I stood next to the Palo Alto Station, waiting in the sweltering heat for the next Marguerite. A man behind me was conversing rather loudly with a woman: “You know, if you’ve never been to Japan, their music is kind of….” He trailed off.
I wanted to turn around. Music from Japan is kind of what? Cool? Not great?
If anything is for certain, Japanese music is eclectic. Who’s in? Who’s out? It can be difficult to keep up with the pace at which the art changes.
In an effort to clear the haze, let’s assemble a look at Japan’s current popular artists and “idols” (or singers who dance).
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: J-pop with the edge of electronica
Her stage name’s a mouthful, but Kyary’s songs are nationally popular and branded as the epitome of the “kawaii” (cute) culture, inspired from movements centered in Harajuku, Tokyo. As her international fan base grows steadily among those who appreciate electronic music merged with elements of “kawaii” and the bizarre, malls never stop blaring her music. The young artist is known for her rather eccentric, abstracted live and recorded performances, with choice images ranging from dancing brains to humanoid pink background dancers. Despite all the colorful outfits and interesting, quirky images found in Kyary’s music videos, she has had a very strict upbringing. Her mother taught her the value of perseverance and work ethic, which would later contribute to success in her music career.
If you’re entranced by the moving pale yellow shooting stars and raindrops in the music video “Yumeno Hajima Ring Ring” (“The beginning of dreams”), you might miss the subtle references to the 23-year old’s life. Behind the weirdnesses of anthropomorphic objects, cute pastel outfits and mismatched shoes lies the central concern of growing up. The “stalker”, a polar bear, is an extended metaphor for her concerned and supportive parent, a figure who is always there in times of happiness, sadness and everything in between, but who must leave once the child reaches adulthood. The idea of a lifetime, leading up to the artist’s graduation ceremony, is represented in traditional uniforms. Although the outfits have a “kawaii”, asymmetrical style, her last outfit definitely resembles a hakama, a traditional piece of Japanese attire usually reserved for formal occasions, graduation ceremonies in particular. Perhaps then, while music fans may enjoy the strangeness of the music videos or the poppy melodies, fans also appreciate the subtext of a more relatable, serious theme. Kyary’s songs are also not just a mixture of themes, but also a conglomeration of different styles and genres—from electronic to pure pop. For Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, music is a platform where she can be herself and embrace weirdness, a place where she can share and exercise her creativity with those who enjoy it.
Babymetal: J-pop with a dose of the heavy stuff
A very recent group that debuted in 2014 on Youtube to international fame, Babymetal is a heavy metal/Jpop group comprised of three young girls, aged 17-18. Su-metal (age 18) does the main vocals and dance, while Moametal (age 17) and Yuimetal (age 17) dance and scream along with their songs. Their song “Gimme chocolate!!”, racking up more than 61 million times, won its group the heavy metal world cup, hosted by UK’s magazine, “Metal Hammer”. Famous YouTube channels reference the band; their internationally successful concerts sell tickets out immediately. Yes, Babymetal has been growing strong for two years with a mainly young fanbase and will continue to do so, both globally and nationally.
Babymetal’s approach is to combine heavy metal, Jpop, and idol culture, utilizing traditional concepts like karate (in “Karate”) and megitsune (female foxes) in a very modern style. It defies the simply “kawaii” stereotypes of idol musical groups through its incorporation of heavy metal, a genre typically associated with strength and non-kawaii characteristic. They have honed an encouraging approach to spreading positive messages on serious social issues, like widespread bullying. (Their tune “Ijime Dame Zettai” translates to “No bullying, ever.”) Despite the fact that most of their lyrics are in Japanese and emphasize Japanese culture, Babymetal retains a loyal fanbase worldwide; this may suggest that a new, surprising mix of ideas that happens to sound pleasing to the ear appeals to the world today.
