If this column is going to be about one thing in 2015, it will be politics in music.
That doesn’t mean politics in the limited sense of old men sleeping in a building in Nagatacho; rather it means politics in the sense of the underlying power relationships that dictate how music happens.
The recent brouhaha over veteran rocker and Southern All Stars frontman Keisuke Kuwata’s baiting of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the new year, and his subsequent climbdown, seems on the face of it to be a simple matter of left versus right, especially when contrasted with AKB48’s Haruka Shimazaki, who last summer urged people to join the army with the full backing of the state.
However, another, perhaps more powerful power dynamic underlies Kuwata’s travails: the relationship between music and advertising. Had Kuwata made a comparable expression of nationalist values, it would almost certainly have prompted a similar climbdown; Shimazaki suffered no comparable backlash for her promotion of a militarist agenda not because the right is more powerful, but because she was doing it for money.
The world we’re in now is one where money is a moral shield that allows you to say anything, as long as it’s not your actual opinion. Musicians and performers are paid to be the medium by which messages are delivered and are punished for having the affront to compose messages of their own. In the public arena, Southern All Stars had spent decades honing themselves into the most blandly positive, vacuously uplifting band in the country, only to mess things up by expressing a palpable opinion.
Advertising seeks out the kind of music that will reach as many people as possible, while offending as few as possible. The result is a trend toward bland, vaguely aspirational tunes. Briefs that ad agencies send out make vapid requests like, “We’re looking for a track that’s empowering and encourages you to get up and go.”
Seb Roberts, a musician and recording engineer who has worked in both Japan and North America notes that advertising tends to want one of two things, summarizing them as either, “whatever was a hit last month” or “generic stuff that’s so banal that it actively destroys what little creativity you have left.”
These briefs are increasingly difficult to tell apart from those that major record labels distribute to prospective songwriters. Southern All Stars’ talent agency, Amuse, is also home to electropop girl group Perfume, whose producer Yasutaka Nakata creates all their music to briefs from advertisers who have bought the song prior to his having even written it.
Working commercially as a musician needn’t always mean profiting from participating in the degradation of something you love, or as Roberts expertly puts it, “being a shareholder in a brothel that your girlfriend works in.”
Singer-songwriter Anna Tanaka, aka Annie the Clumsy, has composed music for clients such as Sharp, Google and Mazda, and between her personal and commissioned work, she seems to have found a kind of balance.
“I’m just lucky that what they want from me is kind of the same as what I already do,” Tanaka says, noting that as a self-confessed “super-lazy” musician, the discipline required to make songs for TV can give her much-needed motivation to continue on with her own work.
Even so, it’s still necessary to separate the two worlds, with Tanaka admitting that her own lyrics are often “filthy” — for all the whimsical charm of its melody, it’s hard to imagine a song like “You Make My Uterus Ache” pushing the right buttons for an ad campaign.
For years this kind of balance and separation has allowed musicians, writers and artists to make a living from their talents alongside their more personal endeavours. However, the more advertising comes to dominate — not just the revenue streams, but also the distribution and dissemination of music — the more difficult maintaining that separation becomes. The more the notion of “selling out” ceases to have any traction in the way we think about music, and the more the advertising industry’s conception of the artist as an essentially blank delivery platform for content becomes accepted as natural, the more an artist’s own work is diminished. That’s more damaging than any lefty rant by a rock star.