The music industry in Japan has long been seen as lagging behind the times. Once every six months there is an article that marvels at the supremacy of CDs, and new albums from acts that were big in the 1990s tend to dominate charts alongside idol-pop groups that few would label “musically progressive.”
Despite the news, however, overall music sales continue to drop year after year. Record labels are responding with what they know works, which in 2015 turned out to be yet another Dreams Come True “Best Of” album.
This year, though, saw a welcome disruption in the domestic market. Younger listeners strongly asserted their tastes and helped push earnest rock bands such as Gesu no Kiwami Otome. and Sekai no Owari, and pop group E-girls further into the spotlight.
The past 12 months saw the entertainment industry follow suit with teenagers and young 20-somethings — dare we say, “millennials” — prompting a change in the stale mainstream music landscape, both in terms of music and aesthetics.
Gesu, the year’s biggest surprise, reflects this development best. The quartet plays rock songs that sound a galaxy away from teenager-courting boy bands Arashi and Exile, and are just as distant from arena mainstays such as Bump of Chicken or B’z. Gesu’s breakout single, “Watashi Igai Watashi Janai No,” is a tight pop song written by someone who clearly went through intense jazz and prog phases, and is peppered with existential musings about the self. And, once its success pushed the group onto TV, Gesu looked different than the usual music-dabbling tarento (media personalities) that populate the variety shows. Here were four people awkwardly trying to adjust to banal chit-chat, like they were wearing suits three sizes too big.
The scope of Gesu’s star turn, though, wouldn’t have been as clear if you only looked at the country’s mainstream music charts, which is a reflection of just how this new generation is catapulting forward. This year highlighted the futility of trying to divine any coherent picture of the J-pop landscape from traditional rankings. The Oricon music chart — which only counts physical units sold — has been broken for years, gamed by groups exploiting hard-core fans who are willing to buy multiple copies of a single or album. Online retailers Recochoku and iTunes offered a different perspective, but the ad-backed arrival of streaming music services such as Line Music and Apple Music only muddied the water further.
Gesu’s singles achieved modest success on Oricon, and better results on online charts, but the band is taking off on YouTube, where young folk turn for their music nowadays. Thus Japanese artists who are Internet savvy have been connecting to a new generation of fans. Gesu might be the most visible of these acts, but rock outfits such as Kana-Boon, One OK Rock and Kyuso Nekokami are using digital spaces and viral-ready videos to their advantage. In 2015, native YouTube talent even began crossing over, highlighted most clearly by the singer-songwriter Maco. She racked up millions of views online thanks to Japanese covers of Western pop hits, but now releases strong-selling albums via Universal Music Japan.
While a lot changed, 2015 wasn’t a total paradigm shift either. Familiar names still thrive, though many wised up to the altered landscape. Namie Amuro went all in on EDM (electronic dance music) sounds and came out a winner, as did Exile-family project Sandaime J Soul Brothers. However, boy-band factory Johnny’s & Associates kept chugging along as if 1996 had never ended, keeping their roster of artists off YouTube (and the Internet almost entirely — check out the Arashi section on Tower Records’ website), and restricting press and fan access to their stable of moneymakers. Of course, the groups that Johnny’s sells aren’t strictly musical outfits, but rather personality-driven projects that, in the grand history of everyone from New Kids On The Block to One Direction, appeal to young women for reasons well beyond just music.
The state of girl groups in 2015, however, says more about what is definitely changing in pop. The past few years saw music consumed by an idol-pop boom that was ushered in by AKB48’s massive success and a resulting rush of peppy copycats. This period was one of a sagging music industry waving the white flag, banking on outfits that appeal to a rabid, but ultimately limited, audience. For a while, AKB48 and its ilk were inescapable in ads and on TV, regardless of how weirded out general consumers might have been by no-dating policies and the head-shaving incidents that followed.
When a man attacked two members of AKB48 with a saw at a meet-and-greet event in 2014, however, it seemed to trigger a change in popular opinion. Prominent names in the art world such as Sheena Ringo and Masaya Nakahara criticized the group (the latter dubbing them “child pornography”), while a January rumor of an AKB48 supergroup called “Japan48” performing at the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was met with backlash from Japanese netizens. Popular TV personality Matsuko Deluxe even called the idea “embarrassing” on a popular radio program. The report on the Olympic gig was totally unfounded, but it was met with surprisingly intense pushback.
