Category Archives: Classic Pop

The Setting Sun: Tetsuya Komuro, Namie Amuro and How to Be a Girl

I’ve always had rather mixed feelings about Tetsuya Komuro. On the one hand, I blame him for in the late 80s and early 90s killing kayoukyoku and creating the ugly, lumbering beast that is J-Pop; his thin, tinny beats and digital synths drilling out a relentless pitter patter of cheap Eurobeat and inspiring even cheaper knockoffs that can still be heard today in some of the musical atrocities being churned out by AKB48.

But fundamentally, Komuro was and is a music guy to his core. He’d come up out of the new wave movement of the 80s and like most of the key figures in the birth of J-Pop (notably Takeshi Kobayashi and Judy And Mary), he really knew and cared about his music, even when the stuff he was making sucked huge logs.

Also, for anyone still looking for reasons behind the rise of Korean pop in Japan, Komuro’s work demonstrates a number of precedents with its localised repackaging of contemporary dance music coupled with obligatory rap segment pretty much defining the core K-Pop songwriting formula. More than that though, he would occasionally imbue his work with some elements that were if not exactly inventive, at least striking in terms of the Japanese pop music scene. From 1997, at the swaggering peak of the 90s, just before the sun started to go down on J-Pop, here’s one of Komuro’s finest moments as a songwriter and producer.

Namie Amuro: How to Be a Girl

The idea that Korean pop is not a strange and alien thing to Japan is one that I keep coming back to, and I’m convinced that getting to grips with its own musical heritage is something that Japanese pop would benefit a lot from in terms of firstly understanding the Korean invasion and secondly in terms of fashioning its own response.

Japanese pop’s fear of the schaffel beat is something I wrote about last year, and while there are maybe historical reasons why that kind of R&B influenced rhythm never took hold here, I think it’s also symptomatic of a contemporary fear of anything that differs from the formula that J-Pop has come to understand as being the sound of its greatest age, the boom years of 1997/98.

However, listen to How to Be a Girl, a number one hit single released at the height of the boom as the follow-up to the record-shattering smash hit ballad Can You Celebrate (with well over two million sales, it makes AKB48’s recent efforts look like chicken feed), and Komuro is doing far crazier things with the rhythm. Lennonistas will recognise it as the backline from The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows, although 1990s pop fans would perhaps have been more familiar with it from The Chemical Brothers’ 1996 UK hit Setting Sun (yeah, the one with Noel Gallagher on it). He’s being true to his own formula of watering down contemporary dance hits, but he’s also using the hotly anticipated follow-up to the best-selling single of all time ever by a female singer and pushing out the boundaries of Japanese pop in a way that would be unthinkable for anti-musicians like Yasushi Akimoto.

The Beatles: Tomorrow Never Knows (I just had to embed this clip)

Couple that beat with a riff appropriated from Gary Numan’s Cars/Wire’s Men 2nd (all Numan’s best stuff was nicked from his more talented contemporaries) and some neat distortion on the vocals and you have a piece of mainstream pop music from one of the nation’s biggest selling and most iconic artists that breaks all the rules of what J-Pop now thinks popular music can be.

Amuro herself is another crucially important part of the song’s appeal, and here’s where Japanese pop differentiates itself from its Korean rivals. Her dancing is more of an offhand shuffle, coming across effortlessly cool rather than simply naive and amateurish, her hair flops down insolently over her face, her costume takes China-dress chic and reconfigures it as a plain, matt black casual suit. Amuro, at that time still only nineteen years old (one year younger than Atsuko Maeda of AKB48 is at the time of writing this), is mature, stylish, sexy and cool, but she’s also casual and easygoing, without the baby-doll lolicon posturing of contemporary Japanese idols, without the militaristically drilled, aggressive sexuality of Girls’ Generation and their followers and without the cartoonish yankii bad girl schtick of 2NE1. Her image is attractive but at the same time attainable for young women.

