And now for ultimate things.
There is no better way to end this primer on J-pop with wings than with a song that soars beyond earthly bounds. It certainly has to be among the most creative compilation of musical ideas, influences, phrasing, sounds, sections, and modes since “Good Vibrations”. No kidding. Actually, a more accurate assessment would be that this is the kind of tune that would have resulted had the Beach Boys classic been handed to John Lennon in 1967 for a weekend of recreational remixing, along with a bits and splices from Herb Alpert, Chick Corea, and Eminem. The product would have been called “Ai no Kotodama” (Spiritual Message) and the group to record it would not have been the Beatles, but as the Southern All Stars “SAS” or Sa-za-n, as they have been known in ReDotland for nearly 30 years. The five (once six) member band has just released their 50th single and won multiple awards over the years. Outside of Japan they are probably best known for “Ellie, My Love” written specifically for Ray Charles by Kuwata Keisuke, their founder and driving force, and found on Ray’s 1990 release Would You Believe?.
But it is the composition of five years ago “Spiritual Message” that is SAS’s crowning achievement. Its layers of keyboards (acoustic, electric, organ, synthesized horns), all played by Kuwata’s wife, Hara Yuko, providing the propulsion his vocals require. Akin to a storm-tossed surf pounding a forlorn shore, the keyboard lines are relentless, ensuring that this piece won’t recede from memory, even as its instruments have yielded to the next track. In fact, each section is crafted to explode through the wall of expectations into each subsequent ideational dimension. This is a trick turned not only through the instrumentation, but via Kuwata, whose vocals operate in a relay of raw rock, jazz scat, and crisp rap. And for those who can appreciate the words, Kuwata delivers a clever, artificially-inflected delivery that ends up sounding closer to French than Japanese—a treat for those looking for departures from the norm in their pop experience. Any overseas singer interested in covering “Spiritual Message” would encounter a monumental challenge, but would ultimately be rewarded with a certain smash hit. In the alternative, why not just stick with the original and press “play” over and again? Like “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” or “Respect” or “The Nutcracker”, or Mozart’s “Requiem”, it’s hard to duplicate perfection.
There may once have been a time that J-pop could be dismissed with the flip “been there, heard that, not interested anymore”. To say that today would be an ignorant over-simplification. Today ReDotPop is filled with a plethora of creative people yearning to break out of the protective bubble; push against the repressive, but invisible envelop of culture that masks an inner voice chiming to be heard. A number of ReDotPoppers have “elsewhere” in their chops: the world beyond the ReDot is finally in sight: witnessed by Chage and Aska appearing on MTV Unplugged, or Dorekamu publishing lyrics in English on their official web site, or Toshi writing and recording exclusively in the States. And, as a result, the world for ReDotPop is suddenly larger as the world it touches becomes smaller. This is thanks not only to the flow of culture, as it once was, West to East; not only due to flow, as it has been for some time, East to East; but also, now (and increasingly in our near future) as a result of the flow, East to West.