By playing your jetlag right, you have the opportunity to engineer yourself an early wake-up schedule, leading to a longer, more productive day. Working from 8 am, however, requires a pause for breakfast, and I spent this beautiful morning in “Gen X” nostalgia mode: eating cereal and watching MTV.
Lately, I’ve been talking about what I call “The Soft Appeal” — rock bands who make music that pays tribute to technocratic society and respectable middle-class aspirations, instead of presenting an artistic challenge or escape from normality. Today I happened to see the video for the traditional four-piece rock band Grapevine‘s new single “Hourou Freak“ (Wandering Freak), directed by European photographer Anders Edstrom (who incidentally did the photos accompanying the piece about Yura Yura Teikoku I wrote for The Fader). The video is just one shot, without cuts, from a camera mounted on a tripod. The camera films the band in the background playing at a summer family barbecue in the park, only sometimes panning or zooming nonchalantly on various “audience” members. The “quiet Japanese life” angle immediately set off my “Soft Appeal” alarm, but the minimalism seemed to take away from the cheap sentimentalism I was expecting.
I flipped over to Space Shower TV to see a video for another traditional four-piece rock band called Sekai Ichi. This video is the latest work from groovisions, who are usually known for their cartoony colors, clean design, and “superflat” pop images. Oddly, the video just has the band face each other and play the song while the cameras rotate around the action in a non-intrusive, minimalist manner.
Both seem to exaggerate Japanese pop culture’s current movement away from an o-share orientation — being fashionable or hyper trend-sensitive – to the love of “pure” flat, straight, and un-flashy. While top-selling band Asian Kung-Fu Generation are sufficiently un-charming enough to qualify for excellence in this new criterion, their videos have been “wacky” or punched up with story lines. The two videos I saw this morning tried to emphasize the “real” of the rock’n’roll by underplaying the promotional campaign itself — but without being too “raw” to seem threatening.
“Emo” has been a buzz word in Japan for the last several years, and current J-rock owes way more to the subdued, self-obsessed spirit of emo than the bombast and posing of garage rock, dance punk, or hardcore punk. The Strokes may embody the Rockist “back to basics” geist for the West, but these J-bands would see their contemporaries too tied up in the fashion-media complex, with all those “references” to ’70s and ’80s music and all. As we’ve seen with Shibuya-kei, referential music is ultimately based in consumerism and trendy oneupsmanship. These Japanese bands want none of that, or of artistic pretension, but only a unfiltered, direct relationship with their fans. Just “honest” songs with “honest” arrangements, no fancy instruments or new ways of playing.
As someone interested in overwrought, high-concept production, I am automatically bored with this entire subset of music, but I do understand why this works right now for Japanese kids. They don’t buy things or go places or read about buying things and going places. They sit around with their friends and gab and drink and emote and do not feel particularly bullied by the media to feel bad about their own unambitious idea of leisure. All that idol pop, house music and Afro-mugging is bullshit spectacle. They want guitars that sound like guitars and songs that sound like songs.
And you don’t need a high concept or a big budget to please this generation of kids. They just want the rock, thank you.