There’s nothing complicated about The First Take, and perhaps that’s why it has become an online hit. A notable Japanese musician enters a sparse room, banters with the crew and performs a song in front of a high-end microphone in one take.
This straightforward concept has resulted in a YouTube channel with more than 720,000 subscribers, and uploads that routinely reel in more than 1 million views. While it launched in November 2019, The First Take has emerged as a reliable source of entertainment during the COVID-19 pandemic, with new videos premiering every Friday night.
It also offers a snapshot of what Japanese listeners want from music in 2020. Slick, manicured pop is out and authenticity — or at least the veneer of authenticity — is in.
The channel’s inaugural performance came from singer-songwriter adieu, but its breakout clip came a few weeks later, when the popular performer and anime music staple Lisa stopped by to deliver a vocal workout. That one had more than 34 million views at the time of writing and, since then, notable names such as Little Glee Monster, Miliyah Kato and a member of the band Kana-Boon have appeared.
The First Take’s charm lies in how it aims to capture a purer type of performance, with one of its slogans proclaiming, “What is music. Capturing the essence. In one take only.” This mission statement recalls the early days of YouTube when the most celebrated musical performances were of people strumming on guitars or belting out covers in their living rooms.
While Justin Bieber was being discovered on YouTube, however, J-pop was far more controlled. Female idol groups such as AKB48 prioritized personal connections with fans, taking supporters on a company-approved journey. The members of male outfits, such as Exile and the K-pop acts that swept the nation around the same time, were idols put on pedestals, their image micro-managed by labels. The music itself could be fantastic, but it wasn’t one person or one group’s independent artistic vision.
People seem to have tired of this approach and in recent years Japanese fans have gravitated toward the struggle of a singer-songwriter trying to make their vision come true. Aimyon presents herself as less sleek than her predecessors, and Kenshi Yonezu and Hoshino Gen boast a similar troubadour vibe. Authenticity is winning out over fantasy.
However, it seems the fantasy is authenticity. Like any major-label artist of the past, there are teams of sound engineers and PR agents behind each one of them, trying to make the artist’s vision a reality. The First Take captures this well. It clearly has some financial backing behind it — nobody just stumbles into a room of quality microphones and camera equipment — but that’s not a concern for its viewers. They want the impression of authenticity in art, but don’t seem hellbent on the real thing. For now, whatever pushes a new crop of performers into our musical diets may be the only takeaway we need.