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2011: "Popular" Music

AKB48 took the top five slots on the Oricon singles charts this year, and its sister unit SKE48 took the #9 slot. Compared to the last few years, the AKB48 phenomenon has massively raised the number of records sold within the Top 10 — moving from a low in 2007 of only 4.3 million copies to now 9.5 million. And that growth was all AKB48. The “AKB48 Marketing Method” of encouraging fans to buy more than one copy each — known as AKB商法 in Japanese — evidently works!

The two other cult acts to take over the charts came from Johnny’s & Associates: boy band veteran Arashi (嵐) and brand new Kiss-My-Ft2, whose name sounds eerily like the broken part of an URL despite Johnny Kitagawa’s personal vendetta against this entire “Internet fad” that has been sweeping global culture.

The only other act on the singles charts is the kids behind the hit “Maru Maru Mori Mori!” — a novelty song that plays under the ending of a Fuji TV show. (Hear it here.) Children’s TV shows, such as moe-inspired “Cookin’ Idol I! My! Main!”, now all have this kind of digitized bubblegum sound that might as well be a sub-Nakata Perfume B-side. This particular song gets bonus points for existing outside of the relatively narrow idol-groupie world, but loses them immediately for sounding not so far from it.

While the music industry is probably patting itself on the back for strong singles sales from its top acts, notice that no one with a semblance of “musicality” can manage to sell singles in any meaningful numbers. Admittedly the album chart looks a bit better. Sure, Arashi and AKB48 took the top two spots, but there’s at least there’s some diversity beyond homegrown idol pop: two K-Pop entries Girls’ Generation and Kara, as well as people who write their own songs like Lady Gaga, Kuwata Keisuke, and non-threatening Sony group Ikimono Gakari.

If we time travel back to the distant year 2008, we can locate on the singles chart actual “bands” (apparently this is an old term for groups of musicians who wrote their own tunes and played “gigs” in “live houses,” sometimes with their own instruments) like Southern All-Stars or Mr. Children. This is no longer possible. The discrepancy here likely means that the singles market has become 100% dedicated to bands whose fans are either willing to pay whatever it takes for as few songs as possible (i.e., nerds, Johnny’s-obsessives) or too poor to buy albums (i.e., elementary school kids).

Since Oricon still plays the official role in society for determining what is “popular” despite the fact that purchasing music itself has become a slightly less-than-mainstream activity, J-Pop appears to be the complete dominion of idol groups and similarly infantile-sounding things. The only viable non-idol options are artists who have literally been around for decades — Kuwata, Amuro Namie, SMAP, B’z — powered by an army of ever grayer ex-young people.

This in part goes back to my “Great Shift” thesis, that “normal people” who used to like “music” stopped buying so-called “music,” so that only the loyal group fanatics are willing to shell out the money. Honestly if you don’t buy the group’s CD or two, you’re a terrible, horrible, sinful fan. And think about it: a decent, honest, devoted fan certainly doesn’t make a decision to buy the CD based on the quality of the music held within. That’s, I guess, for cynical people.

(And by the way, when I say CD here, I mean “compact disc.” The Japanese music market is still majority physical sales rather than digital downloads, and in general the industry remains very bent out of shape about the decline in CD sales. I suspect some of this stems from the fact that the record labels often don’t own master rights, which means they only make money from distributing and selling plastic. Whatever the case, selling a CD is possibly the most anti-consumer thing happening today. How many people you see every day walking around with a Discman? Yes, you must buy a physical object from which you can’t directly enjoy the audio on your own 21st century audio device.)

Anyway — had one of J-Pop’s non idol groups put out a song that captured the heart of ~1% of the nation, that entity would have dominated the charts. This did not happen. None of the non-idol groups or individuals managed to break the half-million mark, even with their albums. Kuwata managed to squeeze over 400K with MUSICMAN. Think about it: only .33% of the Japanese public needs to support a music group that formed in order to create original music, rather than because their status and money starved parents signed them up for indentured servitude at a local jimusho. Yet none of these “hey we are serious musicians!”-type groups can even win the hearts of 1/3 of a percent of the population anymore.

Not that “bands” are really having a moment in the rest of the universe either. The Billboard chart in the U.S. is filled with Katy Perry and LMFAO (although many Top 40 songs do show up on snobby critics’ best lists). I don’t necessarily pay attention to American radio pop, yet I did know that Cee Lo Green track “Fuck You” because it’s made so that no one could possibly dislike it and everyone’s seen that video of the girls singing Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass.” Both of those songs are pretty decent singles from my narrow subjective point of view, but moreover, they seemed to have made a dent in wider society.

