Tag Archives: Nakigao Twintail

Top 20 releases of 2016: Intro

As any readers this site has somehow managed to retain may have spotted, updates have dried up over the past couple of years. The main reasons for that have been down to my finishing writing, editing and promoting my book, Quit Your Band! – Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground (released late 2016 from Awai Books) and my decision to spend half a year travelling around Japan by bicycle, documenting the local music scenes in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures (partially written up on my Burn Your Hometown blog).

The other thing that’s kept me occupied has been my Call And Response Records label, which has been getting more and more active over the past couple of years. Last year we put out four new albums/EPs:

Looprider’s Ascension was a hardcore- and noise-influenced collection of raw, fast sonic violence.

Nagasaki art-punk trio Mechaniphone’s Uholic was a collection of quirky, pop-inflected tunes that come at you from a variety of rhythmical angles.

Tropical Death’s Thunder Island EP was a Cassette Store Day special, combining a Japanese underground background with ’90s post-hardcore/alt-rock influences.

Finally, Nakigao Twintail’s Ichijiku was an eclectic explosion of pop, surreal humour and teen angst.

With Looprider’s third album, the post-rock/progressive Umi, and instrumental electronic/psychedelic duo Lo-shi’s new Ninjin already out in 2017 and at least four more new releases in the works, the label is picking up the pace still further this year.

Nevertheless, with the end of my Strange Boutique column in The Japan Times this March, I have had more time for writing, and I’ve spent the last couple of months belatedly introspecting over the best and most interesting Japanese music of 2016. Whether anyone apart from me still cares about the Japanese underground music of a year that ended nearly six months ago is up for debate, but I’m doing it anyway.

The usual caveats apply. These releases have been selected from EPs, mini-albums and fill albums. I include compilations, but not singles, which I loosely classify as a disc with two or fewer tracks. There are experimental and psychedelic releases that may only include a single track of immense length, so obviously I make exceptions for those. I exclude anything Call And Response released, since I’m too close to it to be able to assess it critically in the same way I would something I didn’t have a hand in the production of (although obviously all four of our releases if last year would be right up there if I were ranking the music purely on what I love). The order of the ranking is by no means scientific subject to all sorts of competing considerations. Some are simply interesting ideas or good representations of something I think deserves to be represented, others are albums that I found myself engaging with on a creative or intellectual level, others are simply fun collections of songs.

There are lots of albums I enjoyed or appreciated that I didn’t include here but which on another day I might have, and there are still more I didn’t get a chance to listen to but which may well be worthy of inclusion. However, this is the list I came up with, so this is what I stuck to when writing it up. I’ll post the 20 reviews individually in a flurry of updates over the next few days.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: Afterword

With the end of this latest countdown of the past year’s top Japanese music, it’s worth drawing attention to what other writers did for their own rundowns. The other main English language sites that go deep enough to put these kinds of extensive lists together are Make Believe Melodies and Beehype. Neither list had anything in common with mine, and precious little in common with each other, which just goes to show how diverse the indie scene in Japan is. In any case, both lists are worth checking out in order to get a different perspective on what Japanese indie (and a bit of pop – Patrick at MBM remains inexplicably attached to E-Girls) music has to offer.

Make Believe Melodies: Best Japanese Albums of 2015
30-21
20-11
10-1

Beehype: Best of 2015 – Japan

As I said before embarking on this latest countdown, the fact that my own label’s releases were disqualified had a big influence on the makeup of this list. It’s always an issue, but it was a bigger one than usual this time round since we released so many albums and EPs featuring so many of our favourite bands in 2015.

Looking forward into the rest of 2016, I’ll be dealing with a similar situation next time round, with a lot of new Call And Response releases already in the pipeline. Looprider’s debut only came out six months ago, but they already have a second album recorded and ready to go this spring, and a third album written. Lo-shi have already recorded their third album and first CD release, with the album currently being mixed with a view to a summer release. Mechaniphone, whose first EP came in at No.4 in my best of 2015 countdown, have a new EP ready to go, which I’ll be helping them put out in a limited release very soon. Other bands in the wider Call And Response family have new material at varying stages of completion, including Han Han Art, Sharkk, Trinitron and Tropical Death.