Which isn’t to say AKB48 have vanished. Rather, idol music reverted to a place where the AKB franchise remains a strong seller, but off in its own corner, with a few groups such as Dempagumi.inc getting mainstream looks while dozens of alternative idols work away in the shadows. A lot of groups ripped off their “idol” tag. Viral sensation Babymetal avoided that word while making the most of its remaining time in the international limelight, while Tokyo Girls’ Style — J-pop label Avex’s answer to the then-emerging idol boom — also distanced itself from that scene.
E-girls, another Avex outfit and part of the Exile clan, read like an idol-boom-era creation with its 19 members, but achieved huge success by rejecting every tenet of that world. Instead of schoolgirl uniforms, the members wear fashionable, age-appropriate clothes. Their music takes cues from R&B and EDM, boasting more in common with sleek Korean pop than anything originating out of Akihabara. And, in a stroke of genius, they weren’t marketed to middle-aged men. Rather, they are a girl group intended for actual girls.
Avex’s strategy has made E-girls one of the big success stories in 2015. Their January full-length album, “E.G. Time,” topped Oricon and did well with digital sales, while subsequent videos scored millions of views on (surprise) YouTube. Instead of milking a niche fan base for all its dough, E-girls aimed to reach as many fans as possible by making songs in touch with contemporary global trends and about issues listeners could relate to — crushes, friendship and awkward high school reunions.
Ultimately, those were the winners from the 2015 musical shift. Some of the most anticipated and attended shows by non-Japanese artists came courtesy of Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Zedd, performers who touch on things young people around the globe relate to (or at least think are cool).
The latter two packed crowds in at the Tokyo leg of Summer Sonic, which highlighted a harsh reality of how to run a successful music festival in Japan nowadays: be close to a major city. Youth dominated at Summer Sonic, along with the EDM-centric Ultra Japan festival held in Tokyo’s Odaiba district and the domestic-focused Rock In Japan Fest, a pain-in-the-ass train ride away, but still just a day trip.
While these easily accessible gatherings flourished, July’s Fuji Rock Festival felt like an escape for Generation X. Smash, the organizers behind the event, tried to lure in a more fresh-faced crowd by including buzzed-about domestic acts (Gesu, One OK Rock, [Alexandros]), but the reality of spending nearly ¥100,000 and probably having to take two days away from work trumps seeing a band who will probably play eight smaller festivals a train ride away.
Life seems pretty tough overall for the younger generations coming of age in Japan, and it looks like they will never enjoy their own decadent bubble era — at this point, being able to buy a car might be good enough. Yet the music they’ve embraced exudes earnestness and naive optimism, ranging from the chaotic fun of Kyuso Nekokami to the upbeat vibes of actor-songwriter Gen Hoshino, who scored a hit with the bright and bubbly disco-pop song “Sun.”
No band, however, captured (or benefitted from) the mood of Japanese millennials like Sekai no Owari. The group has been gaining steam for the past few years, but 2015 saw it established as a top-level band — arguably the country’s biggest. Sekai no Owari’s second full-length album, “Tree,” moved 247,964 copies in its first week. The four-piece landed the theme song for this year’s “Attack On Titan” live-action movie, and has grown so popular that it was able to hold its own mini-festival at Yokohama’s Nissan Stadium — a two-day event that sold out.
This success, though, hasn’t been welcomed by everyone, particularly the denizens of Japan’s most cynical online destination: message board 2chan. They accuse the group’s lyrics of being embarrassingly teenage, which isn’t an unfounded criticism — they’ve got everything from vague pondering about war to poetic ruminations about a brighter tomorrow. Sekai no Owari’s biggest song of 2015, “Dragon Night,” combines all of those things together along with lines about “firebirds” and dancing all night with best friends, backed by an EDM thump provided by Dutch producer Nicky Romero.
And it is all very youthful in nature — did I mention one member of the group is a DJ wearing a clown mask? — but that’s the point. Sekai no Owari make music for a new decade of Japanese listeners, who have been dealt pretty lame cards, but who remain upbeat about the future. And that’s reflected in the existential musings of Gesu and the simple-pleasure pop of E-girls and in most of the music racking up the views on YouTube. These artists might not speak to everyone, but that fact — along with the generational friction they generate — showed that even the most stubborn musical markets can change eventually.