1. J-Pop: From Peak to Weak
I recently heard rumors from Japanese music executives that Japan has become the world’s largest market for recorded music. Consumers in the U.S. can no longer be suckered into buying $18 CDs. Meanwhile the loyal Japanese music fan still shells out ¥3,000 — this is not a typo: ¥3,000! — for the third “Best” album of their favorite artist, even though they already own every track. The trick of selling CDs as loyalty-proving “character goods” rather than musical content likely softened the decline for the Japanese music industry.
Despite this very relative success, however, the J-Pop market is a total cultural disaster. The best selling artists of the 21st century are the best selling artists of the 20th century — with a few local “hip-hop” faces and over-manufactured rock bands thrown in the mix for good measure. Any country where the non-idol, non-singer, non-entity Shibasaki Ko is a chart-topper means it’s all over. At least Johnny’s Jimusho acts — NEWS, Arashi, SMAP, etc. — are a weird freak subculture where young women lust over unremarkable, untalented yankii boys sent in from weird corners of the Japanese countryside. Seeing B’z in the top Oricon slot is just sad: Great, they’ve produced another featureless musical cog that their institutional consumers have already slotted into their provisional expense budgets. For the best-selling bands in Japan, fandom is all rote.
Few J-Pop songs are able to bring together ad hoc audiences of non-core fans. They are no “society-wide” hits — just bands playing the commercial game “Who has the most fans?” J-Pop was once about the “mainstream” — now it’s about isolated silos of people with specific mainstream tastes.
And there’s also the old people problem. The elderly make sure that the highest ranking music show every week is “NHK Kayo Concert” (NHK歌謡コンサート) — featuring old people music — rather than shows like “Music Station” or “Hey! Hey! Hey! Music Champ” that in the past helped bring in new genres and bands.
It wasn’t always this bad. Consider Sony back in 2000. Puffy had peaked at that point, but that epoch-making female duo released a killer remix project that year — on three vinyl records, natch — featuring Captain Funk, Malcolm McLaren, Fantastic Plastic Machine, and Cubismo Grafico. Supercar‘s fanbase somehow grew despite their abandonment of melodic shoegaze rock for abstract techno. Denki Groove‘s VOXXX came out in Feburary 2000 and contained probably the pinnacle track of J-pop’s clash with club culture: “Nothing’s Gonna Change.” Even Judy and Mary had a few labyrinthine melodies left in them.
A few years later, things were still okay at the company. The Yuki/Chara double-drummer side project Mean Machine was all girl power and no songs, but “Suu Haa” was a most brutal piece of candy. Tommy February 6 did the ’80s revival to an obsessive technical degree only possible in Japan — not to mention the perfectly-realized visual component and the inside jokes about alcoholism. J-Pop was alive and well… and this was just Sony!
I was already feeling the angst about J-Pop’s future in 2003 (villains of the era: pornograffiti, Soul’d Out, Kick the Can Crew, the proliferation of Morning Musume side projects) but it ended up being a relatively good year. When Halcali debuted in 2003, I thought they were a Puffy-rip-off, but the debut album Bacon has managed to stand the test of time — mostly due to the ingenious premise of forcing two 15 year-old girls to “rap” over fun sample-pop beats. The strength, however, was the project’s roots in Shibuya-kei aesthetics: Shindo Mitsuo did a video, Scha Dara Parr did minimalist grooves, FPM flexed his old latin sampling muscles. The follow-up Ongaku no Susume was alright and had the drama of the Noda Nagi-Aida Makoto pakuri cover. Then Sony bought them and promptly ruined the entire fun.
Shiina Ringo’s 2003 Karuki Zaamen Kuri no Hana (named after three things that all have the same semen smell) is easily the J-Pop album of the decade — if it can be considered J-Pop. Listening recently, it hasn’t aged as well as I would have hoped, and the songs are not her strongest. No one, however, has ever pulled off such conceptual framework and dense production. The opener “Shukyo” and closer “Soretsu” appear at first to be about religion and death but are respectively, meta statements on the constrictions of the Japanese music industry and the challenge of original creation. Many sensible people will find lyrics like「不條理を凝視せよ」to be out of the realm of good taste but this is real innovation and progression above the everyone else’s「抱きしめたい」poison banalities.
2. Japanese Indie Scene: The Old Guys
What happened with “indies”? Here I mean the old confrontational, progressive, internationally-minded indie artists — not the farm league major label mainstream pop bands who now dominate the genre.
Things were super hot over at Escalator and Trattoria as the new century broke. Cubismo Grafico’s bedroom house music peaked with Mini (2000) and Untitled (but one wish (2002). Citrus’ Wispy, no mercy — arguably the best 10 minutes of music ever produced in Japan — also hit the shelves in 2000.
