As I might have mentioned at one point, I am a classically trained musician. I am familiar with most of the works of many major composers, but my favorite classical pieces – or romantic pieces, as the case may be, are some of the more famous piano concertos. Those by Saint-Saens, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Schumann – I love them all and have been listening to them for many years. I love the complexity, the interplay between the soloist instruments and the orchestra, and most important, how even though there are many notes (the piano itself can have thousands spread over the better part of an hour) not one is wasted and every note has a place.
So why does someone like me like J-Pop, which is essentially none of these things? In many cases, the performers don’t harmonize or even have any idea what harmonizing is, the lyrics are trite (though for those who don’t know Japanese that doesn’t really matter, the fact that they’re Japanese is good enough), the harmonies can be intersting but are rather poppish – it’s everything classical music isn’t. You could get rid of half the notes and it really wouldn’t matter, and all but one or two singers are superfluous in most cases. By classical standards, J-Pop is barely even worth noticing, much less paying attention to. About the only thing they really do well is dance around in sync with each other, for the most part.
Nonetheless, I still rather like it.
I’ve remarked before on the Japanese word “ganbatte”, or “ganbarou”. It basically means “good luck” or “try my best”, but there is an undercurrent of demand there. Basically, if you fail, you didn’t “ganbatte”. You can only be said to “ganbatte” if you’ve succeeded. You can sometimes hear one of the girls in J-Pop saying “I didn’t try my best” when they fail at something. The implication being, that if you try your best, you will always succeed.
I think this is the spirit around J-Pop that I like, even more than the music themselves. They’re always challenging themselves, and deliberately so. Take AKB-48. People said “they can’t dance well”, so they made a piece that deliberately was the most difficult dancing they’d ever done. People said “they can’t harmonize”, so they release an a-capella choir piece. People said “Well, they can’t sing solo”, so they actually had an a capella piece where there was a solo singer and a few of the girls were actually singing harmony. People said “OK, they can’t play any instruments.” Well, I guess, challenge accepted, because they put together “gimme five” where some of the girls learned how to play instruments just to prove everyone wrong.
Basically, J-Pop seems to be mostly oriented to an “I’ll show you” kind of “ganbatte” attitude. If you tell them they can’t do something, they’ll do it just to spite you, and be all smiles and cute all the way.
I was watching a performance of Saint-Saens concerto #4 today – one of my favorites, especially the last movement, and I was watching the performer’s fingers dancing all over the keyboard, and I realized, for all of their talent and practice, most classical musicians don’t seem to have this quality. They work on playing their instrument, on perfecting their instrument, and sometimes get a job on a symphony orchestra or as a soloist career. But unless they want to branch out into different kinds of music, that’s where it stops. Don’t get me wrong, you can become very well known and prosperous doing that – but to me, it seems a bit like a waste. You only learn to do one thing very well.
But the J-Pop artists seem to alwys want to improve themselves, always try new things, always branch out into new ideas and see if they work. Take Babymetal, for example. If you tell a person off the street to try to merge heavy metal and J-Pop, they’ll look at you like you’re an idiot and say “that would be awful.” And I can’t tell you how many Youtube reaction videos I’ve seen where the sentiment is “Holy crap! That shouldn’t work at all, but it does! What did I just watch?” And then they go down the foxhole.
I think this is why I like J-Pop. They’re always reinventing and improving themselves, trying new things. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t, but they never seem happy with the status quo. You say “well, you can’t do that”, and they say “oh yeah? Watch me.” And they do. One even got into a play-off with a true concert pianist playing Mozart’s “Turkish Rondo”. You could tell the difference in their playing – the concert pianist was far better – but she held her own. Someone challenged her, and she said “ganbatte”. I’ll try my best.
And that is why I, being a classical pianist admire groups such as Morning Musume, AKB48, Sakura Gakuin and its offshoot Babymetal, and a few other groups besides. It’s not that their music is particularly interesting – most professional musicians could – and do – wipe the floor with them. Even the K-Pop artists are in such a different class performance-wise that the J-pop artists seem to get a complex when watching them. But at the end of the day, they understand “Ganbatte”. Trying their best. And that’s why I like them.
They’re scrappy, and if someone tosses a challenge at them, they own it.
It’s really hard not to admire that. Even as a classical pianist.