I recently saw a Japanese kid walking down the street wearing a shirt that said “Fuck to the Future” — written in the same font as the Back to the Future logo. Oh, how I miss the carefree days of logo parody masquerading as fashion! Had that T-shirt said “Aperican Express” instead of “American Express” and had it been 1998, that shirt would have been worth several gilder in the resale markets of Harajuku.
Something’s amiss in Tokyo at the moment for the whole generation of thirty year-old cultural intermediaries working at magazines, defining cool, getting paid by denim companies to represent “creativity.” Nobody cares a lick what they have to say about anything anymore. There is a complete cultural rift between the incoming freshmen and the cool seniors.
The whole economy used to be based on the idea that the young generation — needing a shepherd to guide them through the crazy, mixed-up world of overabundant culture — would hang on to every syllable uttered by these older “charismatic” opinion leaders. The times, however, have changed. Kids of today don’t care about limited-edition products or obscure knowledge, crate-diggin’. That’s all rich kid, nerd stuff. The new buzzwords for Japan’s Generation Y are “nurui” (luke-warm) and “iyashi” (relax) — i.e., let’s all chill out and not expend too much energy trying to outdo each other.
Well, the big kids who grew up in the cultural bubble of the 1990s have now found themselves at peak earning age, and they’re feeling nostalgic for the past when people automatically bought all the things they made. And Casio looks back fondly upon the decade in which they sold thousands upon thousands of G-Shock watches. Business idea: A Back to the ’90s campaign!
I picked up the corresponding “Back to the ’90s” free-paper with semi-Shibuya-kei rapper/Organ Bar homeboy You the Rock on the cover. There are interviews inside with two captains of the sinking ’90s cultural steamboat: Tanaka from FPM and Sunaga Tatsuo. But nevermind the marketing of this matter, I totally understand what they’re trying to say: Everybody agrees that the ’90s was Japan’s pop cultural peak — even the Japanese!
We all understand that Japan has been cool in the abstract for a very long time — the way that Mario and Luigi are “cool” but not exactly fashion leaders. (I doubt that there are many foreign websites exclaiming how awesome The Alfee, Kome Kome Club, and The Checkers were.) The ’90s is when it all came together, when each and every Japanese person — from Hokkaido down to Kyushu — was cooler than every other single person on earth. Name another country where mainstream bands were gleefully referencing Haircut 100 and The Pastels and making albums based on The Monkees’ Head, etc, etc, etc.
But let’s hear what the promotional pamphlet has to say about things (my translation since the English provided was unintelligible):
At the beginning of the ’90s, there was a large-scale economic retreat — a turn from the Bubble economy to the heavy fall of stock and land prices — and for the next ten years, Japan’s economy was called “the Lost Decade.” Under these circumstances, society became chaotic, but within the cultural scene, these conditions constructed the “The Perfect Decade” in seemingly inverse-proportion to the economy. Talented young people with firm identities started their own independent fashion labels and permeated into the the street scene. It was a fashion scene where kids went to the shops of the so-called “charisma brands” totally obsessed. R&B, techno, house, and hip hop culture each beamed out from the clubs, and higher sales weren’t just for major label artists — the number of well-earning self-produced musicians also rose. As a result, the diversity of music grew, and the music scene gave birth to high-quality genre-less music. And from the middle of the ’90s, design for commercials, CD package, and editorial surfaced on the top stage while maintaining a certain lightness.
Thus, as the movement of each cultural scene became lively, genre divisions gradually became meaningless, and “crossover” became the keyword. As a result, we were able to move to an era that demanded creativity and added-value formed from compound-objects made of different genres in fashion, music, and art. As the ’90s came to a close, there was a deeper diffusion of the Internet into the general public, and Japan’s culture scene propelled the commercialization of network computing as a media, which made all types of information available.
This is very early nostalgia for a freshly buried era, mind you, but you can’t imagine the frustration of this ’90s generation: Their brands are failing, their fans are bailing, their records don’t chart. There’s still logo parody and pakuri and consumer culture, but kids just don’t have the heart, the skills, and the knowledge to make it interesting. Bad rap-rock act Orange Range rips off old songs just like Flipper’s Guitar, but they do it with the lamest possible execution. Sure, there are still fascinating underground artists and unknown talents, but the whole nostalgia comes from idealizing a time when these underground gods were also the gods of the commercial overworld — that shining, sparkling moment, which comes once in a lifetime, when the businessmen turn over the keys to the freaks to do whatever they want. An era when a major label lets Oyamada Keigo — age 25 — run a record label that releases ridiculously un-commercial Bill Wyman albums and all sorts of dangerous sounds from Citrus, Salon Music, and Violent Onsen Geisha.
It’s sad to say, but true: Everything cool about Japan at the moment is residual from the ’90s. Great cafés, the remaining good record stores, the complete works of Godard at Tsutaya — these never existed in the ’80s, and they now stand like classical Roman ruins in the coming Dark Ages.
I get it now: “Fuck to the Future” — if the future means all this hollow punk and hip-hop and declining tastes. But sadly, the creative minds of the ’90s are an isolated, floating island with no roots in today’s young generation. It’s not that we need a band that sounds like Flipper’s Guitar or god forbid, Pizzicato Five but we sure as hell need one that thinks like them.