Cornelius and Shibuya-kei Revisted

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Now that Cornelius (Oyamada Keigo) is finally releasing his new album Sensuous after five years of quiet laboratory work and being the Japanese Music World’s Greatest Dad1, everyone is suddenly interested in taking another look at Shibuya-kei as background to how Oyamada can release an album of aimless electro-acoustic tinkerings and automatically make the media world go into a frenzy.

Subsequently, I was invited to write a piece in today’s Japan Times about the movement to go along with their Cornelius interview (most likely because Momus turned it down.) If you have read my “Legacy of Shibuya-kei” pieces, the content of today’s article should be very familiar to you.

Recruit’s free-paper R25 had the same idea as the Times, and their new issue — which can be picked up off the floors of rush-hour subways starting today — has a “long interview” with Oyamada. Oddly, they spend the entire interview talking about his original activity with his first band Flipper’s Guitar rather than the new album. But since the magazine is about “stimulating” men in the business world, the article is most interested in Oyamada’s anomalous success as somebody who never cared about success. A very ’90s idea, indeed.

Things I learned from the R25 interview:

• Oyamada used to be in a Jesus and Mary Chain and Cramps cover band in high school, and none of his fellow students had any idea what was going on.
• Oyamada was in the hospital recovering from a traffic accident when he first heard about the success of the first Flipper’s album Three Cheers for Our Side.
• After FG broke up, the first thing Oyamada did was music for hair care product TV commercials (I knew he did print ads for Uno.)
• He never really took his business seriously until signing to Matador in the U.S. and going abroad.

The article also emphasizes the wide effect of Oyamada’s aesthetic sense (審美眼) on Japanese youth culture, and the context makes it clear that Flipper’s Guitar was one of the first popular musical acts in Japan to explicitly reference obscure Western bands that were not even big in their home countries. Oyamada gives the impression that he himself was very surprised that the music industry would care about what they as total music nerds were doing in their spare time:

I was influenced by really small English indie labels, and I was active in a tiny scene that probably didn’t even make up 100 listeners all across the country. So I never thought that the music I was doing could become a job. I was pretty sure we were all otaku and that itself was fun. So even if the record companies started to talk to us, I didn’t think more of it than “Oh, they have some weird people over there too.” We just thought about putting out one album for posterity’s sake. (記念に一枚)

This historical picture paints pre-Flipper’s Japan (circa 1988) as something completely different than what exists now. Did Flipper’s Guitar single-handedly bring the widespread love of obscure foreign indie and underground culture to the Japanese pop economy, or was it just the soundtrack for a coeval broad consumer movement? Seeing that Flipper’s did a large part in introducing so much to their legions of fans, I find it hard to remove them completely from the cause-and-effect. Surely the media environment was right for a diversification in aesthetic sense from the monolithic (and boring) Bubble tastes, but Oyamada was the guy who jump-started the whole phenomenon.

Yet there is something dangerous about using this narrative in a recruitment-related magazine in 2006. On one hand, the Oyamada story is great for illustrating that Japan’s true heroes are those who are more interested in pleasing their own fickle tastes than doing everything in the least-common-denominator mode to reach eventual business success. I hope, however, that the kid who plays bass in his Green Day-tribute band doesn’t get the wrong idea about employment being an natural extension of indie nerdism. Cornelius succeeded because Japan had the world’s most vibrant, wealthy consumer culture and was primed for someone with superior taste to lead them to the world standards for cool. But the country already completed that march to the extremes a decade ago, and now the powers-that-be are trying to shepherd everyone back to more easily-understandable local phenomena (which conveniently keep money and power in their hands). No one ever again will succeed like Cornelius — at least for a very long time.

I am pleased to see Shibuya-kei being treated as an important historical era. And as much as I do not think his latest album is as inspiring as his earlier output, I think Cornelius’ success in the ’90s gives him the legitimate right to live out the rest of his years as a venerable war hero.

1 When I lived in Sangenjaya, I would frequently pass the King Ape playing with his son Milo.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
October 19, 2006

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

20 Responses

  1. alin Says:

    succeeded because Japan had the world’s most vibrant, wealthy consumer culture and was primed for someone with superior taste to lead them to the world standards for cool

    oh me , it strikes again

  2. Boyrand Says:

    The bass player in a Green Day cover band or any other musical endeavor is probably wiser to not assume consequent financial success. The same probably goes for the other members of the band. But let’s not have kids hanging up their basses. Also, One guesses that Cornelius, as he hints, did not muddle through indifference to his Jesus and Mary Chain covers thinking, “I do this for the Shibuya-kei! This will be redeemed!” I guess that I just realized that all human endeavor is just a bunch of people throwing their best efforts against a wall to which only so many things stick. L.O.L. but really I have become humbled.

