Category Archives: Strange Boutique

Strange Boutique (August 2015) – Fuji Rock and making the audience work

My Japan Times column this August kind of follows on from what I was writing about in July, where I discussed some of the problems I have with Rockin’ On Japan magazine and the Rock in Japan festival. In this instance, I look at the same issue from the other side, focusing on Fuji Rock.

What I like about Fuji Rock is that it actively makes life difficult for you, forcing you out of your comfort zone. It can be annoying at first, but once you get past that wall of irritation and absorb yourself into the festival’s way of doing things, it opens out into a much more reqwarding experience. I shan’t go into the specifics of that here, since you can just read it for yourself in the actual article, but I’ll mention briefly that Moon♀Mama (Pika from Afrirampo’s solo work), Oshiripenpenz, Hysteric Picnic, Bombori and Jim O’Rourke all did a great job of representing the Japanese underground scene, while Manic Sheep flew the flag for Taiwan with pride.

Instead, it’s this idea about making the audience work that I think is interesting. I’ve mentioned this before, but the meaning behind the label name Call And Response (apart from retaining the same CAR initials as this site, Clear And Refreshing) is really about the relationship between music and audience. We will reach out to you, but we expect you to meet us part way – you have to do your part of the exchange as well: you have to contribute your half of the conversation. To put it another way, music is not a service industry.

Except of course that for most people music really is a service industry, which is really at the heart of my dislike of the philosophy behind Rock in Japan. It’s also an attitude that filters through into audiences and can lead to a particularly obnoxious sense of entitlement and incredibly lazy listening habits. “I paid money, so entertain me!” sounds like such a hard-nosed, sensible, bottom-line thing to say, but by even considering money as part of the transaction, you’re shifting the whole meaning of art onto commercial terms, which is something I don’t accept.

Exchanges of money happen all the time in the arts, but they are separate, parallel operations to the actual experience the artist and audience share – and the prices have pretty much nothing to do with the actual value of the work to which they are assigned. The really important transaction that’s happening in art is between the extended hand of communication that the artist offers and the open palm of acceptance that the audience extends in return. It’s a transaction that has more in common with sex than commerce.

Fuji Rock isn’t perfect, and anyone who would voluntarily have sex of even the most metaphorical kind with the vile Owl City should be sectioned as a menace to both themselves and to society at large, but it deserves praise as an event that recognises the importance of breaking down the traditional framework in which audiences consume music and constructing a fresh context of its own that you have to make an effort to enter. More generally, I think this process is important in recognising that music isn’t a “pure” thing, free of the sort of lifestyle-orientated branding that I often complain about, but at the same time, that lifestyle can be constructed in a way that is more amenable to a positive and openminded relationship with art and music.

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Strange Boutique (July 2015) – Rockin’ On and the eternal afternoon

My July column for The Japan Times talks about the Rock in Japan festival, but more generally what it’s about is the effect of Rock in Japan and its founder magazine Rockin’ On Japan on the music scene.

The idea of “a mid-afternoon slot at Rock in Japan” is a running joke among some of my friends, referring to the mediocre creative ambitions of a certain type of indie-ish band that stands for nothing, is happy to sell out in any way required of them, but hasn’t the balls to make real pop music either. This sort of polished, musically slick, blandly positive, utterly insubstantial faux rock music is basically what counts as Rockin’ On-kei right now.

And it’s popular, kind of. At Fuji Rock this year, it was notable how the organisers had brought in more of these Rockin’ On-type bands, and the attendance went up from last year as a result. It’s also notable how many of the very worst bands at Fuji Rock were bands who are also appearing at Rock in Japan – the risible [Alexandros] and the vile Gen Hoshino being the worst offenders, but Gesu no Kiwami Otome and Ringo Shiina frustrating in their own particular way, if only because of how much visible talent they seem to be wasting on such unambitious, MOR music.

So the “mid-afternoon at Rock in Japan” represents the middle of the middle of the road. The core, rich essence of mediocrity. The highest artistic ambition for the cronically artistically unambitious. And then I noticed that everyone at Rock in Japan is playing in the mid-afternoon. The whole festival is an eternal afternoon. There are no lows, no highs, no challenges, no discomfort. Rock in Japan is the slack, etherised smile of music euthanising itself.

In the article itself I’m more scrupulously fair than that, and I look into a bit more of the hows and whys, but what it all comes down to is the same thing: fuck Rockin’ On Japan.

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Strange Boutique (June 2015) – Is music in a slump? (No, it isn’t.)

My June column comes out of some of the thoughts that I had going through my head while I was in Kyushu in May, on tour with first Sayuu and later Umez.

The little dialogue I relate at the beginning is literally something I hear whenever I travel around Japan or meet an acquaintance I haven’t seen in a long time. I hear similar complaints all the time, from people of all ages – it’s not just me getting old: there genuinely is a sense that music is in a slump.

