Last week we did idol groups. This week we do soloists. And that, of course, is a very, very broad thing – and for a newcomer it’s quite difficult to even attempt to cover the whole breadth of this thing. So, apologies if we miss out on someone important, and apologies if we focus too much on the pop side of things. But then again, J-pop’s very pop side is a pretty powerful thing, attracting fans around the world not just for the music but also for the image, with J-pop’s biggest stars also acting as popular product endorsers.
So, pretty much like idols, then. But one’s creative license tends to be freer if you’re not within the idol system. Just take Utada Hikaru for instance: she drew from many influences, but notably contemporary American R&B, on her work, and that has not made her any less a success than, say, Morning Musume. Most of the acts I’m spotlighting this week tend to compose their own songs, or at the very least, have a say in the direction of their careers. I think that’s what makes J-pop a much more diverse beast than K-pop – well, at least that’s if your approaching it as a newcomer.
In the late 90s there was a (manufactured) rivalry between two Japanese pop giants. Hikki was on one side; Ayu was on another – and Ayu was the one they named Empress of J-pop. Ayumi Hamasaki may not be the best performer out there – I wasn’t exactly into her when I first heard her stuff for a stage of the Fantasy Festival – but she attracted fans with her heartfelt lyrics (she’s written her own songs from the beginning) and her visual aplomb. She’s also notable for fighting for artistic freedom from the very beginning. Take her fourth album, I Am…: she wrote all of its songs – and then she rejigged the whole thing in reaction to 9/11. While to that point she was already a success in Japan, I Am… was her breakthrough in Asia, fueled in part by a slowdown in her home country. (She would later make a bid for global success with a series of remix albums.)
Ayu stumbled upon a music career after being deemed too short to become a model. Her dislike for vocal lessons in Japan led her to be trained in New York; her letters piqued her manager, who suggested she write her own songs. Fast forward almost a quarter century and she’s one of the best-selling artists in Japan, holding the record for most number-one hits by a female artist. From the pop-rock flavors of her 1999 debut A Song for ××, she transitioned to dance for her follow-up Loveppears, explored more genres in 2006’s (Miss)understood, swung to dance in 2009’s Next Level, and swung back to rock for Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus the following year. Her almost confessional lyrics belie her forward-looking visuals, and while she was a popular endorser at the beginning, she pushed hard to be seen as a “person” rather than a “product”.
Some have compared Ayu to Madonna, while some would contest that comparison is better suited for Namie Amuro. Then again, Madonna was a chameleon throughout her career, so why not both? Namie’s had a different path: she began as an idol, fronting an unsuccessful band that got a lift when her modelling career took off. Her breakthrough came with her 1995 solo debut, “Body Feels Exit”, produced by Tetsuya Komuro, whose work was sweeping the charts at the time – although her biggest hit, “Can You Celebrate?”, would come two years later. That remains the best-selling single of any female artist in Japan. After a sag in her career, she made a successful return with “Baby Don’t Cry”, from her 2007 record Play; by then she had properly refined her R&B sound. Her next four albums would top the Oricon album charts, the latest being 2015’s Genic, that one firmly aiming at the dance floor and the global market.
Compared to Ayu (and Hikki, to an extent), Namie is part of that group of J-pop performers with a more forward-looking bent. Take Koda Kumi, who has a more sexy, provocative image – she pretty much made wearing lingerie in public acceptable, to the point that the “ero kawaii” trend can be traced to her. Sheena Ringo was much more adventurous when it comes to her musical boundaries; I’ll slip a spoiler here and mention that we’ll talk about her in a few weeks’ time. But then, there are others who became popular despite playing it safe, so to speak: one example is Hitomi, who scored hits in the mid-1990s as part of the Komuro family, but has now played with electropop in recent years.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is not one of those “safe” artists, although there’s always been a tinge of manufactured in her, unlike her seniors. Odd, considering she began as a fashion blogger – she was always outrageous – and only stumbled into a music career when she met producer Yasutaka Nakata (who often works with Perfume). Emerging at a time when Western pop delivered hyper-image stars like Lady Gaga, Kyary debuted in 2009 with “PonPonPon”, and her subsequent singles were relative hits both in Japan and elsewhere across the world.
Frankly, I hesitate including Kyary here, because her later singles seem to suggest a career rut – odd considering that Perfume does not seem to suffer from it. But if there’s an artist who best shows the impact of image in Japanese music, or at least how we perceive it to be, it’s her. Her may singles have not topped the Oricon charts, but it’s her fashion sense – the whole Harajuku thing Gwen Stefani helped romanticize in the west – that got her more attention. Then again, she really is a fashion blogger who happened to sing.
Personally I was hoping for more male soloists on this list, but while mapping this out I realized we’re covering a bunch of them on next week’s J-rock course. But then, those are rock vocalists: there’s still a significant number of soloists performing more traditional styles (which we’ll not cover), and then there are those who lean towards jazz or R&B styles. Ken Hirai is one of them, an artist with R&B leanings, one that did not see immediate success. While he debuted in 1995 with the single “Precious Junk”, it took him five years – and the single “Lakuen” – to surge in popularity.
Ken later released three more widely-loved singles: “Ōki na Furudokei” – a remake of a Japanese nursery rhyme – was an unexpected success in 2002; 2004’s “Hitomi o Tojite” became Japan’s best-selling single that year; and 2005’s “Pop Star” became some sort of pre-viral hit because of its music video. However, when it comes to R&B, Japan has a bigger name. Misia, famed for her vocal range, made her debut in 1998 and scored her biggest hit with “Everything” two years later. Chart geeks would know that that song is only behind Namie Amuro’s “Can You Celebrate” and Utada Hikaru’s “Automatic” for biggest sales by a female Japanese artist. Others might remember Charice covering that song.
Finally, Yui. She’s a last-minute suggestion and I thought her story is quite interesting. Incredibly shy as a kid, she always loved music, and later dropped out of high school to take up guitar and songwriting lessons. One of her early singles, “Feel My Soul”, became a major hit because of her work on the primetime drama Fukigen na Gene. She released a few more singles after, and her debut album, 2006’s From Me to You, was reasonably successful, peaking at fourth on the Oricon charts. Her biggest success would come when she starred in the film Taiyō no Uta, her acting debut. The film was a critical success, but her music took the bigger spotlight: “Good-bye Days”, written specifically for the film, proved to be her breakthrough.
Her next four albums would top the Oricon charts, becoming popular across the region. However, after the release of her single “Fight” she announced her decision to retire from music – or at least from solo work – at just 25. She has since returned as the frontwoman of the band Flower Flower, releasing their debut album to moderate success in 2014. Arguably Yui captures that Japanese trait of being your best – one that manifests differently from idols to groups to soloists, and yet sticks out. I’d say it’s unusual for someone (very) known for her solo work to retreat and work as a band, but there you go. Artistic control. [NB]
[Next week: we dive deep into J-rock’s legends.]