No Criticism, No Past

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In the West, the end of each year sees a barrage of “Top Ten” and “Best of” lists for music and movies, compiled by critics and offered by media outlets for holiday reading. As I’ve mentioned before, Japanese magazines and television shows do not (or cannot) provide their readers and viewers with subjective critical rankings. The year-end Billboard in the United States offers both a critical list of favorites and the objective best sellers, while Japan’s equivalent Oricon only prints rankings based on unit sales. We know that singer Hirai Ken’s single sold the most, but we have no idea whether media insiders or music fans thought it was any good.

A consequence of this lack of critical reward in Japan is that music almost never takes on a permanent collective value. Artistic works can always make personal connections with its consumer, but when the media celebrates the quality of specific albums and songs, those works take on a larger social role as a representation of an era. Critical favor is essential for legitimizing pop culture “products” as works of art. Therefore in Japan, very few pop music records are seen as important artistic works nor given public meaning outside of specific social positions at time of peak sales. Amuro Namie’s Sweet 19 Blues will always been seen as a representative of a historical age — TK domination, amuraa, and chappatsu kogyaru — but the work itself was never assigned any manner of long-lasting artistic value.

With no “Best of” lists nor other critical rankings, Japanese popular music essentially ceases to exist after its initial product life cycle. Rarely do you run into Japanese people re-listening to old mainstream music, outside of maniac record collectors. The exceptions — YMO, Happy End, Pizzicato Five, and The Plastics — were all conveniently criticized (and therefore, given value) by the Western media. Left to be consumed in only domestic contexts, Japanese pop releases become another example of tsukaisute bunka — disposable culture.

This, however, becomes profitable for the Japanese music industry: Without critical value, old releases become “worthless” and do not cannibalize the sales of the new releases. In the West, new product launches often lose out to 15 year-olds buying Pink Floyd records, whereas Japanese kids buy either new Japanese music or new/old Western releases. They’ll buy The Beatles but not The Spiders.

The lack of criticism may not matter to a young Japanese consumer in the short run, but in the long run, this practice draws a streamlined version of the cultural landscape built solely upon current product offerings.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
January 16, 2005

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

12 Responses

  1. Momus Says:

    Well, because we hung out together on Friday for the first time, I’d like to list my Top 10 Things About Marxy:

    1. He’s very good looking.
    2. He’s very smart.
    3. He’s rather preppy.
    4. He knows a lot about Japanese history.
    5. He cares enough about Japanese culture to be hurt when it lets him down.
    6. He’ll make a photocopy of a polemical essay for you.
    7. You can sort of imagine him starring in a certain kind of romantic girls’ manga as the scion of hi-so family, sporting a lace ruff.
    8. He’s almost certain to do very well in life.
    9. Polite, amiable.
    10. Good teeth.

    There, you see, I’ve given Marxy permanent collective value by ranking his qualities. I’m a western critic, after all, and this blog is a public forum, so, voila, as if by magic, PCV. Now, independent of his sales, Marxy will be ensured a place in history, and will not cease to exist at the end of his product life cycle.

    Well, my Top 10 list wasn’t sarcastic at all, but the para after it was. You see, I really don’t agree with any of the theses here. Japan actually ranks and re-ranks past pop works more than any culture I know. Think of curator-creators like Cornelius and Konishi. Cornelius’ radio show will curate an hour of bubblegum hits about monkeys, Konishi will re-assess 1960s J-lounge and release an influential compilation. Think also of the endless ultra-detailed guides to things like ‘Soft Rock’ that appear, rating albums from decades ago, making new connections between them and contemporary artists. Think of Studio Voice doing its Psychedelic Rock special, or After Hours getting to the new Paris electronica scene before any Western magazine had even heard of it. Think of how it’s only in Japan that CDs are supposed to have essays in the booklet in which key tastemakers celebrate an artist and run through his/her ‘keywords’.

    Sure, there is a taboo on hostile print reviews, but, as the old yiddish proverb says, ‘When the housewife is lazy the cat is industrious’. All the other sifting and ranking that goes on more than makes up for it.

    I also disagree that in the west we have given works of art ranked in Top 10s ‘permanent collective value’. That implies some sort of authoritative and objective judgement, widely shared and enduring, which not only doesn’t exist, but cannot exist. Thank G-d!