Sure, How to Be a Girl never reached the sales of its predecessor, but then nothing since then has, and those kinds of crazy figures are never coming back. Amuro’s eclipse by Ayumi Hamasaki and Komuro’s spectacular fall from grace are stories for another piece, but the popularity of 1997-model Namie Amuro should stand as a lesson that Japanese pop fans can handle musical ideas that go beyond the expected, and that at least in theory (of course, given the technicolor extremes that pop imagery is exploring at the moment, one wonders who would even notice an artist as understated as Amuro comes across in that clip) female sexuality can be mature and post-pubescent without aping the glistening artificiality of K-Pop.

Just to leave you with, here’s Seo Yeon’s Korean language cover of Amuro’s biggest hit:

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Classic Pop Corner — The Kyary Pamyu Pamyu of the 1990s: Tomoe Shinohara

With her new, not-as-good-as-the-last-one single Tsukema Tsukeru and advertisers increasingly pushing their products at us through her face, it seems like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is getting set to take the big leap up from cool but relatively minor pop culture phenomenon into being something genuinely pervasive and irritating. And more power to her.

Tomoe Shinohara (L), Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (R)

We’ve actually been here before though, or at least a very similar place. A quirky, flambuoyantly fashion-sensitive, charismatic pop culture icon who can dazzle and impress on TV variety shows whilst retaining offbeat credibility among arty, creative types; self-assembled costumes throwing together trashy trinkets and taking fringe fashion from a previous decade to gaudy extremes; infectious, wacked out pop music produced by the decade’s leading electronic/pop crossover artist; music videos with dodgy, tacky computer graphics? I name thee, and thy name is Tomoe Shinohara:

Tomoe Shinohara: Kulu Kulu Miracle (produced by Takkyu Ishino)

Tomoe Shinohara was all over TV in the late 90s, with her kooky hairstyles, extreme version of patchwork 80s new wave era “nagomu gal” or Jun Togawa style fashion, famously squeaky voice and wonky tooth, and her sharp, offbeat wit. In addition to her TV work, she went to design college and started her own fashion brand, and in her music work she worked with people like Takkyu Ishino of technopop/dance music legends Denki Groove, hung out with the New York hipster Sean Lennon/Yuka Honda axis, and more recently has sung with new wave/avant-pop experimentalists Hikashu.

Hikashu + Tomoe Shinohara + Steve Eto: Biro Biro

In an ironic sort of way, we might be able to see her as a product of the late 90s just as much as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is a product of the early 2010s. In the 90s, the music industry was making money hand over fist, with both mainstream J-pop and quirky, arty, offbeat Shibuya-kei music doing the business commercially, and it probably didn’t seem like so much of a risk unleashing something like Tomoe Shinohara on normal people. Kyary is first and foremost a Net phenomenon, whose popularity has grown through harnessing technology to gather a niche, subcultural audience. She comes onto the scene at a time of plummeting sales for the music industry and it is perhaps ready to grasp at straws, to have a crack at this Internet thing and see if there is any money to be made.

Tomoe Shinohara (L), Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (R)

It will be interesting to see if Kyary, upon reaching the sort of mass media saturation she seems destined for, follows Shinohara’s role and maintains contact with the creative fringes of popular music. The thought of a collaboration between her and some fringe artists with compatible philosophies like HNC/Hazel Nuts Chocolate would be far more interesting than seeing her simply melt into the pastel goo that makes up most contemporary Japanese pop.

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Classic Pop Corner — Saori Minami/Chisato Moritaka: 17-sai

It’s a bit of a recurring theme from me that mainstream pop in Japan peaked in the 1970s and never really recovered that sense of melodic depth, economy and vitality. This song, 17-sai (“Seventeen years old”) is an interesting one in that it brackets what we might call the “kayoukyoku era” with two quite distinct versions.

