Thursday, January 17, 2013

Filmi Girl's GOLDEN BOMBER Manifesto

I had been debating on whether or not to post this here but I decided to just do it just so that if anybody started Googling Golden Bomber they would find my thoughts. I mean why have a blog if I can't post MY THOUGHTS ON JAPAN'S GOLDEN BOMBER. Besides, most people who have been reading my blog for any length of time know that after Indian films, my second love is Japanese pop culture. Thought there might not seem like any real connection at first, let me just say that it's no mistake that Rajinikanth has a cult following in Japan.

The Japanese have as deep an appreciation for sentiment and artifice as any massy audience in Chennai. They're fine with lip-syncing singers, slapstick comedy, bad celebrity impressions, and terrible puns. Japan also shares India's love for extremely precocious child actors, bikini bodies, straight men with flashy dance moves, and gangster movies.

And just like Indian movies, Japan's pop culture tends to be painted with the same broad "LOL AIN'T THEY WEIRD AND UNEVOLVED" brush strokes by both the Western media and cultural gatekeepers. There's only the minutest difference between Smash's racist "Bollywood" number and Gwen Stefani's racist Harajuku Girls. So, you can understand why I would want to push out my interpretation of Japan's word-of-mouth hit of 2012 before the "LOL AIN'T THEY WEIRD" people find it.

One of the reasons I'm doing this here is that, apparently, no other outlets were really interested, which is a shame because I think this group is one of the more creative and genuinely surprising groups I've come across in a long time. But I guess they don't fit into the narrative of "ROBOTS, BAGEL HEADS, SCHOOLGIRL PANTIES."

In the West, thanks in large part to the cultural revolution of the 1960s and then the alternative counter-revolution of the 1990s, artists are now expected to write music that is confessional. I was listening to an interview with Ben Howard on BBC Radio 4 and he actually said something along the lines of, "Well, I may get taken to task for this but originally I started writing songs just because I like music. I didn't get interested in lyrics until later." As if writing music for music's sake was something to be ashamed of! No wonder Western artists rarely last a few years - once they get all that pain of being young out of the way, who wants to hear four decades of songs about how the baby won't shut up or how the mortgage payment is due?

Art can be confessional, sure, but that shouldn't be the default. What about beauty? What about engaging an audience? What about some fucking entertainment?

When I was a little girl, my Uncle Jon gave me a t-shirt that said: "WHO SAYS PRO WRESTLING IS FAKE?" with an angry wrestler face on it. I loved that shirt and maybe the sentiment underneath crept into my worldview through osmosis. Because really, fake is such an ugly word. Are the injuries and struggles of pro-wrestlers fake just because the outcomes are pre-determined? Is the enjoyment by the fans fake?

Is my emotional engagement with a Bollywood song fake because the actors aren't really singing on set?

(PS somebody should really tell Tom Hooper that there is a better way to record a musical than having actors sing live on set.)

Frank Zappa, in his fantastic autobiography which everybody should read talks about how the men (and it is men) in charge of the music business slowly changed from the big fat old guys with cigars who would put out whatever as long as the kids bought it to young, "cool" guys with ponytails that insisted that they were the cutting edge of hip. And, for Zappa, this was a real straightjacket on artist creativity. You can't be weird and crazy when you have to pass through some ponytail guy's definition of what's hip.

The thing with Japan is that the fat old guys are still in charge of the music business.

And now, with that amazing introduction, meet Golden Bomber.

Something magical happened in the Britpop-soaked spring of 1995. While the press was focused on the furious battle between the artsy ramblings of Blur and the lad rock of Oasis, the public took up with something else - a driving disco bass line, a frenzied swirl of keyboards, and the voice of a man who sees the good life hanging just out of reach. Jarvis Cocker sang like he desperately wanted to believe, “Sing along with the common people. Sing along and it might just get you through.” Ecstatic release through pop music. “Common People” by Pulp was an unlikely anthem from an unlikely band. They were too weird for the masses and too tacky for the classes. Yet something in “Common People” connected with the British public - something in the longing in Jarvis’s voice, the chorus threatening to spin out of control, and the lyrics skewering the desires of polite society.

