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Thursday, Dec. 23, 2011

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Beijing bash: Pop quintet SMAP play their first overseas gig in China in September. AP PHOTO

Natural disasters rock year in music


Special to The Japan Times

The year 2011 in Japan was undoubtedly defined by the triple disasters of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and the subsequent nuclear crisis. The impact of those catastrophes was also felt across the entire entertainment world. The industry pretty much put itself on hold for the remainder of March and subsequent fundraising efforts were made by everyone from the biggest stars to owners of even the tiniest bars.

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New kids on the block: The members of South Korean pop group Kara managed to win over Japanese fans in 2011 with their album "Super Girl." KYODO

One person who had a big impact on Japanese music this year could, however, have just as easily started it off with a minor PR disaster. Had producer Yasutaka Nakata's electro duo named capsule released their latest studio album on schedule in February, it would have been saddled with the title "Killer Wave." In the end, though, he had time to rename it "World of Fantasy," which may have inadvertently tapped into the postquake zeitgeist of Tokyo youth.

While official pronouncements about self-restraint abounded and cherry blossom viewing parties were officially canceled, young people, shaken in more ways than one by the quake, threw themselves into the unrestrained party atmosphere of "World of Fantasy," and lost themselves at Nakata's monthly "Flash" club event in Shibuya.

Nakata's presence on the fringes of Japan's forward-looking pop was also emphasized by his work on Perfume's new album "JPN." While a little underwhelming overall, the trio's third release still provided one of the year's most striking pop singles — "Laser Beam." On top of that, Nakata was also responsible for one of the year's biggest viral phenomena, Harajuku fashion idol Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's brilliantly demented "Ponponpon." That track stole the summer with a joyfully idiotic chorus and a Technicolored, peyote-fueled vision of a video.

The earthquake, and particularly the radiation scare that followed, also tested the commitment of overseas artists, with acts such as Avril Lavigne, Ke$ha and Anthrax canceling their shows. Dance music's Red Bull Academy moved a monthlong series of workshops that were scheduled for Tokyo in October to Madrid. Fuji TV reported that more than 1,100 concerts featuring foreign acts were canceled or postponed.

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Panda eyes: Lady Gaga shows off her makeup skills at a press conference in Tokyo in June. The popular American artist used her considerable clout to try to boost tourism in Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11. KYODO

On the other hand, artists such as evergreens Cyndi Lauper and Kylie Minogue pushed on and reaped the gratitude of fans as a result. Lady Gaga even launched a weeklong PR blitz in Tokyo in June and encouraged tourists to return to Japan.

For all the impassioned speeches, though, it was Korean artists who really made themselves at home in the country's mainstream-music world. Kara's "Super Girl" and Girls' Generation's self-titled album crashed the yearend Oricon Top 10 with Japanese-language releases, putting them on par with Japan's biggest stars (and snagging them their first invites to perform on NHK's yearend music spectacular, "Kohaku Uta Gassen"). A wave of groups followed — T-ara, Rainbow, After School and more — hoping to cash in on the K-pop boom.

If there was any doubt about the extent to which South Korean pop culture has infiltrated Japan, it was surely dispelled by the degree to which it annoyed racists and nationalists on Web forum 2-channel. Korean drama may have been the main target of the protests outside the Fuji TV building on Aug. 7, but the sentiment was echoed in the hilarious way paranoid conspiracy theorists accused the station of stage-managing a technical glitch this month that saw boyband Arashi's prerecorded vocals cut out live on air in order to make the Korean groups they were sharing the stage with look better.

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A Chinese fan waves a towel featuring AKB48's Rino Sashihara at a show in Shanghai the same month. KYODO

While Japanese fans were busy lapping up Korean imports, ageing, leathery boyband (er, manband?) SMAP took their first steps outside Japan, recording a Chinese version of "Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana" and performing a show for 40,000 fans in Beijing in September, while mass-idol marketing phenomenon AKB48 committed their own brand of musical atrocities in Shanghai that same month.

In fact while rock bands like Sakanaction managed to bother the charts and make creditable sales, it was the rapidly proliferating female idol groups that dominated 2011, as otaku (nerdish obsessives) audiences fortified their position as one of the few market sectors not in catastrophic sales freefall.

AKB48 duly advanced their masterplan of collecting every otaku's lunch money further with a flurry of increasingly bizarre promotional gimmicks. First, there was the story of a fan who bought 5,500 copies of one single just so he could vote multiple times in the group's annual "election" that determines which members get to stand in front at concerts and appear in music videos. Dubious though the story may have been, the group continued to make a mockery of Oricon's yearend charts with a business model that's built on hardcore fans buying multiple copies of their CDs — boosting profits enormously.

