Monthly Archives: November 2012

Strange Boutique (November 2012)

My latest Japan Times column is a tongue in cheek musing on the explosion in the number of Japanese idol group members in recent years, drawing an analogue with Japan’s demographic woes die to its top-heavy ageing population. Put simply, how can all these girls be put to work and made useful to society once they’re no longer seventeen years old and living on a flower.

Of course what it’s really about is casting a view over the various ways idols have moved on in their careers once they’re past their idoling sell-by-date. Even though she’s largely inactive now, or at least only sporadically active, I brought up Aya Matsuura, partly because she’s gorgeous and I’m in love with her, and partly because some of her post-idol performances exemplify the point I was making about how a sort of inoffensive, jazz-influenced easy listening pop and balladry seems to be quite common, and also because she’s a good example of an idol who’s actually a reasonably decent singer.

I’ve talked before about the importance of jazz as a baseline of Japanese popular music (in the way that R&B seems to be fore American and British music) and it seems to return there almost as a default setting whenever it’s unsure where to go next.

Basically a lot of it just comes down to talent, and much as people like me might sneer at the notion that talent matters in an industry as top-down and controlling as the Japanese entertainment biz, if an artist wants to outlive their notional shelf life, they probably need it, either in singing, acting or knack for self-promotion.

What would be really nice would be if a few of them did something really artistically outrageous. I can’t think of any examples, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some exist. Given the vast numbers of girls currently inhabiting these idol groups, firstly there are probably all types and temperaments involved and there’s no way they’re all going to carry on meaningful showbiz careers, so it seems to me that it probably wouldn’t be that difficult for some really avant-garde Nagoya musicians to hook up with, say, some girl who used to be the 37th most popular member of SKE48 or something, and make something absolutely mad. Given the large and growing crossover between indie and idol music (BiS and Dempa Gumi inc. both played at Borofesta in Kyoto alongside postpunk weirdos like Fluid and Worst Taste & Special Magic, for example) I think there’s likely to be more of this kind of thing happening.

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Interview: BiS

I’ve been doing a bit of work for MTV lately, helping out with some stuff for their new English language site, MTV 81 (81 is the international dialling code for Japan, geddit?), aimed at promoting Japanese music overseas. The first thing I did for them was this interview with BiS (Brand-new Idol Society) that was published the other week and which I duly forgot about. When they say the idol group they’d most like to kill is “○○○○8”, I’ll leave you to guess which mass idol group they’re talking about.

One other thing that came through strongly in parts of the interview (although not really in the bits that were cut together to make the MTV 81 feature) was that their manager seemed to be pitching them quite specifically towards audiences, like himself, who grew up listening to indie music in the 90s. There are references to British groups like Primal Scream (often just abbreviated to “Primal” in Japan) and Ash, Radiohead and others in their song titles, all groups most members would have been too young to know in real time (Radiohead are still very popular, but the BiS reference is from a line from a 90s song).

Of course what they’re saying with the whole anti-idol schtick is a facade like any idol group does, but by speaking directly about some of the fakery like the way idols all pretend to be friends when really it’s just business, even if it’s being used to build up a kind of fakery of their own, I think it reflects a need on the part of many fans of this most artificial of genres for an authentic voice. It’s not just because BiS are courting indie and rock fans, because Momoiro Cover Z’s popularity stems in part from their perceived genuineness, and Dempa Gumi inc.’s whole ex-“hikikomori” social shut-in status appeals to the need of otaku to feel the group is somehow genuine and one of their own. Part of this might be a reaction to AKB48’s overt manipulation of fans and the postmodern (and frankly cynical) way Yasushi Akimoto lays his whole marketing technique out in the open, although even there, part of what hooks AKB48 fans in is the idea that they can go to the theatre in Akihabara and watch the new members make mistakes, practice and mature. In this sense, K-pop might be seen as more firmly opposed in that it makes no pretense of sincerity and practically basks in its own artificiality. In any case, it’s curious that such an obviously artificial genre of music as idol pop seems to engender such a passionate desire for authenticity and sincerity in fans.

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Interview: Nisennenmondai

Instrumental no wave/krautrock trio Nisennenmondai were playing at the Neutralnation festival this year so I took the opportunity to get an interview with them for The Japan Times, which you can read here.

Nisennenmondai: Mirrorball

What’s going on in this piece is a weird inversion of the usual interview feature process, where the writer supplies information to the reader, while the band members illuminate those facts with opinions, ideas and stories. However, where a band are cagey, introverted or unfamiliar/uncomfortable with interview scenarios (or more likely in this case where the questions are simply bad), there aren’t those killer quotes to hang an interview off, so we’re left with the situation where the quotes are delivering rather dry, biographical or factual information, while the writer is wringing enthusiasm out of the gaps.

Actually, that’s part of the job of a writer in a way: To work a musician’s comments into a narrative that explains and reveals aspects of what they’re about. It’s just that here I think the contrast between the content of their comments and mine lays that aspect of the process bare. Of course since the hook that I hung this narrative off in the first place was the inherent contradictions of the band, this contrast is at least appropriate if nothing else.