More broadly, I’m (maybe hopefully) picking up vibes that indiepop may have peaked and that the cool kids are ready for something a bit more discordant. If there is even the faintest possibility of a postpunk/no wave revival, I’ll be doing everything I can to jolly it along and then report on it as if it’s some spontaneous thing I just discovered.

Basically, my theory is that the indie hipster cred Hysteric Picnic/Burgh have been building up over the past couple of years has now reached such a level that young, cool kids want to hang out with them and be in bands like them. There has always been a seam of arty, angular Japanese underground music scraping away metalically beneath the surface of the music scene, and the emergence of younger bands like Deviation and Ms. Machine, as well as the welcome return of the still ludicrously young and inspired Nakigao Twintail, suggests that at least in some limited sense Japanese skronk might be getting a shot of young blood.

Any look at stuff to look forward to should probably begin with Afrirampo’s spring reunion tour, followed by an appearance at the Taico Club festival in June. Whether any new recordings will emerge is still uncertain, and I’m not sure if that would even be a good idea at this stage. Pika already has a new album titled Sun Ra New, in collaboration with Yuji Katsui and Yoshihide Otomo, and quite what role Afrirampo could play in her ever-evolving musical explorations I don’t clearly see.

New releases I’ll be looking out for include Kyoto bubblegum hardcore/postpunk band O’Summer Vacation’s new 7 Minutes Order, which I’ve already heard and is awesome, and hopefully a full album by my favourite band in Tokyo right now, the wonderful Falsettos.

I’ll also be embarking soon on the second stage of my travels to every prefecture of Japan to research its indie music scene. Following my return to Tokyo, my long-promised book on the Japanese indie music scene is now back from the editor and pencilled in for a summer release, so keep your eyes open for more on that.

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Ten Years of Live Music in Tokyo: Autopsy

A short afterword on my ten year anniversary event this Saturday gone, and a big thank you to everyone who took part.

My band Voided By Geysers (west Tokyo’s finest Guided By Voices tribute band) took the stage at 3:15 with Carl playing Tobin Sprout for a version of Ticket to Hide, with Ryotaro donning Mitch Mitchell’s cloak in gradually building up a squall of feedback and noise as the song locked into its closing mantra of “It might get louder”. By the time we’d kicked into A Salty Salute, there were already people with their fingers in their ears, and the sound just got bigger as the night went on. Miu Mau’s refined, sophisticated pop boomed out of the PA, while Usagi Spiral A’s brutal kraut-noise panzer assault was one of the most heart-stoppingly joyous things I’ve heard in a long time. By the time Hyacca closed the show, the sound had reached a level of earsplitting intensity. 20000V/Ni-man Den-atsu has a reputation as pretty much the loudest venue in Tokyo, but I’ve never seen it like this before – it means the engineers were excited.

Tropical Death Metal were fantastic on their stoner-prog-punk-metal debut, while Mir’s krautrock-sampling icy noise pop was expertly chilled. Macmanaman played a frenzied whirlwind of a set, Futtachi played out half an hour of eerily compelling psychedelic improvisation, Nakigao Twintail said their farewells in characteristically off-kilter and unhinged fashion, and Jebiotto proved themselves matchless in their capacity to make rooms bounce. The attendance was terrific and 20000V’s staff were brilliant as always. Next year, I’ll be trying to move on and get the next ten years rolling in a way that looks to the future.

Koenji vs. Kyushu Pop Festival 2014

Some blurry, lo-res camera phone pictures from the night (you want hi-res, you should have been there on the night!)

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Ten Years of Live Music in Tokyo addendum: Planning an event and timetable

In my posts over the past ten days I’ve gone through all ten of the bands performing tomorrow (September 27th) at my party to celebrate ten years of doing events in Japan. However, booking the bands isn’t the whole picture. In between bands, there are a few DJs spinning tunes, which can sometimes be a thankless job in events like this where the sound of bands setting up and eking out what they can of a soundcheck can overwhelm most of what the DJs are playing, but it’s nevertheless an important job, helping to keep the mood of the event going and where possible linking one act to the next. DJing this time is James Hadfield, with whom I’ve been running the monthly party Fashion Crisis for more than five years now. Also commanding the decks will be eclectic DJ team 3TE1, a.k.a. Haru and Kaname (the name is a pun on K-pop group 2NE1 and is pronounced “thirty-one”), who will be joined by Kyushu-based friend Emix, who has herself DJed at a couple of my events in Fukuoka.