When Pulp took to the stage at the Glastonbury Festival in 1995, the crowd sang along loud enough to drown out the band. And when Japan’s Golden Bomber took to the stage to sing their own unlikely anthem at 2012’s Kouhaku Uta Gassen, the national broadcasting network’s annual New Year’s Eve variety show, the family audience wasn’t exactly sorted for E’s and wizz but it was a pop moment as subversive, as pure, and as transcendent as Pulp singing “Common People” with the 100,000 in the crowd at Glastonbury. After years of being outside looking in, the misfits are finally embraced by the mainstream. The weird, working class band has gone from part-time jobs at convenience stores and pachinko parlors to being booked along with polished actresses and media personalities on morning talk shows and evening variety shows. And they’ve turned the taunt memeshikute (“girly”) into a mantra - and the title of the most buzzed about song of 2012.

A guy collapses on his knees, pleading with his girlfriend. “Sawan janai yo! Omae onna ka yo!” (Don’t even touch me! What are you, a woman?) she says, shaking him off and stalking offscreen. As he rises, emotional devestation written all over his face, his pain is given a tune. “Memeshikute memeshikute memeshikute tsurai yo!” (Girly, girly, girly... being girly is so bitter!) Across the street, in front of the shabby Atlantic City-esque Bar Stardust, looking like it’s 6am and they just finished up their last set of the evening playing mood music for topless dancers, Golden Bomber are performing.

Backed by drums and slinky bass, singer Kiryuin Sho’s rich tenor pleads low as he sings, “Boku no koto wo karakatta no, anna ni suki to itta no ni...” (Were you just teasing me? Even though I said I loved you so much...) The tension builds and builds until the release of the chorus. Memeshikute! Kiryuin’s voice is pushed to it’s limits, cracking with emotion on the high notes as he sings, “Ai saretai ne kitto misugoshita, kimi no shigunaru mou ichido!” (I want to be loved but I’m always overlooked. Give me your signal one more time!) Pushed by a relentless octave-spanning disco bass line and cheerleader-style background vocals, the chorus whips into a frenzied guitar solo and back before finally collapsing, chest heaving, with a few drum hits.

At first glance the lyrics seem to put forth the usual self-indulgent male teenage angst - imagine if Owl City had a rage problem instead of insomnia - but that bitter, unattractive, thwarted need for love is transformed into a celebration as the chorus kicks in. “Ai saretai...” (I want to be loved...) isn’t a complaint but a cheer. Right before the guitar solo, Kiryuin launches into a short spoken rant, “ALRIGHT EVERYBODY! Tanoshi manakya ikiteru falling in love! Dakedo tanoshi bakari jan...” (ALRIGHT EVERYBODY! Living, falling in love. You can’t do it without enjoying it but it’s not all fun...) Golden Bomber turn rejection on its head and make the pain fun. It’s not about hating women - wanting to be loved is a sign you’re alive and cause for celebration. And, in the video, by the time the cheerleaders come out to wave around their lime green pom poms, the rejected guy is dancing along with them. “Memeshikute memeshikute... koi no uta utatte!” (Girly, girly... singing a love song!)

The massive cultural penetration of “Memeshikute” is notable for some very important reasons but the one that needs to be addressed first is this: Golden Bomber is an “air band,” which means exactly what you think it does. Kiryuin writes and sings the songs but the music on the recordings is provided by professional musicians and during live shows, the band mimes playing their instruments. Now, thanks to the myopic efforts of artists like Gwen Stefani, and the media’s propensity for the “ain’t Japan weird and exotic” trend pieces, we in the West have a distorted view of Japanese popular culture as cartoonish and incomprehensibly bizarre. And, to be fair, at first glance, the gaggle of poofy skirts and smiles that make up massive girl group AKB48 - who had the top five selling singles of 2012 - seems just that. But once you get used to the sparkly costumes of the idol groups, most of the acts populating the Japanese pop charts are of a type very recognizable to Western eyes - whether it’s veteran rock band the B’z or young Taylor Swiftian singer-songerwriter Ieiri Leo. Japanese audiences may have a bigger appetite for artifice in their popular entertainment than Americans but that doesn’t mean the country is full of dancing robot DJs in gothic lolita outfits. In other words, as an “air band” who don’t play their own instruments, Golden Bomber are exactly as weird in Japan as they would be in America. The difference is that Japan finds them charming.

