A couple of days ago a well-meaning friend linked me to Ian Martin’s latest insufferable word vomit over at Japantimes.com. Martin, like many Internet Critics, lives inside a specific, deeply conservative cultural bubble which, for lack of a better term, I’ll call Fight Club, named after, of course, the book and film of the same title. Inside the Fight Club bubble, rebellious young men are eternally having to prove how hypocritical society and/or women are while a soundtrack of carefully curated classic rock hits plays. Inside the Fight Club bubble, the things that are “good” are the things that hit all the right post-1960s counterculture buzzwords--authentic, original, raw--as well as, by pure coincidence, of course, speaking to the experience of the same white, middle-class dudes who are members of Fight Club.
The problem with Fight Club isn’t that Fight Club was a terrible film (although I found it to be trite) or that white, middle-class dudes shouldn’t have cultural material aimed at them. The problem is that Fight Club dudes think that we’re all inside their bubble, constantly fighting battles against parents and The Man and Our Wives who won’t let us smoke weed in the house, get the day off work because our band is playing, or let us wear our vintage Sonic Youth T-shirt out of the house because it has a hole under the armpit. We’re not. The standards by which Fight Club dudes judge culture are not the ones I use. To me, authentic, original, and raw usually means self-indulgent, borrowing from somebody invisible to society, and suffering from a severe lack of sparkles.
So, you can imagine my frustration at reading the opening line to his piece:
Japan has a drug problem. Everywhere you look — from the creepy, teen-host-club pop of Sexy Zone to the soft-rock balladry of Ikimono Gakari — children are being exposed to music that has been made with no obvious influence from drugs whatsoever.
His thesis is essentially that drugs = counterculture = rebellion = THE TRUTH = rock’n’roll, man. Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it was still 1967 outside. Seriously? Frank Zappa was more creative and innovative and authentic than most of the other rock musicians of the 60s and 70s and he was total teetotaler. Drugs are not required to either create or enjoy popular music and to insist otherwise by reducing the cultural (and personal) upheaval that fed into the changes in the Beatles music to “drugs” is just really, really facile.
As a graduate of music school, I witnessed firsthand the effects of drugs on music. Musicians who smoke a lot of weed tend to forget they have rehearsal and miss gigs. They also play insufferably long solos. Musicians who do dope have a sad habit of either dying or retreating from the world. Musicians on coke and speed are just obnoxious. I mean, have you heard Oasis’s Be Here Now? It’s not the drugs that make a genius.
I’ll happily admit to Ikimono Gakari being the lamest band of all time and, although I adore them to bits, there is something slightly seedy about Sexy Zone. (Actually, that’s part of the reason why I adore them.) However, the idea that Japan’s pop scene is missing “drugs,” or even, to be generous, authentic, original, and raw rebellion against The Man, speaks more to Martin’s bubble-dwelling than any deficit in the music itself. What he’s really saying here is, “Wah, wah, wah! This doesn’t hit any of my cultural touchstones! I don’t like it!” Just because he doesn’t see the rule-bending wildness in a pop star like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (which I’ve discussed before) even as she sells mouthwash, that doesn’t make it less present to those who are looking. And nobody who has seen the bizarre film Fantastipo (and the title song of the same name), starring two boy toy idols from the same agency as Sexy Zone, could pretend like nobody involved in the production was smoking weed.
Pop music in Japan, like mass films in India, is ultimately a democratic experience, a group experience. And the Fight Club guys, steeped in their self-indulgent, confessional, inward-looking art, really just don’t get that. Unlike in high art, the relationship that matters here isn’t between the artist and his or her art or even an individual audience member and the art but of the artist to the audience and the audience to each other and all of them experiencing the art together. That’s the whole point of the drawn out hero introduction sequence in mass films. The pause in the narrative for a hero entrance makes no sense if you’re watching a film alone in your living room but in a crowded theater a hero entrance can be a transcendental experience--and one that requires no drugs to participate. The same could be said for Sexy Zone's songs; they have much more meaning inside a mob of fangirls doing the dances at the concerts than on youtube.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the introduction of a book I’m reading at the moment: art critic Jed Perl’s collection Magicians & Charlatans. In his introduction, Perl is lamenting the collapse of the boundaries between high and low in contemporary art world into something he calls ‘laissez-faire aesthetics,’ something I feel strongly parallels what’s happening in Bollywood, but I’ll save that for another day:
“It is the very essence of popular culture that the intense feelings that a song or a movie kick off in us are experience by many other people, almost simultaneously. When somebody refers to “The summer we fell in love and everybody was playing our song,” they are describing one of the essential pop experiences--the sense that the individual is connected with the group.” (p. 21)