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 Cornelius — Fantasma. 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.
- Part One: The Age of Music Nerds
- Part Two: Oyamada Before Fantasma and Fantasma as an Album
- Part Three: Fantasma, Side One
- Part Four: Fantasma, Side Two
- Part Five: After Fantasma’s Japanese 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.