Japan Through its J-Pop

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My cable company just added two more music channels, meaning I have six total music channels to be upset about. But I agree with those new Wieden + Kennedy ads: MTV blows me. For all those people who whine about “I remember when MTV played videos,” I challenge you to spend time watching a music video from start to finish. You are also probably remembering back when “pop music was good.”

Since the Japanese music market is melting down like a butterscotch sundae in a toaster oven on Venus, we are limited to singles that the genius marketing teams have determined interlock perfectly with collected consumer research. Besides Denki Groove’s videos for “Shonen Young” and “Mononoke Dance” (amazing punchline), the suits no longer greenlight anything approximating a “creative idea.” Spike Jonze would be outright rejected as an arrogant auteur for daring to come up with his own concepts. The Sukima Switches, Monkey Majiks, and Yamada Yu’s have taken over 100% — dragging J-pop into a dark hole between the poles of pop-punk and uta-hime barefoot female singers. Now the rock bands have to be salt-of-the-earth, the idols have to be unambiguously robotic, and the song titles have to stick to words that everyone knows like “Arigatou.” Seriously, can you imagine naming a song “Thank You” and then performing it in front of a camera and letting your record label show it to other people? “I Just Called to Say I Love You”? You think these kids read Keats or something?!

Objectively, however, I learn more and more about this elusive “youth generation” with every video. For example, the band Monkey Majik’s new single “Together.” Japanese youth apparently love hearing their own hack pop lyric conventions improperly coming out the mouth of Canadian English teachers. Monkey Majik are the musical equivalent of the giant posters of white people that decorate the façades of discount suit stores in the Japanese suburbs, but hey, those suit stores sell a lot of suits! Between MM, Jero, and Leah Dizon, North America seems to be the new recruiting ground for Japanese talent. The mirror phenomenon would be Japanese people moving to the USA and joining the American Enterprise Institute.

More seriously, the new Kato Miriya — sorry, Kato Miliyah — song “19 Memories” is probably our greatest possible window into the female Japanese psyche. First and most importantly, the song “samples” Amuro Namie’s “Sweet 19 Blues,” which only came out 11 years ago and is probably the worst Amuro Namie song of that era. Miriya must have heard from a friend that recent “Black Music” likes to “sample,” and immediately demanded that they sample her last single for her new one. But when they told her to sample an “old song,” she went all the way back to her roots in 1996, when she was 8.

The video follows three young Japanese women, who I am guessing are 19. One is an aspiring painter. One is a “normal” OL type. One is a clubbing “gyaru.” If you think being 19 and a female in Japan is easy, Kato’s got some shocking news for you. A man (the dad?) suddenly starts viciously beating the aspiring painter. The OL gets pregnant by her boyfriend, who then flees when informed. The gyaru is dancing at a club, approached by two guys, and then sleeps with both of them at the same time. I never knew the “accidental menage a trois” was an important narrative scenario for young women in Japan, but that’s why I watch Kato Miliyah videos. Things look up at the end though: the painter wins a prize for her art, the boyfriend proposes to the preggie OL, and the gyaru has enough willpower to not be bullied into another regrettable orgy. What is odd, however, is how the good news comes to the first two girls. The painter has to read about her prize in some sort of trade journal, and the girl receives the incredibly romantic proposal —「結婚しよう」 — via her cell phone. I used to bemoan the “soft appeal” — the marketing strategy of “soothing” the youth generation instead of stimulating/educating them — but now this video makes it look like their lives are much more tragic than “I can’t get a white-collar job.”

Meanwhile in the otaku world — which is significantly less prone to accidental menage a trois — everyone is gaga over Perfume. The new single “Secret Secret” doubles as a commercial for ice cream treat Pino. When the video ends and they cut to commercial, Pino has a commercial to go with the Perfume commercial-esque-music-video, featuring Perfume and their new single “Secret Secret.” What’s more, MTV runs commercials for the new Pino/Perfume video for “Secret Secret,” featuring Pino ice cream and Perfume. I almost feel like this “capitalist chic” thing has “sold out.” Are we finally allowed to go back to songs being songs and commercials being commercials or is that some hippie shit I need to get over?

