Friday, September 12, 2014

What's Up With J-Pop?

So I confess, I like Puffy Ami Yumi, that ever-so-cute J-pop duo that owns the charts in Japan and has a host of adoring fans in North and South America as well. I mean, everybody’s got a cartoon these days, right? And a video game. What’s up with that music video that features the pair singing to an image of Jimmy Hendrix? I totally don’t understand it, but I want it. Here's a sample of their music.

Perhaps the most famous of recent J-pop divas, Hikki Utada, has sold over 35,000,000 albums worldwide, according to her bio on Wikipedia. Fluent in both Japanese and English, she released her very first album, Cubic U, in the U.S. Other, J-pop girl bands of note include Morning Musume, SPEED and Perfume. Solo artists of note include Kyary Pamu Pamu and Namie Amuro, a Japanese R&B singer.  On my Jpop Youtube playlist, I've got some great examples of Jpop stars & groups. I'm also very fond of Shiina Ringo and the time she spent with Tokyo Jihen. She's my personal favorite, but alas, has just retired. This is her best tune with the band. Also been listening to a bunch of "Capsule" tunes, what I'd classify as Jpop "electronica." 

Regular listeners to J-pop begin, over time, to recognize a certain similarity to a lot of the tunes. The players also seem to be regularly refreshed. I think Morning Musume has had six or seven different line-ups. It’s what my favorite Japanese pop-culture blogging maven Neomarxisme calls “the template.” Though producing mega-Dollars (actually, mega-Yen) in Japan, the world’s second largest consumer of retail music to (you guessed it) the U.S., actual sales of new music in Japan have been trending down. That’s the logical product of digital music sharing and the highest CD prices on the planet. But in the U.S., musical explorers, gamers who love Japanese graphics and anime fans are driving a modest, but reliable market for J-pop.

I really admire the “whatever” confidence and the unbridled creativity of J-pop cute. Even if there is some “templating” involved. Though I can’t quite put my finger on the magic, it works. As the sales of gazillions of dollars of merchandise will attest. But there’s more to J-pop than cute. And more ways to explore and appreciate the sub-culture than music. Fashionistas will second that.

If you’ve got NetFlix or a Blockbuster account with a good foreign section close by, dial-up Kamikaze Girls, a contemporary Japanese “chick flick” that features an irresistibly cute heroine who is absolutely obsessed with Rococo fashion. That’s Rococo. Think Marie Antoinette. Our protagonist is completely oblivious to everything and everybody around her until she accidentally hooks-up with a biker chick with tats on a cafĂ© racer. That’s what I’m talking about: cute with attitude. Here's the IMDB page.

For a serious dose of J-pop attitude, check out Fruits and Fresh Fruits by Shoichi Aoki, two volumes that explore the colorful, multi-layered teen fashion of Tokyo's Harajuku district in its heyday. No text, just image-after-image of creatively dressed teens pushing all the limits.

(First posted in 2007. Edited with updates and new links in 9/14)

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