Tag Archives: Saori Minami

Book update: 70s pop

The latest book update sees me still stuck in the 70s, but this time looking into the pop music of the era rather than rock. I’ve written about this in The Japan Times, and the stuff in my book basically goes over the same ground, but it’s a good period and deserves writing about. It’s not directly relevant to any discussion about the contemporary alternative music scene, but it’s relevant to discussion about idol music, which is relevant, as well as to new wave given the way they started to converge in the 80s and eventually completely subsumed each other to create J-pop.Yumi Arai: Rouge no Dengen

It was also relevant to talk about “new music”, which means a bunch of artists I have no particular interest in. I’m a great admirer of Yumi Arai/Matsutoya and Miyuki Nakajima has a place in my heart thanks to the use of her crazy, melodramatic power ballads as the theme songs to series 1 and 2 of the downright psychotic 90s TV drama Ienakiko. Amii Ozaki did some good stuff but Yosui Inoue always bored me and Southern Allstars are simply dire, so I have mixed feelings about the whole thing really. I put it down to its roots in Japanese “hikikatari” folk balladeering, which is a kind of music I’ve always found on the cusp between boring and annoying. As I said though, there’s good stuff in new music, but it ain’t really my scene.

I’m very biased towards female singers in this period, which is probably primarily down to me being a guy, although honestly, male Japanese pop singers do tend to be a bunch of smug, punchbag-faced twats who take themselves way too seriously considering how shallow and inconsequential their music is. Let’s face it though, Hiromi Go was a funky, funky dude in his day.Hiromi Go: Hana to Mitsubachi

But yeah, I’m standing by my position that the girls got all the best songs. I’m a massive fan of Saori Minami and she’s interesting because of her position as a prototype of the contemporary idol singer, although she never liked being presented as such. Her songwriters were on her side and they came up with some ace tunes.Saori Minami: Junketsu

Momoe Yamaguchi was probably the greatest pop star of her day, and while these days I think the longevity and sheer ambition and drive of Seiko Matsuda has guaranteed her the position of greatest ever, her music itself was mostly nothing much to write home about. Yamaguchi had way better tunes and like Saori Minami seems to have had her own opinions about music to have worked quite closely with her songwriters to make them happen. From her early days as a fourteen year-old being manipulated into singing songs begging men to take her virginity, by the late 70s she was rocking it for herself.Momoe Yamaguchi: Zettai Zetsumei

The Candies I’m long on record as being a massive fan of, and they and Pink Lady are pretty much the definitive girl groups of the day. This was a long time before the days of mass idol collectives, and two or three was a perfectly satisfactory number of members for a pop group back then. Sigh. I also mention a bit about some of the 60s singers who crossed over into the 70s era although their roots were strictly speaking in a rather earlier music industry environment. Linda Yamamoto was a wild girl but Chiyo Okumura had a sultry charm of her own and probably has a stronger catalogue.Chiyo Okumura: Koi Dorobou

I’m onto punk and new wave now, which is where the book comes back to my key points about how the music scene works and how it’s structured at grassroots level. Again, I’m not sure if I’m going to carry on doing this in order, and the music history segments aren’t really what the book’s about as a whole (I don’t want them to take up more than about 15-20% of the total page count), but it feels right having the background there since I’m going to be referring to a lot of this at various points. Anyway, more sooner or later, and enjoy the pop.

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Classic Pop Corner — Saori Minami/Chisato Moritaka: 17-sai

It’s a bit of a recurring theme from me that mainstream pop in Japan peaked in the 1970s and never really recovered that sense of melodic depth, economy and vitality. This song, 17-sai (“Seventeen years old”) is an interesting one in that it brackets what we might call the “kayoukyoku era” with two quite distinct versions.

The first was by the Okinawan singer Saori Minami, so let’s have a listen to her version here now:

Saori Minami: 17-sai

It represents an interesting period in Japanese pop, where Japanese songwriters were beginning to mutate the influence of Western pop into something different. As Minami’s first single (released in 1971), it’s also significant as possibly the first piece of Japanese idol pop ever, and at the heart of that lies a conflict of sorts too. Minami herself never had any desire to be an idol, preferring to avoid overt cutesiness, and her songwriting team generally understood this, tailoring her songs to appeal to Minami’s own sense of what she wanted to do as best they could within the constraints of what her agency, the notorious Burning Production, would allow. In this case, songwriter Kyohei Tsutsumi wrote the song with the image of American country singer Lynn Anderson’s (I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden in his head after Minami praised the song in their initial meeting.

