Tag Archives: Momoiro Clover Z

Page views, AKB48, and the economic right to bore

One of the key differences between writing on the Web and writing for a magazine or paper is the speed and precision of feedback, and this undoubtedly has an impact on the form the writing takes. In print media, the reader may choose one title over another, and may choose to skim over one article in favour of another, but in the end, they’re at the mercy of the editors when it comes to what they see. A music magazine could be able to reel readers in with attractive cover stories featuring artists readers already like, and then once captured, introduce them to the artists the editors think they should like. Readers’ natural bias against reading about the unknown is overruled by the fact that they’ve already paid for the magazine and so might as well get their money’s worth out of it. On the Web, the power dynamic has shifted over to the readers’ side, and media must now compete for their attention. Great! Democracy! Smash the elites! Except no. Readers are lazy, conservative creatures, and will always click on something that reinforces their pre-existing biases than something that challenges them. This is well observed in political journalism, but equally true in pop culture. People will always click on something about an artist they already know about over something new, and ideally that article should be parroting something they already feel about that artist. For the online media outlets, their stats provide instant feedback on what’s getting page views, and over time, there’s always pressure to cater to that stuff. When the Japanese music web site Natalie started, it had high ideals – it would be bilingual, and give coverage to independent musicians that the mainstream music press ignored – but sure enough, once the page view stats started rolling in, the English page was the first to go, and then the content became overwhelmed with idol music and popular rock music. MTV 81, which I have on occasion written for, still publishes some interesting stuff but has followed more or less the same path. It’s not personal, kid, it’s just business. I get the same pressure on this blog too. Whenever I write about Perfume or Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, or Momoiro Clover Z or Babymetal, my page views spike, and I get that little nagging voice asking, saying, “Finally, this site is getting popular! Now maybe if I just wrote a bit more about this kind of stuff…” before my rational brain takes over again and reminds me that since I’m not making any money out of it at all, my idiot audience can go hang. Anyway, the fact remains that Akihabara and Harajuku are what get the clicks, and any media that considers itself a business is going to be under immense pressure to pander to these audiences. The one case where these idol-induced spikes fail to occur is when I write about AKB48. Now part of this is perhaps that AKB48 just aren’t cool in the way the acts I mention above are. Another might be that I’ve been so beastly about them in the past that their coterie of English-speaking fans has been definitively warned off this site (and good riddance). AKB48 are such a divisive presence in Japanese pop culture that you’re either a mad, frothing-at-the-mouth fan of them, or you just don’t want anything to do with them – either way, it doesn’t translate into shares or retweets. People like me who have zero interest in either their music or the girls themselves as characters, but find what they represent on a pop cultural level fascinating simply don’t fit into the equation (again, no problem with that). What there is a demand for in the clicks marketplace is analysis of otaku-related culture that gives a supportive critical foundation to widely derided, usually for reasons of perceived sexism or outright creepiness, pop cultural artefacts or trends, giving fans a sort of intellectual shield behind which they can carry on consuming just as before, without allowing their bubble to be pierced by unwelcome alien ideological critiques or reflecting on any subliminal ideological assumptions their own consumer behaviour might be predicated on. These kinds of articles are the intellectual big guns that fanboys can wheel out and then duck behind whenever their hobby penetrates the mainstream consciousness with something outright icky, like the 2013 AKB48 hair shaving incident, or easily mockable viral curiosities like Babymetal or Hatsune Miku. Partly this is to be expected because of the way so many observations from outside come at otaku culture, idol culture or whatever from an inverted version of precisely the same mindset: revulsion followed by a need for an intellectual foundation for that instinctive reaction rather than any real need to deal with the assumptions and ideological positions underlying it. These two poles are essentially moral rather than analytical arguments, and the fighters on both sides are really just driving each other further and further into their trenches rather than making any progress. The comments under my Japan Times article on Babymetal earlier this year demonstrated this pretty well. I don’t feel entirely comfortable with Babymetal, but I tried to come at it from an explanatory point of view, so that newcomers