The other big consideration is the timetable. This is by far my least favourite part of any event, but here’s a bit of insight into how the process works. First up there’s the noise limitations of the venue, which means live music needs to be done by 10pm, and related to that, there’s the fact that no event ever stays on schedule, so there needs to be at least 30 minutes of slack built into it. Very few bands are ever really happy playing first, and the earlier the event starts, the more people there are who you’re going to disappoint. One of the big reasons I’ve had in forming my own band is to have someone to put on first, thus sparing the sad eyes and pointed expressions of, “Oh, that’s a bit early…” from bands. Thus, Voided By Geysers are opening the event, playing a short set right at the start. Since Tropical Death Metal are just starting out and finding their feet, and nearly all their members are also in VBG, they’re on next to minimise changeover of equipment. After that, I’ve tried to balance the louder and more low-key bands so the sound doesn’t become too repetitive, and I’ve tried to space out the Kyushu acts as much as possible. Considering the audience is another thing, and having a rough idea of how big a crowd each band will bring I’ve tried to space out the bands with the biggest followings too, to give the other bands the best chance of catching new listeners. Then there are individual issues. Jebiotto and Futtachi have new CDs out, and this event is at least in part a release party for them both, so I shifted them more towards the end of the bill; Hyacca are notoriously difficult to follow, being both devastatingly intense live and these days really quite popular, and singer Hiromi Kajiwara needs time to switch characters from her more refined role in Miu Mau, so they still play last; and then Nakigao Twintail will be completely new to most people, plus they’re playing their final show, so I tried to give them the best chance of playing to a packed room.

The big challenge for me as an organiser is to mitigate any disappointment the earlier bands might feel by making sure I personally get as many people along right from the start. It’s a good bill, and there’s been fantastic support from some of the participants, so I’m uncharacteristically optimistic in this instance. Anyway, here’s the timetable:

3:00 Open
3:20-3:35 Voided By Geysers
3:45-4:05 Tropical Death Metal
4:20-4:45 Miu Mau
5:00-5:25 Usagi Spiral A
5:40-6:05 Mir
6:20-6:45 Macmanaman
7:00-7:25 Futtachi
7:40-8:05 Nakigao Twintail
8:20-8:45 Jebiotto
9:00-9:30 Hyacca

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Ten Years of Live Music in Tokyo Part 10: Nakigao Twintail

For the tenth band in this roundup, I’m going to talk about Nakigao Twintail again. I only discovered them last year, and they’ve already split up twice by my count (soon to be three times if we’re to believe them in asserting that this next show is to be their last), but in a way all the chaos and uncertainty around their existence is a reflection of their essential appeal.

When Ryotaro and I started work on a Japanese indie zine last year, it was Nakigao Twintail’s lyric, “Yamete yaru! Konna band yamete yaru!” (from about 11:00 in the video below) that inspired us to name the zine Quit Your Band! and that trashy, anarchic negativity sounded utterly thrilling to us amid Tokyo’s pose and poise. One commenter under my initial raving exposition of their virtues dismissively referred to them as a “second rate local punk band,” but then exploring the musical value in much depth feels like missing the point with something as explosive, wilfully ephemeral and pointedly unformed.Nakigao Twintail live at Fukuoka Graf, 2013

When I first wrote about them, it was in the context of idol music, and Nakigao Twintail embody the wild, hyperreal, theatrical presence of idol music at its best but at the same time the live band format allows them to be genuinely spontaneous in a way that the rehearsed and choreographed world of idol music can only attempt to simulate: Their career isn’t tied down to a management contract, their music isn’t tied down to a backing track, and their performance isn’t tied down to a pre-rehearsed choreography. This isn’t just to make a banal point that rock music is better than pop — for a start, I seriously doubt the band members really understand the difference between the two — it’s that this particular rock band are better pop than pop: their music is disposable, their performance is a rush of raw, if often bizarrely-directed enthusiasm (check out vocalist Kanami exuberantly yelling out the name of mass murdering Tokyo underground gas attack cult leader Shoko Asahara about 12:30 in), and the whole package wraps you up in the moment and at the end spits you out, breathless.