A pattern amongst such emerging pop artists/groups is their overlap among genres, and merging of new styles which seem to be well-received among the public. We seem to be looking for new trends and unusual deviations from more traditional Jpop styles, but is this the only way emerging artists can succeed—by mixing genres? Looking at Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Babymetal, Jpop certainly seems to be headed in a direction of blending genres, but is there another path Jpop could take in the future?
Let’s take a look at an immensely successful group that actually deviates from the recent trend of Jpop blending: SMAP. This teen-boy-band-unit, who started out as Sports Music Assemble People, have stayed strong for 28 years. SMAP quickly rose to the top of Japanese hit bands and is still currently one of the most, if not the most, famous musical group in Japan. SMAP has become so popular its fans are from all over the world, but unlike Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s fans who love electronic music and Babymetal’s young heavy metal followers, SMAP’s fan base crosses all genre, gender, age, and nationality lines.
SMAP’s appeal and popularity comes in many forms. Members of SMAP are not just trending singers and dancers. As individuals, they are also known for their multi-talented personalities: hosting regular television programs, acting, learning and studying Korean, and painting.
Unfortunately, SMAP plans to disband on December 31st, 2016. Understandably, this news has shocked numerous fans in Japan, many Asian countries, and around the world. Once this piece of celebrity news got out, reactions from fans and media were so strong that SMAP had at one point decided to continue (before restating their decision to split up). Their popularity and impact even affected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who expressed relief over SMAP’s temporary decision to honor their fans’ wishes and continue performing. SMAP was also chosen as a cheering supporter for the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
SMAP skyrocketed to superstar status with their hit song, “Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana” (“The Only Flower in the World”), released in 2003. One of the longest music television programs that broadcasts weekly in Japan to date ranked “Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana” as the #1 most influential Japanese song this September. When news leaked that SMAP was on the verge of splitting up in January and August, Oricon, the Japanese equivalent of “Billboard”, ranked this song as #1. Fans have been desperately purchasing the single, refusing to believe the SMAP disband, others accepting the news and giving the band a final farewell. No doubt SMAP touched many lives; #世界に一つだけの花 (#TheOnlyFlowerintheWorld) is trending, and SMAP fans have successfully made the song a triple million single—it has in fact exceeded three million. SMAP is a large influence in the music industry and yet has somehow managed to remain in Jpop instead of crossing over to other genres with the intention of creating new music. The question is, how?
One answer lies in SMAP’s ability to capture uplifting, profound messages of life in its lyrics. “Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana” is an internationally recognized song, still played in shopping malls or on radio. It is known for its catchy (but not excessively repetitive) chorus, the distinct soft melody line, and its empowering lyrics. In particular, one line involves English: “number one” and “only one”. The song places a special distinction between the two phrases; the translated lyric is “No need to be number one. Just be yourself, be the ONLY ONE.” “[N]umber one” refers to competition and comparison, but SMAP clearly supports individuality as in the “ONLY ONE”. Furthermore, the flower is an extended analogy for the unique individual. The many flower types, different seeds, and the statement that all flowers are different may refer to the diversity of humans, but each and every one is described as beautiful. This emphasis on the unique individual is reflected in the members themselves: their interests are diverse, and their individual choreographies are uniquely different from one another. The members of SMAP each have their own take of the same dance routine in all performances.
The song “Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana” celebrates diversity and encourages people to stay proud of who they are, with peace and in unity. It is a message that is especially relevant today, now more than ever.
Hence its musical beauty, coupled by strong, positive, and bold themes that not many musical artists and idols would delve into, has resonated with the public and survived decades along with SMAP. Yet, the popularity of rising artists including Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Babymetal and their new genres is undeniable. It seems as though Jpop is splitting into multiple roads of new and old genres, but one thing is for certain—if you have hit melodies and meaningful lyrics that truly strike into the hearts of listeners, it will be appreciated regardless of genre—beautiful music is beautiful music after all.
Contact Maimi Higuchi at maimih ‘at’ stanford.edu.