Fifteen Years of Fantasma - Part One

A week-long, five part series celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of Cornelius’ landmark album Fantasma.

On September 10, 1997, indie rock godfather and ultimate music nerd Oyamada Keigo (小山田圭吾) released the third album for his solo project CorneliusFantasma. The album endeavored to be unlike any other in the history of music, taking dozens of genres, references, samples, instruments, and sounds from familiar and unfamiliar sources and fusing them into a completely new sonic world. He succeeded wildly. The album sold extremely well to Cornelius’ long-standing fan base in Japan, and Matador Records in New York released it in the U.S. and Europe to international critical acclaim. Fantasma elevated Oyamada from fashionable pop star to certified musical genius, from domestic icon to global symbol of Japanese creativity. If not for Fantasma, Cornelius would not have remixed global stars like Beck and Sting, become a de facto part of Y.M.O.’s touring band, gigged with Yoko Ono, or collaborated with greats like Arto Lindsay. Fantasma etched Oyamada Keigo’s name into music history and guaranteed that the quirky Shibuya-kei musical scene in Japan would be forever perceived as a legitimate artistic explosion.

In 2010, Warner Bros. Japan — Fantasma’s post-Polystar master rights holder — decided to celebrate Oyamada’s fin de siècle magnum opus with a shiny new mastering job and a box-set re-release (unboxing video). There is not much to say about the remaster itself. Shibuya-kei electronica icon and close Oyamada friend Sunahara Yoshinori gave the recording a thicker bass while keeping the overall volume levels nearly equal to the original. (And for some odd reason the track splits have been relocated for a few songs, at least compared to the Matador release.) This technical aspect is, however, the least important point. The remaster further canonized the album in a national music culture where it is often taboo to award some records historical legacy over others. But if there is a Japanese album to receive the implied veneration of ceremonial re-release, it is certainly Fantasma.

Now at the 15th anniversary of Fantasma’s wide release, we will spend the next few days examining where the album fits within the canon of indie music both in Japan and worldwide, and re-explore it in the context of the decade and a half since its release.

Special thanks to Benny and Connor at Yikes, as well as Ryan Erik Williams and Suzannah Tartan for helping me dot the i’s and cross the t’s.

Part One: The Age of Music Nerds

Since at least the days of Bach and baroque, there have always been music fans and music experts, but not always “music nerds” — arguably a distinct product of late 20th century society. The music nerd is a specific yet now common type of pop music obsessive suffering equally from snobbery and consumerist zeal. They are different from “music aficionados,” who sat in velvet armchairs and enjoyed Beethoven on gramophones, or later, snuck underground to find the most outré forms of jazz in dark New York clubs. The music nerds started to pop up after the introduction of rock’n’roll, when music moved into a popular and explicitly commercial product form. While the old-school Schoenberg snob was an eccentric by his hobby alone, the music nerd was mostly eccentric inside the walls of popular genres and extremely crowded consumer markets. In other words, the nerd strived for personal uniqueness by discovering obscure objects within mass culture rather than beyond it.

The music nerd’s mission often boiled down to listening to what others did not, thus upsetting one of the art’s fundamental tenets. From ancient bone flutes to West African drum circles to jazz cafés to dancing the Charleston in front of blaring Big Bands, music had been a group activity for most of its existence. Music had always been social, yet the music nerd now mostly enjoyed it as a solitary pursuit. Hearing a song in the privacy of one’s own room was not even possible until the early 20th century, and not particularly common until the advent of the small transistor radio, the personal stereo, automobile speakers, and the Walkman. So between this technological change and a corresponding social one wherein pop music rolled over elite musical art forms like opera or ballet, the ingredients were there for the spontaneous genesis of thousands of music nerds. And as music fragmented to an unbelievable degree in the 1980s and 1990s, music nerds became even more intense and even less social.

The music nerd’s deep entrenchment into the collection of obscure albums transformed music from an innocent enjoyment of organized sound into competitive knowledge collection. Music became a form of proto-Pokemon. When two music nerds met, they did not dance together nor sit back and enjoy a mutual passion. Musical dialogue descended into the regurgitation of trivia and long strings of signifiers. Reference became the most valuable currency.

Yet much like the newspaper business and Penthouse magazine, the very 20th-century glass bead game of music nerdism has been ruined by the Internet. Music is now too overly available. The consumerist drive at heart of pop music has deteriorated. The Internet has made every single album of all time available — for free — to anyone who knows how to type the words Rapidshare or Mediafire. Meanwhile Wikipedia provides the Cliff Notes for faking the kind of deep musical knowledge once passed among music fans in strange cant. Nothing can really be “obscure” anymore. Information hyperinflation has wrought the music reference currency worthless.

In hindsight, this collapse of the music market means that the Nineties was the peak of music nerdism. At this time, globalization and technology had reached an ideal level of development for music and music criticism to ramp up the reference game. But there was not yet too much access to render the whole game obsolete. This was conveniently concurrent with the rise of hip hop in mainstream culture, and its backbone of sampling provided one of the greatest canvases known to man for exploring musical reference. By the mid-1990s and the end of primitivist Grunge, the obsession with reference also took over the mostly white “alternative” and indie music, a form most notably explored by Beck, the Beastie Boys, and Stereolab.

