2009: Cracks in the facade

Stars behaving badly and lack of support for new acts shaped the year in music

by Ian Martin

A year of tragic deaths, amusing scandals and a series of increasingly senile looking attempts by the music industry to cling onto its outdated business model — that was 2009.

The year was characterized by a fragile facade of continuity, while changes in the music world, both trivial and monumental, rumbled on regardless.

In the world of idol pop, Tsunku’s Hello Project and the latest interchangeable incarnation of Morning Musume were further crushed under the steel-tipped jackboot of Yasushi Akimoto’s clone army AKB48, who raked in three gold records and tormented unsuspecting audiences in France and the United States. In contrast, Hello Project’s previously all-conquering cyborg idol Aya Matsuura was “graduated” by the organization this March, in a process that sounds alarmingly similar to the “retirement” of replicants in “Blade Runner.” If that wasn’t enough, Akimoto’s Nagoya-based sister project, SKE48, also debuted this year, in one stroke doubling the forces at his disposal.

This idol inflation seems set to speed up rather than slow down, and Akimoto’s current position as the sole idol superpower appears likely to be challenged soon by the emergence of HRJK96, a Harajuku-based rival announced in October of this year. My advice is that given Japan’s rapidly aging population a smart producer would target the silver demographic, perhaps with a Sugamo-based army of septuagenarian idols called SGM256.

Following the chart-topping success of last year’s “GAME,” electro idol trio Perfume maintained their success with No. 1 single “One Room Disco” and its accompanying album “Triangle.” The emergence of a plethora of similar-sounding copycat acts such as Sawa, Aira Mitsuki and Saori@Destiny offered hints that electropop could become a new dominating force in J-Pop.

Moreover, the increasing prominence on CD covers and advertising of names like Yasutaka Nakata and Terukado Onishi suggested that the songs’ producers were becoming marketable in their own right for the first time since Tetsuya Komuro in the 1990s.

On the other hand, the failure of any of these new electropop acts to reach anywhere near the success of Perfume suggests that it remains a niche genre and that supply may already be outstripping demand. In fact, with the appearance of an all-girl idol trio called Cosmetics, produced by comedian Ryo Fukawa, it looks like the whole genre has already descended into self-parody. Stereotyped and faintly sexist group names based on “things girls like” to look out for in the future include Accessories, Cooking and Rich Husband.

The recent announcement of the lineup for this year’s “Kohaku,” the televised new year’s music extravaganza, throws up some clues as to what the Japanese music industry thinks has been a success this year. The debut appearance of Kaela Kimura on the show provides validation of her position as the answer of choice for a man on a first date when asked the question, “So what music do you like?” thanks to her ever-popular combination of carefully manufactured, quirky charm and utterly safe music.

Also appearing for the first time will be Arashi of the boy-band stable (and Japan’s most cartoonishly evil company) Johnny’s Jimusho, who currently seem like they’re being groomed as successors to the increasingly haggard-looking SMAP.

Speaking of SMAP, this year’s funniest celebrity scandal was undoubtedly Tsuyoshi Kusanagi’s arrest for cavorting naked around a park in central Tokyo after a night of heavy drinking. He was immediately pulled from his position advertising the changeover to digital television and, recalling nothing so much as the show trials of disgraced party members in Soviet Russia, tearful, stage-managed apologies from Kusanagi and other group members followed. However, for many people his alleged demand to the police of, “What’s wrong with being naked?” chimed more closely with their own reaction and within minutes of the incident’s occurrence the Internet was buzzing and T-shirts bearing the unanswered question had been printed up and distributed.

