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Saturday, December 4, 2010


I admit it - I'm a Japanophile 親日. I've been one ever since my college days, when I took an Introduction to Japanese History class and an upper-level seminar on the Edo Period 江戸時代. Being an admirer of many things Japanese doesn't mean having to put on the blinders - I would never condone or excuse what was carried out by the Imperial Japanese military forces, and I've never bought the so-called "cultural justification" argument that the pro-whaling side likes to throw around. You may have also noted that I said "many", and not "all", things Japanese just a moment ago - my interest in Japan doesn't encompass zen 禅, martial arts 格闘技, anime アニメ, manga 日本の漫画 or J-Pop, for example. On the subject of the latter, I have posted below in its entirety an article (originally published in Metropolis magazine, and appearing today on the Japan Today website) by Dan Grunebaum, entitled "Does J-pop really suck?":

"Coming second only to teeth sucking, J-pop is the one aspect of Japanese culture that Westerners love to hate. And let’s be honest, there are plenty of good reasons to loathe it: the talentless 'tarento' タレント, the excruciating English, and the indentured servitude of artists and gangland connections that characterize the industry, to name just a few.

But does the music itself really suck? I’ve long felt there was something else going on. In fact, a better question might be: why does J-pop grate so much on Western ears?

I suspect one reason J-pop irritates people is that, superficially, it resembles Western pop. It’s got the sampled beats and synth lines we’re accustomed to, as well as familiar production values.

And yet it’s all somehow wrong. J-pop relentlessly confounds our expectations. Melodies seem to start off in the same spot as in Western pop, but invariably end somewhere we didn’t expect, making us feel that a promise to speak our musical language has been betrayed. The contours are different: they’re based not on the major or minor but on pentatonic scales, and there’s no blue note. What’s more, the thin vocal timbres that seem so pleasing to the locals prove insufferable to Westerners raised on the full-throated likes of Aretha Franklin and Beyoncé.

Recent research detailed in books like Philip Ball’s "The Music Instinct" suggests that, as with language, people acquire a sense of musical 'syntax' at a very young age, creating neural pathways that soon become entrenched. This can make it as difficult for adults to 'get' foreign music as it is to learn a foreign language.

Since the frame of reference for J-pop is its Western trappings, we’re predisposed to judge it by Western standards. But maybe that’s a mistake: rather than a poor imitation of 'our' pop music, J-pop may well be different at a more basic musical level.

One clue is that East Asians, who share a common musical heritage with Japan, appear predisposed to like it. Ayumi Hamasaki 浜崎あゆみ can fill stadiums in China but registers not even a blip in the Americas or Europe. J-pop stars like Hikaru Utada 宇多田ヒカル who have tried to make it in the West fall flat even with English-language albums.

On the other hand, the bands that succeed in the West are often exotic or seemingly so, be it the Kodō drummers 鼓董 or Boredoms ボアダムス. The 'problem' with J-pop is that it’s too close to Western music to be exoticized, making the differences grate all the more.

While 'Cool Japan' continues to sell well in Western countries, its successes have mainly been in the visual realm: anime, cosplay コスプレ, art, butoh 暗黒舞踏, and so on. Visual 'language' appears to be far more universally accessible, and a musical equivalent to the overseas success of Takashi Murakami 村上隆 and Hayao Miyazaki 宮崎駿, or even a reprise of Kyū Sakamoto’s 坂本九 1963 U.S. number one “Sukiyaki” 上を向いて歩こう may be some time coming.

The further away a nation is culturally, the more difficult it is to learn its language or enjoy its music. The West’s encounter with Asian music is recent, and like Asian tongues, it’s difficult to get to grips with. I’ve been here long enough to learn a fair bit of Japanese, and even come to enjoy a smattering of J-pop (note: there’s a lot of other Japanese music I like), but I’ll probably never 'get' either like the natives do.

All of which brings me back to that original question: does J-pop actually suck? Well, the Japanese music industry might, but whether the actual music does is a more problematic issue. Your answer may say more about you, where you come from and whether you believe objective standards can be applied to culture, than the quality of the music itself."

Grunebaum makes some interesting points, but I'm not sure I buy his whole argument. After all, if learning to like another country's music is like learning to speak its language, then why is it that the Japanese are notoriously poor at speaking English, yet are huge fans of American and British popular music (not to mention jazz and classical)?

I do agree, however, that there are cultural factors involved in my failing to appreciate J-Pop. I've always felt the Japanese language wasn't suited to the constructs of Western popular songs. Lyrics are either crammed into short verses, or stretched out with syllable stresses coming in unexpected places (Mandarin, on the other hand, tends to sound better in the Western pop format). Such vocalizations can make J-Pop singers sound like enka 演歌 crooners at times.

So does J-Pop suck? Yes, in the same way so much of Western pop music bites the big one. For the most part, it's over-produced, assembly-line "product", disposable songs sung by equally disposable artists. It isn't for nothing that virtually every J-Pop tune has a 20-second intro to allow the patrons at karaoke boxes カラオケボックス time to hand over the microphone to the next singer. Like virtually all examples of popular culture around the world, Japan is no different when it comes down to appeals to the lowest common denominators.

However, not wanting to sound like an out-of-date curmudgeonly elitist (even if I am one), there are popular Japanese songs that I do like. "Shima Uta" 島唄, by The Boom, is one beautiful example:

This classic rocker from the 1970's, by the Sadistic Mika Band サディスティク・ミカ・バンド, used to be played often on my college's radio station, KDVS 90.3 FM:

I have to admit I've found it hard to resist Puffy, and their classic "Asia no Junshin" アジアの純真:

And to give my host country its due, here's a video by Taiwan's top diva, A-Mei 阿妹:

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