Popeye '79 on American College Life

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Since the beginning of youth consumer culture in the late 1960s, Japanese magazines have been the most responsible agent for guiding young, provincial teenagers towards the world’s most essential products and lifestyles. No other magazines on earth provide such richly-detailed information and skillfully-curated features, but we would make a mistake to assume that the editors of Popeye and their ilk have had their eyes on the same super-trendy cultural hotspots the whole time. It wasn’t until Tokyo’s rich kids got even richer in the Bubble Economy of the mid-1980s that the media industry started chasing sleek, black European fashion and gaudy designer labels. And it wasn’t until after Japanese youth fashion exceeded the rest of the world in sophistication and creativity in the mid-1990s that magazine editors started worrying more about what people were wearing on Omotesando than Fifth Avenue

So I find it quaint to go back and read Japanese consumer bibles from the late 1970s — a time when Japanese cognoscenti considered “Ivy League” the top of the pops and America the center of cool. Yesterday at Cow Books, I found the January 10th, 1979 issue of Popeye with a special feature on “Campus USA.” The editors went to the University of Texas, Colorado State University, and the University of California at Santa Cruz to bring back a consumer-friendly ethnology of American student life. I can’t remember the last time any Japanese person (or any human, for that matter) thought that kids at American universities were the pinnacle of good taste, but as the editors write in a caption: “Being stylish? Who cares. There are lots of things much more fun on campus.” (お洒落?そんなことどうでもいい。もっともっと楽しいことが、キャンパスにはたくさんあるのです。)

Okay, so maybe they definitely realized that the fashion habits of these college students went against everything they learned from decades of Western media research, but there was certainly an allure about young American kids partying down, watching football games, protesting against the criminalization of marijuana, playing crazy sports, attending costume parties, and living in cool apartments with foosball tables. (They do happily report that Lacoste alligators held a dominant position on the campus, creating some sort of practical shopping use for this otherwise abstract anthropological research.)

What I love about these old Popeye issues is that they are both great surveys of the topic at hand — American university life in the late ’70s — and also, great surveys of what Japanese editors thought was cool at the time of publication. (A slightly-rare, highly-valued early ’80s issue about the ’60s is going for ¥5040 at Cow Books) Japanese style was based mainly on American examples up until the Bubble, but moreover, the centrality of universities in the 1960s counterculture gave college campuses a relatively “far-out” image. (Yes, I’m talking about the Strawberry Statement.)

They used to make films where Harvard students were the heroes — like Love Story and The Paper Chase — and not just over-intelligent, stodgy assholes who get their comeuppance from bums (With Honors), janitors (Good Will Hunting), or hip hoppers who smoke “magical pot” made from burying the ashes of their dead friend in the soil of a marijuana plant (How High). These days, cool seems to be the exclusive right of semi-marginal sub-cultures. Even if Popeye or Relax return their akogare to America, it’s the graffiti artists or the surf/skate communities around Jack Johnson and Tommy Guerrero, not Princeton eating clubs.

In the last thirty years, the American elite has lost control of the media and can no longer make J. Press blazers the ultimate expression of good taste. Even if popular anti-intellectualism is responsible for the loss of underground cultural interest in American universities, I also blame the decline of university culture. Frat jocks really are as bad as we assume, and the last thing we need is magazines forcing designers and street artists to do “double-name” beer bongs and initiation paddles. But let’s not assume that we were always above this. At one point in time, Japanese teens and their international brethren were busy reading about striped tube socks, streaking, and professors who teach “The History of Rock’n’Roll” — somehow trying to figure out how to shape their consumer habits accordingly.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
August 8, 2005

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

42 Responses

  1. Momus Says:

    I think you’re right, and that this is an interesting subject. My Japanese friends have told me how, in 80s Japan, the coolest thing you could do is wear your American College gear and sit in a McDonalds, activities and styles now considered extremely dasai. (I think this style peaked in about 1985, making the Popeye article you cite quite “avant”, the herald of a coming trend. But there was a strong revival of the 1950s going on in the 80s (Ronnie Reagan’s DA hairstyle, Devo’s pseudo behaviourism, David Lynch’s suburban good v. evil scenarios) and of course it started with Travolta and Newton-John in the movie of “Grease” (1978), which was huge everywhere.

    What I’m wondering is whether the decades since then haven’t seen nations all around the world veering towards “situatedness”, in other words representing themselves to themselves rather as they represent themselves to tourists. The export image of nations (emphasizing their “exoticism”, specificity and difference) has become, gradually, the image consumed internally too. As a result, Japan now feels a lot more “Japanese” than it would have done in 1985.

