Babymetal

Over the past year or so, I’ve become something of a fan of Babymetal.  This may seem odd to people who know me, because I’m a classically trained musician, and I find most metal to be just people making noise, loudly.  But Babymetal has proven to be an exception.

There is a particular characteristic of classical music, in my view:  it’s all perfect.  As I’ve mentioned, I’m a huge fan of romantic era piano concertos (Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, etc.) and I’ve come to believe that every one of them is perfect, even as they are different, perhaps even vastly so.  I cannot conceive of any one of Rachmaninoff’s works, Saint-Saens’ works (except for perhaps his organ symphony), Tchaikovsky’s works, being any different or improved upon, even as not one of them is the same as the other.  Even from the same composer, each work is very different, and perfect in its own right.

I don’t quite have the same feeling about Babymetal, but it’s a similar feeling.  They cross all sorts of genres, and it seems that none of their music is formulaic, and yet pretty much every song I’ve heard except for Megitsune, I like – and I like for different reasons.  I like “Gimme Chocolate” because it’s cute.  I like “Road of Resistance” because it’s very flashy – I’d liken it a bit to Tchaikovsky’s first concerto.  I like “Karate” because of Suzuka’s vocal solos in a very strange musical mode – I can’t identify it offhand, but I think it’s… phrygian?  I like Akatsuki because it allows Suzuka to shine and she really delivers in vocal power.  And I like Metataro because of the fact that it really is genre defying – I’d almost think of it as an appropriated Celtic folk song.  Morning Musume did the same thing in being genre defying (“Mr. Moonlight” comes to mind), but they didn’t break out of the J-pop mold like Babymetal has.  I haven’t heard many more of their works but I’m sure I’ll get exposed to more as time goes on, I’m not seeking it out.

But that’s the thing I think I like most about them – they have the same qualities as classical and romantic composers – each piece they create is nearly perfection for what it is and yet none of them are anywhere near remotely the same.  If you don’t like one piece, that’s okay, there will be another one that will blow your socks off.  The whole band seems to be built on experimentation and pushing the boundaries, and what comes out, I think, actually (and as I say, for what it is) rivals the great composers of western civilization – Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Saint-Saens.  It’s not that genre of music, but the spirit is the same, and I think that’s what people pick up about it and what makes them fans.  They do things no one has ever even considered doing before, and do it in such a way that, many years down the road, I think they will be seen as one of the more influential musical influences of our time.

And coming from a classically trained musician such as myself, that is high praise indeed.  I would not say that about nearly any other metal band.  For all of their talent, skill, and even popularity, most of them have never been really good at pushing the envelope.  Babymetal broke through it and became something truly transcendental.

J-Pop vs K-Pop

I will not say that I am a huge fan of K-Pop, nor am I a huge fan of J-Pop, but I am more familiar with J-Pop than K-Pop.  But I find myself very impressed with the K-Pop groups I have seen.  The other day I saw a “Girls’ Generation” cover of “Dancing Queen” – they did it in English, and without a discernable accent.  It was extremely high quality.  Frankly, it was much higher quality than I would expect out of a J-Pop group.  More frankly, any J-Pop group save, perhaps, Babymetal.

There seems to be a cultural difference between Korean and Japanese pop, and I have remarked on it before.  The Japanese seem to value cuteness and approachability, and talent doesn’t seem to matter.  The Koreans seem to deliberately cultivate unapproachability and perfection.  Their idols truly seem to be meant to be idols, meaning, objects of worship.  But the Japanese groups don’t really need talent – hardly at all – as long as they can gain a following of people who will buy their albums and “support” them (meaning, voting in senbatsu competitions and buying their products).

Now I’ll admit I don’t know a whole lot about K-Pop, but I know what I saw the other night, and that was quality.  Some groups are a little more fun than others, like Crayon Pop seems to have more of a J-Pop sensibility to it.  The Japanese seem to think “ganbatte”, or “try my best”.  They’ll prepare as much as necessary and get it done.  The Koreans seem to think “If I have to try, I’m not good enough.  I’m going to nail this.”  And holy cow, do they.

Which do I like better?  I don’t know.  If I’m looking for cute and poppy, J-Pop pretty much fits the bill.  If I’m looking for actual quality, it’s K-Pop all the way.  The poor J-Pop groups – particularly the really popular ones like AKB48 – really don’t stand a chance.  They’re cute, they’re funny, they’re silly, they’re adorable, and Korean singers and dancers wipe the floor with them.

But then, they know this.  They know exactly what they are, what they do, and why they’re there.  Maybe it will translate to success in the future for them – I know aces like Takahashi Minami and Sashihara Rino have gone on to decent careers.  But not all.  I don’t think that would be tolerated in Korea.  The standards are far, far, far, more exacting.*

* There are exceptions, on both sides.  So stop typing.  🙂

Why does a Classically Trained Pianist like J-Pop?

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.

