Music

Heisei offered a number of lessons J-pop artists should learn from going into the Reiwa Era

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

The past year in Japanese pop has felt like one big musical revue devoted to the Heisei Era (1989-2019), with TV shows reflecting on the biggest hits of that period. Now that Reiwa has finally started, the cultural discourse can turn to figuring out how this new period’s sound will come together.

Well, not quite yet. There are still a lot of lessons to be learned from the preceding period of music history that the young creators fated to define the future can turn to. What follows are the four big ones coming from this writer’s head.

Superstardom is changing

Oricon shared its end-of-Heisei charts in April and nobody would blame you for thinking they stopped keeping count sometime around 2005. Albums and singles from the 1990s dominate these final sales rankings, with a handful of early 2000s offerings placing highly as well. The only 2010s-centric inclusion is AKB48 as the second-best selling Heisei artist.

In its defense, the peak of the Japanese music industry came in 1999. That’s the year Hikaru Utada’s debut, “First Love,” cemented its status as the best-selling album in Japanese history, a title it doesn’t have to worry about defending. After “First Love,” few releases have broken into the Top 10 — save for subsequent Utada full-lengths and a couple of albums courtesy of Ayumi Hamasaki and Mai Kuraki.

Utada represents the peak of the Japanese music industry, an artist who still towers over the majority of J-pop 20 years later. There’s likely never going to be another performer like her. Anyone trying to make it in the Reiwa Era needs to avoid comparing themselves to Utada, Hamasaki or Kuraki. The era of the superstar — this omnipresent figure beloved by teens, parents and grandparents alike — has passed.

Blame this on internet fragmentation, the decreased value of music as a consumer good or even just general quality, but there’s no going back to the way it used to be. Already, younger artists making moves in the Japanese mainstream, like singer-songwriter Aimyon or punk-pop trio Wanima, do so in very defined corners. A lot of people love them, but your typical office worker might have zero idea who they are as they play “Automatic” for the millionth time on the train home.

So there’s no point in trying to replicate Heisei’s superstars’ success. The commercial landscape Utada could dominate has vanished, and young pop hopefuls should be more focused on navigating the sliced-up world of now, where streaming and YouTube and even Instagram are viable paths towards attention. Nobody can be everyone’s favorite, but they can certainly be someone’s favorite.

Everyone’s an idol (really)

Female idol music barely registered during the first decade of the Heisei Era. Then the cheery and upbeat outfit Morning Musume appeared, emerging from a televised talent competition. This marked the return of girl groups full of young women meant to connect on a more personal level with fans (but who could also easily be “graduated” out for new faces). Their 1999 single “Love Machine” ended up one of the period’s defining jams.

Since Morning Musume showed that female idol music still had pep, the style reached its logical end with the “idols you can meet” of AKB48 and the half decade in which the nation’s charts were crammed with various outfits mimicking them.

But as Reiwa starts, it’s important to keep in mind that all performers are idols now. Ian Martin wrote in The Japan Times back in 2013 that idol “fans and the group members take an emotional journey together,” an illusion for sure but a convincing one. This describes all pop in 2019, both in Japan and overseas. Artists are rarely ever just confined to music — they make TikTok memes, vlog, play video games while others watch and more. It’s about forging an intimate connection with supporters, a strategy Morning Musume turned out to be really ahead of the curve on.

Still, it’s important to keep in mind how toxic the word “idol” can be. Idol pop might have had booms and busts, but J-pop has always been occupied by performers taking moves from that niche, from electro-pop trio Perfume to the metal-injected Babymetal. But they all intentionally avoided using that word, because it conjures up images of no-dating policies, shaved heads and forced apologies. Keep the ethos, but dodge that word.

Zig when they zag

Denki Groove has been in the news for less-than-great reasons lately, but it has also offered an excuse to meditate on how weird it is that the group can even get this attention at all. Hunt down those CDs and listen to one of the more oddball projects to become a household name. It ignored pop trends of the 1990s in favor of embracing various strains of dance music and adding in lots of humor at a time when eye-rolling seriousness dominated. Denki Groove made wonked-out cartoon ending themes, and its biggest hit, “Shangri-La,” is a big tent version of a Bebu Silvetti track.

That’s just one of many examples of musicians during the Heisei Era finding success by avoiding dominant trends in favor of doing something totally different. It ranges from marquee names like Sheena Ringo embracing rock while everyone else was going for Tetsuya Komuro-ish dance-pop or American R&B, to hipper acts such as Pizzicato Five and Cornelius attracting a large following by digging into the cobweb-coated corners of record stores for ideas.

Or look at Perfume, who broke out in 2007 by using a super-busy electronic sound loaded up with churning bass and filtered vocals that sounded nothing like the generic ballads and rock clogging the charts. Perfume jumped out — a few years before the similarly maximalist sounds of EDM became a global phenomenon — and has built a long-lasting career that recently saw the group play well-reviewed sets at the Coachella music festival in California.

In the Reiwa Era, the ability to buck trends and find something original might prove to be even more essential to Japanese artists (and anyone on Earth craving attention). A recent music journalist talking point is that the sound of pop has gone international, with borders no longer an issue in a streaming landscape. The irony though is this has resulted in a lot of tracks sharing musical qualities. A lot of hits sound vaguely familiar everywhere — upbeat dance-pop spiked by hip-hop and featuring hooks that often avoid too many words. Trying something different at this moment could get Japanese acts looks from all over.

Consider Merzbow

Japanese music does “cult” better than anywhere else. Just zoom in on Merzbow, a long-running noise artist who creates something like a sonic dentist drill. The majority of people don’t know who Merzbow is and if they heard his music they’d assume they had been possessed by a malevolent spirit. But a dedicated following keeps up with all of his cacophony, hosting multiple podcasts about his discography and brushing their teeth at his concerts.

He’s an extreme case, but there’s a lesson in Merzbow’s following. The Heisei Era should be remembered as a time when Japanese cultural products like anime and cuisine established themselves on the global stage, particularly in the West. Japanese music failed spectacularly on this front, and this especially stings now, when so many non-English artists from Latin America and South Korea make inroads in the usually tough-to-break American market.

Few Heisei artists became mainstream forces in the States or other English-language-centric markets. But a lot connected with smaller audiences, and the variety of musicians finding a niche is impressive. Merzbow joined the noisy likes of Boredoms and Acid Mother’s Temple in making Japan’s louder experimental corners seem thrilling to foreign listeners, while relatively under-the-radar creatives like Boris and Shugo Tokumaru became critical darlings in Western media. Even slightly bigger names such asKyary Pamyu Pamyu and Babymetal found success abroad by connecting with smaller, dedicated followings (the surreal videos they made also helped).

Maybe Japanese acts have a tough climb to match K-pop outfit BTS’ success, but the ones willing to embrace the middle can still find success because Japan still has “cool” going for it (but not like “Cool Japan” cool). In the last year of Heisei, the rock group Chai became a critical favorite for sites like Pitchfork, while artists like Haru Nemuri and Otoboke Beaver attract fanbases that might be small but make up for their size in passion. This is Japanese music’s big advantage right now — J-pop acts can’t touch Western charts, but a larger pool of smaller artists can make inroads in a way South Korean or Latin indie acts can’t.

So think smaller, Reiwa acts! The upper echelons of global pop are occupied by about 17 artists anyway, so don’t waste time there when plenty of people want to find something different to celebrate. Be more like Merzbow and stick to finding your own sound, and the real hardcore supporters will track you down.