If the past two years have taught the world anything, it’s the precariousness of predictions. January 2022 has arrived, but with the spread of omicron causing fresh concern, all I can do is stare at my recently purchased calendar and throw up my hands. Maybe leaving the dates blank would be a better move than making plans.
J-pop demonstrated this unpredictability perfectly over the past 24 months. Less than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic started and with most people unable to attend live events or pop out to music stores, the industry long mocked for its reliance on CD sales and reluctance toward all things digital began adapting to the internet. Major Japanese artists started uploading their entire catalogs to streaming services, while a new generation of young artists were vaulted into the spotlight thanks to YouTube and TikTok.
There’s no doubt 2022 will bring even more changes. Yet there are enough developments and signs from last year to make some educated guesses as to what’s to come. And hey, even if these predictions are off … that’s just a reflection of the times, right?
A brighter mood for J-pop
Japanese pop music’s vibe has been down in the dumps for the past two years. Hits from rising outfits such as Yoasobi and Ado dwell on the glum and exhausted, reflecting the mood of the country at large. The emotional and physical toll of living through a pandemic is bad enough, but there’s also a general sense of existential dread and anxiety over the future. It’s understandable why so many people are drawn to downer sounds.
J-pop’s mood will probably pick up in 2022, though, as listeners seek out brighter escapes from the world around them. Major artists have been tip-toeing toward upbeat sounds over the past six months, including Yoasobi, which let some sunshine in with their hopeful song, “Sangenshoku.”
The best indicator of a mood shift might be from Kaze Fujii, a singer/songwriter who has emerged as a new voice of the Reiwa Era (2019-present) thanks to dizzying tunes celebrating the small thrills of love and life. He’ll likely lead the charge in balancing J-pop’s serotonin levels over the next 12 months.
TikTok: the next star maker
For the most part, short-form video platform TikTok has been like a slot machine for the Japanese music industry. Pull the handle and hope a teenager in the United States has created a catchy meme set to your 40-year-old city pop song. Even for domestic viral trends, TikTok hits require a degree of randomness.
With the platform now established in Japan, though, musicians and labels will no longer approach TikTok as a gamble, but as a place to build fanbases, and savvy young creators such as genre-whirlwind Wurts have used the app and other social media platforms to establish themselves. Surprise hits will still emerge, but it won’t be as chaotic as more companies figure out how to present new musical names in this digital space.
Youth to the front
Most of the pop songs produced these days by labels target teenagers, who have the power to turn a track into an overnight sensation through social media, but the song creators are often outside of that demographic. That’s going to change as more Japanese adolescents start making their own anthems and distributing them via platforms such as TikTok, allowing for varied perspectives on youth in the country today.
Recently-graduated artist Neriame demonstrates this perfectly with her viral hit, “Yo-kya JK ni Akogareru In-kya JK no Uta.” The hip-hop-scotching cut rejects the usual trappings of high school girlhood (“caramel / marshmallow / strawberry candy”) in favor of the video game Apex Legends and individuality. Why should the kids settle for what labels have to offer when they can make their own hits?
Move over, city pop
The glitzy funk sound of 1980s city pop remains Japan’s trendiest musical export. It might even have achieved its biggest mainstream moment so far at the start of 2022: Canadian pop heavyweight The Weeknd sampled Aran Tomoko’s moody and mellow 1983 single “Midnight Pretenders” for “Out of Time,” a song on his latest LP, which is bound to be one of the year’s best sellers.
Part of the thrill of the internet’s interest in this once obscure genre, however, was the sense of discovery that came with it. It’s great that an artist who performed at the Super Bowl is giving the style more shine, but it also means the undiscovered gem feeling is fading.
For the next wave of online cool inspired by sounds of the past, let’s look to the Heisei Era (1989-2019). Shibuya-kei of the 1990s once defined hip Japanese music for listeners abroad, and seeing as it was the next stage in the evolution of city pop, it makes sense for modern listeners to shower the style with newfound love. Bet on Pizzicato Five, whose catalog sounds as fresh as ever and is finding its way to subscription streaming platforms at just the right time, to introduce Shibuya-kei to the extremely online generation of 2022.
Mental health takes center stage
Sony Music Japan is already at the forefront of mental health support, having started a program last August that provides mental and physical check-ups and counseling to artists signed with the company. Spurred by the toll the pandemic has taken on its performers, Sony’s move has been a longtime coming, given the heavy demands that come with being a major musician in Japan. Expect more companies to follow suit as other entertainment sectors confront mental health, too.
Taking notes from K-pop
Last year, South Korean music companies imagined hybrid projects, utilizing K-pop’s market savvy to take J-pop global and launching acts such as NiziU and JO1. In 2022, Japanese entities will try to do the same themselves, learning from their South Korean neighbors but finding their own voice in the process.
At the front of the pack is Be:First (stylized in all caps), a pop group constructed from a Hulu reality program overseen by rapper Sky-Hi (stylized in all caps) and featuring production from Taku Takahashi, a longtime staple (and critic) of J-pop. They’ve already scored solid views and plays online, while also being christened one of 2022’s “big trends” by Nikkei Trendy magazine. Whether they can show that Japan-born companies can keep pace remains to be seen, but they’ll certainly add some very welcome musical diversity to the J-pop boy band scene.
The cutting edge of J-pop: idols
The age of all-female idol-pop groups has been over for a while, with once omnipresent names like AKB48 struggling to hold on to mainstream relevance. All of that pandemic-prompted change has elbowed idol music to the margins, which is actually the best place for this corner of J-pop to be.
Safely away from the zeitgeist, idol groups now have the ability to experiment in a way they hadn’t before, and in 2021, some of Japan’s most thrilling music came from idol groups. Recent highlights include the surreal escapist house sounds of femme fatale, the hyperspeed pace of @onefive, and the heart-fluttering drum ‘n’ bass of Batten Girls. Forget the sound of 2022, the ideas idol acts explore in the coming months will offer a preview of the sounds mainstream J-pop will be embracing in the years ahead.
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