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.