Can Pop Last Forever?
Is pop as ephemeral as a cherry blossom... like youth, so quick to burst with beauty and excitement, so quick to fade? Or is it a perpetually regenerating force, like the magnificent and tenacious sakura that hosts the blossom?
In the realm of ReDotPop, the past month or so that serves as the corridor from winter to spring has witnessed a succession of concrete events in which these themes have taken form. Baseball icon nonpareil Nagashima Shigeo the most loved and respected Japanese baseballer of all time, who was tabbed to play Tommy Lasorda this summer as the rah-rah, gung-ho manager of Japan's Olympic "Dream Team" suffered a minor stroke. His misfortune stimulated saturation coverage, on TV and in newsprint, built around daily updates from Shigeo's physicians detailing the whys and hows of this unexpected trauma, and what Shigeo was able to move or say or eat in the preceding 12 hours. For most of the ReDotPop public, Nagashima's immediate health was, of course, of concern, but the burning question was whether he'd be available to man the helm in Athens in six months. Could Mr. Baseball guide Japan's strapping lads and, thus, fend off the challenge from Cubans, Mexicans, Dominicans and Taiwanese for Olympic gold?
Olympics, youth, and death were also front and center as Japan's Under-22 soccer squad played home and away rounds in a group featuring the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Bahrain precisely delicate petals in the soccer world, but far from massive tree stumps, to be sure. And yet Japan's very own blossoms were nearly nipped in the bud. Telebi Asahi, one of the three major networks, dumped bucketsful of yen into the broadcast bin so that they would be the one the public tuned into in order to experience Japanese international conquest in all its multi-dimensional magnificence. That gasping sound you hear is Telebi Asahi's paid cheerleaders choking on oversized words of victory that somehow, unexpectedly, became prematurely lodged in their collective esophagi. For, Japan' s youth group clearly the bouquet of this Asian block almost went the way of American soccer (and baseball) before it: failing to qualify for what had seemed a pre-ordained, all-expenses paid, round-trip to sunny Greece. As luck would have it, in the final match of the final round, Japan's boys found their feet and resolve, resoundingly beating UAE and with Bahrain being tied by lowly Lebanon thereby qualified for the world's ultimate five-ring circus. Or as the Telebi Asahi effusively proclaimed in multi-colored graphics superimposed over the standing-room-only celebratory stadium scene: "Nihon: Athena e ticketto o getto!" ("Japan: Gets a ticket to Athens!").
Well, chauvinism was on full display, of course, as it is at just about all Olympic ventures in any country. But, significantly, it was not simply national achievement that captured media attention, or the public's imagination. Rather, it was the youth of the team's members. And, in particular, the youth of one member: the youngest of this year's litter: Hirayama Soto. A lanky (1.90 meter) 18-year-old lad from Nagasaki who only one month before had busied himself competing in (and winning) a nation-wide high school soccer tournament. Hirayama-kun was now going head-to-head (or often elbow to shoulder) with some of the best players from the Middle East. It was not lost on the announcers, for instance, that while UAE boasted last year's youth footballer of the year a player dispatched from the final game with a red card for kicking a Japanese player in frustration young Hirayama was able time and again to break through the porous UAE defenses. He was a threat in ways that not even the world's best had proven to be. (So maybe it was more about chauvinism than youth . . .)
But then, youth is served in other realms of ReDotPop beyond sports broadcasting. Indeed, it appears that anywhere one turns on these shores, no matter the genre, it is the ages of innocence that receive the greatest attention. Long before "Takkyuu Ai-chan" (Little Ping-Pong Ai), picked up her red paddle and sliced white balls across the green slate on TV variety shows in the 1990s, there was a succession of pre-pubescent entertainers who commanded the Japanese imagination. Most, of course, were (and continue to be) female; most decked out in short skirts, sporting pig tails and voices that sound like they'd spent too many months hitting on the helium. The definitive exemplar has proven to be Moruningu Musume (Morning Daughter), the mega-member, multi-million selling female ensemble whose shelf life has defied the odds (and outlasted any number of its own retirees). If Moruningu Musume is emblematic of the imperatives of ReDotPop, then one achieves senility (and hence must suffer termination) when one is old enough to enter a bar without fear of being carded. Which is another way of saying that a basic law of ReDotPop is that "cuteness" is served.