9/27 flyer (Nakigao Twintail version)

Nakigao Twintail say farewell (again) with their own version of the 9/27 anniversary event flyer (designed by guitarist Konatsu Yamaguchi). You can see the full event details on the Call And Response Records blog here.

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Strange Boutique (April 2014)

A bit late updating this, but my April column for The Japan Times was on the local organisers who keep grassroots music culture going in Japanese towns outside the cultural gravity well of Tokyo. I hate using the word “curator” to talk about this amalgam of live venue staff, organisers, musicians, record store workers and journalists, but that’s what they are and it’s hard to come up with another, equally useful term for what they do.

As I mention in the article, it was being on tour that really drove this home. I often hear people remarking with an air of worldly wisdom that music should be left to sink or swim based on its own merits and it’s always hard to justify the existence of a shitty band, but anyone who seriously thinks popularity is this magical division bell that separates out the wheat from the chaff is operating under a delusion. There are numerous factors that influence popularity, very few of which have anything to do with how good something is. People can’t even agree on what a definition of “good” is, so what hope for an impartial measure?

In the mainstream music industry, popularity is influenced to a vast degree by who has access to the media and the infrastructure (basically only the majors) and in this sense, even popular taste itself becomes “curated” through constant reinforcement of certain images, and lyrical or musical tropes. As I mention in the article, once you step away from the big cultural centres, geography, age distribution, economics and transport connections become important factors. “Let the market decide” ends up denying areas the infrastructure to even allow anything to happen for reasons totally unconnected to the actual quality of the music.

So going to places like Kagoshima, Saga and Takamatsu, and seeing people working hard, against the prevailling market conditions, to make uncommercial but artistically vibrant music happen is exciting. It also suggests that as more conventional, mainstream music becomes increasingly remote, dedicated local curators could end up having an influence in curating taste as well. Because taste is to a large degree social, based on your peer group and your exposure. I’m a big cheerleader for local music as anyone who read my recent tour diary will I think know, and I’m particularly interested in anything that subverts the influence of the mainstream music industry (this is why I was so alternately intrigued by and suspicious of groups like BiS, because I was never entirely convinced that they offered any real kind of subversion, operating within a very conventional marketing structure and business model and merely substituting gross or violent images into it).

Anyway, the event is really just a bit of rare praise for all the great local organisers, including those who helped out with my tour and many more all over the country. I’ll just leave you with some more of my favourite “local band” in Japan, Saga’s Nakigao Twintail.Nakigao Twintail: full live set at Saga Rag-G

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Diary of a Japan tour part 9: March 23rd at Saga Rag-G

The final date in Kyushu was at Rag-G in Saga. I’d been here once before, when Zibanchinka supported Bo Ningen in 2011, and both the town and the venue are interesting places.

One of many decidedly odd buildings left over from another age and largely colonised by the local sex industry.

One of many decidedly odd buildings left over from another age and largely colonised by the local sex industry.

When travelling in Kyushu, the step-changes in economic growth and reconstruction of the various cities can make each stop seem a bit like travelling ten years further back in time. While Fukuoka looks more or less like the present day (and the Momochi area is outright futuristic), Kumamoto feels more like the 1990s, with a familiar enough atmosphere, but lacking some of the glitter and glitz of the 2000s. Kagoshima is like a faded 1980s theme park, with the bright, brash, plastic bubble-era storefronts and building artifices bleached and dashed by two decades of volcanic dust. Saga then brings us back to the ’70s. On a Sunday afternoon, the town is deserted. You can walk from the station to the venue fifteen minutes away almost without seeing a single person, just passing hostess bars and brothels shuttered for the daylight hours, the whole town bathed in a sort of orange light giving it a sense of a permanent sunset. Signs advertising Coca Cola and other well-known brands showed no sign of having been changed or moved since they were first placed there decades ago, which makes a striking contrast to Tokyo where such retro ephemera is diligently collected and arranged to create a perfectly curated designer’s-mind facsimile of the past. N’toko turned to me at one point and said something to the effect that it was like India after being hit by a neutron bomb.