Road of Resistance

I have recently stumbled upon this particular song by Babymetal, which may have become one of my all time favorite songs and/or pieces of all time.  And that’s saying something considering I have a classical background and also rank Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto #3 as one of my favorite pieces of all time.

 

The Japanese are in a very real way not very innovative.  There is little that has come out of their country or culture that they can truly say originated there.  True, there are a few things, and they are wonderful things indeed, but until now I thought that the Japanese strength was taking things from other cultures and making them their own.

After listening to this, I came to realize that I have it entirely backwards.

I had thought that this was a western metal song with a Japanese twist, but it is not.  It is a Japanese song, I mean truly and completely Japanese, which borrows heavily from western genres.  That’s a subtle distinction, but extremely important.

We in the west tend to think that Japan appropriates Western culture as its own, improves upon it, and returns it back in better shape than they found it.  But the Japanese don’t assimilate.  They never have and I don’t think they ever will.  What they do instead is use modes of expression that they borrow from other cultures to express something that is completely Japanese and very difficult to quantify.

They took a genre, deconstructed it, put it back together in a completely unique way, and then made a production out of it in a way that I don’t think would ever occur to a western music producer.  I mean, who in the west would have possibly thought to put a heavy metal band together with three cute teenage girls and have it actually work?

The answer is simple.  In the west, it wouldn’t have worked.  We aren’t Japanese.  The energy would have been different.  We couldn’t find a way to harmonize those disparate things because we could never get past seeing them as separate.  But for them – why not?  It just makes a whole that is far more interesting than the parts.  And that is what makes the Japanese, well, Japanese.

I read that many metal fans think it’s kind of a watered-down metal that only hipsters would like, but that’s missing the whole point.  It’s not metal.  It’s not pop, either.  It’s kawaii metal.  It’s Japanese.  It’s what they do.

5 Reasons J-Pop sucks

AKB48 CafeI’ve posted previously about what I like about J-Pop, but I don’t like everything about it!  As with everything, it has its good sides and bad sides.  Here, in my opinion, are the bad sides.

The Music Can Be Uninteresting

I’ve posted previously about how I think that J-Pop is far more interesting than western pop – but that doesn’t really mean it’s interesting.  At the end of the day, it’s still pop, with all of the insipidity and appealing to the lowest common denominator that that entails.  I love how poetic J-Pop can be, but how many songs can one group write about sakura?

There is Little Focus on Talent

J-Pop performers are selected, basically, for cuteness and relatability first, and they seem to take the attitude that growing as a performer will come in time.  And, that being their criteria, they choose well.  But all told, they aren’t really all that talented.  Those who have the acumen or opportunity to parlay their cuteness into success are very successful.  Those that don’t fade into obscurity.  And that seems to have little to do with their actual potential as a performer.

Honestly, though, this is not a reason J-Pop sucks.  The reason is that it almost seems as if the lack of talent is seen as a positive, rather than a negative.  What, then, of the girls who actually want to make something of themselves as an actual performer?  There is room for that, but, frankly, many don’t.  And as seen on Produce48, many don’t even know it until reality smacks them in the face.  Is this doing them a service?  Maybe.  I’m not so sure.

What You See is Not What You Get

When I was younger, I remember a strong thunderstorm that rolled through.  As the storm left, the sky turned a lurid pink.  It turned out that the anvil was still over us and the setting sun was shining underneath it.  But since the clouds were somewhat transparent, you couldn’t see the clouds – it just looked as if the sky turned pink.

J-Pop feels a little like that.  You are given the opportunity to “get to know” the girls – but it’s all scripted and carefully controlled.  So what you see is what you think you get, but you don’t.  It’s a character.  Perhaps it’s a form of the Japanese tatemae, but the people you think you’re getting to know, well, you’re not.

If they were up front about that it wouldn’t really bother me so much, but I think many people think that the performers are the same as their stage personality, and this leads to much misunderstanding.  And that leads me to

The Fans

This is, frankly, the part of the J-Pop scene I detest the most.  I mean, you could kind of class me as a fan in some ways – I know a lot of their music, a lot of the performers, I even have my favorites if you want to get picky.  But at the end of the day, I know they’re just a bunch of girls doing a job, and I keep it in perspective.

But many fans don’t seem to.  I’ve heard of fans buying thousands of CDs just to get the little tickets to vote in the senbatsu and then throwing them all away, I’ve seen people go absolutely nuts when they meet their favorite idol, and frankly, it’s kind of embarrassing all around.  Yes, it’s kind of interesting in its own way, but in the same way you only mostly cover your eyes when you see an inevitable train wreck.  I really hate being a fan because of who it is I end up lumped in with by association.

The Costumes

Oh holy mother of dog, the costumes.  Some are okay, but some of them look like the designer took ate crayons and threw up on fabric.  They’re so loud it’s amazing to see.  It’s like they took a Japanese school uniform and turned it to 11, blowing out the amp.  I’m no fashion critic, and I suppose maybe their target audience thinks differently, but this just helps to cement my opinions about the Japanese taking existing things and taking them in directions no reasonable person would ever even consider.  Sometimes it’s strange and wonderful.  Sometimes it’s J-Pop costumes.

