Why Jpop? Part Three: The Rules of Attraction

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

I was originally going to call this “The Cute Japanese Girl Angle” – but that seems too limiting as I began to write the entry. And for some reason, it was easier to write this up as a series of questions – not exactly Socratic, but close enough.

Point blank: Would I listen to Jpop if attractive girls weren’t involved?

Hell no.

Has this been a long-standing criteria in my choice of music?

Not at all. I can’t recall ever seeing a musician and thinking that person is so attractive that I must listen to the person’s music. (Well, maybe Page Hamilton of Helmet…)

If anything, much of the music I listen to involves ugly motherfuckers who know they’re ugly motherfuckers. The Ramones, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Wu-Tang Clan… Punk, grunge, noise, and gangsta rap all fit the criteria to varying extents. (In hip hop, the ridiculous displays of wealth is what lures all the gorgeous and jiggly women, not the rapper’s good looks. There are exceptions like LL Cool J, but even they need to stress their wealth as a source of attraction – it’s part of the genre’s world view, and not an entirely wrongheaded one at that.)

If anything, I’ve been leery of “good looking” musicians because it often means their music won’t suit my taste – boy bands and divas and such.

Okay. If not in music, then, has attractiveness been a criteria in any past entertainment choices?

I’ve never read a book or comic because the author was attractive, nor considered an actor or actress attractive enough that I’d see anything they were in. Which of course isn’t saying that I consider none of these celebrities attractive: I think Kathryn Erbe of Oz and Law & Order: Criminal Intent is really hot, for example.

The one case where attractiveness is important to my entertainment choice is pornography. For me, at least, a porn star should be attractive if I’m going to bother to watch her: Sylvia Saint, Tera Patrick, Chloe Nicholle, Kobe Tai, Kitty Yung, Miko Lee… That said, the fact that I’m watching them have sex means that the standards of beauty are determined by that setting. I wouldn’t consider Miko Lee or Tera Patrick attractive in real life, but it isn’t real life where I’m dealing with them and there’s something about the way they look during sex which makes them more attractive, if that makes any sense.

There’s one exception: I don’t find Asia Carrera particularly attractive but I subscribed to her website for several years because I liked the personality of her site and the fact that she was a geek. (I also jokingly referred to this as my ongoing support of Asian American culture.) Having appreciated that aspect, it was easier to enjoy her onscreen sex, but she still wasn’t a favorite to watch compared to some of the others.

So why make attractiveness a criteria for Jpop? Is it similar to pornography in my eyes? Why does the attractiveness of the performers matter for me in Jpop if it hasn’t been important in the past?

To get to something approaching a reasonable explanation, we need to expand the discussion a little. While the attractiveness of a person has rarely been a part of my entertainment choices until Jpop, it is most certainly a factor when dealing with people in the real world. Not the most important factor, by any means: I’m an ugly motherfucker with some ugly motherfucker friends. (And some very beautiful friends, I should add.) That said, I’ve gone to some extra effort to get a glimpse of a pretty girl or to get a chance to talk to somebody who I consider attractive. I’m as susceptible to beauty as anyone else, even if I don’t always show it. I try not to stare at pretty girls as they walk by but I certainly notice. Now that I’m living in Hawaii and am currently working at Waikiki, there’s always pretty girls to look at and admire – most of them in revealing outfits and blase attitudes.

That said, I’m old enough and wise enough to keep my cool. I try to be discrete about my girl-watching because I don’t want to offend strangers or make them uncomfortable. It’s a part of the larger social contract that everyone must follow to keep the world running relatively smooth. It’s the same social contract which everyone understands when, in public, a guy directs lewd comments to a woman he doesn’t know; we all think he’s an asshole, and that’s because our social contract deems certain boundaries have to be observed and the guy just broke that. It’s why some men will rush to the woman’s defense and beat the crap out of the lewd guy, to keep the contract intact and preserve its values.

