Tag Archives: 2NE1

Max: Tacata

OK, now this isn’t the sort of thing I’d usually waste time with, but it’s interesting for a number of reasons. First, it’s a comeback single by Max, who emerged in the mid-late 90s out of Namie Amuro’s group the Super Monkeys, so it represents an era of J-Pop where idols were practically non-existent as any kind of mainstream phenomenon, and where J-Pop was pitched up somewhere quite close to where K-Pop is pitched now, albeit with a relationship with the international music scene that only ever really flowed one way. Tacata is a cover of a Euro-dance hit from a couple of years ago by the Italian group Tacabro, and Max have past form with this, having in the distant past covered Whigfield’s hit Saturday Night.Max: Tacata

It’s not really a case of Japanese pop seeking out inspiration and revitalisation from overseas though, so much as an exercise in nostalgia for Max’s fans and for all those thirty-somethings who remember them vaguely from their teenage years. You can see this right from the start in the cheesy 90s computer graphics that display the group’s name. Still, it’s J-Pop made by real actual women rather than children wearing shy, fuck-me smiles and flashing as much of their upper thighs as they dare, and it’s a welcome reminder that this was the sort of thing that used to be normal back in the day.

It’s also weird in all sorts of little ways. It has this ridiculous spoken word intro that seems to pastiche the sort of sassy intros CL from K-Pop superstars 2NE1 does, but delivered in such a cack-handed way. My lo-fi bedroom-new wave band Trinitron did something like this sort of spoken word intro in our song Music To Watch Boys By as a deliberately bad (if affectionate) parody and experience regularly makes me aware of how easily irony can be misconstrued as deadly seriousness — still, are Max also doing a parody, or is it a genuine, failed attempt to be cool? Because getting deeper into the song, the Japanese lyrics are also delivered in a bizarre, stilted enunciation, as if by a foreigner unfamiliar with the language, and that has to be deliberate.

Obviously the song’s horrible, albeit sort of fun in a summery kind of Ace of Base/Macarena sort of way, like the soundtrack to getting pissed on sangria and carelessly acquiring sexually transmitted diseases at an Ibiza beach resort in 1997, although 2NE1’s forthcoming Korean Falling in Love single, released a month prior to Max’s effort, manages to channel a lot of the same 90s cod-reggae cheesiness in a rather more musically sophisticated, modern sounding way.2NE1: Falling in Love

The comparison between the two songs and the two groups is relevant because despite the contrast between the naive charm of Max and the more aggressive modernity of 2NE1, they both represent something similar in terms of contemporary pop performed by women who don’t act like children. There is a difference in that Max are stuck in the 90s, while 2NE1 are still very much about now. In fifteen years time, however, both groups will sound equally dated and all that will be left for listeners of either, if such listeners even exist, will be nostalgia. In any case, Max is back, and this summer might be the battleground that decides whether or not nostalgia is the new modern.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: Afterword

As I said in the intro, this list was framed by my own fluctuating tastes and just what I happened to   have listened to this year. Jesse Ruins are a superb band who released their Dream Analysis EP via Captured tracks last February.I didn’t get a chance to hear it during the course of the year so it couldn’t make the list, but it’s probably a good record.

None-more-Kansai garage-noise extroverts Gezan also released an album that I didn’t get the chance to hear in 2012, but it was apparently good enough for Time Out Tokyo to rate it as one of the year’s best. Goth-Trad is another artist I didn’t get a proper chance to listen to, but many picked up. It features in the Time Out Tokyo list as well as Make Believe Melodies’ 2012 album roundup (along with other buzzed-about artists I still haven’t heard, like Taquwami)

And then there are albums that missed out on my Top 20 but which might have made it on another day. Sekaitekina Band’s debut album was good but I went for Underrated instead because I felt the musical development that had gone on between the two records instantly outdated the earlier release. Also there was a new album by capsule, Stereo Worxx, which had some very good stuff on it, but which by the end of the year I’d found I wasn’t really listening to.

I’m not going to do a “Top Tracks of 2012” series since most of my favourite tracks, especially in the indie and alternative spheres, are contained within the albums I’ve just written about, but there are a few excellent mainstream-ish pop tunes I’d like to flag up (all by girl groups, natch). As well as the Kyary Pamyu Pamyu album and the aforementioned capsule, Perfume’s Spending All My Time was really good.

