So, to begin, it’s not like this entire question hasn’t been thunk before. There was, after all, the case of Cortez—er, I mean Matsuda Seiko, who, in the name of cultural exchange, stormed far-away shores to plunder musical gold. But, like the rapacious Spaniard explorer, in many ways, Seiko serves as proof-in-the-pudding that international waters can’t smoothly be traversed. In case you don’t know (the latter day tale), Seiko was a country girl who lived up to educator William Clark’s famous 1876 exhortation to his students in farthest, snow adrift Hokkaido: “boys (or in this case, girls) be ambitious.”
Seiko rode that musical rocket about as far and fast as it could go: moving from “just-another-bimbo-from-the-boonies” to becoming the apotheosis of the toothy, somewhat vapid aidoru (idol) who so littered the J-pop landscape in the ‘80s and ‘90s. That being far from enough for such an ambitious lass, Seiko vacated the comfortable (but claustrophobic) confines of ReDotPopdom trading in her frilly, shin-length skirts and ringlets and serving as everybody’s kawaii (cute) girl-next-door, for tight leather pants, a shaggy mane, a jittery attitude, multiple tabloid-grabbing sexual liaisons, and visions of becoming the Japanese Madonna only to discover that the American music public already had a Madonna . . . or two. Meaning, no one over in smog city was simply going to roll over and say “here you go . . . scratch me . . . there” based on the simple fact that she’d managed to locate LA on a map. Which is why after a couple of years of thrashing about making zilch headway in an alien, unwelcoming land, Seiko returned, awkwardly, to ReDotPopdom, where she dutifully exchanged her tight leather pants for an apron, became a spokesperson for dish detergent and proud mom of a toothy teenage pop idol, SAYAKA. Feeding the tabloids a tantalizing new angle: ReDot “Pop Royale Redux”.
OK. So that was then. Now we have Ami and Yumi working their animation magic over in the States. In between, about the only person to give the US a serious shot was Kubota Toshinobu, who fled to New York about a decade ago to find himself in a space uncontaminated by all that he knew or felt weighted down by and couldn’t deny. He managed one breakaway hit (“LA LA LA LOVE SONG”—I kid you not, the actual title) with Naomi Campbell rapping “wanna make love, make love song / hey, baby / wanna make love, make love song / hey baby” (believe me, it actually works!) in the background. The song was hip enough to make Sony’s centennial compendium of best songs. Not a bad endorsement when you figure the competition included Aerosmith, The Allman Brothers Band, Julie Andrews, Louis Armstrong and Chet Atkins (and that only accounts for the “A"s!). But Kubota’s song was really aimed at home (as in ReDot) consumption, sung as it was in Japanese. Thereafter, though, Toshinobu grew noticeably quiescent in ReDotDom, releasing, instead, three albums in English and reinventing himself as “Toshi”; presumably because Americans might have trouble pronouncing “nobu”. In fact, he is likely now known more in the States than in Japan. And for curious readers a rather positive review of Toshi’s latest can be located right here on this channel: PopMatters circa 7 March, 2005.
Now, should one be further tempted to question whether this piece isn’t fast running out of raison d’etre, let me quickly observe that Toshi fails to qualify for our parlor game, as he’s decided to do his thing in the States, in English. And lest you forget: the game afoot concerns what ReDot-produced music would best qualify for distribution to a global audience.
Ground rules? You want procedures to ensure that this is a fair game? Since this is obviously an inherently subjective project, how about some verifiability? In an effort to introduce quality control, let’s try to provide some independent confirmation. That can be arranged, but not without a cautionary word. This calls for a time out to emphasize that no one is encouraging illicit activity. Thus and I’m sure you will hear me loud and clear file sharing is a no-no. Okay? At least until the Supreme Court gives the go-ahead. But ASSUMING that file sharing was allowed, and ASSUMING that a person had access to a P2P network, and ASSUMING that they were inclined to punch a few Japanese names (in roman script) in the command line . . . what would, could, should those names be?
