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The Mechanical Coldness of Music Rankings and Imitation


I was flipping channels today and happened upon a variety show where the short week in review segments had been placed into a chart according to rank. This is a common practice, but I was reminded how much the Japanese media is always ranking everything. Vertical hierarchy bleeds into every part of life. “Top Ten Street Brands according to Readers in Osaka”! Tower Records’ “Top Five Dance Singles” — Sendai Branch! Apparently everything needs to be ranked and placed into a proper visual order.

Yet here is where this idea of Japanese ranking start getting weird: You almost never see rankings like “Best Albums of the Year” or “Best Albums of the ’70s” or “What’s Hot/What’s Not.” If the judgment criteria become subjective, everyone in Japan must cease ranking. The Oricon music sales chart is ranking heaven, but the magazine’s weekly hierarchies are (basically) based on album sales — a cold quantitative guide. A readers poll is also fine, because the magazine is only tabulating votes, not picking favorites.

So subjective criticism is verboten for the mainstream Japanese media, and this leaves editors and writers no choice but to fill the beloved ranking charts in relatively objective ways. However, I feel there may be something deeper going on. Read how famed sociologist Nakane Chie explains the criteria related to education used for hiring systems in her classic work Japanese Society:

Educational qualifications are obvious and perceivable, and can be used as a clear measurement and open indication, while it is difficult for everyone to agree on generally accepted and acknowledged standards to judge individual experience and achievements outside of school. As has been indicated already, Japanese methods of measurement are directed towards neat institutionalization; clearly perceptible criteria are given more weight than individual merit. (116).

Based on Chie’s framework, the Japanese would believe there is something fuzzy and chaotic about subjective media review systems. I tend to believe that writers fear to engage in subjectivity because they may offend advertisers or other partners, but Nakane’s example seems to suggest that the review system itself has become victim to the mechanization of Japan’s strive towards modernity. Mechanization requires rational order, and order requires breaking down all unquantifiable parts of culture and re-contextualizing them in a way they can be measured scientifically.

This mathematical approach to industry, and ultimately culture, is what makes Japan sometimes feel like a “content-less” society. Starting in the ’50s, the Japanese imported popular music directly from America, and since they had no pre-existing examples of these new melodic forms and rhythms, they had to copy songs as best as they could to recreate their own versions. Imitation is a dirty word in English, but if anybody anywhere were handed some new weird form of art and told to make something in that style with no indications of context, they too would most likely be forced to imitate the originals until getting comfortable with the conventions. In this process of mechanical imitation, the song must be dismantled into smaller, quantifiable chunks: chord progression, tempo, instrumentation, rhythm, and melodic form. Everything becomes structure and process.

Content is the fuzzy, subjective part of the art work. What is a song about? This is different for each person. What does the song feel like? Same answer. Compare to: What kind of melodic range does the song have? This can be mapped out and directly imitated. The melodic and lyrical content — which in the West are considered to make up a song’s soul — thus can be mechanically analyzed and recreated once fully understood in quantitative terms. Content must be changed into form in order to make content. The question is, can you go from analog waves to digital coding to back again? No, the original information approximated in the encoding process is gone forever.

Subjectivity, for the reasons listed above, is avoided, and therefore, the process of cultural endeavor often falls into content-erasing objective analysis. Imitation certainly has less stigma here in Japan, but I find it unfair to expect one nation to completely understand the intentions and cultural contexts of the music/art of another. Why would a sixteen year-old kid born and raised in rich Setagaya-ku understand the social conditions and cultural codes that direct and shape American hip hop? The Japanese kids interested in hip hop had no choice but to take it all apart and rebuilt it from a cold, mechanical analysis of its workings.

The Beatles loved American rock’n’roll, but they didn’t really get it either. Yet their poor imitation gave birth to Merseybeat. A culture with so much anxiety about subjectivity like Japan, however, knows a little too well how to break things down perfectly and rebuild them perfectly — to the extent that new forms are rarely born. Rhymester sounds and looks like an American hip hop MC, but is it as good? Aren’t Halcali better precisely because they don’t sound like hip hop?

