Few recent developments showcase the globalization of pop culture like an Indonesian artist covering an American pop hit in Japanese.
Singer Rainych Ran began uploading her covers of J-pop and anime songs to YouTube about five years ago, and while she received some attention over the years, nothing prepared her for the frenzy she experienced in 2020 after she tackled American singer Doja Cat’s chart-topping “Say So” in Japanese. Ran’s take became a viral hit, racking up millions of views on her YouTube channel and getting Doja Cat herself to geek out over the rendition on Instagram. (Ran’s video has over 22 million views at the time of writing.)
“When it happened, I thought it was doctored at first, like someone added a Doja Cat video with my cover,” Ran, 28, tells The Japan Times over Zoom from her home in Sumatra. “But that day a bunch of people on Twitter tagged me and congratulated me. So yeah, I guess it’s real! It was like, boom, that’s freaking awesome.”
Ran, who uses a pseudonym for privacy concerns related to her Islamic faith, says the success of her Japanese “Say So” and other covers opened up opportunities she never thought possible. She signed with Sony Music Japan last fall, the producer tofubeats remixed her Doja Cat interpretation, and she’s offering up more covers of on-trend city pop songs including, most recently, Tatsuro Yamashita’s “Ride On Time.”
The success of her YouTube channel, however, holds a greater lesson about how Japanese pop culture travels in the world today. After over a decade of government initiatives such as Cool Japan trying to capitalize on the country’s creative credit, creators like Ran show that fans celebrating Japanese pop culture in their own way is an effective form of cultural PR.
Ran was drawn to performing long before she became interested in Japanese pop culture, though.
“I first started singing when I entered school. Whenever the teacher asked ‘Who wants to sing?’ I’d raise my hand,” she says, noting that she mostly tackled children’s songs and traditional Malay numbers. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that she encountered anime and manga.
“I live in a small town, but we had one place that would lend out manga,” she says, adding that she soon became a fan.
Ran’s interest in Japan was kicked up a notch when she encountered Indonesia’s “utatte” (meaning, “sing”) community, in which singers cover songs originally performed by avatars for the singing-synthesizer software Vocaloid.
“Honestly, I didn’t know about Vocaloid until coming across this community thanks to friends. I enjoyed it and I tried to sing it,” she says. And so, her earliest uploads mostly comprised Japanese Vocaloid tunes, accompanied by stylized anime drawings.
“I don’t speak Japanese at all,” she says. “I just know the pronunciation through the music. I hear the music, and I try to imitate it.”
Ran’s approach to singing is to get a copy of the lyrics written out in romaji and sound them out. Besides Japanese and her native Indonesian, she’s also covered songs in Korean.
“If I don’t get (the language) right … I don’t want to offend people. That’s the hardest part,” she says. And while most of Ran’s viewers aren’t Japanese, a trend has recently popped up where people react to her clips and occasionally correct her pronunciation (though most responses praise both her musical and linguistic skills).
In addition to tackling foreign languages, Ran found showing herself on video to be a daunting task.
“I cringed just thinking about it,” she says with a laugh. But after telling herself that only 1,000 or so people would view the uploads, she released a rendition of the theme song to the anime “Dororo” with a clip of herself in early 2019.
That video pushed her channel to a whole new level. Ran’s uploads began attracting more views, with some covers racking up over a million hits. Being able to see Ran’s actual face made her more relatable to viewers who craved connection, a similar situation to one playing out simultaneously in Japan as more Vocaloid artists (such as Kenshi Yonezu and the members of Yoasobi) revealed what they look like en route to mainstream success.
While Ran’s anime and J-pop covers could have easily sustained a nice niche for the singer, her Japanese “Say So” opened up new possibilities, partially because it was released during an interesting period of online pop culture — funk-indebted Japanese music from the 1980s is currently enjoying a YouTube-powered revival.
“(The song) had this city pop energy,” she says. “I thought it would be cool to translate it into Japanese, so I got help from my friend.”
By tapping into the revived popularity of sounds from Japan’s bubble era, Ran found a new angle on a pop hit.
The singer says she doesn’t “see genre,” though, preferring to simply cover music that she likes. “But city pop does have a plus point as it’s music that can be enjoyed by both the older and younger generations,” she says. “Songs that can be heard together with our parents, I think that’s a positive.”
A burgeoning global interest in older Japanese music overseas may be one of the reasons why Sony Music Japan wants to work with Ran, turning to a creator with a unique spin on spreading Japanese pop culture via social media. Ran says her experience since signing with the label hasn’t changed much, as she still has the freedom to sing what she wants, but now she has a team that can help her navigate the potential pitfalls of copyright law.
Ran’s streak of successes, though, should teach Japan’s music industry about embracing the ways younger fans and artists around the world discover new artists and songs in modern times.
Ran points out one area where industry can do better, mentioning the many netizens re-uploading Japanese songs to YouTube.
“The labels keep deleting them, but people want to hear it and enjoy it,” she says. “The labels want to make money off of the music, but the uploader just likes the song and wants to share it. Easy access is really helpful for people around the world to be able to listen to these songs.”
If Ran’s foray into Japan is any indication, fan-centric change just might be underway.
For more information about Rainych Ran, visit www.sonymusic.co.jp/artist/rainych.
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