There’s a paradox at the heart of the Japanese music scene that I’m still trying to get my head around.
To my ears at least, Japanese pop music – J-pop – is bad. Really bad. And that’s bad meaning bad, not meaning good.
It’s also really popular. You can’t switch on the TV without coming face to face with one or another look-a-like boy band idol. AKB48’s Ponytail to Shushu was the most viewed music video on YouTube Japan last year (although admittedly that may have had more to with the intro than the music itself). The annual Kohaku is a national institution.
Yet walk into almost any shop, bar or restaurant in Tokyo and there’s likely to be decent music playing. Pick any genre – from hip hop to house, rockabilly to r&b, jazz to just about anything else – you’ll stumble across it somewhere. Lots of people evidently do like good music in Japan!
But what’s really puzzling is how much local talent there is. On Sunday night, we watched Mio’s high school friend play at a tiny club in Yokohama. Singing solo with an acoustic guitar and mouth organ, his self-penned songs paying homage to a well-loved pair of trainers or reminiscing about school days were witty, beautifully put together and performed with charisma. He had real talent and was a joy to watch. And in case you think I’m being biased, the same was true of the rest of the bands on the night. And on other nights I’ve been to.
So why the mis-match between the mainstream music you see on TV and that dominates the charts and the music you hear when you’re out?
As with all things, it’s bound to be the result of a combination of factors, but from my rather uninformed perspective I’d hazard a guess that is that the music industry itself has something to do with it.
From what I hear, the record companies in Japan are notoriously closed off and operate in cahoots with the talent agencies, TV companies and other adjacent media outlets. Rather than nurture talent, their approach seems to be to select good-looking young guys or girls to become ‘idols’ and then market them to death, regardless of their (lack of) musical ability.
Most music sales here are still via good old CDs, with neither the industry nor fans yet to truly embrace online as a space for music. In the UK and elsewhere, this shift arguably forced record companies to innovate, as access to new talent increased. Perhaps as the same begins to happen here, we will witness the record industry changing to keep up with more demanding fans.
But is it really just down to the record labels that there is so much bad pop music in Japan?
After all, people are buying these records and I’m guessing on they must enjoy listening to it and watching the stars perform.
Is there some hidden depth that’s lost in translation to my Western ears? Am I just suffering from a horrible case of ‘ethnocentricity’ in my music taste?
Maybe… but then again, maybe I’m just listening for the wrong thing altogether…
As a Western music fan, I listen to music hoping to hear something original. Something that’s going to move me in some way, whether literally or emotionally. And evidently there’s a place for this is the kind of music in Japan too, because it’s what I hear when I’m out and about, at bars, at gigs, in shops.
I’m beginning to think that J-pop is about something else entirely. It’s about bringing people together, sharing something in common. Whether the music is any good or not is beside the point, as long as it gives some kind of focal point to congregate around.
After all, what else is the X-Factor back at home? It’s just that here they still prefer the manicured glitz and exclusivity to the ‘real’ people and surface ‘transparency’.
That said, there are signs that J-pops popularity is past its peak, as record sales drop and young fans increasingly turn to their contemporaries in Korea for their musical fix. Perhaps this will be the shot in the arm that the industry needs to start promoting some of the genuine musical talent that currently seems to be going untapped in Japan.
AKB48 in action…
The Korean competition…