I’d argue that social contract – of respecting boundaries and common humanity – doesn’t apply to the individual imagination, however. To think lewd things about a woman you don’t know is acceptable on a practical level if it’s left unsaid – or shared among friends in a private situation. Morally, some people will have a problem with it – but pragmatically, you won’t know somebody’s had impure thoughts unless some kind of hint is given.

And – here’s the jump in logic that brings us back to Jpop – this social contract doesn’t apply in the same manner with the media. You’re free to think and believe whatever you like and have your choice of pop culture cater to those thoughts and beliefs. That’s what pop culture is all about in the first place, to reinforce unspoken assumptions in an imaginative and pleasurable manner. (Which is why dictatorships often fuck up when they try to do pop culture, but that’s a whole other topic.) And the people in the media, the public figures whose job is to entertain us, know and understand this. That’s why so much effort is made to manufacture their personalities and appearances and make them fit for public consumption, and also why it’s okay if we judge them in much blunter terms than we could in everyday life. They’re there to be objectified – it’s part and parcel of their role as media figures.

So as for whether my attitude towards Jpop is similar to my attitude towards porn… I’d say it’s the same basic impulse, but within a vastly different context. Porn and Jpop inhabit different parts of my imagination and provide very different satisfactions, even if both – for me, at least – require attractive girls to be enjoyed. Porn has a standard of beauty and conduct, Jpop has a different standard of beauty and conduct. A more relevant comparison than porn would be the gray area of gravure, something I’ve discussed in earlier posts about Hasebe Yu of Dream and repeatedly about Irie Saaya (here, here, and here, for starters).

I would argue that the kind of objectification Jpop requires is more complex, has more dimensions, because of the music and other kinds of performance. It’s a more complete package – a more comprehensive marketing of the performer – meant to create a fuller sense of the person, thus making objectification less extreme. Or at least, more sympathetic and further north from the waist. Sometimes this added dimension even excludes the more sexual aspects of my imagination – I have no fantasies about getting it on with somebody dressed up in a penguin outfit, for example. And then there’s simple common sense: I think of Berryz Koubo in a very different way from gravure idols, never mind the Vivid Girls.

Some would claim that objectifying people is wrong.

Suck it up, it’s the main way we deal with media figures. Objectification takes place in different degrees and contexts, but it’s a fact of life throughout the entertainment world. Calling Tom Cruise a no-talent himbo (I actually like his movies, but I need an example here) is just as objectifying as saying bikini model Hoshino Aki has a magnificent rack – and because we don’t know these people in real life, it will always be an act of objectification. The chances of meeting up with Tom or Aki and getting to know them as people, to go beyond the image they project, isn’t going to happen to most of us.

To fuss over whether or not we’re being fair to media figures as human beings is pragmatically beside the point: they aren’t human beings to us, they’re media constructs and that’s what they want to be for us. Tom Cruise doesn’t want to befriend every single person who sees him in a movie, and if he does I’d say his priorities are fucked up. His job is to be “Tom Cruise” not Tom Cruise and we’re best off enjoying (or reviling) him on that strange, elevated, otherworldly level.

As a human being, though, he’s got a right to his privacy – which is why paparazzi cross the line along with other kinds of stalkers and should be condemned for it. Such people seek to break the boundaries from the media figure to the real person but still treat the real person in the objectifying manner of a media figure. That’s just wrong and should be illegal.

So is Jpop a chance to “possess” females who would otherwise be unattainable?

Um… no. If I was interested in possessing women in that sense, my pornography collection would be exponentially larger. More bang for your buck in that kind of satisfaction, and no language barriers to deal with. That would even be the case now that I prefer Japanese AV to American or European porn.

Then why do I demand pretty girls in the music I listen to now, when I haven’t before?

Actually, I don’t demand it – I just prefer it, though this being pop culture, preference is always key. (Pop culture isn’t a necessity of life like food and shelter, it’s a luxury that helps maintain social order.) Males are indeed a part of my Japanese music preferences: I listen to Rip Slyme’s music and enjoy TV appearances by SMAP and Gackt (their music leaves me cold, though). I love “Matsuken Samba” and think Matsudaira Ken is one sexy bitch.