will at least have some understanding of what kind of mechanics are going on behind the scenes. Fans liked my article because they felt shielded by it, while critics just ignored most of it and continued to focus on paedophilia as their main concern. Matt Alt’s very good article for The New Yorker on Takashi Murakami, lolicon, and Pharrell’s new video had a similar effect in discussions I saw. It’s understandable, because when issues of underage sexuality loom so large in the wings as they do in idol music and lolicon, it’s difficult to simply put that aside and have a disinterested debate about the semiotics and pop cultural meta-discussion that’s going on. Still, get into one of those debates and don’t expect it to go anywhere fast. Anyway, over the summer, another bit of AKB-related strangeness hit the news when a man attacked two members of the group with a saw (yeah, I know, a saw!) at a handshake event, where fans can line up to briefly meet and touch their favourite girls in exchange for purchases of goods. Coupled with this was the way the incident coincided with the annual extravaganza of the group’s “election”, and I felt there was a parallel between the two events in the way they both speak to the central problem the group has balancing the need to be credible as a mainstream pop cultural commodity and the need to maintain the illusion of connection with fans. If you want to see a stark visual evidence that this conflict exists, just check out the photos of a post-attack handshake event at the bottom of the page here. Nippon.com published two articles about AKB48 this summer, both touching on different aspects of the same issue. In one of them Jun Mamiya I think correctly dismisses the notion that the group’s popularity has anything really to do with something zeitgeisty and forward-thinking in their music – the hits are a result of the popularity, not the other way round. Instead he discusses the group’s elections and fan meeting events in terms of people’s alienation from the democratic process. Mamiya projects the group as a largely positive force here, shining light on the failures of society through a carefully structured artifice of meritocracy that mirrors how fans wish the country still was. Whether it ever really was like that, and whether such ruthless competing for favour is desirable in the first place, is a question Mamiya doesn’t really discuss. To get to this point, Mamiya has to put aside the saw-wielding fan and any question about what the sexuality/sexualisation issues that concern so many overseas observers. That doesn’t mean the issue has gone away, but clearly not every article can address it as the core of its argument. In the end, Mamiya’s article provides just the sort of legitimising analysis many fans of derided subcultures seem to need: “We’re not perverts. We’re just ordinary, good people disenfranchised by the elites.” (You see the same arguments made by the racists in the Tea Party and Ukip, so in that context, AKB48 might be pretty benign.) Mamiya’s article is interesting, but what it provides first and foremost is a cultural explanation, and I’m instinctively suspicious of arguments that appeal to culture. The little Marxist homunculus that controls the levers in my brain always wants to think about the economic factors, and in my article I try to look at fan culture through the lens of the business model’s response to the changing economic conditions in which idol groups have had to work. In the end, economic and cultural factors will always intertwine. Extend Mamiya’s argument just a bit and you can perhaps see the disaffection he talks about more broadly from the sense of economic vitality and meritocracy in people’s professional lives due to an ageing society and stagnating economy. Take my discussion of idol music’s changing economic environment a step further and you have to question what underpins the changes in fashion that saw idol music drop out of the public eye to such an extent in the 90s. Looking back on it though, I think one other reason for the attraction economic arguments hold for me is the way economics is a rare area of discussion in pop culture where its appeal to numbers, or at least the implication of a numerical underpinning, creates a framework for discussion that feels rational and disinterested – it provides an intellectual mooring amid the stormy conflict between the unthinking and the uninformed, between self-justification and knee-jerk outrage. Of course this rationality is an illusion. Economic discussions are just as capable of dissolving into furious, spitting insanity, and they are (I think rightly and inevitably) just as ideological as cultural arguments at heart. Also, while I try to be openminded, I’m far from neutral in the cultural skirmishes that rage around idol and otaku culture: I just try to be honest with myself and conduct any argument I make in good faith, from as well informed and well thought-out a position as I can. Not that any of that has an effect on page views. There as well, however, economics is my friend: where there’s no money at stake, there’s no obligation to please or court one group or another. I can insult, irritate and bore my readers all within the space of one rambling blog post and none of it matters one jot.