The rest of the decade was not a good one for this subculture. Shibuya-kei decided it was over being Shibuya-kei, and everyone went in different directions. The album that defined the post-Shibuya, “Nakame-kei” sound was Tomoki Kanda’s landscape of smallers music. The sound was gentle and atmospheric, void of any cultural references, heavy beats, or foreign samples. Cornelius followed the same deconstructed course with the stripped-down and song-free Point (2001) and Sensuous (2006). Kahimi Karie went free jazz, then even drowsier. Yoshinori Sunahara abandoned his Pan-Am obsession and degraded-sample grooves for the relentlessly cold and slow Lovebeat. Then he disappeared. Citrus broke up, and Emori took almost seven years to make his abstract bossa-nova chanson landscape of Yoga’n’ants. Salon Music’s output was also relatively “Nakame-kei” but New World Record in 2002 was a great set of sonic experiments. Escalator completely threw away its unique brand of sample pop to become Japan’s answer to the techno-punk Electroclash — a total disaster other than the incredible Yukari Rotten album of 2004.
But there was ultimately an economic component to the “good indie” collapse. The vinyl market bottomed out very quickly after its peak in 1999. Quintessential Shibuya-kei record stores Zest and Maximum Joy both closed in 2005. The magazine Relax dropped the whole “My most obscure 100 records” column and then promptly folded. Beikoku Ongaku put out its last issue in 2005. In a panic, retro-lounge hound Fantastic Plastic Machine reinvented himself as an Avex-friendly house DJ who could command the floor at ageHa. Pizzicato Five’s Konishi Yasuharu started working with Johnny’s Jimusho. A generation who was rewarded monetarily for sonic experimentation suddenly wasn’t being rewarded at all. This was not encouraging.
3. Japanese Indie Scene: The New Guys
So the Shibuya-kei scene faded away, but those were all old guys anyway, in their 30s, past their prime, looking to create some kind of stable income stream through music. What about the artists born in the Aughts?
Vroom had the edit-frenzy of Plus-Tech Squeeze Box, the immaculately produced bossa pop of Petset, and the bedroom funk of Fab Cushion. The PSB tracks that hit in 2003, “fiddle-dee-dee!!!” and “starship 6″ (aka “打ち込みで派手な曲”) are still, hands down, the most revolutionary pop music pieces of the last decade. Both utilize the full potential of hard-disc recording to cut between thousands of samples in a single minute, to do away with traditional song structure, and take the listener close to the edge of the speed of light. The album that finally followed cartooom! in 2004 had its moments but felt like a pop compromise on the PSB premise. Hayashibe of PSB is busy doing commercial background music last I heard.
Petset meanwhile produced its masterpiece mini-album Sound Sphere in 2003, recorded in lush 8-track tape with vintage instruments, textured guitar strum, a Rhythm Ace drum machine, double live drummers, harmony boy-girl vocals and a sentimentality that somehow avoided being too twee. Both PSB and Petset, however, have basically retired from the thankless Japanese indie scene. Petset’s last EP Flow Motion,Feather Light was a slight wrong turn into sterile digital synths.
Usagi-Chang, on the other hand, was a short lived phenomenon but managed to invent an entire new genre of “pico pico” or “pico pop” — a term Trevor from Music Related and I are still convinced we invented. (I am pretty sure we stole it from a Japanese reviewer in hindsight.) Usagi-Chang will be always remembered as the guys who discovered YMCK — led by an ex-metal cover band member who pushed Nintendo 8-bit pop into jazzy chord progressions and squirted every possible sound out of that old chip. For me, the real Usagi-Chang heroes were MacDonald Duck Eclair — easily one of the most under-appreciated bands of the last decade. Both short short and The Genesis Songbook are masterworks of songwriting and production: As if Atari Teenage Riot composed a John Hughes soundtrack with a cast of Japanese café kids. The Genesis Songbook in particular is refreshingly noisy and aggressive — with points that seem to push the kitsch of bad ’90s J-pop into weird avant-garde composition. And even the bossa nova tracks match the mood. Usagi-Changs’ other artists Aprils, PINE*am, Misswonda, and Sonic Coaster Pop were all pretty solid. Hanger-ons Sylvia 55, Hazel Nuts Chocolate (the faux lo-fi years), Strawberry Machine, and Eel were also fun. Uinona were the only melodic punk band who had a foot in the old indie spirit.
Unfortunately, however, the energy got sucked out of the movement around 2006. Being in the 21st century Japanese indies scene is a thankless job — especially when the only people vocally championing you are penniless foreign bloggers who procure all their music from Rapidshare. Your best friends are nice enough to pay ¥3,000 to see you play in hostile clubs, but this doesn’t really get you anywhere. But the problem was, selling out after 2005 was not even an option. The only real artistic solution was to get more weird, but the record labels did not want to go further into debt and no one really had the heart. Most of this generation had seen the Shibuya-kei guys succeed both financially and critically at making interesting indie music and wanted to follow that path.
As of 2010, this particular entire indie scene has basically imploded, with zero new records from almost anyone. Capsule — who became the face of this scene somehow thanks to Yamaha’s advertorial largesse — are still hanging on, thanks to Nakata’s success with Perfume. They started the decade as a Pizzicato Five clone and then moved towards Daft Punk when that didn’t work. They are not so much a band as an industrial concern: 12 albums in seven years!!! — all of which have been brick-wall mastered to destroy your ears and stereo and soul.