Meanwhile AKB48 is everywhere — and we mean everywhere — yet the musical component of this bikini collective is much more obscure. Sure the tracks are karaoke fodder, but the actual musical content of the top Oricon hits is otherwise confined to the rooms and headspace of hardcore fans. You can easily live an active life in Tokyo and never once hear any of these songs. Walk into a Tokyo store and sometimes you’ll hear AKB48, but you’re more likely to hear American Top 40 or some Usen station of 1980s power hits (“Private Eyes” etc.). Tsumari: The records with the “highest sales” don’t have “the most mindshare in the Zeitgeist.” Well, actually and sadly, these songs are the ones with the most mindshare, and today that means near nil in impact outside of the superfans.

But that’s what you get though when idol music — a promotional vehicle in audio format for a heart-warming young woman or 48 — is law of the land, and why it’s probably not worth paying attention to the Oricon singles charts as anything other than a measure of entertainers rather than musicians. This isn’t really an elitist argument. Again, go back a few years and you’ll find musicians who used to chart such as GReeeeN, Orange Range, and Kobukuro, who were far from being critical darlings but were non-idol music groups. Yet even these groups have faded into memory, enjoyed by only a tiny subset of human beings in Japan who like musical music enough to buy it.

I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to hear an actual live band play AKB48’s mega-hit “Heavy Rotation,” and stripped of the key video visuals of its diminutive singers in Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie kissing each other (which I am led to believe by the commenters here that this is what Japanese girls get up to all the time), I had a chance to listen to the song as a song. Certainly one barrier to liking AKB48 is the otaku-pleasing aesthetics, which by their nature, should surely churn the stomach of someone in my snobby taste culture. (Arama They Didn’t readers, this is a good time to note that we exist in parallel “taste cultures” and you shouldn’t be offended that I don’t like the music of your world, as you most certainly would not like most of the stuff habitating my iPod. You would think that Faust is “weird,” and you’d be half-correct, but I wouldn’t get all “butthurt” and spam your comment filter if you weren’t into that Rustie album.)

Anyway, stripped of the AKB48 aesthetics that make AKB48 AKB48, “Heavy Rotation” mostly just sounds like a set of textbook J-Pop musical conventions stacked up against each other. The semi-anonymous songwriter Yamazaki Yo (山崎燿) apparently spends his non-AKB48 time working on anime themes and such, and I guess for the Akihabara millieu, total stability in melodic and production convention are key. The audience demands as such.

For the longest time though, pop music was the place in society you always looked for innovation. That’s the paradox of pop: You want what you know but with a slight twist so you feel like you are enjoying novelty and social change. This held pretty consistently in J-Pop as well. There was a time when all idol music was orchestrated. Then suddenly it was all synthesized. The melodies in the 1990s also drastically moved away from demi-“Oriental” kayokyoku and took on hints of R&B. J-Pop changed.

And this is what makes J-Pop now so disappointing to people who like “music.” Sure it’s sufficiently entertaining and shocking that the kids are into something so overly and openly otaku-esque, but the music itself is a little too familiar. It’s not even really “retro” and fighting against modern convention. We’ve not just heard these songs before — we’ve heard them recently. The otaku took over culture, and it turns out they are the arch-conservatives of pop, who want everything to hark back to a more simple age… of three years ago.

The Internet’s J-Pop true believers have a good point though — why waste time thinking about this music that I clearly don’t like. We should spend our energy cheering on the underground or the talented or the talented underground. But think about it — I like music, I live in Japan — I should therefore be interested in the nature of “music most popular in Japan.” What’s interesting, however, is that it’s not just fussy music fans like me that are disappointed not to find their own reflection in the mass culture mirror — it’s anyone who’s not an idol fan nor someone who got into their favorite band 10-30 years ago. I want to give the otaku a thumbs up for effort and go find some other artistic field to show interest in, but honestly-speaking, I’d like it even more if the Japanese music industry offered something for the rest of us too.