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Top 20 releases of 2013: Intro

I’ve put off doing this for plenty long enough, so before January ends, I’d like to get started on counting down my top releases by Japanese or Japan-based artists of 2013. As with previous years, I’m basically sticking to releases with three or more tracks, I’m not imposing any particular genre restrictions although given this blog’s focus, it’s obviously going to be more or less entirely indie-biased. In addition, it’s obviously limited to albums that I’ve had a good listen to, and finally, this list and ranking is entirely subject to my own whims and on a different day might look totally different.

This means that singles like Merpeoples’ excellent Silent Sleep and Miu Mau’s (last year’s top placed band) magnificent Monochrome/Spring 7-inch aren’t included. It also means that Hikashu, who released two albums this year if we include the one they did with Charan Po Rantan, don’t feature simply because I haven’t had a chance to listen to any of their new material yet. Likewise I can’t assess Fukuoka indie quartet the Hearsays who I’ve been very excited about for a long time, Yokohama postpunk weirdniks Sayuu, and Tokyo indiepopsters Boyish (who featured last year) because I haven’t copies of their albums.Sugardrop: Breeze Flower

Because I decided to keep this list as a strict Top 20, there were a few albums by bands I very much like that I didn’t have space to include. On another day they might have been in there, and they remain highly recommended, so Pop-Office’s Portraits in Sea is one well worth checking out, as is Ykiki Beat’s Tired of Dreams. Hotel Mexico’s Her Decorated Post Love was another fine album that didn’t make the cut but on another day likely would have and if you haven’t heard it, you should go out and do that right now, as you should Sugardrop’s superb, shoegazetastic Yeah Right. As I said earlier, there’s a strong indie bias to this list, and while Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Momoiro Clover Z both put out genuinely good and highly recommended albums, neither album really stuck with me enough to warrant a place among my top 20 of the year. Sakanaction also put out another very good album and remain consistently the best “mainstream” Japanese rock band, but somehow their stuff still doesn’t quite jive with me the way I feel it should. It’s a top notch album, brimming with creativity and thoroughly deserving of its massive sales and huge popularity, but I don’t know. It’s a model example of an album that does everything right and shows signs of maybe even being a classic, but doesn’t make my heart sing the way my real favourites did. It’s good so listen to it and a lot of you will feel it in a way I just can’t quite. It’s not you, Sakanaction, it’s me.Sakanaction: Yoru no Odoriko

Last of all, and again as with previous years, I’m obviously not including albums I released myself through my Call And Response label, which means the brilliant Я не могу без тебя (“Ya ne mogu bez tebya”, or “I can’t live without you”) by Mir and Hysteric Picnic’s fantastic Cult Pops are out of contention, although of course both would be right up near the top if I were honest about my feelings for them.

Anyway, now that you’re primed, I’ll be starting the countdown from tomorrow, so get ready.

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Momoiro Clover Z: 5th Dimension

Last week, The Japan Times published a review I wrote of the new Momoiro Clover Z album. It was a fun album, and on the first listen, there was a very powerful sense of Wow! to it, just for the sheer audacity of trying some of these ideas in an idol record. Neo Stargate opens the album in a nine minute-plus version, the first third of which is just the O Fortuna segment of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burina (yeah, the one from the Old Spice ad) just plonked there, unembellished, for no particular reason other than as testament to its own excess. The song then just explodes into hyperactive synth squiggles a la Skrillex and typically melodramatic vocals straight out of an anime theme. Yes, I did just reference Carl Orff, Skrillex and anime music in one sentence. Listen to it: I wasn’t joking in the review when I said they should do a rock opera.Neo Stargate

The best stuff on the album is still the stuff they did over a year ago, especially Rodo Sanka, which still baffles me how it ever got made — how did anyone ever let a drug-addled British indie-dance producer cum 70s blaxploitation soundtrack enthusiast loose on a top ten idol pop hit? As I say in the review though, it’s interesting how the tracks around it also seem to adopt the tag-team vocal approach of 80s hip hop to varying degrees in how they make the group work as a collection of individuals, not just as a pop unit. The result reminds me a bit of some of the laid-back silliness of Halcali, albeit done with Momoiro Clover Z’s customary polish.Rodo Sanka

I mention Otome Senso, which I don’t really rate as a great song — it’s too much of a watered-down copy of the kind of song Kenichi Maeyamada used to do for them, although it works far better in the context of the album than it did as a standalone single. It’s still way too long though, which is a problem the album has as a whole (my theory of pop song lengths is that once a song goes over 3:45, it’s too long, and this continues until it goes over 8:00, at which point it becomes awesome again). Other stuff on there plays around with different approaches, hunting for a style, and sometimes it works, but it doesn’t quite hang together as a piece. Tsuki to Gingami Hikosen is the better of the two ballads by virtue of its overblown, orchestral, Magical Mystery Tour-era McCartneyisms, while 80s rocker Tomoyasu Hotei’s Saraba, Itoshiki Kanashimitachi-yo sounds a bit like just a Hotei track with the five members of Momoiro Clover Z stuck on top of it, but it just about works. Narasaki’s (of Coaltar of the Deepers) Birth 0 Birth does an interesting job of taking the group in a more electronic direction without leaving their essential identity behind, and he’s probably helped in that by his long association with the group — with such an important songwriter as Maeyamada seemingly on his way out, it might be a good idea to hold onto at least one songwriter with an already established association with the group, if only for continuity’s sake.Saraba, Itoshiki Kanashimitachi-yo

Anyway, in a curious parallel to the 1966 Byrds album of the same title, despite rumours of it being a concept album, it really doesn’t quite hang together, and as I say at the end, I really want Momoiro Clover Z’s next album to be a completely ridiculous, absurdly camp rock opera. Ideally it’ll feature space vampires, robot battles, crossdressing, and be set in a girls’ school in a giant castle on the moon run by a fat, disco dancing German explorer. They’d need to get someone like Kunihiko Ikuhara to write it, and anything less will be a huge disappointment to me.

