October 19, 2014

GUEST ROOM | An American Punk Fan in Osaka

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Despite its worldwide economic influence and massive population, Osaka isn’t known for a thriving music scene or much other artistic output to speak of. The Internet theoretically gives Osakans the ability to stream every knucklehead Portlandian bedroom producer’s SoundCloud just like the rest of us, but Japan’s idiosyncratic insularity has created a strange pattern of music consumption among even the most musically inclined individuals.

For my study abroad accommodations, I was lucky enough to be placed in a house with three Japanese students and two Americans. One of the other Americans plays drums and two of the Japanese kids play guitar. Naturally, many of our house’s conversations come back to our commonality: music.

The first question — one that I despise with a passion but was an easy way to discuss music through a language barrier — was: “What genres do you like?” Among a few other genres, I responded with punk. “Oh … punk … I don’t really know punk that well,” replied my housemate. “What are some bands you like, for example?”

“Well, right now I really dig Big Ups, FIDLAR, Iceage and a bunch others.” Realizing the odds of him knowing those were pretty low, I added, “Some more classic bands I like are Fugazi, Bad Brains, Black Flag …”

“Oh yeah, I know some of those. So those newer bands … are they like Blink-182? Do you know them? Do you like them?”

This was my abrupt introduction to international music consumption the Japanese way — without any cultural context. My immediate reaction was to recoil in anger. Except maybe a hormonally confused middle schooler, no American who was familiar with Fugazi would immediately draw a Blink-182 connection, let alone ask if you knew who they are. For a Japanese listener, though, these two are both just American punk. For the most part, they get assessed on the same musical reference plane since they both appear to be filled with rage. English lyrics about suburban middle-class plight get lost in translation and I guess they sound pretty similar to Fugazi’s when screamed.

This attitude isn’t limited to your average Osakan in a cover band; rather, this lack of context reaches to the upper echelons of the city’s tastemakers. Flake Records, mainly dedicated to new releases from abroad, is one of the best-curated record stores in which I have ever had the pleasure of shopping. It isn’t a collector’s store — you won’t find your one-off pressings here. Flake is a listener’s store, with records carefully selected by the extremely knowledgeable staff to expose you to some of the best (pop and rock) music in the world. The first record that caught my eye on the extensive staff recommendations wall was Frankie Cosmos’s exquisite Zentropy. I certainly did not expect to see a bunch of recent Double Double Whammy releases 13 time zones away from Brooklyn. Even more unexpected, though, was its placement: sandwiched between Modern Vampires of the City and AM. I’m not surprised at all that it would take an employee endorsement for an Osakan to pick up Zentropy, but where in America would the Arctic Monkeys be a featured, recommended record? Best Buy? Wal-Mart? Beyond the top of the Anglophone pop charts, the average Japanese person has almost as little exposure to Vampire Weekend as to Frankie Cosmos. Having had some time to digest this sight, Flake’s recommendation wall should not have been nearly as shocking to me as it was.

Marinating on this phenomenon further, I realized I am just as guilty when it comes to Japanese music. I am just as oblivious to their cultural contexts as they are to mine. When asked my favorite Japanese acts, my answer tends to be Melt Banana and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. For reference, that would be like saying Sunn 0))) and Lady Gaga. I realize how ridiculous that combination sounds, but I tend to wear it as a badge of pride. For once, I have the luxury of being ignorant of context and honest to my ears.

Good for these Osakans, being unwittingly blind to the cultural context of the foreign music they’re listening to. If we all could do that with American music I think we would be a lot happier, just like my housemate who cites Raekwon and Drake as his two favorite rappers ever. Being able to listen to and discuss music without any pretense would let us be true to our tastes. But until everyone’s doing it, I’ll leave public Simple Plan appreciation to Hot Topic part-timers and only sing along at the top of my lungs when I’m alone in my car.