Why Jpop? Part One: An Introduction

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

Earlier today, needing a mental break from my freelance writing (and not in a comic book mood), I picked up the latest Rolling Stone at the Waikiki Borders. I read about Darth Vader and Tom DeLay and the movie reviews before relenting and reading the music pieces. That’s what Rolling Stone is all about, right?

And yet it seemed so distant to me. Cream re-united for some concerts – that’s nice. Oasis have a new album. Never listened to them anyway. Tons of bands I may have heard of but never listened to. (When did seventies garage become hip again? Why not just listen to the original stuff?) Ah! Here’s something good – Sleater Kinney have a new album that rocks… Hm. I used to love Sleater Kinney and even saw them live, at Gabe’s in Iowa City right after they released Dig Me Out. Maybe I should pick up this CD…

Nah. I didn’t get the new Helmet album when it came out, or Method Man’s recent solo album (which was probably released over a year ago, now that I think of it). Time and again, I’d see a mention about some band I used to like and I’d momentarily ponder buying the CD or at least downloading the single – but never get around to it.

I’ve been aware of it for months now, but it’s becoming clearer and clearer: I’ve given up on American music.

It was a gradual process. I’d stopped watching MTV at least a decade ago (before The Real World and way before TRL) and never made the switch to VH1. I stopped listening to guitar rock – mostly alternative and noisy – about five years ago and stopped paying serious attention to rap music about the same time. If I was in the mood for those genres, I had my old standbys: classic Sonic Youth, classic Wu-Tang Clan, old Helmet… Basically, my taste in youth music remains in the nineties. If I was to go out and buy some CDs today, it would likely start with Dinosaur Jr’s You’re Living All Over Me and Pussy Galore’s Historia de la Musica Rock.

More recently, during my prolonged exile in Florida, I’d listen to the local hip hop station once in a while but didn’t bother to keep track of who’s who. I listened to country music and even picked up some albums, but since moving to Hawaii I gave up on that as well. New Sara Evans album? That’s nice. Hick hop? That’s interesting. Dixie Chicks still on hiatus? Well…

Okay, I’d probably pick up a new Dixie Chicks album if it came out. That’s about it, though.

But if I want rock music now, I’ll listen to Zone. If I want rap, there’s Rip Slyme and Halcali. Jazz? Coco d’Or. (Though the only jazz I really liked was free noise like Borbetomagus.) Dance music? Koda Kumi and, of course, Amuro Namie.

And there’s the groups that dominate my life now: SweetS, Morning Musume, W, Berryz Koubo, Dream… I listen to more pop music than I ever have in my adult life. Jessica Simpson and Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears did nothing for me. Matsuura Aya and Melon Kinenbi and Hinoi Team, on the other hand… Well, I can’t imagine life without them.

And sometimes the question creeps on me unbidden: Why does my taste in music suck so much? Are all those cute, unattainable Japanese teenage girls worth such a price?

Thinking about this some, I decide: Ahh, lighten up already. I love Jpop. What of it?

Which for all its insouciance, isn’t a full explanation – and I think it’s about time a full explanation is given. I’ve never been one to shy away from extreme, often demandingly narcissistic, self-examination – especially when it comes to my questionable taste in pop culture. (During my years as a comic critic, I was the only “serious” reviewer of superhero comics in the Comics Journal. In my unapologetically fanboy musings, I was a contradiction of everything that magazine stood for.)

I’ve been enjoying Jpop for over a year and a half now but never questioned why I got into it or why I’ve become so devoted. And yet now it insinuates my life. I’ve got a Zone calendar on my wall next to a W plastic sheet; across from that wall is a SweetS poster, framed so that nothing can harm it. I can often identify particular voices in Morning Musume songs but would be hard-pressed to recognize a song by the White Stripes or whoever else is popular on TRL right now. I’ve become disenfranchised from my native culture and have become enamored – obsessed, even – with the popular culture of a nation whose language I don’t even understand. (Okay, I’ve acquired some very basic Japanese from my wife and her family. But not much.)

So what is it about Jpop exactly? Do I really think the music sucks? (No.) Do I think it’s inferior to the music I used to listen to? (That’s a case-by-case basis, isn’t it?) Is it really just because I like to watch cute teenage girls? (Um…) Am I becoming a Japanophile and just refuse to admit it? (Well…)

There’s a bunch of different reasons – as well as some “natural” conclusions which aren’t as natural as people may think. So the next several days will be spent picking through these points, one at a time, and hope that something useful can be gleaned from the results.