Of course, not everyone has to go through this mechanical imitation process when creating music, especially with forms like rock or pop, which are now deeply rooted in the culture. Happy End surely “got it” and were not stealing melodies to get by. Shugo Tokumaru doesn’t have a single imitating bone in his body, and if Kiiiiiii are imitating something, it’s not from this planet.

So what happens to all the talented Japanese artists who create real content for their works? They are subjected to the same cold aversion to subjectivity that started this mess. No one can say Shugo is better than anyone else until Shugo sells more than someone. Content cannot be recognized as content, so critical parties pass judgment by quantifiable criteria: sound quality and level of technical ability. Originality and overall quality are too fuzzy too deal with.

Without directly passing judgment on this system, I would suggest that a media and culture avoiding subjectivity create a rather different set of priorities and ways of rewarding excellence in culture. Does this explain why a non-innovating band like B’z can become national heroes?

W. David MARX (Marxy)
November 14, 2004

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

9 Responses

  1. Momus Says:

    It might be worth considering that what you’re describing as ‘vertical’ ranking systems in Japan are actually the opposite; they’re horizontal ranking systems. Subjective qualitative judgements are embarrassing and divisive. Japanese avoid them if possible, because they don’t want to offend and they don’t want to get hierarchical. This is part of their collectivism. (By the way, you should check out Hofstede’s Dimensions. He’s good on individualism v. collectivism.) But I think all cultures avoid such judgements to some extent, because they’re just not cool. Look at the way IQ tests in the west are now considered tremendously politically incorrect. People who go around boasting about their SAT test results or IQ test results are considered uncool and unpleasant.

    I was listening to a Japanoise record today called ‘Transcend Sideways’. That’s an interesting title, isn’t it? We usually transcend upwards, but Kiyoshi Mizutani, an original member of Merzbow, displaced the transcendence to a horizontal one.

    Speaking of Japanoise, somebody asked me today what it was. When I googled, I came across a lovely phrase: ‘latent Japanoise envy’. It came from an American review of American noise bands. The writer detected ‘Japanoise envy’ in some of them. There’s a whole generation of American bands — Lightning Bolt, Black Dice etc — who are ‘copying’ people like The Boredoms and Acid Mothers Temple. Does that mean that only Japan has content in its media? Only Japan has soul? Only Japan has subjectivity? Is Japanoise Japanizing the world? How could a ‘contentless’ culture set the agenda in this way?

    And what about ‘creative misunderstanding’? Have you read Borges’ essay Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote? It imagines someone rewriting Don Quixote by a sort of reverse engineering, in parts duplicating the original word for word. But to Borges, Menard’s Quixote is superior, because of the difficulties he had in recreating Cervantes’ thought, and because of his labour in reproducing rather than producing. We might add that misunderstanding is often more creative than understanding, and that, in my favourite quote from Adorno, ‘In the end, soul itself is the longing of the soul-less for redemption’. What if content, in the end, were nothing more than the desire of something empty to be filled? What if being an artist were identical with the very strong wish to be an artist? According to this logic, the Japanese might well be more full of these ‘metaphysics of presence’ terms you keep using like ‘soul’ and ‘content’ than western people. Which might explain why things like Japanoise are so influential in the west currently.

    I wanted also to mention something John Peel said as recently as October about the British music scene:

    ‘There seems to be no willingness in this country to approach things in anything but a safe and predictable way… Historically, radio has always danced to the tune of the record companies. I always feel that print record reviews, too, are often chosen because of their potential links to advertising – it’s a very conservative collection of records that get reviewed in the press.’

  2. Momus Says:

    Sorry, my tags got fucked there.

