Shibuya-kei Is Dead
Of course, the Japanese will tell you that the '90s pop movement known as Shibuya-kei is over. It's triumphed, restructured the Japanese music industry, brought fame to eclectic artists like Cornelius, Kahimi Karie and Pizzicato 5 and is now going international.
Already groups on American labels like March, Matador, Emperor Norton, Minty Fresh, or European labels like Berlin's Bungalow, are beginning to sound like Shibuya-kei bands. The mirror the Japanese have held up to the west, a distorting mirror, a selective and filtering vision of our pop culture, is apparently one which can help us to redefine in new and interesting ways what pop is.
We western pop-makers are like the Brothers Grimm. We scribbled a few fairy stories a long time ago. And now they're there, transmuted, misunderstood and built in stone at Tokyo Disneyland, and we're wandering around the theme park in our frock coats murmuring aloud in wonder 'Did we really start this?'
Arkists At The End Of The World
Apres moi le deluge. The flood has come, and it's the end of the world. In the era of global retro we are being engulfed by a plethora of products and styles. Some of us can swim and others are drowining.
The epicenter of global retro culture is Shibuya, the trendy shopping district of west Tokyo which gave Shibuya-kei (literally 'Shibuya style') its name. Here the record shops are the best stocked in the world. Fashions change every five minutes, and the moment a style is invented it's also revived and parodied. Shops and museums are the same thing, and shopping and curating are creative activities on a par with making art.
Pizzicato 5, the groovy sampladelic grandfathers of Shibuya-kei, called their last album 'Happy End Of The World'.
Looking around recently for a name to call the new sort of artists at work in Shibuya-kei pop, I asked pop writer Simon Reynolds what he would call this new type of 'shopping' artist who curates, collects, samples and synthesizes, collates, edits and archives the pop of the west and the pop of the past.
Simon said 'Well, it's a combination of the role of an artist and an archivist, so why not call him an 'archist'?'
I misheard it as 'arkist' and thought of Noah herding his personal selection of animals aboard the ark so that they can escape the flood.
'Yes!' I shouted, 'it's the perfect metaphor! It's got the idea of selection, it's got plethora, it's got apocalypse!'
Japanese Pop Explosion
Think of Coke cans being turned into intricate model steam engines in Africa. Cultural objects are often so much more interesting when taken out of context, misunderstood, or fetishised.
When Ennio Morricone combined his interpretation of American cowboy whistling and guitar playing with memories of the folk arrangements of Sicily and Calabria he came up with a new genre, Spaghetti Western music. When the boys in Daft Punk listened to the thudding 70s dance sounds playing in their parents' bedroom, the mix going clear then muddy again as dad opened and shut the door, they chose deliberately to misunderstand the dynamics of disco, and broke through to the original sound which made their names.
The Japanese music industry is the world's second largest. It is dominated 75% by Japanese groups who sing in Japanese. Despite the best efforts of Japanese record labels, these groups (the kabuki glam of Glay, the bland bossa pop of Dreams Come True) have failed to make the slightest impact on the west.
That's all changed with Shibuya-kei. Pizzicato 5, Cornelius, Kahimi Karie, Takako Minekawa, Cibo Matto, Buffalo Daughter, Yukari Fresh and others now either live in the west or have begun touring Europe and the States intensively, getting rave reviews wherever they go. Articles have appeared recently in all the style mags and newspapers about Japanese pop, and Steve Lamacq's producer, asking me for an interview for a BBC Radio 1 documentary about it, tells me that 'Steve is very excited about the Japanese pop explosion.'
Whereas Britpop was a movement based on the premise that bands signed in Camden had relevance worldwide, and was marketed by an export drive marked by copious use of the union jack, Shibuya-kei (taking place in the same time period in Japan) was all about import. The young Keigo Oyamada of Cornelius, the young Kenji Takimi of Crue-L Records, were CD and vinyl junkies. With no weekly music press exerting the straightjacket pressure of peer group conformity, Keigo and Kenji simply bought whatever records they could afford, disregarding category, period, country of origin and critical endorsement. They bought records with cool sleeves, in languages they couldn't understand.
It wasn't the snobbism of the record collector, it was quite the opposite: the open curiosity of people with absolutely no preconceptions, but a huge appetite for music and the vision and imagination it carries.
Trustafarians From Pluto
Of course, they were helped by two things: the best-stocked record shops in the world, and the kindest parents in the world.
Japanese are a bit like Trustafarians, those trust-funded dreadlocked slummers who 'find themselves' as soap dodgers and road protesters until Daddy is satisfied they're mature enough to inherit the family business.