Well, if we just go with the folks who are big on these shores, then (among others), you’d get stuck with Morning Musume (with their Hong Kong-imitators, “Cookies”), SMAP and BoA. Actually, in the case of the latter two, a certain case might be plausible. The former has been covered in this space before. Their mega-hit “Sekai Ni Hitsotsu Dake No Hana” is certainly a worthy song in Japanese, but not particularly because of the music. You might recall that it is a “message” song about how, out of all the beautiful flowers in the bucket, there is actually only one that matters. That flower (and here, the listener should substitute him- or herself) isn’t the only one because it (s/he) is inherently better; rather, it (s/he) is the only one because every one is unique, everyone has a seed of difference, of specialness and worth. The key is to cultivate that unique seed. As a message song, this is not the sort of composition that could transcend linguistic barriers; based, as it is, on a word-based concept. As for BoA, the transplanted Korean songstress carries her awareness of language barriers to the fore: recording her can’t-miss hits in Japanese, Korean and English. In that sense, this astute star has “global marketing” written all over her work. Regrettably, none of her compositions stand out as anything other than what they are: shake-worthy bob-a-lots.
Language, of course, has a power to bestow eternity upon a pop song. After all, “American Pie” did not become a standard because of any innovative chord pattern; Bob Dylan may have had the novelty of electricity to juice up “Like a Rolling Stone” . . . but that song ascended the pantheon’s steps due to its lyrical genius. So, too, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” possibly pop’s first stab at rap wasn’t about which three notes Bob decided to use; it redounded to the words. Turning the equation inside-out, Paul McCartney’s gift surely lay in churning out irrepressible tunes the uncanny trails he continued to lay in the treble (and bass) clefs but the songs that are best remembered are those that also delivered words and ideas alongside the catchy tunes. Compare “Yesterday” to “Hello Goodbye”, “Michelle” to “Love Me Do” “Here, There and Everywhere” to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, “She’s Leaving Home” to “Mother Nature’s Son” and you get the idea). What all this means is that because language often lies at the heart of song immortality, it is unlikely that the J-tunes that qualify over here for Hall of Fame consideration are going to go over well across any major body of water.
If words end up being a major stumbling block in ReDottunes effecting the trans-Pacific jump, then what will ultimately cross the cultural divide will tip based on musicality aural energy, audacity, verve, boldness, spark in a word, all the things that most music across the face of this commercial-conscious planet most often fails to worry about. In the case of J-tunes, what might qualify? How about a tasty, but filling, baker’s half dozen to start you on your way?
Obviously, we could begin with Puffy, since they have been so damned insistent (not to mention the first to actually play this game). Their monster hit, “Asian Purity” has already been rewritten in English (along with their other four- to eight ReDot-first hits)—so they at least avoid the linguistic dispute. None of their subsequent efforts really holds a candle to “Asian Purity” (labeled “True Asia” in its English incarnation); certainly not in terms of the insistence of the guitars and synths, and the enthusiasm with which Ami and Yumi belt out the names of every Asian country on the map. There is, in their delivery, a pride of belonging, a sense of relish that seldom has dripped from Japanese lips; a sense of mutuality and inclusiveness that so often fails to emerge from a historically and currently balkanized Asia. Another name worth a try is Utada Hikaru, who also goes by the name “Utada” in the States. With a voice reminiscent of Cher (similarly aflutter) crossed with Janet Jackson (a controlled R&B consciousness), this is a young woman who belts songs out in Japlish with confidence. Her years spent living in New York at the knee of professional Japanese musicians (her mother was a famous enka singer, her father a producer), as well as a semester or two at Columbia, have served her well. The songs she pens are tight, catchy, and interesting enough to set her apart from her ReDotPop rivals. In fact, unlike the States, which suffers from songstress stress, J-pop is characterized by a dearth of divas. Awash in the soup of male duos like Chage and Aska, Kinki Kids, and Chemistry, and soloists like Hirai Ken, Utada stands out. Three songs that might just hit in other-worlds include: “Automatic”, “Can You Keep A Secret” and “Hikari” (the English version, “Simple and Clean” doubles as the theme song for the video game series called “Kingdom Hearts”). While the former two are a bit uni-dimensional (their popularity perhaps a function of well-intentioned encouragement of an 18-year-old tunesmith), the last possesses a musical complexity that suggests a mature writer with something to communicate beyond “I’m cute, throw me your money”.