    Borges: Pierre Menard

    John Peel on UK musc biz

    Also, perhaps I should explain my remark about the ‘metaphysics of presence’. Marxy keeps referring to things like ‘soul’ and ‘content’ as present in the west and absent in Japan. I find this infuriatingly naive, but to discuss why we have to delve deep into Derrida (in this case, as described on a page about the Scritti Politti song named after him):

    ‘…Derrida’s critique of the so-called metaphysics of presence, the notion that there is a transcendental signified that lies beyond everything and guarantees a stable meaning. This metaphysics of presence seems most obvious in speech; speech often stands for the direct expression of the thoughts, emotions, and spirit of a subject completely identical with itself. The transfer of an inner experience of the presence of an ideal object in a complete intuitive thinking to the external domain of language can only succeed if the linguistic utterance does not interfere with what the rational subject wants to say. According to logocentric tradition (Western philosophy), this is achieved by speech, rather than by writing, which is less immediate, haunted by absence, and thereby unable to guarantee a stable meaning. Especially in Speech and Phenomena and Of Grammatology, Derrida comes to terms with this metaphysics of presence or logocentrism. First he makes clear that both speech and writing are supplements, supplements of eidos (ideas), audible or visible signs that (re)present something in its absence. But this is the classically determined structure of the sign. Derrida also puts into question the provisional secondariness of the (spoken or written) sign. Signs always defer the presence of what they (re)present and this deferral is endless. There is an endless chain of signifiers, each signifier referring only to other signifiers. This means that there is no presence before and outside the sign. Signified concepts are never present in and of theirselves. Every concept is inscribed in a chain within which it refers to the other, to other concepts, by means of a play of differences.’

  3. marxy Says:

    1) Momus, we’re not talking anymore about Japan until you go out read Nakane Chie’s Japanese Society. It’s about 150 small pages and outlines the way Japanese society and industry is structured by group-orientation and vertical hierachy within those groups. Rank is an extremely important concept in Japan, but more than the fear of offending, the rankers fear any kind of subjective ranking criteria which may lead to dispute. The seniority system (nenkou joretsu) worked well because fuzzy concepts of merit are not used to create the hierarchy. In more liberal American companies, seniority is one consideration, but merit is the most widely used critieria for promotion, no? Coupling strict vertical hierarchy with a root belief that every person possesses equal talent/possibility forces the decision makers into the most scientific, and thus, insputable set of rules and guides.

    I think that the education system’s emphasis on late intellectual maturity (post-university instead of during university) is a way to make the seniority system actually fit reality.

    The seniority system is starting to fall apart. Will this lead to more freedom in the press as well?

    2) So all the Japanese artists who do indeed have content (yes, in the Western sense) are essentially looked over for promotion (record deals, TV appearances, magazine spreads, management offers) unless they can also excel at the objective criteria that have filtered into music business decision making. I don’t believe that Japanese have less content makers, but that this value system rewards the less creative/more sterile artists who most likely indulge in mechanical imitation. As a judment guide, form is way more important than content. Japan is a orthopraxical society. Confucianism is all about the correct form of performing rituals instead of the meaning behind the rituals themselves.

    Although my outsider status prevents me from determining this fully, I would venture that the artists who are content-based get less attention from mainstream media sources than bands that are externally valid. I don’t listen much to Qululi, but I get a sense they have a very unique Japanese content message that resonates with their fans. They are somewhat popular, but could be more so.

    The collusion factor also plays into this, but I have a feeling that the media companies/television producers justify their use of collusion on the basis that the music acts they champion are objectively “bigger” than anyone else. If they picked a small nobody with great potential, then they would be accused of unfairness.

    When you export Japanese music though, if it’s been weaned in a content-less (or if you like, content-downplaying) environment, the chances are it will not be able to compete in a content-driven Western market. Are all Western fans/radio stations/MTV producers looking for great content? No, of course not. They would like a form-based plastic world as well, but at least there is independent media which plays counterweight. Japan could benefit from someone fighting for content, whether that content is American content or Japanese content.

    3) Who goes around saying their IQ test score? That’s not cool.

