Are Major Labels pushing the new wave of J-pop?

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Last week, I stumbled open something that turned out to be unexpectedly good: a collaboration between FEMM, FAKY and Yup’in, a temporary unit occasionally called FAMM’IN. A team of artists that could easily trigger one of the biggest mediocrity fest ever, basically.

As you can guess, I’m not a huge fan of the three acts from Avex, one of the biggest Major Label companies of the Japanese music industry. These groups never found a way to stand out in the market, bathing instead in the limb of mediocrity: FEMM had some catchy EDM tunes in the past – but shown a clear inconsistence at the same time – while the other two hardly ever came up with something that I could find interesting. Last years’ terrible collaboration between FEMM and FAKY was the icing on the cake, and convinced me to stay away from these girls and their music.

This time around though, I’ve been proved wrong. Well, at least for seven minutes.

FAMM’IN indeed released the Music Video for circle, an electronic-oriented number mixing vocals auto-tuned into oblivion and traditional Japanese instruments, watered down in an unpredictable but functional structure. The track showcases an interesting contrast between different elements, and it does a good job at that, maintaining a soothing and almost mysterious vibe throughout its duration. Simply put, it’s a track that works greatly. Pretty much all the opposite you would expect from three acts that usually bring mediocre upbeat pop tunes on the shelves of Tower Records.

What’s even more interesting, though, is that the rest of the EP the track is featured in is exactly what these acts have been doing so far, which is mostly mediocre music. Only circle makes the difference, and not coincidentally, it’s the the track chosen to promote the release. Curious, isn’t it? This fact, and the thoughts of Tokyo-based journalist Patrick St. Michel brought me to think: Why is Avex doing this? Then I realized, that this is actually what one of the biggest Major labels in Japan has been doing for a while: promoting music that brings a breeze of fresh air to the J-pop scene.

Over the last five years, the japanese colossus indeed kept a vigilant eye on artists that, in a way or another, brought fresh sonorities to the J-pop market and its several ramifications.

One of the first acts taken in consideration by Avex has been TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE, an Idol unit featuring Funk and Jazz influences greatly merged over a classic Idol pattern, reaching its momentum with the highly acclaimed record Limited Addiction. It’s no understatement that they have been one of the first groups of the 2010’s to make Idol pop relevant from the mere musical standpoint. Oddly enough, the major label tried to change the identity of the group by announcing the abandonment of the Idol scene to undertake an “artistic” path. The result? Nothing has truly changed, the unit lost one of its former members, and their music hasn’t been as interesting as before. Leaving aside this doubtful choice and its poor results, it is the mindset behind it that’s to notice: The will of making a standardized reality artistically more relevant. The same thing that happened in the seven minutes of circle.

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Seeing the matter from a broader point of view, the label had no problem in taking under its wings relevant acts that are changing the tides of today’s J-pop, with Oomori Seiko as prime example of the colossus’ lineup: The singer/songwriter, after gaining relevant and well deserved attention in the independent scene, made the big step by shifting to Avex, delivering two albums (including the excellent TOKYO BLACK HOLE) and evolving her style while delivering unique charisma through her music, becoming one of the most influential J-pop artists of our days. Taking another look at the past, the enrollment of the controversial Idol unit BiS, that shook the Idol scene with aggressive and provocative concepts, shown a clear interest in artists that can potentially play a game-changing role in certain niches. The same thing happened to the group’s spiritual successor BiSH, that’s gaining more and more popularity by the day with their punk rock influences and rebellious charisma.

Seeing a gigantic major label like Avex trying to push the artists that are bringing a breathe of fresh air in the J-pop scene, is a sign that times are changing: People is getting tired of the classic Diva concept (ironically represented by Avex artists like Ayumi Hamasaki and Namie Amuro) and of the usual Idol projects made of plastic smiles and uninspired songs. And as the generation of artists that created these now aged patterns is slowly becoming less and less relevant, a new wave of young and innovative artists is gaining ground. Avex clearly knows this, and other labels such as Warner Music Japan are slowly recognizing the rise of this new reality, with the recent signing of electronic outfit Charisma.com and the upcoming deal with rising artist Suiyoubi no Campanella as proof of this.

With this in mind, the hope is that major labels will play a relevant role in this generational change, giving exposure and artistic freedom to the countless valid artists of the independent scene, willing to take their spot in the japanese scene with originality and talent. And from the looks of it, that’s exactly what’s gonna happen.

– Alex

A new chapter in the “WTF Japan” saga: Kamen Joshi “supports” Donald Trump

Ladies and gentlemen, rejoice: we may be in front of yet another “WTF Japan” moment!

Idol group Kamen Joshi,  mostly known for wearing masks on stage and for their unquestionable marketing skills, released a video through their YouTube channel in “support” of… Donald Trump. Yup, that blonde dude running up for president in the U.S, who’s been creating quite a fuss for his statements about immigrants and many other matters.

