Monday, August 12, 2013

Ode to Joy: My A.B.C-Z Manifesto

I hope people enjoy reading these little interludes on Japanese pop--or interlude, rather--because I enjoy writing them!

The music scene in Japan is the most robust in the world. Music consumers still purchase physical CDs; musical acts still have ample opportunity to perform live (or “live”) on television; and with karaoke as one of the top leisure activities, pop music remains vital cultural currency. And as pop music is taken seriously in Japan, so is the idea of mass entertainment.* The divisive, desperate, futile pursuit of adolescent coolness and the cynicism which accompanies it are not the driving forces in mainstream Japanese pop culture. There is still room for beauty, for pleasure, for joy--three things missing from American mainstream culture or what’s left of mainstream culture.

To be honest, the most beautiful bit of American entertainment I’ve seen recently was out in Las Vegas at the Penn and Teller show. Penn & Teller are among the last of the old school entertainers and though I don’t agree with all of their politics, I do agree almost 100% with their theories on show business and the value of entertainment. As magicians, they trade in the fake and it’s wonderful to watch.

On the night I attended the show, Teller, the silent one, performed sleight of hand with a seemingly empty water tank and some coins.

(Watch for yourself!)

We all know there is no such thing as magic but that doesn’t take away from the wonder at seeing Teller pluck the coins out of midair, from the joy of seeing that final, bold splash of color. The grace of Teller’s movements, the way he has worked the timing to perfection, the subtle interaction with the audience member seated on stage--all of that is a vanishing and underappreciated art. I may have cried a little bit in happiness while watching it.

In America today, the only things that matter in “serious” art are authenticity and originality but, like coolness, authenticity and originality must be defined in opposition to something else. Recently, a prime example of this played out in the indie rock scene. Leaked emails from Jack White, of the White Stripes, revealed a deep hatred of Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys because White thinks that Auerbach is copying from him. While there are probably many other issues at play here, the fact that White thinks the “copying” charge is justification for hatred reveals a lot about the types of psyches found in the American arts scene. Auerbach’s music sounds like White’s, ergo it must be worth less because it’s not “original.” (That all rock and roll is derivative of the black performers on the Chitlin Circuit in the early part of the 20th century is conveniently forgotten.) That “ripoff” in American English refers both to scams and to an artist who uses the style of another is not a coincidence.

Art produced for commercial consumption operates under slightly different guidelines. The idea is to create “buzz” and grab as much money as possible up front. This is the thinking that leads to the awful songs cluttering the Top 40 charts, which we play for a week or two and then never listen to again, and the “blockbuster” films that we go and see and promptly forget upon leaving the theater.

But in both serious and commerical art, the wants and needs of the audience never enters into the discussion. We only ask if the artist means what they are saying, whether it is original, or whether it made money.

And audiences are judged, too, by whether or not they choose the right art to consume. We must hide our desire for joy under the guise of “guilty pleasure,” as if there is an inherent shame attached to wanting to dance to the sweet, sweet sounds of the Spice Girls or jamming out to that Black Keys song on the Twilight soundtrack. It can’t be a coincidence that a lot of what counts as “guilty pleasure” material is associated with types of entertainment that have been banished to the realm of gay men and teen girls--the two groups of people in America who are expected to be fascinated with the trio of things I mentioned above: beauty, joy, and pleasure. And we all look down on them for it, even the very providers of their entertainment.

Take One Direction. (No, please. Take them far away.) Though my love of boy bands is well documented, I’ve been disgusted with One Direction--and to a lesser extent, The Wanted--for their lack of respect for show business. Instead of elevating their audiences with larger than life spectacle, they seem to be attempting to fuse the boy band concept with those hackneyed old terms: “authenticity” and “originality.” But that fusion is impossible. The whole point of a boy band is to give audiences a forum to appreciate male beauty. (And not necessarily in a sexual way--think of the Jackson Five.)

