The first half of 2017 hasn’t produced much in the way of compelling music stories in Japan. By this time last year, we were coming down from the Enon Kawatani-Becky affair, and behind-the-scenes intrigue was bubbling up around SMAP (who broke up at the end of the year). These past six months have been less scandalous, and the biggest buzz has centered on the ascendance of smooth rockers Suchmos and the return of mainstream idol armies in the form of Keyakizaka46.
The biggest surprise has been Austin Mahone. He’s a 21-year-old pop star from America who has succeeded in the Japanese market at a time when overseas music sales continue to fall. His track “Dirty Work” took No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Overseas chart, nudging out Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You,” and earned Mahone appearances on shows such as “Music Station.”
The surprise comes when you learn that “Dirty Work” actually came out two years ago. It dropped as a digital single in July 2015 to middling chart success in the States and zero attention in Japan.
The bizarre second life of “Dirty Work” is all thanks to comedian Blouson Chiemi, who used the song to soundtrack a popular routine she does.
“It’s so good to be a woman,” she starts, before the song kicks in and she lays out the benefits of being a career woman, and her view of the opposite sex. “Men are like gum,” Chiemi says, her delivery bouncing along with the beat. “Once they lose their flavor, you just get a new piece.”
She’s also flanked by two men in office clothes who discard of their threads soon into it. It’s a clever (dare I say progressive?) routine, especially in the world of TV comedy, and the bit has become the breakthrough comedy meme of the moment and inspired countless parodies and jokes online. Clips of Chiemi flexing over men on TV shows rack up hundreds of thousands of views when uploaded to YouTube, which illustrates the power the web has in building hype. But this is ultimately a success story firmly rooted in the old media powerhouse of television.
TV continues to be immensely influential when it comes to music, and with a few exceptions — Pikotaro’s “PPAP” being the clearest, though older folks still learned about it from traditional TV coverage — mainstream accessibility still hinges on the networks.
And comedians secretly serve as one of the key tastemakers in Japan. Mahone is making the most of this renewed interest, recently releasing a special remix featuring Chiemi. Maybe Western artists eyeing the Japanese market would be better off networking with variety show staples than those in the music industry — Mahone and Chiemi, Pikotaro and Justin Bieber, which pairing will hit it big next?