How to collect Japanese pop music, part two: the essentials course

How to Collect Japanese Pop MusicLast week we got started on our exploration of Japanese pop music with the usual introductions – those supposedly boring bits called “background” and “context”. But then, J-pop is a pretty big beast to take on: the genres are clearer, but the history goes deep, and the barriers (as we explained last week) seem higher than in other cases, for some reason. This week, we get deep in the nitty gritty: we’ll be highlighting artists from here on out. We’ll be focusing on different genres for the five installments after this one, but now, we begin with the essentials.

By “essentials” we were thinking of good starting points as we dig deeper into Japanese pop music. These acts, inevitably, are relatively mainstream: they have international followings and have defined, in one way or another, the particular branch of J-pop they represent. (And no, no pineapple pen here.) As I began researching for this series I realized how many of these acts I have encountered before. Some I have learned to love, while others, I never really dug deep into. I mean, you know. We all have our preferences, after all. And again, the usual disclaimer: feel free to correct me from here on out.


And so we begin with Hikki. I have recounted this story before: my first encounter with Utada Hikaru – and perhaps with J-pop in general – was when a friend of mine played her album Deep River constantly in school. Chances are, unless you have a sibling who’s into visual kei or anime, when you think of J-pop, you think of Hikaru, perhaps the most influential Japanese artist of the noughties. Born to a musical family – her dad was a producer; her mother was an enka singer – she emerged at a time when the idol scene was making a resurgence, with Tetsuya Komuro’s pop acts dominating the charts. Choosing instead to go the singer-songwriter route, she released her Japanese debut album, First Love, in 1999. I’m posting “Automatic” here with the belated realization that this is another Hikki song that drilled its way to my head because of said friend’s constant looping.

Unlike her idol contemporaries, Hikki chose to adopt more genres, including a more pronounced R&B influence, perhaps an offshoot of her childhood in the United States. Her biggest success is arguably 2001’s Distance, the fourth biggest-selling album of all time in Japan, coming at the peak of her supposed rivalry with fellow singer Ayumi Hamasaki. Her later records saw her experiment more with styles and genres, especially on her 2006 album Ultra Blue. She also translated her success in Japan to a notable international career, releasing two English-language albums (apart from her 1998 release Precious, recorded under a different name before she became successful in Japan). Interest in her remains at almost mythical levels: despite an eight-year break, her latest album Fantôme topped the Oricon charts, and also made a dent in the United States and France.


Your other most likely entry point to J-pop – in this case, J-rock – is L’Arc-en-Ciel, perhaps the quintessential Japanese rock band. Founded in Osaka in 1991, at a time when grunge was sweeping the world, the group defied expectations with its, um, bright sound – anthemic, uplifting, still heavy; exactly the sound you’ll have in mind when you think of J-rock – and steadily built a following in Japan, and later elsewhere around the world. Their history is also somewhat troubled: the momentum gained by the release of their 1996 album True was jettisoned with the arrest of its drummer sakura (all small letters here; I don’t like it, but they do) for heroin possession, but their 1998 album Heart would be a runaway success after the popularity of single “Winter Fall”.

L’Arc has since toured the world, becoming the first Japanese act to perform at Madison Square Garden in New York. They have also kept things moving with several hiatuses and side projects – vocalist hyde, for instance, has had a successful solo career, as well as being one-half of the rock duo Vamps. (They do Halloween themed concerts. hyde just came on as Harley Quinn.) And then there’s their punk alter ego P’unk-en-Ciel, where the members swap instruments and refer to each other in capital letters. It definitely provides an oeuvre that their fans around the world have been more than willing to embrace.


Okay, there’s a third likely starting point: Pizzicato Five – and solely because “Sweet Soul Revue” was a chart hit here in the Philippines, a feat I don’t think either Hikki or L’Arc accomplished. Those were the times, yes? While they’re a one-hit wonder here, elsewhere the duo – they did start with five members, but were down to two by the time they saw massive success – is known for leading the Shibuya-kei movement, characterized by a love of horns and Swinging London culture. It’s a sound they stumbled upon, especially when Maki Nomiya joined as vocalist and they released the sample-heavy This Year’s Girl in 1991; they were more of a straightforward pop group when they were founded in 1979.

That translated to a dedicated following overseas, with the duo being picked up by American record label Matador Records, beginning with their 1994 EP Five By Five; they were very prolific – one release per year, roughly – until they parted ways in 2001. They’re just one of the many alternative-leaning Japanese groups that solidified that image of Nippon cool around the world throughout the years, a road first traveled by synthpop pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra and rock group Shonen Knife, and now by the many indie groups coming out of the country, like returning Manila visitors Toe. Of course, that throwback to the 60s didn’t hurt them.


Japan loves its idols, and the talent agency Johnny & Associates – responsible for some of Japan’s most enduring boy groups – is perhaps the most known name in the field. One of the agency’s groups, SMAP, is one of the biggest acts, if not the biggest act, in the country; they have sold roughly 35 million records in Japan alone. All 55 of their singles hit the top 10 of the Oricon charts; the most successful, “Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana”, is so iconic its lyrics are published in textbooks and taught to schoolchildren.

SMAP’s monumental success from their debut in 1991 arguably paved the way for other male idol groups in terms of longevity and possibility. These groups usually disband after a few years due to their members’ age – in a way, this remains the case for female groups, as seen in their continuing recruitment and graduation of members – but SMAP widened their appeal through their members’ pursuit of acting career, as well as their long-running TV variety show, SMAPxSMAP. Sure, Johnny & Associates hold a virtual monopoly on male idol groups, but without SMAP, the template for success now used by acts like Arashi and News would not be set. You can understand why the news of the group’s split – what were rumors at the beginning of this year were confirmed in August; they are parting ways at the very end of 2016 – would distress people.


We picked our final essential J-pop act simply because, in Shalla’s words, “they’re better”. E-girls is one of many female idol groups in the Japanese pop landscape, and while they don’t get as much attention as the likes of AKB48 and Momoiro Clover Z, there’s something much more distinct about these girls. Perhaps it’s the fact that they’re a collective of several idol groups, and their individual work could stand on their own, unlike, say, how samey AKB48’s sister groups across the world can be. (Shalla mentioned Dream before, citing the vocal chemistry of their former members.)

Like most female idol groups, E-girls has a rolling, ever-changing roster; members graduate and trainees come in to replace them. But, again, these are three different groups, lumped together under one collective as they share the same label. They promote together, but each group has a history of their own. Flower, the newest of the three, has a dreamier image; Happiness, founded in 2008, has a more powerful image and plays up their dancing; and Dream, at sixteen years the oldest of the three, is of a more traditional vein, save for a period when they went all-dancey to shed their idol image. The set-up also means it’s easier for their members to break out. You’ll have to admit, AKB48 can be incredibly anonymous sometimes. [NB]


[Next week: we dig deeper as we go genre by genre, starting with Japan’s idol groups.]


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