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.

When Reality Attacks

I have always found idol culture in Japan interesting, but partly because I sought to understand it.  I found this video which helped a little.

These are several members of AKB48 who were in a contest with a bunch of Korean idols, and found themselves so lacking in comparison it seemed to completely wreck them.

I’ve often wondered how well the Japanese idol culture (in general) prepares the girls for a life in media.  They’re not great at dancing (better than me, for sure, but not great objectively), they’re not all that good at singing (if you disagree, hold that thought, and then find one where they’re singing solo without accompaniment.  They’re almost always way out of tune), they can kind of act but they’re not great at it.  And that’s because that’s not their job.  Their job is to be cute and funny, and incidentally, sell music.

And they’re really good at it.  Ishikawa Miori (Fresh Lemon) comes to mind.  I don’t know how you can get cuter than this:

But I have to wonder if they are well served by that.  As they grow older, it becomes harder to be cute and funny, and if they don’t have any real skills to fall back on, what good has it done them?  They’re kind of insulated from it because their fans love them for how cute and funny they are, until…  they get slapped in the face with the rather rude realization that that’s all they’ve been trained to be.

As in the above video.  It’s almost heartbreaking to watch them suddenly realize that when put in a competition with people who have been trained to sing, dance, etc., they don’t even come close to measuring up.

Japanese idols don’t really seem all that poorly treated (a little exploited, yes, but not in an abusive way), they look like they generally have fun, and even when it’s difficult they seem to have an attitude of “ganbatte” that helps them to be resilient.  But I wonder how those girls will react to the horrible dose of reality they just got.  Will they become depressed?  Will they “ganbatte” – try their best with what they have?  Or will they get themselves trainers and resolve that that will never happen again?

If I were in their shoes…. I don’t know which I’d choose, to be honest.  But I’m pretty sure I’d react like they did.  That’s not fun at all.

Sunday Song #3: 女子かしまし物語 (モーニング娘)

Joshi Kashimashi Monogatari (“The story of Noisy Girls”) by Morning Musume is one of the first songs that made me think that J-Pop is a little bit more than just stupidity, even if, paradoxically, it’s one of the least intelligent songs of the whole batch.

The reason is both structural and not.  Structurally, it’s extremely high energy.  I find myself rather envious of the energy those girls exhibit when performing this song, but then I have to remember they’re young and, well, as they say, youth is wasted on the young.  It has a very fast and driving bassline that pretty much makes the whole piece.

But the really interesting thing to me is how many levels of meaning they can introduce to the stanzas dedicated to each girl, some of which are related to the choice of language rather than the actual word.  For example, Kimura Ayaka has the phrase “I want to strive to be a better singer” in English, which implies that she can speak English, even though she never explicitly says so.  And Nonaka Miki has probably one of the funniest lines – but it’s not her that makes it funny.

How are you doing? I am fine.
I’m so happy to be a member of this team
Why don’t we talk about the globalization of Morning Musume together?
I want to liven up the Japanese pop music industry with you all!

A flood of big words, recited rapid fire, to which another girl yells “I AM A PEN!”

There are about three levels of meaning to that interaction, all of them stuffed into one stanza, and exhibited by the choice of words rather than the actual words themselves.

Honestly, I think Nonaka-san can be just a little annoying with the whole “I lived in the US for eight years!” (wait for applause) schtick, but she’s young.  It’s easy to forget idols are (or are expected to act like) children for the most part.  I’m a guy in his early 40s, so I have to keep some sense of perspective about the whole thing (if only more guys my age would!)

Anyway, there’s not a whole lot more to say about it.  It’s a fun, high energy little song that does a good job of introducing the characters of all of the different members, and I think it’s very indicative of the quality and complexity of music that Morning Musume creates – and moreso because it’s been updated a few times as members come and go.  I think this song is one of the songs that defines the difference between Morning Musume and other idol groups such as AKB48 (another is AKB48’s Heavy Rotation.  I don’t think Morning Musume would be quite so… unsubtle).  Oddly, one of my favorites so far.

Sunday Song #2: What is Love (もーニング娘)

Life is hard, with many contrasting things, all fighting with each other for supremacy.  Sometimes you laugh, sometimes you cry.  Sometimes you are burning with passion for something, sometimes the passion leaves.  But through it all, you have to ask yourself – is what I’m doing helping or hurting?

If I can’t even make one person understand me, how can I change the world?  If I can hurt someone, how can it be said that I’m making the world better?

This is something that many people are grappling with today, in this postmodern, post-truth world.  We all want to make the world better as we see it, we see how the world could be a better place.  But how do we know that we’re making the world a better place?  How do we know we’re not hurting more than we’re helping?

Jordan Peterson, a man who, despite his many flaws, is highly intelligent, speaks to exactly this question.  “Clean your room”, he says.  The first thing you have to do is get your own “room” in order – your living space, your room, your mind, whatever – and once you’ve “sorted yourself out”, as he says, then you’ll be able to go out and help to coax the rest of the world into the same order that you’ve gotten your own world into.

What do you want?  What do you want the world to look like?  Do you want it to be a reflection, a projection, of your own unresolved issues?  Or do you want it to reflect actually healing, to reflect your own inner peace into the world?  Is it necessary to impose yourself onto the world, or will it become a better place when you’ve learned to deal with your own issues and help the world to deal with its own issues too?

Change starts with you, but so does love, a “worldwide chain of positivity”.  Laugh, and the world laughs with you, as the proverb says.  But cry, and you may make the rest of the world cry too.  But they may not be crying with you.  If you don’t fix yourself first, they may be crying because of you.