The Japanese music industry’s obsessive need to keep up appearances was in evidence again with the drug-related arrests of former Happy End guitarist Shigeru Suzuki in February and 80s/90s pop starlet Noriko Sakai in August. In both cases the labels responded by withdrawing all the artists’ music from circulation, and in Sakai’s case all current commercial contracts were canceled and her fashion brand was also pulled from shelves. The public’s reaction? They circumvented the ban on sales making Sakai’s 1995 single “Aoi Usagi” the No. 1 selling song on iTunes Japan. (Take that, Victor Entertainment! We’ll give you our money whether you like it or not!) Could the Japanese music industry’s Stasi-like grasp on public discourse be crumbling? Taken individually, these instances of cynical rebellion may not amount to much, but 20 years after 1989, the Internet is demolishing crumbling power structures that may have become the industry’s very own Berlin Wall.

In rock music, the biggest news was probably the death of RC Succession’s Kiyoshiro Imawano after a battle with cancer. The extraordinary number of fans who gathered for his funeral was testament to his enormous influence and the huge amount of respect that people still have for him. Less well reported but no less tragic was the suicide of Sadistic Mika Band founding member Kazuhiko Kato in a hotel room in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, in October.

2009 also marked the anniversary of punk and new-wave music in Japan, with a slew of re-releases and renewed interest in classic bands like Hikashu and Lizard culminating in the monthlong “Drive to 2010″ punk and new-wave festival at Shinjuku Loft. Probably the most disheartening thing about the event from the point of view of new Japanese music was how few new bands were big enough draws to merit a place on the main stage — let alone a headlining slot — with the sweet melodies and introverted stage presence of indie popsters Soutaiseiriron a rare exception.

This situation was mirrored on a larger scale by the Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic schedules, where the bigger stages were dominated by aging rock dinosaurs like Oasis (who mercifully put themselves out of our misery soon after) and indie stars of half a generation ago who never reached their full potential, like Franz Ferdinand and Klaxons.

Not to say that there isn’t an enormous amount of intense, vibrant music coming out of the indie and underground scenes. However, what is happening is that with record labels’ increasing unwillingness to support new Japanese bands, they’re becoming more and more adept at consolidating their resources, supporting each other and using the power of networking sites like Mixi. One result has been increasing numbers of bands putting on free shows at small venues like indie/postpunk quartet Far France’s occasional events at Shinjuku Motion or the Tokyo Boredom events at Shibuya Lush.

Still, in hard times families look after their own, and while at the top the situation of major labels looks increasingly shaky, the willingness of underground bands to go it alone demonstrates that the spirit of 1979 lives on.

New bands to keep a look out for in 2010

My musical predictions tend to be more of a curse than a blessing, so the careful reader would be well advised to pursue these promising young underground bands with tenacity and urgency before my jinx kicks in and they all split up.

Formed in 2007, SuiseiNoboAz have been creating a buzz like a swarm of angry hornets, with their experimental yet accessible brand of genre-hopping, funk- influenced underground rock. Already proving popular on the live-house circuit, next January’s debut album, produced by Zazen Boys’ Mukai Shutoku, should see them commanding attention from a wider audience.

All-girl guitar-pop quartet Merpeoples reveal their art school background in song titles like “Picasso,” backing it up with a post-punk edge and keyboards that occasionally recall early Roxy Music, but the key to their appeal is their straightforward pop melodies and easy on-stage charm. A debut album will drop in March so expect them to be bigger than Jesus by, say, early June.

Tokyo-based duo Puffy Shoes might seem like a bit of a long shot given that they only formed this past April, but they could shape up to be dark horses for 2010. Their raucous theme song “Boys Hate Me and My Puffy Shoes” recalls other quirky girl duos like Afrirampo and especially Kiiiiiii, but digging a little deeper reveals a wealth of sweet-sounding, 1960s girl-group melodies, delivered with an affecting fragility.

Finally, to counterbalance the above Tokyo-centrism, there’s Fukuoka’s ruruxu/sinn (pronounced “lulue-shin”). Their debut album “Picnic” was released nationwide this autumn, taking the trancelike, post-rock complexity of Rovo, breaking it down into more easily digestible pieces and combining it with a melancholic pop sensibility that recalls the boy/girl dream pop of Supercar. If they can keep up the touring, and if audiences can get over the unpronouncable name, ruruxu/sinn could well be ones to watch.