“Still laying in bed, I reached out and tried to turn on the stereo at my side.”
Thus begins Tanaka Yasuo (田中康夫)’s debut novel Nantonaku, Crystal 『なんとなく、クリスタル』. Although not a literary treasure by any stretch of the imagination, the short work immediately became a cultural phenomena upon its debut. After winning the Bungei Prize in autumn 1980, Nantonaku, Crystal attracted a storm of media attention for the unabashedly consumerist and materialist nature of the writing. When the book finally hit bookstores in January 1981, the initial printing sold out on the first day and eventually became a “million seller.”
The plot of Nantonaku, Crystal nominally concerns the ultra-chic Tokyo lifestyle of a young college student and part-time model named Yuri. Just as Moby Dick introduces the reader to overwhelming minutia about cetacean biology, Tanaka provides 442 footnotes in 213 pages to explain the brand names, restaurants, neighborhoods, private schools, and clubs that constitute the lexical environment for his protagonist. This technique is not particularly subtle: the book is printed with the novel text on the right page and the numbered notes on the left page. Japanese conservatives had a field day with the book’s obsession with proper nouns: Aha! Proof at last that prosperous post-war society has reduced youth to a bunch of empty materialists! Tanaka rebutted these charges by drawing obvious parallels between youth brand mania and the traditional Japanese tendency to desperately associate oneself with prestigious companies and universities. Really, isn’t the reluctance to recruit anybody outside of Tokyo University for the national bureaucracy also an example of brand loyalty?
Almost every proper noun in Nantonaku, Crystal is marked with a numerical footnote, giving Tanaka (or otherwise omniscient narrator) a chance to explain the item’s cultural significance to those who aren’t in the know. Some notes are essentially straight-forward encyclopedia entries: “29• Salem – American cigarette brand, menthol. They also make a longer size.” Others can be snobby social commentary: “117• Aoyama – Don’t say ‘I want to live in Minami Aoyama San-chome’ in front of people you don’t really know. It’s embarrassing.” Tanaka also provides a footnote in the middle of a sex scene to let us know that Yuri’s euphemism “my little mound” is code for her clitoris. Thanks.
At least half the reason for Nantonaku, Crystal‘s popularity was that readers — especially those outside of Japan’s capital — could functionally use the book and its notes as a style bible for Tokyo and as a primer on the latest trends in music and fashion. Tanaka may have been a sort-of-snotty, 24 year-old professor’s son and elite Hitotsubashi law student, but the immediate success of the book strongly suggests that his tastes reflected the more fashionable pockets of consumer culture at the time. And fitting with the oft-repeated claim that Japanese kids before the late ’90s exhausted allowances solely on music and clothes, Tanaka spends most of the book name-dropping the soundtrack.
Tanaka’s music choices, however, have greatly suffered from later redirections in musical historiography. The impact of punk rock upon future streams completely transformed our linear understanding of rock development, and Nantonaku, Crystal is frozen in time as a tribute to the now-forgotten dominance of Yacht Rock on the entire decade of the ’70s. Objectively-speaking, AOR was a huge force in Anglo music for a good while, and Tanaka’s book demonstrates how much this genre set the standards for proto-hipster snobs in Japan back in the day. Punk and grunge eventually relegated Tanaka’s beloved “smooth music” to footnotes, but Nantonaku, Crystal hit the market right before New Wave and the “London Night” scene started to win more power in setting the o-share agenda in Tokyo, eventually bringing a darker and more rebellious edge to musical sensibilities. The book now perfectly embodies a forgotten aesthetic era — like the last promenade of distinguished young Neo-Classicist painters before Monet threw open the doors to the Bastille.
Besides his parody-worthy devotion to “smooth music,” there are few clear fundamentals of Tanaka’s tastes that are useful for understanding the nature of the cool hierarchy in late 1970s/early 1980s Japan:
(1) Tanaka gains a mean advantage over the average youth from being able to read/understand English. This not only gives him a higher position in the educational hierarchy but means he has greater access to the latest trend information coming out of the Anglo world without being filtered through the Japanese media, and therefore, automatically accessible to a mass audience. Those individuals able to leverage linguistic ability as cultural arbitrage easily rose above “normal” Japanese who still relied on translation only at the time of formal importation. English ability was essential to taste-makers and style leaders of a certain sophisticated urban cultural strain: from Murakami Haruki to Hosono Haruomi to Ozawa Kenji. Needless to say, this particular skill is correlated with socioeconomic class.
