Saturday, June 21, 2008

Empty Suits

The Curse of J-Pop: Part One

Much as I enjoy living in Japan, after seven years in this fascinating nation I’ve remained entirely immune to the phenomenon of J-Pop. In all that time, only one song has made any appreciable impact on me. It was a delirious slice of disposable girlie pop whose title and performer have long since faded from memory.

It’s not just that J-Pop is forgettable pap. That in itself doesn’t distinguish it from the mountains of disposable rubbish produced by western hit factories on a daily basis.

Rather, J-Pop is a lousy imitation of the mountains of disposable rubbish produced by western hit factories on a daily basis. And no amount of ironic postmodern winking is going to deny the fact.

If you haven’t heard it, imagine watered down, saccharine versions of N-SYNC, Spice Girls, or American Idol and you’re getting close.

During its impressive post-war economic boom, Japan exploded into the modern world without taking on board the more individualist characteristics one associates with modernity: irony, subjectivism, critical thinking, a desire to subvert traditional structures.
In this sense, J-Pop is a good example of how young Japanese misinterpret western notions of individuality.

Taking its cue from an endless stream of lamentable western videos, see how J-Pop's diluted presentation of girl power and youthful rebellion is rooted in consumerism and ill-considered appeals to fetishism.

We see precious few attempts in Japan either to seriously assert individuality or to break the hierarchical structures of society, a point which J-Pop assiduously underlines. Its strictly controlled system of management and product placement - not the artists - has the ultimate say with regard to image and content.

One wonders whether most young Japanese need what westerners need from popular music - the feeling there is a deeper, better self, something hidden which defines us as individuals - what Japan expert Donald Ritchie has called “the deep unknown in their breast. “

There is little separation in Japan between the face and the mask, the crack from which westerners derive irony and satire. The painful sincerity of the Japanese makes them seem innocent and childlike, and - even as it cynically manipulates it - J-Pop reflects this in its two dimensional obsession with cutesiness and homogenization.
What it doesn’t reflect - as far as I’ve been able to tell - is the deep seated insecurity and despair lying at the heart of the Japanese psyche, reflected in record levels of depression, mental illness and suicide. There's not the slightest inkling of a social conscience among Japan’s millionaire teen idols.

Perhaps this is because, unlike their parents’ generation, most J-poppers haven’t suffered a war or a defining rite of passage. Rather they’ve become anaesthetized by consumption and passivity.

Granted, Ayumi Hamasaki, one of the biggest J-Pop idols, came from a broken home, and a few of her lyrics communicate isolation, pain and a desire for escape. But even here her words are set against a background of anodyne wimp-rock.

Reflecting and underlining - rather than challenging - the mores of a rigidly conformist society, prepackaged J-pop stars allow themselves to be commandeered as spokespeople for the machine.

Music has become commodified to such a degree that pop stars moonlight as ‘actors’, hosts of banal light-entertainment shows and during commercial breaks unashamedly peddle consumer products to their adoring fans.

I also feel the Japanese language isn’t well-suited to pop. Its somewhat monosyllabic sound tends to produce vocal cadences which sound childlike and stiff, and somewhat unnatural as J-poppers imitate the sounds they've heard in western pop.

I’ll admit that my command of the Japanese language isn’t perfect, but it’s hard to identify any profound or illuminating emotions in J-Pop, a fact which is borne out by the investigation of any J-Pop lyrics web site.

It’s not that Japan is bereft of young musical talent. On the contrary, it has a dynamic underground rock scene - as many rock fans know - and bands like Melt Banana, Guitar Wolf, Boredoms, Cibo Matto, Shonen Knife, Boris, Boom Boom Satellites and Acid Mother’s Temple have all produced great music. A few have even found success in the west. I’ll be forever in thrall to Damo Suzuki, singer with my beloved Can.

You could argue - and you’d be right - that J-Pop isn’t meant for me, a forty-something Brit earning a good living here at the pleasure of the Japanese authorities. It’s created for impressionable Japanese kids with hair wax on their minds. But in my self-appointed role as cultural critic and style guru I feel I have a duty to tell it as I see it.

When I was a teenager, popular music had so much more to offer. The sixties, despite their shortcomings, established pop as a force for meaningful social comment. Then, in the 70s, glam-rock alerted my generation to the contradictions implicit in sexual roles, while punk made us want to blow the joint apart and start over.

I realize I'm projecting my own cultural assumptions onto an unwitting mass of J-poppers here, and much modern western pop is equally shallow.

But at a time when Japan is mired in a depressing circle of consumption and social crisis, it’s unfortunate that popular artists don’t feel the vaguest urge to address, even on a surface level, the issues which are anaesthetizing their country: the suppression of individual identity through a benign authoritarianism, an unhealthy attachment to stifling norms and the lie of consumerism.

Though I am by nature an optimist, in this case I have to admit there’s little hope of change. With no history of uppity Japanese pop stars leading the rallying cry for social revolution, the overexcited waifs and emasculated girlie-boys of J-Pop are doomed to remain empty suits.
Preserved in amber, they are both victims and victimizers of a popular culture which - trapped in a vicious circle of tradition and passivity - steadfastly refuses to accept its responsibility: to subvert the notions and assumptions of the fans who are its life blood.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Shake the World

Lillies and Remains (Rock/Post-Punk)
EP: Moralist S.S. (Fifty-One Records, 2008)

On Monday nights it's my custom to repair to my favorite Kyoto restaurant for some excellent Japanese food. I thoroughly recommend Hiroshi Goto's Kura Kura izakaya if you can find it among the maze of side streets near Kyoto station.

But I digress.

Ma-sa, one of KK's servers, drums with a local rock band called Lillies and Remains. They got their curious name from a Bauhaus record. Ma-sa timidly handed me the band's flyer a few weeks ago, and yesterday I finally got around to checking their home page.

To be honest, I was gobsmacked.

Lillies and Remains are easily one of the best Japanese post-punk bands I've heard, and a welcome antidote to the insipid J-Pop which dominates the Japanese music scene. They're not entirely my cup of tea, and lyrically I'd say they have some work to do, but the streamlined, edgy goth-pop featured on their debut EP is catchy and exciting, and clearly owes a debt to western groups like Bauhaus, Josef K and especially Interpol.

The British influence also reveals itself in the vocals. The Lillies understand that Japanese ain't no language for rock 'n' roll. Even if its lyrics are impenetrable, Moralist S.S. is sung in some form of English patois.

If they can keep delivering the goods, I can definitely see the Lillies making it in Japan, if not in the west. The video of Moralist S.S. is a beautiful piece of work which shows that these guys have either some serious cash or a friend who's a genius art director.

Judging by the band's web site, confidence shouldn't be a problem. Their bio celebrates their "killer tunes" and modestly proclaims they are "most likely to be “THE BAND” of the Japanese indie rock scene." Not only that, they promise to "shake the world. "

If they're right, I have a feeling Masa may not be serving up tori karage and sashimi for much longer. That may be Kura Kura's loss, but Japanese rock fans will, I'm sure, be mighty thankful.

Artist web site:

VIDEO: Lillies and Remains, Moralist S.S.