    We could see this as Phase 1 Globalisation and Phase 2 Globalisation, perhaps. Phase 1 (say, 1950 to 1990) is the Cold War, the tail end of Modernism. The basic flow of meanings is dictated by the “free” nations of the world aligning with the US in their own interests. White bread American themes are represented as a “good” value in other people’s cultures. In Phase 2 (1990 to present) there’s no more Soviet Union and everyone becomes “situated”… including the US itself. (This has particularly been the case in the last five years.)

    So I think what we’re talking about is something much bigger than the American elites losing control of the media. I think we’re talking about the US no longer being the particular culture that represents “the universal” for all others.

  2. Carl Says:

    “Happy Days” came on the air in 1974, beating out “Grease.”

  3. Carl Says:

    Hmm, I read your thing Momus, and I think I agree with some of it, but I’m not sure I’m completely on the same wavelength.

    What I would say is that America is having a lot of trouble fighting the “War on Terror” because its an ideological war, and there are no longer “American Values” just “Conservative Values” and “Liberal Values” (that secretly share a lot of the same premises, but shhh… don’t let Ann Coulter hear you). Everyone in the political game is so busy trying to divide the country into Red and Blue, that they forget that things are actually pretty much just purple in the real US.

  4. Momus Says:

    You’re right about “Happy Days” being a precursor of the 50s revival in the US. It was also shown in Britain (and fit right in with 1950s revivalism in the 70s, eg Malcolm McLaren’s obsession with Teddy Boys, or pastiche groups like Showaddywaddy). But was it shown in Japan?

    It doesn’t really matter what colour the US is now, other countries won’t automatically adopt it. Although I think US black culture is still hugely influential. The question is, does, say, hip hop music embody core American values, or reject them? Or both? One of the weird things about the recent arrests of the London bombers is that it emerged that the one caught in Rome, Osman, “loved American popular culture” — which turned out to mean hip hop.

  5. Momus Says:

    There are many definitions of power, but one is getting to be the “designated particular”, the particular that represents the universal. It’s interesting that US culture has now mostly lost its ability to be the “designated particular” — except for hip hop.

  6. Carl Says:

    Hmm, it looks like 1973’s “American Graffiti” beats out “Happy Days.” Man, how far back does ’50s nostalgia go?

  7. Carl Says:

    “Hip-hop is as American as Bonnie and Clyde.”

  8. Momus Says:

    Can you cite who said that?

  9. Carl Says:

    Me, just now. But I’m winking, so I put it in quotes.

  10. Carl Says:

    Has anyone else noticed the boy under “新年特大号” is doing a “Heil Hitler”?

  11. porandojin Says:

    a hitlerchen should be done with a right hand i suppose

  12. Monroe Says:

    Carl:

    “Hip-hop is as American as Bonnie and Clyde.”

    =====

    I get your meaning (and the embedded wink the quotes convey). But I think there’s another layer in action — which is, the blurring of hip hop, as a musical genre, with the glamorization of criminality.

    A supportable belief, considering the fact that ‘gangsta rap’ is what corporations relentlessly push into our faces…

    But there’s much more there and the field, so to speak is much wider, than what the RIAA presents.

    Regarding Osman and his love of “American popular culture”, meaning hip hop…

    There’s still a resistance, in many quarters (and I’m not focusing on anyone here so please don’t misunderstand my intent) to accepting the idea that hip hop is a huge component of American pop.

    The default position is to see American pop culture as being an arc of summer blockbuster films, televised sports and rock and roll (to name some prominent examples) but not hip hop because, we’re told, it comes from “The Projects” and poverty and gun battles and other non-sun kissed things.

    In this view, hip hop is an outlier, a visitor, as alien as a crashed starship from 10,000 light years away.

    This is a legacy of the persistent tendency — despite nearly 2 centuries of contrary evidence — to consider black people and whatever springs from them (even if adopted, as is always the case, by the general populace) as entirely ‘other’.

    M.

  13. Momus Says:

    I think hip-hop’s success internationally is partly based on its capacity to both deny and affirm the core values of the American system. It’s both a “public enemy” and a “public service announcement”. Both hip-hop stars and the US state like to see themselves as renegades and mavericks. They have in common a hardness, a violence. (Obviously I’m not talking about the Digable Planets here.)

  14. Nakasone Says:

    What was the exchange rate and income levels in the late 70’s (between USA and Japan)? I guess these American “products” were expensive, therefore creating a scarcity and thus conferring status on its owners.