The idea of an “air band” is almost a natural outgrowth of the deep-rooted visual kei (literally visual style) scene that Golden Bomber emerged from. Bands who are part of visual kei give equal weight to the band’s image and music, in the same spirit of showmanship as artists like Lady Gaga or Gwar. Legend has it that singer Kiryuin and the band’s “guitarist” Kyan Yutaka started up the band after a night of drinking but, as it turned out, not only was Kyan terrible at playing guitar, he also hated practicing. But they loved being a band together. If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen an episode or two of VH1’s Behind the Music. The decision to fire a friend or chase perfection is a cliched turning point in many a rock story, both real and fictional. And as the Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock, the original bass player (who could play quite well) could tell you after he was replaced by Sid Vicious (who couldn’t play at all): interpersonal dynamics are at least as important as musical dynamics. When Golden Bomber came to their Behind the Music fork in the road, they picked none of the above and decided that the solution to Kyan’s inability to play was to “play” gigs with an iPod shuffle.

Appropriately enough for an “air band,” Golden Bomber - which eventually expanded to include marble-mouthed “bassist” Utahiroba Jun (his bass is strung with two strands of yarn) and daruma-faced “drummer” Darvish Kenji (he “plays” with two floppy styrofoam sticks) - has an absurdist bent that toes the line of comedy. And by operating outside of the modern Western conceit of music as self-expression, Golden Bomber are free to concentrate on things like artistry, craftsmanship, and entertainment. But what really makes Golden Bomber more than just a novelty act is Kiryuin, who sings, writes, and co-arranges the songs. And he’s really good at it.

Being an “air band” frees Kiryuin from standard rock instrumentation and allows him to write to his interests, instead of having to write and arrange songs that a rock band is capable of playing. Kiryuin is free to write whatever he wants in whatever style he wants, knowing that the professional musicians who record them will be able to handle it. The Golden Bomber discography is packed with gems like the “Mata Kimi Ni Bango Wo Kikenakatta” (Once Again I Couldn’t Ask For Your Number) single. The A-side (“Mata Kimi Ni Bango Wo Kikenakatta”) is a breezy power-pop number with a banging stomp-along chorus while the B-side (“Neeeeeee!”) is a gorgeous 1950s inspired doo wop number in 12/8 time. One song might feature a drummer with rolling double pedal kick and then next a clicky drum synthesizer but though the band’s discography is extremely varied in tone and style Kiryuin’s distinctive and very emotive voice is the musical link.

If the music belongs to Kiryuin, the medium of Golden Bomber, the band, is live performance. Picture Kiryuin and Kyan, who were high school friends, as the Dean and Gene Ween of suburban Tokyo (only with much less Scotchguard). Kiryuin is the talented vocalist but instead of Dean’s wicked guitar solos, during live shows Kyan provides performance art. When the guitar solo comes around, Kyan will do anything from eating a giant pile of shaved ice as quickly as he can to using any number of elaborate cardboard props (including a light-up elephant Kyan can actually ride) to arc welding on stage. The band does skits, idol-style dances (choreographed by Utahiroba), and Darvish has a charming inability to keep his clothes on.

And, much like Ween, Golden Bomber has a love of pop culture that only those who grew up with nothing else to escape to can understand. They pull from across Japanese pop culture from friendly children’s television mascot Gachapin to the Ring’s Sadako to the diva much beloved by Japanese drag queens - Kobayashi Sachiko. During Golden Bomber’s 2011 tour, the staging of the wistful enka-style ballad “Sayonara Fuyumi” (Good-bye, Fuyumi), was done with a nod towards Sachiko’s 2010 Kouhaku Uta Gassen appearance, in which the diva sang while wearing an elaborate feathered dress, suspended by wires to make it appear as if she was riding on the back of a swan. As Kiryuin begins to sing, he’s lifted into the air to reveal that he’s wearing a Sachiko-style dress... except the wires try to take him too high and the dress is pulled off. The other band members yell at the audience not to look or laugh as Kiryuin completes the song, trying not to cry, hanging in mid-air, wearing only a pair of red boxer shorts. It’s the perfect Golden Bomber performance - a beautiful song, a absurd cultural touchstone, and sexually ambiguous theatrics designed to make the audience uncomfortable.