Idol group Dempa Gumi inc.’s awesome, hyperactive cover of The Beastie Boys’ Sabotage is also worth revisiting, especially after having seen them perform it live last weekend.

Also, Korean girl group 2NE1’s I Love You was a great example of pop at the more sophisticated extreme.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.9 – 2NE1 – Collection

Japan’s relationship with K-Pop in 2012 was fraught with ambivalence, as the excitement of the new that washed through 2011 became complicated by politics in the shape of the Takeshima/Dokdo dispute, a growing sense of oversaturation, a backlash against the slickness and professionalism of Korean acts in favour of the fake ordinary-girl authenticity of Japanese idol groups, and perhaps a general sense that the Japanese market was being exploited as a cash cow by Koreans who were more interested in breaking America and whose country had no intention of returning the good will.

Girls’ Generation and Kara, the two big players in the scene (in the absence of new releases by boy bands Big Bang and TVXQ), sold well, but nowhere near as well as the previous year, while worldwide smash Gangnam Style made little to no impact in Japan. Japanese mainstream music in the meantime, slunk back into its comfort zone of late-90s style pop balladry, ephebophilic idol music and repackaged oldies. As a result, the appearance in the spring of 2NE1’s first full length Japanese language album was a ray of light in an otherwise grim year for pop.

I reviewed Collection for The Japan Times and wrote a bit more about it here, so check those out if you want to read what I had to say at the time. In the intervening period, it’s lost none of its swagger and sounds just as over-the-top and clever-stupid as it did when it first came out. Since its release, 2NE1 also came up with what might be the best pop single of the year in I Love You and put on a thrilling arena tour. They’ve been preparing to strike out towards the U.S. by working with will.i.am and all the dreary horrors that entails, so Japanese audiences can at least be satisfied that in 2012 they caught 2NE1 at their best.

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Strange Boutique (October 2012)

It’s entirely possible that this month’s Strange Boutique will land me in hot water with the K-Pop fan mafia, since some of them appear to have taken Psy’s Gangnam Style to heart as some sort of nationalist totem, which is ironic since the song is a pretty thinly concealed satire attacking some aspects of Korean culture. Of course that aspect of the song is meaningless in both Japan and the West, so comparing the disparity in the song’s success in those respective markets needs to focus on other aspects of it.

I had to take a few shortcuts, so hopefully I can clear most of them up here. Firstly, the comment at the end comparing Gangnam Style to The Macarena wasn’t quite the throwaway diss it might seem. As a piece of pop music, The Macarena succeeds in every way that Gangnam Style does — catchy, beat-driven, easily imitatable dance routine — and the pattern of its success is pretty much the definition of the summer novelty dance craze template. There are differences in the role the Web has played in disseminating the video, and Psy’s deal with Justin Bieber manager Scooter Braun suggests that Psy himself might personally be able to move his career onward, although I’d suggest that despite his obvious talent as a songwriter/producer, the role he’s found himself established in as a quirky Asian goofball means he’ll struggle to maintain consistent interest in his musical output.

From Japan’s point of view, I think it’s interesting also that Gangnam Style is basically a streamlined take on the same rap-pop hybrid, Bollywood-tinged house beat that producer Teddy Park often does with bands like 2NE1 and Big Bang — it’s almost the YG Entertainment “house style” — so on pretty much every level, there’s nothing in Gangnam Style that Japan hasn’t already seen. I’m sure it could have been a sizeable hit here with promotional backing and a few TV appearances, but it was never going to make the same sort of, erm, “Big Bang” (sorry) that it made in the Occident.

I’ve also been a bit loose with my use of the word “Asian” to encompass several cultures. Obviously Japan and Korea are quite distinct from each other, although when it comes to marketing their pop culture in the West, they will inevitably find themselves in the same boat a lot of the time since all Asian cultures tend to suffer from similar “Orientalised” stereotypes in Western cultural marketplaces. Remember, this is pop music and we’re always going to be dealing in broad strokes. The trick is to go beyond the stereotype rather than abandon it. Hikaru Utada was never going to do anything by trying to be accepted as just another pop star, but 2NE1 might do rather better by hitching their image to a sexy 1930s Shanghai-meets-2019 LA neon retro cyberpunk image as they do in the video for I Love You.

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2NE1: Collection

CD, YGEX, 2012

There are so many reasons to love 2NE1, and I barely even get into them in this Japan Times review. The main thing is just how utterly, infectiously happy these brash, loud, utterly silly pop nuggets with their loopy, over-the-top production, swaggering spoken word intros, sassy asides and curious penchant for 1980s U.S. pop references make me.