There was one other location, however, where it was even more natural for artists to boil down music to its atomic structure of signifiers: Japan. There may be traditional aspects of national philosophy and educational theory that influenced Japanese pop culture’s particularly obsessive mode of learning and understanding, but the artistic practice of detailed study and imitation of form certainly reached its peak with consumer society’s insatiable interest in the West after the War. Youth wanted to do completely alien things like dress like Americans and listen to American music, and magazines had to take up the key role of explaining detail by detail exactly how and why to do such a thing. Holistic sub-cultures like Hippies and Punks got analyzed down to their respective quarks so that Japanese teens could build them back up again from a bunch of imported scraps. These days the otaku nerd gets all the credit for originating Japanese information obsession but this was just a structural outcome of the Japanese model of cultural importation. In the act of bringing one culture over to another, bit by bit, every single possible cultural category becomes a series of consumable lists, and as a logical extension, mastery and memorization of those lists ends up as the most worthy test of true fans, believers, and adherents.

So in the 1990s, what is essentially “signifier music” was at its peak among the international elite, and with Japan’s natural predilection for understanding culture as units of signifiers, we could expect that the global genre’s most greatest creative expressions would come from Japan. And many years before Beck won over Americans with his folk-hop “Loser” anthem, an entire school of music revolving around pastiche, bricolage, sampling, and reference — Shibuya-kei — was already massively popular in its home country. Japan had an edge on this sample and signifier-based pop sound, and therefore it only made sense that the very best Shibuya-kei record would be primed to win the world championship of this wider genre. That record happened to be Fantasma.

Next time: Oyamada before Fantasma and Fantasma as an Album.

W. David MARX
September 10, 2012

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

11 Responses

  1. miffy Says:

    I only like the part where the internet ruined everything. HA!

    As a citizen of South East Asia, shibuya kei was and still unknown. But its genes have spread around……

    Wikipedia JA and EN has only bare bones explanation about Fantasma….. I see a future where this 5 part article is going to be cited by the Internetzzz

  2. V.B. Says:

    If you want to listen to the album while reading the article:
    http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL9ucG240pu2cbEwAondnLsnT5_H13XcoU

  3. Carl Says:

    Well, the internet means that anyone can listen to Fantasma on YouTube, but it can’t yet let you brag about listening to it back in 1998, that is to say before it was cool! Hearing it first is a nerd war that will never end.

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    I don’t want to suggest that the Internet “ruined” music, but it took the cachet out of having an encyclopedic understanding of obscure records. I found a lot about Fantasma from easily accessible sites like whosampled, whereas back in 1997, you had to have the same knowledge as Oyamada to know where the “Maestro please” from “2010″ came from. This naturally decreases the desires/rewards for musicians to sample/reference obscure works. You don’t get credit for sampling something obvious, and now everything can become obvious in seconds.

  5. Marcel Says:

    “Nothing can really be “obscure” anymore.” i am sorry but i do not agree, i wish it was that easy to find music online. only mainstream releases can you find working links for on mediafire. I have a hard time tracking down the full Yann Tomita discography either online OR physical media and hes not even that obscure.
    Same for DJ Deckstream….Hiroshi Fujiwara…all big names but their back catalog is not easy to find on soulseek, or web search.

    Show me any website with download links to bathing ape apesounds discography !

  6. W. David MARX Says:

    Stuff can still be hard to find, but the fact that I can find “WORLD WIDE BAPE HEADS SHOW 1998″ in about five seconds… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3d4ngndqw0

    This would have blown my mind in 1998.

  7. Adamu Says:

    Oh man I love this album sooo much.

    I first came to Japan in 1999, and between all the people wearing Planet of the Apes t-shirts and finding this CD in my host brother’s room, for a while I seriously thought the Planet of the Apes movies had some sort of semi-ironic following in Japan. If it were today I could have just looked everything up on Wikipedia on my iPhone, but it took months before it became clear that Bathing Ape was a hip fashion brand and Cornelius was big but relatively unique in his Ape-loving.

  8. Chuckles Says:

    I dont want to sidetrack, but – excellent post.

    1. Could easily read like the death of PoMo in literature and why anyone trying to rewrite Gravity’s Rainbow now, would basically be wasting his time.

    2. The Net basically cut the snobbery out and returned music to its roots, by making music based on old-world forms but precluded from those markets on price grounds alone, re-accessible.

  9. neojaponisme on Fantasma « Cafe Sunburn Says:

    [...] Thing is, NeoJaponisme has already done a far, far better job than we could ever manage so you should go and read it here: 15 years of Fantasma [...]

  10. Cornelius — Fantasma | Lukas Hermann Says:

    [...] Fantasma’s 15th birth­day this week, of which the fifth was released just today. Part one dis­cusses the birth of music nerds in Japan, an in my opin­ion very con­tro­versy post worth [...]

  11. Connor Says:

    Thanks for putting this intense, thorough, deeply rad piece of writing together.