Live: Sutekiss

Idol music is now so deeply embedded in indie and alternative culture in Japan that it’s not really making any kind of statement by combining the two worlds. Whatever alternative music could have learned from idol music in terms of not taking itself too seriously has now either been learned or not learned, and the novelty is played out. Where Sutekiss are interesting is in how they’re the first band I’ve seen who take the whole concept and performance style of idol music but the progressive, alternative and funk musicians in the band approach it from an entirely serious musical perspective. The result is music that integrates alternative and idol styles in a way I haven’t seen anyone else manage, and it certainly shows up the faux-alternative pose of groups like BiS as the gimmick that it is.

There’s something jarring about the front line of three extremely young female singers and the six extremely technically adept alternative musicians backing them, and yet it’s also strangely appropriate, recalling the classic era of the 70s, where groups like the Candies would routinely appear on TV backed by ultra-professional session musicians, and honestly, the more idol music makes use of proper musicians, the better it will be for pop music. The question with Sutekiss is whether they really are an idol group or whether they’re an alternative band masquerading as one. As it stands now, they exist predominantly in the live house scene, playing with punk and alternative groups, where their pop sensibility makes them stand out from their peers.

It’s really in their behaviour that their idol-ish tendencies come across most strongly. Talking between songs at the show headlined by postpunk/dub merchants Bossston Cruizing Mania, drummer Harie (formerly of prog rock crazies Mahiruno) repeatedly refers to his “sempai” Esuhiro Kashima, ladling respect onto the older musician. There’s an edge of irony to it, as if he’s somehow playing the part of a member of an idol group, where exaggerated gestures of respect to all and sundry are par for the course, but again, there’s some truth to it and despite the element of performance, it reveals something about the way these social dynamics between younger and older musicians are still embedded in alternative music culture.

If there’s a problem with Sutekiss, I think it’s that they don’t go far enough. The melodies are solid 90s-style J-pop, but they tend to rely a little too much on the arms-in-the-air “live your dreams” schtick. Really good idol pop like Aya Matsuura, on-form Kyary Pamyupamyu, or Momoiro Clover Z is far more aggressively pop, although it’s hard to see how something that bubblegum would integrate into the mid-paced funk and latin-influenced back line. They’ve found a way to integrate the stylistic elements of idol music with a greater level of artistic proficiency in the music, and there are moments in the performance where it’s quite thrilling, but if they’re going to take the concept to the next level though, I’d say the pop aspects are the areas they now need to concentrate on.

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4 Comments

Filed under Live, Live reviews

4 responses to “Live: Sutekiss

  1. UltimateMusicSnob

    This is what I hear from this very small sample: the guitarist and the latin percussion player are way out in front of the others in terms of musical skill–rock solid, and they know their patterns (the lead soloing is not great). The trap set player, bassist and keyboardist are merely workmanlike–they hold up their end, but they’re not driving the music (the drums and bassist should be, keyboard is optional), and they’re not forming a cohesive whole with the two better players. Rhythm section is shaky. If they practice enough, the music they’re trying to play can become compellingly danceable and powerfully rhythmic. Right now it’s not close, neither precise nor “in the pocket” (refers to tiny adjustments individual players make around the basic beat to achieve the best rhythmic effects). So the band is on its way, definitely, led by two great musicians.
    Which makes the front line totally shocking by contrast–and I’m saying that without any reference to the non-musical elements of costume, choreography, general appearance. Seriously, wtf? They can’t sing. I don’t know much about rap, so I’ll mostly leave that alone, but it sounds sloppy and weak in terms of inflection and rhythmic drive, compared to Kanye West et al. I’m not saying singers have to be pitch-perfect. But they do have to use whatever pitches they’re singing effectively, and this strikes me as merely woefully amateurish. The 5-6-7-8’s also sing off-key, but they do so in specific ways, at specific points in the melody, and it comes off as punkishly expressive. MEG sings “in the cracks” in ‘Key’ from ‘Room Girl’, but does so with extraordinary precision, hitting a precise frequency that is not present on the keyboard in a repeatable way, at the exact moment, and gets huge impact from the performance (we also know from other examples that she can sing on key–that may be true of Sutekiss, but I can’t tell from these examples, which are uniformly off-key).
    So is it meta? Commentary? I have heard that part of the lifecycle of the idol singer is an under-rehearsed, naive, beginner’s style of performing when they first come out. This is supposed to be endearing somehow, and the audience follows them as they grow into practiced professionals?
    If Sutekiss is producing ironic commentary on that aspect of idol singers, man, they knocked it out of the park. So well, in fact, that I’m not sure I can stand to follow them through their further commentaries on idol singing and singers. My ears can take the 5-6-7-8’s or Johnny Rotten singing badly but expressively, because they make a musical impact, even with minimal skill. Here I think I’m still waiting for the impact, still waiting for the expressiveness.

    • You’re spot on about the amateurishness of idol singers being part of the deal. I have no time for it myself, but especially these days it seems to be a non-negotiable part of the deal. As you say, the idea is that they grow into something more professional, but that early, amateurish stage is a very important time for lots of fans. The girls up front with Sutekiss aren’t idols though, they’re just three girls. They’re not members of talent agencies as far as I know, and I’m not sure they’re ever going to “grow” in the same way. For me, the interesting point about them is that they seem to be taking the musical aspects of it seriously even if it doesn’t always really work for me. There are some very specific idols or idol groups that I like, but basically I’m not into that kind of music, so whenever I write about it, it always ends up being a sort of meta-discussion about the culture, concept and politics of idol music rather than the actual songs, which usually hold little interest for me. Same here in a way I suppose: I like the idea of what they’re doing rather more than the actuality of what they’re doing.

  2. UltimateMusicSnob

    Yes, that’s the amazing part of it–and it kind of compromises my musical appreciation. I have this notion that a great piece of music should be a great piece of music on its content, not its context. But this band breaks that down entirely: If the performance quality is just an innate feature of their inability, then I have no interest. BUT–if they’re doing this as a deliberate reflection of idol singing culture, as a heightened-to-the-absurd adoption of the prominent features of corporate idol singer music….then suddenly I’m way interested, and when the next thing they do comes out I’ll be very invested in knowing what it is, and who/what they’re going to go after next. And I have to listen to it, in order to get it, whatever ‘it’ is. Bad singing and all. Yikes.
    IF they’re doing it on purpose – and I think there are a lot of pieces that fit together on that interpretation, including the costumes (tutu + hoodie???), then they hit an artistic hot button for my tastes. Musico-culturally, this is Dada. Absurd, appropriated, rules-breaking, insulting, rejecting mainstream, collage. Actually, now that I list some of the elements (Dada from Switzerland/German/France circa 1915 – 1920’s), it appears, nearly, that they’ve simply read the Dada Manifesto and appropriated it whole for their own cultural reasons. This would be so cool, I sincerely hope that’s what they’ve got going. For one thing, they would automatically win the award for the hippest and sophisticated audience in the world, by a very long shot.
    Still don’t know if I can stand to play the track more than once, though…

    • Well, all I’d say is that it’s probably overstating it to take it as being any kind of satirical commentary on idol culture, but I do think there’s an awareness informing it. I think their fundamental goal is to make good pop music that is also musically sophisticated and fun in an idol style. They’ve not made that balance quite right yet, but it’s a nice idea.

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