From mod rockers The Who covering the “Batman” theme, through punk pranksters The Dickies taking on The Banana Splits, to former Megadeth shredder-in-chief Marty Friedman’s transformation into J-pop svengali, there has always been a flirtation between the fiercer and heavier outposts of music and its trashy, bubble-gum fringes.
The punk cover is a staple of the genre, but it can often be blighted by hamfisted irony, even more hamfisted commercialism, or both. However, a lot of it is thoroughly sincere, and in Japan, the burning heart of this love affair is Momoiro Clover Z, a pop group who provoke squealing, teenage admiration from punks, indie kids, noise musicians and heavy-psychedelic longhairs throughout the Japanese underground music scene.
One such progressive rocker is Taigen Kawabe of U.K.-based psychedelic band Bo Ningen. More often seen in Tokyo playing alongside noise legends such as Keiji Haino, Kawabe’s page on the website SoundCloud leads off with a curious mashup of his own band and Momioro Clover Z in which the former band’s shifts in rhythm match surprisingly well with the idol group’s distinctive penchant for chopping aggressively (and sometimes illogically) between seemingly unconnected melodies.
“Key to the appeal of idol music for noise or punk acts may be that both types share a kind of anarchic energy,” Kawabe theorizes.
Youth is the key to that energy, and the appeal of an idol lies in how convincingly they can capture and re-create an illusory sense of that youthful exuberance. Bo Ningen is currently working on a collaboration with another idol group, Dempa Gumi inc., and Kawabe believes their situation is instructive.
“They’re older than Momoiro Clover but they have a similar approach,” he explains. “In their case it’s quite striking because they all used to be social shut-ins and couldn’t use their youth, so they’re sharing with their otaku (geekish obsessive) fans this re-enactment, trying to reclaim their youth. In their case, idol music is like a time machine.”
For an experimental musician, used to thinking seriously and deeply about music, the childlike abandon that idol music re-creates acts as both liberation from this more analytical mindset and from some of the strictures that get built up around certain scenes. Put simply, it can be an instinctive reaction against underground music’s inherent snobbery.
It’s more than that though. I would say that nearly any kind of fringe music requires an obsessive mindset, and one sort of obsessive geekery can easily transfer onto another. Political obsessions led Bo Ningen’s forebears like Hadaka no Rallizes and Zunou Keisatsu into the arms of extremist leftwing politics with catastrophic results, but in a curious coincidence, the depoliticization of Japanese youth throughout the 1970s coincided with the birth of the idol as a force in pop culture, which when combined with the nascent otaku movement of the early ’80s led to the creation of a whole new receptacle for these obsessive tendencies.
None of this, however, would mean anything without the music. Producers such as Kenichi “Hyadain” Maeyamada and metal-influenced rock band Coaltar of the Deepers’ Narasaki, both of whom work with Momoiro Clover Z, are already from an alternative background and they undoubtedly bring that need to challenge boundaries to their idol-music work, too. Even if you think the result sounds horrible, it is progressive in its own way, and the idols that get the most attention from the experimental fringes tend to be the more musically ambitious ones.
Interestingly, Momioro Clover’s recent single, “Roudou Sanka,” written by Ian Parton of British band The Go! Team, met with criticism from some fans for being too commercial, and the Hyadain-produced (and Friedman-enhanced) followup, the elaborately titled “Mouretsu Uchuu Koukyoukyoku Dainana Gakushou”, is defiantly back in the group’s previous furious conceptual mashup territory, suggesting on the one hand that the group’s popularity lies in their disdain for convention, and on the other that Hyadain’s style may itself have become a formula.
Kawabe dismisses AKB48 instantly as “regressive,” citing Perfume and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu as performers whose work, while squarely mainstream, nonetheless contains elements that challenge the musical status quo. Actually, Perfume famously bumped up against the music industry’s prejudices when producer Yasutaka Nakata was asked to remove the only section of the song “Polyrhythm” that actually contained a polyrhythm, only for the full mix of the song to become the group’s first smash hit.
“In a way, idol music nowadays is on the cutting edge of what (mainstream) Japanese people like,” Kawabe says. “The producers may have backgrounds in other genres or take influences from other sources. In fact, idol music’s background gives you access to a wide range of music. What attracts me is that you might find noise music hiding in idol music or idol music hiding in noise.”
He cites noise legend Merzbow’s “Yumin, Non Stop Disco”, a track formed of distorted samples from the poppy early work of singer Yumi Matsutoya, as an example of how this can happen.
Irony and wilful contrarianism probably do play a part, although I suspect not as much as you might think. In a way it’s obvious that musicians, whose own work is characterized by an exploration of musical extremes will be attracted to music that pushes the opposite extreme. And if there are five pretty girls in color-coded dresses dancing in front of it, well, I doubt they’re complaining.