It’s entirely possible that this month’s Strange Boutique will land me in hot water with the K-Pop fan mafia, since some of them appear to have taken Psy’s Gangnam Style to heart as some sort of nationalist totem, which is ironic since the song is a pretty thinly concealed satire attacking some aspects of Korean culture. Of course that aspect of the song is meaningless in both Japan and the West, so comparing the disparity in the song’s success in those respective markets needs to focus on other aspects of it.
I had to take a few shortcuts, so hopefully I can clear most of them up here. Firstly, the comment at the end comparing Gangnam Style to The Macarena wasn’t quite the throwaway diss it might seem. As a piece of pop music, The Macarena succeeds in every way that Gangnam Style does — catchy, beat-driven, easily imitatable dance routine — and the pattern of its success is pretty much the definition of the summer novelty dance craze template. There are differences in the role the Web has played in disseminating the video, and Psy’s deal with Justin Bieber manager Scooter Braun suggests that Psy himself might personally be able to move his career onward, although I’d suggest that despite his obvious talent as a songwriter/producer, the role he’s found himself established in as a quirky Asian goofball means he’ll struggle to maintain consistent interest in his musical output.
From Japan’s point of view, I think it’s interesting also that Gangnam Style is basically a streamlined take on the same rap-pop hybrid, Bollywood-tinged house beat that producer Teddy Park often does with bands like 2NE1 and Big Bang — it’s almost the YG Entertainment “house style” — so on pretty much every level, there’s nothing in Gangnam Style that Japan hasn’t already seen. I’m sure it could have been a sizeable hit here with promotional backing and a few TV appearances, but it was never going to make the same sort of, erm, “Big Bang” (sorry) that it made in the Occident.
I’ve also been a bit loose with my use of the word “Asian” to encompass several cultures. Obviously Japan and Korea are quite distinct from each other, although when it comes to marketing their pop culture in the West, they will inevitably find themselves in the same boat a lot of the time since all Asian cultures tend to suffer from similar “Orientalised” stereotypes in Western cultural marketplaces. Remember, this is pop music and we’re always going to be dealing in broad strokes. The trick is to go beyond the stereotype rather than abandon it. Hikaru Utada was never going to do anything by trying to be accepted as just another pop star, but 2NE1 might do rather better by hitching their image to a sexy 1930s Shanghai-meets-2019 LA neon retro cyberpunk image as they do in the video for I Love You.
After a long time away from interviewing, I caught up with Shota Kaneko from scuzzy indie trio Teen Runnings over the summer and came up with this piece that I quite enjoyed writing. Not much to add here other than to emphasise that they really are a very nice band and well worth checking, especially if you get a chance to see them live. Here’s a newish video that Videotapemusic did for the song Make it Better to coincide with the expanded CD re-release of the album Let’s Get Together Again.
The topic of September’s column is something I’ve been becoming more and more intolerant of as time goes by. It’s something I come across a lot with my label and event work, where bands have particular ways they insist on their name being written, and while I find this annoying, I think in the context of a CD jacket or flyer, it’s basically legitimate as a simple factor of design. That is to say, the conflict there is between competing design concepts (I prefer the elegance and uniformity of correct syntax whereas bands often want to play about with it) and in the end, it’s the band’s choice and I’m usually happy to accommodate it.
The problem comes when that crosses over into journalism. I talked a bit in August’s column about the sense of entitlement that comes with being treated as an “honoured customer” by venues all the time, and there may be something similar in journalism given that a lot of music press in Japan is bought and paid for by labels and therefore treated as nothing more than PR and brand awareness raising. It seems like a small point, and it is in a way (I enjoy playing the role of the grammar Nazi but I’m not as strict as I pretend to be), but it’s important to realise that punctuation and syntax do actually have meaning attached to them in English (in a way that many marks don’t in Japanese). Capitalisation is one area that bugs me because it breaks up the flow of text if used improperly. In fact, I’m more or less OK with bands who insert capitals in odd places, for example the Supercar spinoff group aM, since it’s obviously a design choice. However in a block of text, AM looks like shouting and is just plain ugly, while am looks like a mistake and can interrupt your reading flow as you do a double-take to make sure you understood it correctly.
Anyway, I wasn’t being entirely serious, but I am serious that bands and labels should leave journalists alone to write band names according to their own publications’ style guides and not hop up and down like spoiled children if they get it “wrong”.