Actually, there were a couple of interesting comments that came out of the interview that had to be cut out because they diverged a bit from the story I was telling. On the subject of women in rock, Sayaka Himeno, the bassist, admitted that she felt the fact that Nisennenmondai were an all-female group might have helped them to get attention, but also that she felt this kind of attention and interest was kind of unacceptable in terms of the way they prefer to be perceived. She also suggested that the issue of women in rock seemed to be something that was more of a concern in Europe or America than in Japan, or at least that it was rarely if ever brought up as an issue here.

Now this might just be down to politeness and people not wanting to suggest, “people only like you ’cause you’re girls,” but it’s an obvious fact that while men are still a majority, women are far better represented in rock music in Japan than they are in the West. I think that saying Japan is more advanced in terms of rock equality is a bit of a dangerous conclusion to draw, because I’ve heard from some music people that when you get into the power dynamics within bands, the men may tend to assert themselves more, but generally I’d have to agree that it seems like less of an issue. You certainly find more female sound engineers at venues in Japan, although again, the power dynamic between band and engineer is more like that between customer and waiter in Japan, rather than the employee/boss relationship that exists in much of Europe, so again, that doesn’t necessarily mean women are getting more authority.

Of course for an all-female band like Nisennenmondai, that’s irrelevant, and in the end, I decided it would be pretty cheap and a bit insulting to the band to use that as a hook for the interview. It’s interesting as a general point for further investigation though, since it’s something that lots of people I know have observed bu that few people have really studied in much depth.

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Movement (or not) towards a J/K-pop synthesis?

For a while now the two biggest Korean girl groups in Japan, Kara and Girls’ Generation, have represented contrasting ideas about what the best way to approach the audience here is, with the former adapting their Japanese material to the dreary standards of the local pop scene and the latter pushing onward with basically the same, more internationalised version of pop music that they’re selling at home. Which approach won out seemed important to me because it would have an impact on what the eventual response of Japan’s own pop artists would be — if Kara won, they could keep on doing what they were already doing and no reassessment was neceessary, but if the Girls’ Generation approach won, it would mean there was an audience here for a type of sound that local Japanese artists weren’t really providing.

Basically, it seems like the Girls’ Generation approach more or less won out with most Korean artists, probably out of convenience more than anything else, simply releasing Japanese language versions of the same songs they were releasing in Korea (usually with different videos and sometimes with minor cosmetic changes in the production and arrangement) rather than going all-in with the J-pop sound and trying to juggle two divergent but simultaneous careers. These days, even Kara’s Korean and Japanese material are more or less consistent with each other musically, with the main differences lying in the type of sexuality presented in the videos.

And in the end, I think the natural trajectory for Korean pop in the Japanese charts would have to be towards some sort of synthesis like this, with both Korean and Japanese artists converging towards some new kind of shared sound that combines elements of both types of pop.

Kara: Electric Boy

Much as I would have dearly liked the rumours of Yasutaka Nakata producing Kara’s latest Japanese single to be true, with Electric Boy they have actually gone with an overseas writing team. Even so, the result does point towards this synthesis between the light-and-fluffiness of J-pop and the squelchy, bleepy modernity of K-pop.

Girls’ Generation’s most recent Japanese single, Oh!, pulls a similar trick, taking a song that’s pretty fundamentally Western-influenced but playing it on the fluffy side.

Girls’ Generation: Oh!

Of course, Oh! has been around for years in its Korean language incarnation, so it’s really more a matter of the choice of material rather than writing anything new. Like Gee, it’s a catchy piece of throwaway, throwback pop that while it steers clear of mainstream trends in current J-pop, is hardly an alien intrusion into the Japanese musical landscape, not sounding a million miles from some of the Stock, Aitken & Waterman-influenced late-80s/early 90s synthpop confections of Wink and early Chisato Moritaka, albeit with a more modern production veneer.

The idea of going back a bit further into Japanese music history to find common points of reference is one I’ve talked about before, and it’s an idea that has been exploited quite strikingly by Orange Caramel, whose cheery style always seemed cut from another generation’s cloth and who recently made their Japanese debut with a cover of legendary 1970s Japanese idol trio the Candies’ classic Yasashii Akuma.

(You’ll have to go over to Daily Motion to watch the Orange Caramel version since Avex Trax still live in the stone age as far as videos go: Orange Caramel: Yasashii Akuma)

The fact is that Korean artists have in a number of different ways made big moves towards accommodating themselves to the Japanese music scene, while at the same time, usually bringing something of their own into the mix. However, synthesis really should be a two way thing, and it’s harder to see how, if at all, Japanese groups and producers have made moves of their own (any mention of E-girls is banned on here until further notice). Of course the Japanese pop fan nerdocracy might cry, “No! They shouldn’t do anything to pollute the glorious late-90s purity and unchanging majesty of J-pop!” but as I’ve pointed out, what many of the Korean groups mentioned above are doing is really repackaging something Japan used to do very well but has simply forgotten.

The weird shit that’s going down in idol music Japanside suggests that creative talent is in no especially short supply here, but that perhaps it’s being funnelled in directions with more niche (but by no means small) appeal and that Japan’s music production machine apparently remains creatively inward-looking. Progress is always slow, especially when so many big companies have huge amounts of money invested in a particular way of doing things, so while K-pop and idol music are cheap to buy in because other companies (either Korean or Japanese indies) have already done the work of creating and developing the acts, major labels seem to be less willing to take a risk with their own cash.

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