The video kicks off with a message from the girls (sporting Donal Trump’s T-shirts) saying they want to help “Make America great again!”, the notorious slogan of the Republican’s candidate. Right after this pretty ridiculous intro, they start dancing to their own song Genkidane☆, mostly know for reaching the top of the Oricon chart in January with its twelve editions, taking full advantage of the non-sense nature of Japan’s most famous ranking . During the short dance, several messages appear on screen, referring to some of Trump’s most infamous statements like “Build the wall, make it 10 feet higher!”, “We want to come to America legally!”, but also “Power level is over 9000!” and “Make Anime real, donate ¥0!”, showing how, in the end, this is nothing more than a joke. A bad one for sure, but still a joke, as pointed out in the description of the video.

What kinda annoys me the most here, is… why you wanna do something like this? I know the will of drawing attention is strong with this group, and I do enjoy looking at Kamiya Erina’s gifts, but why? Can’t they just try something else to grab attention like, uhm, doing actual decent music or something at least conceptually interesting? Was it really necessary to create another “Weird Japan” moment for the world to see? I know Donald Trump is a trending topic these days, but using it to try to become the next viral thing on the web… that’s pretty ridiculous. Especially considering how these girls clearly have no idea who Donald Trump actually is.

Overall, despite being a joke, this is pretty stupid. But you know what’s even more stupid? The people who’s taking it seriously.

Have a nice week!

– Alex

Never give up girls | The history of Negicco

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There’s still a lot of confusion in recognizing Idol units in the midst of cute girls, shining smiles and sugary melodies: Someone says even Perfume are technically idols, and even though this might be true in a way, I don’t think the three girls from Hiroshima would fully agree with this. But does it even matter in the end? In all honesty, no. Labelling an artist is sometimes useless, as only music and talent is what makes the difference in the end, and Niigata based unit Negicco have lots of good music and passion to deliver, showcased in several of the trio’s discography with their 2013 studio album Melody Palette as the high peak of it and the best proof of what Nao, Kaede and Megu are made of. What makes Negicco so particular and, in a way, special, is their history and never-give-up attitude, and to understand this at the best, it’s necessary to take a few steps back.

Negicco formed in 2003 under contract of the Japan Agricultural Cooperative Group, as young promoters of the local Yawahada Negi, a particular kind of green onion related to Niigata’s typical food. While this may not sound like the most serious or enthralling beginning, the real intentions of these three girls were anything but a joke: Indeed, after the end of their promotional period, Nao, Megu, Kaede and Miku (who left the group in 2006) continued their activities together as an idol unit, keeping the green onion leaks as symbol of their identity.

Produced by their hardcore fan connie and creating the choreographies by themselves, Negicco continued to dance and sing for all the 2000s, and between change of formations and label shifts, in 2010 the three girls won the local idol award U.M.U. , a real turning point for their career. In 2011, after the release of their first Best album, they left their old label to join T-Palette, Tower Records’ indie label, finally getting more attention by the national audience. The three girls then started to release some very good singles, such as Ai no Tower of Love and Idol Bakari Kikanaide, to then release their first original album Melody Palette, a solid and consistent pop album with lots of variety and very good tracks emphasized by valuable collaborations, including tofubeats, Yasuharu Konishi (Pizzicato Five), RAM RIDER and many more, a factor that blessed the album with a very positive recognition in 2013.

After the release of their first original studio album, the girls explored new musical genres, a constant approach that always characterized their thirteen-year career, and started to adopt more acoustic and jazzy sonorities to their sound, with nice results like their classic track Sayonara Music and others like Sunshine Nihonkai and the most recent Hikari no spur, even though the same can’t be said for other tracks. The release of their second studio album Rice & Snow brought mixed feelings: While some tracks like some of the ones mentioned above are good, as well as others exploring new sonorities spacing from Techno-pop to a slightly Shibuya Kei feel, most of the other ones kinda resulted in less attractive compositions, leading to a controversial result represented by disappointment due to some shallow tracks and excitement for the future brought by some interesting and well done compositions exploring different sonorities. After all, this is what happens when an artist dares to explore new influences and constantly renew its sound, something that needs courage and tenacity, which are strong points of Negicco’s personality and something absolutely admirable: “Trying” can result into success or failing, but the will of constantly offering something different with great effort is what makes an artist alive, and that’s why Negicco are still a constant presence in the Idol scene. These girls are tenacious and incredibly passionated, and even now, after more than ten years, they still perform in small stages and put one hundred percent in their performances, something that definitely not all the short-life idol units out there can claim, and you can bet they will be like this for many years to come. Their strong personality is perfectly showcased in live performances where all the charisma of these three girls comes out, dancing and singing tirelessly, and constantly involving the audience: There are no special effects here, only lots of passion and fun, and their down-to-earth personality will make you love them instantly.

Let’s be honest: If they really wanted to, today Negicco could have been one of the most successful Idol acts of the mainstream scene: They have talent, passion, and their production team can craft valuable compositions, sometimes even above the standard of the Idol pop scene. And while all the most famous acts unavoidably move to Tokyo at a certain point of their career, Negicco decided to “protect” their identity and origins by remaining in Niigata, as their wish is still to represent their hometown at the best and with lots of love.