The actual track to “Secret Secret” is the latest product roll-out from Nakata Yasutaka’s Fordian factory of insanely treble-heavy, super-compressed robot pop. Thanks to technological progress in mastering science, he can make your ears bleed without even amplifying the volume.

I wish I could blame American music for providing bad aesthetic leadership to young Japanese artists, but J-pop is too obsessed with itself these days to even notice how terrible the new Mariah Carey single is. DJ Ozma is like a bad copy of Kishidan, which was a moderately-interesting yankii parody. Everyone’s reference set now extends three weeks in the past and ten minutes into the future. In a half-year, every new video will double as a commercial for Dr. Scholl’s in-soles and sample loops from that Kato Miliyah song. J-pop, we know you are hungry: just eat yourself already.

W. David MARX
April 19, 2008

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

41 Responses

  1. Snestrek Says:

    Fantastic! :D
    Finally something I can relate to ;)

  2. Chris S Says:

    Interesting critique, but is it really a supply problem (i.e., the “suits” not letting out anything creative) or is it a demand problem? After all, suits are pretty good at market research. Maybe most consumers really want what is being produced?

    I’ve always wondered if most J-pop isn’t so familiar and formulaic because extremely popular American music is filling a huge segment of the market demand. J-pop is left to supply the things like music for wealthy-but-disaffected young men and genki wo dashite songs.

  3. Leonardo Boi,o Says:

    Suits are good at market research and market *shaping*.

  4. LS Says:

    It’s a phenomenon known in artificial intelligence circles as overtraining … the feedback cycle the execs depend on may have gotten too directly responsive to consumers and become stuck in a “local minima” in the error function that is much more, uh, erroneous than the actual optimum.

  5. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Say what you will about Monkey Majik, say even that they look like Limp Bizkit’s non-evil twins–their wife and child live in an incredible traditional-style house there. (Long-distance relationships between darkened yet roofless studios and the Meiji period are indeed hard work.)

  6. W. David MARX Says:

    I’ve always wondered if most J-pop isn’t so familiar and formulaic because extremely popular American music is filling a huge segment of the market demand.

    American music has always been a mere 20% of the market. But I think that Japanese kids who like “innovative” music can easily listen to foreign music, which means that J-pop doesn’t have any need to appeal to them at all. In this way, foreign music has always been a bad influence on J-pop because it’s an “out” for all cool kids that still puts money in labels’ pockets.

  7. Wilford Says:

    I think you are overstating how recruiting talent from North America is somehow a new phenomena. Don’t forget it was in Japan that Alyssa Milano was a made pop singing star. Then there was the 1970s pop rock band Shogun, with LA singer Casey Rankin singing lead vocals in Japanese. From what I can tell, there has been since 1970, a low level ebb and flow of performers from outside of Japan anointed by the production companies to become pop stars.

    What was so extraordinary about the 1990s was so much top talent was home grown and had international appeal. What is happening now is more a resetting to the status quo.

  8. W. David MARX Says:

    Leah Dizon is the new Phoebe Cates: both half-Chinese/Filipino and active in the Japanese market.

  9. W. David MARX Says:

    I also want to re-emphasize that I think this kind of music isn’t a corporate conspiracy: I think it’s them trying to “match” real consumer tastes best. There’s no other part of Gen Y consumer behavior in Japan that says they would want “artsy” or creative stuff. The whole “real clothes” boom is all about moving “fashion” away from any sort of artistry.

  10. Luis Alis Says:

    It all seems to me just a big old dumbing down the content and not leaving any stereotype box unchecked in order to appeal to a potential majority.
    I am extremely disconnected from the J-Pop frontline but if the panorama is as hollow as you describe then I’ve doing the right thing.

  11. d.b. krump Says:

    wait wait, i thought perfume was the cute japanese face of that hip french electro that all the kids are listening to these days. I mean if only 20% of the market is foreign music, you’re going to have a hard time selling copies of the lasted ed banger record.