The first was by the Okinawan singer Saori Minami, so let’s have a listen to her version here now:

Saori Minami: 17-sai

It represents an interesting period in Japanese pop, where Japanese songwriters were beginning to mutate the influence of Western pop into something different. As Minami’s first single (released in 1971), it’s also significant as possibly the first piece of Japanese idol pop ever, and at the heart of that lies a conflict of sorts too. Minami herself never had any desire to be an idol, preferring to avoid overt cutesiness, and her songwriting team generally understood this, tailoring her songs to appeal to Minami’s own sense of what she wanted to do as best they could within the constraints of what her agency, the notorious Burning Production, would allow. In this case, songwriter Kyohei Tsutsumi wrote the song with the image of American country singer Lynn Anderson’s (I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden in his head after Minami praised the song in their initial meeting.

The resulting song comes in at a bit under three minutes, which is how long a pop tune should be, and while it’s far from Minami’s finest work, it’s a charming little pop tune with a memorable melodic hook.

Now we’re going to jump forward to 1989, at the death of the idol era, where the song was reworked and covered by Chisato Moritaka. Let’s have a listen to her version now:

Chisato Moritaka: 17-sai

Moritaka comes across as an aggressive pastiche of an idol singer in this song with her lower half all ridiculous puffy dress and proto-K-pop legs that go on for miles, and then her top half an exaggerated parody of a late 80s power suit. The music matches this, taking Tsutsumi’s melody, working it into a New Order/Vince Clarke-influenced synthpop disco track and stretching it out to just short of five minutes.

Because the truth of the matter was that idols were dead in 1989, and Moritaka was never really meant to be an idol. She existed in a strange sort of limbo between the end of kayoukyoku in the late 80s and the birth of J-pop in the early 90s. There was a demand from audiences for something more grown-up, which the labels and talent agencies were just waking up to, but they were unsure of how to go about delivering it.

In the end, they looked abroad, primarily it seems to Europe. Moritaka’s contemporaries, the idol duo Wink, had hits covering Kylie Minogue’s Turn it into Love (as Ai ga Tomaranai) and Slovenian synthpop group Moulin Rouge’s Boys Don’t Cry (as Namida wo Misenaide), and it was the nascent Avex Trax label with its importing of Eurobeat records and the sound’s subsequent adoption by producer Tetsuya Komuro that eventually gave birth the the J-pop sound that defined the 1990s, and which groups like AKB48 have never fully forgotten.

While Wink fell by the wayside, Moritaka went on to lose the disco and make the transition into a successful mainstream pop artist throughout the 90s, but this curious hybrid of classic 70s pop and almost-modern European disco-synthpop is a curious period in the history of Japanese pop.

Now the reason this is significant, is that I think at the moment, the popularity of Korean pop in Japan at the moment ┬árepresents a similar period of transition, or at least the potential for one. The fact that people are becoming enthused over something from overseas should be a warning sign to domestic producers that audiences think they’ve become stale. Arguing that this is simply a case of companies shoving K-pop down people’s throats misses the point. Japanese talent agencies tried their best to shut out Korean music, with Johnny & Associates threatening to pull their artists from any TV shows that presented Korean boy bands at one point, but people kept buying them. Korean artists were selling comparable numbers to Japanese groups on import alone, and little shops in the Korean district of Shin-Okubo were making crazy sales just as HMV were sliding into bankruptcy. Japanese talent agencies had to join up with their Korean counterparts to sell this stuff.

The problem is that since Kylie Minogue never bothered to learn Japanese or tour extensively here, Japanese versions of her songs, or at least some equivalent sound by Japanese artists, became a necessity. Korean groups are self-contained, they contain at least one or two fluent Japanese speakers among the group, and they are happy to re-record their back catalogue in Japanese. So what’s there for Japanese artists to do?

The answer has to be to recognise that K-pop offers something different and attractive to Japanese audiences, but to make something different. To synthesise that sound and mutate it, as Kyohei Tsutsumi did in 1971, and as Chisato Moritaka’s people did in reverse in 1989, to make something that can push Japanese pop forward in a new direction.

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