“F*** J-pop in 2012. Korean musical group, 2NE1, have great voices. If 2NE1 is considered mainstream in Korea, I wonder what so-called Japanese artists be considered then.”
This opening salvo above came from Taku Takahashi, the producer of the Japanese hip-hop duo, m-flo. The paraphrased Tweeter quote sent both chills down J-pop fans’ backs, as well as a “this man gets it” props from others.
Tweeting his thoughts from March to late June this year, his take about the very music industry he works in were some of the most open, surreal, yet damning comments on J-pop. We would expect this sort of brashness from netizens, music fans, and journalists. But not people in the music industry itself.
With that being said, the question begs: Does Taku have a point in saying that J-pop sucks these days?
While I respect Taku greatly, I’ll have to respectfully disagree with his take. Before I get into why I disagree, let’s go into Taku’s influence, what the fans think, and why you should care about my opinion.
Taku’s InfluenceLet me be open and say that I have a lot of admiration for both Taku and his partner-in-crime, Verbal. They’re one of the original reasons I got into J-pop in the late 90s. To say I’m merely a fan of theirs is an understatement.
Taku is one of my favorite producers and m-flo is one of my favorite groups in Japanese music. I’m sure I’m not alone in being a big fan of theirs. From 1998, when Lisa was their main vocalist, until 2007, when they were doing their “Love Series”, m-flo had some of the catchiest, fun, innovative beats in Japan. Even their comeback album earlier in 2012 I enjoyed.
It’s this respect that makes it harder for me to go against his opinion. He’s done so much good for the Japanese music industry. When a respected artist, such as Taku, chimes in with his opinion, you have to hear him out.
The Fans’ TakeA quick perusal through forums and comments show that fans are more-or-less split about Taku’s opinion.
One group backs him up, saying that J-pop has steadily declined in 2008 and that there are only a handful of artists worth listening to. Most other artists, they feel, are unimaginative, uninspired, and lazy. These fans want to see some radical changes in J-pop so it’s creative, dynamic, and can compete with the music juggernaut on the other side of their waters: Korea.
The other side believes he is petty. They believe he is lashing out because non-mainstream artists, such as himself, are struggling to sell. Personally, I feel that some of these fans could be considered trolls, as I’m sure Taku’s motive to improve Japanese music is in the right place. From his actions and responses to fans on Twitter, he shows he wants to turn around the J-pop industry. As he says in his Twitter, “All I want to do is make Japan a better place [for music].” Sadly, some people believe that taking an honest, vocal stand on an issue means they’re automatically bitter.
The unspoken rule is that artists generally keep their opinions about the industry to themselves. If a singer feels that the music industry is flawed, they confide in a few, trusted friends. Rarely does an artist openly slam their own industry. Burning bridges within the scene is the last thing they want to do. Give credit to Taku for taking a stand for what he believes in, regardless in any repercussions or burned bridges.
Where I’m Coming FromSo who am I? I’m merely a fan of both J-pop and K-pop. And I also work in the K-pop industry as media.
I live here in the bustling city of Seoul, KR, surrounded by the sugary, poppy music known as K-pop. Nearly every week, I get invited to concerts and press events. I cover K-pop stars, talk with them backstage, and sometimes even interview them. I also talk to producers, choreographers, staff, and ticket organizers too. I’ve also consulted with various newspapers, music sites, and online publications here.
So while my humble opinion isn’t the greatest by any stretch, I feel I contribute by giving a good view into the industry.
Below, we’ll be going in-depth into J-pop, while comparing K-pop on the side. I hope the fans and journalists can team up and find out the true meaning of Taku’s words on J-pop’s stagnation.
Why Taku is on the Offensive Against J-pop
Taku has high praise for Korean pop band, 2NE1. He feels mainstream K-pop is superior to Japan’s
From his Tweeter messages, Taku feels that J-pop is being smothered by idol pop and pretty boy bands. To him, J-pop is being dominated by an army of girls (e.g. AKB48) and Johnny’s (e.g. Arashi). He feels these groups do not showcase Japan’s finest in musical talent or songwriting, yet still thrive. These groups tend to have strong sales, while the indie artists and producers that try something different scrape by and get unnoticed by the general public.
For the “most” part, his assessment is very true. And his feelings are understandable.
After all, shouldn’t music be judged on vocal talent and creativity?
