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Thursday, Sep. 27, 2012


Writers and bands get CAUGHT in a war of wording

Special to The Japan Times

There's a war on, one strewn with casualties but no real winners. It's being fought by musicians on one side and writers on the other, and the battleground is spelling and punctuation.

Nowadays, misspelling band names (The Monkees, Def Leppard) isn't worth complaining about, as language abuse has reached new heights with group names such as UVERworld and Kis-My-Ft2 in Japan or oOoOO and will.i.am overseas, protruding like pieces of jagged glass from the wounded text in which they are embedded.

There are some features particular to the Japanese language and how the Japanese think about language, however, that are mitigating factors against these syntactical crimes. Most obviously, English has a surfeit of punctuation marks with no equivalent in the Japanese writing system. Tildes, semicolons, hyphens and apostrophes are no more than meaningless shapes in a Japanese context, and even familiar marks like full stops and commas look different enough from their Japanese cousins that they can take on the form of mere design features to an artist working in a Japanese-language environment.

Additionally, Japan's mixture of writing systems is, in one way at least, more flexible than English. There are no strict rules about when you should use kanji, hiragana or katakana, only conventions and the writer's own sense of nuance. It's understandable that a Japanese artist using the Roman alphabet would treat its upper and lower case forms in a similarly interchangeable way.

This all works fine in an article written entirely in Japanese. However, once you're trying to write about a band in English, what seemed like a clever or stylish design choice suddenly becomes an ugly car crash strewn across the boulevard of the writer's prose. For any musicians reading, these are some of my pet peeves:

1: All lower case. This is one for the sophisticated minimalists and modernists, as embodied by electro-pop duo capsule. The band's name looks great when written in a small, refined sans-serif font like Helvetica, but once you put it into a body of English text, it needs the capital "C" to inform the reader it's a proper noun and not just any old capsule. Also, does a writer leave it uncapitalized at the start of a sentence and risk looking illiterate? Or does he/she capitalize it and appear inconsistent? It's a lose-lose situation for the poor journalist.

2: ALL UPPER CASE. Writing entirely in capital letters MAKES IT LOOK LIKE YOU'RE SHOUTING. The only people who do it are the semi-incoherent racists that post to a YouTube video's comments section. If a band name has to be written in upper case in an article that is otherwise written normally, it makes the band look arrogant and the writer like he/she has Tourette's syndrome.

3: Unnecessary punctuation. The worst offenders in the musical world for this sort of abuse may be U.S. posthardcore band letlive. — a band who not only insists on writing its name entirely in lower-case letters (see point 1), but who has forced me to unwillingly contort this sentence just to avoid having the name, with its apparently integral full stop, force the dilemma of whether an extra stop is required to create grammatical closure. Japanese noise band GROUNDCOVER. do the same in all caps, but I'm told the group is kind enough not to insist on it.

4: Silent words and sounds. Doom rockers Sunn O))) are a classic example of this, with a silent "o" and redundant punctuation (see point 3) meant to resemble sound waves from a speaker. Some groups take it to even more extremes though: there was once a Tokyo band called (((REBELREBEL on REBELREBELS))) which was simply pronounced "Rebels." ... OK, that last one is kind of brilliant.

5: Symbols. These are the most annoying, because there's no obvious pronunciation; U.S. disco-punk band !!! (actually "Chk Chk Chk"), French metal band ???? ("Four Question Marks") and Mexican witch house act †‡† ("Ritualz") are extreme cases, but Japanese techno-pop band √thumm is just as bad with its appropriation of the square root symbol looking a lot like a tick (it's pronounced "Root Thumb") and of course TV personality Becky adds a music note and sharp symbol when she wants to be referred to as a singer. Obviously though, the prince of annoying symbology is Prince himself, who, in 1993, renamed himself as an unpronounceable symbol, forcing journalists to either use a customized font or call him "The Artist," "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince" or in some cases just "Squiggle." Of course this meant that when he released an album in 2009 titled "LOtUSFLOW3R," no one even batted an eyelid.

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