A big part of what has made the current wave of South Korean idol pop so successful in Japan is obviously the image. K-pop’s often crass objectification of young women makes for a welcome break from J-pop’s often crass objectification of barely pubescent girls. However, laughable though we may find it, there are some interesting differences in the music too.
One criticism of Korean groups such as Girls Generation is that their music is simply a formulaic rehash of current American pop trends, while Japanese pop equivalents retain their own national identity. Quality of music aside, I think this is basically an accurate statement.
There is, however, a big difference between Girls Generation and, say, Lady Gaga. Girls Generation are produced, marketed, and handled along very similar lines to their Japanese counterparts. Their music is promoted alongside Japanese artists in Tower Records (perhaps separated into its own K-pop area, but more as an annex to J-pop than something intrinsically alien), and their music is frequently and increasingly re-recorded in the Japanese language.
The upshot of this is that Girls Generation are an Oricon chart-topping group and regular fixtures on the Japanese variety-show carousel, whereas Lady Gaga is nothing more than a niche figure — an exotic foreign style icon of no real cultural significance to Japan.
In this sense, I think it matters that Korean groups are making music that challenges the musical norms of the J-pop establishment, since they are doing so on the Japanese pop industry’s own turf.
A lot of Korean pop artists present a more mature sexual image than their Japanese counterparts. A good example of this is Girls Generation’s hit “Run Devil Run.” But forget about the video for a moment and focus on the beat — it’s that rarest of rhythmical species in Japan, the “schaffel beat.”
The schaffel beat is characterized by a stress on the first and third beat, with a swing on the alternate beats creating a distinctive shuffle feel (“schaffel” is a German rendering of “shuffle”). Its origins are primarily in 1960s R&B, but it was ’70s glam rockers such as The Sweet and Gary Glitter who became its most iconic proponents.
It has never really gone away (Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” and The Timelords’ “Doctorin’ the Tardis” were two ’80s takes on schaffel), but in the early 2000s the sound was revived by German minimal-techno label Kompakt with their “Schaffelfieber” series of compilations, and soon it became cool. British pop star Rachel Stevens (of S Club 7 fame) released the rather wonderful schaffel-based hit “Some Girls” in 2004, and it remains a standard rhythmical weapon in the arsenal of Western pop songwriters.
Perhaps partly because of Japanese pop and rock drumming’s basis in the postwar jazz scene, there is no corresponding R&B root where a brutal beat like that could grow from. Similarly, while some artists around the more independent fringes of Japanese electropop have flirted with schaffel (notably “Phantom” off capsule’s “More More More!” album and the excellent single “Klaxon” by electro idol Immi), mainstream Japanese pop still tends to avoid such aggressive rhythmical tropes in favour of sentimental, watered-down R&B and thinly produced Eurobeat.
The specific beat, however, is less important than the idea that “Run Devil Run” is built around a rhythm that has developed ping-ponging between America, Britain, Germany and more, via musical styles as diverse as math-rock band Battles and the theme tune from cult British sci-fi TV show “Doctor Who,” while so much Japanese pop seems rooted to a place and moment in time, unwilling to expand its musical gene pool.
Whether these Korean interlopers can maintain their edge is another question. Kara seem to have cashed in all their chips and remade themselves as a faux-naive AKB48 clone, with all the horrors that entails, and while Girls Generation seem not to have compromised their fundamentally internationalist songwriting, the Japanese versions of their songs seem to come out rather less strident in the mix.
The sad truth is that the audience is only one factor to be taken into account when producing pop music. With sales plummeting year on year, advertising is an increasingly important income source, and to have any hope of having your music accepted for a TV commercial, there are certain musical criteria and particular mixing standards that companies such as advertising giants Dentsu require you to meet.
In a recent interview, Perfume producer Yasutaka Nakata admitted to me that the requirements of writing music for TV commercials meant that despite Perfume being a regular fixture near the top of the Japanese charts, he is now forced to mix his own music and theirs to very different specifications.
In addition, in order to get access to the promotion juggernaut in the first place, it has been necessary for these groups’ Korean production companies to cut deals with the power brokers in the Cosa Nostra-esque world of Japanese talent agencies — “J-pop Inc.” if you will. This could create its own pressures to conform more and more to J-pop norms unless the possibility of success in, say, Europe or America creates a corresponding pressure in the other direction.
In the best-case scenario though, I would hope that Japanese pop is able to absorb the production and songwriting styles of groups such as Girls Generation and the possibly-soon-to-be-huge Brown Eyed Girls (I think we can write off Kara now, unfortunately) and combine that with the best of what Japan still has to offer, synthesizing it into a new, more vibrant kind of Japanese pop that can push mainstream music out of its increasingly necrophiliac love affair with the mid-to-late ’90s.