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AKB48's Yuko Oshima holds a doll at a press conference for an Internet Service Provider, which features a computer program that lets fans see what a baby between them and their favorite member of AKB48 might look like. KYODO

But that was nothing compared to the PR campaign that accompanied AKB48's expansion from music-based activities into the Internet Service Provider business. The promotional material featured a big photo of popular member Yuko Oshima breastfeeding a baby, and promised a cheap piece of software that lets fans see what kind of baby they could produce with their favorite group member. AKB48 is no longer just "the idol group you can meet," but now "the idol group you could impregnate."

Elsewhere, the more manageably sized, color-coded idol group Momoiro Clover shed "blue" member Akari Hayami, added a "Z" to the end of their band's name, and hit the big time. They charmed fans of old-fashioned tokusatsu (special-effects) action series and pro-wrestling, proving that idol music can be fun without pandering to your audience's most stalkerish tendencies.

The resignation of comedian/professional bully Shinsuke Shimada in August signaled a development that could have a significant knock-on effect in the music world, with new laws coming into force that make it easier for police to arrest those providing aid or payoffs to organized crime. Given the widely reported (in overseas media at least) close relationship between talent agencies and yakuza groups in Japan, it seemed that this new law with the accompanying high-profile resignation might kickstart the industry into some long overdue house-cleaning (although given the number of enka singers announced for "Kohaku Uta Gassen," I doubt it will happen soon).

Law and order was another big issue for musicians, concert-goers and clubbers, with venues from Tokyo to Fukuoka — and Osaka in particular — being hit by a wave of police crackdowns related to the archaic crime of unlicensed after-hours dancing. This is a particular shame because in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, Tokyo's live venues were the music scene's first responders, converting themselves into rest stops and shelters for stranded commuters.

As the indie scene found itself increasingly isolated from the admittedly glamorous reshuffling of deckchairs above them, many bands found that the Internet is proving a more stable lifeboat than some had at first feared. Continually growing Twitter usership has made informing and attracting audiences to shows a little easier than before, and the Web has also helped to spread the word overseas, with one notable success story being dreampop merchant Jesse Ruins, who was signed first by London label Double Denim and then by Brooklyn's Captured Tracks thanks to repeated blog exposure. Fellow bedroom producer Sapphire Slows inked a deal with Los Angeles-based label Not Not Fun proving that a laptop could be the new route to rock stardom — or at least a few new Facebook friends.

The electronic-music scene further embraced the Web as well, with Taku Takahashi's TCY Radio broadcast and Naohiro Ukawa's online nightclub Dommune competing for the attention of beat junkies on weekdays. Dommune tried to take their venture to a new level by organizing the Freedommune festival in August, but as was the story of the year, Mother Nature ruined that event by causing flooding in the area of Kawasaki it was to be held and so the party was canceled.

The weather became a festival promoter's nightmare again in September, when Typhoon Talas came through Japan causing the cancelation of dance-music festival Metamorphose. Clubs and live houses went into rescheduling overdrive and as a result most of the overseas acts scheduled to play — Orbital, Derrick May, Gold Panda and many more — did impromptu sets around the capital, proving once again that, when natural disasters strike, the local scene will come to the rescue of Japan's music fans.


The year in bubble-gum pop tunes

In a year of girl-group bubble gum, electropop idol trio Perfume's "Laser Beam" was probably my single of the year, with its pico-pico synth backdrop and faintly retro melody making it feel like a peppy update of something technopop pioneers YMO would do.

That said, it had stiff competition. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's "Ponponpon" was a killer tune and recognized one of the key tenets of bubble gum, namely that the chorus should have a melody that sticks in your head from the first listen and should have no lyrics other than two nonsense sounds repeated endlessly.

Out of the plethora of Korean pop that emerged in 2011, Girls' Generation's "Mr. Taxi" was excellent, providing a more strident, grown-up take on the same basic bubble-gum formula, while 2NE1's "I Am the Best" was just out of this world with its everything-and-the-kitchen-sink combination of Dutch house, hip-hop, Bollywood and anything else they found down the back of the sofa.

Finally, credit must go to Momoiro Clover's simply wonderful "Mirai Bowl", which managed to pack more ideas into 4½ frenetic minutes than the entire dreadful AKB48 album did in an excruciating 70. (I.M.)



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