Strange Boutique (June 2014)

I’ve been very slow in updating links to my column lately, but I’ve continued writing it monthly, My June column deals with the way Japanese popular music has no widely understood corpus of generally agreed-upon “classic” works that could act as a starting point for new listeners looking for a way in or journalists looking to put some new buzz band into context. Of course people would disagree on such a list, but that disagreement would itself help work towards keeping the “canon” as I term it a living thing able to incorporate new discoveries and new interpretations. Film has this, literature has this, but, in the English language at least, music doesn’t. Some people are obviously going to hate the idea — “Don’t tell me what to listen to! Music should be discovered freely, not decided by elites!” — but as it stands now, it’s mostly the commercial elites of the music industry that decide what we can even find information on. A lot of criticism of “elitist” journalists is really just pop fans scared of their pet faves being put into a context that makes them look bad. Anyway, read the full thing here.


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4 responses to “Strange Boutique (June 2014)

  1. Fascinating column, I’m glad you linked to it. The canon of American (okay, Anglo) pop is itself linked to a longer canon that hits the pre-60’s rock (Chuck Berry et al), and multiple forebears in Tin Pan Alley, swing jazz, gospel, and very well-established and long sequences of blues music both electric and pre-electric. So we make sense of that Anglo pop canon not least by recognizing what the blues forbears like Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf engendered in Rolling Stone, Cream, and Johnny Winter, among many others.
    The canon derives its authority in part from the very long-lived traditions it derives from. It matters [at least in part] that blues was born in the society where the rock part of the pop canon is so closely monitored and appreciated.
    One of the most interesting aspects of the comparatively few Japanese artists I’ve followed is its musical Japanese-ness. My admittedly limited Japanese cultural background still allows me to recognize Japanese musical scales, instrumental timbres, and vocal techniques that are *not* part of the Anglo canon’s traditions, and those features grab my attention fast when they’re effectively used.
    So I’m wondering, if Japanese pop music is to have a canon, is it possible to find its multiple forebears in deeper Japanese music history as well? If the Japanese pop canon is only something grafted in after WWII, then it may be difficult for it ever to get traction. But I think the longer-term connections are in there somewhere. It would be great to listen to Japanese songs of, say, the 1920s and 30s, and be able to hear what those predecessors lend to the current Japanese pop canon.

    • And Cuban music as well, perhaps. I’m not sure going that far back into the roots is completely necessary in order to have a generally recognised corpus of classic work to aid newcomers looking to explore Japanese pop and rock music though. If you’re building a comprehensive historical narrative then sure, but otherwise, there comes a point where it’s really only the ethnomusicologists who are left interested.

      I think focusing in too hard on the ethnic Japanese musical roots of Japanese pop can end up being a bit of a red herring and something that attracts essentialists from within Japan and Orientalists from without, because the war really did create such a massive upheaval. I cannot recommend Michael Bourdaghs’ book enough because it gives a very good, even handed explanation of pre-occupation popular music in Japan. There are certainly folk traditions, but also Western classical influences, and the Japanese occupation of Asia brought in all sorts of other influences (mostly jazz from America via the local scenes) that were increasingly getting censored at home. I’d say you can pretty much start with the late 60s though and gain a useful working familiarity with most of what you’d encounter.

  2. Yes, to explore Japanese pop music as a newbie, I agree with that. I guess your column got me thinking about why we have so much attention paid to the canon of American pop, and especially American rock. The discussions are endless, and published all over the place multiple times annually, and great battles are fought over the precise locations of the top 20 or so. We *really* care about this canon–there is something American-essentialist about it, not least because I think it speaks to who we think we are as a nation of music-makers and music-listeners. I know that the Japanese (and the, say, Icelanders, and Brazilians, and Taiwanese, etc) have a distinct sense of who *they* are, as well, and as an outsider I cannot understand what that is until someone explicitly lays it out–a canon is one good way to get to that. For example: the sensibility of language is lyrics appears to be very different in Japanese pop. The number of Japanese words sprinkled into the lyrics of American pop is near zero, but the reverse often seems to be the case in Japanese pop music. Is that an expression of international cosmopolitanism? A passing fad? A deliberate strategy to crack overseas markets? A Japanese expression of musico-American hipsterism? Whatever it is, it’s beyond my experience that is grounded in American music. Basic question: Do any of these English/Japanese hybrid-lyrics have a presence in the Japanese canon?

    • Is there perhaps a distinction between canon and narrative? They certainly cross over and feed each other, but they don’t feel like exactly the same thing to me.

      For English words in Japanese pop, a couple of things: Firstly, while there aren’t many Japanese words in Anglo pop, there are hundreds of French words simply because of the enormous amount of French there is in English that we don’t even think about. A lot of the English in Japanese pop is just like that and most Japanese wouldn’t even recognise those words as particularly foreign. Secondly, the full English phrases where it obviously is being used as a foreign language rather than foreign-originated parts of Japanese, there are numerous reasons, such as the rhythm of the vocal flow or for specific impact points. English in Japanese songs is often used for sloganeering purposes because for some reason English phrases can often seem more catchy and direct. You see this in advertising a lot, where big Japanese firms have English company slogans. “Drive your dreams” (Honda), “Shift the future” (Nissan), “Inspire the next” (Hitachi), “Make Believe” (Sony) are big examples there. It might be worth revisiting this old column here as well:

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