Naked emotion made literally naked. Do you laugh? Cry? Or just sit back in awe?

This winter, Golden Bomber finally broke through to the mainstream with a well-timed series of live performances on television. Every December, Japan’s major television stations explode in an orgy of live broadcast music variety shows, parading the top hits of the year that was for one last hurrah. The lineup of acts is usually very predictable and subject to a lot of backstage politics from the major labels and the networks themselves (i.e. there were no Korean acts anywhere on any of these shows because of fear of protests.) For Golden Bomber, who have refused to sign to a major label and up until January 2013 had been relegated to Oricon’s “indie” charts instead of the official Singles Charts, to even be invited on these television variety shows, taking up a slot that could have been used for a lesser selling artist that a label like Warner Brothers was trying to push, is in and of itself a testament to how popular “Memeshikute” became over the last year.

Though these end-of-the-year shows can be entertaining to watch, they are tightly controlled and rarely offer anything fresh or surprising, which means that the unhinged antics of Golden Bomber really popped. Unlike the polished starlets and bored rockers, when the camera would pan to Golden Bomber watching the other acts perform, they would be grinning and dancing. Golden Bomber were genuinely delighted to be on television and they showed it. Unlike most of the other acts - the non-air band acts- each live performance of “Memeshikute” was different, with something special to offer viewers. During their performance on the Kayou Kyoku (Tuesday Song) Christmas Special, Darvish appears in a giant chicken costume and proceeds to harass his bandmates by showboating, pushing them over, and pecking at them. Kyan gets fed up and chases him off stage. The cameras can’t quite keep up as Darvish actually dives into the shocked and delighted crowd, trying to escape. On FNS’s Kayousai (Singing Festival), they teamed up with suave, sophisticated adult contemporary singer Go Hiromi, making him jump up and down and wave green pompoms. The grin on Go’s face as he sang about the pain of being girly lingered in the memory long after the show ended.

But it was on NHK’s prestigious live New Year’s Eve show Kouhaku Uta Gassen that Golden Bomber really made an impression because, much like the Britian’s Royal Variety Performance or America’s Academy Awards, everybody watches Kouhaku. There had been some tension with the producers and the network before the program went to air because Darvish had, during a news conference for the event, joked about taking his dick out. Would he really whip it out in front of all the grandmothers and kids watching on New Year’s Eve?

Golden Bomber begins “Memeshikute” as usual, Kyan, Darvish, and Utahiroba miming along to the track. (Little Darvish remains safely tucked away.) As Golden Bomber’s performance reaches the climax, a troupe of dancers dressed as Darvish in his white face paint come out on stage to join the band and the crowd bursts out into applause. And when the camera pans around to show that crowd, we can see that everybody in the auditorium - to include respected elder actors, TV presenters, businessmen, kids, Olympic athletes being honored, and the crew - is wearing masks with Darvish’s face on them. That night, all of Japan was feeling the pain and joy of being memeshikute.

On January 1st, Golden Bomber released their new single “Dance My Generation,” a slice of deliciously filthy electropop. It sold over 125,000 copies in the first week and Oricon moved them to the official singles chart, where they went straight to number one - the first single from an indie band to do that in almost ten years. “Memeshikute,” originally released as a single in 2010, was also moved over from the Indies Chart and reached number four.

The question facing Golden Bomber now is where to go from here. Right before this Christmas season of music shows began, Kiryuin had announced that his doctor had ordered him to go on hiatus for a few months because he had been damaging his voice through overwork. But Kiryuin, whether out of a sense of duty to the fans and the band or an inability to turn down so much work after years of living in poverty, decided to wait until after the promotions for “Dance My Generation” in January before beginning treatment. Hearing Kiryuin’s voice grow steadily hoarser over the month of December was heartbreaking for many veteran fans, even as the band gained a huge new audience. And if Kiryuin’s voice does recover, Golden Bomber faces another difficult decision - how do they follow up a song that marked a cultural moment like “Memeshikute?” Do they try to duplicate it or move in a completely new direction? And will their new audience follow them?

1 comment:

Ohhh Snap said...

Thank you so much!! I'm a huge fan of Golden Bomber even though I usually have no idea at all what's going on. It's wonderful to understand it more now.

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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