One memory of my recent trip to Europe that will stick with me is watching a packed crowd in Ljubljana reacting to what might have been the first time 2NE1’s I Am the Best (or possible any K-pop at all) has ever been played in a Slovenian club. Electric doesn’t even begin to describe it. Earlier in the year, I dropped Fire into my set at an indie club in Kumamoto and again, you can just see the reaction ripple through the crowd. Whatever it is 2NE1 have, it taps into some kind of primal disco force.

Of course you can’t please everyone, and I gather some people found it a bit confusing. Obviously when writing a CD review, one doesn’t set out with the intention of provoking anger, distress or head-scratching bafflement in one’s readers. Unfortunately, much as I wish I had time to deal with a mixed-ability readership, that doesn’t lie within my capabilities at this time, so all I can offer is gentle encouragement that some people might want to step up their game.

2NE1: Scream

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Top 20 albums/EPs of 2011 (numbers 11-20)

It’s taken me a while to get round to posting this, partly because there were a few CDs I heard only towards the end of the year and I needed time to digest them, partly because I’m lazy, and partly because I spend so much time out at gigs that I don’t really listen to as many CDs as I thought I did. This is by no means meant to be a definitive list of what’s good in Japan — there were loads of albums this year that I didn’t hear — think of it more as a critically compiled list of what passed through my hearing range last year. I’ve included a few pop albums where I thought what was going on was particularly interesting, but despite my frequent writings on J-pop and K-pop over the last year or so, I don’t think there are many mainstream pop groups in Japan whose actual albums I rate. Kara’s album was appalling, perhaps even more so than AKB48, who at least have never shown any capacity to make music of even the most infinitesimal quality, the T-ara album was great for the first four tracks but sucked after that, Perfume’s album was half a good album but half meh, The Kyary Pamyupamyu mini-album was good and only just missed out. The Sakanaction album was good too, but again, I couldn’t quite justify to myself counting it as a particular favourite. It’s a personal list and therefore subject to all my usual biases and musical prejudices.

I’ve counted both EPs, albums and mini-albums in here since defining the boundaries between them can be difficult at the best of times and Japanese underground bands make it impossible (Pq’s Hausdorff has ten tracks and comes in at eight minutes, another CD in the list has three songs at double that length, and so on). Obviously I’ve not included albums from Call And Response Records since I run the label, so Zibanchinka’s (excellent, natch) Hatsubai Chushi has to sit this one out.

I’ll post the top ten when I get back from Kyushu on Monday, but here’s the countdown from numbers 20 to 11:

20. Kobayashi Dorori: Yarukoto Yattara Kaette yo

Notable for the way the group released this EP with an accompanying erotic manga drawn by the guitarist, Kobayashi Dorori strike an appealing balance between an undoubted tendency towards pop culture geekery that occasionally manifests itself through eccentric lyrical diversions and poker-faced erotic imagery, spiky, Gang of Four-influenced postpunk guitar, and melodies that sometimes nod towards the girly punk-pop of Chatmonchy and their ilk (apologies, but there are practically no decent recordings of them on YouTube or elsewhere on the Web) without compromising the songs’ essentially stripped down natures. The delivery is so dry that it’s hard to tell how serious they’re being throughout most of it (my guess: not very) but that only adds another layer of intrigue to a band that’s already ambiguous on plenty of levels.

19. Siamese Cats: Gum

First up, I’m not usually a fan of these kinds of melodic Japanese indie rock bands. I tend to find them simultaneously not poppy enough to make good, shameless bubblegum pop fun and not aggressive and experimental enough to satisfy on a more harsh and physical level. Nevertheless, this debut mini-album by Tokyo’s Siamese Cats genuinely did impress me with its sometimes Dylanesque melodies, freewheeling approach to rhythm patterns and occasional diversions into the outlying foothills of psychedelia.

18. 2NE1: Nolza/2nd Mini-Album

Yes, they’re a Korean group, but they had an official Japanese release this year (that differed from the Korean version only through the omission of Park Bom vocal showcase Don’t Cry, which was a ballad and therefore doesn’t count) and in any case, Korean music is promoted and sold as an adjunct to J-Pop rather than as “foreign music” (check which floor the K-Pop is displayed on in Shinjuku or Shibuya Tower Records). This mini-album would have made it onto the list thanks to the bonkers Dutch-electro-Bollyhouse-whatever of I Am the Best alone, although Hate You is a fine piece of synthpop in its own right and even annoyingly earnest pop-rock singalongs like Ugly have either an arresting lyrical bite or some interesting synth bleeps and bloops or both. The acoustic guitar-led Lonely is complete crap, but let’s just pretend that never happened.