  2. marxy Says:

    Momus,

    I appreciate the kind words in ordinate form (although the “preppiness” and “good teeth” are just markers of my American surburban middle-class background), but that ranking was a straw man against my argument. You did what the Japanese media does – you made an inoffensive chart that made no explicit comparisons, and therefore, did not bestow any kind of permanent image of quality. (No, I don’t need you to write an offensive, comparative chart of my qualities.)

    Think of curator-creators like Cornelius and Konishi.

    This is a good point and a good place to revise. No one listened to 60s Japanese club jazz until Konishi rediscovered it and in the role of the critic gave it “permanent collective value.” But for 40 years, it lay dormant as an exhausted source of culture.

    The Japanese media creates lists as time markers and most people understand the temporal delineations in their own culture in terms of trends, fads, and fashions, but they are not willing (or cannot because of the imbalance of power in the structure) to allocate rewards for quality that transcend historical era.

    Think also of the endless ultra-detailed guides to things like ‘Soft Rock’ that appear, rating albums from decades ago, making new connections between them and contemporary artists.

    They don’t rate the albums, and digging up old things is “safe” because no one is going to get particularly upset about it. Westerners are still listening to OK Computer – Japanese are not still listening to Judy and Mary’s The Power Source.

    I also disagree that in the west we have given works of art ranked in Top 10s ‘permanent collective value’. That implies some sort of authoritative and objective judgement, widely shared and enduring, which not only doesn’t exist, but cannot exist.

    We try to do this and it ends up rewriting our history. Pet Sounds never sold well commercially, but is regarded as one of the most important/best albums of the 60s. In the Japanese context, no one would be able to praise a Pet Sounds more than other records, and without sales, it would have been forgotten. As music progresses, the influence of Pet Sounds may dwindle and it will also be forgotten, but the album became a part of rock history much faster and easier because critics were willing to praise it.

  3. Chris_B Says:

    Good point counter-point by Momus & Marxy. Glad to hear no blood was spilt at your meeting.

    Marxy: I think you are missing an important point in regards to the business process of music sales. Pop music is just that, a product with a limited shelf life intended for short term consumption. Look on the back of a jpop CD and you will see a “sell by” date. Retailers are not supposed to display a CD after this date. Generally the content industries here have operated on a model of constant production of new product and “back catalog” sales were barely a blip on the radar. Even in the case where past releases of music/movies/tv shows are re-issued, they have also generally been limited sale items.

    It seems that some companies are catching on to the value of back catalog, possibly driven by the current “natsukashi boom”. I base this statment on the quantity of CDs & DVDs released in 2004 as part of a “candy & toy” type product. This only means that the original rights holder has sub-licenced the product to a production company for limited resale so the business model of the primary content companies has not changed.

    As long as this model holds, I really doubt there will ever bee a signifigant “long tail” effect here, even considering the growth of online vendors such as amazon.co.jp.

  4. marxy Says:

    Pop music is just that, a product with a limited shelf life intended for short term consumption.

    I think American record labels assumed the same thing about their own releases until pop-cult-crit started giving lasting meaning to products meant for short-term consumption. In Japan, no crit means they structure the industry to only handle records as short-term products, which they are happy to do.

    It seems that some companies are catching on to the value of back catalog, possibly driven by the current “natsukashi boom”.

    “Nostalgic value” seems tied up with using culture as historical marker. I am not convinced that this boom gives the culture itself quality-based value.

    In the world of video games – where technology changes make products very outdated and worthless – Nintendo made a killing in rereleasing old Famicon games for the Game Boy. I doubt they expected this to happen in 1985.

  5. Chris_B Says:

    Marxy: You want to say that the US content industry would not support back catalog w/o critical evaluation, but I’m not sure about this. We’d need some actual business cases to be sure since your understanding and mine are 180 degrees apart. In the case of the TV industry, back catalog has been an important source of income for many years due to syndication.

    Radio playlists and ASCAP licence payments have provided reference points for the music industry in the US as to what albums were worth keeping in print. I cant point to business case studies off hand but this is how I learned it working in the music business in the US.