But Japan is more than lolikon the state of Lolita consciousness, or obsession with budding women. Under the accreting weight of an aging, less potent population, public attention has naturally, effortlessly been ensnared by the spectacular ascent of 15-year-olds who jump from junior high to professional soccer. It is easier (or certainly less discomfiting) to regard a skin-head lad with scintillating speed and cat-like quickness as "a (national) treasure" (to paraphrase his Brazilian-born coach), than to regard his peers(as many often do) as a national nightmare. His is a generation that threatens to end Japanese civility (if not society) as we know and have come to love it.
All this talk about youth leads to an obvious question: is pop only for the young? Well, no, of course not. My folks who grew up in America in the 1930s feasting on a steady diet of Gershwin and Gershwin, Hemingway and Stein, then later Ella and Satchmo, and Gable and Monroe remain avid consumers of pop. They still catch every movie screened at the local AMC multiplex; they read most of the bestsellers on the New York Times Top Ten. They also check out the newest exhibitions or theatrical premiers. At the same time, they don't always content themselves with the latest Drew Barrymore film or OutKast CD. For one, there's always another Nicholson pic coming down the pike, or Updike novel to digest something appealing to them that is clearly aimed at their generation. For another reason, when it comes time for them to get into a popcult groove, there are always holdovers; vestiges of idioms and creative moments past that are available for sampling. For my folks, youth can persist, so long as it's on vinyl or magnetic tape. It can always be accessed on the trusty Motorola with a Sinatra 45 under the needle. But it can ever emerge through a VCR in the guise of Bogey doing his stand-up thing on a Casablanca airstrip. Yeah, they do read Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly, although they probably prefer Elmore Leonard (who still has to take a back seat to Raymond Chandler in their cultural frame).
My point? Well, for one thing, pop is not just an artifact of the present; it has always existed. And two, pop is not simply a cherry blossom; not only not even primarily of the moment. Pop is most certainly not so ephemeral, or else my folks would have starved from mal-entertainment years ago. Nor does it mean that once pop is born it must be retired. Pop moves from past to present and, thanks to technology and memory (and all those things that are often viewed as too unseemly to mention aloud, such as capitalism and democracy) it can endure for decades. Pop may be consumed by generations to come (just check out the longevity on that Mozart kid) who decide that there are good reasons to keep this dude's vision or that gal's insights around. Pop can even be rediscovered by a generation, on an entirely different continent, even by folks who dwell in an entirely different language community. Like folks in Japan.
Consider the case of Queen, for example. It turns out that this past month Freddie Mercury and company did gangbusters in ReDotland. Thanks to an assist by a trendy TV drama called "Pride" ("Puraido" in Japanese), one of rock's greatest bands has proven that you don't have to die when your inspirational leader, major composer, and lead singer does. Propelled by the ten-week series, which features at least one Queen song in each installment, the Queen compilation "Jewels" has shot to the top of ReDotPop's CD charts. Currently it checks in at number two, but according to Queen's official website, the album was the first by international male artists to hold Japan's number one position for consecutive weeks since "BAD" by Michael Jackson (remember him?) in 1987. A quick scan of the current charts also indicates that, aside from Queen, the only other CD in the top 20 featuring artists from beyond the archipelago is something called Venus: Best Girl Hits of the World, sporting selections by Janet Jackson (remember her?), Aaliyah, Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue, Norah Jones, and Sarah Brightman.