    4) John Peel makes a good criticism about the system outside of him. Who is the Japanese John Peel?

  4. Momus Says:

    Hi again, Marxy.

    Coupling strict vertical hierarchy with a root belief that every person possesses equal talent/possibility forces the decision makers into the most scientific, and thus, indisputable set of rules and guides.

    The trouble here is that you’re deconstructing Japanese society, but not your own. I’d like to quote a few lines from my essay Superlegitimacy (passion and ecstasy of a Tokyo train driver):

    ‘Western society covers its hierarchical verticality with the cant of ‘equality of opportunity’ (which of course entails its less benign cousin, inequality of result). Sure, the President is better, but you too could be president! Whereas Japanese society is superflat, distributed. Ultimate value might fall at any point on the horizontal plane. Everybody is as important as everybody else, everybody bows to everyone else. The capitulation is mutual, the investment total.’

    This is also the view of Japanese social analysts like Takashi Murakami (who says that Japan is socially ‘superflat’) and Kojin Karatani (who sees Japanese society as ‘capitalist communism’). Both Murakami and Karatani basically argue that Japanese society is well adapted to postmodernism because postmodernism

    a) fails to make a hierarchical distinction between high and low culture
    b) does not distinguish surface from depth
    c) does not believe that content is extricable from form
    d) does not believe that cultural objects should or can be judged by their maker’s intention
    e) rejects the ‘metaphysics of presence’

    Murakami and Karatani both state that for this reason, ‘Japan is the future’. I accept this view. I think other advanced capitalist nations will slowly Japanize. In fact, I’m seeing this happening already. Every time I go back to Britain now it seems a little more like Japan.

    I think, Marxy, that if you were studying something like literature, cultural studies, anthropology, sociology or philosophy you would quickly realise that the arguments you’re putting forward here are not considered adequate or legitimate any more. You talk about the west having a ‘scientific’ and ‘indisputable’ seniority structure. You talk about things like ‘content’ and ‘soul’ and say that these things are present in the west and absent in Japan. You would be laughed out of any anthropology or literature or cultural studies department in the west for saying these things. They’re no longer accepted in the west; they’re philosophically naive and ethnocentric. It may be that you’re ill at ease in Japan because your basic outlook is pre-postmodern. The thing is, you may return to the west and find that you’re ill at ease here too. Because these hierarchies you’re policing between things like form and content are, even in the west, abandoned borders. And the west really is becoming more like Japan every day.

  5. marxy Says:

    Marxy, that if you were studying something like literature, cultural studies, anthropology, sociology or philosophy you would quickly realise that the arguments you’re putting forward here are not considered adequate or legitimate any more.

    You are most definitely right about that, but I don’t know exactly whether I actually want to enter the deconstructivist free-for-all. What you are saying is, my passing judgment on Japanese society is an ignorant view in light of the established theory of cultural relativism. Okay, I understand that. My great shortcoming here is my blend of actual scholarship, pet theories, and record-review-type criticism. This would not hold up in academic court.

    I also think you are simplifying my revised arguments: I think there is content in Japan, I just don’t believe that the system is conducive to finding and supporting it. I’m not advocating the idea that Japanese people have no concept of free will and would not choose to exert if it given the chance, I am saying they are not in a social position to have the chance.

    Anybody debating the Soviet Union would not be called ethnocentric to question the gulag system. Obviously absolutely nothing in Japan approaches the brutality of Stalin’s Marxist-Leninism, but I don’t understand why I am supposed to bow down to the idea of payola and say, hey this is terribly immoral, but what is moral? (Isn’t morality a concept invented by Western elitist men to oppress women and minorities?) Payola sucks. I think the American version of it as bad as well, but at least in America there is a conception of payola being a crooked thing. (What is crooked?) The Village Voice will write an article on payola. The Japnese press cannot.

    Momus, you would also be laughed out of a anthropology studies program for talking as an authority about a culture of which you do not speak/read/write the language nor in which you spend any time living amongst the less hipster population.

