The rising sun of popular music

Appealing to many cultures, Japanese pop has earned the world's No. 2 position.

February 06, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Because Anglo-American pop so completely dominates the airwaves in North America and Europe, it's easy to assume that the American Top 40 rules the world.

Not so. Even though Madonna and Backstreet Boys CDs can be found almost anywhere on earth, the truth is that our music is far from the universal language. In East Asia, in fact, Japanese popular music is the dominant taste, influencing teens from Taiwan to Thailand. It's also beginning to make inroads into the American market, riding the coattails of such youth-culture enthusiasms as Japanimation and video games.

Not everybody likes the same things about J-POP, or Japanese popular music. South Korean youths are enamored of the flashy, glamorous look of "visual keh" (literally "visual style") bands, and thus go ga-ga over the likes of Glay, L'Arc En Ciel and the now-defunct X Japan. In Taiwan, where tastes run more toward cute, fashion-forward idol singers, the big Japanese acts include Namie Amuro, Ayumi Hamasaki and Puffy (not the American rapper, but two Japanese women named Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimuri).

In America, tastes are far less defined. Those who were introduced to Japanese pop music through watching anime (the Japanese word for animation) tend to be most familiar with the frothy fun of "girl pop" acts like Max, Speed and Two-Mix, although anime-specific stars like Yoko Kanno and Megumi Hayashibara are also quite popular.

American fans who were drawn to Japanese music through an interest in underground alt-rock, on the other hand, prefer either punky bands like Shonen Knife, Guitar Wolf and the Boredoms (all of whom are virtually unknown in Japan), or quirky, genre-jumping acts like Pizzicato Five, Fantastic Plastic Machine and Cornelius. Meanwhile, club kids know Japanese music largely through the sound of DJs, particularly trance master Ken Ishii, the hip-hop oriented DJ Honda, and the ultra-adventurous DJ Krush.

That J-POP could mean such different things to so many people testifies to the breadth and vitality of the Japanese scene. Japan has the second biggest music market in the world behind the United States, with higher revenues than Germany, Britain or Canada. And foreign music -- including American pop -- constitutes just 17.8 percent of the Japanese market.

Moreover, music is an integral part of Japanese popular culture. After all, karaoke is a multibillion-dollar business there, encouraging millions of Japanese to keep up with the latest hits in order to seem "with it" while singing for friends or co-workers at karaoke bars. J-POP is also a staple of Japanese TV, where groups like Puffy, SMAP and Kinki Kids act as host to their own prime-time variety shows, and where pop hits are frequently "broken" through use as theme songs or jingles.

Thanks to online CD stores (see sidebar), it's easier than ever for interested Americans to purchase J-POP imports. Knowing where to start, however, can be difficult. With that in mind, here are some of the more noteworthy recent releases:

Chappie, "New Chappie" (Sony AICT 1126). Chappie isn't a singer -- she's a concept, a doll-like "virtual idol," created by a design team and given voice on "New Chappie." Who, exactly, those voices belong to is a secret, though such stars as Chisato Moritaka and Makoto Kawamoto are clearly audible. There's also slick, stylish production by the likes of Pizzicato Five's Yasuharu Konishi and YMO alum Haroumi Hosono, making this a perfect example of J-POP eclecticism, from the pulsing electropop of "Welcoming Morning" to the spirited, Jackson Five-ish "Derikashi no Kakera."

Hikaru Utada, "First Love" (Toshiba EMI 24067). Talk about a pop prodigy: At age 16, Hikaru Utada wrote and recorded the biggest-selling recording in Japanese history. Even more impressive, "First Love" isn't typical teen-pop. Although Utada's half-English, half-Japanese lyrics don't go much deeper than puppy love, her R&B-schooled vocals are assured and mature beyond her years. Should the New York-born singer turn her attention to this side of the Pacific, she could become the first Japanese crossover star since "Sukiyaki" singer Kyu Sakamoto.

Shikao Suga, "Sweet" (Kitty KTCR 1652). Imagine a cross between James Taylor and Al Green, and you'll have a sense of the sound Shikao Suga goes for on "Sweet." Although his lyrics take a good grasp of Japanese to appreciate, his elegant melodies and wry, soulful singing need no translation.

Morning Musume, "Love Machine" (Zetima EPDE 1051). Morning Musume (whose name means "Morning Daughter") is a TV creation, consisting of eight finalists for the pop singer role on a teen TV show. They're not great singers, but that won't prevent the retro-disco verve of their current single, "Love Machine," from getting its hooks into you. It's even better on video (Zetima EPVE 5005), where the quick-cuts and over-the-top production is simply mesmerizing.

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