grubbing pantomime even temporarily from centre stage, but there was an undeniably bittersweet taste of schadenfreude at seeing Yasushi Akimoto’s painstakingly constructed monument to the debasement of Japanese popular culture suffer even the smallest of setbacks thanks to, you know, news, so I must confess to having allowed myself a discreet, Nelson-style “Ha-ha!“
Second, with the win of Yuko Oshima again, that makes it four years running that a girl from Ohta production has won (she’s traded places with Atsuko Maeda since the “elections” first began). It’s fun to imagine a conspiracy to promote girls from a single talent agency just because one can imagine the riots that would ensue among all the duped fans. In fact, if that did happen, I think I might have to concede a grudging admiration for Akimoto. I mean, seriously, the old adage about a fool and his money was never more appropriate than in the case of these legions of fans and by buying into the whole charmless parade in the first place, they are practically tattooing “Take my stupid money” on their foreheads.
“Thanks for your money, you big, dumb fucks!”
That said, I very much doubt there is any scam involved, simply because there doesn’t need to be. The whole process hinges on the girls’ utter interchangeability. Whoever wins, the fans are clambering over each other in a desperate scramble to give Akimoto their money, sweaty hand over trembling fist, so why risk it?
Next, there’s the more general observation that what Akimoto has done here is harness the mindset of the indie music fan and successfully synthesise it into a pop format. The process of finding a performer you like but who few other people know, supporting them at close-up, small venues and maybe even speaking to and meeting one-on-one at those little gigs, and then following their development through to mainstream success has all been recreated synthetically within the confines of the group. AKB48 and their sister projects aren’t just pop groups, they’re an entire music ecosystem.
The ecosystem they most closely resemble, however, is the Galapagos Islands. As the whole of the rest of the music scene, even in net-fearing Japan, moves inexorably towards the abandonment of physical media in favour of downloads, AKB48’s entire business model and the whole election fiasco hangs off the sale of CDs. As Japanese subculture and tech journalist Toshimi Yotsumoto wondered on Twitter this Wednesday, “What’s going to happen to AKB48 once there are no more physical media?” On iTunes, you only need to pay for a song once and unless you set up multiple accounts, it won’t allow you to pay again. Perhaps they might decide to set up some kind of direct debit or credit card system that allows fans to bypass the hollow ritual of actually buying the CDs by simply wiring the money directly into Akimoto’s bank account, but more likely what we will see happen is everyone else in Japan moving more and more towards digital sales, leaving AKB48 a curious, disconnected island way up at the top of the Oricon charts, floating far above all the rest, artificially buoyed on a cushion of hot air. In fact perhaps less Galapagos than Swift’s Laputa.
Tokyo-based pan-national wrongpop quartet Abikyokan’s new EP sees the eclectic and unpredictable group dropping, at least for now, the live drums that clomped through some of their recent recordings and reining back on the harder rocking blues, country and soul influences in favour of a return to electronic beats and focus on the synth-based 80s pop elements that they never quite really abandoned and the result is one of their most coherent and quietly charming collections in quite a while.
Jake Arntson’s stream-of-consciousness word association poetry meanders obliquely around topics that probably make a lot of sense to him but lines like: “Mickey and Mitch came with their new night friend, dressed like Rambo as a young boy,” from opening track In the Woods are affecting primarily through their evocative combination of sounds and images rather than any coherent narrative. Combined with Abikyokan’s typically murky GarageBand production style, Arntson’s vocals seem to be coming at you out like voices from the dreamlike mist of a semi-slumber.
While In the Woods hangs the melody and distant synth stabs and doodles off a bassy electronic beat, title track The Fear is built around a restrained, repetitive, descending guitar thrum with the band invoking us to not believe in fear because, ominously, “there’s nothing after,” that builds up to what seems like it might become a chorus before retreating from any such undignified descent into easy convention and returning to the understated, repressed intensity that is the song’s real spine.
God (Bigfoot) is the killer though, with its squalls of bottlenecked noise guitar and New Order-esque combination of 80s synth bleeps and clanging Peter Hook bass chimes. I don’t know what the Bigfoot Cafe is and the song leaves me none the wiser, but then not knowing what the Big Chief Chinese Restaurant was never stopped me thoroughly enjoying Guided By Voices’ Alien Lanes so it seems churlish to complain here when the garbled mystery is so much more seductive.