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Why idol culture is eating alternative music and why Nakigao Twintail will save it

The popularity of idol music among indie and underground music fans is something I wrote about last year and it has only accellerated since with the growing popularity of Dempa Gumi inc. and BiS. At a recent concert at the 2,700-capacity Zepp Tokyo, Dempa Gumi inc. fans were moshing, crowdsurfing and generally rocking out like good punks, without much of the dead-eyed, robotic para para that is traditionally associated with idol music, while when I interviewed BiS, they presented a punkish, defiantly anti-idol public face. When I DJed at a 2013 countdown party at an alternative rock venue in Fukuoka, a Momoiro Clover Z tribute act performed next to the usual indie and punk acts. In fact I would go further than merely saying idol music is popular with indie and underground fans: I would say that it’s usurping the position that the indie and underground scenes used to occupy.

(This is the point where all the “it’s just pop music, you’re overanalysing this lol” types can kindly piss off.)

One reason I think is to do with business. Idol music provides a framework for marketing and imagery that makes it easy for record companies and talent agencies to sell. Because there is no inbuilt expectation that the girls should have any independence outside of the parameters set by the idol marketing and image management framework, it’s easier to package, produce and sell them without having to deal with the unpredictabilities of a rock band whose appeal is more likely to be tied up with more esoteric and difficult to predict aspects of themselves and their work. Members can be replaced and reshuffled more easily, cuter members can be parachuted in to improve mainstream appeal, and because the creative elements are handled on the management side, musical differences are irrelevant.

Also, because of the cheap production values and the acceptance (or even desirability) of amateurishness among idol fans, the scene provides a path for songwriters with an indie background into professional songwriting and production where they would be seen as a risk in more nominally mainstream music circles. Songwriters like Hyadain and Narasaki of Momoiro Clover Z would not be allowed to get away with what they do with the likes of Kana Nishino, and it’s telling that while big hitting 90s star producers such as Takeshi Kobayashi and Tetsuya Komuro were every bit as successful with their own bands as the artists they produced were, the names behind today’s idol stars are rarely worth a fraction of what their idol work sells when out on their own.

And then there’s the desire among fans for authenticity. It’s ironic that it is to idol music, the most transparently artificial music in the world, that fans are turning in the search for something real, but it’s essential to the genre’s appeal. Even with chart monstrosities AKB48, the process of watching idols grow up, make mistakes, learn and overcome difficulties is integral to the narrative that fans buy into. Within the artificial framework, the perception is that at least the girls themselves are being sincere. Similarly, the appeal of Momoiro Clover Z with their energetic schoolgirl acrobatics, Dempa Gumi inc. with their tale of socially withdrawn hikikomori backgrounds that they overcame through living the dream and turning their fantasies into reality, or BiS with their seemingly plain-speaking dismissal of the pretensions of other idol groups — all of these narratives play to an audience desire for authenticity.

Authenticity has always been the preserve of indie, rock and punk acts, and yet here are completely artificially produced groups who don’t play their own instruments, don’t write their own songs (when an idol tells you she “writes her own lyrics”, be very suspicious), and who are recruited through agencies (early in their careers, Momoiro Clover Z and AKB48 sister groups shuffled and traded members) actually competing with indie and rock bands on their home turf.

Part of what’s happened here is that rock bands have shuffled off their cloak of authenticity and can no longer legitimately claim it as their own. Rock music, or at least what we might call “band music”, was the dominant format for “serious” music in the 90s, and the big rock bands of the day like Mr. Children occupy a position, through no fault of their own, where they’re blocking off new artists from coming through. Why should a label in troubled times invest money in new acts that might not ever become successful, when they can just repackage and re-release old acts whose success is guaranteed?

Even into the 2000s, indie or alternative-influenced bands were socially relevant for young people, with the Supercar-Number Girl-Quruli axis defining indie rock for a generation to follow, but the bands that followed them were successively watered-down copies, and even where the music could match up, the social relevance couldn’t. Supercar split up, Quruli settled into rock mediocrity, Shutoku Mukai and Shiina Ringo retreated from their positions as inspirationaol voices of their generations and formed popular but more technically-orientated bands in Zazen Boys and Tokyo Jihen. No new voices came in to replace them.