    I dont understand why miliyah kato sampling namie amuro is at all important. Is is it better if she samples 10 year old reggae tunes (as in her last album)? isnt this progress since shes at least sampling japanese tunes, suggesting not only the creation of a canon but that japanese music doesnt need to sample foreign sources to be cool? Monkey magic might be just be parroting j-pop standards but more tellingly doesnt that mean that foreign talent now at least has to subscribe to the rules of japanese pop and not the other way around?

    i guess i feel like that the standard now being – foreign and speaks japanese and is therefore popular – is a step up from – is foreign and is therefore popular.

    also i dont remember japanese pop music music having international appeal in the 90’s, did i miss something?

  12. Kyle Says:

    d.b. krump:

    I don’t think MM is a sign that foreign talent /must/ subscribe to the rules of Japanese pop. Rather, I think it’s a sign that Japanese can /accept/ foreigners subscribing to Japanese pop rules. Granted, I’m not sure how successful Western pop is in Japan anymore in general.

    Witness Avril Lavigne’s song “Girlfriend” making it into the Oricon Top 30. It rose only to 27, and it’s the only US pop song that broke the Top 30 in all of 2007.

    There have been a handful of decent-to-good artists in the Top 30 the last year, but that’s about it. I kept up with Oricon last year so, though I don’t live in Japan anymore, I could still talk to my friends there about things going on in Japan. I think Ketsumeishi do a good job of blending Western rap/soul with Japanese sentiment; Kuwata Keisuke is also very good. However, Kuwata has been around since the 80s. Aside from that, there’s very little that gets me excited when I listen to Japanese pop.

    And have you /heard/ Oshirikajiri-mushi? It’s the worst song ever.

  13. Justin Bacon Says:

    We opened for Perfume several months back, seemingly just before the PR behemoth really kicked into high gear. The live house we were at was reasonably full, but you could probably have counted the women in attendance on two hands. Weirdest gig ever.

    I don’t generally listen to any pop music from this country or any other except by accident, but I hear autotune is making an ill-conceived comeback stateside as well. It’s one of the more annoying gimmicks, certainly, but I can almost understand the temptation to skirt around the necessity of, you know, singing in tune. Basing your entire career on it (more or less) seems like a bad idea, but considering the lifespan of these acts, I guess it’s more or less a moot point.

    Bonus hilarity from an (unsourced) bio of one of the members on Wikipedia:

    Name: A~Chan
    Birthdate: February 15th, 1989
    Birthplace: Hiroshima, Japan
    Blood Type: A
    Height: 160cm
    Favorite things: Laughing, talking, walking, make-up

    About as deep as a saltine, but that’s to be expected.

  14. Aokajiya Says:

    Nothing substantive in this comment, just, I hadn’t seen Shonen Young yet, and it truly rocks. Oh, and as for songs (read: J-Pop) on TV /= commercials, definitely hippy shit. =D Idols are their own product placements, after all. But maybe that’s not so different from star branding in the states and elsewhere. Where do the ostensibly anti-idol (if very gimmicky) Beat Crusaders fit into all this?

  15. W. David MARX Says:

    Idols are their own product placements, after all.

    Right but then you add another consumer product into the mix, and you get a 4 minute commercial for TWO things.

    It rose only to 27, and it’s the only US pop song that broke the Top 30 in all of 2007.

    As an artist, you have to round the musical variety shows on TV (i.e., Utaban, Music Station, Hey Hey Hey Music Champ) in order to really break into the yearly Oricon. Western musicians aren’t on hand to do that, nor can really do the “banter” part of the show which is crucial for building fans.

  16. Connor Says:

    @db: As far as I’m aware, Shinichi Osawa and 80kidz are the Japanese face of franco-filter-metal, the former being signed to/distributed by Kitsune and the latter being basically a carbon copy of Justice with three kids instead of two. They’re not bad, either.