W. David MARX
December 22, 2011

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

17 Responses

  1. Aeon Says:

    In defense of the people who are offended at how you refer to idol music, I don’t even appreciate idols or their music and find that you can be extremely condescending and insulting in how you speak of them to the point that I find myself riled up when you write on the topic. Alas, I suspect this is how a music critic should be expected to write, and to expect otherwise is foolish. I’m curious, though, what possible social changes do you think could possibly break the culture out of this slump, or would simply the eventual passage of time allow the culture to start moving again?
    Oh, and is this the faust that you’re talking about?
    70s krautrock, according to wikipedia. I don’t really seem to be able to enjoy it, though I do like Bird from the Abyss (http://www.birdfromtheabyss.com/) which also does a similar droning sort of sound; though Bird from the Abyss evokes a mood of nihilistic doom, and I can’t seem to parse Faust’s sound. Such is the nature of subjective experience.

  2. zoltan Says:

    Reminds me when I went to Harajuku last November and they were all playing Lady Gaga and Kpop. And Shinjuku was playing Prince and Candies……. Very weird. *shrugs*

    Nice to see an irreverent tone in this article. And if it helps, I am pretty sure a lot of your readers agree with you, except for those “spiritually Japanese fans” (Jpop fun time!)

  3. Yao Says:

    >Arama They Didn’t readers, this is a good time to note that we exist in parallel “taste cultures” and you shouldn’t be offended that I don’t like the music of your world, as you most certainly would not like most of the stuff habitating my iPod.

    Thank you so much for this comment, good sir.

    I also agree that somehow, the physical act of buying CDs has become relegated to the non-mainstream just as theater-going and DVD buying had become.

    I am still trying to come to terms with Kara outselling Girls’ Generation, and I’m hoping its only because Kara got a B-kyu late night drama.

  4. Steve Brandon Says:

    I still listen to a Discman. (Physical media until I die, I say.)

  5. johnny Says:

    to what extent do you think 3.11 had an impact on the desire to purchase new music?

    While idol groups obviously have a loyal following who will shell out their cash no matter what the circumstances, in the wake of the March disaster I feel like there were many people who may have picked up that old CD of Mr. Children or Spitz – a nostalgic and heart-warming alternative to whatever was new and current. If that’s the case, perhaps one can argue that next year will see a subdued recovery in classic j-pop acts.

  6. ian Says:

    One point about the Kara/Girls’ Generation thing is that Super Girl was Kara’s second Japanese language album so they’d had an extra year and a bit to build their brand awareness in the Japanese marketplace whereas Girls’ Generation was the group’s first Japanese release. You’d expect a second album to sell more.

    The advantage of the dominance of idol pop is that by its very disposable nature, and with the music so subservient to the image, that provides an opportunity for some wilder ideas to slip through the cracks. They might not have AKB48-bothering sales, but some of Momoiro Clover (Z)’s stuff knocked me sideways this year (I’ll take the Go! Team-powered “Rodo Sanka” over proper-band Ikimono Gakari any day) and there were a few other odd tracks by various artists I thought had a bit of spark to them.

    Also, while Yasushi Akimoto would surely love the world to think that his empire represents otaku culture in its entirety, I’m pretty sure it comes over just as retrograde within the Japanese otaku scene as it does to us indie snobs. While it’s not necessarily the kind of music I’m into, a lot of the more leftfield ideas in pop at the moment seem to be coming out of anime and chika-idol music in a way that the indie scene doesn’t seem to be providing anymore (unless you go right deep down into the Faust-loving, pop-free underground). There’s an important element of otaku culture that’s constantly trying to push the extremes, and some of that filters through into pop music via anime and underground idols.

  7. W. David MARX Says:

    some of Momoiro Clover (Z)’s stuff knocked me sideways this year

    Momokuro definitely seem to be the semi-hipster-alternative to AKB.

    I’m pretty sure it comes over just as retrograde within the Japanese otaku scene as it does to us indie snobs.


    From this data, it looks like AKB48 searches in Japan are mostly happening from the boondocks: Saga, Tottori, Shimane, etc. And when you watch the progress over time, Tokyo only lights up more once the countryside does.

    So yes, AKB48’s fans seem to be mostly outside of Tokyo, which may say a lot.

  8. Gag Halfrunt Says:

    Patrick Macias has written a blog post about how Momoiro Clover is inspired by pro-wrestling, sentai ranger shows and “bonkura” otaku subculture.