    As far as Nintendo goes, they are about the only company here that has consistantly mined their back catalog. Do you know that they kept manufacturing Famicom hardware till last year? It was only recently that they stopped their service where you could send in blank disks for the Famicom Disk System and get a new game written on to it. Lawsons still has a kiosk where you can downlaod Super Famicom games onto special blank carts. They are just digging deeper into the mine releasing the Famicom games for the GBA. Yamauchi Hiroshi was one clever old fox!

  6. Sarmoung Says:

    I’m none too convinced by the idea that critical favour is essential for legitimising pop culture as a work of art in all cases. I don’t doubt it helps, but I don’t think this to be the case in, say, the Soviet Union where people seemed quite capable by themselves of this legitimising. They knew whose poetry was a dead duck (or which was poet was a stool pigeon) and were very capable of forming their own canons outside of formal state approval. The underground circulation of tapes, novels and so on. I’m sure that a similar process may operate in cultures where there is a lack of a tightly controlled distribution system or media pundits making their yearly suggestions and making you feel small for having the wrong opinions.

    You seem to be suggesting that Japanese pop music is a disposable culture. That would seem to be something I very much expect and want of pop music. It’s supposed to vanish. For every approved hit in the top ten of yesteryear, there are another nine that have been entirely forgotten. Things evaporate, I think that’s very healthy. I wish more “works of art” were to be found irrecoverable, decaying, dissolving. If Sweet 19 Blues will always be seen as representative of a certain time, as you suggest, who gives a monkey’s over whether that’s been sanctioned by a bunch of male journalists as bearing something called artistic value. Is it still played on radio? Do people still sing it in karaoke? Does anyone ever rent the CD? If so, Namie’s work is done.

    I’d agree that I found it very frustrating never to be able to find an opinion about CD releases (and many other things) in Japan. It’s what I was used to and there are certain critics here that I’d have reasonable faith in. I never found that in Japan and it did certainly make discovering new music more challenging. I find this lack of criticism unsettling, but I’m sure the critique-rich UK music scene has its own streamlined and revisionist cultural landscape. I don’t see that many 15 year olds buying Pink Floyd, I do see them buying what is new and current. Do they buy the boybands and one-hit wonders of five years ago? Not generally.

    I can understand your disquiet at the situation in comparison to the Western market, but, at this moment in time anyway, the fact that J-pop releases are disposable seems a victory for pop music in the way I grew up with it. Should such music survive, it generally is on the basis it reminds you of school, a particular holiday, a certain friend and so on. I think that nostalgic power of pop is far more crucial to people’s experience of music than concepts of quality-based value.

    Interesting points about Nintendo and it will be interesting to see how much Sony follows that with the PSP as a Mini PS remix machine. Admittedly, Nintendo has a much stronger stable of platform-exclusive characters and many of the DS releases seem to capitalise on familiar faces with a new control environment. I’m a sucker for anything involving Wario…

  7. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    Pink Floyd, the Eagles etc… lasted far too long. They really have gotten more airplay than they are worth. How many times have “Hotel California”, “Hey Jude”, etc… been forced upon our ears? Is this “collective cultural value” or is it simply monetary value and a pop culture system which places more importance on copyright, lawyer’s fees, payola etc than on cultural worth?

    Isn’t a truly ephemeral, tsukaisute, pop culture
    something to be preferred?

  8. marxy Says:

    Isn’t a truly ephemeral, tsukaisute, pop culture
    something to be preferred?

    I understand your point (although I think you are all being overly “poetic” in your opposition to “old music.”)

    But I think there’s a case to be made for historical cataloging of past creations, and as an artist, I am grateful for the musical ideas I’ve pilfered and reprocessed from other songs. The Japanese definitely catalog and curate Western works, but I think they’ve done themselves a great disservice by being too apolitical to judge their own music history.

    For those who think that popular music should be disposable, I point you to the awesomeness of the Jpop market. Enjoy the new Shibasaki Kou single.

    The better point that’s been raised – which I need to incorporate into my future writings about the Japanese pop market – is that there was very little countercultural rock that mattered or sold in Japan until the 80s. And there’s no boho myth of artistic genius, nor an intellectual class raised on literary criticism. Idol pop isn’t made to be criticized or remembered, and the media wouldn’t know how to criticize it anyway.

    The problem is that this code of conduct created for idol-related music spread to the other segments of the music market, and even though underground indie broke through in the 90s, magazines like Afterhours still don’t write anything bordering on descendence from Lester Bangs. A B+ from a Robert Christgau column would have made some artist cry for a week.

