Japanese Pop

On occasions too numerous to mention, a firsthand knowledge of Japanese pop can come in handy. Here we take a cursory look at the special brand of Japanese pop with Japanese girls singing in several languages and a pretty pastiche of hip-hop and electronica providing integrity.

Between mod and subversive, Japanese pop splashes into America periodically. Bands like Pizzicatto Five, Fantastic Plastic Machine, Kahimi Karie, and Takao Minekawa offer a young-sounding Japanese girl singing over pop songs crafted with the tools of hip-hop and dance electronica. Typically multilingual and remix-friendly, these releases offer a bizarre but pleasing blend of quirky subject material, smart production, and catchy beats.

When is it appropriate to play Japanese pop? Standing around drinking specialty martinis before your dinner party really swings, try the French, Japanese, and English songs of Pizzicatto Five. Before your radical party concept Scrabble-Rama kicks off, try Kahimi Karie. If the local bowling alley allows headphones, try Midnite Bowling Madness with Fantastic Plastic Machine.

Picking up some international pop always makes me wonder what American pop sounds like to the Japanese or Brazilian or French because Japanese pop, when sung in English, is extragalactic and odd. It can submerge you in a world of bright emotions and telling cliche’s, all put to pop disco beats with sampling and synth-pop sensibility. It makes you wonder. Why is the subject material fluffy and vapid like an imported cartoon? What do the Japanese hipsters mean to say? Are the Japanese girls fronting these bands deliberately trying to sound artistically youthful, almost exuberantly girlish in a coquettish way? Because they surely sing the songs without any seeming inflection. They don’t seem to have any real relationship with the words; they might just as well provide tuneful renditions of Rilke poems.

I like to think of it, finally, as counterpoint. A critical core of American pop music has always trafficked in heavy emotional content: love, loss, alcohol, drugs, adultery, depression. But that doesn’t have to be what songs are about. Silly and playful songs sung by mod Japanese girls go well with a crisp martini or strung paper lanterns and kettle barbecues. It’s tiring to always be head over heels in love, metaphysically lost, or suicidally depressed. It’s nice to hear breezy numbers cooed softly.

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