Japan’s pop music scene saw a power struggle in 2016

by

Special To The Japan Times

Meta

Media, both domestic and overseas, spent a lot of time focused on the streaming services arriving in Japan in 2016. Months of “Can these platforms thrive in CD-loving Japan?” speculation reached a climax in September, when global market leader Spotify finally debuted here. There was a big press conference, launch parties and one final flurry of articles pondering if this could be the sea change so many thirst for in the country’s music industry.

One problem, though — that shift already happened, via digital platforms that arrived in Japan years ago, and which became pop cultural forces over the course of this year.

There are two ways to look at the state of Japanese pop music over the past 12 months. On one hand, 2016 was a golden year for looking back and celebrating artists that exemplify the traditional power structures so many tech companies are trying to disrupt, highlighted by J-pop titan Hikaru Utada’s comeback and the drama-cum-mourning around the soon-to-disband outfit SMAP. You can’t find either of their albums on streaming services, and only snippets elsewhere online for that matter. In these cases, labels and talent agencies held all the power. Same as it ever was.

On the other hand, there has been a new wave of Japanese artists aware of (or lucky enough to benefit from) how younger listeners are drawn to music today. Early 20-somethings and teenagers aren’t rushing out to buy CDs — they can’t afford to drop ¥3,000 too frequently — and they aren’t fixated on sound alone. Rather, they gravitate toward video-sharing sites such as YouTube and MixChannel, where users just like them can create their own dances and silly clips set to the music they like. Online, the listener holds the power.

And in 2016, they helped oddballs like Pikotaro (he has a pen, he has an apple) and Taiiku Okazaki achieve viral success. Those in their late 20s and 30s still embraced the artists that were big during their younger years, but the burgeoning digital generation anointed their own pop stars through their own mediums, highlighted by the ever-chipper Kana Nishino and the disco-indebted Gen Hoshino.

It seemed at the onset of 2016 that this would be a year dominated by scandals. TV, print media and websites salivated over news centered around rumors of SMAP breaking up and Gesu no Kiwami Otome. vocalist Enon Kawatani’s affair with TV personality Becky.

But at the same time Kawatani was being skewered by the online masses and Becky was losing all her sponsorship deals, listeners flocked to a goofy EDM-influenced pop song called “Perfect Human,” performed by the group Radio Fish, which consists of comedy duo Oriental Radio and a troupe of dancers. The song itself was catchy, but every bit as important was the video on YouTube that showed the accompanying dance moves, which countless people imitated and reworked online. “Perfect Human” became an inescapable number at wedding parties and elementary school sports days (the videos of which were in turn uploaded to YouTube, in turn further spreading the song).

The idea of video sites creating musical trends is a relatively new proposition in Japan. Nico Nico Douga (now Niconico) incubated all sorts of artists not found in the mainstream in the mid-2000s, with some becoming so big they couldn’t be ignored (see Hatsune Miku and Vocaloid). And YouTube has been a go-to music destination for a few years now, playing a huge role in breaking artists such as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Babymetal to the world via their eye-catching music videos.

Yet viewers for those artists were mostly passive, content to let the weird-Japan goodness simply wash over them. In 2016, reaction and re-creation drove hits worldwide more than ever, and getting people to actively make their own versions of a video helped spread accompanying tracks even further. Dances (in the United States, see this year’s Running Man Challenge and anti-dance dance the Mannequin Challenge) and memes go a long way. Imitation is, after all, the highest form of flattery.

The J-pop act that was ahead of this contemporary digital trend isn’t known for being particularly populist. Super-sized idol outfit AKB48 reigned over the early years of the 2010s by targeting specific diehard fans who, in theory, would buy multiple copies of the same release for nonmusical reasons. But in 2013 AKB released the single “Koisuru Fortune Cookie,” a breezy bit of afternoon disco that came with an easy-to-do dance … and music videos encouraging people to make their own version of it. And they did, turning the song into one of the insular outfit’s biggest. It wasn’t the first dance craze to hit Japan — but certainly the first time a J-pop group used one to spark a meme online.

AKB itself went back to being a for-fans-only entity in 2016, but the now-it’s-your-turn vibe the group mastered on “Koisuru Fortune Cookie” graced some of this year’s biggest songs. “Perfect Human” for one, but kung-fu-inspired choreography helped turn electro-pop trio Perfume’s “Flash” into its most viewed clip on YouTube, with nearly 23 million views … and many fan attempts at their moves in its wake. It extended to nondance productions as well. Stout upcomer Taiiku Okazaki went viral with the music video for “Music Video,” a smart-ass number mocking the formulaic outline most J-pop clips follow. It has more than 15 million views and inspired users to make their own videos … featuring snippets of AKB48 and Perfume’s older videos, highlighting those groups’ unoriginality.