  15. Monroe Says:

    Momus:

    think hip-hop’s success internationally is partly based on its capacity to both deny and affirm the core values of the American system. It’s both a “public enemy” and a “public service announcement”. Both hip-hop stars and the US state like to see themselves as renegades and mavericks.

    =========

    Yes.

    That’s exactly right, in my view.

    M

  16. marxy Says:

    What was the exchange rate and income levels in the late 70’s (between USA and Japan)? I guess these American “products” were expensive, therefore creating a scarcity and thus conferring status on its owners.

    I believe that the yen was still around 250/$, which basically made everything from abroad too expensive for the normal consumer, but kept Japanese exports competitive in the world market. This is precisely why high fashion was not “in” yet – no one but the super rich could afford designer label goods. For the average upper middle class kid, having some nice “preppie” clothes from mid-priced American or British brands was the ultimate goal. This was pretty much true from the 60s up until 1985, with small detours into hippie gear.

    The Plaza Accords readjusted the yen, and in the following six months, it rose to double what it used to be worth. So, now everything foreign was half-price, land values soared, and everyone with a little money got even richer. Thus began the Bubble and the plunge into European fashion.

    Meanwhile, Kawakubo Rei, Issey Miyake, and Yamamoto Yohji were debuting in Paris, so there was probably also a cultural stream pushing Japanese consumers towards more sophisticated fashion, but the Plaza Accords is what made luxury goods readily available to the public. Nantonaku, Kurisutaru from 1981 already shows that Tokyo super snobs had moved away from American-based looks into European brands, but I very much doubt that anyone was able to actually adopt these trends until the yen went up.

  17. marxy Says:

    I think we’re talking about the US no longer being the particular culture that represents “the universal” for all others.

    This is probably true. But I can’t help but feel that Japan’s strong economic independence in the late 80s led to a consumer culture that naturally outpaced Americans. By the 90s, the Japanese looked around – and without thinking about the collapse of the USSR etc – and noticed that they were on top of the world and there was no reason to blindly copy American lifestyles. I would argue now that taste deflation suffered by the current Japanese youth actually has brought them back to the early 80s mimicing of American culture, albeit this time the specific subcultures of hip hop and California melodic punk.

    There aren’t very many good works on how popular culture develops, but I would guess that a country with low levels of economic development hangs on to unique folk cultures, which it then abandons for the nearest pop culture examples once the economy grows. (Thailand and Taiwan seem way more inspired by Japan than the US.) But then when the cultural industries are built up to a level where they can fully satiate the domestic public, things flip out of pure imitation and into having a unique popular culture.

    So, more than “situatedness” being some kind of vague guiding light, most countries have finally been able to cross the economic threshhold into having their own cultural production systems – thanks to general development patterns and the decline in the costs of media creation.

  18. r. Says:

    i just want everyone here to know that they are right.

  19. Momus Says:

    I recall reading that the Japanese pop chart is currently something like 70% domestic acts and 30% international. Do you know if this was the same in 1979?

  20. marxy Says:

    The Japanese pop market changed from primarily Western to primarily Japanese in 1967, which is a pretty good marker for when Japanese “pop culture” really started to move.

    The charts are pretty much all Japanese music, but the market is like 80-20 or maybe 70-30 Japanese/Int’l at this point.

  21. Momus Says:

    The Japanese pop market changed from primarily Western to primarily Japanese in 1967

    I’m assuming you mean that 1967 was when a slow, incremental trend towards the consumption of domestic pop pushed Japanese pop over the 50% mark. Or do you mean there was a sudden swing? If so, what happened in 1967 to push the market from consuming foreign pop to consuming domestic pop? Was there some sort of agreement amongst the Japanese labels, some new definition of the sales chart, or something like that? Was there some parallel political movement attempting to bolster Japan’s cultural production (something like the French-language quota schemes for French radio adopted by Culture Ministers from the late 80s onwards)?

  22. Momus Says:

    Actually, it was 1996 that Jacques Toubon, France’s Culture Minister, imposed language quotas on French radio:

    “In 1996, when the culture minister of the time, Jacques Toubon, decreed that French radio must devote at least 4 per cent of its airplay to French-language pop music, with 20 per cent consisting of new French music, the loi Toubon became the definitive statement of French anxiety about the impact of the US on French identity. On the radio, la chanson française was in, and anything remotely resembling British rock or American R&B was out.

    “The law was adjusted slightly in 2000, in response to complaints from radio stations, and the percentage breakdown between non-French music, French music and new French talent now varies, depending on whether you are an adult radio station, an adult/youth station or a youth station. Essentially, though, it serves the same purpose: to protect French heritage and nurture French culture.”

