The “33⅓” series of books is unusual, in that each of its volumes indulges obsessive fandom — both for the writers and readers — while also providing a solid read for the layman.
Fantasma, by Martin Roberts.
Both part of the
BLOOMSBURY ACADEMIC, Music.
Started in 2003, the collection has seen well over 100 writers dissect and analyze classic albums, from Radiohead’s “OK Computer” and R.E.M.’s “Murmur” to Madness’ “One Step Beyond” and Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew.”
The concept seems to be that as long as someone is passionate enough to write an interesting account of an album’s background, writing, performance, release and legacy, then Bloomsbury (which acquired the series from its original publisher, Continuum) will put it in print. This has led some more surprising “classics” being written about. New Kids on the Block’s “Hangin’ Tough,” anyone?
However, apart from a single entry — Koji Kondo’s soundtrack to the first Super Mario Bros. game — Japanese music didn’t feature in the collection. That wrong was righted in 2017, with the launch of “33 ⅓ Japan,” a subseries dedicated to Japanese albums.
There are currently six books available and another two scheduled for future release. And it’s just as diverse a mix as the main series.
Each is written by a fan, or fans — and these are not just casual listeners. Some serious knowledge and passion has gone into these books. Martin Roberts, author of the book on Cornelius’ “Fantasma,” is a professor who has written on Japanese pop culture. Patrick St. Michel, who has written about Perfume’s “Game,” is a prolific J-pop and entertainment writer for The Japan Times. Patrick W. Galbraith and Jason G. Karlin, co-authors of a book on AKB48, are professors lecturing in Japan.
As a result, each book reads in part like an academic study, full of theories and background, and in part like a surgical report, full of facts and figures, dates and names. But, unlike an academic piece, these books are engaging and, at a little over 100 pages each for the main text, fairly easygoing.
While this year is set to bring us an installment on Nenes’ “Koza Dabasa,” and Shonen Knife’s “Happy Hour” following at an unspecified date, the past six months have seen the release of books on AKB48 (an exception, covering a group rather than an album), Cornelius’ “Fantasma” and Joe Hisaishi’s “My Neighbor Totoro” soundtrack. I selected “AKB48” and “Fantasma” for a couple of lunch break reads.
From the outset, Galbraith and Karlin’s book is laid out like a formal study, but the language is accessible enough to keep you interested. And you will be. Whatever you thought you knew about AKB48, I can guarantee it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The volume starts with a general outline of Japan’s idol factory. We learn that AKB48 is really nothing new, rather just a ramped up take on an idea that has been gracing Japan’s charts and television screens since the 1970s. AKB48 is a moneymaking enterprise, of course, but as you read through the first few chapters you see just how clinical and planned out it all is.
While it’s easy enough to dismiss the lack of song-writing ability, the perfectly groomed appearances and the plastered-on smiles, it’s much harder to get to grips with the more sinister side of the group put forward by the two authors — the sexualization of Japan’s youth, the drooling middle-aged men who perpetuate it and the rumored links to organized crime.
Galbraith and Karlin write with authority, and everything is backed up and cited, with not a hint of sensationalizing. Just the real, yet often unbelievable, highs and lows faced by 48 young women in Japan and their sister groups across Asia.
Moving onto something a little less ubiquitous and a little more upbeat — Roberts’ account of Cornelius’ third studio record, which begins with the author detailing his own discovery of the artist and the album. He goes on to describe the background to its release alongside its visual and aural appeal and its place in the popular but litigious world of sampling.
What Roberts presents is a personal, yet professional, account of the intricacies of “Fantasma,” and he is careful to include its expanded rerelease along with details of instruments used on the album and comparisons with other artists. A whole chapter is dedicated to perceived similarities with The Beach Boys, while another makes comparisons with the music of American cartoons of the 1950s.
Roberts’ style is different to the “AKB48” authors, in that he allows his own voice to seep through, in a tone more befitting of other books in the main “33 ⅓” series. As a result, it’s less academic and more informal — but no less knowledgeable.
The thing with both of these books, and the thing that I would offer as their key selling point, is that they’re nerdy, but they’re not exclusive, having been written by enthusiasts who feel no need to be condescending. Both a fan and a newcomer could pick one up, learn something new and be thoroughly entertained.
And if that style of writing appeals to you, then here I should tell you that 33⅓ Japan accepts pitches, so open up your laptop, pick your favorite Japanese album and get researching.