But is it? It’s so big that it’s hard to say, but I’d be wary of people who say that these things all just go in cycles. Technology has completely removed many of the barriers to creating and distributing music that used to exist, and all art is to a very large extent defined by the constraints within which it has to operate. I don’t know to what extent technology is behind this perceived slump, but if it is, then its changes may be more permanent than some people think.

However, as I say in the article, a lot of it really is down to perception. If we just click a few of the links that whiz by us or even better actually get out to a show, (Hint: there’s an excellent show I’ve organised coming up VERY SOON!) there are loads of really good bands still out there.

What there isn’t, from what I can gather, is quite so much in the way of a scene these days. This makes it more difficult to perceive any sort of unified energy coursing through indie and alternative music as a whole, but on the other hand, it makes what value there is that much more eclectic and exciting.Falsettos: Dig

In the article I mention a handful of bands, mostly deliberately limited to ones I’d discovered in the previous month or so, although I made a point of mentioning the Falsettos who I’d known for rather longer simply because they’re so fucking awesome. My editor Shaun went through and sought out links to most of the bands, so you should check those out within the article itself. I’ll also probably be writing about some of them in more specific detail on here soon (Mechaniphone and Platskartny both have new Eps out, so they’re going to feature here for sure, while both Platskartny and Falsettos are also playing at my next event).

One band that doesn’t have a link in the article is Narcolepsin. They have been around for a long time, but only since they settled into their current three-piece lineup with a keyboard player have they really started to jump out as something really cool. A few scrappy YouTube clips are all that’s available online of them in this form.Narcolepsin

Missing out on Sonotanotanpenz is a source of terrible shame to me when not only did I find their name scrawled on a napkin two years ago by a Fukuoka-based friend of mine but also discovered that one of the members is someone I’ve known for years and has played several times at my own events, albeit in different bands.

Finally The Noup I picked up old-school on the recommendation of Takehiko Yamada from File-Under Records in Nagoya. It’s got to be said that having reliable curators of taste who can filter the information for you is invaluable. Every time you fail to follow up on a recommendation from someone like Yamada, you’re killing music.The Noup

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Strange Boutique (May 2015) – The 80s band boom and Tokyo’s live music infrastructure

The topic of my May Japan Times column deals with the relationship between the 1980s “band boom” and the current state of the live music scene in Tokyo and some other parts of Japan.

It came out of a conversation I had with Koichi Makigami of Hikashu when I was interviewing him for my book (which is nearly finished now, so keep your eyes on this space), when he noted that the explosion in the number of bands in Japan in the early-to-mid-80s went hand-in-hand with both a rapid growth in the number of venues and a rapid reversal in the financial relationship between venues and bands. If anyone wants to know where Tokyo’s annoying pay-to-play live system comes from, this is it.

As I’ve said before, I dislike the “noruma system” but at the same time I’m ambivalent about it in some ways. Basically, noruma means that a large majority of shitty, no-mark bands subsidise a huge, well-equipped infrastructure for those who can make it work for them. This may not seem fair, but a system where venues depend not on bands’ pockets but on their fans for revenue would be unfair as well – it’s just that a different sort of music would benefit (a sort of music that already does pretty well out of the current system actually).

However, I do wonder if that system is finally crumbling after all these years. Young bands (those that even bother playing live rather than just making wispy indietronica on their laptops like wusses) increasingly seem drawn to the many alternatives to paying noruma at regular live venues, and that may be starving the more traditional venues of the next generation of bands. When Shibuya Echo was open, it became a sort of hub for young indie musicians and DJs, and that role seems to have moved mostly to Ebisu Batica now. Neither Echo nor Batica are/were good venues by typical Tokyo standards, but they are/were cheap to use, and in the end the compromises in terms of sound quality, space and (at Batica) high drink prices appear to be worth it to many.

Similarly, the small studio complex Koenji Dom, which has always hosted occasional gigs, now seems more like a venue than a studio, with events on every weekend. It’s leading to a slightly frustrating trend towards over-stuffed gigs at venues that are too small to handle it, simply because the venues are cool and easy to make money from, but then who is to blame for there not being a viable alternative?

The counterpoint to this argument, however, is that these venues are simply petri dishes where bands and scenes can grow before stepping up to the “real” venues. Shibuya Home seemed to occupy that role for a while, and perhaps thanks to friendly booking staff Shimokitazawa Three seems to have taken its place now. In this sense, maybe a sort of new synthesis between DiY and “real” venues is forming.

Still, making that step up is difficult. At a small 30-50 capacity venue, you can set a ¥1000 ticket price and not lose money – maybe even make a small profit – but as soon as you step up to a 50-100 capacity venue, suddenly the rental bar necessitates a new standard of ¥1500-¥2000 tickets, instantly wiping out a large part of the attraction of your smaller events. You either have a choice between overcrowded and shitty sounding but financially viable events or spacious and nice sounding but money-losing events. The infrastructure as it currently stands really doesn’t provide much in between.

