The plight of a white boy from Connecticut trying to rationalize the fantastical Japanese underbelly of music – while by the same token trying to sympathize with the audiences and societal dispositions directed towards these Japanese music forms – is definitely real. On this note I admit that my first year writing seminar entitled “From Zen to J-pop \(^o^)/ Japanese Society through Music” has taught me more about identity, culture, tradition, human behavior and why we listen music than I could’ve imagined. And it is for this reason why I’ve become so curiously intrigued with the entrancing charm of the holographic Hatsune Miku along with the sheer gravitational pull that pop groups such as AKB48 have on the media and the lives of Japanese people.
For those confused as I once was, Japanese music (specifically post-WWII) is a whimsical fantasia of westernized corporate giants churning out record labels and hit songs almost systematically contra anti-establishment, provocative underground artists, whose sets are normally performed during the late hours to a crowd of dedicated listeners who share the same iconoclastic, or “stick it to the man,” attitude. Here I’ve stumbled across listening to artists such as DJ Soybeans, 7e, DREAMPV$HER and BLACKPHONE666; an eclectic group of underground artists I can only hear on Soundcloud playing the late hours for clubs in which they usually aren’t even the main attraction.
The general style of these underground artists are varied but connected. DJ Soybeans, from what I’ve heard, takes a rat-a-tat approach to combining mechanical clicks with synthesized futuristic beats and quickens the tempo to create this post-modern out-of-this-world feeling all while not having to resort to EDM’s westernized build-up and beat-drop trope. 7e (pronounced Nana-eh) on the other hand slows down the pace and focuses on the atmosphere, trying to sound somewhat ambient. One of her sets uses drums and samples of what sounds like African or Jamaican chants to transcend you to a tropical relief, sending off a serene vibe that everything will be just fine. While another one her sets uses strums from the uniquely Japanese shamisen over a tempo mixed with the wooden flute and synthesized sounds to resemble an ancient Japan combined with the instrumentals of modern day technology. DREAMPV$HER, to quote my teacher Jillian Marshall, grad, “are making some of the sickest, most exciting music I’ve heard in years and, to me, are on another level of music-making. The end result is hypnotizing: although Ryo’s synthesizer also keeps rhythm, his creative sensibilities lead him to cast out a dizzying array of sounds, stripped and obscured melodies and polyrhythms that Michael then roots with the drum machine. They strike a brilliant balance somewhere between explosive, interstellar sonic time-warp and funky, postindustrial grit” (Ryo Kuramoto and Michael Suwa were the two minds behind DREAMPV$HER). Although the group isn’t currently making anymore new music, their image, style and beliefs parallel the general mindset of the Japanese underground. Although these artists together seem foreign to one another, it is their passion to be different, to be cast out from the norm, and to pump liberating, anti-capitalist blood back into the veins of their listeners that brings them together and embodies the spirit of the underground music scene.
Stepping foot midstream into the world of J-Pop and mainstream music was an explorative process. I knew nothing of this Japanese entity (I’ll admit it took me a few weeks to realize that the “J” in “J-Pop” stood for Japanese) so it was nothing less of transformative to listen to AKB48 and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu for the first time. Yes, music groups here in the states do receive great attention, but it is nothing compared to AKB48’s pull on the media. They have their own magazine, video games, anime, manga and now TV shows. For those unaware of what AKB48 sells themselves as, they are an all-girl group ground on the basis of being an “idol group you can meet” by portraying themselves as pure and flawless to the tune of bubblegum pop. When I first watched one of their music videos (which cannot be found on YouTube, but on jpopsuki.tv), what was shoved down my throat was the hypersexualization of these girls. Because of this, it’s eerily fitting to know that a great majority of these fans are older men. I’ve never seen a musical group alone be almost the face of an entire industry, but alas, AKB48 is a giant. This itself gave me insight to one of the driving characteristics of the Japanese music culture: Fantasy. External pressures such as overworking and depression in Japan have required the need of an outlet to let the mind simply oppress urges and to return to child-like state of mind, hence the birth of AKB48 and other pop groups. Of course, the girl-group is an international sensation, but a key motive into why they’re successful in Japan is not just the catchy, head-bopping, foot-tapping, clichéd pop music, but because they can be seen as a gateway to this fantasy world that so many Japanese listeners long for. It’s hard for me to believe this unfamiliar music culture was present if it wasn’t for my experience being opened up to Japanese music in parallel with their society and culture.
But on the other hand the Japanese music culture continues to baffle and amaze me. Namely, Hatsune Miku. Birthed from a synthesizing software called Vocaloid, Hatstune Miku is the epitome of fantasy, and the face of synthesized music. Her voice belongs to no human, but rather to the entire community of people that use this software, who mix her voice to create robotic, pseudo-human beats and songs. What stuck with me the most is that Hatsune Miku holds her own concerts in holographic form. Yes, that’s right; a hologram will appear affront a live audience, dancing and singing her synthesized songs. From what I’ve seen online, these concerts are nothing short of intensity and passion than of any other performer. And this itself should reinforce that Japanese fantasy and music are inherently linked. People will spend ridiculous amounts of money to see this computerized girl stand before them to listen to music that is meant to be heard online, in the digital format. It’s hard to say that it’s similar to the EDM culture since those concerts are rooted in the togetherness and the experiences with friends and other people, as the music is an opportunity to let loose with other listeners. But Hatsune Miku is just one face, one figure that thousands go to see, even if they can just hear her online. Here I find myself rattling with the enigma that is Hatsune Miku, but as long as her concerts continue to sell out and her music advocates anyone being able to develop music through the Vocaloid software, I’m all for it.
But with all that said – I get it. Japanese music partly caters to the struggles Japan has faced ever since the end of WWII. There is this feeling that even if reality isn’t all what it shapes up to be, there will always be music to escape to, which isn’t really anything uniquely Japan, if anything this happens all over the world. Japanese music is a fun, playful, quaint and curious experience, something I thought I would never see myself getting involved with. The moral of this all is that the Japanese music culture is very indicative of its values and image, from the underground scene to AKB48. I implore you to give “From Zen to J-pop \(^o^)/,“ or simply Japanese music (if you aren’t already a fan), a try for two reasons – it’ll help you understand why music is worth listening to or will subsequently make you appreciate your facet of musical interest. And two, Cornell is currently home to Jillian Marshall, one of the most prolific scholars on the study of Japanese culture and image through music. Escaping my comfort zone to learn about Japanese music with her teaching has been one of the most eye-opening academic experiences for me here at Cornell, changing my perspective on music and encouraging me to branch-out and listen to something new.
Tim Rehm is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Guest Room appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.