Tag Archives: Kara

Movement (or not) towards a J/K-pop synthesis?

For a while now the two biggest Korean girl groups in Japan, Kara and Girls’ Generation, have represented contrasting ideas about what the best way to approach the audience here is, with the former adapting their Japanese material to the dreary standards of the local pop scene and the latter pushing onward with basically the same, more internationalised version of pop music that they’re selling at home. Which approach won out seemed important to me because it would have an impact on what the eventual response of Japan’s own pop artists would be — if Kara won, they could keep on doing what they were already doing and no reassessment was neceessary, but if the Girls’ Generation approach won, it would mean there was an audience here for a type of sound that local Japanese artists weren’t really providing.

Basically, it seems like the Girls’ Generation approach more or less won out with most Korean artists, probably out of convenience more than anything else, simply releasing Japanese language versions of the same songs they were releasing in Korea (usually with different videos and sometimes with minor cosmetic changes in the production and arrangement) rather than going all-in with the J-pop sound and trying to juggle two divergent but simultaneous careers. These days, even Kara’s Korean and Japanese material are more or less consistent with each other musically, with the main differences lying in the type of sexuality presented in the videos.

And in the end, I think the natural trajectory for Korean pop in the Japanese charts would have to be towards some sort of synthesis like this, with both Korean and Japanese artists converging towards some new kind of shared sound that combines elements of both types of pop.

Kara: Electric Boy

Much as I would have dearly liked the rumours of Yasutaka Nakata producing Kara’s latest Japanese single to be true, with Electric Boy they have actually gone with an overseas writing team. Even so, the result does point towards this synthesis between the light-and-fluffiness of J-pop and the squelchy, bleepy modernity of K-pop.

Girls’ Generation’s most recent Japanese single, Oh!, pulls a similar trick, taking a song that’s pretty fundamentally Western-influenced but playing it on the fluffy side.

Girls’ Generation: Oh!

Of course, Oh! has been around for years in its Korean language incarnation, so it’s really more a matter of the choice of material rather than writing anything new. Like Gee, it’s a catchy piece of throwaway, throwback pop that while it steers clear of mainstream trends in current J-pop, is hardly an alien intrusion into the Japanese musical landscape, not sounding a million miles from some of the Stock, Aitken & Waterman-influenced late-80s/early 90s synthpop confections of Wink and early Chisato Moritaka, albeit with a more modern production veneer.

The idea of going back a bit further into Japanese music history to find common points of reference is one I’ve talked about before, and it’s an idea that has been exploited quite strikingly by Orange Caramel, whose cheery style always seemed cut from another generation’s cloth and who recently made their Japanese debut with a cover of legendary 1970s Japanese idol trio the Candies’ classic Yasashii Akuma.

(You’ll have to go over to Daily Motion to watch the Orange Caramel version since Avex Trax still live in the stone age as far as videos go: Orange Caramel: Yasashii Akuma)

The fact is that Korean artists have in a number of different ways made big moves towards accommodating themselves to the Japanese music scene, while at the same time, usually bringing something of their own into the mix. However, synthesis really should be a two way thing, and it’s harder to see how, if at all, Japanese groups and producers have made moves of their own (any mention of E-girls is banned on here until further notice). Of course the Japanese pop fan nerdocracy might cry, “No! They shouldn’t do anything to pollute the glorious late-90s purity and unchanging majesty of J-pop!” but as I’ve pointed out, what many of the Korean groups mentioned above are doing is really repackaging something Japan used to do very well but has simply forgotten.

The weird shit that’s going down in idol music Japanside suggests that creative talent is in no especially short supply here, but that perhaps it’s being funnelled in directions with more niche (but by no means small) appeal and that Japan’s music production machine apparently remains creatively inward-looking. Progress is always slow, especially when so many big companies have huge amounts of money invested in a particular way of doing things, so while K-pop and idol music are cheap to buy in because other companies (either Korean or Japanese indies) have already done the work of creating and developing the acts, major labels seem to be less willing to take a risk with their own cash.

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Great pop music denied to Japan in 2011: Kara’s Step

While I was putting together my gleefully self-indulgent 2011 Top 10 girly bubblegum pop tunes list, there was one song that I didn’t include but perhaps should have. It was by probably the most successful Korean group in Japan at the moment, who had a string of Number 1 hit singles and two albums in Oricon’s end of year charts. All of which, needless to say, were utter crap.

That group was Kara, who are notable as the Korean group who have gone furthest to ingratiate themselves into the Japanese way of doing things, by throwing out everything that made them refreshing and exotic in the first place and trading it all for some thinly produced, sub-AKB48 J-pop-by-numbers and a pointless TV show. Kara are a case study that can be held up to the bleating fanboy crowd exemplifying the poisonous influence Yasushi Akimoto and AKB48 exert over the Japanese pop market. With their beyond-cynical multiple-purchase marketing model, their blanket coverage across all possible media, and their relentless goose step down the Champs Elysee of the singles charts, they hold themselves up as the definitive example of “what-Japanese-like” and as a model of “how-things-should-be-done”.

That groups like Kara are buying into this notion of bland, lobotomised antimusic as their pathway to success in Japan doesn’t bode well for the future direction of pop music in this country. That Kara’s dreadful Super Girl album outsold fellow Korean invaders Girls’ Generation’s far more forward-thinking self-titled album (on first week sales at least) raises the danger that this approach might in the future become a standard approach to the Japanese market.

The truth is probably that it doesn’t much matter in terms of sales what kind of music a group makes. Kara have been in the Japanese market for longer than Girls’ Generation and comparing their second album to Girls’ Generation’s first is to compare groups at different stages of their initial growth. The structure of the market is such that the future of both groups in Japan will depend more on how much money and effort goes into promotion than on what kind of music they make, which makes DSP Media’s decision to go the full AKB on Kara’s music pointless as well as musically reprehensible.

To drive this home and to make clear the contempt in which DSP clearly hold the average Japanese listener’s taste, Kara also released a Korean language album this year which included possibly the group’s best song, Step:

It didn’t make my list because Japanese audiences were denied it (unless they bought the limited edition of Super Girl or, as thousands did, imported the Korean album), but it was one of the pop songs of the year, with its aggressively energetic 80s synths, la-la-las and shiny, glittery everything-on-max production. If I were Japanese, I think I’d be pissed off with DSP Media that they have such a low opinion of my taste, and perhaps a little ashamed at my country’s pop establishment for having given them that impression.

(Oh, and just in case you think I’m laying it on thick with the girl groups here, I’d also have picked GD & TOP’s “Knock Out” as one of my songs of the year, but apparently Japan isn’t ready for so much swag yet.)

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