Music is often characterized over-simplistically as a battle between rock and pop, seriousness and fun, but the two are always in an ever-shifting balance. With this column coming to the end of its six-year run, it feels timely to cast a look back — and perhaps also a hopeful eye forward — over the changing state of music in Japan.
Fashion in both the mainstream and indie music scenes rarely moves in sync, but a common feature of both is that they ebb and flow according to tidal patterns of their own.
The frilly, juvenile pop of the ’80s gave way to the more consciously grown-up dance music and album-oriented-rock-influenced J-pop groups of the ’90s, which in turn gave way to the R&B-influenced sounds of solo artists such as Hikaru Utada at the turn of the millennium.
Trends in indie music have proven harder to track as the scene has become more diverse. At the turn of the millennium, the style-conscious cut-and-paste indie pop known as Shibuya-kei was giving way to a generation of bands drawing on ’90s alt-rock under the influence of new stars such as Quruli, Number Girl and Shiina Ringo.
Over the past 10 years or so, a curious convergence has occurred, with the growing influence of idol music an easily observable change in both the mainstream and underground music scenes. The roots of this convergence are complex, but it really began in earnest with Perfume and the trio’s producer, Yasutaka Nakata. Despite having ties to major labels, Nakata had a certain status in the indie scene thanks to his work with the Shibuya-kei revivalist duo Capsule. Perfume, meanwhile, were an unremarkable idol trio out of the Actors School Hiroshima stage school boot camp. When Nakata was brought in as their producer, however, he swiftly reinvented them, guiding them through various hip musical touchstones toward the electro-pop sound that soon became their signature.
In the indie scene at this time, important alt-rock bands such as Supercar and Number Girl had split up, while Shiina Ringo had subsumed her identity into the band Tokyo Jihen and was drifting into jazz. In Tokyo, the musical offspring of these stars were getting low on energy and high on tuneless, self-obsessed yowling. More exciting bands from the Kansai area in western Japan such as Afrirampo and Oshiripenpenz had proven far too weird and crashed to earth against a wall of commercial indifference.
Into this environment, Perfume arrived like a laser beam of bright, up-tempo pop glamour. Their songs infiltrated indie DJ sets first with an edge of shy irony and then, following the arrival of more sophisticated songs like 2007’s “Polyrhythm”, with a more profound appreciation. This was pop music — idol music even — but it felt like it was for “us.”
Queen bee idol collectives such as AKB48 and their spawn have never needed to be cool because they were actually popular. For others, however, Perfume offered an alternative path to success by courting indie or subcultural credibility en route to capturing more conventional audiences. It was a technique soon mimicked by others, including Momoiro Clover Z, Dempagumi.inc and Babymetal.
For many in Japan’s various underground scenes, the way the aforementioned groups nodded to their own particular subcultures while at the same time channeling it into dizzy pop thrills felt like a necessary corrective to the bog of drab earnestness indie music had fallen into. If it felt a bit shallow, who cared? What’s wrong with music being fun?
By 2011, idol music was surging both commercially and creatively, K-pop was bringing its own brand of electro-glamour to the charts, while the Perfume-Capsule axis was at its hedonistic dance floor peak. And it might not be a total coincidence that this explosion of frivolity occurred in the same year the tsunami struck the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. People had been shaken, both literally and emotionally by the disaster, and there was a palpable need — a desperation almost — among the inhabitants of Tokyo’s dance floors to lose themselves in something simple, trashy and fun.
The tides keep changing, though, and it’s inevitable that a shift so far in one direction will provoke at least some sort of reaction back in the other. A powerful symbol of such a move away from frivolity may have come in 2016 with the return to the limelight of Utada.
Utada’s album “Fantome” wasn’t the best-selling album of the year — acts from the Johnny & Associates and Exile boy band factories kept her in third place in the 2016 Oricon CD sales rankings. However, the rush of interest it generated was a rare expression in the mainstream of a need for something a little more substantial.
Nowadays, CD sales are increasingly an anachronism, increasingly gamed by idol groups as a medium for transactions that have only tangential relevance to music. However, among the kinds of young people who don’t own CD players and whose music consumption patterns companies such as Oricon don’t even have the capacity to measure — live performances, streaming, vinyl, cassettes — the indie scene’s love affair with idols is coming to an end and “idol” is once again becoming a dirty word.
The SEALDs student protest group and the “Don’t Trash Your Vote” campaign for the 2016 elections may have had only limited impact on a national scale, but both featured a visible presence of young musicians and other creative types. One effect of this has been the settling of a more sober, more politically conscious tone over those live venues and clubs where young people still congregate.
The slow-burning rise of the difficult-to-define psuedo-genre of city pop also suggests a shift away from the high-energy cheerleading of the contemporary pop scene in the proliferation of easygoing funk rhythms and nostalgic washes of ’80s synths that it often throws up.
Meanwhile, darker, more confrontational musical genres have attracted growing interest from young audiences. The “Provoke” compilation album released in summer 2016 featured seven fiercely gloomy, gothic-influenced post-punk bands, including Burgh, Qujaku, Klan Aileen and Douglas. Similarly, bands such as 5000 and Elephant Noiz Kashimashi may be only tiny glimmers in the broader picture, but they have given a youthful shot in the arm to the hardcore and noise scenes respectively.
Of perhaps wider significance, there has been a turn full circle by many bands back toward the same 1990s alt-rock influences that powered the success of Number Girl and Quruli around the turn of the millennium. Kumagusu recall the quirky rock shapes of Pavement as well as the more melodramatic flourishes of older bands such as Television, while band names like Bulbs of Passion and Hello Hawk consciously reference Dinosaur Jr. and Superchunk. Shambolic power trio Minor Toast, meanwhile, may nod toward Minor Threat with their name, but their bubble gum-grunge sound is more at home in the ’90s.
Even among idols, whose forebears such as Perfume and Dempagumi.inc gave the indie scene its big sugar rush back in the late 2000s/early 2010s, those who retain the strongest buzz among underground audiences are those such as Avandoned and Maison Book Girl who trade most strongly on an aura of indie authenticity, or like Tentenko, who have abandoned pop wholesale for the avant-garde.
If this were just the swing of a pendulum back toward ponderous seriousness, this would perhaps not be quite the sort of hopeful future we could all enthusiastically cheer for. If we criticize idol music for its commercialism and sexual exploitation, let’s not also dismiss the powerful reminder it provided to musicians not to take themselves too seriously.
Among the new artists creating a mainstream buzz in recent years, dance-pop unit Suiyobi no Campanella has gained success, defying J-pop musical formulae without compromising their essential upbeat silliness. In fact, the way they have achieved success by making their distinctiveness their key selling point makes them far more interesting as a mainstream phenomenon than they ever really were as an ambitious, shrewdly managed indie act.
Whether challenging conventions, inventing new genres, reviving old traditions or importing new ideas from overseas, both pop and underground music have always been at their best when they look at their world and imagine how it could be different, and at their worst when they accept the status quo as inevitable.
Regardless of whether you characterize it as rock or pop, what links the little sparks of change detailed here isn’t so much a turn for the downbeat as a growing hunger for artistry and distinctiveness. It may be a utopian dream, but it’s in this that real hope for the future of Japanese music lies.
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