    That said, I definitely see what you mean about this “Perfume” business being all tied up in the whole bloghouse movement. Personally, though, I see them as existing in a kind of counterpoint to Jero: while he coopts the visual signifiers of hip-hop in order to push the enka, which is the “meat” of the product, they coopt the sonic signifiers of bloghouse in order to push the visual aspects of their stuff (in my opinion the meat of THEIR product).

  17. Connor Says:

    Uh I should maybe add here that I think Perfume is dope

  18. W. David MARX Says:

    Osawa used to be a pretty latin-house/disco-house/acid-jazz kinda guy back in the late 1990s but you gotta get with the timez, I guess.

    Perfume

    I think my problem with Perfume mostly comes from my problem with Capsule/Tanaka. They kind of “used” the other pico pico kids around 2003-2004 to get some indie cred (they were winners of a talent search contest on Yamaha), converted to Neo-Shibuya-kei, and when that didn’t work, they went all out for Daft Punk robot stuff. I can see why everyone likes it, but I can only hear the behind-the-scenes annoyingness.

    also i dont remember japanese pop music music having international appeal in the 90’s, did i miss something?

    Depends on how broadly you define “japanese pop music.” Cornelius and Pizzicato Five charted on the Oricon in the mid 1990s. Shugo Tokumaru does not. But I would also argue that Puffy Amiyumi showed how “indie sounds” (ample ELO references and very chic ’60s timbres) could win over a big audience.

  19. d.b. krump Says:

    @Connor and Marxy – As an artist, you have to round the musical variety shows on TV (i.e., Utaban, Music Station, Hey Hey Hey Music Champ)

    I think you’ve just pointed out the essential feature of the japanese music world, the fact is that to achieve success you have to have a visual/performance element because all of the main shows are slated to this kind of performance. Daft Punk can be succesful on MTV because their videos are excellent, but lets face it, watching two dudes dressed as robots playing with a big pyramid does not amount to much of a performative element (or make good tv). I think perfume are actually a solid way of melding the disparate elements, and for all their faults they are for more succesfulat it than say Justice was on Jimmy Kimmel.
    also the Hamasaki Ayumi remix album is bloghouse-tacular.

    @marxy – I see where your going with cornelius and pizzicato five, but i dont think they were ever really that internationally reknowned – and puffy ayumi are famous as cartoons, not as pop stars. Realistically, the most internationally reknowned Japanese artists have only been famous since around the new millenium. I mean i think Nigo, Junko Bashment, and Mighty Crown are more recognized internationally than pizzicato five ever was. Not to mention that Nigo and other producers and artists in the ‘black music’ scene have far greater influence and importance in their respective music scenes, than any japanese pop artists i can think of.

  20. W. David MARX Says:

    I think people don’t realize how many records P5 sold in the US during the early 90s. Fantasma sold 75K, I think. Saying Nigo is more popular though is just saying, African-Americans and hip hoppers knowing about someone is more “mainstream” than a bunch of college rock listeners.

  21. W. David MARX Says:

    the fact is that to achieve success you have to have a visual/performance element

    Actually, I would argue that it’s not even a “visual” element as much as a “personality” one. Two of the shows I mentioned require comedic banter to sell your single.

  22. W. David MARX Says:

    After watching a block of Perfume videos on Space Shower TV, I conclude:

    1) Okay, I give them credit for making passable pop songs that seem to acknowledge the last 20 years of music production. Most J-idol stuff seems stuck in some evil time warp.

    2) That being said, Nakata has created a “Perfume Preset” for his Logic rig: 909 drums, Nord rez synth, over-Autotune. It gets pretty annoying after you’ve heard it over and over again. “Polyrhythm” seems to be the highlight, and everything else is just trying to recreate it.

    3) You can spend the entire span of the video trying to figure out which girl is supposed to be the “cute” one. Maybe they are further evidence that young Japanese consumers no longer want their idols to be too attractive.

    4) It’s also bizarre that they are essentially a local Hiroshima idol unit that ended up in the big time. I would guess though that their outsider status (they are on uber-small-time local Tokuma) is what made them take the risk on Nakata, rather than just going the “totally un-musical, yet must-follow-convention” route of most idol pop. Although they are in the Amuse management company, which is a big time outfit. That’s why you see them getting so much press.

