Monthly Archives: April 2014

Strange Boutique (March 2014)

My March column for The Japan Times was something I’d been planning to write for a long time anyway and was really a development of things I’d written about before and which had come together in part through the process of writing my book. The sudden viral explosion of all things Babymetal-related was a serendipitous bit of timing that gave me a single focus to hook the idea into, and I daresay being able to hop onto the back of an international hot topic made the JT web site people happy as well.

One thing that changed with the new focus on Babymetal was that the international angle made the story sort of about the international reporting of the group and by extension about Japan generally. The opening gambit, where I write a hypothetical “false intro” imagining British pop culture being written about from a similar “aren’t they wacky!” perspective was one I had some doubts about and these doubts were later confirmed when the Slovenian musician N’toko, who was staying with me during his Japan tour at that time, pointed out that’s pretty much exactly how most of Europe does tend to see the British. I suppose given that the JT is an English language paper though, that’s less of an issue. In any case, I think it still makes its point.

I’m not a particular fan of Babymetal, although I think they’re nice enough, I dig the metal angle, and the silliness of some of their stage performances makes me smile. I mean, when you think about how stupid, theatrical and childish a lot of metal really is, isn’t it the sort of music that’s more appropriate for little kids to be doing than middle-aged guys?Babymetal: Death

What surprised me a bit about the response to the article was how quickly the comments coalesced around the idea of it as something sexist or exploitative. I guess it shouldn’t have, since you can’t take a couple of 14 year-old girls (and that’s just how old they are now — they were younger when the group started), stick them on a stage and tell them to dance in front of a massive crowd of adult men without there being something creepy and exploitative about it. It’s the nature of the beast, and no idol music will ever really escape from that, whatever excuses the scene’s apologists offer. That said, taken in context, they’re pretty benign in comparison to Yasushi Akimoto’s Evil Empire.

Another point I didn’t really go into in the article was the relationship with visual-kei, which seems a bit odd from a Japanese perspective, since it’s been a dead genre for a long time now, but once you see it in the context of trying to capture overseas fans, it makes more sense. Despite having been dead in Japan for over a decade, visual-kei has enjoyed a long spell of, posthumous zombie popularity abroad, and I get the impression that the lack of new material from the scene has left an under-served overseas market primed for stuff like visual-kei. The dreadful One OK Rock seem to have tapped into that need, and I wonder if Babymetal were at least partly deliberately attempting to do likewise, at least in part.Babymetal: Headbanger

Anyway, I don’t really think Babymetal are a positive thing so much as someone making the best of a bad situation. The whole “take subcultural thing, add small girls, serve” approach to music just seems like a terribly reductive approach to music, and there must be other ways of selling it. Seeing indie bands and promoters adopt a similar approach is really starting to get a bit pathetic. I remember the way Agata from Melt Banana (a fan of Babymetal) expressed a bit of anxiety about how their use of blast beats could end up with a situation where people hear blast beats in a Melt Banana song and just think, “Oh, they’re being like Babymetal,” but I think that’s just how underground music’s responsibility to keep finding new ways to move things forward is enforced and I can’t really see any advantage in ring-fencing certain tools of musical expression for the exclusive use of the underground. Where it becomes a problem is where the underground pioneers who develop these ideas don’t get the credit they deserve for them, and that is certainly the situation you have now. Unless Melt Banana start producing idol music, no one outside their little core fanbase is ever going to give two shits about them in Japan, and that’s sad and a failure of the industry as a whole. Still, critical though I’ve been of idol culture over the years, I’m not completely against it, and we have to recognise what it offers that other aspects of the music scene in Japan don’t.