4. Shugo Tokumaru: My Vote for the Messiah
The real star of Japanese music in the Aughts was Shugo Tokumaru. Shugo not only produced the three best albums of the entire decade but built up a legion of fans both Japanese and foreign. His Tokyo concerts sell out. He makes music for Mujirushi Ryohin (MUJI) and NHK. He shows up in kids’ shows. He is closer than anyone to following the old Shibuya-kei model of broad indie success.
2004’s Night Piece is deceivingly simple. It’s a quiet album. There are rarely drums — almost like he was secretly recording the songs in his room after his parents had gone to sleep. There are glimmers of what was to come: the sped-up guitar antics of “Paparrazi,” the bassy psychedelics of “Lantern on the Water,” the toy instruments of “Funfair.” By 2006’s L.S.T., all of those ideas were mashed into a super prog-pop freak-out with moments of Shins-like clarity drifting between squeaky toy box rhythms and lysergic black holes. Tokumaru claims that “L.S.T.” wasn’t a pun on LSD and his name, but I don’t believe him.
2007’s Exit, however, is listening to a man fully in control of his art. He reigns in all of the previous “excesses” to create songs that sound like charming pop concoctions to the average person but reveal a multi-layered, fourth-dimensional Rube Goldberg of arrangement on further listen. Tokumaru loves to make dueling pianica lines in 7/8 and has probably figured out how to use steel pan in the least annoying way since the instrument’s inception. “La La Radio” is the kind of full out pop symphony that would send Brian Wilson back to his therapist, containing more ideas in five and a half minutes than the entire J-Pop industry was able to come up with in ten years. Even “Button,” with its easily digested J-indie melody is clanky and bizarre.
This relative smattering of fame has not gone to Tokumaru’s head at all. He still sticks to his guns about being a terrible interview — saying nothing, but too polite to tell you that he doesn’t really want to talk about his music until the very end. He’s also a good barometer for whether anything interesting is happening in the J-indie world. When I ask if there are any good bands, he usually says, “No.” And he means it. When he says he likes Nhhmbase, that meant they were great. And they were great.
5. Honorable Mentions and Dishonorable Discharges
Otherwise, there were a lot of well-meaning guitar bands out there, whom we can pretty much ignore. Everyone still wants to sound like The Blue Hearts. I am sure these bands have lots of fans and stumble into some relatively solid songs, but so what? As much as we all laugh at ’80s soulless over-digital pop music, at least it sounds like ’80s music. Rock music of the 2000s could barely muster anything remotely signature — and I’m not just talking about Japan. I love the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl” but I am sure it would have been a hit in 1995 too. So, yes, every song with full-crank Autotune will have to be re-engineered in the future to take out that hideous vocal effect, but at least when we hear it, we will remember the cultural nadir of the Paris Hilton decade. When I hear 175R, I will be like, “Wow, 1997!” and then, “Who was 175R again? Was that a Hi-Standard side project?”
Honorable mentions for the decade go to Afrirampo for managing to do the Osaka freak-out on a Sony marketing budget. I would love to go in detail about the genius of Kiiiiiii — especially the genius of (not my wife) Lakin’ as a song-writer — but I would rightly be accused of nepotism. DJ Codomo has hit upon one of the more unique soundscapes of the decade — toy-synth micro-funk? — but is not someone we can rely on to provide giant epic tunes. Oorutaichi makes music that I literally cannot wrap my head around, which is never a bad thing. Rip Slyme had a few good joints, like “Joint.” m-flo’s EXPO EXPO also had its moments, and they deserve credit for taking J-Pop in directions it clearly did not want to go. OOIOO’s Taiga was a grand culmination of the band’s past experimentation. Yura Yura Teikoku used the Aughts to move into legendary status.
6. The Prospects for Japanese Indie Music Before We Are All “Left Behind” in the Coming Rapture
Here in 2010, the entire infrastructure for good indie music has completely been wiped out, and those who were once our greatest hope to “save” Japanese music have retreated into doing things more rewarding than commercial music — eating, breathing, sleeping, throwing things against other things, counting clouds, quietly reading, personal hygiene. I still do not buy the idea that economic calamity was good or will be good for Japanese pop music. There will surely be some decent musical artists in the next ten years, but they will have a much harder time getting started, being heard, winning fans, and selling records. The pre-Flipper’s Guitar “indie scene” was tiny, inconvenient, and relatively inconsequential. We romanticize it now only because Flipper’s Guitar exploded and led to giant visible scene later in history. As much as we want to believe that music is a “pure” artform that can exist without a market framework, we still unconsciously value market success when it comes to judging albums’ relative importance.
This decade taught us that selling records has never just been a commercial act but a social one as well. More records sold meant more fans, more people to share the music with, more cultural touch-points, more physical spaces to go where those records are sold or the music is played live. To a certain degree, the corporate pursuit of money in a bullish market created a strong environment for good Japanese music. Without this commercial structure, Japanese music will likely retain a creative value, but we will no doubt find it less “valuable” without its communal value. The money is not coming back, so we have to figure out how to cherish music without the ingrained prejudices of the 20th century.