  3. marxy Says:

    Dudes should keep on keepin’ on with the Green Day bass playing, but everytime I see a young band play, I feel like I am at some sort of IndieCon 2006 convention where young entrepreneurs have gathered to pawn their wares. Cornelius may be hiding his ambition, but at least he has the sense to hide it.

  4. John Says:

    He’s touring Apple stores promoting the album. I’m kind of at a loss of what to say aside from “I really like your stuff” since all this material about his career and the greater musical movement he was a part of has become available to me due to this post. Thanks?

  5. Your Humble Janitor Says:

    “succeeded because Japan had the world’s most vibrant, wealthy consumer culture and was primed for someone with superior taste to lead them to the world standards for cool”

    Your Humble Janitor reads this as “people had more money than they knew what to do with and would try almost anything once”. All snark aside though, I must thank marxy for edifying me on this bit of Japan that I wasnt here for and most likely wouldnt have noticed were I here at that time.

  6. check Says:

    A nicely written article.

    You have my thanks.

  7. mexist Says:

    Cornelius es magnifico… pero no creo que es una artista típico de Shibuya-Kei, aunque tenia mucha influencia sobre el género… me parece que tiene mas originalidad.

  8. trevor Says:

    i’ll say it. other then the new album is a bore.. (maybe it’s like the daft punk album.. the wrong version got released? and since they have like 100,000 copies of it, they are just saying its the right version?)) though more solid over all then point.. though the better things on point, are better then anything on.. whatever the new one is called.
    cornelius, himself.. has only released 1 good album. 1..
    his greatest trick was fooling the world he didn’t care.
    how warhaolian..

  9. Mutantfrog Says:

    Marxy:”but everytime I see a young band play, I feel like I am at some sort of IndieCon 2006 convention where young entrepreneurs have gathered to pawn their wares”

    You always talk about how indy bands you go see in Japan are more about selling crap to get economic validation of their artistic vision than making music itself, but maybe that’s more of a Tokyo thing? In Kyoto I see loads of homemade cds selling for 300 or 500 yen by people who just seem to be having fun.

  10. marxy Says:

    Maybe that’s more of a Tokyo thing?

    Sure, these things could be regional. In Osaka, they substitute acting crazy and being loud for all artistry. (At least this is the Tokyo snob view.) Shibuya-kei was absolutely a “Tokyo” thing, whether some of the artists were from the West or not. It was Tokyo commercial culture hyperextending into artistic pursuit, and it succeeded because it fit perfectly into the needs of the Tokyo and Tokyo-directed shopping masses.

    Tokyo is going to automatically be more commercial driven just in that it is Hollywood-New York-Washington, D.C. all rolled into one. People come with the specific purpose of “making it,” and once you start going and are not terrible, it’s easy to attract third-tier media and agents and managers and labels and feel like you are on your way somewhere. People always talk about “all the unknown indie bands you don’t know” but they never realize how many bands you’ve never heard of are already signed to the biggest and baddest labels.

    Tokyo is set up so that “being in a band” sounds like a perfectly respectible pursuit, and why the Oyamadas of the world do well overall is because they either know it’s a pipe dream and use their energy on pleasing their own creative needs or don’t even go into it thinking that it should be anything more than pleasing oneself and one’s peers. Audiences are attracted to rock music for the escape from economic realities in the first place. Japan is weird in that the lack of critical review means the market takes over for assigning importance. Shibuya-kei would hardly matter if it had not sold at some level.

    The other problem is the fact that the Tokyo indie music institutions push all the risk onto the bands and if you don’t sell a certain amount (which is always just sucking 2500 yen out of your close friends’ meager paychecks), you basically take too much financial loss to keep it up. I was walking home one night and passed some band about to go on at Heaven’s Door (in Sangenjaya) who were randomly just stopping people on the street to see if they would come see their show. And I was like, “Noruma, huh?” (minimum guest requirements that if not fulfilled means the band pays for the difference out of their own pockets.) They kind of nodded and went back to hocking tickets. Did not speak a lot of confidence.

    I am not saying everyone out there is only doing music as career path, but I just got fed up seeing young band after young band trying desperately to market themselves. Even bands I like. First time I saw Nhhmbase, they kept talking between songs about their next gigs etc. It took away from their live show. Next time I saw them, they were drunk, shut the fuck up, and it was great.