Pride, which is the kind of standard, sugar-coated pabulum that dominates Japanese "golden time" (and epitomizes contemporary Japanese sensibilities), centers on the heretofore un-mined sport of ice hockey and spotlights SMAP-hunk Kimura Takuya (who else?) in the lead role. We are compelled to watch not just because in cookie-cutter Japan, something that is new or different is considered fresh and kakko-ii (stylish), but also because in cookie-cutter Japan, to fail to watch what is new or different would be to risk failing to catch the crest of the latest trend and, thus, one would be left to swim on one's own in the proverbial wake of that fast-departing boat. The result is that subscription rates for the latest ReDotPop craze idea will flame wildly for a nanosecond bursting the hit counter before even more quickly petering out into the nether zone of null and void. (Anyone remember tamagochi, for instance?).
Kimutaku, of course, lends the lion's share of kakko-ii cache to Pride. While he may not look like the fearsome scoring machine he is purported to be in the show, his skating skills, honed by his earliest SMAP years roller blading across stage, are convincing. Less appealing is his love affair with the girl-next-door. (In the ultimate bow to cute so important a factor to ReDotPop his name, "halu", means "spring". Her name, "aki", means "fall". So that obviously proves that this had to be a match not simply foreordained but also consecrated by nature). Even more preposterous is the notion that this less-than-average athletic specimen could actually become the first Japanese to play in the National Hockey League. That's almost as ridiculous as accepting that a thousand screaming fans would arrive at the airport to greet his return from Vancouver. Which, in turn, is as unbelievable as the notion that Japanese news media would care enough about hockey and Halu's season in the States to accord him in-depth nation-wide television interviews.
Forced cuteness and impossibilities in suspending disbelief aside, what really seems to have worked in Pride is the Queen bit. So much so that web pages have proliferated detailing which songs have appeared in which Pride scenes. For those of you who might wish to keep score at home, the tally stood thus: "I Was Born to Love You" (the series theme song and, not coincidentally, the current number 12 on the J-Pop singles charts), "We Will Rock You", "We are the Champions", "Don't Stop Me Now", "Too Much Love Will Kill You", "Let Me Live", "You're My Best Friend", "Radio Ga Ga", "Somebody to Love", "Another One Bites the Dust", "Crazy Little Thing Called Love", and, of course, one of the most influential rock songs of all time, "Bohemian Rhapsody".
One message to be gleaned from the Pride/Queen marriage can be found in numerous other quarters, as well. It is the rampant cultural enfolding perpetrated by the machinations of ReDotPop. This, of course, is done in order to maximize audience share; but also as a means of ensuring that when the past is spun into the present, it is more intelligible and more easily decipherable, if not more palatable. This is not only the Queen variety of enfolding, but projects pop to re-envision, reinvigorate, if not reinvent, the original. Look around our world today and recognize the verité: witness how Mozart gave rise to Amadeus, how The Bible begot The Passion, how Dawn of the Dead 2004 cannibalized Dawn of the Dead 1979. This regurgitation of pop is a preferred strategy, then, on both sides of the Pacific.
And it may not be only the reproductive devises of popular culture, themselves, that let this reinvention happen; those CDs, television programs, sporting events, talent agencies, internet web sites. No, if events of the last week are any judge, it may dwell in the more traditional, official institutions of education or government, as well; the third-sector associations that create and market character goods for their international events, for instance. Or the school-sanctioned graduation ceremonies that promiscuously mix Pachabel with Tinker Bell, Debussy with Disney. I know this for a fact because of the graduation ceremony I attended a few days ago. My 12-year-old son played the cherry blossom that has come to full bloom in grade school and is now celebrating his passage to the more worldly footpath of junior high. What I found remarkable during this public rite of passage was a musical program that blended John Denver's "Country Roads" with SMAP's "sekai ni hitotsu dake no hana" ("In the world there is only one flower like you"), and Bizet's Carmen with Yuzu's "Mata aeru hima de" (Until We Meet Again). In short, the ceremonial accompaniment was a ReDotPop mix in which past met present, and West melds with East. The result was a robust concoction that announced itself as "everyday culture".