    I appreciate all the feedback here. I need to reformulate this argument. It’s way more complicated than I supposed.

  9. Ted Says:

    Y’all have some good points.

    1) Marxy, it is true that pop is disposable, but maybe some of your frustration comes from the clash of your upbringing (surrounded by people who care about music) and where you are now (surrounded by people who don’t care that much about music). I’m nuts about music, as I suspect we all are on this comment board. And I kind of expect others to be the same, when I meet them.

    But my brother in law in Arizona has, what, 2 CDs? He listens to radio in his truck and that’s it. My Taiwanese wife and her sisters–as I’ve seen–consume pop music like clothes. They listen to it over and over and then trash it. It is a disposable object. This fascinates me.

    Go into a used CD store in the States and see the racks and racks of disposable garbage: 20 copies of Backstreet Boys, 10 copies of the bloody Spin Doctos album gathering dust. I suspect that this is how many people listen and consume music.

    I also suspect another reason is that rock and pop is coded even more in Japan as “music for the young,” so the market for oldies is smaller–people move on…to what, I don’t know. Enka? Ikebana? Whiskey?

    While similarly coded in the West, we are more likely to consume this music over and over to hang on to our youth, which certainly we are obsessed with.

    Momus is also right that some Japanese are *the* major organizers/filers/librarians of rock music. A quick trip to a decent bookstore will show that. I learned much more about Western folk rock, prog rock, and ’60s beat groups when I lived in Japan, than in the States. Rolling Stone has a lockdown on the “Story of Rock” in the States, a story that is hammered home by the computer-programmed “classic rock” stations.

    So there are some benefits to the critical system that Marxy decries. A Western guide to prog rock will give more paragraphs to Pink Floyd and Genesis, and less space to minor acts, and then *no space* to Italian/French/Greek acts. Whereas the Japanese guide will devote exactly the same space to Dark Side of the Moon as it will to Amon Duul II’s Yeti, for example.

    I had more points to go into, but I’ve forgotten them…!

  10. Momus Says:

    magazines like Afterhours still don’t write anything bordering on descendence from Lester Bangs. A B+ from a Robert Christgau column would have made some artist cry for a week.

    Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau are both self-important windbags. Christgau gave my ‘Ping Pong’ album a B minus and commented

    ‘In one of his many clever songs, Nick Currie compares his quest for fame to God’s and wonders why the big fella gets all the coverage. The answer is that God is a nicer guy. Performers like Currie believe “all interesting behaviors, whether moral or not, are salable in our culture” because they don’t have much choice–it’s that or a day job. But no matter how well-turned the lyric, very few listeners actually enjoy songs in which snobbish dandies trot out their sexual egomania and baby envy. Deep down, most people have some cornball in them. And this is a good thing.’

    http://www.robertchristgau.com/xg/cg/ts98-98.php

    Heavy on the judgement – and especially on the moral judgement – but extremely light on the understanding of things like context, sensibility, what tradition this music is in, how the narrative voice works, etc. The Japanese have understood my work a million times better than a pompous ‘God-critic’ like Christgau. And no, I’m not just saying that because I only got a B minus!

  11. marxy Says:

    Momus,

    I agree with you in regards to Christgau. I always use the word “cranky,” but I get your point.

    Now my question to you: do the Japanese really get your music or are they getting a value from it tied into its British indie cred and sophistication? They do read your lyrics, but they read them poorly translated in Japanese on a lyrics sheet – completely decontextualized from the song itself. I’m do believe that the Japanese like and appreciate your work, but I’m not sure the comprehension is as high as you’d like. Japanese kids who like Western music have basically learned to like music without paying attention to the words – any lyric sheet reading is an afterthought.

    All the young girls who went out and bought “Good Morning World” en masse did not get access to the lyrics until after they bought the single.

  12. Chris_B Says:

    Momus: glad you seem to be settled in up north. Stay warm! Interesting point that Christgau makes is that for you a performer, you cant publicly reveal a different face than that which you sell. It really is keep up the persona or get a day job. Fortunately Christgau’s career proves that there will always be a market for pompous critics so if the music thing doesnt work out, you could become a critc. ^_^