Why Jpop? Part Five: The Cult of Authenticity

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

Setting aside my desire for teenage Japanese girls, there are other reasons why I prefer Jpop to current American music.

For starters, I’m relieved that Jpop has no chest-thumping about “keeping it real”.

Part of it is certainly my lack of Japanese, but I’d wager that the people in Jpop – if not other forms of Japanese music – are pretty above-board about doing what they do for the money and fame, artistic integrity falling a distant third or fourth (if that high). Which doesn’t mean they create heartless dreck – if anything, the relative lack of tortured soul-searching means they can focus on better feeding the great pop culture machinery of their nation. Their songs can be catchy, fun, energetic – and without any of that fussing over how true to life it is.

I have no problem with businessmen running art. Somebody has to count the money and make sure it goes where it has to. Somebody has to make sure the customers get what they want – or at the very least, know what bill of goods are being offered. And let’s face it, artists and performers are not always the best suited for these tasks. Which doesn’t mean I approve of bad business tactics – artists getting financially screwed, horrible marketing ideas, monopolistic practices – simply that I accept the role of business as being essential in the world of art and entertainment.

The cult of authenticity hates business and believes it ruins art. Now, the term “cult of authenticity” means different things to different people. In most cases, it’s a person’s desire to exoticize a cultural experience based on how accurately it reflects a “real” or “actual” source – that source being a different culture far removed from the daily experience of the person, which the person considers a more spiritual or more humane or more enlightened culture than his own. (Mostly because it simply isn’t his own – the cult of authenticity is real popular among the angsty disenfranchised.) Art should be as “pure” as possible, such people argue, because that purity is what makes it so important. And the commercializing of art works against such purity, watering down the cultural experience and making it less “honest” and “real”.

Some sects of the cult of authenticity even go so far as to bolster an individual’s superiority by claiming oneself as being closer to another culture than most people, by being more “honest” and “true” because they’re not like everyone else. There, the one-upmanship goes from the cultural experience to the walking mannequin “representing” for the cultural experience. In that sense, “keeping it real” is one of the biggest cultural blindspots of today, an unfortunate side effect of hip hop taking over American pop culture (which was the biggest gift pop culture had at the fin de millenium, but even good things have their bad sides).

In America, we see lots of people who want to keep it real, or at least act as if that’s important to them. Boy bands claim they’re keeping it real by dressing up in some fashion designer’s approximation of ghetto. Pop singers become multimillionaire moguls yet still claim they’re keeping it real by name-dropping the neighborhood they came from. Suburbanites believe that listening to gangsta rap and wearing Fubu means they know what it’s like to be African American – a new version of Jack Kerouac’s embarassing wish that he were a Negro. Readers and critics believe that an author’s personal experiences are the only valid source for literary inspiration, often discounting the value of pure imagination. Youngsters who weren’t even born when Sid Vicious died claim they’re more punk than other people because they listen to nineties punk instead of more current bands.

Dammit, Dave Chappelle was right. This is all “when ‘keeping it real’ goes wrong”.

How do you define what is “real”? By referring to an experience “back in the day” or “from around the hood” or “before it got commercial”? Not everyone who make such claims have the right to do so and it’s those who don’t have that right, who don’t have such roots, which turns authenticity into a cult of image and marketing, not the useful reference for social / political / aesthetic change that it could be. The cult of authenticity is all about the people who take advantage by talking the talk without knowing the walk at all. They’re the worst kinds of culture vultures, and a flock that grows by the minute.

The cult of authenticity hit its latest critical mass when gangsta rap went from an underground genre to a gimmicky marketing tool. This has happened before, of course: the Beats were also notorious about being “true” to oneself, as was the hippie counterculture of the sixties, the punk movement of the seventies and the New Age spiritualists of the eighties. They all had different ideas of what was real, what was authentic, and wished to get past the falseness of mainstream culture.

Then mainstream culture caught up with them and did something worse than destroy them: they accepted these views and boiled it down to a caricature of rebellion for the unimaginative populace of mainstream culture. Each of these movements had some good in them, but they also had inherent contradictions, some hypocrisy (especially when it came to money), and a good deal of naivete – all of which became more obvious as each movement’s cult of authenticity became more important than the ideas themselves. Soon enough, the cult of authenticity became the status symbols and cultural markers by which people associated themselves with the movements. It was choosing a lifestyle over a life, the quintessential American copout.

We now live in a culturally balkanized society where everybody wants to be part of some fringe group, where everybody wants to keep it real and be themselves and be different. And yet all the fringe groups and admonishments for individuality are themselves marketed on a corporate level, have sponsorships and retail distributors and media outlets all their own. And it’s not the commerce that’s the problem, it’s the delusions held by the people buying it – that they can buy their way to being a unique, special individual, that they can buy their way to being part of a special crowd. This isn’t about bad business, but giving the people what they want, and what a lot of people want isn’t true experience but a trendy simulacra of such. If America’s corporate sector decides to exploit this lack in people’s souls – well, can you blame them? These people are a nation unto themselves, after all.