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Interview: Crunch

Regular readers, of whom I’m assured I have a few, may have noted a certain sparseness in reporting these past few weeks. The reason for that is that I have been almost permanently either in transit, at shows, or recouperating from the exertions caused by the above, all for the greater purpose of Slovenian rapper N’toko’s most recent Japan tour to support the album Mind Business, which you may remember I released in Japan on my Call And Response label in January (CD available here or on iTunes here, thanks for the custom!) Now I gather that a few of you found some value or at least interest in my series of posts on running an indie label in Japan, so at some point over the next week, I’m planning to do a sort of tour diary series running down the N’toko tour and giving what insight I can into the experience of managing a bargain bin, no-fi Japan tour, the different environments both in terms of venues, bands, organisers and general atmosphere of the various towns we passed through, and the logistical and financial challenges faced. However, before that, there is some important housekeeping I need to do on this blog, specifically a number of articles I’ve written for other outlets to which I would like to direct your attention.

First up, and really most ridiculously overdue, I did an interview for The Japan Times with Nagoya pop/new wave band Crunch.

I say most of what I want to say about them in the article itself (it’s quite an opinionated piece for an interview, but then I find myself becoming more opinionated in my writing as I get older) but it’s worth picking out a few points I think are interesting or important. Probably foremost among them is the comment about how some indie record stores wouldn’t stock their CD because it’s too pop, despite the band themselves being pretty definitively underground. This is both a problem and completely correct for the music scene in Japan.

Firstly the problem is obviously that it perpetuates the divide between pop and underground music that is initially caused by the narrow focus of mainstream media and major labels. For every Soutaisei Riron that crosses over into the mainstream, there are hundreds of bands that are left behind — the majors just don’t need them all. With an indie infrastructure to fall back on, some of those bands might be able to support their activities and build a base for themselves from which they could launch a more mainstream career the next time the opportunity arises, but if the indie scene shuts them out, they’re left just playing fairly bland, sub-mainstream events with none of the major scene’s promotion or professionalism, but none of the indie scene’s community or core fanbase.

However, it’s also quite right that the indie scene behaves like this, because if all it’s doing is offering a less successful version of what the majors are doing, what’s the point of them as an alternative? The indie scene is organised along different business lines — in some ways what you might call a communist or syndicalist model, with bands, labels and organisers all needing to support each other in order to keep their work flowing — and it doesn’t have access to the communication channels that can deliver pop music to the kinds of people who like pop music.

Crunch are an interesting case here in that they don’t seem to be all that interested in being a major band, or at least in making the sorts of compromises that major bands have to make or in being “managed” in the way major bands are, but at the same time, their music clearly has a lot of mainstream appeal. My first instinct was to dismiss them as something inherently out of my range of interest and it was only really when I noticed a few people whose opinions I greatly respect (particularly the good people at Japanese music web magazine Cookie Scene) taking a close interest in the band that I started listening in a different way and started to be able to pick out the layers to what they do that my initial superficial glance over their music had missed.

The big thing about them that struck me was how when doing the interview the vocalist Noriyo demonstrated an enthusiasm for and interest in music not only as a performer but as a listener that went way beyond what most bands are ever willing or able to admit. Most bands will clam up and divert questions about what music they like, wither for fear of being pigeonholed as a certain type of band, for fear of admitting influences that would reveal their plagiarism, or because they simply don’t have much interest in or knowledge of music in the first place (this latter reason is I fear depressingly common). Even if you’re making pop music, having a wide and deep musical background as a listener inevitably leads to a richer kind of pop music — this is why Haruomi Hosono, Yumi Matsutoya and their 70s songwriting generation had such a long-lived influence, and while Crunch aren’t as technically honed as the 70s “new music” crowd, their songwriting sense feels much closer to their tradition of creating mainstream pop informed by a diverse and not necessarily musically related background musical knowledge than it does to the zeitgeisty grasping at new trends of K-Pop or the pop-art paintsplatter of nostalgic influences that much idol music is composed of.

Crunch are probably helped by being from a city the size of Nagoya too. Somewhere smaller and they’d have trouble finding other musicians who they felt an affinity with, but at the same time, the indie scene is small enough that it can’t really afford to shut them out. Somewhere as big as Tokyo there’s the danger that unless they quickly found some fellow musicians, booking managers and organisers who got what they were trying to do, they’d be swallowed whole by an endless stream of live venues all playing bland wannabe pop and never seen or heard from again.

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