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Strange Boutique (April 2015) – How to make a subversive tote bag

For my April column in The Japan Times, I tacked the important issue of indie bands making tote bags.

The indie tote bag is an interesting phenomenon, serving any number of functions. One of them is to divide the old-school underground/alternative scene from the cosmopolitan indie/fashionista scene which – in an era where everyone listens to the same basic kinds of bands – it does in a way far more effective than mere music ever could. How long underground tradition can resist the branded tote bag’s irresistable march, however, who can say?

First of all, let’s be clear about one thing though: Yeah, I know they’re just bags.

Secondly, I should also be clear about another thing: No, of course they’re not just bags.

I don’t object to bands making money, although I don’t think that should be in any way a matter of importance to them. What I object to in the article is the “boutiquing” of indie culture – the turning of the alternative into a miniaturised facsimile to the same homogenising capitalism that made the alternative necessary in the first place. This is a conflict or discourse between art and commercialism that has been going on since the dawn of pop, and however it manifests itself it ain’t going away.

On a personal aesthetic level though, there’s something else that bugs me about tote bags, in a way that t-shirts don’t, and which goes beyond the simple fact that t-shirts are established but tote bags are relative newcomers. There’s something pleasingly direct in the way a t-shirt dominates your ensemble and blares its message rudely and front-on, whereas the tote bag embodies the coyness and lack of conviction that characterises so much contemporary indie culture. You can have a Black Sabbath t-shirt, but a Black Sabbath tote bag only works either by adopting it as an ironic statement or by divorcing the band’s meaning from its superficial signifiers.

That’s not to say that no one should make tote bags. City Pop and post-Shibuya-kei bands already exist in a realm of commercialised faux-artisanal aestheticism, so there’s nothing there for the bags to to undermine in the first place. Other people get away with it thanks to their own particucular characteristics or creative virtues.

A bag. From Umez.

(Making tote bags, however, can be very expensive in Japan.)

Umez make tote bags, and they get away with it partly because their design sense is good and partly because as a band they carry their position on the fringes of the indie/fashionista scene with such awkward, occasionally brutal originality. They should have tote bags because they’re in the tote bag scene, but at the same time, they challenge the musical and creative boundaries of what a tote bag band can be.

Another side is the branding aspect of it. When I was in Nagasaki this past spring, I saw a girl from a band selling home made jewelry and accessories at a gig. I bought a brooch from her for my wife and very nice it was too. These weren’t band-related products that she was attempting to leverage as part of the band’s branding – they were simply imaginative, attractive pieces of design and craftsmanship that she made.

The way the article is framed raises the possibility, partly facetiously, of a “subversive tote bag”, and while the idea made me laugh, it also increasingly felt like a challenge. With that in mind, I came up with two possible approaches towards bringing out the radical potential in tote bags.

The first was to consider how the tote bag’s form and function differs from the blunt weapon of the sloganeering t-shirt. Hanging coyly at the side, a tote bag attracts attention in a different way, drawing your attention in sidelong, not requiring you to gawp directly at the wearer’s chest. A tote bag is a space for a more intricate message – one that would draw viewers in as they stand next to you on a train, or that would show people brief fragments as they pass you in a shop. You’d reach fewer people, but could perhaps affect those people more profoundly. A block of text or a design that offends, disturbs, challenges or confuses, even (or perhaps especially) in a fragmentary form could make the tote bag’s form work towards more subversive ends.

The other idea was to sell branded tote bags that are only available with a brick in them – perhaps even sewn into the body of the bag. You know, just in case you need to swing it at a cop. The sheer impracticality of it, both in terms of selling and wearing them, could neutralise the commercial nature of the bag and emphasise its radical purpose.

Naturally, I’m not going to start making tote bags now, and indeed, the tote bag-hating friends of mine I mention in the article actually responded with something like rage when I even suggested these ideas, unwilling to buy into it even as a theoretical exercise. What I mean with all this, silly though it may be when pursued to this extreme, is that – much like when I talked about making music for advertising earlier on in the year – musicians should consider the relationship between their commercial activities and their art, and how the former affects the meaning or value of the latter.

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Strange Boutique (March 2015) – Gaming the charts

My March column in The Japan Times was a response to the news that chart organisation Oricon was changing the way it calculates the charts to prevent idol groups of the XXX48 cult and their pretend-rivals in Nogizaka46 from using download cards to game the charts.

I’m not going to spend much time on this subject here because frankly I’m sick of writing about idol music right now. It passed the point where it had anything interesting to contribute a couple of years ago, and in particular the big idol corporations that sit on top of the pile are of rapidly diminishing interest to me nowadays, even as a phenomenon. However, (and there’s always a however in these things), it’s worth noting how this news underlined two things.