    The mark one version of Momoiro Clover travelled across Japan in a tiny van, like wrestlers working the carnival circuit, and performed to near empty audiences at amusement parks…

    [Manager] Kawakami’s next move was a bonkura gamble that actually paid out. Sizing up his rivals, he ordered Momoiro Clover to hand out fliers at the AKB48 theater in Akihabara. AKB48 had begun their career famously marketed as “the idols you can meet”, but their growing popularity had now made their previous level of accessibility increasingly hard for fans to reach. Momoiro Clover informed the line of guys waiting outside that they were “the idols you can meet RIGHT NOW!” And thus was the empire forged…

  9. Arbitrary_greay Says:

    Walk into a Tokyo store and sometimes you’ll hear AKB48, but you’re more likely to hear American Top 40 or some Usen station of 1980s power hits (“Private Eyes” etc.).

    This I can believe, and I do wish it had been said in “The Great Shift Part 4” comments instead of all of the arguments(including some on my side, I admit) that had too many counter-examples.

    I’m still skeptical as to what SNSD and Kara being on the Oricon album charts indicates. Even if they are genuinely mainstream popular, I wonder if the physical sales pushing them on to the charts isn’t still from an otaku fanbase they have gathered in Japan. SNSD and Kara stood out in Korea for being the most Jpop-like, and one of the things they often mentioned with regards to their Japanese fans vs. their Korean fans was the presence of cosplayers. They’re still idols, but they’re safe idols, and that still doesn’t guarantee that their casual fans are buying CDs.

    I read this in 2007, and although it was written before the completion of the Shift I feel like it still holds, and in some aspects even universally beyond Japan: http://www.jstor.org/stable/853589
    It appears that Kpop may have become a source for common music and safe artists.
    However, it seems that in general idol music rarely makes the jump from common to standard music, which makes sense given the emphasis of idol culture on personalities over the music. Are there any standard idol songs, in your experience? Peanuts, Matsuda Seiko or Pink Lady songs? SMAP? I’ve seen some clips that suggest Morning Musume’s “Love Machine” might be one, but those clips are probably the usual TV bias and overexaggeration. And given the disinterest of the general public to the common music forced on them by the shift, do you think this will result in a period of time from which no standard music will hail from, will some idol song force its way into the standard catalogue,(I wonder if Tokyo controls what becomes standard, or if the fact that AKB48’s fans appear to be outside of Tokyo would actually help their longevity) or, as this video description suggests, will some song from a non-threatening artist become standard?

    Momokuro definitely seem to be the semi-hipster-alternative to AKB.
    Marty Friedman is working with them. Are there any implications to that, or is that just another “Oh, Marty Friedman, you and your love of idol music” moment? (Marty does seem to be right about metalheads enjoying idol music outside of Japan, though.)

    Do you consider NicoNico Douga to be otaku territory a la 2ch, or do you consider it a valid source of homegrown music talent? I ask because while Roudou Sanka was written by a Go!Team member, overall MomoClo’s sound seems to be defined by Hyadain, who very much follows idol music conventions. I guess I’m asking the same about Vocaloid programmers. Since the marketing of the product itself in Japan is otaku-based, are the people who, for example, are using Miku to perfect Bach fugues, or using Prima Vocaloid at all, not in Japan or counted amongst its target demographic?

  10. Arbitrary_greay Says:

    The source article for that was hilarious. I should probably feel bad about how sketchy it all is, but I’m too busy being amused.
    I wonder who is Jpop’s Bud?

  11. Gen Kanai Says:

    The WSJ weighs in on AKB…


  12. zoltan Says:

    to understand the success of Kpop is to understand how the record companies had no choice but represent them due to huge demand. And Shin Okubo played a huge part in it.
    Back in 2008 and 2009, my friends were telling me that Kpop albums were being sold in Shin Okubo. This was a surprise to me as I always thought Japanese were not fond of Kpop sung in Korean.

    Then I went to Shin Okubo on 2010 and 2011. I had to swat the old ladies and young girls off as I exit the train. The old ladies were there for TVXQ and Yon Sama but the girls were for SNSD, Kara and 2ne1. Even Harajuku had one of those unofficial stealth photos that only cater to Kpop.

    I’m guessing here but the talent agencies and record companies must have notice the sheer amount of unofficial money being spent in SHin Okubo so they had no choice but to bring in Kpop. It helps that Dentsu represent all of them but the demand was already there. How that demand amplified with some marketing muscle shows a thirst for something musically different.

    Of course, 2ch till today says that all the audience in Kpop lives are paid to be attend and its all lies. Thats the internets for you.