(2) Tanaka apparently does not listen to domestic Japanese music and only references popular local musicians in the novel to disparage them. Here again, Anglo culture is automatically seen as vastly superior to Japanese homegrown culture — at least in the realm of pop music.
(3) Tanaka sees Japanese folk music and “nostalgic” magazines like An•An and Non•no as dwelling in an inauthentic “poverty chic.” To him, Japan’s economy has outgrown this kind of melancholy.
(4) Tanaka seems to know about punk rock and new wave, but essentially ignores these genres. He does not show any antagonism, however, leading me to think they had yet to gain enough footing within Japan to require Tanaka to muster up an opinion of solidarity or rejection.
(5) In Note 415, Tanaka explicitly casts himself as the literary equivalent of singer Rupert Holmes and notes that people of “exclusive” class are more reserved in demonstrating self-confidence to the outside world. Tanaka appears to be associating the use of Holmes’ literary technique as part of his own privileged class background.
In order to relay a sense of Tanaka’s work, and more broadly, his particular style moment, I have translated all the references to music in Nantonaku, Crystal‘s Notes. This is “fashionable music” in Tokyo, circa 1980.
(The individual entries for song titles may seem superfluous in English, but in Japanese, the katakana name for the song is used in the text, requiring the note to reveal the proper English title.)
2• FEN – Abbreviation for “Far East Network.” It’s good background music for those who don’t know English. Those who understand English jokes can enjoy it on a higher level.
4• Willie Nelson – Singer born in Texas who introduced lots of new elements previously unknown to country & western music.
5• “Moon Light in Vermont” – Standard number written in 1927 by Karl Suessdorf.
10• Stephen Bishop – Singer-songwriter who did a pretty good job as an actor in Kentucky Fried Movie.
11• “On and On” [Stephen Bishop song]
14• Kenny Loggins – Originally one half of the duo Loggins and Messina. Currently working solo. The Bob James-produced album Nightwatch is especially good for waking up in the morning.
25• Paul Davis – Singer-songwriter from Atlanta.
26• “I Go Crazy” [Paul Davis song]
33• Michael Franks – Originally from California, he studied at Montreal University and later earned a Doctorate in Musical Composition with the dissertation The Creation of Contemporary Music and its Social Relations. Discovered by Tommy Lipuma, he is a jazzy city-pop singer.
34• Kenny Rankin – Artist with a strong bossa nova flavor. His debut album came out in 1968 but he did not receive much critical attention until the 1970s.
68• Disco Party – Girls and guys show up expecting “this time” to be the time, but they don’t end up meeting anyone. They spend three hours thinking “What should I do? What should I do?” and then the party ends. After the disco closes, groups of guys and girls loiter outside the disco, hesitating to leave.
69• Bob Seger – Rock singer from Detroit. His brusque singing style is old-school (shibui).
70• “Against the Wind” [Bob Seger song]
71• Robert Palmer – White singer — famous as a lady killer — with a soulful singing style. Is that because he’s on Island?
72• “Every Kinda People” [Robert Palmer song]
73• Ashford & Simpson – Black husband-and-wife duet group. They’re also known as songwriters, supplying songs to artists like Diana Ross.
74• “Is It Still Good to Ya” [Ashford & Simpson song]
75• Kool & the Gang – Veteran black soul group
76• “Too Hot” [Kool & the Gang song]
77• Airplay – Group made up of Jay Graydon (producer of Steve Kipner, Marc Jordan, and the Manhattan Transfer) and David Foster (producer of EW&F, Hall & Oates, Dennis Williams, and Michael Jackson) with Tommy Funderburk on vocals. Toto plays on the backtracks.