And then there was the sense that rock music was somehow foreign and elitist, perhaps bolstered by the high entry costs for musicians wanting to enter the live circuit, especially in Tokyo. Independent music’s biggest expression in the mainstream was the 90s Shibuya-kei boom, which was dominated by cultural curators with elite university backgrounds, connections with the fashion scene and overseas music. As the idea lost hold that “cool” was something imported from the West and imposed from above by cultural elites, a sense grew, influenced by the growing relative strength of the anime and manga scene as a cultural market, that Japanese authenticity should really be Japanese. Idol fandom often plays off shared cultural signifiers from childhood like anime, tokusatsu monster serials, pro-wrestling and others, and whether out of insecurity or increased confidence, it’s a genre that celebrates its Japaneseness, its traditions, and youth and modernity at the same time. It may be confused, and it by no means rigidly excludes all things foreign (as idol music reaches out more from the otaku scene into the indie and punk scenes, nostalgia increasingly trumps nationalism), but idol music does contain within it a sense of a nation and a generation exploring its own sense of self.

With authentic voices facing industry obstacles to gaining popularity on their own, and genuinely inspiring voices in music unwilling to take responsibility for the popularity they had previously earned, the arena of idol music has become the only avenue into professional or semi-professional songwriting for musicians, and one of the only expressions in the mainstream of fans’ desires for a narrative of authenticity. Fans who in previous generations would have turned to alternative music, find idol music more readily available and more easily palatable; existing fans of indie and punk music find it easy to cross over, maybe at first convincing themselves that they’re being ironic or that idol music really does have genuine subversive sentiments.

Now here’s why it’s wrong.

For all that idol music is interesting and culturally relevant, it is bad for music because it relies on fans substituting an attractive lie for a difficult reality. The narratives that it spins may have some truth to them, but their representation to the audience is in the simplified form of a pantomime, a performance. Fans who buy into the idol narratives are taking the easy route, taking a shortcut to emotional gratification.

It can be argued that it is elitist and snobbish to complain that idols don’t play their own instruments, because as long as their performances are filled with purity, sincerity, hard work and energy, that’s enough. Playing music is difficult, and an idol’s attractiveness is intertwined with her accessibility, her normality. She shouldn’t be too talented because that would set her apart from her fans, make her inaccessible. An idol who can play music well is an exciting novelty to be patted on the head like a performing dog, and any talent she has must be apologised for with a shy giggle and balanced out by a corresponding weakness or vulnerability.

Because for all its “You go, girl!” gloss, idolism is socially conservative at heart, and it’s no surprise that the rising popularity of idol pop in Japan runs hand in hand with polls showing increased support for traditional roles of women in Japanese family life. Idols bow long and hard to their (mostly male) audiences, make themselves pretty, yell out breathless, tear-stained thanks to their (mostly male) fans for allowing them the opportunity to live their dreams, and meanwhile male managers and production teams pull the strings behind the scenes, pitching and calibrating the message that the girls will send so that it can better reach out to the disenfranchised 90s/2000s generation male demographic, sending out appeals to nostalgia for things that the girls themselves are too young to even know about and probably wouldn’t have been interested in even if they weren’t.

Idol music may provide a path into the mainstream for musical ideas that would be smothered at birth in a more conventional J-Pop artist, but it isn’t really subversive. To see what a genuinely subversive idol would look like, just look at Jun Togawa back in the 1980s, exploiting lolita fantasies, shrieking about sex and menstruation, deconstructing issues of female body image and satirising objectified feminine stereotypes. Don’t wait for Momoiro Clover Z to do that. They won’t. They aren’t interested in doing so and their fans don’t really want them to. It’s not their job. Their job is the be young, cheerful, pretty (but not too pretty), energetic, and to tell their fans how much they appreciate them.

Because idol music massages a need for authenticity that isn’t being provide elsewhere, because it provides that raw rush in such a palatable, sugar-coated form, because it feeds a sense of nostalgia in a generation defined by uncertainty, because of all these things, we don’t notice that we’re being fed a placebo, a dummy pill. Idols provide musical homeopathy for the jilted generation.

But that only works until you see the real thing.

The real thing is Nakigao Twintail. It’s probably a lot of other bands from all over Japan who you’re never going to hear about as well, but here, now, it’s this particular group of five seventeen year-old high school second graders from Saga in Kyushu.

They’re the heavy gut-punch of reality that makes you sick up the idol sugar, because they’re all the things that the current generation of idol music, with its winks and nudges towards alternative culture, wants you to think it is, but without the smooth edges.

