Music I'd Like to Introduce to Japan

Nov 07,2012

But first, the comments I've received in the interim since my last post.

■ Time Received
2012/09/19 21:41:53

■ Name

■ Content
wondered what happened to you... congratulations on your marriage!

Thank you, and thanks for reading.

■ Time Received
2012/10/16 08:21:12

■ Name

■ Content
Good to see you made a trip to US! Looks so much fun.

and as for airplanes, if you think too much of that, you get scared, so I try not to think of how airplanes fly or whatever make me scared. I know what you mean though.

Onward and downward...

Since it's not really in me to dwell on the escalating conflict with China or the recent blackouts in New York, I turn to subjects of less consequences, and hopefully greater entertainment value.

In case I never mentioned it before, there exists a subtle difference not only in the characteristics of popular music that dominates Japan versus the English-bloc countries, but also in the way it's marketed. The dearth of artists whose work manages to cross the oceans is notorious. Record stores in the United States tend to divide their merchandise into basic genres: jazz, metal, disco, new age, salsa, and so on. The shops in Europe, at least in my limited experience, seem to go even further, sometimes demarcating genres so specific that they contain only a single CD. The shops in Japan go the opposite course, generally divided into only two categories: yogaku, or Western pop music by Western artists; and hogaku, or Western-style pop music by Japanese artists. The difference in the two broad 'genres' if they can be so-called, is that hogaku is sung in Japanese, with vocals pushed higher in the mix to make it easier to sing the songs at karaoke; a tendency to use super-duper-ultra-mega-light guitar strings rather than the medium gauge most Westerners seem to prefer; and a proclivity for extraneous chord arrangements for, I am persuaded, no other reason than to make a song seem more complicated than it should be. The three-chord-wonder is a staple of Western music that doesn't seem to have caught on. (This has its parallel in that quality for which Americans are infamous or famous, being able to converse freely with almost anyone in spite of a monosyllabic vocabulary; and the tendency for Japanese students of English to know tens of thousands of items of vocabulary and yet be unable to construct an intelligible sentence.)

I used to be surprized at how little of Western popular and rock music people here seemed to know. Now instead I'm surprized when I hear someone express knowledge of an artist who never had an album in the top 10. Even musicians frequently attest that their selection of favourites is comprised of acts that, growing up as I did in the US, were eschewed by anyone who claimed to have any taste, and were left to the prepubescents who made purchases solely based on the amount of times they heard a song on the radio. (I'm not sure anyone really literally does that, but it sure seems that way.)

So I'll take this space to promote the three rock bands that had the biggest impact on me as a teenager, and award stars to any Japanese readers who have hear these bands' names mentioned before, plus extra special congratulations if any happen to have already known what their music sounded like.

The Cure

As far as I know, no one in Japan has ever heard of them. Please correct me if I'm wrong--I would be absolutely delighed. For the second half of my high school education, I couldn't get enough of them, and neither could most of my friends. In fact they seemed to be the right soundtrack to an entire angst-ridden generation in suburbium that sat around staring at the walls and the banality of its upper-middle-class lives. Naturally, the youth of today have their own preferred angst-ridden soundtrack, but I don't think it's as good, and hey, I know more and think more clearly than virtually anyone. O qualcosa del genere.

The band is still recording and performing after more than two decades, although I still maintain their heyday was right around this time, with Disintegration their best material, seconded with its successor, Wish, and its predecessor, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, whence comes this gem in all its very dated 1980s glory.

The Grateful Dead

Stretching back further in time we get what is supposed to be, by a good many accounts, the premier band of California. They were right at the crest of the hippie movement from its inception, so it's suitable that one of the most famous quotes attributed to guitarist Jerry Garcia runs:

It's pretty clear now that what looked like it might have been some kind of counterculture is, in reality, just the plain old chaos of undifferentiated weirdness.

Their nearly-constant touring around the US was legendary, and seemed to spawn a whole sub-sub-culture of its own. To someone who grew up taking it for granted, it seemed like it should have been common knowledge in the rest of the world, too.

Alas, this is not the case. It's not just the Japanese who have never heard of them. I've spoken to Brits and Australians who haven't, either. I still can't wrap my head around it, but I guess I live in a bubble after all. Unfortunately, the band's thirtysomething years of splendor came to an end with Garcia's untimely death in 1995, but I'm not alone in thinking he was one of the greatest guitar players in the history of rock music.

I once met a Japanese person wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt. 'You like the Dead! That's incredible!' I said. He told me he had no idea what the shirt meant until I told him.

Mazzy Star

Last and probably least, because they are quite minor compared to the other two, this neo-psychedelic outfit drifted into my life on cassette tape somewhat by accident when I was 15. Their predecessor, Opal, caught my attention on college radio the year before, and a fabulously savvy gent at a record shop recommended Mazzy Star to me. I went around in turn recommending them to all my friends, and apparently someone else must have had the same idea, because two years later they were on the radio and getting mentioned in certain magazines. They only managed to release three albums in fifteen years, though, but what little they did produce was mostly quite nice. Why not give it at least a passing listen?

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