If one is looking for novelty in ballad form, then a song to try on for size is “Robinson” by the group Spitz. So cool they be that they have even garnered their own Wikipedia entry. A band of four, they have been together for over 17 years. The lead (and only) singer, Kusano Musamune, has a tendency to drone, if not whine, but he brings a poignant urgency to this particular ode. In “Robinson” his utterances communicate inevitability—a life lived that cannot and should not be changed. The lyric is about fate, reflected through the singer’s reflections on the events that led inexorably to a couple’s perfect union. But, the listener need not understand the words in order to fathom the message: the spidery guitar work which plays hide and seek with the vocals sets down an unwavering outline of the minor key portrait Kusano paints. Repeated every sixteen beats, it communicates the very determinateness that its human companion describes. Backing harmonies are hauntingly resonant, but ultimately trail off as the narrator works himself toward his personal confession: a conclusion delivered in impassioned falsetto.
Another guitar-driven composition is “Love Story wa Totsuzen ni” (Love Story, Suddenly) from one of ReDotPop‘s most famous TV dramas: “Tokyo Love Story”. Driven by a pedal-point bass, a stripped down drum kit, and one of the catchiest choruses you will ever encounter, the song boasts a swirling quality—as if a pile of autumn leaves have been caught in a dust devil. Alternating with verses of relative quiescence the lyric supported by a simple backbeat and little more the song perfectly captures the vicissitudes of love. Propelled back into the chorus, the song gathers in a steady, accreting swell. In the span of three minutes this construction produces a peak ascended, a plateau reached, a mosaic of compound sonority, capped by a final wailing guitar that pulses the song into feverish fade. Composed by Oda Kazumasa, one of J-pop’s most accomplished singer-songwriters, “Love Story wa Totsuzen ni” will certainly remain one of J-pop’s most important contributions to future generations of ReDotPop listeners.
From the relatively distant past to the immediate present. The next song to plug into your search engine just finished its run as theme for the TV drama “Kyuumei Byoutou 24” (Emergency Room 24 Hours). The show was completely forgettable - an excuse to edge ten fresh faces and perfectly scrubbed bodies into lab coats with stethoscopes draped fashionably around delicate necks and over supple shoulders. The tune, though, was definitely a keeper. It was composed by Dreams Come True (or “Dorekamu”, as they are commonly called over here)—one of ReDotPop‘s most enduring, important musical forces. A band which once was three (but now pared down to two) members, Dorekamu have, in their 17-year run, had 22 top five singles, ten of which reached #1, along with 10 albums that have hit #1. According to their web site, three albums have been recorded exclusively in English and two English-language singles have climbed to #1 on the Japanese charts.
The current composition, “Nando demo” (Any Number of Times), is as inspired, polished, powerful, and catchy as anything they’ve ever written. If you want to check it out for yourself, it is actually available for computer consumption. Don’t be deceived by the simplicity of the video: that older gal in pink and the aging dude in blue gyrating in the two-shot actually composed, scored, arranged, and overlaid all the tracks. They not only know how to put together a compact commercial tune, they understand how to deliver a message: simply, succinctly, with imagination and gravitas.
In a nutshell “Nando demo” is about trying until one succeeds. The singer explains that it doesn’t matter that tears come; as stifled as one feels, as often as it seems there is no doorway out of a tough situation, even if it seems that no one will come to your aid, even if you’ve failed ten thousand times . . . remember: that ten thousand and first time may just be the charm. “Nando demo” has a tri-furcated structure: a simple riff of acoustic bass and austere synths backing the vocals of Yoshida Miwa, a middle section with full orchestration, serving as an eight-measure bridge into an insistent chorus seeking to convince the listener of the importance of persistence. Miwa’s lyrical preaching ultimately dissolves into a rap-inspired inspirational chant. Prior to that, however, the jazz-inflected rock style that she has selected for this cut is particularly engaging. It is obvious from her rendition that Miwa has never been close to a descending bowling ball.