They play their own instruments of course, but they don’t just play them — the video clips on YouTube do the band little justice, but they hack at them, tear at them, make them scream for mercy. If all-girl rock band anime K-On! sounded like this, it wouldn’t be such a piece of shit, but then Nakigao Twintail aren’t K-On! or anything like it. They don’t offer up an inspiring narrative of weaknesses overcome and lingering vulnerabilities by way of apology for their talent, they’re just fuck you, we’ve got the stage for the next thirty minutes, so either scream and yell like you adore us, or fuck off. A bunch of seventeen year-old girls singing and dancing along to a backing track may or may not be sincere in their passion and energy, but a bunch of seventeen year-old girls with a front rank of three electric guitars plugged into Marshall amps can deliver approximately eight and a half gazillion times more.

There’s no ageing punk dude in the shadows feeding them lines, just a couple of the members’ mums sitting in the corner (whether to support them or keep them out of trouble, it’s hard to tell). When they walk off stage and come back on in the guise of a cute idol-type alter-ego band, they announce their next song is called Jisatsu (Suicide) and the mums put their faces in their hands in shame: “What kind of daughters have we brought up? Where did we go wrong!” and then you look at the band, shunning uniforms, a guitarist still young enough to know that shades look cool indoors, the singer’s clothes mutilated with safety pins, and you think the question should really be “Where did we go right?”

Where BiS are confrontational, provocative and critical of idol culture, they’re really just carving themselves a consumer niche in an increasingly crowded market. It’s a schtick and they’re welcome to it. It’s fun, but it’s fun in an abstract, intellectual sense. It’s a pantomime of what punk bands like Nakigao Twintail are doing for real. There’s no need for a Dempa Gumi inc.-style redemption narrative or a Momoiro Clover Z style “weekend warriors” gimmick to fit the band around their high school schedules: the band won’t even exist in two months because they’ll be entering their final year of school and they don’t do things by halves. This isn’t a showbiz career, because Nakigao Twintail are all about the moment. They’re not here to provide you with a service, massage your ego or sense of nostalgia, and the only gratification they’re interested in is their own and now, now, now.

They might graduate from high school and go on to form some cheesy pop-punk atrocity like Scandal, but I doubt it. More likely, they’ll come back to music at university, grow in sophistication and technical skill and enter the music scene, probably in a few different bands with various other people, as a more mature, more musically developed version of something vaguely similar to what they’re doing now. Some of them might gain a degree of success, but probably not doing anything as outrageously silly, rough edged and purely, selfishly thrilling as this.

And they shouldn’t, and we shouldn’t expect them to. If youthful passion, excitement and careless energy could be replicated that easily, it wouldn’t be as precious, it wouldn’t be real: it would be a fantasy. This is something that Dempa Gumi inc. kind of admitted to their audience onstage at Zepp Tokyo. The group delivered their interminable, tearful monologues to the crowd one by one, then came back onstage in costumes representing their dreams, but they were only facades of costumes, stitched together by straps at the back, revealing rather more mundane nightclothes beneath. It was a metaphor, see?

By wearing the fantasy and the artifice of entertainment industry convention on the surface, idol music can to a certain extent hide it in plain sight, but the genre structures and restrictions that limit the extent to which idol music can truly express anything other than watered-down, sugared-up narratives for its listeners are no less important for that. You can say that it’s just pop music and should be treated as such, loved unconditionally for that alone, and I think I would agree with you (anyone who’s a regular reader of this blog will know that I have a lot of fun with idol music), but its importance as a successful and popular arena for subcultural creative types and fans means that whether we like it or not, it isn’t positioned solely as pop music.

When teenage girls and boys think about getting into music and idol music is the only left-of-mainstream entry point that they can see, either as a performer or a fan, that has a knock-on effect on the next generation too. There are signs that the idol scene may be fraying at the edges and eating itself now, but with the industry getting quite comfortable with the business model and not looking for any major new upsets in times they’re already finding terrifyingly turbulent, don’t count on a major reaction against it appearing any time soon — certainly not with any kind of serious support from the major label-funded media.

Instead of that, we can just hope that genuinely independent voices will still find a way to filter through. Enjoy the fantasies of idol pop, but don’t mistake them for a revolution, or even a meaningful alternative: it’s just a business model that has somehow colonised part of alternative music subculture’s collective consciousness. Instead, it’s the genuinely raw, rough-edged voices of the sons and daughters of those shame-filled (but hopefully secretly proud) mothers who should be celebrated and encouraged.

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Strange Boutique Review of 2012 (December 2012)

The last Strange Boutique of the year is up on The Japan Times web site now. As is usually the case with my December columns, it’s a review of the year, and like most of my December columns, it’s fairly downbeat. In the past, I think I’ve tended to blame the dead-end path that J-Pop seems set in on the conservatism of the music industry and their top-down, “This Is How It Is Done” attitude, but I think the audience need to take some of the blame too. Sony have been trying to push MiChi for years with little result, and while it’s very possible that they’ve just mis-marketed her, fans got every possible chance to hear Therapy and still it did nothing.