Saga Rag-G

Saga Rag-G

Saga is also crisscrossed by hundreds of tiny streams, giving it the impression of a run-down toytown Venice, and it’s on the corner of one of these streams that Rag-G sits, opposite a really quite beautiful temple, with an open space and seats laid out in front of it. Sitting outside was really so nice that it felt like an enormous hassle even to go inside and listen to the music, the only thing ruining the atmosphere being the grindingly repetitive blues music chittering away out of a portable CD player by the venue’s entrance (one that Omi from Futtachi swiftly replaced with some avant-garde guitar improv CD he had with him).

There was a panda wandering around outside for some reason.

There was a panda wandering around outside for some reason.

Keeping a live venue open in a small town like Saga is a different challenge to running a venue in a competitive environment like Tokyo. In big cities, rent is a big constraining factor in the size of a venue, and basically means that a small venue will always only have small bands. In Saga (population about a quarter of a million), there are only a couple of live venues to serve the whole city, so they have to be able to accommodate anything, from tiny underground shows to washed-up old stars, and encompassing a variety of genres. Rent on the other hand is not constrained so much, which means that Rag-G is a phenomenally large venue by the standards of most larger cities. The smaller size of the city, however, means that it’s difficult to support underground or experimental music in such a space without doing, as they did at this show, an all-day event with about ten bands playing.Johnny Ohkura Daijin: Yasu Megumi no Theme

It’s a fascinating lineup though, with N’toko and Futtachi both present and correct again, the latter performing in their minimalist psychedelic duo incarnation, and an interesting mix of local and nearby bands joining them. Headlining was Johnny Ohkura Daijin from the band Suichuu Sore wa Kurushii, who’s a Koenji local that I’ve known for a long time and who was by coincidence playing the same night. He’s one of those singers “you have to be Japanese” to really get, rattling through a series of folk-punk tunes with funny lyrics and just generally tilting along the tightrope between music and variety performance. It’s the kind of thing I always find much easier to take in a small room.

Saga is close enough to Fukuoka that it's pretty easy to visit and several Fukuoka mates came. DJ TKC and Iguz from Futtachi were partying in the street well into the evening.

Saga is close enough to Fukuoka that it’s pretty easy to visit and several Fukuoka mates came. DJ TKC and Iguz from Futtachi were partying in the street well into the evening.

I can’t pretend to even remember many of the bands who played that night, but Yaoyoloz were superb, and Hakuchi are one of my favourite bands right now. One interesting fact I picked up recently is that the word “hakuchi” (meaning “idiot”) is on the list of words banned by Japanese TV, so when the band’s drummer Ann, who is an omnivorous, oddball teenage musical genius in her own right, recently appeared on local TV, they weren’t allowed to say the name of her band. Given that Hakuchi is also the Japanese title of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (from where the band took their name), it makes you wonder what literary discussions on Japanese TV are like, with one Russian friend of mine suggesting, “Today we will be discussing Fyodor Dostoevsky, author of Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and <BEEP!>” (I prefer to imagine the censorship effect as a comedy sound like a swanee whistle or a cuckoo clock).

Kanami from Nakigao Twintail: too cool for school.

Kanami from Nakigao Twintail: too cool for school.

Also attending the show were four members of another great Saga band, the quite amazing Nakigao Twintail, who split up last year. The drummer, bassist and two guitarists were present, so after Hakuchi, they commandeered their equipment and played a couple of songs themselves. Now given what an impact they had on me when I saw them in Fukuoka in 2013, this was a special moment for me, since I thought that one occasion would end up being the first and last chance I’d ever have to see them live. Given its impromptu nature and their limited gear and setup, their brief set was less the furious garage-punk explosion of their full band sets and more a chaotic, dadaist disassemblage of rock’n’roll. I’m not sure what sort of musical endeavours any of them will end up engaging in in the future, and it could be horrible, but there’s still enouch childish nonsense in what they do that it’s fun.Hakuchi: Suttoko Dokkoi

Iguz from Futtachi finds a psychedelic flower shop.

Iguz from Futtachi finds a psychedelic flower shop.