17. Miila and The Geeks: New Age

Miila and The Geeks’ first full album had a struggle on its hands extending their sparse guitar/drums/sax sound over fourteen tracks and keeping it interesting, but they make a little go a long way, building each song around a single idea and then clinging to it for the whole two minute running time before moving onto the next one. This, along with the minimal, repetitive lyrics, means that while the sound is deliberately scuzzy and uncompromising, there’s always a easily graspable hook to snare the listener. It’s also hugely indebted to bands like Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, and the problem with this kind of music is that when it so obviously harks back to the postpunk era, it sets itself up for potentially unflattering comparisons with genuinely the revolutionary bands of the past. So yeah, while New Age is no Pink Flag and vocalist Moe’s playful, apolitical lyrics lack any of Lydia Lunch’s politically charged rage and gravitas (she has a lot of fun running through the alphabet on Alphabed but it’s hard to imagine her singing lines like “Suburban wealth and middle class wellbeing / All it did was strip my feelings” or “I woke up bleeding / You are my razor”), musically it stands up pretty well on its own, and certainly among those at the forefront of the group’s peers.

CD, Self-released

16. Pop Office: I Was Killed Here

I’ve written about this here and haven’t much to add. Pop Office do the 80s new wave revival thing that is the stock in trade of bands like Lillies and Remains and Plasticzooms, but they never sound like they’re trying to be anything other than themselves. I like.

 

CD, Self-released

15. Pq: Hausdorff

With ten songs in eight minutes, this self-released CD/R album by Tokyo experimental collective Pq typically dives straight into a song, rattles through a dozen New-York-no-wave-meets-late-Canterbury-scene-psych-punk-with-mumbling musical non sequiturs in the space of about 42 seconds, pauses for a second, and then does it again. On one level, it’s a jangling jumble of disconnected sounds, and yet… and yet… And yet step back and it’s gloriously coherent, sprightly, sparkling with fun and humour. This is what experimental music should be.

CD, Take a Shower Records

14. Bossston Cruizing Mania: Loaded, Lowdead, Rawdead

I’ve written extensively about this album too, so again there’s not much to add. Bossston Cruizing Mania are fierce, aggressive, cynical, funky, occasionally self-indulgent but often devastatingly effective. They make messy, lo-fi postpunk not in tribute to their idols but out of having absorbed, played and lived loud, dirty, uncompromising music for most of their adult lives. This is real, baby.

CD, Contemode

13. capsule: World of Fantasy

Fans are divided over this album, but the critics are wrong. World of Fantasy was fabulous at the time, coming in a blast of club-ready, hedonistic fun just as post-quake Tokyo was looking for escapism, and after nearly a year, it’s still a gloriously stupid, often comically silly record. Nakata told me last year that he’s able to get away with more complex, multilayered ideas with capsule than his work with Perfume which he said needed to have one big idea. Now this may be true as far as his remit goes, but the fact is that World of Fantasy was his big dumb blast of riffs and catchy-yet-meaningless slogans, while JPN was all fiddly (although often interesting) production, and many of the songs’ melodies meandered aimlessly, idly and vainly looking for the big chorus or catchy hook that they needed.

CD, White Lily Records

12. Sloppy Joe: With Kisses Four

Another one that I reviewed last year. Utterly unoriginal, but so shameless about it that it gets a big balls-of-steel award for bravado. Also Still Be a Little Roof is possibly the indiepop song of the year.

CD, Self-released

11. Buddy Girl and Mechanic: 4 Songs Demo

Another self-released CD that did the rounds of the Tokyo indie scene last year. I’m not sure if it was ever even made available on sale or if it was just a promo, but it’s really quite lovely. Brooding, ambient, Lynchian Kraut-blues, with breathy, almost whispered vocals. Opening track Satan’s Son sounds like early Spiritualized or some of Jason Pierce’s material with Spacemen 3, but its when they dive into Can territory, as on the skittering, repetitive, motorik UltraWitchCraftyFab and the abstract funk of Fenix Drops that it really takes off.

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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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