I suspect there might be a bit of groupthink among the foreign journalists in Japan who went mad over MiChi this year, due perhaps to us all really wanting it to be good and maybe hearing the sharp, sparkly, modern production without really noticing that the tunes it was wrapped around were very conventional, but in a market where Ikimono Gakari count as a proper, important pop band, sounding conventional is precisely what artists like MiChi are supposed to do, and the fact that she did it while still sounding modern marks Therapy as a big creative achievement. The worst thing about it is that its failure is probably going to make Sony even less willing to experiment in the future.

I was a bit cynical about Momoiro Clover Z, although any regular readers of this blog will know that I love them to bits. It’s true, however, that the values projected by their image are really retrogressive. They performed their Budokan “Onna Matsuri” girls-only show (don’t ask how I got in there!) under a massive Japanese flag and when they bow to the audience, their noses practically scrape the floor, in an exaggerated parody of the kind of old-fashioned values Japan is supposedly losing touch with. On a parallel but I suspect related note, 2012 was the first year since the 90s that the number of people saying in opinion polls that women should stay at home while their husbands worked has risen above 50%. What makes them interesting is the way they ride a wave of nostalgia at the same time that they fuck with it.

It’s in the indie world that the best stuff came out, as always, despite (or more likely because of) the fact that no one makes any money out of it. Shugo Tokumaru’s In Focus? was just uniformly excellent and I have yet to find anyone who disagrees. He’s the closest thing this generation of Japanese musicians has to a bona fide genius, and he manages to make pop music in the classic tradition of people like Eiichi Ohtaki, while taking the arrangements way further, incorporating all manner of musical instruments and diverging into the sort of mad, cut-up musical squiggles that made Plus-tech Squeeze Box so exciting.

There’s also a shout-out in there to one of my favourite albums of the year, Knew Noise Records’ Ripple compilation of Nagoya punk and indie bands. There’s hardly any information about any of these bands on the Web, and there are hardly any decent quality video clips on YouTube, so this is ultra-core stuff, but it shouldn’t be. There’s a preview of the album on Knew Noise’s Soundcloud, but this one of the wonderful Pop-Office is one of the better ones, despite the weak guitar sound.

The rest of what I have to say is mostly said in the main article. I could have added that Sony finally made their catalogue available on iTunes, which is long overdue and shows they might finally be getting it, although their insistence on calling promo videos “MV”s (“music videos”), while only a subtle difference, suggests an organisation still living in fear of YouTube and not even letting videos do their basic, original purpose of promoting the music. Universal’s decision to make Perfume’s music available internationally and the limited success of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu abroad are noteworthy, but both are artists I’ve written a lot about before (I’ll probably have something to say about Kyary when it comes to my “albums of the year” posts).

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Interview: BiS

I’ve been doing a bit of work for MTV lately, helping out with some stuff for their new English language site, MTV 81 (81 is the international dialling code for Japan, geddit?), aimed at promoting Japanese music overseas. The first thing I did for them was this interview with BiS (Brand-new Idol Society) that was published the other week and which I duly forgot about. When they say the idol group they’d most like to kill is “○○○○8”, I’ll leave you to guess which mass idol group they’re talking about.

One other thing that came through strongly in parts of the interview (although not really in the bits that were cut together to make the MTV 81 feature) was that their manager seemed to be pitching them quite specifically towards audiences, like himself, who grew up listening to indie music in the 90s. There are references to British groups like Primal Scream (often just abbreviated to “Primal” in Japan) and Ash, Radiohead and others in their song titles, all groups most members would have been too young to know in real time (Radiohead are still very popular, but the BiS reference is from a line from a 90s song).

Of course what they’re saying with the whole anti-idol schtick is a facade like any idol group does, but by speaking directly about some of the fakery like the way idols all pretend to be friends when really it’s just business, even if it’s being used to build up a kind of fakery of their own, I think it reflects a need on the part of many fans of this most artificial of genres for an authentic voice. It’s not just because BiS are courting indie and rock fans, because Momoiro Cover Z’s popularity stems in part from their perceived genuineness, and Dempa Gumi inc.’s whole ex-“hikikomori” social shut-in status appeals to the need of otaku to feel the group is somehow genuine and one of their own. Part of this might be a reaction to AKB48’s overt manipulation of fans and the postmodern (and frankly cynical) way Yasushi Akimoto lays his whole marketing technique out in the open, although even there, part of what hooks AKB48 fans in is the idea that they can go to the theatre in Akihabara and watch the new members make mistakes, practice and mature. In this sense, K-pop might be seen as more firmly opposed in that it makes no pretense of sincerity and practically basks in its own artificiality. In any case, it’s curious that such an obviously artificial genre of music as idol pop seems to engender such a passionate desire for authenticity and sincerity in fans.