The older generation of Japanese are the world's biggest savers, with small fortunes in their bank accounts, accumulated through a lifetime of conformity and caution. As if to make up for the freedom and individuality they never had themselves, they give their kids a five year window of freedom between the draconian discipline of high school and the equally draconian discipline of office work and marriage.
And through this precious window the young Japanese fly, travelling the world, getting laid, buying huge quantities of pop records and adopting some of the most outrageous combinations of clothes seen this side of Pluto.
The current youth style in Harajuku, the Camden Town of Tokyo, is called Decora-Chan. Its idol and exemplar is the gap-toothed, candy pink singer and actress Tomoe Shinohara (for whom I wrote a song earlier this year, rejected as being 'too delicate'). The Decora-chan girls wear layers of petticoats they mix with hilariously expensive Vivienne Westwood shoes, absurdly sexy little silk socks, accessories reminiscent of early Madonna or Cyndi Lauper, coloured contact lenses, ludicrous baroque headgear, and transparent bags sporting cute cartoon characters. Their habitual greeting is to raise their right hands in the paw-fist shape of the Shinto cat. They are supercute and listen to groups like Puffy and Smap. You can see photos of them in Japteen magazines like Cutie and Fruits.
They aren't Shibuya-kei, which is better summed up by model and singer Hinano. But they show just how delightfully spoiled and fascinatingly creative Japanese youth still is, even in this time of recession and economic dread.
The Decora-chan girls also hint at the strange collusion which exists in Japanese culture between the hentai (pervert) and the kawai (cute), and point up an interesting parallel between the international indie-zine movement's obsession with innocence and childhood, and the Japanese fascination with the blossomlike transience of youth, which is referred to in its sexual mode as Lolicon (short for Lolita Complex) and in its musical mode as Lolitapop
Making the transition from the provocatively demure sailor-suits of their school uniforms to the baroque mix'n'match of their Decora-chan gear (Marie Antoinette as a cyberpunk milkmaid), Japanese teenage girls go from one highly fetishised image to another. The crucial difference is that one is passive, the other active; one submissive, the other creative. When they get to Shibuya, the schoolgirls speak their own slang, embrace their own fetish status, and shop deliriously in celebration of their new-found freedom to choose its cutest expression.
Shopping Is Only Stupid When You Shop Stupidly
When I produced The Poison Girlfriend, a Japanese artist who named herself after one of my early Creation albums, in 1993, I was surprised to hear her say that her favourite artist was a leftfield french avant garde singer from the early '70s called Brigitte Fontaine. I was even more surprised to find that Fontaine's records, all totally out of print in her native France, were on the current catalogue of the Japanese label we were recording the Poison Girlfriend album for, Nippon Columbia.
Flip through a Japanese magazine like H, the fashion, music and people
supplement of Rockin' On Japan, and you'll find articles about Rodney
Greenblatt, Rita Ackerman, Harmony Korine, Wong Kar Wai... artists who are
often obscure or reviled at home, yet are some of the most interesting and
risk-taking creative talents around.
It might stem from their huge respect for the craftsmen, the calligraphers and lacquer makers of Japanese history, but it's also partly a reaction to the conformity expected daily of Japanese workers, who have to click their heels and bow to their colleagues all day long, and are only able to escape furtively into apocalyptic mangas on the tube home, or exquisitely perverse S&M pornography. Conformity forces people into a rich underworld of imagination and fantasy.
Maybe my affinity with the Japanese pop scene is based on the fact that I too experienced the discipline of a Prussian military academy at my Scottish boarding school.
Introducing The Bands
In 1994 Crue-L Records asked me to make an EP for Kahimi Karie. It was called 'I Am A Kitten: Kahimi Karie sings Momus in Paris', and was the first of a series of records we continue making to this day. In them I get to be a sort of geographic and gender transvestite, imagining what it must be like to be a beautiful Japanese girl.
Kahimi, the ultimate exemplar of the concept of intelligent shopping as art, has also bought in the services of France's Philippe Katerine and Czerkinsky, Germany's Stereo Total, and Japanese groups like Neil and Eraiza, Cornelius, and Pizzicato 5. It's a bit like flying round the world and coming home with a bag full of Prada and Jeremy Scott.
Takako Minekawa is the Yoko Ono of the scene. Her albums, 'Roomic Cube' and 'Cloudy Cloud Calculator', produced by Buffalo Daughter, set the most retro-futuristic analog synth sounds against weird ruminations on colour theory, personal space, and the secret significance of numbers like 47. Takako also obsesses about cats, owls, Kraftwerk and ping pong. The first of two appealing remix albums, 'Recubed', is due later this year.
