Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Music and the Message

The Curse of J-Pop: Part 2

(These thoughts are in response to Anonymous's comments on my recent J-Pop rant )

First of all, Anonymous, I’d like to thank you for your thoughtful comments. It’s great to see that someone has actually read my rantings and offered feedback. I had a feeling my views on J-Pop might provoke a response.

Before I reply to your points, let me underline the fact that I am not characterizing all Japanese music as inferior. I’m a fan of traditional Japanese musical forms, the modern compositions of Minoru Miki and Toru Takemitsu, an admirer of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Damo Suzuki's work with Can and I have celebrated numerous Japanese styles in this blog.

But let's get back to J-Pop.

In answer to the question ‘What do you expect pop music to deliver?”, I’d have to answer: “Quite a lot.” That’s why I’ve been avidly immersing myself in its wonders for forty-odd years.

You are right that a lot of music has joyful or simplistic themes intended to reach a mass audience, and in itself there’s nothing wrong with that. It may even be true that upbeat fun is characteristic of pop music in general - I’ve enjoyed a good deal of it myself.

But surely there’s so much more to be said within the confines of the form. In my experience the more discerning listener seeks to be uplifted and challenged by something which is more than puppet music.

I’m not saying that the majority of pop in ‘my day’ was uplifting and revolutionary - Britain’s biggest selling pop single of the sixties was Engelbert Humperdincks’s vacuous ‘Release Me’. But when we discuss the immense social impact of 60s pop, Engelbert is hardly the first name that springs to mind.

You then say that "Ultimately pop music has no reason to dish out social commentary."

Frankly, I'm staggered. What, then, is the role of the artist? To look cute and peddle cell phones?

Ok, escapism is certainly part and parcel of the entertainment industry, and if you'd rather pop stars didn't deal with political views, fair enough. Perhaps it's not the duty of all pop music to comment on social ills, but it’s my view that society wouldn’t come very far if artists failed to address the pressing issues of the day.

You can have both the music and the message in a mass mode, as Amy Winehouse, Gnarls Barkley and MIA have recently demonstrated.

The fact remains that even as upbeat, joyful youth music, J-Pop remains exceedingly average, bereft of new ideas and characterized by hollowness and commodification. And what's even more depressing is the fact that it's not a sub-genre or a sideshow on the Japanese music scene. It's the main event.

So when you suggest that pop has no business addressing serious issues in the first place, I couldn’t disagree more. From jazz and blues to Hollywood musicals, from folk to new wave and hip-hop, the greatest popular music - and it’s by it’s best achievements that pop should be judged - has derived its strength, it’s very raison d’etre, from its engagement with the problems of the day, including war, the generation gap and civil rights.

The truly great names in pop music, whether it’s Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, Gilberto Gil, Joni Mitchell, James Brown, The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead, Sex Pistols, Chuck D. or whoever, picked up their instruments in reaction to the apathy and injustices they saw in society.

And perhaps equally importantly, because they had an audience who needed to hear about them.


mary said...

I'm glad that you wrote about this topic a bit more. At the end of the last post I really wanted to read more about your insights, mainly because I agreed with so much of what you had said!

So... thanks! =D

Shiffi Le Soy said...

Thanks Mary! I seem to have generated quite a bit of discussion on this topic after someone mentioned my blog on a J-Pop discussion board.

I'm loathe to criticize musicians too much, and I try to accentuate the positive on my blog, but in this case I feel there's something bigger at stake: namely the way that J-Pop, as the dominant popular form in Japan, reflects the society which produced it.

Anonymous said...

First off, thanks for addressing my comment on the previous post - it's always nice to see a blogger who doesn't either completely ignore criticism or resort to low blow attacks when responding, and I must say, I have a pretty good appreciation for what your point with this rant is, now.

To put this in context, I'm new to this blog and in fact only found the post through the link from the aforementioned J-Pop blog - someone posted it in the shoutbox there rather negatively, but I still came here with an open mind.

