Low on Budget, Low on Concept, High on Rock

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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.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
September 29, 2005

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

23 Responses

  1. rachael Says:

    that new quruli akai densha song seems to be doing alright, even getting a spot as cm music.

    i can’t listen to grapevine all the time either; frankly i like a bit more noise and sparkle.

    (i still don’t get why neil and iraiza is pegged as “soft rock”, other than the red herring of the song title?)

  2. marxy Says:

    All these bands make Neil & Iraiza look like fierce revolutionaries.

  3. Momus Says:

    (Posted from a classroom in Venice where I’m doing workshops)

    I just want to say that Anders Edstrom is one of my favourite photographers, and his film about guitarist Derek Bailey, which I saw at the Purple Institute in Paris earlier this year, is amazing precisely because it’s “”pure” flat, straight, and unflashy”. But I would argue that unflashy is the new flashy. This festival I’m at is co-sponsored by Benetton and Aprilia, who make mopeds. Aprilia has a scooter on display downstairs which has a hand-scrawled copyline saying “Bike me”. Unflashy has become the new flashy.

  4. nate Says:

    you pay for cable?

  5. marxy Says:

    Unflashy has become the new flashy

    You heard it here first, folks.

    Doesn’t this straightness border on the vile Rockism?

    you pay for cable?

    My roomate does. Japan is all about free-riding.

  6. trevor Says:

    hey! so is momus going to re: pick up the guitar, and do a singer song writer album? i guess it could be, if the rusty hook up happens.

  7. alin Says:

    arrrgh, the differences between the european and american sensibilities are so big it would make sense to leave japan out of the scenario alltogether. for a while purple was a wonderful effort to link the 3.

  8. alin Says:

    marxy, i really don’t understand why ‘As someone interested in overwrought, high-concept production’ you keep looking for it in places you should know you’re not gonna find it. you surely know it’s here.

  9. Momus Says:

    Doesn’t this straightness border on the vile Rockism?

    Well, as Siouxsie once sang, “the image is no images”.

    I just attended a lecture by Paul Davis, who’s an illustrator whose squiggly, hand-drawn work has been used by IBM, Sony and other big clients. In fact, he recounted how IBM actually bought his handwriting (David Shrigley-esque naive capitals) for a year for their “Invent This” campaign. At the end of the lecture I asked whether such big clients would have used such homemade work in the high-gloss 80s, and he said no, of course not. We agreed that this work is a reaction to computers, the way computers have put a high gloss style at the disposal of anyone, and the way that has made handmade stuff suddenly fashionable. Because, ironically, the hardest thing to do is something crappy and idiosyncratic. Good crappy, that is.

    Where it differs from rockism is that nobody’s saying this lo-fi, crappy, idiosyncratic, jokey style is any more “real” than the high gloss style. It’s just a fashion, as Davis was cheerful to admit. And I think that what Davis is to illustration, Edstrom is to photography. Certainly his film about Derek Bailey was “crappy” in an utterly brilliant way. No editing to speak of, just these long shots in which nothing seems to happen, Bailey shuffles around his London flat, we see the depressing view through a dirty window… then suddenly Bailey begins to play, and his style is “crappy” too, brilliantly and daringly “crappy”, like someone who can’t play the guitar but is desperate to express himself.

  10. Momus Says:

    (This sensibility is what makes, say, a Black Dice production sound so now and a Cornelius production (super-slick, hi-tech, computerish, pernickety, jumpy, tidy, flash, self-conscious) sound so then.)

  11. r. Says:

    sorry, but is nick trying to pull the old switcheroo on us here? black dice (BD) do sound ‘now’ but they ARE now. and back then, cornelius sounded very ‘now’ didn’t he? or did he sound more later (as in ‘now and later’) back then? and how about momus for that matter? how does he sound using ‘then now and later’ spectrum? any takers?
    i also don’t like the idea (implied) on this thread that the ‘good crapy’ can’t assimilate ‘good non-crappy’. i want a ‘good crappy’ that can do that, or else it the ‘crappy’ isn’t ‘good’ enough.

  12. alex Says:

    none of the bands mentioned in the post are “crappy”. they are tediously “competent”. an interesting kind of minimalist angle may be implied by things like the edstrom connection but it seems by and large undetectable. i haven’t seen the sekai ichi video but does groovisions moving from flashy chappie to unflashy prosaic really have anything to do w/ a new now aesthetic?

    there are two strands here and i’m not sure how related they are. the no frills “plain is in” thing is just durable and vanilla. it’s not as soupy, dilapidated or handsewn as black dice or noriko tujiko or whaever and certainly not as compelling.

  13. marxy Says:

    none of the bands mentioned in the post are “crappy”. they are tediously “competent”.