Kenji Takimi, the long-toothed eccentric behind the influential Crue-L
label, is one of Cornelius's oldest friends. His group, the Crue-L Grand
Orchestra, makes 70s cocktail disco records. He portrays himself on the
sleeves as a sort of chintzy Andre Previn, baton held aloft, pot belly
courtesy of Photoshop (in fact he's as skinny as a paper-panelled sliding
door). Shibuya-kei, and groups like The Love Tambourines, have made Takimi a rich man in the last five years. Kahimi Karie's contract, like Beck's, allows her to continue to make records for Crue-L even when she's signed to a major like Polydor.
Neil and Eraiza is the group belonging to Cornelius's live guitarist,
Hirohisa Horie. They're attempting to spearhead a tongue-in-cheek Soft Rock
revival, somewhere between Todd Haynes' take on The Carpenters and The Ben Folds Five. Yukari Fresh make perky indie electro-disco records. Pizzicato 5 make exemplary futuristic francophile sampladelic bossa pop, each album a fabulous widescreen stereo extravaganza.
The Chief Monkey In Tokyo
It's a digipak gatefold single the shape of an elongated box of matches
containing two tiny CDs. On the sleeve there's a photo of Keigo Oyamada playing a theremin which emits waves towards a bust of Beethoven, who is sitting in a field of goofy pink cartoon rabbits looking very serious and very deaf.
The sleevenotes tell you that in order to enjoy the 'byneural' stereo
effects of this single, which is called 'Star Fruits Surf Rider', you should
play both CDs at the same time in two different CD systems, each with stereo
speakers attached. Is the world ready for the return of quad?
Put one of the tiny CDs on and it's a gentle Beach Boys lullaby, decorated
with the clipped home organ sounds of the Maestro rhythm unit raved about by
the Beastie Boys in a recent edition of Grand Royal, with an intense chorus
that gets loud before the soothing soft surf pop returns.
This is the sound and these are the concepts of Cornelius, king monkey of the Shibuya-kei scene. Instead of releasing videos, he curates reels of vector graphics TV commercials from the early 80s, and the high point of his live shows is a theremin rendition of 'Love Me Tender' while Elvis, projected on screens behind, sings the same song in sync.
Keigo Oyamada started the 90s in teen indie band The Flipper's Guitar, who got increasingly psychedelic with each album. He formed Cornelius, named after one of the monkeys in Planet Of The Apes in 1993. Initially an acid jazz group, Cornelius suddenly got gimmicky, postmodern and a lot more interesting on their 1996 album '69/96' and accompanying remix record, '96/69'. (He showed that you could rock hard with irony, too: some of the record sounds like AC/DC).
Cornelius began getting noticed internationally with the excellent follow-up,
released last year, 'Fantasma'. His ambition is to produce Michael Jackson.
I doubt it will happen, but we can dream...
You can read an interview with him on the web at http://184.108.40.206/~donk/cornelius/interview.html.
Cornelius not only 'edits' his music in a way quite different from western bands, chopping it up much more aggressively so that it sounds like a radio being tuned on Short Wave and FM simultaneously, or a film soundtrack, he also 'edits' the west's received ideas about what constitutes pop and rock, what's serious and what's trash.
Cornelius himself calls it ton-chi.
'If there was one thing I wanted Americans to take home it's the Japanese concept of ton-chi, which is derived from Zen Buddhism. It's looking at something and garnering a different answer. It's looking at something from an entirely different perspective.'
Fresh perspectives have often powered new beat booms. Just as the Beatles listened to and synthesised black and white American music, Little Richard and Elvis, while in the US those markets were still segregated by race, so the Japanese have had a unique curatorial take when it comes to the western pop they rate.
If you were to draw a pop map of the west from a Japanese perspective, you'd
have to make France a huge girlpop grid (the '60s lolitapop of Hardy and Dutronc, the '70s soft rock schmaltz of Polnareff and lounge pervery of Gainsbourg figure big in the Shibuya-kei blueprint), Brazil a big Bossaland, Sweden wet with lakes and wrapped in a cardigan, America edited down to its east and west coast extremes: Beck, the Beach Boys and the Beastie Boys...
England on our pop map is an elegant sliver of an island, a splash in the
silvery North Sea populated by St Etienne, Shampoo, and slim, style-mad visionary eccentrics like Paul Weller, and Mike Alway, who earned a Kahimi Karie tribute single ('Mike Alway's Diary') by posing on the sleeve of one of his el Records compilations in the trans-sexual guise of Edith Sitwell as photographed by Cecil Beaton.
