I usually can’t bring myself to actually sit down and watch Japanese television, even for academic purposes. I’ve been happy to spend the last several weeks coding the guest lists for the show “Music Station” (1991-2004), but I could hardly stomach ten seconds of the inimitably-mediocre Arashi (45 guest appearances in 6 years!) when I found myself accidentally watching the real show last Friday. Japanese television is great only if you are a Japanese middle-school girl or a forty year-old housewife. Everyone else in the archipelago apparently has better things to do.
So, my general strategy is to flip through the three music channels — MTV, MoTV, and Space Shower TV — and watch enough video fragments to fill my dinnertime viewing. What I glean from this brief video watching is that the music industry is pathetically desperate to sell records, but for a long time, I could not put my finger on what it is about the videos that seems so cloying.
Last night, however, I watched the new video for Asia Engineer — a recent feel-good, hip-pop band from Avex — that told the story of a young woman’s rough time finding a job in the shuushoku katsudou (institutional job-hunting) process. Let me spell this out for you in plain terms: This is a hip-hop video consoling young consumers on the pain of failing to get a corporate job.
Another work in this vein is the recent video from piano balladeer Salyu where she portrays a comet-obsessed office-lady (OL) and brightens up a stodgy, old corporate office with technicolor effects and Broadway musical choreography. Again, the sell is — hey, young OLs in boring black-and-white offices, I feel your pain.
Ever since rock’n’roll showed up on the scene, pop music’s selling point has been either escapism (don’t you want to live this outrageous lifestyle?) or hierarchical coolness (if you want to get to a higher plane of social existence, you must buy into this artist.) Both strategies are based on the natural pull of aspiration.
These current iyashi-kei (buzz word for “healing culture”) Japanese videos have absolutely zero of that traditional appeal and tend to basically tell possible consumers, “There, there. Life is hard!” with a motherly pat on the head. In essence, they are affirming these kids’ institutionally-proscribed values instead of launching an assault against them.
To a certain extent, Eminem and Kid Rock do something similar with American kids in that they legitimize and celebrate “white trash” values instead of offering a “cooler” alternative. But the difference is that kids are embracing what society perceives to be moral and ethical faults precisely because that places them in a rebellious position against authority. “Hell yeah, I got my girlfriend pregnant and then I did that drunken chicken car stunt like at the beginning of Footloose!”
Meanwhile in Japan, the values being reaffirmed are those from essentially mainstream, “good boy/good girl” behavior. I’m sure that these videos were made on top of a mountain of market research suggesting that younger Japanese kids want to hear pop songs validate their mediocre, non-rebellious lifestyles, but I’m not convinced this is an effective strategy. While Japan certainly has a cultural inclination towards chastising rebellious behavior, the general rock’n’roll attitude of fantastical cooler-than-thou has almost always worked when marketing towards Japanese teens. The success of A Bathing Ape is that the brand went out of its way to not directly appeal to its core consumers. Most people use pop culture as a diversion from their mundane reality, and I’m not going to get excited about a music video that shows some lanky guy sitting at his laptop, writing a blog essay about Japanese marketing.
We should beware of kneejerk reactions that rock’n’roll must have a rebel edge to be “authentic,” and I’ll leave my “I-hate-when-supporting-musicians-at-rock-concerts-use-sheet-music” rant for another day. But perhaps this new cultural-marketing strategy gives us a clue about the nature of the unemployed freeter/NEET. If you believe the messages marketed to them, this new social class doesn’t want to celebrate its dropout status as much as lament its societal failing.