Earlier this month, one of the biggest musical moments of the year was honored with the No. 2 spot on the year-end ranking of New Words and Buzzwords Awards. The word, “usseewa,” translates as “shut up” in English but, when you nail the accent right, can sound more like “shut the f— up,” and it was the title of a song by teenage musician Ado.
For a society still in the throes of a pandemic, the track served as a roundhouse kick aimed at, well, whoever was closest. It was released in late 2020 but rose to prominence in 2021 as COVID-19 robbed Japanese youth of everything from gainful employment to wild nights out in Tokyo. Forgive them for the need to let off some steam.
J-pop in general didn’t quite follow Ado’s call to rage against the routine. But as COVID-19 cases shot to record highs thanks to the delta variant, the industry was left to figure out how to live with the “new normal.” Festivals like Fuji Rock and Supersonic held scaled-down shows, while the majority, like Rock in Japan, had to cancel for the second year in a row.
Everyone in entertainment was learning to adjust this year, and those in music were doing so after what turned out to be a pretty pivotal year for Japanese pop. The digital-first path charted in 2020 by breakout acts such as Yoasobi and NiziU, who used nontraditional platforms such as YouTube, Spotify and TikTok to achieve stardom, was one that older artists jumped on in 2021. Pay attention, Western writers: The narrative of CDs dominating the Japanese market is obsolete, J-pop has accepted our streaming reality. And with live shows largely off the table for most of the year, the internet remained at the center of the music world.
Looking at the lineup for YouTube channel The First Take shows how the old guard is getting on board with new digital opportunities. The site, which gets musicians to perform one of their songs in a single take, was known as a tastemaker for up-and-coming acts. Recently, however, it has seen visits from J-rock behemoths Glay, Tomoyasu Hotei and Porno Graffitti looking to show they are still with it.
Even now, one of the most discussed music topics recently has been rock band Sakanaction’s latest web-only live show. Neat … but not exactly groundbreaking anymore.
Still, that’s not a criticism. We’re all in a state of “languishing,” and everyone deserves some time to adjust. What might be more interesting is looking at the year in music through a fuzzy, emotional lens — Ado’s angry outburst wasn’t the only “feel” of 2021.
Break from reality
Who didn’t want to escape 2021? If a quest for the opposite of reality was what you were looking for then K-pop had you covered, offering positive vibes for a Japanese — and global — audience that felt completely untethered to life under year No. 2 of the pandemic.
Going by numerous chart rankings and subscription streaming tallies, BTS towered over Japan’s pop scene. The smooth funk of “Butter” wasn’t just a digital success, but omnipresent on TV shows, YouTube dance tutorials and TikTok uploads. Subsequent single “Permission To Dance” performed almost as well, and the group topped it all off by releasing its first best-of album in Japan, which became one of the year’s best-selling longplayers (in part because it came out in nine different physical versions, reminding us of how well K-pop has adapted to its neighbor’s market by embracing sales models pioneered by AKB48).
This optimism — which borders on the delusional, the video for “Permission To Dance” crescendoes with shots of people gleefully pulling off face masks, now a fever dream in the face of omicron — was exactly the type of fantasy people were craving, even in a relatively unscathed Japan. Besides BTS, fellow K-pop groups Seventeen and Twice continued to perform well by serving up their own escapist bops.
They were joined by a new generation of hybrid acts consisting primarily of Japanese members but with some involvement from South Korean entertainment companies in the guise of JO1, NiziU and INI. The music and moves from these projects built up from what has turned K-pop into a global force and that influence trickled down to groups such as BE:FIRST, a buzzed-about outfit born from a Hulu competition series with no connections to any Korean entity.
Of course, the Johnny & Associates pop family remained central to the music discourse, but this year saw an agency that was once extremely controlling and closed-off continue to loosen up. It launched an English-language Twitter account and further embraced YouTube as both a distribution platform and way to showcase their performers’ personalities (Johnny’s even plans to launch a gaming channel in January). This new approach coincided with the rise of a fresh set of names such as Snow Man, King & Prince and Naniwa Danshi popping into our mentions.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is a slew of artists who got even more emotional in their songwriting. Spurred on by the success of its 2020 hit “Yoru ni Kakeru,” a deceptively uptempo song concealing lyrics about throwing yourself off the top of a building, Yoasobi continued keeping it real.
The duo never got as dark as that this year (perhaps YouTube slapping a “content warning” on the “Yoru ni Kakeru” video made them rethink being too real) but Yoasobi strung together hits revolving around buzzsaw sounds in “Kaibutsu” (“Monster”) and lyrics touching on the ennui of modern life in “Sangenshoku” (“RGB”).
That world weariness extended to established acts like Zutto Mayonaka de Iinoni and next-big-thing MAISONdes, while Rock act Official Hige Dandism used the pandemic to reflect on its own emotions and mindset on latest album “Editorial,” one of the year’s biggest full-lengths.
There was a serving of melancholy hidden among the buoyant licks of Awesome City Club’s breakout hit “Wasurena,” while the biggest song of the year by pure metrics was singer-songwriter Yuuri’s “Dry Flower.” Both were stripped-down, intimate examinations of failed relationships that, unlike similar pop songs of the past, were more negative than uplifting — fitting for a year in which a lot of our connections seemed to wither (you can only take so many drinking parties over Zoom).
The Reiwa Era star
In August, Kaze Fujii was named as one of the 21 most exciting musicians on the planet by men’s magazine GQ. While these kinds of lists are often a bit of a gamble as to whether or not the artist lives up to the promise, Fujii’s output throughout 2021 delivered, highlighted by the sparkling “Kirari.”
TikTok continues to be the main medium for smaller artists to break through to the mainstream, and this year it was the uneasy skitter of electronic artist Mom’s “Akarui Mirai” and the triumphant we-made-it boasts of Fukuoka rapper Dada’s “High School Dropout” that soundtracked teens dancing in their rooms. Meanwhile, digital natives such as singer-songwriter Vaundy tinkered with multiple sounds and moods (check out “Odori Ko” for a taste) over the year to become an online success story. And, of course, the Reiwa Era delivery system of TikTok brought back a few Showa Era (1926-89) classics such as Taeko Onuki’s 1978 album-cut “4:00 a.m.” and Jun Togawa’s ’80s cult classic “Suki Suki Daisuki” (in NSFW meme form), along with contemporary anime-adjacent hits courtesy of Ali and rapper Aklo.
Finally, one of the best tracks of 2021 was rooted squarely in the Heisei Era (1989-2019). Hikaru Utada’s “One Last Kiss” was written for the final installment of the “Evangelion” movie series, which concluded the year with 2021’s biggest domestic box-office haul. Removed from the context of giant robots and teenage trauma, “One Last Kiss” stands as a gorgeous song about appreciating the moment before something ends, as all things do.
Produced with PC Music head A.G. Cook, “One Last Kiss” neither seeks escape from cold realities or gives into cynicism about hard times. Rather, it finds Utada embracing hard-earned maturity — flourishing, not languishing — in a transience that can be incredibly difficult to accept. That’s a place I hope we can all be in 2022.
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