N’toko had to work his way through some sound difficulties, perhaps as a result of being the only electronic act on the bill, but after some furious mucking about with the wires and some cajoling from me in my asshole manager hat, things got pumped up to the necessary volume and enough of the cool people there stuck around to watch him. Futtachi had no such technical issues and perhaps even more than in Fukuoka their minimalist, industrial-psych was hypnotic and utterly compelling. Shiro-Boshi were a pretty good indie rock band from Fukuoka, while The Amber Tortoise had the best bandname of the evening.

It was also exhausting, and by the time the post-gig food and drink started winding down, N’toko and I were both dead on our feet. A few days rest beckoned before one last gig on the road, way out in Takamatsu, a place neither of us had ever been to or had any image of, and which I’d accidentally booked while drunk a few weeks previously. It was in the hands of good people though, so what could go wrong?

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Nakigao Twintail: Em (live)

I raved about this band earlier in the year, using them as an example to demonstrate the attributes that underground music has that an idol group cannot. It was a long post that was misunderstood by J-pop fans who chose to read it as a simplistic “rock is better than pop” attack from an indie elitist (which I admit I am, but that’s not what I was doing there) rather than the nuanced call for underground music, which has lately been having a drawn-out love affair with idol pop, to take stock of itself, look at its own strengths again, and start having a conversation about what “authenticity” means once more. Nakigao Twintail were partly chosen because of who they were — at seventeen years of age, they were the same age as most of Momoiro Clover Z, and they share some of the same energy, but because of the different types of groups they were, the results in all areas of their music diverged massively. Nakigao Twintail did everything themselves, and the rough edges and naivety in their songwriting show that, whereas Momoiro Clover Z are far more polished, musically sophisticated and professional, but in the end, they are a product. This isn’t a criticism, it’s just a bald statement of what the difference between the two groups is.

The other reason I chose Nakigao Twintail to write about was completely irrelevant to the point I was making about idol music — simply that I had just seen them a few days before and they had blown my mind, and that’s what I want to talk about here. They were playing at Utero in Fukuoka, the venue run by the bass player from Hyacca, and the event had been the final date of the release tour for my label’s Dancing After 1AM compilation album. Harajiri from Hyacca/Utero had called me prior to the event in a frenzy of excitement, saying that he’d found an absolute gem of a band and asking for permission to book them. Not knowing what he was on about but trusting his judgement, I’d said sure, go ahead.

Arriving at the venue for the soundcheck, I’d found five teenage girls bobbing around the venue in the funkiest shoes. One of them refused to take off her sunglasses even in the gloomy, cramped subterranean live hall, while another was painting her eyes to look like either a ghost or a panda, I wasn’t sure, before dashing off to the shops and returning with hundreds of safety pins, with which she proceeded to mutilate the pyjamas that she was wearing (I forgot to say, she spent the whole gig in her pyjamas). Of the other people playing, me (the DJ), TKC (the other DJ), Kobayashi Dorori and Hyacca had been out until 7AM for the previous night of the tour in Kumamoto, and Mir had arrived in Fukuoka from Tokyo night before and immediately gone on the lash, so there was a stark contrast between the jaded vibe that us older sorts were giving out as we went through the motions of the rehearsal and the sort of club summer camp adventure atmosphere that followed the girls around.

The gig started and everyone started to perk up, then after a while Nakigao Twintail started playing and the reaction of everyone in the room was unanimous. In the clip here, you can’t hear much applause because everyone was still picking their jaws up from the floor. People weren’t really dancing or going crazy like they did with Hyacca later, because Nakigao Twintail’s set was more like some kind of event that just happened to you, not something you participated in. It was like being punched in the face.

You can’t separate how young they are from what they did, because it was integral to the experience. It’s the kind of thing you can only do when you’re a teenager, or at least you can only do in this way. As an older musician, you’re making conscious choices to behave in a certain way, to pitch your performance this way or that, construct the music in a certain fashion, and the message you send is tinged with cynicism or irony. “I don’t care about doing things the proper way,” is what you’re saying, when actually you care very much indeed — you care enough to break those rules onstage, in front of a crowd of people. With Nakigao Twintail there’s no statement because they genuinely don’t care. It was raw, unbelievably silly and a complete mess, but it was still one of the most inspiring things I’d seen in a long, long time.Nakigao Twintail: Em (live at Utero,”Dancing After 1AM” release tour final date, January 27th 2013)

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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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