Way waaaaay behind on posting up some of my Japan Times stuff from the past couple of months, so here’s a start on my Strange Boutique columns. July’s column was a return to something I’ve written about before, relating to the pay-to-play system in Japanese live venues. In one of my columns last year, I went into some of the reasons about why it’s going to be difficult to change. This time, I’m talking more about the negative effect it can have on bands themselves. Musicians can be very self-centred, egocentric people — you have to be a bit of an egotist to be any kind of artist, musician, writer, whatever: it’s what motivates you to get up in the morning. The problem is that by getting musicians used to the kind of high end equipment and service they provide, live houses are pandering to musicians’ egos and in the end, that might make it difficult for them to accept the drop in service that would likely accompany any change to the pay-to-play system. To be honest, this is partly a gripe from personal experience I’ve had running events and a label, where I occasionally get the impression that some bands are expecting a degree of professionalism from me that I’m really not in a position to provide given that (A) I’m making no money whatsoever from any of my activities, and (B) the bands themselves have no audience whatsoever worth speaking of. In addition to making a point, however, I’m also eager to hear ideas about how we can get around pay-to-play in Tokyo. A lot of people have suggested that ticket prices are too expensive and that that keeps audience away. I’m not sure about this. You definitely get bigger audiences by reducing prices from 2000yen to 1000yen, but you don’t double them. It’s definitely something I’d like to see more of though, perhaps in combination with some other ways of making shows more welcoming. Getting people to treat gigs as a casual form of recreation is definitely a way to go, and I think re-organising the venue experience away from bands and towards audience would benefit everyone in the long run.
This new album by Tokyo punk trio Worst Taste picks up where their previous Dance de Kimete left off with a barrage of taut, fierce and often minimal garage rock guitar riffs over a hyperactive machinegun rattle of drums and pummelling bass, topped with Kaita Tanaka’s furious, barking vocals. The way the songs ricochet back and forth between unreconstructed Nuggets-style 60s garage-punk, arty, rhythmical postpunk and kick-you-in-the-face hardcore is familiar and over the course of a fifty-minute album can be exhausting in places, but the band have made some significant and interesting moves to expand their range of sound with the ponderous, psychedelic synth-textured opening of Akumu no Yokoku o Yokan Shite recalling the experimental 1970s rock of This Heat and the near ten-minute Datsuraku no Asahi also exploring more expansive territory, occasionally recalling the atmospheric minimalism of Pere Ubu. There are also signs that Tanaka has developed and grown in confidence as a guitarist, here restricting himself less to sharp, angular chords and allowing himself to wig out in a shamelessly rock’n’roll style solo on Step wo Funde, while elsewhere on the album picking out curious melodies reminiscent of Eastern European folk music. As batty as it sometimes sounds, this is a tightly-wound, intense but never less than accessible flurry of vibrant, energetic, offbeat punk rock and well worth your attention.Soulmate Crisis
What makes Slice of Our City, the debut album by Half Sports, one of the most soul-cheering albums of this past summer is the sheer exuberence with which the band attack their ragged, lo-fi indie melodies. I’ve increasingly found myself coming to the conclusion that Primal Scream’s Sonic Flower Groove is the worst thing to have ever happened to indie, setting the template for all subsequent peddlers of stultifyingly reverent, emotionally blank, dreary, self-absorbed Byrds pastiches. Half Sports throw that shit out of the window, plunging into every song all booming drums, joyous vocals and energetic major chords, while never losing sight of the essential charm of melodic 1980s guitar pop. In fact, in many ways Half Sports are closer to the spirit of that era than many of their contemporaries, with Slice of Our City, like Japanese indie contemporaries Teen Runnings, remembering and retaining a connection to indiepop’s roots in punk and powerpop, which it does largely through propulsive rhythms that recall elements of The Soft Boys in places. The band cite The Stone Roses as a key influence, and there are echoes of John Squire’s chiming Rickenbacker guitar lines here, but where Brown, Squire & co. were all about precision and poise in their recordings, Half Sports are more about rock’n’roll energy. In this sense, they have more in common with The Mighty Lemon Drops, falling somewhere between the rough-edged early material like Like an Angel and the straight “big music” rock thrills of 1989’s Laughter. One of the Japanese indie albums of the year.