When I read your initial post, I got vibes similar to all the people I talk to, be it J-Rock fans or English Punk Rock or Indie Rock fans, who seem to take such pride out of belittling alot of the popular music I listen to for the mere sake of putting down whatever they don't find enjoyable, while building up what they find enjoyable, almost seeking validation for their personal taste. I can't stand that - I'm happy to listen to what I enjoy, be it Bob Dylan or Hanna Montana - without seeking validation from others or putting down those who don't agree, and when I find people who DO seek that validation, I have a tendency to get angry with that, because while they usually claim to find enjoyment out of anti-establishment messages of independence and going against the mainstream, what they really find enjoyment in is hearing Green Day sing some anti-war song for the nth time; touting the concept of being anti-government or anti-war as some new innovative, bold step against "the machine"... even though they themselves follow the message like a sheep. In a way, that's what I expected out of you.

But, I have to admit, in your reply you showed a genuine interest in seeing artists challenge themselves and their audiences more by having such social commentary in their songs, and while I still say there's great merit in having songs that can suspend your emergence in prevalent social ills for a short while and give the listener those more simplistic themes as a means for escapism, I definitely see your point in examples like Gnarls Barkley, that it's possible to give audiences both experiences at the same time.

I also have to say that I'm not as anti-consumerism as you seem to be - I find something rather beautiful in a society built on people working hard to further their own products for the sake of buying someone else's - but here again, I can see your point better regarding J-Pop music in that, moreso than some other countries, Japan tends to use J-Pop more as a means of promotion than a means of artistic expression. I'd argue it's possible to have both and that commercial art for the sake of peddling a product can still be filled with beauty and creative merit, but I'd be lying if I didn't say there weren't times I was frustrated to hear a great BoA song, for example, only to watch the music video for it and realize that the whole thing was one big advertisement for a camera.

So, I really do appreciate the points you made - I still think there's great merit in J-Pop the way it is today, but I can see where there is a lot more that J-Pop music could be thanks to your post, and I guess that's what makes this whole blogging thing great - being exposed to new ideas and new thinking, even if you don't entirely agree.

Shiffi Le Soy said...

Hi Anonymous.

Once again, thanks for your feedback and it’s my pleasure to address your comments.

Certainly there are those who take pleasure in belittling others’ musical tastes without trying in the least to be constructive. Our tastes are also very personal and it’s hard not to feel we are being attacked personally when someone calls them into question. Of course being challenged like that is useful since it forces us to question our own assumptions.

I hope I am not merely seeking validation of my own tastes or putting down J-Pop just for the sake of it. What I do seek from music or art in general is some kind of authentic expression, whether it’s musical, political or even an authentic and engaging expression of fun!

While I delight in seeing artists challenge themselves and their audiences, at the same time I agree with you that there’s nothing wrong with aimless fun and music as escapism. Believe it or not, I am great fan of absurdism and silliness for its own sake!

We mighty not be on exactly the same page when it comes to the anti-consumerism thing. But you do seem to agree that J-Pop is commodified to quite an extreme. But the Rolling Stones are/were sponsored by American Express and certainly aren’t alone in that regard among western rockers.

Maybe you are right that commercial art can still have its aesthetic, creative side, but I'm a tad dubious not to mention suspicious on that point since it always seems to require a sell-out on the part of the artist. Anyway I appreciate your frustration on seeing your J-Pop faves blatantly flogging cameras thru their videos.

For my part, I greatly appreciate the points you made – I’ll endeavor to keep a more open mind with regard to the J-poppers dominating the airwaves. Sometimes I get a bit weary or doubtful about this whole blogging thing, but you’re right, it is great being exposed to new ideas, even if we don't entirely agree.

Scheyenne Zigzag said...

watching Jpop videos depresses me

Patrick said...

First and formost, JPop is message driven. I was born in 1988 and the worst thing to happen in the twenty years since my birth was on September 11, 2001. War, disease, famine, racism, poverty? Yes. But we as a nation, and I am almost positive that a nation so much like our own in consumerism has had the same experience of being told nothing of the outside world. Ask a teenage kid something, anything about a issue that doesn't involve America? How many know what going on in Darfur, Myanmar, North Korea, China, Iran, or even in our own country, which is the saddest point of all. Pop music is a anaesthetizer. We are all utterly numb to what the world is going through and JPop and American Pop converge on those two lines: they exist to make you happy. I completely agree with anonymous about wanting to enjoy music. I don't listen to heavy rock, gangsta rap, or death metal because they don't make me happy. The music is full of universal truths of suffering, dispair, and a lack of optimism. I find nothing remotely wrong with wanting to be happy and JPop does that, Pop does that.