The resulting song comes in at a bit under three minutes, which is how long a pop tune should be, and while it’s far from Minami’s finest work, it’s a charming little pop tune with a memorable melodic hook.

Now we’re going to jump forward to 1989, at the death of the idol era, where the song was reworked and covered by Chisato Moritaka. Let’s have a listen to her version now:

Chisato Moritaka: 17-sai

Moritaka comes across as an aggressive pastiche of an idol singer in this song with her lower half all ridiculous puffy dress and proto-K-pop legs that go on for miles, and then her top half an exaggerated parody of a late 80s power suit. The music matches this, taking Tsutsumi’s melody, working it into a New Order/Vince Clarke-influenced synthpop disco track and stretching it out to just short of five minutes.

Because the truth of the matter was that idols were dead in 1989, and Moritaka was never really meant to be an idol. She existed in a strange sort of limbo between the end of kayoukyoku in the late 80s and the birth of J-pop in the early 90s. There was a demand from audiences for something more grown-up, which the labels and talent agencies were just waking up to, but they were unsure of how to go about delivering it.

In the end, they looked abroad, primarily it seems to Europe. Moritaka’s contemporaries, the idol duo Wink, had hits covering Kylie Minogue’s Turn it into Love (as Ai ga Tomaranai) and Slovenian synthpop group Moulin Rouge’s Boys Don’t Cry (as Namida wo Misenaide), and it was the nascent Avex Trax label with its importing of Eurobeat records and the sound’s subsequent adoption by producer Tetsuya Komuro that eventually gave birth the the J-pop sound that defined the 1990s, and which groups like AKB48 have never fully forgotten.

While Wink fell by the wayside, Moritaka went on to lose the disco and make the transition into a successful mainstream pop artist throughout the 90s, but this curious hybrid of classic 70s pop and almost-modern European disco-synthpop is a curious period in the history of Japanese pop.

Now the reason this is significant, is that I think at the moment, the popularity of Korean pop in Japan at the moment  represents a similar period of transition, or at least the potential for one. The fact that people are becoming enthused over something from overseas should be a warning sign to domestic producers that audiences think they’ve become stale. Arguing that this is simply a case of companies shoving K-pop down people’s throats misses the point. Japanese talent agencies tried their best to shut out Korean music, with Johnny & Associates threatening to pull their artists from any TV shows that presented Korean boy bands at one point, but people kept buying them. Korean artists were selling comparable numbers to Japanese groups on import alone, and little shops in the Korean district of Shin-Okubo were making crazy sales just as HMV were sliding into bankruptcy. Japanese talent agencies had to join up with their Korean counterparts to sell this stuff.

The problem is that since Kylie Minogue never bothered to learn Japanese or tour extensively here, Japanese versions of her songs, or at least some equivalent sound by Japanese artists, became a necessity. Korean groups are self-contained, they contain at least one or two fluent Japanese speakers among the group, and they are happy to re-record their back catalogue in Japanese. So what’s there for Japanese artists to do?

The answer has to be to recognise that K-pop offers something different and attractive to Japanese audiences, but to make something different. To synthesise that sound and mutate it, as Kyohei Tsutsumi did in 1971, and as Chisato Moritaka’s people did in reverse in 1989, to make something that can push Japanese pop forward in a new direction.

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Strange Boutique (July 2011)

I have a big backlog of columns to update here, so I’ll start with July’s. Despite what some J-pop fans seem to think (judging from the complaint emails The Japan Times seems to receive from time to time), I’m not some angry K-pop partisan out to trash all Japanese pop music, but they are right insofar as I’m not at all impressed at all with the state of the mainstream pop scene in this country at the moment.

Things, however, were not always thus. The 1970s was a golden age for Japanese mainstream pop, for reasons that I tried to scratch the surface of in an earlier column, and so I returned to that theme over the summer for my top five picks of golden age girl pop songs. The article can be read in full on The Japan Times web site here, but I’ll add links to the songs I chose below.

Chiyo Okumura: Kitakuni no Aoi Sora (1967)

Saori Minami: Natsu no Kanjou (1974)

Momoe Yamaguchi: Hitonatsu no Keiken (1974)

Mari Natsuki: Natsu no Yoake wa Kanashii no (1976)

Candies: Shochuu Omimai Moshiagemasu (1977)

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