Firstly, what a feeble, impractical, face-saving move this was by Oricon. Download cards are such a small part of the way idol groups fix the charts, that this amounts to mere lip service to dealing with a much bigger problem. Even if Oricon were to follow the lead of other countries and set a limit on the number of formats and versions of a single that are eligible for the charts, they can’t stop individual fans from buying hundreds of copies of the same CD, and dumping them unlistened-to.

Secondly, it reinforces what I’ve been saying for a long time: that idol music isn’t about music and idol fans aren’t music fans. That’s not to say that their naked, competitive pursuit of the emptying of their own wallets is in itself wrong (each to his or her own), but simply that calling this stuff music is making a category error.

With these kinds of groups and their fan cultures, I’m right now way past irritation and deep into disgust, and this issue conjures up nothing so much as the image of ravenous hyenas ferociously picking the last pieces of gristle off the bleached bones of a once proud beast.

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Strange Boutique (February 2015) – Snobbery

A much busier work schedule and greater activity with the label and event side of my activities over the past few months has seen this site go to sleep for a while, but my Japan Times columns have continued at their usual monthly pace. In lieu of giving you anything new, I hope those few of you who remain will bear with me as I run over this old ground for a while.

My February column was triggered by vinyl snobbery, but is really about snobbery more generally. I’d suggest having a read of it first to get the gist before coming back and finishing this post.

Now I’ll happily call myself a snob, and the central irony of the piece was that I was on my way to a particularly exclusive and in-crowdy event when I saw the “Fuck PC. Real DJs play vinyl” sign that pissed me off so much. The truth of it is that some kinds of snobbery annoy me more than others, and I suspect this is true of most people – someone who honestly didn’t sympathise with any kind of snobbery would be a very strange creature, and probably utterly unbearable to be around. To me, snobbery over the technology used to deliver the music feels like the worst kind of fetishistic capitalism, while snobbery over the content of the music itself makes more sense. In either case, however, I think there’s a defence you can make that snobbery functions as a sort of protective layer around something.

Fuck Vinyl Snobs: Real DJs Play Great Music

Whether that “something” is a set of values or of aesthetics is probably where I start to draw lines (where I become snobbish over the kinds of snobbery I can accept), but the distinction between aesthetics and values is itself a fuzzy one with a lot of overlap. Aesthetics are often built up to reflect values (the home-made, customised, ruined aesthetic of punk is an obvious and easy example) but once constructed, they’re always open to appropriation that ignores or even inverts the values they were designed to express (again, see punk).

As with a lot of my JT stuff, the column picks a side based more on the need to present a focused argument rather than out of an absolute belief in the position I’ve chosen to advance. My defence of snobbery is a relativistic position based less on any sympathy I really have with snobs than on my irritation at the way poptimists and their ilk employ the language of anti-elitism with the (admittedly often unintended) result of promoting trends that reinforce hegemony. On the other hand, the moment the wheel turns and po-faced rockist snobbery begins to dominate, guarantee I’ll be there tearing at it in all my pop-ist fury. As I say, my position is a relativistic one.

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Strange Boutique (January 2015) – Music and Advertising

My Japan Times column for January used the media kerfuffle about Southern All Stars and their dangerous left-wing opinions that war is bad and peace is good and other such related Communism to make a point that was really about music in advertising. Here it is: read it now.

First, to go back to Southern All Stars, we have to understand the context a bit. They were performing a hometown show for fans, so could perhaps have expected their anti-war, anti-government declarations to reach a sympathetic audience, or at least one that has generally bought into their thing enough that they aren’t shocked and outraged by it. However, the performance was broadcast on NHK’s year-end Kohaku Uta Gassen music extravaganza, so it actually reached a far wider audience: the dreaded “general public” and all the horrors that entails. One of those horrors is the potential loss of revenue from advertising endorsements and selling their music for commercial purposes.

My column talks about the need to make a separation between what you do for yourself (and of course the fans who have bought into your thing) and what you do for broader consumption. The musicians I spoke to both to some degree have to separate their personal music from their commercial commissions. Annie The Clumsy can’t sing about her uterus in a commercial for Pocky, and Seb Roberts won’t get very far making anarchist post-hardcore for production libraries – obviously.

In Southern All Stars’ case, that separation is more difficult because they themselves, not just their music, are the vehicle for advertisers. As Roberts pointed out when I was milking him for quotes prior to the article:

“It would do musicians well to remember Ellen Willis’ truism that an artist’s fundamental creation is their own persona. Southern All Stars screwed up by expressing an opinion which fell outside the purview of that persona they’d crafted for themselves.”