The Sparkle! It Burns!

These are the reasons I think J-Pop sucks.  Of course, there are also plenty of reasons it doesn’t.  What do you think?

(I am trying a new format for blog posts.  Like it?  Hate it?  Let me know!)

Photo Credits:

AKB48 cafe by User: (WT-shared) 耕太郎 at wts wikivoyage [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Costume By Dick Thomas Johnson from Tokyo, Japan [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Why J-Pop?

I was actually trained as a classical pianist.

Yes, it’s true.  I went to college and everything.  I learned how to either play or appreciate much of the repertoire – in point of fact, if I put my mind to it, there are piano concertos that are not out of my reach.  I am very, very familiar with many very complex pieces, even if I can’t play them yet, and I find composers such as Rachmaninoff to be quite sublime – even if the lay person might hear it as just a jumble of noise.

Why, then, have I grown to like J-Pop?

If I were to put, say, “Ponytail Shushu” up against Rachmaninoff’s second or third piano concertos, “shoujiki”, it would be like trying to compare fine art to the drawing of a five year old.  There is utterly no comparison.  Rachmaninoff’s music has a very definite structure, with every note thought out, all meshing together into a cohesive whole that is not even obvious without careful and educated listening.  J-Pop seems to be kind of what you’d expect from seeing two young teenage girls chatting with each other over a milkshake or boba drink.  You’d lose several IQ points just by hearing the conversation, and yet…

And yet.

Do you know what a conversation between two young teenage girls has that classical music does not?

It’s the same reason I like J-Pop.

Classical music is not alive, not really.  Most of the composers are long dead.  Most people listen to classical music quietly, and when you attend a concert, you usually dress up, sit there, and watch a conductor waves his arms, and out emanates some lovely music that you can only consume.  But J-Pop is like being included in a youthful conversation between several teenage girls – it’s stupid and mindless and immature – but there is also love and friendship and parting and angst and all of the things that make life life.  They capture the life and energy of youth in a way that classical music does not and cannot.

Is it beautiful like classical music?  Absolutely not!  But is it beautiful in its own way, expressing things that we as adults forget and only seem to get back when confronted by youth in all of its hormone-ridden, angsty, immature glory?

Yes.

It is a reminder of a long-past part of my life that I, thirty years later, had forgotten.  It hearkens back to a time when I didn’t have to worry about pleasing bosses, or the next performance review, or paying the rent, or what happens if and/or when I get sick, or all of the worries that adults like me destroy ourselves with.  It hearkens back to a time when young love overpowers all, when friendships were made and broken, when living on one’s own is nothing but something that may happen in the distant future, and one has their whole life yet ahead of them.  It’s a celebration of youth.

And sometimes, it is nice to forget how much the ravages of age have destroyed all of that optimism.

That is why I like J-Pop.  It is not always happy, but it is a reminder of how things once were.

Sunday Song #4: Sakura No Hanabiritachi (AKB48)

I haven’t written one of these for a while, and this one’s a little late.  I have some good excuses which you don’t care about, but if you knew them, you’d agree that they’re good, so we’ll just leave it at that.

This is an interesting song.  Its first few bars of introduction are really catchy and high energy – they actually remind me of an 80s or 90s song.  In fact, that’s how I found this song, because they kept playing that intro on AKBingo and I liked it enough that I wondered what song it belonged to.

This is a song about endings and beginnings.  As I have mentioned, the sakura (or cherry tree) seems to have a significance to Japanese culture, and at least in the way it’s usually used in J-Pop songs, as a marker of time.  For the sakura blossoms only for a few days a year, and then they all fall off, waiting for the next year to come around.

This is a sweet and sad song, about graduation from school and heading into adulthood.  That’s an experience that, for many reasons, I never really had, but it seems that in this song they are trying to capture the bittersweet feelings that must come with that kind of an event.  As the petals drop from the cherry tree, so does one stage of life end and another begin.

The petals of these tears go pitter-patter
On these cheeks they come out, flow, and fall
As we look up to the blue sky
And breathe in deeply
The petals of these tears go pitter-patter
Memories of that part make me happy
The stairs to adulthood before our eyes
Together we climb and wave our hands

This is something I’ve really grown to appreciate about J-Pop.  It can be very sweet and saccharine, it can be fun and mindless, it can be sweet and sad, it can even be tragic, but there is a depth and poetry that is very much missing from western pop, and has been for many, many years.  It’s like, they want to sell albums, but they are also proud of what they produce.

What would it look like if we could take A-Pop (what I call American pop) and infuse a Japanese sense into it?  The sense of beauty that the Japanese have cultivated over thousands of years, and even now, manifests in a bunch of young girls and women dancing around in frilly, colorful (and sometimes downright loud) costumes and singing about things they may or may not understand?

What would it look like, indeed.  I’d like to know.  It would be nice if there was actually some “A-Pop” that one didn’t have to feel embarrassed to do anything but make fun of.