But for the most part, cute teenage girls dominate my selections in Jpop because they are pleasurable to look at and that’s part of what Jpop delivers as a genre. Jpop encourages me to go past the music and consider how the performers look and whether or not they’re pretty or cute or cool or whatever. And I’m finally at a point in my life where I’m comfortable with this, when I want eye candy as much as something fun to listen to. (Though wanting something “fun” to listen to is, in itself, a new development as well.) If anything, I think I’m demanding more of my music when I listen to Jpop than the music I listened to in the past. What I’m demanding may seem shallow and contrived, but I think the appeal of a beautiful girl doing beautiful things isn’t something to be ignored.

(A beautiful girl doing nasty things… well, that’s AV.)

In the past, music was just music for me. I didn’t care about the music videos so much, I didn’t care if they appeared on TV shows unless they actually played a song, and I certainly wasn’t interested if they were hocking goods on a commercial. (Which most of them would never do.) The kind of music I listened to encouraged this attitude – strip it down to the music and the music alone, that’s all that matters. There was a purism to certain kinds of youth music – punk, hip hop, grunge, and especially artier like free noise and jazz – that was defiant of the media machinery and wanted to be approached on its own terms. Hip hop wanted to market itself further and take advantage of the commercial possibilities and that’s refreshing. (I remember playing Wu-Tang’s “Wu Wear” for students of mine once and they objected to the idea of a song being a commercial for a line of clothing. I was amused by this, considering what brand names the students wore.)

Jpop, on the other hand, embraces the media machinery – is a sparkling product of the media machinery, in many ways – and so makes itself vulnerable to the judgments that other kinds of music actively defied. Costume choices, hairstyles, dance moves, accessible beats, catchy lyrics, marketing potential – those are the terms that Jpop wants to be approached on. Like hip hop’s more commercial side, it seems more honest – more bracingly refreshing – to consider music as part of a larger system of commerce and art. Taken in that perspective, refusing to take advantage of all the performance and marketing possibilities is both stupid and self-destructive.

And since I’ve long had a weakness for pretty girls – well, that’s where Jpop enters the picture. Jpop gives me music that says, “Here. Pretty girls. Catchy songs. Enjoy them both and for God’s sake, don’t feel guilty about it.”

And yet you can get the same thing from American pop music…

That’s a topic I need to handle in another blog entry. Basically, I think the performers in American pop aren’t nearly as attractive or their personalities nearly as engaging as the ones in Japanese pop. Not even close. But I think that has as much to do with American media and the values they hold as the actual individuals who sing and dance.

Further, I tend to consider Asian women more attractive than non-Asian. Not in a strict racist manner, but certainly my tastes run along that line now.

Just to keep thing straight: attractiveness isn’t the sole criteria for what Jpop I like. My old wariness of pretty performers actually kept me from getting into Amuro Namie as quickly as I could have: I figured someone as beautiful and R&B diva-esque as her wasn’t going to make music I’d enjoy. I think Hiro is absolutely gorgeous but I’ll only listen to Coco d’Or and some Speed – I find her solo work boring and won’t even sit through the PVs just to admire how pretty she is. The same is true for Ueto Aya – I think she’s the most beautiful woman in Japan (well, right now I do), but I’d rather watch her Gundam commercials or Koukou Kyoushi than sit through some of her PVs.

On the other hand, the girls of Halcali and Zone aren’t attractive by traditional standards (well, Tomoka), but to me they’re attractive because of their music. On the streets of Waikiki I often walk past girls who look like Maiko and Yucali, but never turn my head or make a mental note of Oooh, she’s hot. And yet I watch these performers in their videos and live performances and admire their appearance as much as their musical skills. To me, Maiko is very attractive – heartbreakingly so – and yet I know it has to do with the fact that she’s in Zone, not based on just seeing her without any context. (And it’s all about context with me.)

So there’s something more at work here, some further process… Which we’ll look at next.

Next: Kawaii Sexy Kakoi.