Years of banging my head against the Western Media Bubble have left me reluctant to get into it with ignorant pieces like this but because Western fascination with Japanese pop seems to be cycling back--including John Oliver making a (poor) reference to mega-girl groupAKB48 on his show Last Week Tonight--that I felt it would be worthwhile to share some of what I’ve learned on the topic in my years of observation and research.
Covington starts her piece thoughtfully enough, emphasising a point that I’ve often tried to make myself:
Despite often being considered a niche interest, J-Pop is about as sweeping and unhelpful a term as “rock ’n’ roll” is. It’s only J-Pop’s conflation with K-Pop in the Western world that has led many to believe that J-Pop in itself is some sub-genre phenomenon, when it simply refers to popular music in Japan.
So far, so good. Any record store I went to Japan would have lots of different genres for Western music but in the Japanese section, almost everything is grouped under “J-Pop,” which really just means “music made in Japan for a mainstream Japanese audience.” But as Covington ventures further from the type of information easily culled from wikipedia into giving critical opinions, she falls into same predictable grooves of the overly-confident Western critic trying to bluff her way through a discussion on popular Japanese entertainment--the sweeping generalizations, the misunderstandings of cultural factors, the casual dismissal of decades of domestic musical tradition, and a heavy reliance on problematic secondary sources, sources the author doesn’t even realize are problematic because there is so little written on actual popular music in Japan in English.
It was this last point that made me feel some empathy for Covington, who was probably was handed this assignment by an equally clueless editor and told to figure it out. Unless you can read Japanese or have some grounding in their music industry, it’s extremely difficult to navigate Japan’s popular music scene because, unlike Korea, Japan doesn’t make music for export. Japan makes music for one audience and one audience only: the Japanese one. They could give two fucks about what the Onion AV Club or the Village Voice or the New York Times has to say or what’s hip on the Billboard charts because it doesn’t affect them at all. Japan is the number one music market in the world in terms of sales right now and a large part of that has to do with their homegrown idols.
Idols careers are not, as Covington claims, “as short-lived and ephemeral as the blooming of a cherry blossom.” Heck, you can see middle-aged men cheering on their middle-aged idols with banners and signs in the audience of many a music variety show and women of all ages are still packing stadiums for 40-something SMAP and the now 60-something Tigers. And many of the characteristics she ascribes to idols, actually apply to any geinin [芸人; entertainer] from comedians to rock musicians to fashion models, such as appearing earnest and working to keep active connections with fans through official fan clubs and other special events.
Covington claims to understand that “idol pop” is not a musical genre but proceeds to pontificate as if the idol groups were just pop acts rehashing the territory covered by our Western “boy bands” and “girl groups,” just, you know, more exotic and foreign and weird, man. That’s not how idol pop works.
Japan has pop acts like Perfume (coming to New York in November!) and the Exile tribe, who combine the visual, generally in the form of dance, and aural into wonderful bits of performance, perfect for television! These pop artists will have fan clubs and glossy magazine spreads and sometimes cross over as “tarento” (タレント; a catch-all term for the type of celebrity who fills out panels in chat shows or who you can hire to promote your new brand of soda pop) but although they appear similar to idol groups to the Western eye, they are not, I repeat NOT idols. They are pop artists and their focus is on the art of the performance.
[Perfume doing one of my favorites, “Hurly Burly.” This is not an idol group.]
[Exile doing “24karats.” This is not an idol group.]
Idols can and do put on amazing pop performances and those pop performances can be appreciated just on that surface level. Enjoyment of the performance is how I, and many other people, initially get roped into idol music--some of it is genuinely good pop. But idols groups offer something more, something that cannot be gleaned from half an hour watching videos on youtube. Idol groups are fundamentally different from acts like Perfume because an idol performance isn’t just about the performance itself, it’s about the idol’s relationship with his or her audience, an intangible bond that develops organically over years of give-and-take and that stretches far beyond the Western stereotype of teenaged boyband fans trying to decide which member of One Direction they want to marry.
What makes idol music so powerful to the fans is this relationship. Unlike American or Western pop, the goal isn’t a song that grabs you in 10 seconds but one with staying power. Girl idol group AKB48’s “Heavy Rotation” is the perfect example. Covington callously claims “the magic of AKB48 is in the marketing, not the music” because she’s missing this context. To simplify for the viewers at home, AKB48 isn’t an “idol group” as much as an “idol organization” that has a constant influx of younger members joining and older members graduating. Fans “vote” for and track the progress of their favorites for years, celebrating their victories, sharing their sorrows. “Heavy Rotation” is the AKB48 theme song and they perform it over and over and over. Watching the “Heavy Rotation” music video a couple of times on youtube cannot convey the experience of seeing AKB48 members, members that you know and have become fond of, trying to hold back tears as they sing the song one last time with a graduating member. The song cannot be completely understood or evaluated as idol pop without that missing context. The Katy Perry-style masculine gaze titilation that Covington harps on are not the main focus for AKB48’s actual fan base. Yes, it’s a large part of AKB48’s visual appeal but it’s not what sells AKB48’s millions of singles.
What Covington either doesn’t understand or chooses to ignore is that if AKB48 only appealed to creepy middle-aged perverts and teen girls, they would still sell some records but they wouldn’t have the mainstream presence that they do. Not everybody is out voting for their members but plenty of actual, normal, middle of the road Japanese people enjoy watching the group and singing along to their songs.