78• “She Waits For Me” [Airplay song]
92• The Dramatics – Soul group with the image, “If you need a slow number, leave it to us.”
93• “In the Rain” [The Dramatics song]
97• Philadelphia Soul – Only a few years ago, this term was used disparagingly for The Three Degrees‘ weak soul, but later became a sign of respect after the metamorphosis of Teddy Pendergrass.
98• Teddy Pendergrass – Black singer so popular with women that the stage is littered with panties after a concert.
99• “Turn Off the Light” [Teddy Pendergrass song]
100• Boz Scaggs – Great to play in the car with girls who don’t mind music. Born in 1944 in Ohio, he was once in the Steve Miller Band.
101• “We Are All Alone” [Boz Scaggs song] – This is becoming a standard number. The Japanese title is “Futari dake” (「二人だけ」). Rita Coolidge put out a cover version under the name “Minna hitoribocchi,” but this is an incorrect translation from the lyrics. If you attach “by ourselves,” the title takes on the meaning “we are all alone.”
114• Christopher Cross – A singer-songwriter with a West Coast feel even though he’s from Texas.
234• Yuming – She has the image of living in an apartment six minutes from the station, with three rooms (9-jō [tatami mat measure], 6-jō, 6-jō), a 8-jō dining-kitchen, southeast-exposure, a nice view, lots of sunlight, on the 7th floor of a 10-story building built two years ago, with heater and air-conditioning, in a quiet residential neighborhood (and you can move right in!), but doesn’t it at least seem possible that it’s true?
235• Matsutoya Masataka – Educated at Keiō all the way from kindergarten up.
261• Ambrosia – West coast rock group that achieved popularity after changing from a progressive rock sound to a more contemporary one.
262• “Biggest Part of Me” [Ambrosia song]
265• Dick St. Nicklaus – Pop singer who used to be a member of the Gingsmen [sic?]. It’s “said” that surfers in Osaka discovered him at import record shops. Hey, Epic Sony, your plans to swindle and hustle everyone (yarase and yoisho) were a huge success!
267• Bubblegum – Bubblegum [the candy], or content-less music marketed to kids.
294• Record Company Directors – Even though they have little money nor time and often become domineering husbands [亭主関白], college co-eds weak-kneed for “brands” dream of marrying them.
295• Fusion – Music genre mixing rock and pops, based on fusion jazz. Best understood as jazz that overtly aspires to be popular.
296• Studio Musicians – Musicians who participate in making music if called up to join recording sessions.
302• Alice – Thanks to the high-growth economy, the “4.5-jō [tatami mat measure] song” became a “6-jō + 3-jō kitchen, bath and toilet” song. This band is representative of that. If you listen to Alice while reading the magazine ANO•ANO [Tanaka’s parody name for magazines An•An and Non•no], it further amplifies the melancholy mood [湿ったムード].
303• Sama Masashi – These grasshopper-like guys would take the lead in singing praise to the army if a war broke out.
305• Groupie – Refers to female fans who have sexual relationships with musicians.
318• Disco Parties Thrown by Medical Schools – Parties where co-eds (who have already dated two or three guys) rush to get themselves the makings of a rich doctor. They have no idea that doctors will basically become technicians in the 21st century…
324• New Wave – The music of London youth who worry about high prices and high unemployment.
331• Crossover – Predecessor to “fusion” with a strong jazz flavor.
334• Little River Band – Group from Australia.
335• Peter Allen – Singer-songwriter from Australia. Writer of “Don’t Cry Out Loud.”
336• Carole Bayer Sager – Female singer-songwriter who works a lot with Melissa Manchester.
337• Paul Parrish – Little-known singer-songwriter who is the younger brother of Jackson Browne and arranged/contributed songs to Severin Browne‘s albums.
338• Bill Labounty – Singer-songwriter who has created lots of songs with Michael Johnson and sang “Bluer Than Blue.”
370• The Bee – Members-only disco in Iikura. Hey, you, don’t even go to the trouble of thinking about becoming a member! By the way, I want all the girls there doing “part-time work” to be chased out.