Of course, just like everywhere else in the world, Japan’s pop scene is deeply fragmented, and online hits only tell part of the story. Plenty didn’t change either. The best-selling album of the first half of 2016 came from Exile spin-off group Sandaime J Soul Brothers, who also boasted the best-selling album of 2015. Up-and-coming acts such as cero and Suiyoubi no Campanella — who initially gained attention online — pursued more traditional routes toward widespread popularity, appearing on variety shows and weekly music programs. The band Radwimps went from big to huge by providing music for the hit film “Your Name.” And the Oricon charts still counted plenty of idol groups and Johnny’s boy bands in its upper echelons.

The news in early August that Johnny’s flagship act SMAP would part ways at the end of the year serves as a convenient starting point for the back half of 2016. A 1990s revival of sorts was already well underway — young bands such as Suchmos gained attention by borrowing from artists like Jamiroquai, while Music Magazine published a “Top 100 Albums of the ’90s” list in its July issue — but word of SMAP’s inevitable dissolution led to what has felt like a months-long in-memorium segment.

Soon after, pop-punk outfit Hi-Standard released its first single in 16 years, “Another Starting Line,” which debuted on top of the weekly Oricon charts. Pioneering visual-kei group X Japan, meanwhile, released a celebratory documentary overseas looking back on its illustrious career.

This nostalgia reached an apex with the release of “Fantome,” Hikaru Utada’s sixth full-length and first release in six years, in September. It’s a mix of reflective ballads and bouncy pop numbers, and finds the singer-songwriter coming to terms with adulthood (an issue plenty of the fans who grew up with her music are also staring down). Utada simply isn’t reliving the past — “Fantome” features young performers Kohh and Nariaki “OBKR” Obukuro in a nod to the present — but many listeners were drawn to the album because it was Utada’s grand return after a hiatus. It topped the Oricon album charts for four straight weeks, and is among the year’s biggest titles.

Around the time of the release of “Fantome,” however, a song lasting less than a minute snatched a good deal of attention away from Utada — simply by combining pens with fruit. Pikotaro — the alter ego of comedian Kazuhito Kosaka — racked up millions upon millions of views online and set world records with the shortest song to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 with “PPAP,” the most viral song to ever come out of Japan. If Utada’s album was the old system at its most well-oiled — months of anticipation, strict promotional strategies, a ¥3,000 price tag — “PPAP” was the messy new digital age in all its glory: nonsensical, free and simple to loop.

And easy to do yourself. Before Justin Bieber tweeted about Pikotaro’s song — which caused it to blow up globally — Japanese teenagers turned it into a phenomenon on social networking site MixChannel, the most important platform in the country if you have any curiosity as to what younger listeners are into. Modeled after Vine, users upload all sorts of brief clips to the site, but the most popular tend to be short videos that feature their adolescent creators dancing to songs, ranging from K-pop jams to the ever-perky sounds of Nishino Kana, among others.

And they’re not just imitating their favorite stars, they’re creating their own elaborate choreography, shooting the video and editing it all on their own. As is often the case, technology made this change possible — teens use their smartphones to record themselves and edit it on free-to-use app Viva Video, making it possible to create a viral number on the train ride to school. A handful of MixChannel users have become popular entertainers in their own right, highlighted by the duo Macomina. Burgeoning stars or regular high school seniors, it doesn’t matter for J-pop artists, who can see their songs spread to new audiences — if the right people fancy it.

The increased relevance of YouTube and MixChannel have changed what songs get popular and how, but it doesn’t help fix an issue columnist Philip Brasor raised in The Japan Times last month — mainly, that “there is no national consensus on the year’s ‘best song’ as there was when everyone watched the same TV shows and adored the same singing stars.” Forget about “best” — even agreeing on the most popular tune of a given year has become difficult, with multiple charts and metrics to consult.

Yet one song, released right near the end of 2016, manages to touch on both the old and new ways pop music gets picked up in Japan, showing one way a song could feel universal in the fractured social media age. Gen Hoshino has been a rising star for quite some time now, but the song “Koi,” released in September, feels like his breakthrough. It’s a darty, disco-inspired dance number and serves as the theme song to the drama “Nigeru wa Haji Da ga Yaku ni Tatsu” starring Yui Aragaki and Hoshino himself, and there is nothing as classically J-pop as getting your song as the main theme to a popular show.

But the actual sequence on the show features a cute dance (choreographed by Mikiko, who also did the moves for Perfume’s “Flash,” equally popular video “Karate” by Babymetal and the Japanese portion of the closing ceremony at the Rio Olympics — nobody had a better year than her), one that has nabbed millions of views on its official upload and millions more on versions done by news announcers, comedians and (of course) teens drafting up their own moves on MixChannel. Hoshino’s clip for “Koi” itself already has more than 52 million views, the fastest pace for any music video released this year not featuring tropical fruit — and despite the official clip including a bona fide commercial smack dab in the middle!

It’s about as good a balance you’ll find in J-pop between label control and giving power to the fans, and domestic imprints would be wise to look closely at the success of “Koi,” as it hints at where the industry is heading. They need to be less controlling and let pop reach the young listeners who will embrace it most passionately, and create something new from it. Turns out they are the real paradigm shift the industry has been looking for.