Do I agree that is what we need? Not entirely. We need the message spread and if in those articles what you were saying is that those with power over the masses should bring those issues to them, then yes, I agree. But don't smash JPop against the rocks of your psuedo-hard core, angst-ridden musicology. It is a means to lift the soul and not to depress it.

Even Amuro Namie, who is probably one of the most influential JPop performers of the last fifteen years said that she doesn't do music because it makes her sad, or moves her psyche. She does music when she can see herself dancing to it. Having fun. I'm sure the Japanese have enough of realizing that their dreams are pointless. How many of us realize that when we reach our mid-twenties and get depressing, dead-end jobs. We don't need to be reminded. And if you are looking for a song that directly deals with that issue (as you seem to think that this is a music wide disparity) I recommend Utada Hikaru's Dareka no Negai ga Kanau Koro, which talks about when you have a dream come true, someone else's must die. We don't need anymore realism. It's depressing and in all seriousness, there isn't much we can do about it. So let pop be pop. And I can't sum it up any better than Anonymous did. Don't force a generation's angst and potential into a generation's that has had nothing to fight against. We haven't had anything that defines who we are yet. Our generation is lazy, uninspired. We have nothing to work against like in those decades you grew up. There is no 'man' really keeping us down.

We're so privelged that an entire generation has evolved Emo, which is basically complaining about being safe. Being happy. Being well-off. It's just ridiculous. If your generation did anything, it was to open the doors for our generation to complain about being able to complain. We have nothing to strive against. Nothing to prove. And something will have to happen, just like it did in your time, to change anything.

And so basically, leave Britney alone and JPop along with her, they are fulfilling a basic cultural role. Happiness bringer, pick a time, a culture, a people, and you will find this role. That is its purpose. If we wanted music with a deeper message, we would make it. It isn't music's falt, it is our own. So, basically, your point is that music isn't deep enough for you, but for it intended audience, it's deep enough. Again, if they wanted it deeper, it'd be deeper.

Shiffi Le Soy said...

Hi Patrick and thank you so much for your comment on my post "The Music and the Message": Just a few brief notes. Apologies for lateness, I have been on vacation.

You’re probably right in suggesting that pop music is a anaesthetizer, but I’m having a hard time seeing where, as you claim, “JPop is message driven.”

I’m also sorry to hear you claim that “We are all utterly numb to what the world is going through.”

I’m afraid you’ll have to speak for yourself on that count and I can think of a thousand pop artists who’d disagree too.

“I find nothing remotely wrong with wanting to be happy and JPop does that.”

I agree, Patrick.

“We need the message spread and if in those articles what you were saying is that those with power over the masses should bring those issues to them, then yes, I agree.”

Ok, great. We’re not entirely at odds, then. But doesn't this comment of yours undermine your main point?

”I'm sure the Japanese have enough of realizing that their dreams are pointless/We don't need any more realism. It's depressing and in all seriousness, there isn't much we can do about it.”

Gee, do you really believe that? How do you think we ended up with women’s rights, social security and a black guy running for president?

“Don't force a generation's angst and potential into a generation's that has had nothing to fight against. We haven't had anything that defines who we are yet.”

Your generation has nothing to fight against? Are you kidding? How about AIDS, wage slavery, exploitation of the third world, ecological disaster, eight years of George Bush, a lying government, Abu Graib, religious intolerance and a woman running for VP who believes intelligent design should be taught in school for starters.

” leave Britney alone and JPop along with her, they are fulfilling a basic cultural role”

Actually I wrote a blog celebrating Britney’s last LP. The post is titled ‘Lay Off!’

“basically, your point is that music isn't deep enough for you, but for it intended audience, it's deep enough.”

No Patrick. My point is that sadly J Pop stars don’t seem to have anything to say about a society which is sluggishly imploding amid an anaesthetizing social architecture.