Three Jpop Discs that Matter: Number One

archive4

Number One: Shiina Ringo – 勝訴ストリップ(Shouso Strip), 2000

Always wait for your third album to put “semen” in the title, the old saying goes, and what a triumphant moment over J-Pop conventions when Shiina Ringo’s ultra-challenging Karuki Zaamen Kuri no Hana hit Number One on the album charts in 2003. Were 400,000 people somehow looking for songs with lyrics like “飲むでも飲み切れぬボットルで不条理を凝視せよ” (Stare upon the irrationality of the bottle left undrunk)? The orchestral single “茎” (as in 陰茎?) was not a big hit, and no one really knew what to make of the Taisho-era opium-fantasy short film that came out with it.

But the Jpop market is not a free market: The whole idea is to build up fan bases and hope that they buy everything you offer. (Ah, the glories of completism in a capitalist world.) Therefore, all the diehard fans from Shiina’s double-platinum Shouso Strip felt obligated to go out and get their hands on the new album upon its release. They probably all went home and popped it in their CD player and immediately found the only solution to its weirdness was to ignore it, but nevermind what happens post-purchase, KSK was clearly anti-J-Pop that abused the J-Pop fan system to force itself on a passive, consuming mainstream audience.

So let’s rewind the story: How did Shiina Ringo get to that super elusive moment in the J-Pop world where they let you deviate from the script?

Shiina debuted in 1998 to very little notice, but started to rack up attention with her Alanis Morissette-styled first album Muzai Moratorium. In 2000, second album Shouso Strip hit number one, backed by the strong selling singles “Gibusu”, “Honnou”, and “Tsumi to Batsu.” The videos all became super iconic, especially the one where she breaks glass in slow-motion dressed up as a nurse. (I doubt most men appreciated the ironic intentions of this post-Feminist kosupure.)

Where MM was a safe kind of angry female alternapop, SS was straight-up noisy art rock. For starts, she created an orthographic symmetry for the song titles so that, for example, the second song and twelfth song each have two kanji. (Her love of symmetry is supposedly related to the asymmetry in her own shoulders.) The first track is a pretty straight-up melodic rocker, but song two “浴室 (yokushitsu)” is perhaps the most respectable crossover into technopop ever made by a mainstream artist. There’s a bass drum pulse and some glitchy fills, but the chorus melts into pure dreamy liquid in a way that a trad rock arrangement could never manage to do. More impressive is “Stoicism” which is just cut-up loops and noise-gated voices — a catchy little thing completely unable to exist outside of recorded performance piece.

Even when she tinkers with nice J-Pop ballad ingredients like strings in songs like “yami ni furu ame,” they are overdriven and dirty. Drums are tape saturated, vocals are distorted beyond recognition. The organ in “tsumi to batsu” has been so mutilated it wheezes into the song.

“Gibusu” is a pretty conventional metal ballad, but goddamn if it isn’t the best metal ballad ever. For a J-Pop song, the chord structure is over-complex and the lyrics name-check Kurt and Courtney.

Shiina Ringo and producer Kameda Seiji clearly are breaking a lot of unwritten J-Pop rules: 1) Don’t go over the audience’s head. 2) Don’t make things too sonically unpleasant. 3) Don’t use big words, in fact, you must use the word “dakishimetai.” 4) Smile! No frowning etc. etc., but the overall goal is absolutely to stay within the J-Pop world.

For all the insanity and meta-narrative, her greatest influences are J-rock acts like The Yellow Monkey, Blanket Jet City, and Jun Sky Walker(s) plus ultra-experimental Western groups like… the Carpenters. With KSK, she clearly pushed herself out of what can be considered J-Pop, but SS was an attempt to knock down the walls but stay in the room. And she achieved her goal and defied all expectations and made perhaps the greatest J-Pop record of our modern era.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
February 4, 2005

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

8 Responses

  1. Jean Says:

    Confirmed. That’s what I thought you’d pick as the numbe one album.

    Rather than Jude, I think you should mention Blankey Jet City (Jude is just a follow-up project).

  2. Brad Says:

    Hear, hear!

    Though I have to say that perhaps her greatest influences are R&B and soul, more than J-rock. She didn’t pick up a guitar until she was a teen. Before that, she was listening to old-school soul and R&B, via her older brother. I think that comes across in some of the tracks. Later she moved to hip-hop and then she finally saw the light of the electric guitar.

    On her fan club web page, she occasionally lists songs she’s listening to on her iPod and I have yet to see one J-rock song. Lots of foriegn pop and R&B. However that’s a portrait of the artist now, not when she recorded this album.

  3. marxy Says:

    Her covers album has a lot of soul-type things on it, but her original compositions don’t sound anything like “black music” to me. The chord progressions are really baroque and weird – I kind of recognize the piano-based approach where it’s easy to throw in a weird harmony or go to a slightly-off destination. Guitars lend themselves to more straight-up progressions or power-chord stuff like Nirvana.

    I have a feeling she’s “over” J-rock, but if that was her first taste of pop music, I’m sure it stays with her. It’s hard to get rid of your intial influences.

  4. Linnéa Says:

    i totally love shouso strip. it IS the greatest j-pop album of all time. i cry when i hear Gibusu too ^^;

  5. SMack Says:

    I’m going to say that while all the albums and artists you have on here are fantastic selections, I think that Amuro Namie’s July 1996 release “Sweet 19 Blues” needs to be mentioned somewhere.

    In terms of albums and artists who define an era, this is about as much of a fit as one could hope for. Produced by master songsmith, Komuro Testuya, it was the right mix of everything that was mid-90s J-Pop, and it sold accordingly. Musically, and culturally, this album and this girl set the tone for the times. Suddenly, Okinawa was the place for artists to be from, Avex was the label to be on, and there was only one way to dress and look– Amuro’s way.

    Naturally, a huge media and marketing juggernaut followed in her wake, and Japan and Japanese style were never to be the same again. Setting the stage for Hamasaki Ayumi to follow in her footsteps, Amuro defined what a modern Japanese fashion/music/megastar icon is. This is perhaps Amuro’s greatest “legacy”, and why she matters so much. At its height, the Amuro phenomenon was so big that it even caught he attention of the often inward-looking American press, which is no small feat. (I can’t recall a CNN story on JAM, but I’d be happy if there had been one. Amuro did get hers though.)

    While I might think “Concentration 20” is the Amuro album with the most musical merit, “Sweet 19 Blues” is the album that “mattered,” because it catapulted Amuro to the superstardom and assured her place in J-Pop history.

  6. Brad Says:

    Oh, one small bit of trivia. On “Stoicism”, she sings 「でんよとんゃちを えまなのしたあ」and「でいなさいあをいめひなんおふ」(“de n yo to nya chi wo e ma na no shi ta a” and “de i na sa i a wo i me hi na n o fu”), which is the reverse of lyrics from “Tsumi to Batsu” (「あたしの名前をちゃんと呼んで」and「不穏な悲鳴を愛さないで」 or “atashi no namae wo chanto yonde” and “fuon na himei wo aisanaide”). FYI…

  7. marxy Says:

    That thing about the backwards lyrics is great. I had no idea. But it makes sense. I could never figure out what she was saying in that part.

    Shiina Ringo: J-pop Album as Text. Coming to a Comparative Literature Department near you!

  8. Mugg Says:

    You easily got the right disc as #1.