Justin Bieber understands this. The elaborate costumes and stage show, the dancing, the earnestness with which he entertains elevates his fans--Justin Bieber isn’t just some kid, he’s become something bigger: JUSTIN BIEBER. One Direction’s refusal to dance, to wear costumes signals such a huge disrespect of their audience (as well as the boy band art form). Instead of working to entertain and elevate the crowd, they demand our attention just for “being themselves”--the unfortunate mantra of our society. “Being myself,” “authentic,” “original”--more and more they just seem like code words for “unwilling to try harder” and “this should be good enough.”

Well, I refuse to accept that!

Life is dreary enough as it is without having to worry about liking the “right” entertainment in my off hours. And my life is complex enough without needing to care about some singer-songwriter’s relationship problems. Show business can add color and sparkles and, yes, spiritual trancendence to our humdrum lives, so why fight it? What possible benefit to you, the audience, is some performer’s “authenticity,” when you could have the joy of seeing Shahid Kapoor descending from the ceiling backed by flames in a mermaid themed song picturization or, indeed, Teller creating goldfish out of thin air?

Enough with so-called “guilty pleasures.” From this point forward, there is only pleasure...which is a roundabout way of saying that I’ve spent the last month or so obsessed with this Japanese pop group called A.B.C-Z and I wanted to share them with you. But before I could do that, I wanted to put them in a bigger context because I am very aware of the fact that just the idea of five men dancing together brings out some extremely negative, kneejerk reactions, far out of proportion to what it is they’re actually doing.


(From left to right, they are: Ryoichi Tsukada, Fumito Kawai, Ryosuke Hashimoto, Shota Totsuka, and Koichi Goseki)

The “ABC” stands for “Acrobat Boys Club” with the “Z” added in 2008 when Hashimoto joined, completing the group. They only recently made their “debut,” but the group have been performing together for years in stage shows and, especially, on Shounen Club--a weekly vaudevillian showcase for young male talent, filmed in front of a live studio audience in famous NHK Hall (the Kennedy Center of Japan). Their style, honed by years of performing for live audiences consisting mainly of young women, is exuberent and utterly unpretentious. A.B.C-Z want to entertain you and will stop at nothing to make you smile.

So, please keep your mind focused on finding joy while you watch A.B.C-Z perform “Za ABC ~5stars~”:

The entire performance takes place in the lobby of NHK Hall as they make their way to the stage during an episode of Shounen Club, carefully planned and executed in their trademark one camera/no-cuts style. Beyond just sheer fun of the performance, what I love about these A.B.C-Z one camera/no-cut bits is that they demonstrate the power of SHOW BUSINESS on an otherwise ordinary setting. Here are five fairly ordinary looking guys in silly outfits in a lobby and yet somehow, through the power of song and dance, the entire setting is transformed. It's no longer just a lobby but a stage. These aren't just five men, they become idols. It's magic and it’s all for our entertainment. To give us a bit of joy.

And it’s that final part that moves me and humbles me in a way that no “authentic” artist whinging about a break-up could.

For more information on A.B.C-Z, I recommend checking out the English language page for their talent agency and if you like what you see, go ahead and order one of their DVD "singles." I recommend Zutto Love, which is beyond catchy and features a simply adorable video.

*But that’s not to say that everybody in Japan loves pop nor that the power of the media is only used for good. Japan, like every other nation on Earth, has its own cultural scolds and massive media cover-ups. However, unlike America, Japan also figured out how to cultivate a pop culture that provides more to its audience than a set of bold faced names to gossip about. The relationship between cultural consumers and producers is taken very seriously. Fan club activities, meet and greet “handshake” events, special bonus features on releases--while the backrooms and corporate boardrooms may see audiences as a nothing more than a source of profit, a cultural producer’s public “face” is turned towards creating a sense of community with the fans. And because this bond is respected and carefully nurtured, pop acts have the opportunity to develop and mature as artists.

1 comment:

Stuart Martin said...

AMEN! This was a fantastic post and one I could not possibly endorse more strongly. I long ago gave up the idea of "guilty" pleasures when it came to reading and the corollary of books that one "should" read. When it comes to viewing pleasure, I have recently become a BIG fan of K Dramas, not a genre usually associated with straight Anglo males in their mid-40s, and this post of yours echoes how I feel about it. Thank you, and well done!

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