The truth is, Negicco are an anomaly in the Idol scene: in thirteen years they could have reached any milestone a standard Idol group dreams of, but at the same time, as local idols, they reached a national (and also global) fame that no other group in their category ever achieved, dancing, singing, crying and smiling for thirteen years, something that most of the Idol groups out there can only dream of. And despite their conservative, sometimes rebellious approach towards the Idol scene, they probably represent the most natural and human form of it, something that after all these years, judging from the tears they shed everytime they’re in front of their ever growing fanbase, is finally starting to pay off.

– Alex 

Should AKB48 open the Tokyo 2020 Olympics?

credits: The Japan Times

credits: The Japan Times

There’s been a lot of fuss in the last days regarding AKB48, the most popular, loved and hated Idol unit of today’s Japanese music industry. Everything started a week ago when Yasushi Akimoto, founder and producer of the group also member of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics executive board, proposed to choose the girls as performers of the opening ceremony for this important event, words that immediately unchained discussions on the web that reached the peak when cross-dressing personality Matsuko Deluxe stated that AKB48 would be an “embarrassment” for Japan, leading to a situation of great confusion between fans defending their favorite group and detractors throwing hate like never before, other than globally famous headlines with big names and small knowledge on the subject speaking nonsense in the middle: Long story short, nothing with a bit of sense is coming out of it.

So, in order to understand the matter at the best, it’s necessary to take a step backwards and ask ourselves a question: Is there any sense behind all the hate towards AKB48?

The answer is no, there’s no sense in it. It’s not about defending the group, it’s about all the people hating these girls for the most futile reasons (how do you hate a music group anyway?). Sure, it’s not like the famous Idol unit avoided controversies in the past, as questionable events stained their image more than once: The most notorious and sad episode is certainly the case of Minegishi Minami, the girl spotted coming out of her partner’s house that later shaved her hair and apologized in tears in a video that went viral. This happened because the girl broke the rule of the group that denies any kind of sentimental relationship (something she definitely knew when she signed her contract, by the way) and self-punished herself for not following it, a kind of gesture that finds its roots deep in the Japanese culture, but that doesn’t justify the brutality of a video that was simply unnecessary. I could also mention the pathetic AKBaby promotion seen in 2011, where fans could upload pictures of their faces online and “merge” it with one of the members’ pic to see what wonderful baby would come out from this “fusion”, something that’s just plain ridiculous. But apparently this only makes part of the past now, as most of the haters already forgot about these episodes and still keep on detesting AKB48 mainly for their generally attractive image, showcased in videos where all the members dance in bikini by the seaside, in photobooks where the undeniable beauty of some members is shown at the best, and in their provocative outfits that tease the thoughts of their fans. Wait a second: Isn’t that exactly what almost all the Idol groups out there do?

The general idea is that this “dirty” and “impure” sexy factor in Idol music that should “embarrass” Japan has been brought by AKB48, which is absolutely wrong: It was like this way before them, and it’ll probably be forever. As usual though, when you’re successful and popular you’re always going to attract all kinds of critics, and my suspect is that people generally don’t accept the fact that Yasushi Akimoto created a perfect cash machine with an impeccable concept fueling it; Like it or not, these people is there for money, or else we wouldn’t call their products “manufactured groups”.

These people should seriously realize that AKB48 is generally just an Idol group like many others out there, except maybe for a couple of factors: their extremely shallow music, which, guess what, is something you barely hear coming out from the mouths of the detractors (but that’s subjective, really) and what is probably the only real problem with this group, which is the monstrous amount of copies they sell with each release and the impact they have on the industry; We’re talking about a group who can sell a million and half copies of a single in barely a week, thanks to exclusive contents featured in each one of the several editions every release gets, and in this case I think it’s fair to fault charts like Oricon that, while it shouldn’t alter the final results, it should impose some kind of filter on these kind of releases, something that should be applied with Johnny’s groups as well, because when you take a look at the Year End chart results and the first fifty (50) spots are all about 48, Arashi and similar, then you know there’s a problem. Other than that, this is another factor that’s targeted by some people labelling the AKB fans as “obsessive” and “ridiculous” for buying multiple editions of the same product; I don’t like this group’s music and I don’t claim myself a fan, but I have many friends who do, and during my trips to Japan I went with them in some of the famous 48 shops, and while curiously and silently browsing between the shelves of these undoubtedly fascinating places, I’ve seen in my friends the same passion I have for Perfume when looking for old and new releases to add to my collection: I, with my room completely filled with merchandise from the Hiroshima Techno-pop trio, am no different from them. We love our favorite group, and we support it, like anyone else. Simple as that.

But it’s not like something is gonna change, not yet at least, since everything can happen from here to five years. But still, should AKB48 really represent Japan at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics? I believe it depends on the approach and personality of this important event: In terms of performance, spectacularity and talent, there are many groups out there who can definitely do better than these girls. In terms of representing Japan’s music industry and actual culture, though, I think they can fairly find their place in the list of artists to choose for the opening ceremony.

But it’s all a matter of time, really. The situation could drastically change in five years. And after all, if One Direction performed at the London 2012 Olympics, why on earth shouldn’t AKB48 open the Tokyo 2020 Olympics?

– Alex