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.


Anonymous said...

yes, I think it is true.

Cushion Meg said...

Hi shiffi, I agree with you in a sense. But I don’ t know the definition of J-pop, however, t Japanese lyrics are so touching and beautiful in some songs, for example in so-called new music in 70’s. I was in thrall to Inoue Yosui’s songs. I wouldn’t have been impressed that much without his lyrics. Those words couldn’t be replaced for English.

Anonymous said...

Although you aren't entirely wrong on a lot of the points you make, I feel compelled to ask: just what do you expect pop music to deliver, anyway?

You may reminisce about British 60's pop music having relevant social commentary strewn through its lyrics - and you'd be right for some of the greatest songs - but ultimately the overwhelming majority of pop music has forever had and likely forever will have joyful or simplistic themes crafted with the intent of reaching wide, youthful audiences and generally ignores more complicated psychological or social issues in favor of upbeat, joyful tones or airy romantic quandaries. This isn't an isolated characteristic of any one country's pop music, or any one era's pop music, but is, almost by definition, characteristic of pop music in general, worldwide.

I have no doubt you'll be able to provide countless examples of pop music from your day that counter this, and they'll probably be valid examples, but I'll bet they aren't the majority. People have a tendency - especially when speaking of the past - to isolate the sub-sector of music that they listened to and generalize it to seem like the majority when in fact it wasn't, making their complaints about the current generation or, in this case, a certain country's music seem inferior.

Ultimately pop music - regardless of country of origin - has no reason to dish out social commentary - in fact, this is one listener who'd rather they didn't! Nearly every genre in every country - Japan included, as you mentioned with their J-Rock - has a tendency to force feed political views or depressing angst down the listener's throat, and I for one prefer music I can listen to as a means of escapism. So, I can't, for the life of me, understand why so many people - both punk rockers and "oldies" pop fans alike - feel the need to criticize a "genre" like pop music for ignoring something that I don't feel it has business minding to in the first place - leave it well enough alone for those of us who enjoy it for what it is, without critiquing it for not being something it never portended to be.

Anonymous said...

i just want to make sure you know that 雅-miyavi- (the first picture in this blog) is NOT j-pop. Neither is the group (for some reason their name eludes me) in the last picture of this blog. They are j-rock artists. Visual-kei j-rock artists. No where near j-pop. Also, that comment you left me on my blog, exactly what does it mean?