Monthly Archives: December 2012

Strange Boutique Review of 2012 (December 2012)

The last Strange Boutique of the year is up on The Japan Times web site now. As is usually the case with my December columns, it’s a review of the year, and like most of my December columns, it’s fairly downbeat. In the past, I think I’ve tended to blame the dead-end path that J-Pop seems set in on the conservatism of the music industry and their top-down, “This Is How It Is Done” attitude, but I think the audience need to take some of the blame too. Sony have been trying to push MiChi for years with little result, and while it’s very possible that they’ve just mis-marketed her, fans got every possible chance to hear Therapy and still it did nothing.

I suspect there might be a bit of groupthink among the foreign journalists in Japan who went mad over MiChi this year, due perhaps to us all really wanting it to be good and maybe hearing the sharp, sparkly, modern production without really noticing that the tunes it was wrapped around were very conventional, but in a market where Ikimono Gakari count as a proper, important pop band, sounding conventional is precisely what artists like MiChi are supposed to do, and the fact that she did it while still sounding modern marks Therapy as a big creative achievement. The worst thing about it is that its failure is probably going to make Sony even less willing to experiment in the future.

I was a bit cynical about Momoiro Clover Z, although any regular readers of this blog will know that I love them to bits. It’s true, however, that the values projected by their image are really retrogressive. They performed their Budokan “Onna Matsuri” girls-only show (don’t ask how I got in there!) under a massive Japanese flag and when they bow to the audience, their noses practically scrape the floor, in an exaggerated parody of the kind of old-fashioned values Japan is supposedly losing touch with. On a parallel but I suspect related note, 2012 was the first year since the 90s that the number of people saying in opinion polls that women should stay at home while their husbands worked has risen above 50%. What makes them interesting is the way they ride a wave of nostalgia at the same time that they fuck with it.

It’s in the indie world that the best stuff came out, as always, despite (or more likely because of) the fact that no one makes any money out of it. Shugo Tokumaru’s In Focus? was just uniformly excellent and I have yet to find anyone who disagrees. He’s the closest thing this generation of Japanese musicians has to a bona fide genius, and he manages to make pop music in the classic tradition of people like Eiichi Ohtaki, while taking the arrangements way further, incorporating all manner of musical instruments and diverging into the sort of mad, cut-up musical squiggles that made Plus-tech Squeeze Box so exciting.

There’s also a shout-out in there to one of my favourite albums of the year, Knew Noise Records’ Ripple compilation of Nagoya punk and indie bands. There’s hardly any information about any of these bands on the Web, and there are hardly any decent quality video clips on YouTube, so this is ultra-core stuff, but it shouldn’t be. There’s a preview of the album on Knew Noise’s Soundcloud, but this one of the wonderful Pop-Office is one of the better ones, despite the weak guitar sound.

The rest of what I have to say is mostly said in the main article. I could have added that Sony finally made their catalogue available on iTunes, which is long overdue and shows they might finally be getting it, although their insistence on calling promo videos “MV”s (“music videos”), while only a subtle difference, suggests an organisation still living in fear of YouTube and not even letting videos do their basic, original purpose of promoting the music. Universal’s decision to make Perfume’s music available internationally and the limited success of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu abroad are noteworthy, but both are artists I’ve written a lot about before (I’ll probably have something to say about Kyary when it comes to my “albums of the year” posts).

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Top 10 J-Pop Christmas songs

My latest MTV 81 piece is up, and it’s a sort of contrast to my last, grinchlike post about Christmas songs. I spent some time last week going through dozens of Christmas songs by J-Pop artists and whittling them down to ten songs that I felt had something I liked about them. I mention in the introduction that there have been some popular songs by other artists, and nothing in particular against Mika Nakashima or B’z, but they’re shite so I didn’t include them. Anyway, what I’m saying is that it was a personal list so take that for what you will.

One thing I learned when putting it together was that I have a weakness for a certain type of bombastic 80s soft rock, and so while I know that by all rights I should absolutely hate Shogo Hamada, I can’t quite let myself.

The other thing I learned was that almost without exception, all Japanese Christmas songs are songs about being depressed and lonely, which is always a sign that a country is doing a festival wrong. As I said in my last post, Christmas in overwhelmingly atheist Japan is basically a shit Valentine’s Day with fewer chocolates and more Kentucky Fried Chicken (guess which bit the MTV smile police cut out of my article! — Yeah, how d’ya like that, The Man?) Anyway, the truth is that a lot of Japanese Christmas songs make for pretty grim, melodramatic listening, and I by and large tried to avoid the more suicidally melancholy numbers. Still, some of those songs really are quite good.

