Breakfast Notes on Jpop Videos

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1) Yes, they still make plenty of videos where barefoot girls sing shrill ballads in the great outdoors.

2) No matter whether the video tries to sell the band as a “real” band — complete with two guitars, a bassist, a drummer, multiple rappers — all you can ever hear in the mix of a J-pop song is an early ’90s digital synth pad. There’s not even a keyboardist in the group, and some Korg monstrosity is just blazing across the chorus.

From watching the career trajectory of these young punk and “hip hop” bands like 175R, Orange Range, Ketsu Meshi, and High and Mighty Color, I can safely state:

As time approaches infinity, all popular Japanese music becomes J-pop.

Try to go subcultural and the jimusho gently steers your ship back on course and overrides every production point with that huge ’90s synth sound.

3) Digiki made a great point the other day: Why is there no mainstream Japanese hip hop production with experimental or minimal beats? Most everyone assumes that this current wave of thug-life Japanese acts is just “imitating” American hip hop, but if that were true, there should be some Timbaland or Neptunes rip-offs where things sound pleasantly weird. Instead everything sounds like a mix between Groovebox versions of mid ’90s West Coast and that omnipresent J-pop digital synth sound. SDP’s last batch of singles were legitimately minimal and fresh, but the ideas of the pioneers and innovators do not seem to be trickling down.

4) There’s a relatively new Minmi video where she is performing at a summer matsuri (festival) that seems to suggest to her audience, hey, R&B is just a new version of traditional Shinto dance culture. Both politics and art in Japan tend to legitimize themselves through association with or subservience to tradition, rather than attempting to be a better practical application of philosophical ideals.

For example, critics championed punk as being more rock’n’roll than ’70s prog rock and disco, and everybody hates it when artists like E.L.O. (or even Paul van Dyk) try to claim that their respective genres are the “New Classical.” This goes back to the “soft appeal”: You can either sell music as being better or more progressive than what came before, or you can try to prove that it is “just as good” or the “new version” of a past format. This latter approach stabilizes society instead of challenging past structures or offering new directions, and there is something unilaterally unsexy about a stable society.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
August 29, 2005

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

18 Responses

  1. justin Lincoln Says:

    Some of the songs on Namie’s recent CD are definately Timbaland influenced.
    http://www.avexnet.or.jp/amuro/
    though not the one playing on the site.
    Yesterday heard a CD by this band
    http://www.hifana.com at Tower. Again the song on the site is not indicative of my point….but in some ways they are reshaping Timbaland/Neptunes in interesting ways. Often more dense…Public Enemy style or Dust Brothers style.
    The new CD comes with a DVD of Vj work which jacks the price to 3500 Yen. still considered getting it, but first there are all those new Tujiko Noriko releases to get.

  2. trevor Says:

    well, missy’s new album does have a bunch of “retro” style cuts. like old school breaks that i can name, type stuff. since everyone is/was bitting the minimal style. to fight that. just like in DnB. you go back old school. the only progressive “rap” imo right now is that whole “grime” thing. those are some serious fuked up beats. but its raw too. i can’t imagine japanese “rap” has that, made from the streets “feel”.

  3. Chris_B Says:

    marxy: I think you hit the mark but then veered off by applying western rock ideals. The more I think about it the more I believe that all genres here are just part of an accessory to a group belonging identity and nothing more. Theres no meaning, no goal, no ideal, just more safety in numbers.

    If this is true then I can just safely feel jrap, jpunk, jreggae are entirely not supposed to be what they would be without the j. I’m freed from notions of authenticity because what they are is authentically nothing.

    Whats frightening me is I’m coming around to agreeing with Momus on some of this stuff (form of a train but not a train, fashion goth) but I still think he goes way overboard in his expantions of his ideas.

  4. poule Says:

    What about Cornelius and T. Minekawa?

    En fait je me demande si tu es pas français?
    Bonjour, sympa ta musique… On peut te voir en live quelque part?

  5. marxy Says:

    Cornelius and his wife have no longer have anything to do with mainstream Japanese music. Unfortunately.

    The more I think about it the more I believe that all genres here are just part of an accessory to a group belonging identity and nothing more. Theres no meaning, no goal, no ideal, just more safety in numbers.

