For me, growing up Japanese pop music used to occasionally threw up something interesting, such as a high energy rock take on ‘Thundercats are loose’ sung in Cantonese. In seemed that Japanese pop artists seemed to simply try and emulate Western pop and rock music, and sometimes something interesting appeared as a by product.
What happened since was the explosion of J-POP. For a Westerner it is quite hard to get ones head around, to make sense of it, it seems creepy, yet kind of wonderful at the same time. Wonderful, because it has become it’s very own genre.
The definition of ‘pop music’ has always been a shifting, new pop acts often attempt to re-define pop to carve out a niche for themselves. Pop retains the ‘popular music’ idoim as it is perhaps where music meets marketing, things that sell are popular. In pop, marketing has become the increasingly dominant force.
In the west the influence of marketing and sales promotion, has traditionally been viewed as an anti-musical force. Music was what real musicians did, this was rock music, marketing was ‘selling out’. This left those more comfortable about marketing being regarded as pop acts and not perhaps to be taken seriously. There were always interesting cross overs of rock musicians playing with the pop genre and pop acts taking elements from contemporary rock music.
The late 1980s saw the rise of the manufactured pop band, whose careers were intensely managed, though still interesting as social phenomenons nontheless. These early performers desired a ring of credibility, a creative input, for example the likes of Kylie Minogue started writing their own material. Then came the boy and girl groups, where factors such as image, dance routines became more important than the music.
Basically, my understanding is that, J-POP looked at these manufactured pop acts and ran with it, unconstrained by any notion of musical and political credibility, or the need to appeal to a specific demographic, such as teenaged girls. to this is added what i can only describe as ‘cuteness’, cuteness simply seems an aim in itself, rather than a by-product. Well, J-pop does appeal widely to teenage girls, but it has become bigger than that. Each j-pop act strives to take a new direction, strike a new image. For example, Babymetal, do j-POP to a backdrop of high energy metal chords. Or Orange Caramel, dressing up as raw fish packed as Sushi; it is hard to imagine a European pop act pulling this off!
I stated above that it seems creepy. Creepy because perhaps to a Western European, the existence of young girls on a stage playing with very sexual imagery seems wrong, the first thought who is exploiting these girls. Really, though this is pop, there are many other aspects of the modern world reflecting in these acts and young people have always played with the ideas of world they are growing into as a way to learn to understand them. The imagery is done in a cute way, it’s not blatant, it is more to do with playing with sexual imagery rather than sex itself, sexual imagery is so prevalent in modern society. In Western music, outside of pop, there is a reluctance to play with such imagery as rock music is liberal in focus, looking towards new ways of thinking. However, this liberalism is perhaps shackled by political direction, held back by the desire to get across the message of promoting gender equality. There are other issues such as open discussion of the performers weight, which make me re-coil, but Western media is equally cursed in this regard, at least the J-POP world seems more open about it.
Japanese culture has traditionally been more conservative than the liberal West. however J-POP seems to be embracing the new globalised world culture of the internet, rather than viewing the reduction in importance of native culture as being such an issue.
Pop has always been about more than just music, music often takes a back seat. Rock and other genres take on the mantle on progressing musical ideas. That isn’t to say that J-POP doesn’t take on elements found in other genres.
J-POP, K-POP [Korea] or indeed any genre has it’s merits and issues to which require mental processing for the uninitiated. In many ways it is pure pop music, in the way the music scene in the West has always kind of wanted to fully embrace in all it’s wonderful crassness. Aqua have always been one of my favourite pop acts, yet as always been regarded disdainfully in UK at least. In a multi-cultural world, it is quite possible and indeed a good thing that there is both good music and art forms that have stemmed from music, for which music is merely a part of the package. Long live J-POP!