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.