    I think this is going too far. Pop music may not have authentic “ideologies” but songs do have marketing and legitimization strategies that often closely mimic philosophic dispositions. I’m not sure Minmi is intentionally doing what I accuse her of, but consciously or not, Jpop has content and meaning. Again, I’m not complaing that these artists have to act rebellious or anti-social, but they do seem to be selling themselves with the opposite angle quite clearly.

  6. Carl Says:

    I like M-flo’s single well enough, I suppose.

    Still, if the Japanese market is crap, the US market has also tanked. Where’s the excitement in US music these days? There are a bunch of retro guitar bands (a genre without a name, because that would be superflous) and some increasingly stale hip-hop. I will say hip-hop, by which I mean the Neptunes, was doing some interesting stuff in the 2000-2003 period, but I think lately it’s become more cookie cutter, even when it’s trying to be experimental.

    Let’s face it, after “Hey ya!” there’s nowhere to go, but down.

  7. marxy Says:

    Let’s face it, after “Hey ya!” there’s nowhere to go, but down.

    True, true. But I would have liked a Japanese equivalent to go along with it.

  8. Jrim Says:

    r.e. Minmi – she was sporting a yukata in the video for “Are Yu Ready” too, if I remember rightly. Maybe that’s just her schtick but, either way, this latest video is nothing new.

    As for the pop scene in general – well, I can think of few instances back in the West where underground scenes have broken into the mainstream and remained even remotely interesting for more than about six months. And, if the fact that more people here haven’t heard of, say, any of the acts licensed by John Zorn’s Tzadik label in the States means that said bands stay good, I’m not complaining. Ha!

  9. Momus Says:

    Whats frightening me is I’m coming around to agreeing with Momus on some of this stuff (form of a train but not a train, fashion goth) but I still think he goes way overboard in his expantions of his ideas.

    Welcome aboard the it-only-looks-like-a-train-but-in-fact-it’s-a-series-of-japanese-etiquettes-travelling-through-space, Chris! Here, stick these iPod phones on your ears, I want you to hear this new it-only-sounds-like-a-record-but-in-fact-it’s-a-masturbation-fantasy-married-to-matsuri-music-from-a-Shinto-festival!

  10. r. Says:

    i’m more into the post-it-only-sounds-like-a-record-but-in-fact-it’s-a-masturbation-fantasy-married-to-matsuri-music-from-a-Shinto-festival scene…

  11. Chris_B Says:

    now I’m just confused. take pity on this poor linguistic barbarian. now I dont know what to do with my ipod or my masturbation fantasy.

  12. Chris_B Says:

    OK after thinking about it a bit more, I doubt I’m more than one toe in the momus camp because I dont glorify the local things as being good at all. Its more like a cute pet that shits on the rug because it doesnt know any better

  13. Momus Says:

    Okay, leave the classroom, please, Chris, and stand in the corner wearing this pointed hat.

  14. Chris_B Says:

    Momus, you are right just like Marxy is right, but quite often you both go a little farther than the topic merits. I maintain my position that any j[western music style] has nothing really to do with the “original” but primarily serves as another form of group accessory. That does not make it special or pretty in my book.

    Local punks/goths are about as threatening to me as a Hello Kitty doll and cary about as much meaning in my book. Whereas you have your opinions about the various merits of those subcultures in the West which seem to me to be primarily based on fashion, my opinions may differ, so in my book the shibuya surfers, the fashion mohicans, salon dreads and boutique goths are indeed a dog that shat on the rug by messing up something that has meaning to me. The dog dont know that the rug has any value, it just contentedly scoots its butt across to sooth the post defication itch.

    Now I wont go so far as to say that the current incarnations of those subcults in the US or wherever are entirely composed of meaning (else we wouldnt have the word poser now would we) but in various times and places they did/do. Whereas indeed some of the punks I grew up with were much like Duke the skinhead from Repo Man, lots were not and it was for lots of us something we did and often made to replace the mainstream product we didnt enjoy. It was as much a verb as an adjective if you will allow me my moments of linguistic barbarism. With very few (and no recent) examples to my knowledge, I’ve never heard local punk bands or met local punk kids here who were doing any more than consuming a prescribed menu in order to be a part of. This may well be due to my limited exposure to the suburban youth set, and I’d be really happy to be proved wrong.

