Sunday, April 22, 2007

Is J-Pop the last real pop music on earth?

Here's one place my being old and crufty isn't part of a persona: I pretty much loathe about 90% of the assorted noises that people choose to listen to and call 'music' these days. I live in North America, and Clear Channel and its competitors have done a fine job of taking all of the music out of the broadcast music business.

To be fair, I think that only most of it is the 'music industry's' fault. It's true that they have elected to forget about little things like discovering and nurturing new talent for the studio stable because it reduces 'shareholder value.' And it's also true that the radio conglomerates with their standardized playlists have destroyed any possibility of serendipitously discovering a new song or band by listening to most radio stations in the US.

However, the musical micro-focus of most younger people and their unwillingness to be around music they didn't personally pick out seems part of the problem as well. If you're going to be exposed to a lot of different music, you'll like some of it, and you definitely won't like some of it. You have to suffer the bad to get the good, and there seems to be reluctance to do that. Gangsta fans can't stand metal, metalheads can't stand country, country fans can't stand lyrical or tonal complexity (oops, did I say that?) and so there's no such thing as fusion music anywhere except on a few college radio stations. Likewise, if somebody gets creative, and makes something wonderful, nobody except the niche listeners of that micro-genre ever hear it.

This is not to say that there is no good music being done today in North America, just that it's not well publicised or well distributed. And a lot of musical forms seem to be endlessly recycled. It surprises me that punk and new wave are still around - music that sounds like I could have pogoed around to it in my college days is currently cool. Trust me folks, if it sounds like the Violent Femmes, Suicidal Tendencies, The Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Burning Sensations, Fear, The Dead Kennedys, Millions of Dead Cops, etc, it's not new music. It's just recycled old music from when I had fewer wrinkles and more hair on my head. I didn't/don't like grunge very much, but at least it's distinctly a product of the 1990s. And if you don't know what any of those bands sound like, take a listen. You might be surprised at who's ripping off whose sound these days.

And then there's the whole hiphop thing. Most of it isn't worth having around. Some is funny. Now and again, somebody in that market gets creative, but it's rare. If you're a white suburbanite and you're listening to this stuff, it's because you're a wannabe, not because the message transcends boundaries, unless you think that smoking dope, busting caps into people, and talking about the difficulties of dealing with your string of ho's counts as a universal message...

(wow, this really is a rant, today, isn't it?)

OK, so on to the actual subject of the post. If you can't get pop here (except for the embalmed and stuffed kind), where do you go to find bands turning out all kinds of random wild musical combinations that might even have a good beat and decent musicianship? Japan of all places.

I don't know why, but there's an abundance of creative people doing all kinds of styles. Some are distinctly western, some definitely aren't. Some are strange mutations. And no matter what your taste, somebody in Japan is turning it out. The amazing thing is that this stuff is inevitably perfectly matched to some anime or other and becomes a memorable OP (opening), Insert, or ED (end credits) tune.

If you're old like me, a lot of it sounds like a trip down memory lane. The OP song for Hataraki Man sounds like the GoGos before they lost their punk edge: "A girl wants a man who can work. So then he puts his heart into it and works and slaves and and gets boring." The end credits to Serial Experiments Lain have a distinctly '90s whiny guitar player sound. Want thrash metal? How about the end credits to NHK ni Yookoso? A vulnerable girl ballad about teenage love? Look no further than the OP to Bokura Ga Ita. Something with a heavy dance beat and lyrics about painting the sky blood red with our love? Karin OP. Need a smooth girl R&B Love ballad? The OP to Chobits is just what you want.

Sometimes, though, you have to wonder about the musical choices. Some stuff doesn't seem so perfectly matched. E-chan currently gets occasional episodes of Nurse Angel Ririka SOS as an evening reward for good behavior (hey- it beats Disney!) The OP tune is straight-out-of-the-club at 1:oo AM Euro dance club music, and the lyrics are about somebody crying in town and it's all my fault. What this has to do with a Magical Girl show about a 10 year old saving the world with an enchanted nurse uniform is anybody's guess... I must admit that the club music is infectious and reminds me of more of my misspent youth, but 10 year old schoolgirls?

Likewise the second ED song to Honey and Clover, which was about a girl who can't escape from the bad outcome of a drunken one-night stand. Huh? Has minimal relevance to the show at best - all the girls are 'good' girls, and while they're the usual Japanese lightweights where alcohol is concerned, none of them ever gets into a compromising position under the influence.

Likewise, soundtrack music is often of a very high quality. While both the OP and ED songs for Suzumiya Haruhi season 1 left me indifferent (I generally prefer pop songs that happen to fit the show over pop songs that were obviously written for the show), I thought the different mood-setting musics for the soundtrack were very effective (Gregorian chant for the 'organization' of Espers got a laugh-out-loud from me, as did a couple of other choices).

Anime movies and OVAs generally benefit from good soundtracks and themes as well. My all-time favorite theme to a spy movie that never was is the OP tune for the Read or Die OVA, done by Taku Iwasaki. The tune and the opening credits animation set such a high standard that it's amazing that there's not a letdown when the show starts. Joe Hisaishi, likewise, has done sterling work on a lot of Ghibli releases, generally with superb results. I must admit, though, that the video-game-like electronic score used for the aerial combat scenes in Nausicaa has not aged well. Oh well, the minuet he composed for Nausicaa's requiem is so perfect that it demands we forgive any such momentary lapses.

All of this is yet another side effect of the Japanese taking Anime seriously as a story-telling form, and investing time and money to make a better product because they know that the market will preferentially buy a better product over an inferior one. To use the economics term, there's a strong 'quality signal' because all the otakus talk to each other about what was good and what sucked. And because everybody in Japan watches at least some anime, the music has to have universality for the audience -- it has to be popular. And, because the Japanese are a culture of consensus, popular is easy to define.

Is all J-pop wonderful? of course not. Some of it is designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, was produced by a studio as a manufactured band, or whatever (yes, I'm talking about Morning Musume here, among others). But there's a lot of wonderful stuff out there too, and it's worthy of your attentions.

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