These days, pop rules the nest on the Oricon charts to no one’s surprise. A healthy pop combination of AKB48, Arashi, Amuro Namie, and Hamasaki Ayumi make their name on the charts. Add to the fact that K-pop’s mainstream bands – KARA, 2PM, Beast, and T-ara – are also on the Oricon lends credence to Taku’s assertion.
The reason I said “most” part, however, is that the charts are also represented by a healthy mix of other genres (more on this later in part #2).
Many of these mainstream bands have the same hooks, similar sounds, and passable singing. But when backed up by pure aesthetics: great looks and slick choreography, singing and songwriting really take a back seat.
Yet, many Japanese fans alike think mainstream is the pinnacle of Japanese music. That the pop put out today is true talent. I feel this is why Taku is a bit frustrated by this trend in J-pop.
Unfortunately, this is no different in the K-pop industry I work in, as you’ll see below.
Why I Disagree with Taku #1: K-pop Isn’t Any Better in Musical TalentIt just seems that way, because of the slick, high-budgeted productions that K-pop has these days. But behind the flashy lights, makeup, presentation, paints a different picture.
K-pop also has its own pop problem: looks > musical talent.
The one thing both insiders and people outside of the Korean music industry already know is how mainstream K-pop holds every other genre in Korea hostage. Across the Sea of Japan (or East Sea if you’re Korean), fans are obsessed with looks. It’s so bad that passable – and sometimes even horrible vocals – vocals are often considered great.
Taku asserts that Korean mainstream groups, Big Bang and 2NE1, are far more superior than Japan’s. While these two groups are indeed talented and have catchy songs, they are in the minority when it comes to true talent in the K-pop industry.
The fact is that most Seoulites – people living in Seoul – are sick of mainstream K-pop and see that most groups are very bad at singing.
On the popular Korean TV music show, Inkigayo, many rookies make their debut here. While Big Bang always do well (pictured), the vast majority of groups crash and burn due to lack of originality or marketing.
Korean entertainment companies are always on the lookout for the next cash cow, such as Girls Generation, Big Bang, 2NE1, or PSY (four of the biggest names in the K-pop industry). What ends up happening is that every company starts to take a machine-gun approach and debut countless groups a year. If one group explodes, or even becomes decently popular, it is considered a win.
In 2012 alone, there have been at least 60+ groups to debut, as shown here. This list is probably missing good 20 or so groups, but the fact remains: Korean music companies are hoping they hit the lottery with at least one of them.
Many of these new groups, however, are ill-prepared. Many are quickly forced to debut as soon as possible. Since they’re ushered in so quickly, many of the singers are underdeveloped and blend in as “just-another-group”, rather than a unique group.
Also, as mentioned earlier, looks are, by far, the most important aspect in a K-pop singer. Much like many idol groups and Johnny’s in Japan, it’s all about the presentation even here in Korea. For better or worse, musical talent – vocals, pitch, carrying a tune, and so on – are swept aside. Good singing be damned.
There have been countless times where I witnessed live K-pop performances, singers have been totally off-key. Auto-tune, humming behind other singers, and even having the background music carrying the song are also used to hide weak vocalists.
Yet, many people in Korea – especially Korean teenagers and some foreigners – eat this stuff up. There’s nothing wrong with liking pop. If it’s your thing, that’s great. Yet, many feel that these singers are the pinnacle of Korean music, when Korean music is so much more. Just like how J-pop is more than just the pretty and handsome idol bands running around.
While Taku says that mainstream K-pop is superior to J-pop, I feel just comparing Big Bang or 2NE1 doesn’t show the whole picture. Those two groups represent two of the more talented singers in mainstream K-pop, even with the occasional auto-tune by 2NE1.
If you take the 200 or so groups that debuted in the last three years, only about 20% of them make it past their debut year. The rest are either disbanded or quickly forgotten.
Why I Disagree with Taku #2: J-pop Has DiversityOn nearly every given week on the Oricon, the Japanese music charts, you’ll find a healthy mix of idol bands and niche groups. Bubblegum idol pop, rock, visual kei, enka, electronic-pop, anime songs, hip-hop, Vocaloid, and R&B are just some of the genres that could be found on a top 30 list.
Diversity has never been greater in music like Japan’s.
An unofficial count shows that there are over 100 genres and sub-genres in Japanese music. Musical trends like Shibuya-kei, to Americanized R&B, to the little-known Japanese Reggae, Japanese music is well-represented.