    I respect that you may see things differently and am also wary that you do so because it is part of the persona that earns your bread and butter. I also respect that Marxy sees differently and I suspect that were I his age with his education and his reading skills I might be more inclined to write some similar things. (Note to Marxy: I’m not saying any crap like “when you get a little older you will see things differently”). I got me my ideas and will hold em tight till I see different.

    What this leads up to is I have no problem with rock bands doing songs to soothe the troubled OL. Its not rock as I know it, just the local thing (much like some of the edo era songs I’ve read in translation) wearing a spiffy new straw boating hat.

  15. alin Says:

    My first live music experience in Japan a few years ago was in a jazz-club in Nagoya and this 40+ woman was playing a saxophone literally half her size and was playing it brilliantly. Yet it was a brilliance closer to a, yet to be heard, perfect midi of say ‘ A love Supreme’. it wasn’t soul-less but it was something quite different to what coltrane was on about. I loved the gig and the fact that , as far as I was concerned, it answered everything i ever needed answered in regards to the nagging thinking like the stuff on this page.

    Haruki Murakami, generally a fan of ‘the west’ in The Sputnik lover, i think, puts the japanese pianist at an unrecoverable handicap against the western pianist but I think he might be missing a point. Looking at the current state of things this midi-ism is quite likely the new authentic, so Japan might well be one step ahead. (this is also an old cookie and I wouldn’t argue about it)

    As a reference the momus/keitai discussion a few days ago i remember an exhibition catalog from a few years ago which was comparing the patterns/protocols in japanese communication with those of the internet and electronic communication (not equivalents between bowing and ftp, but basically the fact that there is no illusion of direct/pure communication or expression) making, rather eloquently -much more so than momus’ thin reference to the historical dude – , a point along the lines that japan’s — shifting towards essentialisms here, better stop….
    ..wouldn’t it be time to get rid of some of the 20th C cultural studies lingo, particularly the hard, extreme stuff that was basically there to destroy 19th C thought. Essentialism is simply too hard a term and really quite meaningless. Things do have particularities and specifics…

  16. alin Says:

    I loved the gig and the fact that , as far as I was concerned, it answered everything i ever needed…
    not so much that i loved it esthetically, although that’s true as well, but it sort of existentially blew me away with the realisation that there are other ways, perfectly, not just appologetically, valid, of doing the same thing. my first experiences in japan were pretty much of this nature, (despite the fact that i’d read, listened, watched, talked etc plenty before ever comming to japan) This puts me in a quite different position to marxy to whom apparently nothing quite lived up to the innitial expectation/pre-conception so everything inevitably went downhill.

  17. marxy Says:

    Just to clarify: the reason I’m hard on Jpop these days is that Jpop has shown itself relevant and “good” in the past. All of you LOVE bashing my cynicism more than listening to the actual songs mentioned in the piece. I’m sure there are some latent Puffy fans on this site but no Minmi fans. Nobody, including Japanese people of a similar age, likes any of this new stuff.

    I think the best way to describe a lot of this music is to not wax philosophically about orthopraxy, but just simply state, it sucks. They do very poorly what past Japanese artists have done very successfully. Even teh new SDP/Denki Groove single blows all these new kids out of the water.

    If one of you out there starts liking Otsuka Ai or Orange Range, then I’d love to hear your lecture.

  18. alin Says:

    sorry, my last reference to you was actually unnecessary. Just that Chris B was being so kind and gentle so i felt like opening my heart a bit as well … and got a bit carried away at the end.

    music

    hasn’t this also got something to do with getting older (by some 5 years or so) + and familiarized. I mean I don’t buy Studio Voice quite with the same enthusiasm I did in 99 though the mag hasn’t lost any of its quality.

    How about this for a speculative thought.
    Historically. ..
    In Japan the 90s music boom (quantity and quality) is not something to be seen in a linear history of music |–nullify the whole idea of a history of music–| but in a history of booms.
    So what follows the musically fertile 95 – 99 or so period is not a period of musical recession but the 00 – 04 or so post-murakami art boom (evidently over now)

    Consequently an attempt to compare the music scene in say 96 with that in 2003 will be pointless yet comparing it with the raging art vs design debates in 2001/2 and their actual results might actually lead to some conclusions