  13. Arbitrary_greay Says:

    zoltan: I don’t doubt that Kpop has the support of demographics looking for AKB48 alternatives. But why should that lead to their having physical sales to rival the old guard of idols? In the case of Kpop’s physical sales, I think it still falls under the Great Shift description.
    “normal people” who used to like “music” stopped buying so-called “music,” so that only the loyal group fanatics are willing to shell out the money. Honestly if you don’t buy the group’s CD or two, you’re a terrible, horrible, sinful fan. And think about it: a decent, honest, devoted fan certainly doesn’t make a decision to buy the CD based on the quality of the music held within. That’s, I guess, for cynical people.
    This description most definitely holds for the fan-rhetoric I’ve seen concerning Kpop groups. It’s fan-rhetoric perpetuated from the homeland. At least I know it’s the case for SNSD, where the international fan community has been conditioned to consider the official Korean fanclub to be The Ultimate Authority On Fan Behavior Protocol, and I’ve even personally experienced a self-professed Korean SONE(SNSD fanclub) rebuking our discussions of the group in anything but praising terms as not the way Koreans do it. We’ve speculated that this is also one of the reasons why SNSD hasn’t done any actual variety in Japan, as there have been fanclub backlashes against MCs apparently being rude to Kpop groups.(Usually Downtown on Heyx3 XD)

    So, sure, “normal” people may like Kpop music, but I think they also have a significant share of the “loyal group fanatics willing to shell out the money,” hence their presence on the charts despite not really having “a semblance of musicality” other than their songwriters drawing from current European and American popular music rather than pre-80s American music like the J-idols.
    But if that’s the case, why haven’t J-urban artists done well? That’s the reason I doubt that Kpop’s physical sales are the result of anything but a variation of idol marketting. And now SNSDis doing their version of AKB商法 by putting out a repackage album in Japan. I wonder how much it will sell?

  14. Arbitrary_greay Says:

    By “I wonder how much it will sell?” I mean that I expect it to still move 100K copies or so. It’s not that Kpop groups don’t have fans, (and that 2ch thing sounds delusional) but that the fans that are buying physical copies fall under the same category as those buying AKB48 and Johnny’s CDs, even if they’re buying from idols of a different gender than usual.

  15. Natalie M G Brown (DSQ) Says:

    I wish I had somthing more interesting to say but I pretty much 100% agree with almost everything you said. More choice means vaired tastes which means nothing becomes a massive hit like it used to anymore and the things that used to be able to tell us what was popular can’t because of its iniblity to keep up with new types of media.

    Also don’t feel like you need to exsplain you self to Arama being abrasive is it’s style and for them being a fan of Jpop is being a music snob.

  16. the korean Wave: controversies & consequences | the blink times Says:

    […] and produced groups by recruiting and training talents years before their debut. Unlike the eccentric Japanese labels, who were too engrossed with servicing their own dwindling market, Lee has […]

  17. subdee Says:

    You were into SNSD until just recently, what happened??

    I realized something recently about idol performances: when you watch the “live” performances, even the ones where the singers really do sing (along to a backing track)**, they are set up mainly for the benefit of the cameras. Idol singers are trained – ideally from the age of 13 or so – to find the cameras at their live shows and to smile into them.

    I think that this, more than anything else, shows how mediated mainstream culture in Japan (and now S. Korea) is, that cameras and video are the main way these entertainers forge a connection with their audience. I don’t think the audiences resent it, either: they know that their main job is to be a good backdrop for the music video. To put it in a non-cynical way, they understand that performance is a collaboration between the singer and the audience.***

    And that’s why the most successful idol groups right now are those who are able to feed off that energy and give it back to the crowd. I don’t know that much about Jpop, but the two Kpop acts that made it onto the American iTunes top digital downloads charts this year, 2ne1 and Big Bang – not only are they with the same production company, but the group leaders are – let’s not dance around this – manic depressive. In the videos, you can see them getting actually high off the energy of the crowd.

    I don’t know how much this counts for in terms of “musicality”, but it surely is a talent not found in every idol singer.

    **Of course if you are a rapper, it’s perfectly acceptable to sing along to a backing track that you might or might not have produced yourself. The two idol groups I just mentioned are also rap groups, which complicates your authenticity argument a little bit – it’s not “more authentic” for these groups to have a live band or to play their own instruments.

    ***The goal of these collaborations is a professionally edited video you can purchase, or (if we are talking about Kpop) watch on Ytube for free. But does the fact that this is the goal make the live performance less mediated than if every member of the audience were making their own, fan video? Isn’t what we’re seeing with idol groups just an example of division of labor, where the labor of being able to produce music and the labor of being able to perform it is separated?

    Not posting this to ignore the less savory elements of idol “production,” of which there are many.