It's Important To Be Trendy
In Britain, when we say someone's trendy, we're usually just a breath away from calling them a fashion victim or implying some moral failing in their dandyism. Look at the verbal and physical abuse heaped on style geniuses like Malcolm McLaren and Leigh Bowery.
The Japanese word for trendy is 'kokoi', and it has an implication of 'cool, fashionable, smart'. The opposite word in Japanese, the word for uncool, 'dasai', has a negative charge of shame. It is simply shameful not to know where it's at.
And so the Japanese keep themselves very well informed. When they travel to the west, they know where to go. They consume culture in a way we, its progenitors and original makers, are too complacent to.
This applies to record labels too. Unlike British record companies, who very rarely sign non-British talent, Japenese labels have been keen to collect the western talent they discover, often neglected, on their trips to the west. The youngest Shibuya-kei label, Escalator, releases compilations like New One 1 & 2 which mix young Japanese groups with older European artists like Czerkinsky, whose '80s group Mikado was an export-only Japanese hit, but who's better known in his native France as the man with the thick loungecore spectacles in certain famous photos by Pierre et Gilles.
Another aspect of Shibuya-kei is the care they take over sleeves, video releases, clothes, websites. One of the best design companies in the world, Contemporary Productions, does a lot of the sleeves. Cornelius has started his own clothing company, Bathing Ape. Pizzicato 5 are also now moving into the area of product design, branding their own range of stationary and furniture.
Shibuya Is Portable
There are all sorts of Shibuya-kei offshoot labels now which aren't even in
Japan. Like Bungalow in Berlin, who are internationalising Shibuya-kei by
mixing on their roster Japanese groups like Yukari Fresh with German and French acts, like Stereo Total or the Momus-produced Laila France, who have been 'Japonified'. Bungalow's compilations of Japanese pop, 'Sushi 3003' and 'Sushi 4004', curated by Le Hammond Inferno, make an excellent job of packaging J-Pop for the west, and when these records arrive back in Japan even the Japanese look at their own scene differently.
My own work as Momus has been hugely influenced by Shibuya-kei, and especially its resident genius Cornelius. You can read on the Momus website (http://www.demon.co.uk/momus/onshopping.html) about my attempts to ape the Shibuya-kei 'arkists', shopping in London and Tokyo for key ingredients for my new album, the 'analog baroque' 'Little Red Songbook'.
Cornelius and Momus: two great apes aping each other.
An Underground Airport
When I met Cornelius after his recent London gig (press only, which didn't stop a queue of 300 Japanese fans stretching half way down Regent Street) he handed me a copy of Denki Groove mainman Yoshinori Sunahara's solo project 'Take Off And Landing', a lush musical fantasy about an imaginary new airport deep under Tokyo.
A key element for the post-Shibuya-kei artists is their conceptual ambition: it isn't just about chasing dreams of 'classic perfect pop'. It's got to be bigger and stranger than that, a whole vision, a worldview like the one that comes over in the Planet of the Apes films.
This isn't just an artistic strategy, it also has commercial applications, like the clothing line Cornelius has started, Bathing Ape. There's a parallel with powerful New York cultural curators The Beastie Boys, who set their imprimatur on J-Pop through their links with Buffalo Daughter and Cibo Matto. (And now that Sean Lennon is dating Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda, Shibuya-kei has its own Royal Family, with a pedigree going back to the 60s Beat Boom.)
I believe that certain districts of West Tokyo - Shibuya, Harajuku, Ebisu,
Roppongi - are the laboratories of the style of the future, places where
curatorial companies like the 3D Corporation, which manages Cornelius and
Kahimi Karie, spring up like mushrooms to support dreamers like Cornelius and devise financial structures for bold new styles which one day will spill over to the west.
One of Cornelius's heroes, Michael Jackson, was in Tokyo at the same time I
was last week. He told the press that Tokyo was Michael's Wonderland then
announced that he would be opening a new theme park and leisure complex
there. Several Japanese friends of ours saw him shopping with a couple of
bodyguards in Tower Records, Shibuya.
He needn't really have bothered with the bodyguards. Japan is very safe (the
greatest menace is getting laden down with tiny, intricately-wrapped gifts).
Jackson is right to be buying into Tokyo: I really think that it's in the accelerated dreamland of Japan, where the 21st century started a good
ten years ago, that we're going to discover the freshest new combinations of
the games with sound and vision we've been playing in the west in the 20th
In Tokyo, it's Disneyland everywhere. And, back in the west, we're the
Read an interview with Cornelius' Keigo Oyamada here.