Why Jpop? Part Six: Shiny Happy People

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

I’ve never made any bones about it: I’m pretty cold fish. I’m more observer than participant, holding that chip of ice in my heart that Graham Greene (the Cold War novelist not the Native American actor) said was so important to the writer’s craft. It’s not like I’m holding in unwanted emotions – at least, not consciously and certainly not in a way that I feel is harmful to my overall mental health. I just find myself generally… unmoved… by the world around me.

All this was reflected in my pop culture, of course: I prefered the cerebral to the visceral, lots of cold calculation and backstabbing deceit, humor blacker than night and razor’s edge satire. Intrigue and sin and consequences of the darkest variety. And I was always a sucker for smart postmodern twists – as opposed to the watered-down self-reflexivity that passes for pomo in much of today’s popular culture. Repo Man was my favorite film for the longest time because of its anger and glibness and bizarre inversions of pop cultural cliches. I would watch The Shining over and over again just to stare in awe at all those tracking shots. I’d read huge postmodern novels like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and William Gaddis’ J R for relaxation, to gain much-needed respite from my academic field: over-interpreting superhero comics vis-a-vis their significance to broader cultural trends, as well as examining mainstream comics as a product of a narrowing direct retailmarket. (Say all that in one breath and act like you know what it all means. Now imagining doing that in front of tenured professors.)

For music, the one thing I needed most was noise. Noise was as postmodern as you could get – atonality as a kind of harmony, static and hiss as a kind of beauty that others couldn’t understand. The feedback of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr, the oppressive structures of Helmet and Glenn Branca, the dense sampling of Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan, the urban noise clutter of Cypress Hill, the lackadaisical pop sabotage of early Pavement (at least up to Slanted and Enchanted) and the lush soundscapes of My Bloody Valentine. Listening to Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising or MBV’s glorious Loveless was a taste of ecstatic peace, while the aggro sneer of Helmet’s Afterburner and political outrage of P.E.’s It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back would get my blood pumping.

This all felt right to me at the time. It spoke to me in a way other things could not. And as a result, its antithesis was something I could look down on. I remember sneering at manufactured happiness: Disneyland and family movies and feel-good pop songs and Up With People (even though I had a very good friend work for that last group). If a big doofus grin and wide open arms were involved, it made me want to vomit – preferably over the grinning idiots who claim to enjoy such pap. Didn’t they realize what they were missing out on? I wanted to force-feed Sonic Death to every unthinking meat puppet who thought they were happy and open their ears to the truth: this is real happiness. It’s earned, not bought indiscriminately on a bargain shelf of brightly colored distractions.

That was then.

And now?

Well, much of it’s the same, actually. Except I’ve made space for Jpop in my heart, and it allows a different dimension to my pop cultural life, it opens up whole new vistas in the imaginative space I inhabit. It’s also made me much less judgmental about the Disney Up With People crowd. After all, I know Jpop is just as brightly colored and unnaturally happy and falsely glamorous. At its best (and worst), Jpop makes Up With People look like funeral wailers. It can be faker than a man in a Mickey Mouse outfit and more nauseatingly treacly than the worst Lost Dog Returns Home movie you can imagine.

And that’s why I love it. To me, it’s a Disneyland for somebody who still doesn’t want to go to Disneyland.

I could be snarky and ironic about it. It would be keeping in character for me, after all. I could claim that I’m not really into Jpop and just think that it’s the height of Japanese kitsch. I could claim Jpop is the tragic consequence of a culture that likes its distractions too finely calibrated by market forces and I’m only into it as a lark.

But that wouldn’t be true, and that kind of dodge would just be a pathetic waste of time.

I love Jpop because it makes me feel more than I do in everyday life, it’s an escape into heightened emotionalism. Which is the whole point of it, if you think about it.

This doesn’t mean I don’t feel anything in everyday life, cold and fishy as I am. I love my wife and tell her that as often as I can – though she still wishes I was more affectionate. I am ridiculously indulgent of my cat (actually, it’s my neighbor’s cat – but we won’t get into that now). In the everyday world – at work, at the comic shop, when I go shopping or the movies or just hang out in a coffee shop – I’m a pleasant enough person, smiling and friendly as far as I need to be. In public, I’m only occassionally prone to dark moods that fend people off with a I’m unintentionally making a fist because I’m thinking of punching you vibe. But even then I remain polite and courteous – because that’s how it should be.

But Jpop is an amusement park of emotional experience, a carnival of melodrama and poses. It’s not about reality and the everyday, it’s a world of idols and melodrama and glamour and beautifully expressed desires. The same could be said for other kinds of pop culture and its ability to transport – but Jpop is a very different trip from Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. They inhabit whole different worlds, really, with different kinds of intoxicating raptures. And while I still enjoy small doses of my old musical fixes – especially Helmet, for some reason – I find Jpop a better fit for who I am now.

