14 January 2010

Japanese decadeology

Japan, it is sometimes said, is a society of the future.

If so, then the future of pop music, as already experienced by Japan this decade, is looking radically uncertain. W. David Marx's guide to Japanese music since 2000 is pretty essential reading, with plenty of good links to hard to find tunes. And while one might find fault with some of Marxy's finer points or aesthetic judgments, it's difficult to argue with the main industrial-commercial thrust of his thesis, that is, if you discerned an across-the-board decline in Japanese pop music this decade--from the experimental underground to the Oricon heights of J-Pop--it's not for lack of talented musicians, but rather, the lack of a commercial infrastructure to support them. When the titans of '90s shibuya-kei (Cornelius, Kahimi Karie, Pizzicato Five, etc.) scattered in all directions at the start of the decade, there were plenty of younger acts ready to step into the breach. The fatal obstacle, as encountered by short-lived bands like Petset or Plus-Tech Squeeze Box, was the Japanese economy itself:
The problem was, selling out after 2005 was not even an option. The only real artistic solution was to get more weird, but the record labels did not want to go further into debt and no one really had the heart. Most of this generation had seen the Shibuya-kei guys succeed both financially and critically at making interesting indie music and wanted to follow that path. ... [but] here in 2010, the entire infrastructure for good indie music has completely been wiped out, and those who were once our greatest hope to “save” Japanese music have retreated into doing things more rewarding than commercial music — eating, breathing, sleeping, throwing things against other things, counting clouds, quietly reading, personal hygiene.
Vital, commercially successful pop continues to be made here and there--I agree with Marxy's positive assessment of Shugo Tokumaro--but revolutionary figures like Oorutaichi are in uncharted and lonely territory. It's already been three years since his beautifully funky Drifting My Folklore came out, and though he recently mustered a well-received tour of European art spaces and small clubs, the market for another Oorutaichi record, particularly in Japan, looks pretty shaky to say the least. It's safe to say that fifteen years ago, he would have had two or three albums out by now, and received offers to produce a daring mainstream act or two. Nowadays, it's not so clear what the path for a guy like him is.

Japan's artistic economy is rapidly realizing Momus's old joke that "in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen people". This is potentially a radically egalitarian cultural environment: a place where it is impossible to depend on a "star system" of big cultural producers. While that's not a bad thing at all in my book--especially if more people discover more of their own creativity--it does make one wonder what accomplished artists who work their asses off fulltime are supposed to be doing for survival money. Hopefully a social revolution of another sort isn't far behind.

1 comment:

jedipan said...

brilliant.. cheers, bro.. x