The song Southern All Stars performed was a song called Peace & Hi-lite, which on the surface of it is a reference to cigarettes, but which is generally understood as having a left-leaning, anti-war message. Now I do a fair amount of work in the advertising industry myself, and a Japanese colleague of mine remarked to me that he’d been completely unaware of the subtext of that song until people in the media started talking about it recently. The video makes it more explicit, but it’s presented in a lighthearted enough way, with no specific criticisms of the Japanese government. The point here is that there is a line somewhere and Southern All Stars needed to soften the meaning to some degree in order for the song to function in the mainstream; and then when performing to their core fanbase they can make their point more specifically and vocally – unless there are NHK cameras there.

For the average, non-celebrity, working musician, maintaining that separation is easier for now, and can even be useful in some ways. Another musician I spoke to described the process of writing music for commercials as being “like a puzzle” and quite interesting work, while Annie The Clumsy can find the discipline helpful in overcoming writer’s block in her own work. These are both views that resonate with me in the way I balance my personal and commercial writing (and stuff like journalism, which falls awkwardly between the two). A key issue is the degree to which it bothers you to be pouring your creative energies into something that is at best frivolous and at worst outright evil. As my wife (another advertising professional) once put it, “Am I making the world a better place, even slightly, with what I’m doing?” Or as Roberts put it when I spoke to him:

“It’s easy to pull off on a technical level, but it’s genuinely corrosive spiritually. I question the integrity of any musician who would say otherwise,” although as he later added, “It’s only a problem for avant-gardiste contrarians like myself.”

But for how much longer can even this separation be maintained? Advertising is rapidly becoming the only way anyone can make a living from music, and more importantly the primary way music is delivered to people. How long before this advertising-led idea of what music is becomes the unquestioned standard? Or are we already there and left-wing relics like me just haven’t noticed.

The late 90s is an interesting time to look at here. In the UK it was around the time of Britpop, but in America I think a parallel shift was going on over roughly the same period – it’s tempting to take the death of Kurt Cobain as the turning point, but that’s really just a convenient marker for a tectonic shift being driven by far more powerful forces. The Soviet Union was gone and capitalism was the only game in town, and the idea of “selling out” seemed to just die out as a concept. “Why do you hate success?” “Hey, if it works for him, who are we to knock it?”

Meanwhile, music journalism increasingly took its cues from the nonsensical but hypnotically detailed analyses of banal, mainstream pop in American Psycho, delighting in applying the same level of profundity to the latest Britney Spears album that ten years previously it had reserved for the self-consciously serious likes of Echo & The Bunnymen. The growing importance of page views (advertising again) as the Web took over from paper led to the music press’ unlikeable but at least principled form of snobbery giving way to simply “what’s popular = what’s valuable”, all the while wrapping its surrender to consumerism in the self-righteous flag of anti-elitism.

That question of “what’s valuable” is the core question we have to answer. I think if you ask most people now, they’ll say it’s simple: “Does it make me feel good?” or words to that effect. I’m not sure that’s really enough though. Context is not a myth, as the comedian Stewart Lee is fond of saying, and while we might debate the relevance of the context of a song’s creation (once it leaves the artist’s hands, I tend to think they lose control of its meaning to a large degree), the context of its delivery has a very big impact. When Stewart Lee talks about his experience of hearing Steve Earle singing Galway Girl at a music festival, late at night, and then having that experience shattered by hearing the same song in an advert, he’s not just being a snob: he hits on a crucial point. When John Lennon’s Revolution was licensed to a sneaker commercial in the early 80s, people were outraged for a reason, and the remaining Beatles carefully guard the rights to commercial exploitation of their music for good reason. Flying Saucer Attack sabotaged their own career in the early 90s by refusing to allow their music to appear on CD because they felt the context was wrong. Were they idiots? Maybe, but they knew something about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways our understanding of music changes depending on the circumstances under which we hear it and they felt this particular difference was an important one.

“If more people get to hear it, that can only be a good thing, right?”

I don’t know. Can it? Value again: does a greater quantity of listeners in a particular context have greater value than a smaller number in a different qualitative context? Can value be transferred between the two contexts? What is music’s value under these circumstances?

I don’t have a definitive answer to these questions. In my own case, I often get emails from people in advertising agencies or companies that license music, looking to get hookups with the Japanese music scene, and I’m generally willing to help them if I can – I don’t want to impose my own abstract qualms about the “corrosive” effect of advertising on music on musicians without giving them the choice of making their own judgments in the matter. At the same time, I know that what these advertising people in New York, Hong Kong, London and wherever aren’t interested in the kind of music I know and love anyway. As I say, I do a lot of work in advertising and I know what kind of music advertisers are looking for most of the time; they’re interested in hooking into and promoting – and promoting their clients through – stuff that I most likely think is awful and have no particular interest in. If they spent any time listening to the music I write about on here, they’d probably realize that themselves too.