  23. d.b. krump Says:

    Saying Nigo is more popular though is just saying, African-Americans and hip hoppers knowing about someone is more “mainstream” than a bunch of college rock listeners.

    well, given that hip-hop and R&B are effectively america’s pop music I would say this is unequivocably true.(and given their dominance on their billboard charts its a red herring to say that the only people who listen to ‘black music’ are ‘african americans and hip hoppers’)

    I think hip hop and R&B and reggae have larger international audiences than ‘college rock’ as well, but i admittedly dont have the numbers to back it up, its just a sense.

  24. W. David MARX Says:

    its a red herring to say that the only people who listen to ‘black music’ are ‘african americans and hip hoppers’

    True. Point taken.

    I just think people forget that P5 sold lots and lots of records back when “Magic Carpet Ride” was their thing.

  25. Terri in Tokyo Says:

    I’m lurking and enjoying the back and forth – I’m not in the industry now and very happy not to be, especially listening to your entertainingly jaundiced view, David;-).

    But, you’re right, Pizzicato Five did very well overseas – not compared to YMO’s real commitment to being there, but certainly in terms of sales, chart action, film inclusion, MTV/People Mag, etc, plus 2 ‘World Tours (if North America, a few countries in Europe and back to Japan are the world- but I digress) and pop culture penetration, they were a bit of a phenomenon.

    I still get such positive reactions from Americans, Canadians and Europeans when they hear that we managed the band – it’s quite sweet, actually.

    And, from my middle-aged AfricanAmerican female viewpoint, I wish Jero-chan would lose the hiphop envelope and just rock the enka core.

    but that’s just me:-)

  26. Patrick Says:

    Glad to hear that you like Denki Groove!

    As for Perfume, I feel that it’s quite refreshing that they’re at the top of the charts, in contrast with all the uta-hime and Johnny’s stuff.

  27. W. David MARX Says:

    I would say that Perfume represents the main sources of innovation in Japanese music: change from above. You can sneak into current dance sounds when you are producing an idol collective with the normal structure of nerdy pedophilic fans. Nakata could not have gotten into the Oricon top with his own unit Capsule.

  28. Patrick Says:

    It might be the sad truth that their rankings are due to the otaku crowd shifting from Morning Musume. I’ll know for sure when Perfume will play every month at Nakano Sunplaza.

  29. Luis Alis Says:

    Just to add Euro reference about Pizzicato Five, it was the only Japanese band music heads would know about when chatting or exchanging tapes back at uni. You could also catch some songs at the club. No videos or chart presence, though, but they were the only ones out there.

    I’m kind of intrigued about Perfume and other bands mentioned here, after hearing the discussion. Off we go…

  30. Luis Alis Says:

    Didn’t know about Jero and I just checked his Umiyuki single.

    I don’t watch TV so I understand why I have missed this. Is this just a bunch of older JP suits happy to find a way to market the music they like to hip-hop youth?

    And did anybody find amusing the fact that there was no hip-hop arrangement to the track? It was standard enka with the right 60’s strings and 70’s Santana-ish electric guitar balance of ingredients.

  31. d.b. krump Says:

    I dont want to downplay P5, in fact i think they are amazing, especially when you consider the fact that they are one of the only japanese groups that was popular overseas and at home (realistically, Japanese people who are famous abroad are not extremely famous in japan, whether its dj Krush, dj Muro, Hemo and Moofire, Miike Takashi, the arty beat takeshi, etc)

    In fact the only near equivalent i can think of is Minmi, who can have her songs played in every other conbini and compete in the Soca Monarch competition in Trinidad.

    I just think that saying p5 or cornelius were the greatest moment of Japanese music, or even the most internationally reknowned Japanese musicians in the recent period is only true if you only listen to college rock. Especially when you consider that the barriers for participation in college rock are much lower for the barriers for participation in say hip hop or say reggae, where currently the most famous reggae dancer in the world, the most famous female reggae Djs in the world, and the best sound system in the world are all japanese.

    i would think now is the best time to be a japanese musician because the whole world is pretty open to you. but thats just me.