Generally, where possible I went for the more upbeat tracks, although even those are still mostly boy-obsessed and brimming with rampaging hormones. The Princess Princess song Ding Dong is an interesting one in that she dumped the boy for being an alcoholic and she’s basically saying good riddance, which puts an interesting twist on the whole “Lonely This Christmas” theme. It also has that great thing where the guitarist and bassist back up on either side of the singer and they all rock out together. Yeah, you go, sisters!

If I was basing it on sheer, overwhelming, mass saturation festive dominance, Tatsuya Yoshida would have won by a mile, and it really is a good song, but I went with Yumi Matsutoya because she’s just fucking awesome. It’s interesting that both of them had greatest hits albums in the top ten best selling albums of the year in Japan this year, so they obviously have a lot of lasting appeal. The only clips I could find of Yuming’s song were one cheesy photo montage and this kind of brilliant scene from the 1987 movie and all-round bubble-era time capsule Watashi wo Ski ni Tsuretette.

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Miila: Santa Baby

Christmas songs are horrible. Even songs that used to be pretty good, like Fairytale of New York become horrible slabs of sentimental dribble after they’ve been repeated ad tedium year after year. In fact Fairytale of New York is one of the worst because it has just enough non-mainstream credibility virtue of its hard-drinking, punk-generation protagonists Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl that it sneaks up on you from the left as well as hitting you straight on. It’s the Christmas song all your cool mates who hate Christmas songs think is all right, which wouldn’t be a problem except absolutely all of them do, and so does everyone else.

Now I love Christmas as much as anyone. I love getting presents, getting drunk and eating too much. I love the cynical, cash-register kerching! of Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day (although I doubt I’d be able to sustain it if I lived in a place where it was being broadcast 24/7 by grasping commercial scumbags trying to sell me stuff) and I’m sentimental enough to believe that Christmas is a time for togetherness and family. But being dedicatedly nonreligious and half-arsedly anti-capitalist, the emphasis for me is on family, or at least small groups of people close to me. New Year is the time for big, expansive expressions of love for humanity, Christmas is about feeling cosy and at home. I’m selfish at Christmas and I only want to share it with those close to me. The Christmas song, on the other hand, is a unifying or, to look at it more negatively, a homogenising force, and this makes them annoying for me. They treat Christmas like a football game.

In Japan, Christmas is something else entirely. It’s a commercial festival, foisted on the Japanese by department stores and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and it’s centred more around Christmas Eve than Christmas Day, with the emphasis on young couples rather than families. Basically, Christmas to the Japanese is a kind of shit Valentine’s Day — this is why the majority of the most popular Christmas songs in Japan are love songs (Merry Christmas Everyone by Slade isn’t a personal favourite, but I can see it’s appeal. For Japanese couples, however, it would be way too hard-rocking and portrays a way too alien, Anglocentric ideal of what Christmas stands for).

Somewhere in amongst all these musical Christmas ideals, there’s also the idea of the indie Christmas song. In the 90s, when I were a young lad, indie Christmas records were a minor tradition, and there’s still something about the idea that appeals to me. The intimacy of them taps into the cosy and familial sensations that the season still gives me, combining the sense of togetherness with the inherent selfishness that it goes hand in hand with.

Which brings me to Miila’s (of “…and The Geeks” fame) cover of Eartha Kitt’s 1950s classic Santa Baby. It’s a song that addresses Santa like a wealthy sugardaddy, being both acquisitive in its demands for gifts while at the same time seductively sexual, although Miila replaces Kitt’s smouldering sultriness with the recalcitrance of a snotty punk teenager. The minimal fuzz-guitar-and-drum-machine arrangement is sparsely decorated by some sleighbells tossed insolently over the intro (as if someone had said, “It’s still not Christmassy enough. Stick some fuckin’ bells on it!” rather like how East 17’s suicide ballad Stay Another Day somehow accrued bells just in time for Christmas), but there’s still a warmth to the rough-edged garage rock production. It’s also funny, which is something that too many Christmas songs miss in their rush to make us, you know, feeeeeeeeel stuff. Most importantly, in amongst the cascade of same old same old that the supermarkets, TVs and department stores shower you with, Miila’s Santa baby is a Christmas gift you can hug tight and feel is yours alone.

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Interview: Miila and The Geeks

Another piece of mine went up on MTV 81 recently, this time an interview with Tokyo no wave punk trio Miila and The Geeks. You can read it here.

I’ve interviewed them before, for The Japan Times, and I think this one covers a lot of the same ground since they were both pieces whose main purpose was to introduce the band to a new audience, so obvious questions about who the band are and how they started and stuff are always going to be in there. Not much else to say other than that they’re a fine band and well worth checking out. It’s also great that MTV 81 is willing to run pieces on bands like this rather than just going full-on for the J-Pop/anime/visual otaku crowd (who let’s face it, don’t need a site like MTV 8s in the first place).

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