The Oricon has a healthy mix of genres.
A quick stroll to a Japanese music store will quickly show this. Japanese music stores usually spans at least one floor filled with nothing but Japanese music. However, music stores that are two floors are not uncommon either (Korean music stores, on the other hand, usually have American and J-pop music mixed in to fill one floor). As the second largest music market in the world, there are many record companies – big and small – that take not only idol groups, but also niche artists as well. As CNN Go’s article (the title “Is Indie Music Dead in Japan” is misleading), there are thousands of indie bands playing in Japan, as Japan could be considered the “indie” capital of the world.
Why I Disagree with Taku #3: Artists Can Succeed as Non-Mainstream PopThis point is the main crux of Taku’s argument. Yet, in Japan you can thrive as a non-mainstream pop or Johnny’s band. Your records can sell well if you’re indie or come from a niche genre.
As taken from the Aramatheydidnt comments section (from sheix0), the following five successful artists are considered non-bubblegum pop, non-Johnny’s:
*1 1,092,556 Mr.Children 2005-2010 / Mr.Children 12/05/10
*2 1,044,645 Mr.Children 2001-2005 / Mr.Children 12/05/10
*3 *,753,392 EXILE JAPAN/Solo / EXILE 12/01/01
*4 *,400,287 NEWTRAL / Ikimonogakari 12/02/29
*5 *,346,409 YUZU YOU [2006-2011] / Yuzu 12/04/25
There are a lot more non-idol artists that have broken into the top 10 on the Oricon since 2005.
Orange Range, Halicali, Ketsumeishi, and Jasmine, are just some examples. Kana Nishino, who rose to stardom a couple of years ago, has also had strong sales. Her 2010 album, “To Love”, has sold over 700,000 copies.
Veterans B’z and Ken Hirai have had multi-platinium records, as the two continue to sell well. B’z has their handprints on the Hollywood RockWalk, while Ken Hirai was the 2006 Oricon best-seller of the year. Utada Hikaru, the poster-child for Japanese singers, has had each of her albums sell over 500,000 from 2005-2008.
Perfume shows it how it’s done.
Indie-turned-mainstream group, Perfume, has also tasted success. They, along with Fantastic Plastic Machine, The Indigo, Capsule, and others, made electro-pop and techno big in Japan. Their CDs, since 2008, have sold more than 300,000 copies.
As any Japanese music fan can imagine, there are countless more examples of non-mainstream pop and Johnny’s posting strong sales. While yes, there a lot of talented, great indie singers that barely sniff 1,000 copies, Japan has a lot more opportunities for niche singers to break out and taste success.
Heck, m-flo is one example that broke in the industry in 1998 and had huge success from 2003-2007, which was their “Love Series”. Their sales may not have been as big as an AKB48 or other bubblegum pop group. However, they did quite well for themselves, as well as launch a slew of new artists’ careers, such as Crystal Kay’s, Melody’s, and Emi Hinouchi’s.
Wrapping It UpI really do empathize with Taku in feeling he’s getting the short end of the stick in the Japanese music industry. While him and other creative, musically gifted artists get shafted, idol pop and pretty boy bands rule the charts and sales.
But saying that J-pop sucks or is horrible is going too far, I feel.
Yes, there are problems in J-pop. Yes, their video production and choreography could use some improvement (as Korea’s is definitely superior). Yes, some music labels are getting lazier. And yes, their marketing could use some oomph if they want to reach a larger audience (unless they want to keep their music exclusive to Japan).
So while having an army of teenage girls ruling the Oricion charts with questionable vocal talent may feel depressing, evidence shows that J-pop is still going strong. Japan is still the 2nd largest music market in the world, there are a ton of genres, and there are a lot of hard-working, talented artists out there.
Don’t worry Taku. If J-pop is in a “dark age” as you call it, with some fixes, Japan will soon come out of it. Hopefully, J-pop can experience a “golden age”, similar to the 90s to the mid-2000s.
Lead the way Taku and let’s make J-pop awesome!
Jason has worked with BBC World, the Yonhap News, the Busan International Film Festival, and various K-pop companies. Currently working in the Korean media scene, his passion is to spread Asian pop culture to the world. He currently lives in Seoul, Korea. Check out his site, GreenTeaGraffiti, which promotes Asian pop culture.