  32. Alan Says:

    I unabashedly love the later Nakata Yasutaka produced formula. I want heavy FM bass combined with over-auto tuned voices. I find his music flaunts its overproduction. Pop is supposedly “manufactured” right, why not drop the pretenses?

    Perfume definitely gained steam when the music shifted from typical idol music to the more electronic dance stuff we hear now. Their popularity was helped in no small part by the otaku contingents at 2ch and Nico video, and it has only been within the past few months have they garnered real TV attention. I would argue that Perfume’s sound may be top down, but unlike other idol units their gains in popularity has been mostly word of mouth.

  33. Connor Says:

    Marxy, I see what you’re saying about change from above, but I would observe that “being allowed to parrot the production techniques of dance music from other countries” is a pretty low standard for innovation.

    I am particularly disappointed by this because the way I look at it, electronic/dance music represents Japanese music’s best chance to actually exert any influence on international trends (I should say, any trends that I personally care about) and participate in general musical dialogue. In contrast to the markets for pop/rock and hip-hop, whenever I hear actual dance music (Perfume does not count) in Tokyo, I might as well have been in London, Paris, or NYC the month before.

    Seems to me like a Japanese electronic act which actually did something new could stand to capitalize on the background-narrative heavy mode of music journalbloggery which now exists outside of Japan, as well as the (overly?) internationally-minded dance scene within it.

  34. Matt Alt Says:

    Newsflash: I just caught a Pino commercial on TV Tokyo featuring… wait for it… clips from the Perfume video! Is this a chicken-and-egg logic puzzle, or do I just need to stop worrying and buy more ice cream?

  35. Aceface Says:

    I was surprised with so many “half/quarter”singers in J-pop recently.
    Reminds me what Leonard Bernstein had once said “If you are gay and Jewish,you are already half way to the success.”

    Kimura Kaera-Father:British

    Hitoto Yo-Father:Taiwanese

    Ito Yuna-Father:Korean American

    Crystal Kay-Father:African American
    Mother:Zainichi Korean

    ERIKA-Mother:French Algerian

    Angela Aki-Mother:Canadian

    Kawamura Kaori-Mother:Russian

    Amuro Namie-Grand Father:African American.

    Sowelu-Grand Father:Irish American

    Aoyama Thelma-Grand Father is Trinidad Tobagoan.

  36. SMonk Says:

    I’m kind of curious about who the Perfume fans are (the ones that aren’t me, that is). The wota alone aren’t typically numerous enough to put an album, or even a single, on the oricon 1, even on a slow week.
    Intrepid otaku blogger santos once described the Perfume fans as 50% otaku, 50% “fashionable” (or “would be able to walk through shibuya without being laughed at” or something like that. whatever), but that was when perfume sold 5k, not 150k.

  37. Chris_B Says:

    Folks I dont think Junko or Mighty Crown count. Junko is a dancer, not a singer/musician and I’m not sure if any of the Mighty Crown guys are actually Japanese.

    As for Jero, I’m real happy with his debut and look forward to more from him.

  38. Luis Alis Says:

    The way Japanese hosts greet Jero with a high five just because he’s black and wears hip-hop clothes made me uneasy. The guy bows from across the room all the way to where you are, his Japanese politeness is spotless.

  39. Kim Jong-il Hater Says:

    How does Battles perform in front of large crowds in Japan if crappy J-Pop is so popular there?

  40. W. David MARX Says:

    There are 12 million people in the Tokyo area. Some of them like Battles, but not the people who like Koda Kumi.

    Also, did anyone else notice that Studio Voice named the Battles’ album as the “#1 Alternative Record of All Time.” Weird.

  41. Kim Jong-il Hater Says:

    Well it was one hell of an album. Definitely one of my favorite albums ever. And they’re an amazing live band.

    I just looked at Nami Tamaki’s latest stuff. I haven’t listened to her in ages. It’s so awful. Like she changed from a eurodance style to this whole rock ‘n’ roll Avril Lavigne stuff.