[“Koi Suru Fortune Cookie,” an idol song from an idol group. They aren’t great dancers or singers but that’s not the point. THE CROWDS dancing along with them are. PS the teeny one with short brownish hair, in lime green, Takamina, is my favorite. ♥]
And then take Japan’s current national idols, Arashi, whom Covington also deeply, deeply misreads. She misrepresents their mid-2000s rise to popularity as if it was all insider wheeling-dealing, saying that their management agency head Johnny Kitagawa “expanded Arashi’s exposure by finagling deals with television network producers that made their singles the theme songs of many of Japan’s most-watched shows.” When, actually, it’s pretty typical for idol groups to provide the theme music for television dramas when the idols are starring in them, which was the case here for Hana Yori Dango. Not to mention the fact that nobody expected the drama to be the massive mainstream hit that it was. Audiences found and adopted Arashi all on their own. Arashi’s rise was as organic as any commercial success story can be.
And Covington completely ignores their recent musical efforts in favor of snarky comments about their earlier work. Certainly, idol groups aren’t required to produce quality songs to stay relevant. Arashi’s agency-mate’s, the now 40-something SMAP, are still massively popular idols but sell only a fraction of what Arashi does because the music and performance are secondary for them. (Although they can still deliver the goods. And, yes, that is 13 Assassin’s Inagaki Goro. Good eye.)
Arashi have not taken the easy route, instead they have used the additional money and influence their success has brought them to create some fantastic pop records with some of the best session players, producers, and arrangers working right now. And because their music isn’t dependent on club plays, they are able to work a wide range of styles into their albums and single tracks. I’m not sure where Covington found reference to Arashi’s “lack of innovation and often-referenced inability to harmonize” but it certainly wasn’t from the music or the Japanese press. The album Beautiful World (2011) is a lovely and very emotional concept album put out in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Their most recent, Love, is a love letter to disco and features some really funky beats.
It’s extremely disingenuous of Covington to reference their perky 2007 hits as if time stopped there when THIS is what Arashi has been doing lately:
Arachique - [PV] 49 Paradox from Arachique on Vimeo.
[“Paradox,” from the album Love (2013)]
And so we cycle back around to reach my number one soap box: Westerners don’t understand that this music isn’t for them. What reads as a “lack of innovation” to some jackass white guy writer for the English-language Japan Times website (which is where I’m assuming Covington pulled most of her illformed opinions from) reads as “building on tradition” to the Japanese ear. There is literally 60+ years of popular music that exists completely parallel to what we consider “the canon” in the West. Sure, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, and other global superstars are known in Japan but they’re a separate and exotic category: 洋楽; WESTERN music. You cannot just pick up a contemporary J-pop album, idol group or not, and understand it without understanding this fact and I don’t think Covington really does.
She wraps up her piece with two very young idol groups: Momoiro Clover Z (usually just abbreviated to MomoClo) and Baby Metal. Baby Metal, we can safely set aside since they are not a thing in Japan, they are a thing that has caught the interest of Western critics. MomoClo are a fun idol group, though they have yet to reach real mainstream success. Their music is very reminiscent of early 2000’s Morning Musume, an edgier, more discordant pop than comes out of the AKB48 stable, but instead of the more traditional girl idol image, they have modeled themselves on Covington’s hated Arashi.
Honestly, unless one really wants to dedicate themselves to following a group, it’s not worth getting into Japanese idol pop as a Westerner. Not only are imports really expensive but both the language and cultural barriers are really steep. Japan isn’t like Korea, they have no need nor desire to export their goods and you will have to put in time and energy to get even a small grasp on the world. But, for a certain kind of person, the emotional payoff is like nothing the American music industry has to offer.
The world of J-pop music is another matter all together and can certainly be enjoyed by anybody who enjoys pop music, especially pop performance.
Some suggestions beyond the ones mentioned:
Shiina Ringo (椎名林檎), not an idol, has been putting out solid pop songs in a variety of styles since the late 1990s and is still making amazing songs today.
Aiko, not an idol, is another pop artist who has been around for a long time and who’s girl-power songs are still quite popular.
More understandable to the Western ear is Koda Kumi and her booty-poppin’ jams.
Golden Bomber, an “indie” idol group of sorts, are sublimely ridiculous.
The Okamoto’s, not an idol group, are one of my new favorites. They put out solid punk-rock tunes.
And Arashi’s agency-mate Yamashita Tomohisa puts out amazing pop albums. He’s got a melted honey voice and uses it well.
This isn’t even the tip of 60+ years of popular music. I’ve been reading up on it for the last few years and even now I’m still constantly surprised by references to a singer I hadn’t heard of before, a regional hit I didn’t know… but you HAVE to put the work in. I can’t emphasize enough that 99% of the information that exists in English has been self-selected for translation by outsiders--mainly whiny, nerdy, white guys looking to keep a monopoly on “their” information--and does NOT represent the mainstream opinion of Japanese people. Just look at how much press a novelty act like Baby Metal is getting in English (aka a lot) compared to actual chart topping acts like Pornograffitti and Ikimonogakari (aka zero). I’m not sure how much good this post will do but for anybody stumbling across this, frantically googling J-pop in order to write something, all I ask is that you recognize your own limitations and don’t just throw around terms you don’t understand while pulling some opinions out of your ass. Some of us love this music a lot and it hurts to see it dismissed so callously.