Back in the (official) realm of ReDotPop, one can look beyond Pride to another golden hour drama, Shinsengumi, to find these dynamics similarly at work. Shinsengumi was an actual group, born of a Hobbesian time in Japan's history, a moment of turbulence in the 1860s characterized by extreme danger, treachery, and lawlessness. This was the time when Japan appeared rudderless, as it was contending with the shock of enforced opening by the West. The ways of the past, the logics holding sway over the present, seemed without meaning and, in their stead, licentiousness quickly filled the societal gaps. Out of desperation, the old guard recruited master swordsmen to the imperial capital of Kyoto to restore order. At first, 200 warriors were enlisted, but the local authorities soon recognized that this was no less a prescription for dystopia. They quickly dismissed 90% of the samurai, leaving behind a core group of 20, who became dubbed Shinsengum" ("Newly Selected Corps").
The band was headed by two rivals: Serizawa Kamo and Kondo Isami (the latter ultimately eliminating the former at the behest of the Protector of Kyoto). Their story, and that of their warriors-in-training and residence, is rich. For this reason, this seminal moment in Japanese history has been told time and again in academic works, novels, manga, movies and television programming. Currently, Shinsengumi is being reprised as a so-called "Taiga Drama", an annual year-long series put together by NHK, Japan's public broadcasting corporation. Taiga means "great river", and these dramas are set up as wide-ranging epics that span 50 installments. The series generally center on some important historical event or figure and feature large casts. For faithful readers of this column, it should come as no surprise that one of Shinsengumi's major characters is portrayed by SMAPster Katori Shingo. Proof, again, (if one needed it) of the incestuous, claustrophobic nature of ReDotPop.
As for Shinsengumi, in point of fact, it was nothing more than a team of hit men hired by a repressive regime to maintain its tenuous grip on power. But, of course, this is not the message loaded in and disseminated by the government-supported, government-supportive NHK. Under their narrative vision, Shinsengumi has been repackaged in ways that will appeal to contemporary Japanese of any number of stripes. For the workaday salarymen, for instance, there is the notion of noble sacrifice for the greater good (substitute "economic corporation" for "local political lord" here and you can appreciate why); for young women, there is the fact that so many handsome young boys were willing to place their lives on the line not merely risk dying, but actually succumb well before their time. And they were willing to die not for a principle as much as for the sheer naive embrace of action; the energetic thrill of experiencing one's vitality, the exhilaration of expressing one's vigor. In a word, for the celebration of youth.
Perhaps this is why the idea of premature annulment resonates so among
ReDotPopsters. It resonates only with women but, as at least one author has observed, it resonates with a nation of Japanese. The fascination with shinsengumi is not as it is in the Last Samuraied and Kill Billed States due to that view that archaic warriors and antiquated ways of waging battle signify the lost, yet eternal soul of Japan. Rather, the popularity of this group inheres in its other symbolism: an homage in nationwide, annual ritual of cherry blossom watching: Japan's communal commemoration of the evanescence of life.
Shinsengumi, like cherry blossoms, hold central cultural power because they remind us of the unpredictability of life, of the fact that there are no guarantees, of the need to thrill in the moment. Because youth can be struck down in its moment of fullest flower, we must not mourn as much as celebrate. Youth is only once. And whether we actually relinquish our lives or simply persist, we all must abandon our naïve, passionate, impulsive, earnest selves. As our tender years yield to advanced age, we depart from the all-too-brief sojourn within these fresh skins.
Or, to appropriate the words of Freddie Mercury and Queen, so widely sampled today in ReDotPop:
This world has only one sweet moment
Set aside for us . . .
Who wants to live forever?
Who wants to live forever?
Forever is our today
Who waits forever anyway?
Ah, words penned as if Freddie had been a samurai poet in old Kyoto, lolling beneath the majestic boughs of an unfolding sakura, dreaming of a pop that is here and gone; ephemeral, yet eternal. And he is recognizing that as is true of this contradictory ReDotPop world that both encompasses and consumes us despite its daily demise, pop persists.
And the ReDot in Pop certainly lives forever.