Again though, I don’t have a definitive answer, even to my own satisfaction. Annie The Clumsy is a musician I like a lot and she seems to get on fine making music for herself and for commercial clients, while at the other end of the spectrum, the fact so many musicians I like simply can’t make any money from their work is probably a big reason why they have the freedom to throw caution to the wind and make the kind of stuff I like to begin with.

The truth is that this is just one part of a broader set of issues relating to the concept of value in music and the question of power in art. It’s something I’ll likely keep coming back to as other topics I write about touch on different facets of this discussion. There is no simple answer because there’s no simple question to begin with, but you may rely on me to continue hammering away at it futilely with the limited tools at my disposal.

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Strange Boutique (December 2014) – the year in music

As 2014 comes to a close, it’s end-of-year review time, and as usual my Japan Times column took on the task of trying to find new ways of describing the same stuff that happens every year. For those of you who’d rather not read the full 1500-word piece, it goes something like this:

  • Music industry still broadly in decline
  • Record companies still suspicious of online music and streaming
  • Advertising and tie-ups increasingly more important than actual sales
  • Korean music doing better than Japanese music abroad
  • AKB48 not as popular as they were but still pretty much the biggest thing out there

The way I chose to look at it this time round was from the perspective of what some of the key events or trends of the year tell us about who music is really being made for.

With a group like AKB48, there are a lot of intersecting factors at play as they balance the need to please a number of different masters. As one of my always charming commenters was helpful enough to point out, Google Trends isn’t the only, or the best, measure of something’s overall popularity, and of course their sales are still sky-high. Oricon’s recently-published year-end charts give the group all of the top five singles and the number one album in terms of CD sales, although this figure is fishy as well given the marketing gimmicks that surround CD sales in Japan. The top 40 CD singles was dominated by three organisations: Yasushi Akimoto’s AKB family, the Johnny & Associates boyband farm, and perma-tanned, goateed, twats-in-hats boy band Exile. All these acts boost their CD sales with marketing gimmicks aimed at their fanatical core fanbases, and it’s interesting to note that the only act from outside this axis of evil to make the top 40, comedy “air band” Golden Bomber, released their own song in a plain white case with no extras as a protest against this sort of gimmickry (or/and as a gimmick in itself).

What I was looking at in Google Trends was the general, casual interest in AKB48, in particulat the spikes that occur in June every year around “election” time. This is the time people who otherwise wouldn’t care much about the band but have a mild, general interest in them and are generally favourably inclined towards them are more likely to have a look to see what’s going on with them. Throughout the year, point by point, the figures are about one third of their 2011 peak. This doesn’t affect sales because these people never bought AKB CDs anyway, but it does affect advertising. Anyone living in Tokyo these past few years would have noticed the diminishing visibility of the group on billboards, and as a colleague of mine recently pointed out, advertisers have even resorted to labelling the group in adverts so that people know who they are – something usually reserved for new acts the ad agency has hooked up with the tie-ups as part of its deal with their talent agency. But then the turnover of band members ensures that AKB48 are perpetually a new group, and this is the core of their problem for advertisers in 2014: everyone knew Atsuko Maeda, Yuko Oshima, Tomomi Ito, Mariko Shinoda and maybe a couple of others, but people nowadays would struggle to name any of the current lineup.

In terms of my question about who music is for, where AKB48 fans have been successful is that by their enormous expenditure on the group, they have retained a degree of ownership over them. This idea of ownership is perhaps key to the success of the whole idol format: the fans, by their exercise of obsessive degrees of purchasing power, are able to keep the groups “for them” rather than letting them slip entirely into the treacherous hands of advertising. It’s extreme and a bit mad in its degree, and far more focused on “character” consumption than on music listening, but taken in isolation, the principle is admirable.

Looking over at the iTunes charts, we see a very different picture, with a more diverse selection of acts and far less in the way of idol music (as I say, idol otaku aren’t music fans, they’re machines for consuming character goods) but it does serve as a timely warning of what awaits us if the idol boom were to suddenly die. In three words: One OK Rock. In another three words: Sekai no Owari. I have nothing to say to that other than yuck. We can blame the music industry for feeding people shit, but sooner or later, music audiences have to just take responsibility for their own awful taste.

One thing I didn’t have space to mention in the context of the growing prominence of the “national interest” in the use of pop music was Ringo Shiina’s NHK World Cup theme, which was accused in some quarters of being unnecessarily nationalistic. Now I’m not sure what that means in this context – football is pretty much the one arena in which you get a free pass to be as jingoistic, flag-waving and borderline fascist as you want without damaging your liberal softie cred – but given the Abe government’s ongoing efforts to stack NHK’s board with historical revisionists and ignorant propaganda stooges it bears keeping an eye on. As for Shiina herself, who knows? Her whole aesthetic is based around the fact that she loves Japan a lot, and that’s part of her appeal. A bigger problem with the song is that it was a really rubbish song.