Am I claiming no cults of authenticity exist in Japan? Of course not. If anything, they can play it as well as America, from what I understand. And it doesn’t mean some fans of Jpop – domestically and overseas – don’t have their own issues about “keeping it real”. (We’ll get to that eventually.) However, Jpop itself – those who create it and those who market it – are refreshingly free of such posturing. Again, I’m sure part of it has to do with my lack of Japanese, but I’m pretty sure the girls of Morning Musume aren’t agonizing over whether or not their songs and live performances are “keeping it real” and staying true to their roots. Singles like “Shabondama” and “Osaka Koi no Uta” are about assuming a specific role in a song, much like country music’s own emphasis on storytelling.

In a way, this explains the show biz accoutrements of Morning Musume: bright spangly costumes and stiffly choreographed dance moves have a sense of Vegas style spectacle, of an expectation to dazzle and entertain. Jpop isn’t about some bozo with a guitar and autobiographical angst – it’s about larger than life figures, of idols. There’s a standard they live up to, of how they should look and perform and of the personality they’re supposed to project. It isn’t always fair to the human behind the idol (see Yaguchi Mari and Abe Natsumi), but they know what they’re getting into – they want to be divas, to be more glamorous and more adorable than the everyday world will let them be.

And the audience embraces this. They don’t sweat over whether or not these idols are being true to their roots, are doing shout-outs to their old neighborhoods or the homies they’ve left behind. They don’t care if their idols are singing their own lyrics or playing their own music. It’s a nice plus if that’s the case – as with Mai of the original Dream and the girls of Zone – but if it isn’t… well, that’s why there’s all these nice people to help them out, right?

The pose of authenticity doesn’t fit into something as brazenly artificial, as something aggressively commercial, as Jpop. And in a culture where so many people strut to seem “real”, when the word real has to be placed in goddamn quotation marks to denote the pose and not the actuality – well, the warm smile of Jpop’s open capitalist ambitions is a welcome relief. (And perhaps it’s even more compelling for non-Japanese, who are able to isolate the Jpop experience from the larger commercial matrix.)

Jpop’s so surefooted in its commerciality that even the most tempting cult of authenticity – the hip hop urban vibe – is resisted, more often than not. The urban look in Jpop is just another costume and setting, not an attempt to get back to the hood. For proof, just look at the Salt5 video, or Yossi’s tomboy phase. Other kinds of Japanese music seem to buy into “keeping it real” – though more often than not, they may just do a good job of assuming the poses. Amuro Namie and Koda Kumi don’t seem particularly guilty of buying this false bill of goods, despite surface appearances. Amuro’s gone urban in her image but doesn’t seem to have assumed the faux attitude: watching her act so timid next to Mariah Carey on Utaban a couple backs was actually touching. Meanwhile, Koda Kumi’s gone whole hog in becoming an outrageous sex diva that has nothing to do with authenticity and everything to do about showmanship. (If anything, she’s even more Vegas than Momusu.) The women of Speed and Nagase Miyu’s solo career… well, that’s more debatable. But they actually went to New York for street cred, so they at least deserve an A for effort.

And while Jrap acts seem especially vulnerable to looking ghetto ridiculous instead of ghetto fabulous, there’s at least two notable exceptions I have to mention: Rip Slyme and their proteges, Halcali. It’s both very cool and strangely surreal to see Japanese hip hop bands mimic the moves and fashion of African American culture, but Rip Slyme don’t believe that’s much more than a starting point for their own unique take on rhymes and beats. They’ll bite from American hip hop with gleeful abandon, but they’ll also do a rousing “La Bamba” on “Stepper’s Delight” – or do a PV that looks like The Wiggles gone horribly, horriblg wrong. As for Halcali, they mix a Jpop kind of cuteness with a perverse twist of hip hop wackiness. If anything, both groups remind me of early De La Soul or Paul’s Boutique era Beastie Boys, emphasizing the playful potential of hip hop instead of trying to look more gritty than they really are. They feel and sound fun because they’re not too caught up in emulating a certain image…

And that’s actually a very positive way of keeping it real, if you think about it. Because as much as I denigrate “keeping it real” as a catchphrase, there is value in authenticity, in being honest about who you are and what you’re about. I’m disappointed that it’s become a pose instead of a heartfelt ambition, but that’s human nature for you.

Of course, some people know that much of modern pop culture is simulacra and imitation, and think that fact is amusing in itself. This brings up the equally detestable counterpart to the cult of authenticity: the cult of easy irony. And where the cult of authenticity is a whole lot of pointless hand-wringing about credibility, the cult of easy irony is a whole lot of pointless hand-wringing about credibility… with a shit-eating grin to prove they don’t really mean it. It is, in its own way, just as boring and loathsome. Just because you’re open about your artificiality doesn’t mean you’re above it – and that’s what the cult of easy irony seeks, to deny their complicity even as they seek to indulge in its benefits.

So when I think about keeping it real – well, the reality is that big companies want my money and will (metaphorically) throw pretty teenage girls in my direction to get it. This may be a crass distillation of Jpop, but the lack of pretense is also part of the appeal for me. If I wanted to feel disillusioned and angst-ridden and disaffected, I’ll listen to my old CDs. Instead, I’ve chosen something more straightforward and, yes, happier. Which brings us to the topic for next time…

Next: Shiny Happy People