Monday, April 09, 2007

The Seven Days of J-POP - Part I : SMAP

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Bear with me. I hope all of you remember New Kids On The Block. I'm going to go back into the late 80s and twist history a little bit, and offer an alternate "near future" for the group and the world around them, specifically the U.S.

(If you really don't want to read this, just scroll down, but there's a point to this, I swear.)

Now for some premises:

  • Assume Mark Wahlberg does not quit the group upon its formation this time. Marky decides to stick with it after Donnie does some amazin' persuadin'. Donnie. Marky. Joey. Donny. Jonathan. Jordan. The Kids form.

  • David Geffen never gets to sign Sonic Youth to DGC Records. Tragedy strikes due to medical conditions on Geffen's part. He resigns from the music business to take care of himself. The Sonic Youth deal is off. The money is reallocated, instead, to Guns N' Roses so they can release another acoustic stop-gap album due to the success of GN'R Lies.

  • ...hence the crucial motivation for Nirvana to sign to a major label deal is off. The band continue on for a few more years on Sub Pop before the label folds along with the band, after which Kurt Cobain pursues a solo career that is also short-lived. In short, "grunge" is never conceived.

  • Major labels stop trying to stretch their imaginations in their signings, break down, and follow their markets' wishes for more of the same.

It's 1991, and there's absolutely no stop to the momentum of New Kids On The Block's success. On the golden heels of Step By Step, and after some short-lived vanity side projects aside, the six member group decide to channel any threats to band unity into Hollywood, on advice from their management. "Keep the formula set in stone. If anything threatens to unravel the formula, take it to another media outlet." The group follow suit. Well, they literally follow suits. Most of the group subsequently pursue side interests in cameos and guest appearances on high school and college age demographic prime time dramas such as Beverly Hills 90210, New Kids On The Precinct - Boston Nights, and a MTV exclusive cartoon show on Saturday mornings.

New Kids fever is obviously in full effect -- now on TV. 1992's Serious Now, 1993's Anytime, and 1994's If We Ain't Broke... follow in a very similar vein as their blockbusters in the break of the 90's. However, the albums take a slight backseat to the group's new roles in television, despite continued platinum sales. Mark Wahlberg is the sole member that retreats more from band efforts as well as screen efforts, concentrating on his strict workout -- taking much part in his charity work as a baseball coach to handicapped kids, with assistance from fellow Red Sox players, Mo Vaughn and Roger Clemens.

While Jordan Knight, Jonathan Knight, Joey McIntyre, and Donny Wood follow their cinematic destinies, Donnie Wahlberg strikes the biggest deal. He gets his own daily night-time variety TV show: The Nightlife with Donnie Wahlberg on CBS in the summer of 1994. Donnie promises that this late night variety show will break barriers that no other late night show has attempted, and he doesn't lie. Instead of sticking to a tried-and-true formula of comedy, film celebrity interviews, and musical acts like mainstay shows such as The Tonight Show, Donnie mixes up the format in ways no one could have imagined. Celebrities from formerly conflicting scenes are now seen playing ping-pong together, or having a picnic in the Australian outback. In fact, the show changes many lives over the course of time. For example, Ally Sheedy and The Cure's Robert Smith start a romance that shines strong to this day due to one episode of The Nightlife where Sheedy and Smith were pitted against each other in Xtreme Skee-ball. Their wedding on The Nightlife six months later break TV ratings.

There's surprisingly little conflict in this world of The New Kids' empire over TV, radio, cable, and the music industry. The underground music scene, formerly very critical of the mainstream, starts to spool itself a unique, self-sustaining economy and culture due to one too many years of struggling below the radar of mainstream pop culture, where The Kids have been comfortably residing. The support of U.S. chart toppers Fugazi -- the only Billboard charting band on their own label -- in partnership with the global independent music outlet chain, S.Y.R., formed by the ex-members of Sonic Youth, creates a vibrant outlet for groups that wish to follow their own artistic whims, without having to suffer the frustrations of an archaic industry that has no use for them. "Difficult" musicians now have choices.

With the exception of Marky's departure from the group upon accepting a position in the Red Sox in 1997, becoming a star pitcher and helping the Sox win three consecutive World Series titles until the turn of the millenium, the remaining five-piece group continue releasing an album once per year following the same formula as always. The new generation of New Kids fans don't mind, as they're just learning from their parents who themselves were the first generation of New Kids On The Block fans. Jonathan Knight is expected to retire soon at the age of 38, although he is still interested in recording because The New Kids are "his family." 37-year-old Donnie has recently become a co-owner of Turner Enterprises.