In any case, the fact that the government are now openly and explicitly mobilising pop culture to promote their agenda, from the relatively benign Olympics-related let’s-make-ourselves-look-good-for-the-guests stuff to the full-on militarist AKB48 join-the-army-spread-dreams-to-the-world ad campaign bears scrutiny. What are the criteria behind who gets Cool Japan money? If you’re taking that money, have you read the small print? Do you fully understand what other agenda you might be unwittingly hitching yourself to? This may seem a bit paranoid now, but no pop culture exists in a vacuum, and if pop music is being recruited to serve the state, it matters a lot what the extent of the state’s agenda is. I’d feel much more comfortable with Cool Japan is it was completely out of the hands of the government and in the hands of an independent arts council.

Of course indie music is the main purpose of this blog, and 2014 was a particularly fine vintage for music that no one either within Japan or without is ever going to care about. I wrote a bit about this for The Japan Times earlier in December as part of its albums-of-the-year roundup, and I repeated myself using slightly different words as a small part of Néojaponisme’s own year-end roundup. I shan’t go into detail here because I’ll be going into it in painstaking album-by-album depth next month in my personal 2014 top twenty countdown, but particularly for indiepop and fucked-up junk/postpunk/skronk there was a bumper harvest to the point where whittling it down to a mere twenty discs has proven a painful and difficult exercise.

One of the booms in the indie scene this year has been what I tend to dismissively call “funny bands”, with comical and/or performance-orientated acts like Dotsuitarunen, Nature Danger Gang, Guessband and others being ubiquitous. Partly I think this is the flipside of idol music in that if we see indie as a degraded mirror of mainstream entertainment, where girls are pretty idols while men are comedians. As a result, the indie scene subconsciously mimics that format so on the one hand we get Seiko Oomori and on the other we get Triple Fire.

This rise of owarai-type acts like these is something I’m ambivalent about in that on one level it cheapens the indie scene by making it qualitatively not significantly different from the mainstream, but on the other hand, just as I’d listen to AKB48 any day over terrible, “serious” J-pop bands like Kobukuro and Ikimono Gakari, these theatrical, comical indie bands and performers are infinitely preferable to the tediously earnest, sterile technical virtuosity of professional on-stage wankers like Toe.

In my own musical projects, I can pronounce myself largely satisfied with what 2014 gave me. I celebrated the ten year anniversary of my first event with a thrilling Koenji Pop Festival at Higashi Koenji 20000V/Ni-man Den-atsu which was probably the loudest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. The venue is notoriously loud to begin with, and when the PA engineer gets excited, he tends to gradually push everything up and up as the night goes on. By the time headliners Hyacca stepped up, the walls and floor were shaking and the whole experience was just one of sheer, earsplitting rhythmical noise. For me at least in a good way.

Earlier in the year my Call And Response label put out the album Mind Business by Slovenian rapper N’toko, which remains one of the releases I’m proudest of and perhaps the most coherent recorded artistic statement the label has ever put out. I released it on iTunes, probably for the first and last time of anything on my label. I have nothing in particular against Apple, but given what a non-profitmaking venture Call And Response is, iTunes is just not a marketplace where I feel comfortable doing business or able to justify the time and energy. There’s no pot of gold at the end of the online rainbow, just an increasingly grubby race to the bottom in terms of prices and returns. While I enjoy the convenience of online music as a consumer, as a label owner I prefer to deal with customers and vendors in person, even if that means a vanishingly small number of them. The N’toko tour in March confirmed a lot of those feelings for me, and while it had its ups and downs in terms of crowds, there were far more ups, and experiencing it all in person was its own justification and reward for the effort putting it all together took.

Other releases I put out or helped put out over the course of the year were February’s free compilation 「チョコくれるのはいいが・・・、何を企んでるんだぁぁ!?!?」 featuring 21 different bands covering the song Paranoid by Black Sabbath. I will hopefully top that for completely stupid and pointless free covers projects by the end of next year or at most the year after. The summer also saw the albums Tane to Zenra by Kagoshima psychedelic band Futtachi and Love Song Duet by Tokyo synth-punk trio Jebiotto. Both of these are albums that would on their own musical merits certainly make it into my personal top albums of the year list if I admitted Call And Response releases for contention in those things, but I don’t so they won’t.

There’s already plenty to look forward to next year, with Extruders and Sayuu/Sa Yuu planning new albums for early in the new year. Going a little more mainstream, Capsule have a new album due out soon, albeit alarmingly EDMish judging from the sounds currently emerging from chez Nakata. With Call And Response Records entering its tenth anniversary year, I personally intend to be a busy bee putting out a string of truly horrible releases lab-grown to be the opposite of everything popular in Japanese music right now.

