You can’t avoid the J-pop (Japanese pop) music when you go to a convention. The CDs are there in the dealers’ room, Malice Mizer cosplayers are wandering the halls, and if you’re lucky, you might be able to catch a concert. You can only read and watch so much anime before you end up venturing into the world of J-pop by innocently looking for information on that opening song you like. J-pop has an English fandom of its own, often frequented by very rabid fangirls who will go to great lengths to support their groups, to the point of flying to Japan purely to catch a concert. I try to avoid this scary side of the otaku, but for the sake of education, I’ve taken the plunge and gone over to the wild side.
First off, unlike American music stores with a dozen different signs hanging from the ceiling, Japanese stores usually divide music into four categories: J-pop, enka (traditional ballads, filling the same musical space as US country music), international/English, and classical. Thus J-pop includes everything from metal to hard rock to soft pop one-hits.
There are two paths to fame in J-pop. Artists either work their way up from commercial jingles to TV theme songs and acting in drama shows, or by winning highly hyped amateur music contests, much like the spectacle of American Idol on TV.
J-pop finds its origins in the American music brought to Japan by US servicemen after WWII, with the popularity of country, blues, boogie-woogie and rock and roll in Japan mirroring US tastes. “Cover pop,” Japanese singers covering US original songs translated in Japanese, had a brief popularity before transcontinental radio and TV allowed people to see and hear the actual artists performing. Cover pop gave rise to karaoke, where everyone can do their own covers of famous songs. While karaoke has lost its fad popularity, it is still a standard fixture in most American bars nowadays, with Wednesday Karaoke Nights.
Two styles of J-pop rose in the 70s and 80s. New Music had more complex arrangements, and talked about love and other personal subjects, whereas J-pop until then had been rather simple arrangements with guitar accompaniment, and revolving around societal issues. City Music included the theme of life in a big city, often Tokyo. These two musical types blended together to form the common term of J-pop.
The 80s saw to the rise of idol singers, who are exactly as the word implies: pretty girls produced by recording labels, sold as a product. It also saw to the rise of one of the most popular groups in Japan and Asia as a whole: Chage & Aska. The male duo had a series of massive hits during the 80s and 90s. Their “Asian Tour II / Mission Impossible” tour was the largest tour by a Japanese group, with all 61 stops in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore sold out on the first day.
The J-pop scene split into several directions during the 90s with dance-pop music, techno-pop, ska, rap, soul, R&B, basically every music style popular in the US. Girl groups (Morning Musume, SPEED, ZONE), boy bands (SMAP), visual kei (think KISS with more charisma and creative costuming, examples are Malice Mizer and Luna Sea) became popular during this time. The 90s also marked the rise of the pop divas, such as Ayumi Hamasaki and Hikaru Utada. Hamasaki holds the record for most consecutive number one singles for a female artist in Japan, while Utada is perhaps best known in the US for her theme songs for the Kingdom Hearts video games, and in Japan for holding the record for the top selling album, her debut “First Love.”
During the 00’s, Japanese tastes have reflected the popular US palate with R&B and hip hop influences. For an anime example of this, check out Samurai Champloo: hip hop mixed into samurai action. Lyrics have taken a turn towards the graphic and provocative. Currently, the Oricon chart (the Japanese equivalent to Billboard) includes newcomer hip-hop and rock groups, along with older rock and pop groups, such as Dir en grey and L’Arc~en~Ciel. Male solo artists and male-only bands dominate the charts now, as female pop has declined. The sole exceptions are the established divas, such as Utada and Hamasaki. The independent scene is growing, but it is still on the fringe in Japan, where the recording industry still controls the media with a strong fist.
J-pop is highly engrained in Japanese culture, with songs for commercials, TV dramas, anime, video games, store muzak, even at the end of some news shows. Unlike in American TV, Japanese TV shows change their opening and closing music frequently, up to four times a year. This creates a demand for new and exclusive content, fueling the discovery of new artists and funding established artists.
Without question, anime and video games have been the carrier for Western exposure to J-pop. The Square-Enix games on the PS2 with J-pop theme songs (Final Fantasy X and X-2, as well as the two Kingdom Hearts games come to mind) added an authentic feeling to the gaming experience, while the emphasis towards staying true to the original source in anime (faithful dubs and subs) has given viewers the original opening and ending music. This is the expected norm now in anime releases, to the point where we don’t expect a new English opening and ending song, unless this is a show broadcasted on TV, aimed at children. Now J-pop anime tunes are becoming available as ringtones in the US, placing it besides the latest from American artists such as 50 Cent.
Like many fans of underground media, fans of J-pop range from the moderate to the purely fanatical, with these more extreme fans getting much of the Internet’s interest. Tales of stalking, scalping tickets online, and “truer than thou” flame threads abound on livejournal communities, as many long-time fans resist newcomers, especially the ones who first found J-pop through anime and gaming. However, you will find lively characters like this in any fandom, even in the Sherlock Holmes fandom. J-pop does have a taste of its own, and I encourage you to give it a try. It spans several genres in US music, so you’re more than likely to find a song or a group that you’ll enjoy. All of the artists I have included in this column have a significant English following, and Dir en grey just recently finished their tour the US. Try a musical sample of Japanese culture! It goes down nice with a little sushi and sake! I swear!