Anyway, you get the idea. I'm not sure if this alternate history disgusts you, intrigues you, bores you, gives you any sense of pause, makes you roll your eyes, or all of the above. I present this alternate history because this is very close to what Japan is experiencing in real life to this day with the immense success of J-Pop boy band SMAP. Their history, if believed, has many parallels to the above.

[A TV performance of SMAP in 1990, just before their debut album: ]

The six piece's fame started roughly the same time as New Kids On The Block's. Sparked by the marketing work of infamous Japanese boy band factory Johnny & Associates -- noteworthy due to allegedly disturbing revelations on the part of the enterprise's leader, SMAP (Masahiro Nakai, Takuya Kimura, Katsuyuki Mori, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, Goro Inagaki and Shingo Katori) established themselves swiftly in the early 90's. They've only had one lineup change ever. In 1996, Katsuyuki left the group to pursue race car driving. That's it! Most importantly, they wisely explored acting and television as an alternate career fork even before their initial peak of fame. They defied the fade to the stereotypical dead-end Has-Been world.

It's shocking that they have continued to release albums until last year, and will continue to do so. It's more amazing that they haven't really changed their musical style since their ineption. At this point, they've likely reached that level where Japanese pop culture is partially deaf to their presence but will go into systematic shock should anything cause SMAP to cease to exist in any form.

Imagine Saturday Night Live ending. Sure, some will welcome it. But for the most part, multiple generations in the U.S. will feel a great loss. This is how huge SMAP is in Japan. The end of SMAP is the end of several eras at once, for better and worse.

So! Surely SMAP's music must be something special to allow for such unprecedented longevity and importance for a boy band? Well, not exactly. First off, while they certainly passed the energetic-and-cuteness test with the audition, they started off as sloppy dancers and even sloppier singers. In fact, for nearly a decade, they've gotten away with sloppy singing and dancing. Thankfully, their singles have excellent hooks. The 1991-2001 2-CD greatest hits collection, Vest, is certainly a great place to start -- but, admittedly, much of that collection starts to sound "samey" after a while. I culled the most interesting songs from Vest here:

Vest - (1991-2001)

[SMAP promo shot circa 2002]

[A montage of SMAP between 1991 and 2003, with the members watching it themselves]

[A live acoustic Beach Boys-esque take on their Beatles-esque early single "Kimi wa Kima Dayo"]

Now, I don't know any Japanese. I'm missing one major sense of musical comprehension by trying to analyze any Japanese-sung music because of this obvious fact. I recognize this renders my criticism of these songs weak at best. This is part of the raison d'ĂȘtre of the entire J-Pop blog series. Is it possible for me to ultimately connect with this? Will I always be some minimal large distance from J-Pop because of the language barrier? Or can I use knowledge of J-Pop as its own form of language?

Since SMAP is, first and foremost, a pop group with pronounced verses and choruses, I can only judge their music on just the backbone, which is just that. Is that necessarily fair?

Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, SMAP have evolved into becoming a celebrity phenomenon in Japan moreso than a musical phenomenon, although they are both. That said, their TV show archives are endless. Go nuts.

It's now 2007. Their latest album is Arigatou from last year. "Arigatou", the title track, is their 40th single, and their 15th anniversary single, meant literally as a "Thank You" to all who have helped them along the way. It's also their best single.

What makes "Arigatou" great is that they sum up all their tricks into one nifty, moving ballad. The verses slowly build to a gorgeous chorus. The harmonies are unfuckwitable. Oh, and the song has, like, the best video ever:

Menudo may have technically lasted longer as a boy band than SMAP. (Talk about a pop group mess, especially after the Ricky Martin years.) However, I'd put down at least a $20 bet that Menudo's 15th or 20th anniversary single wasn't their greatest work. Anyone in?


[Stevie Wonder guesting on one of many of SMAP's TV shows - Bistro Smap]

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Anonymous Dorian said...

Not understanding the lyrics makes these songs sound more eerily familiar than most pop music. My neighbours are going to regret me ever downloading Arigatou - looking forward to the rest of the week!

6:08 AM  
Anonymous boteltobago said...

Brilliant write-up. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the single "Fly" off the Birdman album, and its video which imagines the SMAP boys as hitmen being chased by someone named Birdman. Didn't make a lick of sense but, damn, it was cool.

11:42 AM  
Anonymous boteltobago said...

Also.. PLEASE do a post on the ULFULS!

11:43 AM  
Blogger Agent Ramona said...

Terrific analogy. As I went pretty much from the NKOTB to the Lemonheads and then hardcore into the twee pop, I love reading about parallels between all pop. Anyway, I will be posting about this on NKOTBlog but you might also be interested in Axis of Tweevil the "other" pop blog I write.

7:48 AM  

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