  23. marxy Says:

    Yes, it was a gradual movement that continued until it settled at the 80/20 mark. One of the problems was that records were generally too expensive for middle-class consumers until the mid 60s, so there wasn’t really a “market” the way we think of it now. The Beatles coming in ’66 probably opened up rock music for as an avenue of youth culture, and Group Sounds (circa ’67) is where you have the production companies moving in and making fake psych rock bands and really starting the structure of the contemporary music industry.

    I find it not very surprising that most consumers like music in their own language (especially young kids), so once Japanese companies could provide domestic acts for their consumers, they did, and this eventually over ran the Western music that was essentially the only possibility for a while.

    I read something that said that in a family, the older brother would like the Beatles, the younger sister would like the Monkees, and the youngest sister would like the Tigers. So, maybe the music snobs still liked Western music more, but the younger kids buying records vastly preferred Japanese hits. Oh that Sawada Kenji is so dreamy…

  24. Momus Says:

    By the way, this debate is only now going on in Germany:

    “Music industry officials estimate that only 10 percent of German radio’s play lists is sung in German, falling way short of France, Italy and Spain’s 50 percent native language ratio. That’s why a chorus of music industry leaders have gone to the German parliament to sing the praises of a law, like France’s, which would make sure their sound keeps getting pumped around the nation. However, the government is cautious… the public stations, naturally, don’t want to be told what to do.”

    “Over 500 artists signed a plea against what they dubbed “scandalous under-representation” of German-speaking artists in a radio format carved out of “the Anglo-American mainstream and the usual oldies.” Supporting them was Jacques Toubon, former French culture minister, brainchild of France’s quota. He told the parliamentary committee that thanks to his law, French music sales have picked up and new French artists are no longer trees falling in the forest that nobody hears.”

  25. marxy Says:

    I’m out the door, unfortunately, but I just want to add that Japan has never needed a law like that because the market conditions naturally push towards domestic music. Seeing that most sales are generated from television appearances or tie-up unavailable to foreign artists, the market naturally helps out the domestic talent agencies. Foreign artists are also not usually willing to pay a tv station or media outlet with publishing rights to get featured.

  26. h. Says:

    I’m not convinced that the strength of Fance’s domestic music business is much to do with quotas. I think it’s a much more ingrained cultural bias that is also based on unique French styles (chanson, variété) that have successfully managed to combine with Anglo-Saxon type forms. There’s also a class divide, where less well educated people prefer french language music and the middle classes are more likely to buy Anglo-Saxon pop (with many exceptions of course). I don’t know why things are so different in Germany, my guess is that WW2 caused a definitive rupture with older popular music forms, which were replaced by American popular music, whereas in France and the other Latin countries, domestic genres were allowed to transform themselves into something closer to pop.

  27. Momus Says:

    I think there’s a band of cultures (the US, the UK, Holland, Scandinavia, Germany) which, although they’ve been at war with each other at certain points in history, also share some important cultural bonds, like Saxon linguistic forms and Protestantism. I think this makes Germans feel less threatened by English-language pop music than French or Italians or Spaniards. Basically, I agree with you that this is an “ingrained cultural bias”, and that Japan shares it and has organised its markets accordingly (without explicit government intervention).

  28. r. Says:

    i agree with momus agreeing with marxy.

  29. Momus Says:

    By the way, r, do you have any insights about the Shobus Blog? They haven’t updated since Thursday night, which is not like them at all (there were several updates per day last week) and, like an anxious parent, I’m imagining all sorts of disasters. Have they fallen out with each other, been arrested for disturbing the peace, been deported, met the yakuza, crashed their painted tour bus? Anyone in touch with them?

  30. Chris_B Says:

    I’m agreeing with r. and quite surprised at how much I’m agreeing with Momus today. Additionally very good questin by Momus regarding the 60s shift in Japanese charts and clear answer by Marxy as well.

    Frankly I’m surprised at the idea that the Germans might go the road of legislating cultural content but having worked for them at one point, part of me aint surprised at all. They dont shy away from industrial protectionism so why shy away from protecting culture industries? As someone said, consumers like music in their own language. If you want to kickstart domestic music consumption in a way that keeps the money inside the market, promoting local language music is a great way to go. Looks like a good strategy for combatting losses which might be made worse by the EU single market.

    To shift over to “hip hop”, Momus said I think hip-hop’s success internationally is partly based on its capacity to both deny and affirm the core values of the American system.

