Cross-cultural relevance. What is it? How do we define it? How do we measure it? How do we determine authenticity -- that thing which makes critics either shudder or sit up straight and act serious?
Japan's Beat Crusaders are just one in a long line of bands that can elicit these types of questions from a music writer. After all, we live in postmodern, times, an era marked by an awareness of and adherence to the idea of multiculturalism. We must respect the origins, backgrounds, and influences of various ethnic and national cultures. We battle with the terror of ethnocentrism, doing our damnedest not to promote a white or male or even an American standard by which all else must be judged.
Beat Crusaders don't set out to challenge us in this way. They're a band of punk-pop musicians doing their best to simply rock and get the listener to rock along with them. No cultural issues are tossed out like political platitudes in their music. No challenges to Western imperialism or Japanese hegemony are thrust in our faces. It's just music and nothing more.
But ethnocentrism is a double-edged blade. If we judge a "foreign" band using "our own" standards then we're being bigoted. If we ignore the particularities of a band's background and attempt a culture-free analysis, then we're eradicating unique identity. Writers and critics are backed into an increasingly shrinking corner. Does pop mean the same thing outside of the United States? We can look no further than differences in the use of the term in the United States versus Britain for examples of a "no" answer. And punk? When and where can we say that punk is authentic, if ever?
Even more complicated, we have to face the fact that the relationship between two countries is dynamic and unique to those parties. Again, the "across the pond" connections between the culture of Britain and the United States reveal both difference and shared influence. The same can be said of the relationship between Japan and the United States. For all the influence that Robotech cartoons and sushi have had on the US, the Japanese have dealt with Dallas and McDonalds. But, the question remains: is it fair to say that Shonen Knife is to Dressy Bessy as an idoru is to Britney Spears? Yes, they're comparable, but taken out of context it's hard to see how they fit into a dynamic picture in their native cultures.
All of this is, to be blunt, a disclaimer. Although I have a fair handle on punk, pop, and indie rock, I'm not an expert on Japanese culture. On the one hand, I can state how well (or not) Beat Crusaders fit into my Western opinions of these styles, but I have no idea how they play out when I append those styles with the prefix "Japanese". Thanks to the Internet, cable TV, and a subculture of Japanese fetishism, categories like J-pop and the like have an audience on this side of the Pacific, but it's still relatively small. And as much pleasure as I've taken in Japanese imports, I don't have any real clue as to the nature of the cultural arena in Japan.
To my Western ears, Beat Crusaders play a fun, spiky, and somewhat derivative version of punk-pop that owes a debt to the melodic indie rock of Weezer, an even heavier debt to Weezer-spin-offs the Rentals (with some Cars for good measure), and the snotty energy that lets Blink 182 laughingly call themselves punk. Yet Beat Crusaders aren't really an imitation of any of these bands. Combining '80s new wave synths, indie rock melodies, and punk energy isn't exactly unique, but it gives Beat Crusaders a distinct personality.
From the opening track, "GTS", with it's three-chord guitars and "whoo hoo hoo"s, Beat Crusaders set themselves up as your typical guitar rock band with pop flourishes. However, it's "Firestarter" that really encapsulates their sound. Sounding at once like any of dozens of "emo" bands, the Pixies, and an '80s retro band driven by chiming keyboards, Beat Crusaders manage to turn relatively simple music into a spunky, catchy and foot-tapping good time. Songs like "Sad Symphony" and "Joker in the Crotch", with it effects-laden riffs juxtaposed with a skanking guitar, are ultimately the reason for buying All You Can Eat. Fun tunes that are easy to remember and will stick in your head, poppy melodies on a loop, are hard to dismiss outright.
But from the perspective of an American audience, Beat Crusaders don't seem to be all that impressive. The US is saturated with punk-pop bands, even pretty decent, fun ones. Lead vocalist Hidaka definitely sounds like a Japanese person singing English, and he doesn't have an exceptionally harmonious voice, but the vocals on All You Can Eat aren't any worse (or even different) from those of dozens of other indie rock bands. The music is fun, especially with the emphasis on retro-styled keyboards, but it's not particularly inventive. So what makes them relevant?
Well, although All You Can Eat is the first American release for Beat Crusaders, they've put out prior material in their native Japan. Japanese audiences seem to be rather enamored of the band, and this latest album has already spawned three music videos there, including a clever clip for "Firestarter" that you can view at www.popkid.com. And without knowing much about the state of pop or rock or punk in Japan, who can say what level Beat Crusaders are playing at? After all, an American band that used a Sex Pistols nod by ending a song with a growled "Destroy!", especially in the same song that contains a break into a Jackson 5 funk groove, and this after a sunshine pop tune that cheerily intones "Everybody learning to be all together now" and sings of friendliness and tenderness, would be accused of base irony. But this disc never feels ironic, and this contradiction in American terms doesn't necessarily apply to other cultures.
This is, in all reality, unfair to the band. Beat Crusaders are certainly not asking to be held up as examples of the difficulty in communicating similar cultural forms in distinct cultural contexts, but why not? Were they simply an American act playing the exact same music, it would be easy to simply say "fun album, catchy songs, but a little sloppy and nothing earth-shattering" and leave it at that. But as a Japanese import, they invite a kind of difficulty for critics that is wholly contemporary. Not only are we forced to face how much of our understanding and appreciation of music comes from living within our own culture, but we have to try and give a fair and accurate assessments of a product from a different culture.
I don't have an answer to this situation. Perhaps the only truth that can be expressed is that individual reactions to any music will vary, regardless of origin. I can say that All You Can Eat is neither worthless nor essential to any fan of music. You wouldn't hate yourself for buying it, but it's probably not going to become your favorite album, either. Maybe all that's left for writers to say is to listen for yourself.