How does Jpop move me? Let’s consider some specific examples…

I cry whenever I watch a Morning Musume graduation. One of my all-time favorite Jpop moments is during Yasuda Kei’s graduation, when a blubbering Takahashi Ai falls at Kei’s feet in abject sorrow. I don’t know if she’s apologizing or asking Kei to stick around or confessing true lesbian love to Kei – it doesn’t matter, just the spectacle of Takitty makes me cry right along, especially since Kei is so brave and staunchly heroic about it.

When I watch SweetS’ “Love Like Candy Floss” PV I’m in awe of how beautiful the song is, and of the sheer melodramatic charisma the girls bring to this ridiculous slice of rorikon fantasy. When the girls are each crying as their parka-wearing Gackt-alike Romeo disappears, it’s such an obviously manufactured moment… except the girls’ tears, the sun lighting up the abandoned town, the fluid beat of the song, all make you believe that – on some rarified level – the longing and heartbreak of this song is more real than anything else. And so it becomes real.

And it’s not like irony never occurs in Jpop – it’s simply softer, less challenging, more openly complicit. Consider Ishiguro Aya’s magnificent performance throughout the “Love Machine” PV – the single greatest performance by any member of Morning Musume, in my personal opinion. Not only does she outdo some of the silliest dance steps the group go through, she keeps mugging at the camera during her close-ups and shakes her booty like a spastic femme fatale wannabe. She’s clearly making fun of the ridiculous nature of the PV – not because she thinks it’s beneath her, but because she wants to enjoy the silliness to the fullest. (I still hate that this is her final song with Morning Musume. Imagine if she stuck around a while longer…)

One last example: when I listen to Jpop on headphones while writing, I’ll do little bits of the PV’s dance move as I type. When I listen to “Shabdondama” I wish there was some water on the floor for me to bang my fists on. When I listen to “Love Machine”, I make the L symbol with my hand. Right now I’ve got Berryz Koubo’s “Piriri to Ikou” on and my hands flap at certain points, then make circles as if scrubbing a car. It doesn’t slow down my typing – actually, it speeds me up considerably. The only one who sees it is my wife, and she just smiles and thinks I’m crazy. (What the fuck, I warned her I was insane when we first met. No harm, no foul.) Moments like that make playing air guitar seem dignified in comparison (and yes, I do that when listening to Helmet or Dinosaur) – but again, Jpop isn’t about dignity, it’s about feeling good.

And dammit, I want it to make me feel good. Or bad. Or sad. Or naughty. As with any kind of music that speaks directly to me, I want to be vulnerable to Jpop’s wiles.

But why do I allow myself to feel so involved? Why aren’t my defenses up, cringing at all these finely calibrated displays of faux emotion?

For starters, there’s the pretty girls. Quite frankly, a beautiful teenage girl excuses most any excess. If I was watching Helmet at their last show, I seriously doubt I’ll be more than mildly annoyed. Tears would not be an option. If I watch Wu-Tang Clan jumping around and acting goofy in their “Gravel Pit” video, I’ll be amused at their cleverness… but am I going to dance along or pretend I’m an urban Flintstone? Of course not. That said, I’d be just as cool and uninvolved if we were talking about all-female groups such as Sleater-Kinney and Hole. So why is that…?

Well, there’s the next reason: as I stated above, Jpop inhabits a different imaginative space with different expectations and rules for myself. The music is supposed to make me feel a certain way, and the PVs are there to help the mood along (usually). Those feelings and moods are often quite different from the music I listened to before: much less cynical, more intently melodramatic, and yes, sometimes more juvenile. Dream isn’t Babes in Toyland, Viyuden isn’t Hole. And that’s what makes the wordld go ’round.

A third reason I’m more vulnerable to Jpop’s charms is its otherness: I make do with only the most obvious surface signs and readings. Subtle nuances are harder to notice in another culture, never mind interpret and prioritize. As a result, my appreciation of Jpop is in broad emotional strokes – which is fine, since Jpop is made with broad strokes for maximum appeal. If the cheerfulness of Jpop seems a bit too obvious and forced at times, it’s because that’s the business they truck in and business has been good.

The last reason is also the most indefinable because it’s so personal. Put simply, I’m at the point where I don’t want to feel cynical and angry and aggressive so much. I’m getting old, I’m mellowing out, my perspective of the world has become more accommodating. Happiness isn’t something you earn anymore; happiness is something you snatch whenever the opportunity’s there. I’m reminded of DeGaulle’s famous aphorism, “A man who isn’t an anarchist at eighteen is a fool. A man who’s still an anarchist at forty is an even bigger fool.” So I’m much closer to forty than eighteen now, and I know there’s more to the world than I can sneer at and be superior to.

Strangely, then, Jpop is a great way to keep me grounded about the world around me. Or at least not be such a self-righteous prick about the people and situations around me.

Next: The Collector