Unprecedented times lead to unexpected sights. In the throes of a pandemic, that means a Fuji Rock Festival lineup featuring … zero international acts.
A year after “postponing” (PR talk for “canceling”) one of Japan’s marquee summer music festivals due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizer Smash Japan is moving ahead with Fuji Rock 2021 from Aug. 20 to 22 at the Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture. It won’t be like any previous edition of the event: Attendance will be limited and those who show up must use a special app to register personal information. Various other anti-infection measures are set to be implemented — so bring lots of masks and prepare to have booze sales stopped early in the day.
Seeing if Smash can pull off Fuji Rock during a pandemic in a country where general vaccinations will still be nascent come the summer (maybe convert some beer stalls into Pfizer booths?) is the biggest storyline to watch. For music fans, however, the most significant change comes from the all-domestic lineup, spurred by the inability of foreign acts to enter Japan this summer.
Smash recently shared the first wave of artists to perform over the three-day gathering, headlined by rock groups Radwimps and King Gnu on Friday and Saturday respectively, with dance-pop duo and Fuji Rock staple Denki Groove taking center stage Sunday night. Going down the bill sees Fuji Rock living up to its name, with guitar-heavy bands Man With A Mission, Chai, Okamoto’s and envy all set to perform.
The festival has made space for big-name domestic acts every year since starting in 1997, but the hype has always surrounded the international acts. The 2021 edition will force Smash to curate a different kind of event and, if done correctly, could help to show festival regulars — and concert-starved fans overseas — a rich variety of Japanese music.
So far, Smash has done well at presenting a sonically diverse set of performers. The trio of headliners follows a pattern that the festival leans on for its foreign acts: Radwimps represent A-list rock, Denki Groove fills the electronic headliner spot, and King Gnu spotlights an on-the-rise heavyweight with a rawer style and great backstory (the quartet is the first headline act to have started out on the indie-focused Rookie A Go-Go stage).
Moving down the lineup gets even more interesting, though. Rock dominates, as it tends to in Japan, but there’s a good variety of it, from eclectic trio cero to laid-back project Tendre to the more raucous stylings of The Birthday. Smash has also put an emphasis on rap (the Summit crew, Tha Blue Herb and Kid Fresino among others) while finding space for electro-tinged R&B (Sirup), jazzy pop intricacies (Kan Sano) and genre-decimating “hyperpop” (4s4ki).
It’s a solid start (additions to the lineup will trickle out over the next few months), and ideally Smash would take this situation as a chance to go even deeper into contemporary Japanese music. Fuji Rock has long done the best job of any major summer festival at spotlighting independent and off-beat Japanese creators, and it can devote a lot of space in 2021 to celebrating interesting artists from across the spectrum rather than load up on major-label stars.
Just as importantly, if Smash can set up a good way of broadcasting this year’s festival beyond Japan, it could establish Fuji Rock as the main gateway to a good chunk of pop culture in Japan. Things have been heading this way in recent years, with livestreams broadcast in tandem with the event. Additionally, strong English coverage could boost Japan’s musical reputation for when the world is ready to embark on a post-pandemic party.
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