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Strange Boutique (November 2014) — Aya Matsuura’s Mirror

My November column for The Japan Times was one of the occasional retrospective pieces I do, looking back at part of rock or pop history. This time I wrote about Aya Matsuura, who might lay claim to being the last great solo idol before the age of the group (and megagroup) took hold. It’s a thoroughly self-indulgent choice of topic, but I have no shame.

I don’t really talk about her music in the article because the main focus was on her as a star or a pop cultural artefact, but we can perhaps say that she was given access to the cream of Tsunku’s songwriting crop and tracks like Momoiro Kataomoi and Yeah! Meccha Holiday would be standout songs in any J-Pop singer’s canon. She had some fine tunes.

Her star persona is what interests me most though. When I was first discovering J-Pop after arriving in Japan in the early 2000s, Matsuura weirded me out. She was drop-dead gorgeous and through the mediating factor of the screen flirted outrageously with the viewer, but she remained utterly inaccessible — she was like some sort of perfect pop cyborg. At the time, that seemed deeply manipulative, and of course it was in a way, but compared to the way idols nowadays push their physical accessibility so hard, the screen for Matsuura was as much a shield as a medium, openly keeping an arm’s length between artist and audience. The same barrier exists with idols now, but much greater lengths are taken to conceal it and promote the illusion of intimacy, so Matsuura feels more honest. This also made her more like how I feel a pop star should be, and that distance, that air of otherness that she exuded, is key to her appeal (yes, I still have a massive crush on her!)

The point I make in the column about the almost monomaniacal focus on her alone in the videos was first raised by my flatmate at the time (the Emmy award-winning comedy writer Josiah Madigan, namedropping fans) who wondered if it represented in some way the sort of intense self-focus of the kind of teenage girls who we assumed were Matsuura’s main audience. I’m actually not really sure who her main audience was — she wasn’t really an otaku idol, but she wasn’t really a female style icon either — but that may have been part of it. Part of it may also have been a conscious counterpoint to her main contemporaries within the Hello! Project, the mass idol group Morning Musume. In any case, it creates a sometimes surreal, almost Freudian internal universe in which the dramas of her faintly comedic (ironic even?) songs play out.

In its simplest sense, we can see it in the miniature angel and devil Matsuuras in the video for debut single Dokki Doki! Love Mail who battle over the conscience of the giant-sized singer as she towers over the city, beamed from giant screens and dances over the buildings, or the fantasy of the homework robot double the video also plays with. Other videos take it way further though.

Tropical Koishiteru I mention in the article, and it features six different Matsuuras, competing against each other at tennis, officiating over the match, serving as ball girl, singing at the game and watching the match on TV. She competes against herself, judges the contest and observes from behind a screen. It’s a joke, but it’s a joke that serves to fragment her identity and deny easy access to the “real” her. If we take it as a narrative aimed at teenage girls, however, the fragmented identity it displays could be taken as a humorous reflection of their own unformed and confused identities and thus more “real” for its embracing of unreality — the screen not only as medium transmitting the message, and protection keeping audience and star apart, but also as mirror reflecting the fans’ own internal dilemmas back at them.

You can see this too in the video for 100kai no Kiss, where one Matsuura repeatedly undermines another’s attempts to contact a boy she likes, stopping time and rearranging her world just before the point of contact. In one sense this is a simple metaphor for the struggle between shyness and desire, but there is something in the “evil” Matsuura’s glance at the camera as she turns away to leave that suggests she has her own designs on the boy, raising the possibility that this more confident and powerful version of her has a life independent of the “real” Matsuura — rather like the two Golyadkins of Dostoevsky’s The Double, if you want to put a literary gloss on it. Again, this is at heart just a joke, but it’s a joke that fragments Matsuura’s identity. Where in Tropical Koishiteru, the “real” Matsuura is watching on TV as the fragments of herself compete behind the screen (and she cheers on her “good” self), here the bad girl Matsuura is a powerful independent being.

In Ne~e?, the whole internal struggle is flipped outwards and the question of who she should be becomes one she is asking the boy she likes (and by extension the fans). “Who do you want me to be?” “Which me would you prefer?” This is where you might get to a closer sense of the nature of Matsuura’s “screen” and an answer to the disconnect between her reflection of the “real” and her embracing of artifice. What it really depends on is whether the gaze that we cast upon her screen is male or female. To the male gaze she gives nothing of herself, only an endless series of hall-of-mirrors reflections featuring numerous versions of Aya Matsuura but bringing you no closer to the real thing, but to the (teenage) female gaze she gives a reflection of their own struggle to form a coherent identity in the face of competing internal and external pressures and demands. In Ne~e?, Matsuura confronts this disconnect directly: “Yeah, I am many things, because it is you who demands that I be so.”


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