    I’m going to cool it for a while on the “passing judgment” part, but in my head I am still going to be pissed off that I can’t read a magazine article without it being paid for by the record label.

  6. Momus Says:

    Momus, you would also be laughed out of a anthropology studies program for talking as an authority about a culture of which you do not speak/read/write the language nor in which you spend any time living amonst the less hipster population.

    You’re right about the not speaking / writing bit, and I’m terrified of my forthcoming residency at a Japanese university for that very reason. But it’s not true that I don’t spend time living with non-hip people. This summer I spent two months in a normal Osaka family home, for instance, and went daily to local sentos and ate at small out-of-the-way isakayas, often conversing with the five or six Japanese people sitting round the bar in a combination of broken English and through Hisae, my girlfriend. The more I go to Japan, the more I appreciate ‘deep Japan’. Which isn’t to say I’m downgrading trendy cultural cosmopolitan Japan, I just love both.

  7. sparkligbeatnic Says:


    There’s nothing to be terrified about. I was up there at the end of last week on a work-related trip and visited FUN. It’s a nice bunch of people. I suspect they will take good care of you.

    Hakodate in general seems a friendly place. Was not really there long enough to get a realistic impression, but it’s the only place I’ve been to in Japan, during two or three casual conversations (one with a taxi driver, the other with the Mama-san at the pension I was staying in) actually tried to convince me to move to Hakodate. If you like seafood, you are definitely going to enjoy it.

  8. Chris_B Says:

    when y’all live in Japan a few years your perspective is going to change alot. Momus, nothing personal, but 2 months is just an extended vacation. Live here long enough and you will come to accept the crushing mediocrity for what it is: crushing mediocrity.

  9. marxy Says:


    1) Re: the quoting of your own essay (Nice use of objective references!) – You are insane to think that there is no real hierarchial order in Japan. If any two countries are similar in their approaches to social order, Japan and America both fit in the “we have no pre-determined social classes and everyone has an equal chance” model. America, however, uses the idea of subjectively-rewarded merit-based promotions and Japan uses an objective reward method. In the case of the employment systems of large Japanese firms and bureaus, it comes down to schooling – not what you learned nor your grades, but the school name. To get into a top-tier Japanese college, they essentially only look at your score on one test, whereas any of the Ivy League schools will look at a host of criteria: your essay, your SAT scores, your grades, the classes you took, teacher recommendations etc. However, the Japanese cannot use these random guides to make decisions because they are subjective (how do you compare one teacher to another?). In both cases, the cultures are striving to legitimize their promotion strategies through meritocratic selection processes. I do feel though that the Japanese system ends up picking individuals through very limited externally-based criteria, and I worry that the “best qualified” don’t actually get the job.

    2) As long as I don’t say that content is better than form, am I allowed to at least say that Japan has a deeper interest in form than content? I think Weber would approve of calling Confucian-influenced countries “orthopraxical” – which by definition is all about form over content.

    If it makes you feel better, I will start saying that Japanese culture rarely has “political content” although I naturally feel that content connotes political content. Shiina Ringo’s songs became more and more political in my opinion, which is maybe why she stopped selling as well.

    3) Is imitation not fundamentally less interesting than creation from scratch? Or is this also a Western conceit?

    4) The more you are in “deep Japan,” the more you will meet people who do not prosper from the hegemonic system.

    5) A lot of the tropes of post-modernism do not seem like good things. Can’t we at least fight against them? Should I just lay down my arms and embrace the coming content-less cultural revolution?

    America is becoming more and more like Japan, but I think it’s naive to believe that Japan is not also becoming more and more like America. Those making the most money in Japan at the moment are the people in their 30s who are bucking the standard procedures of the old regime. The government would benefit much by making a business system more conducive to their economic expansion and an education system that creates more of them. I am going to write an essay on this soon, but “political content” is already starting to seep into Japanese culture and it’s not working with the old system.

    Chris B:

    Welcome to the site.