371• Steve Gibb – Singer-songwriter born in Florida. He studied classical music at a conservatory in Baltimore. Made his name from writing Kenny Loggins’ hit song “She Believes in Me” and Helen Reddy‘s “If I Ever Have to Say Goodbye to You.” Gibb’s first album Let My Song came out on the Clouds Label — a subsidiary of T.K. Records. This album — full of beautiful melodies and heart-wrenching lyrics — taught me about love, as well as the joys and pain of youth. The Japanese release has yet to come out.
372• “Tell Me That You Love Me” [Steve Gibb song]
377• Casablanca – I’m not referring to the ungrateful record label that chased away Donna Summer.
378• P.A. Man – The person in charge of a public address system.
379• Kakehi – “To pick up” girls (hikkakeru) in musician lingo. This reversing of letters in words is unique to the music industry.
381• The Spinners – Soul group with a long career, like The Dells. When the disco boom faltered a bit, everyone took a second look at soul groups with this kind of flavor.
383• Loft – Rock “live house” that actually feels a lot like a loft.
384• Yane-ura – Rock “live house.” I like the fact that they insist on using the Japanese word and don’t call it “Grenier.”
399• Reggae – Music created by Jamaicans living in Jamaica and in the U.K.
401• Bily Joel – The Matsuyama Chiharu of New York.
402• Donna Summer – Disco singer born in the U.S. who debuted in Munich. Can she really make it as a popular singer?
403• Rasses – Soulful, funky reggae group.
404• Melody Maker – British music magazine.
405• Ian Dury – British leader of pub rock band Kilburn and the High-Roads. A rock’n’roller with a bit of soul, he used to be a teacher at an art college.
406• “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” [Ian Dury song]
407• Rachel Sweet – Young woman from Akron (Ohio) — America’s central city for tire production. Her voice has a C&W twang to it.
408• “I Go to Pieces” [Rachel Sweet song]
410• Stiff Records – Founded in June 1976 by Dave Robinson and Jake Riveria. Introduced pub rock veterans Nick Lowe and Ian Dury. The label also discovered Elvis Costello and the punk band The Damned. Riveria, however, quit soon after to found Radar Records, taking Lowe and Costello with him.
411• Mark-Almond – Male duo group.
412• Seawind – West Coast group that sounds like surf music.
413• Tommy Lipuma – Producer for George Benson‘s Breezin’, Al Jarreau, Nick DeCaro‘s Italian Graffiti, Michael Franks‘ Art of Tea. He released Mark-Almond, Dr. John, and Neil Larsen on Horizon Records. But since these records were maybe a bit esoteric, the sales were not so great.
414• Horizon Records – Horizon is mostly known as A&W Records‘ [sic: he means A&M] jazz label. They invited Tommy Lipuma on board to transform Horizon into an adult-oriented music label, but they failed to iron out a working concept with him.
415• Rupert Holmes – New Yorker singer-songwriter, well-known as an arranger. If Billy Joel is the rags-to-riches New-Yorker, Rupert Holmes gives the airs of a very-exclusive upper-class lifestyle by using proper nouns to mark concrete places and scenery. Unlike Billy Joel, the people featured in Holmes’ songs are not trying to show off their self-confidence in front of others.
416• Henry Gaffney – Singer-songwriter from New York. Since his albums have yet to be released in Japan, this author has no further details.
417• Tom Waits – Born in 1949 in the suburbs of Los Angeles. His songs capture the essence of city life.
418• Old-school Male Vocalists [渋い男性ボーカリストたち] – I recommend Livingston Taylor and Nick DeCaro.
419• Jackson Browne – You can’t sing about 1970s youth forever. A singer-songwriter whose transformation we should keep an eye on.
420• Bob James – I am always impressed with his ideas for record covers. That’s it.
421• Richard Tee – There are a lot of people who seriously think jazz and fusion are on a higher plane than pop music. That makes me sad.
430• Jimmy Messina – Formed the combo Loggins and Messina with Kenny Loggins. His album Oasis conveys the historical influence of Spain on California.
431• “Seeing You” [Jimmy Messina song]