    Good correction. This Japanese rock boom is way different than lo-fi or “rustic.” “Vanilla” is the perfect way to describe these bands, which I still think goes well with this particular moment’s bland Japanese youth culture. Trendy minimalism or “crappyism” has crossed paths with it in these videos and Edstrom gives Grapevine more subcultural capital than they probably deserved.

    I think both of these bands probably requested to their directors to emphasize on the “rock” and not to get tied down in fashion or gimmicks. Oops. They managed to do both.

  14. Jrim Says:

    it’s not as soupy, dilapidated or handsewn as black dice or noriko tujiko or whaever and certainly not as compelling.

    Oh, God, but have you heard Nori’s latest album? It’s clogged with super-slick trip hop the like of which I haven’t heard since the first Sneaker Pimps joint. Bring back the “good crappy” Nori of old, I say!

    As for all the J-bands marxy is laying into here – can’t say I’ve heard any of them (knowingly, at least), but on paper they sound scarily reminiscent of the UK’s Stereophonics. Spare us!

  15. odot Says:

    noriko has been making shitty trip-hop for three records now. i don’t think you can ever save her. her first step in cinema are pretty baffling, i heard, though.

  16. alex Says:

    she just released three records so i’m not sure which are being referred to. i found blurred in my mirror too bleary but i quite like the one w/ aoki takamasa. if anything, the riow arai collaboration would be the one to accuse of “trip hop” residue but i like some of that too. i actually wish it was more in line w/ his beat-montage stuff as counterpoint to all the floating.

    i do think there is a range of interesting japanese ‘unflashy’ music, yuko nexus6, chib, nobukazu takemura, aki onda, etc. but i always wondered what sort of audience these artists have/had specifically in japan. not on too many ipod shuffles anyway.

  17. Michael McCarthy Says:

    What we hope we get out of rock-n-roll is fantasy, maybe… What we hope to get out of music aimed at the working class is some form of solidarity.

    Another month, another keitai bill, and don’t worry about that sage advice comming from Cutie, Street Jack, Egg, Soup, Men’s Non-No, Pinky, Can Cam, etc etc… just sit back and listen to the ill conceived cover of “I Can see Clearly now”… probably the worst idea for a cover in the history of music.

    People who don’t challenge themselves don’t want to be challenged by the music they listen to either… The odd thing is, that, if the style is the same as the music, this could possibly be the ONLY form of non-conformity in Japan at the moment.

    With every other style nailed down to the very last eyehole on every Bathing Ape shoe, every non-ironic trucker hat, every baroque screen print shirt, perhaps the only true non-conformity is Sara plain and tall?

    God, it’s so boring though… not as boring as the fake ‘rip’hop… not as boring as “Outlaw Fashion”… not ever as boring as ShibuyaKei, with its hand me down style that the rest of the world could kindly leave behind, giving it the 1960s meji “Modern Girl” white frosted lipstick kiss goodbye… but boring boring boring, nonetheless.

    What is worse? Posing, or slouching?

  18. dzima Says:

    About Tsujiko Noriko:

    – until 「ハードにさせて」 all is good;

    – from ‘From Tokyo to Naiagara’ on: turned bad.

    – her peak: around 2002.

  19. nate Says:

    I think it might be easy to miss in the big city kira kira, but out here if you’re not sporting LV, you’ve been wearing mujirushi or uniqlo for a while. It’s only reasonable that matching music and music video production should roll along.

    (also, nobukaze takemura… unflashy? I don’t think we can apply the flashy/unflashy dichotomy everywhere.)

  20. marxy Says:

    the ill conceived cover of “I Can see Clearly now”… probably the worst idea for a cover in the history of music.

    Indeed. I had happily forgotten about it until you brought it up.

  21. alex Says:

    nobukaze takemura… unflashy?

    terminology is totally fuzzy of course but i was thinking along the lines of clumsy singing computers “desperate to express themselves” or crappy (great) claymation videos. or whatever that songbook album was about. maybe aki tsuyuko is a better fit actually.

  22. rachael Says:

    What is worse? Posing, or slouching?

    i think best is not caring sometimes.

  23. alin Says:

    and Edstrom gives Grapevine more subcultural capital than they probably deserved.

    can’t speak for Edstrom but i think you’re missing the point again, creating conflict and dichotomies where there shouldn’t be any. These guys mainly european but not only (the extended purple magazine crew etc. – and i think momus would to some extent fit here too) rather comfortably (maybe lazily from the perspective of the punk-rock revolutionary) let their own inner need for piece and chill tune in with the equivalent they see in japan, while also allowing a healthy gap – so the whole thing is pretty much beyond the culture/subculture dychotomies and angst. Ellein Fleiss who publishes the (once) avantguarde purple mag also writes for mainstream 流行通信.
    as far as the lo- esthetic being the now i’m not so sure, it’s been for a while, I personally find stuff like diesel buying maison margela, resulting in margiela basically looking like diesel a bit disturbing.