  11. nate Says:

    wow….the hardcore scene is different, and quite self-sufficient.
    I should take you to a Gauze show sometime…

  12. Chompsky Says:

    So people are paying too much for shows to escape from economic realities? That doesn’t make much sense.

    People go to the shows because they like the music, and the scene. But they can still be pissed off about the high ticket prices.

    If you haven’t, I think you should check out this Mixi community called Neo Underground, composed of people trying to create a new, better Japanese music scene. Get rid of the normas, play in more attractive, interesting places, make events more audience-friendly, serve better, cheaper drinks, etc. People are trying to change things. http://mixi.jp/view_community.pl?id=1288022

  13. marxy Says:

    I think most of the criticism I get is from people in the super underground and hardcore and noise scenes, because to a certain degree, they probably do operate different than the “indie pop” scene. Indie means a lot of things to a lot of people. Orange Range is “indie” ある意味で。I admittedly am talking about a certain indie rock/indie pop stream that came out of the 90s – not everything.

    People are trying to change things

    I am happy to hear it. The problem seems to me though is that all the bad parts are fundamental to the business model. This model for indie music echoes the rest of the economy – all the “passing off risk to the seller” is how Isetan works as well, for example – and I have a feeling it will be hard to change. There may be an economically-deterministic angle: land prices are so high and competition is so fierce that you can only open a rock club (with its ridiculously high entry prices to buy up all the first-rate PA systems that young indie bands don’t need) if you can guarantee a certain amount every night. I doubt Shelter is making all a lot of money, but they can only stay alive if you, the band and the bands’ friends, will put up the money every night.

    The best strategy for those wanting to change things would be to totally escape rock clubs in general and just go DIY, set up spaces with a certain brand image. (Super Deluxe is pretty good in this regard.) I think the Rawlife festival was only about 50% successful in their attempt. Creepy, creepy abandoned hospital. A ghost bent my wife’s pinky ring.

  14. alin Says:

    “people had more money than they knew what to do with and would try almost anything once”

    try everything once and at once, simultaneously – isn’t that the common thing in shibuya kei.

    hasn’t most 90s music aged badly ? , be it air or aphex twin. boredoms oddly stay buffalo daughter go, kraftwerk stay so , of course, does gainsbourg etc; how much more listenable is a record curated by 90s artists (say Air with tracks by the Cure or Black Sabbath) than their own stuff.

  15. marxy Says:

    try everything once and at once, simultaneously – isn’t that the common thing in shibuya kei.

    Sounds right to me.

    hasn’t most 90s music aged badly

    Sure, but some worse than others. I find the Buffalo Daughter stuff to still sound pretty good actually. Hearing “funky drummer” in p5′s “Baby Love Child” sounds terrible now, but will be all retro in 5 years, maybe. I personally find that first Cornelius album is particularly worthless – though I know you, Alin, like it.

    In general, when you are treating the songwriting as a stand-in so you can spend all your energy in the production, your song probably will not “mean” something to people in that sentimental, cheesy way and it will thus get judged on the sounds/production alone, which makes it a bit more tied up in trends and the passing of time. What changes faster melodies and harmonic styles or production? I think that’s an easy question.

  16. rachael Says:

    heheh, i see you’re still firing off at utada in your article. maybe all the money pushed into marketing and publicity just doesn’t work. kids find out what they like on their own, and don’t like being told. i can just imagine how word of mouth spreads for p5 and cornelius via the internet and record stores…

  17. marxy Says:

    kids find out what they like on their own, and don’t like being told.

    Kids weren’t buying Cornelius and P5. It was college kids and hipsters, no? More than “you can’t tell them what to like” – Shibuya-kei was something new to the foreign music scene. Utada offers nothing but watered-down versions of American R&B.

  18. rachael Says:

    when i use the term “kids” i use it quite loosely, probably meaning anyone younger than me, now that i’m getting older :p but yes, college kids and hipsters who want to get in on things before anybody else.

    utada’s efforts at programming were quite amateur, but it looked as if it was a project that was largely controlled by herself and her father, so they would get final say.

    i think most of us are happy too just that he’s released music again. next i would like him to give his wifey a gentle nudge to release something again.

  19. check Says:

    I ‘got’ the “Easy” part.

    I sort of understood the “Breezy” part.

    But I really did not, at all, understand the implications of being “Japanesey”.

    Dense material. Dense material.

  20. henryperri Says:

    Fashion is always making references to its own past and looking abroad for the next “in thing.”

    With its collage of foreign samples from the 60s and 70s, Cornelius’ music seems to be created in the same manner as a seasonal line of clothing.

    Do you think Cornelius approaches his music this way because he lives amongst the hyperconsumerism of Tokyo?