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Dempa Gumi inc.: Kira Kira Tune / Sabotage

I spent a long time earlier this year talking about what makes some punk and experimental musicians so obsessed with idol music, and to a limited degree how a few idol singers have at least partially reciprocated that love. Primarily that seems to work via producers with indie backgrounds who have helped mould idols into more interesting musical shapes, although since appearing submissive and doll-like is such an essential part of an idol’s image, it’s hard to know and even harder to trust precisely what they say about themselves without the nagging image of some team of micromanaging handlers feeding them the lines.

One group I was able to talk to and gain firsthand answers from was Dempa Gumi inc., an otaku idol group apparently formed of former hikikomoris (social shut-ins) who had done a collaboration with UK-based psych-noise band Bo Ningen. Among their answers were a couple of pretty interesting points, but given that their main musical output was so firmly entrenched in a fairly predictable cheap-sounding, mid-range idol groove, it’s hard to know how seriously to take it. They seemed a bit wiser and sharper than the typical idol fare, but Bo Ningen aside, their musical output did little to live up to what their personalities hinted at.

Kira Kira Tune (or “Killer Killer Tune”, pun fans) isn’t going to change that for anyone. It’s a down-the-line idol pop confection with little to add musically to the conversation. It makes its mark rather more interestingly through the video, which spends half the song lingering over soft-focus images of the girls sleeping. This is almost certainly part of the moe-otaku habit of recycling and fetishising imagery of childish femininity at its most vulnerable, but it’s quite a bold and perhaps even original move for a music video given how dramatically at odds the placid images are with the peppy music. Perhaps less intentionally (although I don’t presume to know), the disconnect between the visual and audio messages being received creates an eerie, almost apocalyptic atmosphere. Are they sleeping or are they dead? Drugged? In particular the image midway through the video of all six girls sleeping in a circle on the grass is curiously similar to the disconcerting closing image of Satoshi Kon’s anime Paranoia Agent.


It’s really the other side of the single that’s got something to say musically, and it’s no surprise that it’s producer Hyadain of Momoiro Clover (Z) fame who’s behind it. As you might have gathered from the title, it’s a cover of The Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, and it’s the first thing I’ve really heard from this group that really goes for the guts.

As we should have come to expect from Hyadain’s work now, the arrangement is all over the place, with frantic 90s pachinkotronica beats trading places with fruit pastel rainbow synths, vocals popping out at you from all angles in a variety of registers, and running right through all this chaos, the rock solid original song with all its energy and power recognisable and undiminished. The almighty scream at bang on two minutes, such an important part of the original arrangement, is here and then some just in case anyone still disagrees with me that idol music’s anarchic childishness can rival almost anything that punk can throw at it for self-centred, shrieking energy — it’s a shame the version on YouTube cuts off so soon after, but even the short amount you can hear is enough to remind us that in the right hands, and apparently with the right cast, idol music can be radical.

It’s also an interesting step from Hyadain himself, whose earlier work with Dempa Gumi inc., Tsuyoi Kimochi, Tsuyou Ai, was pretty low key by his standards and whose work with Momoiro Clover Z was starting to, if not exactly get stale, at least to have settled into a familiar pattern, and it provides a good demonstration of his skill at finding the right music into which to channel the particular energy of a certain group or performer.

One last quick note on the cover image, featuring the group in the same pastel school uniforms but with added 70s shades and moustaches. Firstly, this is obviously a tribute to the original Beasties video, but it also locks in interestingly on another trend in Japanese girls’ fashion and pop culture. It’s hard to know exactly where it comes from, but Hazel Nuts Chocolate (HNC) played about with a fake moustache in the video for Hello from 2005, and the fake ‘tash is by now a pretty firmly established accessory in the arsenal of twee-cutester girls as a digital augmentation for Twitter profile pictures or similar. I could now get excited about its role in subverting both traditional notions of femininity and male notions of cuteness while retaining the punkish desire to remain a child by rejecting seriousness and embracing make-believe, or perhaps its place in the otaku/Harajuku playbook of taking jarring, oppositional images and finding cuteness in the disconnect, but I think that’s for someone else to get into. I’ll just end by stating that Dempa Gumi inc.’s Sabotage is a fantastic piece of work and that if the love affair between the punk/experimental and idol scenes is going to result in them going steady, on the evidence of this, the idols might be wearing the trousers.

EDIT: Full version of Sabotage here:

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