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Friday, Dec. 18, 2009
The noughties played it nice
Singer-songwriter Utada, punk band Mongol800 forced Japanese musicians to step up their game
Special to The Japan Times
The biggest Japanese music event in 2000 was Hikaru Utada's Bohemian Summer tour, which was launched at Tokyo's Yoyogi Pool that June. Since emerging in December 1998 with the single "Automatic," followed by the debut album "First Love" four months later, the 17-year-old singer-songwriter, daughter of a folk singer mother and a musician-producer father, had become the most important individual to emerge on the Japanese pop scene since Tetsuya Komuro discovered Eurobeat in the 1980s, and it was her first extended tour. She played 18 shows in nine cities. Tickets sold out within hours, and three concerts were quickly added at the Chiba Marine Stadium. Tickets for those were gone in a half hour.
"First Love" changed everything. In the '90s, J-pop was dominated on the one hand by the usual complement of boy bands and female idols and on the other by Komuro and the acts he produced for Avex, which consequently became the dominant label for Japanese artists. One of Komuro's most popular acolytes was Namie Amuro, an Okinawan who sang in the nasally head tones of teen idols but did it while dancing to Komuro's melodious disco.
Utada didn't replace Amuro so much as leapfrog her. She wrote her own material, influenced by the urban music she listened to as a teen after moving to New York with her parents when she was 10. More importantly, she sang what she heard, from the diaphragm and with her own take on the kind of melisma that became de rigueur in American pop after the ascendance of Mariah Carey. Previous Japanese pop artists, who were bred not born — and certainly not self-invented — couldn't handle this style for the simple reason that they weren't trained for it. Boy bands like the ubiquitous SMAP couldn't even sing harmony.
The dance music of the '90s was thus overtaken by a localized form of R&B. In the beginning the most prominent artists in the field were also female, and not coincidentally some were either raised overseas like Utada or had one non-Japanese parent: Misia, Double, AI, Crystal Kay, Yuko Koyanagi. By the end of summer 2000, Mai Kuraki, another teen singer-songwriter who some initially mistook for Utada, was racing up the charts. By November, her management was suing her father for attempting to market a home video of her made when she was a child.
R&B has remained strong the whole decade, as proved by the current string of hits by belter Thelma Aoyama, and guy bands from Chemistry to the mix-and-match collective known as Exile have cashed in as well; but head tones still have their fans, evidenced not just by Amuro's enduring popularity but by the royalty status of Ayumi Hamasaki and, more significantly, Kumi Koda, whose success proved the theory that the only talent you really need to become a superstar singer is one for marketing. In 2005, her label started to release her singles at the rate of about one a week, each one accompanied by a blitz of media promotion. Her burgeoning legion of fans anticipated each new song, and after a dozen or so they were compiled into a hits package that was an automatic best-seller. Her second compilation sold a million copies in two weeks during March 2006.
Utada's role as the most influential artist of the decade had something to do with her aura of authenticity. She kept herself out of the public eye, and by showing up once every two years or so when she had product to push she cultivated a mystique that elevated her above the countless micromanaged idols and Hamasaki manques with their doll hair and elaborate stick-on nails. Utada's seriousness is exemplified by her determination to make it in the United States, where she has spent the last year trying to break her second major-label English-language album through extensive promotion. Fiercely independent, she'd make a perfect rock star if she actually played rock.
As for those who did play rock, the 2000s didn't offer the same idiosyncratic satisfactions that the previous decade did. There was no "band boom" like the one that ushered in the '90s with groups such as Unicorn and Blankey Jet City. There were no inventive, fertile indie scenes like the "Shibuya-kei" movement, which produced Pizzicato Five and Flipper's Guitar, which in turn produced Cornelius (Keigo Oyamada), the most inventive one-person music brain trust of the decade if you don't count the quirky, sui generis pop singer-songwriter Ringo Shiina. The edifying garage-rock story of the '90s, Thee Michelle Gun Elephant's march up from the clubs to arenas around the turn of the millennium, ended when they broke up in 2003. Even heavy metal, which has always enjoyed a huge, unwavering following in Japan, lacked a new local representative in the '00s worthy of its fan base, probably because it had been co-opted in the '90s by the visual-kei bands, whose theatrical prerogatives often eclipsed their musical ones. When Hide, the charismatic and stylistically omnivorous guitarist for X Japan, committed suicide in 1998, Japanese metal lost its greatest practicing innovator. The band's drummer and leader, Yoshiki, turned into a character from a shojo manga (girls' comic), the Liberace of J-rock, playing syrupy orchestral pop on transparent grand pianos. When the band reunited two years ago they resurrected Hide in holographic form because . . . well, why not?
But punk broke. In April 2002, the Okinawan band Mongol800 became the first artist on a nominally "indie" label to chart a No. 1 album since the early '70s folk boom. Punk and its subgenres had always been popular, though groups like Hi-Standard (who broke up in 2000) and Snail Ramp relied on large, dedicated fan bases. Even after 20 years of worldwide acclaim Osaka's Shonen Knife, reduced to only one original member, is still playing small clubs. But Mongol800 proved that there was a wider, less parochial audience for the kind of populism that punk had always extolled. "Message" remained on the charts for an unbelievable eight straight months, and paved the way for other regional favorites like Yamagata's Going Steady, who, perhaps true to their hardcore principles, found success to be a drag. In early 2003, in the middle of a sold-out nationwide tour, they called it quits. The apex of acceptance was reached by Asian Kung Fu Generation, who went from playing the Rookie A Go-Go stage at the 2003 Fuji Rock Festival to headlining their own annual Nano-Mugen punk festival at the cavernous Yokohama Arena in 2005.
Nevertheless, most of the money in Japanese rock was being made by acts whose success preceded the dawn of the millennium; which seems to be the worldwide trend anyway. Twenty-five years into their career, the duo known as B'z still sells more records than any other Japanese rock act, and the big story in 2008 was the demise of the Southern All Stars and all the money the group derived from exploiting that demise. In the past 12 months or so, a number of older bands have regrouped to take advantage of nostalgia, in particular The Kai Band, whose career started in the '70s, and several band-boom alumni, including Unicorn, who are more popular now than they were back in the day.
The September 2007 issue of the Japanese edition of Rolling Stone included the "100 Greatest Albums of Japanese Rock" as selected by a group of noted critics. In accordance with the Rolling Stone brand ethos, the majority of these records are baby-boomer touchstones, and the most recent album on the list was released in 1999. But that album is "First Love," and while it barely made it on to the list at No. 99 it should be remembered that it was the biggest selling album in Japanese music history when it came out. Ten years later it still is, as we wait for someone new to shake things up the way Hikaru Utada did.