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).


Filed under Features, Strange Boutique

4 responses to “Strange Boutique Review of 2012 (December 2012)

  1. miffy

    Man, it always the same thing with Japanese music, year in year out.

    I did listen to that Michi album when it pop out in Timeout Best Albums but it didn’t really impress me. Its like when all the critics in Japan were raving for Kpop idol when I personally thought that it was a reaction to the stagnant quality of Jpop. Then the real juggernaunt

    That Japanese flag / nationalism sure pops up in idol concert eh? Otaku nationalism deserves its own topic but the real nationalist are in charge now in Japan so I hope this otaku nationalism dies fast.

    I do have an unrelated question though. While reading RIAJ, I noticed something odd. Japan is the No.1 country in the world for physical CD sales and also the second largest music market. And yet, why all the super rich individuals are in America/Britain/Europe? Bloated? Tax dodger ? Good wealth distribution?

    • A few points here:
      1. I’m inclined to agree with you about MiChi, and I hinted at that in my blog, especially as you compare it to K-Pop. Ot’s something fundamentally conventional, but also something that throws a spanner into the works of the standard J-Pop production formula.
      2. To be fair, as my editor points out, the Japanese flag just lives there at the Budokan. My argument is that whoever put the flag there, the meaning of the flag is very different for Momoclo than it is for, say, REM. Either way, bear that in mind. Momoclo have been a nationalist thing since long before they were Budokan material though. I doubt the political setup will make any difference, since the Abe/Aso thing is such close memory to most of us here that it’s barely a change at all.
      3. Japan tends to have a reasonable system of worker-CEO salary ratio. Basically 1:10 in Japan, 1:20 in Britain and 1:300-ish in America. Not sure this has much to do with music though. I feel Japan’s problems are more to do with structure than distribution.

  2. miffy

    Oh? Your editor obviously didn’t see Push,

    (check the country stats on this video)

    When I think about it, M-Flo new album is the probably the best Jpop release this year. If it was in English and put some actual marketing muscle, it could be an actual hit elsewhere. Unfortunately M-Flo being Japanese Hip-hop can only seem gravitate between the Kreva and college fratboy model.

  3. Pingback: Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.2 – V/A– Ripple | Clear And Refreshing

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