    I’m of the opinion that the commercial success of hip hop is proof of the anglo market model’s success more than proof of the success of the music itself. Rebellion sells just as well as sex and possibly more so since it can be marketed to the cultures where sex cant be openly sold. By this view, the industry of selling hip hop is very similar to the assembly line process of selling kawaii in jpop.

    It’s both a “public enemy” and a “public service announcement”. Both hip-hop stars and the US state like to see themselves as renegades and mavericks. They have in common a hardness, a violence.

    And that is the marketing message right there! Chuck D may have claimed that Elvis “never mean shit to me” but in a way they both were weaned from the same teat. Both knew how to sell themselves to the public by marketing the message of other/renegade/maverick.

  31. Momus Says:

    the industry of selling hip hop is very similar to the assembly line process of selling kawaii in jpop.

    Actually (and I’m sorry we’re all agreeing today) I think that’s a very interesting insight. Machismo is really just the male version of cuteness, isn’t it?

  32. Chris_B Says:

    Right again Momus. The hip hop that I grew up with long gone. Dead and buried. The shambling zombified corpse which shakes its fist at “the man” for the adoring public today is but a distant bastard son.

  33. marxy Says:

    A really important point with Japan is that radio here is essentially meaningless. Nobody commutes in cars, so the radio is not the primary disseminator of music product information. J-Wave tends to play a lot of non-Top 40 American and Japanese stuff, precisely because no one’s listening just to hear hits.

    So, TV is where most kids learn about music, and television appearances are very hard to coordinate with foreign artists. (MTV and Space Shower are also not very influential.) And since these production agencies supply the rest of TV with talent, they end up pushing all their “music” acts on to the music shows. This is probably true in some other markets, but the Japanese hit charts are more of an extension of the television “talent” world than actual music. Under these conditions, foreign music has no way to compete.

    Hardcore Japanese music fans, on the other hand, are real snobs about only listening to Western music – something that only really started to change during the Shibuya-kei explosion of the 90s. But the Shibuya-kei artists probably still don’t listen to Japanese music (outside of Konishi and his older friends), even though the younger fans were turned back on to Japanese music through Shibuya-kei. Very complicated.

  34. nate Says:

    Earlier, there was some talk about the potential german law. I suspect that since germany as a country is nearly fluent in english, they are, in a sense, informed consumers choosing more freely. While the average german consumer can, and likely will get his or her schmaltzy love song in english, the average japanese consumer only selects english language songs based on texture.
    Thus the market favors highly produced and/or beat heavy music. Fertile soil for hip hop.

    (incidentally, I keep getting an error message about “post pending form”. Is there some error in the code or is that a hint to behave myself better around here?)

  35. marxy Says:

    Thus the market favors highly produced and/or beat heavy music. Fertile soil for hip hop.

    Well, no. I think the most obvious selling point of Western songs in Japan for a long time was melody. Because of hip hop, there’s been a worldwide change from primarily listening for melody and harmony to listening for rhythm and timbre. I don’t think Japan’s more into hip hop than they were into glam rock etc.

  36. nate Says:

    You’re right. The carpenters, abba and the beatles are the music that people seem to remember from the 70’s.

    (…but glam rock? Either I am utterly mistaken about the 70s in Japan, or you have a pretty different scene out there in tokyo. Hip hop is the dominant youth culture up here. Aside from enka, there are no other live shows to be seen. All five of the clubs in the ken are hip hop, and the shopping malls are full of hip hop fashion.)

  37. marxy Says:

    Glam rock was really big in the 70s in Japan. Especially the band Japan (!?), as well as T Rex and all sorts of other bands I am totally unqualified to talk about.

  38. Momus Says:

    Japan is the only country in the world which still has a direct descendent of glam rock in the form of Visual-Kei.

  39. marxy Says:

    If glam rock was a direct descendent, would there not be a long lineage of Visual-Kei bands? It seems more like Glam Rock influenced a bunch of kids in the late 80/early 90s to put together their weird glam + enka singing + anime look.

    As far as I can tell, almost all of the Visual-kei bands are all managed (created?) by the same parent company.

  40. Chris_B Says:

    Momus, you are partly right but “blackmetal” and some other stuff which is very popular in the cold northern chucks of Europe could also be considered descended from glam.

    nate: it was not my experience that many Germans spoke English but I was really only in contact with people in and around Deusseldorf (Im sure I spelled that wrong).

  41. r. Says:

    nick say: do you have any insights about the Shobus Blog? They haven’t updated since Thursday night, which is not like them at all

    and i say: i have NO IDEA what is going on.

  42. r. Says:

    this was interesting and somehow related…

    http://www.nydailynews.com/front/story/337720p-288269c.html