Johnny & Associates aren’t just another shadowy Japanese record label christening idols and telling them not to date anyone – Johnny goes WAYYYYY beyond that. The people running this company aren’t in the business of making musicians…they create IDOLS, all caps necessary. These people end up on the fronts of CD singles, folders, television screens, movie posters and pretty much anything you can slap a human logo on. To understand the latest Johnny’s news is to be in touch with the tastes of young Japan, understand what a huge bunch of the tweens and teens and young adults living in this country not just listen to, but nearly worship. SMAP have a cooking show though I seriously doubt any member of the group has a culinary background.
Since Johnny’s care more about making products hell bent on lighting up checkout registers across the country, the actual music these groups get saddled with sound freshly scraped off a conveyor belt. Most Johnny’s groups sound the same – behind either a cheery drive or a more melodramatic ballad backdrop, the members sing-along together for the good of synergy, with maybe a few individual solos sprinkled throughout. The majority of songs coming out of Johnny’s suck. A lot. Sometimes, though, tunes of a slightly higher quality eeek out of Johnny’s corporate and those singles deserve a lot of applause. Below are what I consider to be the top five Johnny’s singles of 2010. They range from “above terrible” to “actually OK” though the very existence of this list points to none of these songs getting on a proper top songs list. Still, this isn’t entirely meant to be a piss-take. Though some of it is.
5. TOKIO “NaNaNa (Taiyou Nante Irane)
The fifth spot came down to this tune and NEWS’ “Fighting Man.” Though this song at times sound like sub-grade Hanson and features a highly annoying chorus (they say “na” way more than the three times promised in the title), it still edges out NEWS who fall for every Johnny’s stereotype in a wimpy song not worthy of having the word “fighting” in the title. TOKIO at least have a lead singer capable of singing the verses a touch faster than most of these bands, who subscribe to a “follow-the-bouncing-and-sedated-dot” philosophy. Plus the video comes off as kinda funny I guess.
4. SMAP “We Are SMAP”
“We Are SMAP” doesn’t make this list because it’s particularly riveting music. It’s not – it’s a pretty cookie-cutter ballad number, all Disney-pomp and overacting saved slightly by the interesting use of woodwinds. Even the cheese-tastic live performance wherein the members of SMAP elevate into the celestial heavens isn’t the driving reason I’m celebrating SMAP’s latest. “We Are SMAP,” despite it’s introduction-ish title, might be the super-group’s swan song.
SMAP dominated the Japanese music scene like nobody else since their first album came out in 1991. As mentioned, they have a cooking show amongst other TV ventures. They’ve had multiple soft drinks on the market, including the “We Are SMAP” yogurt-drank this year. They regularly appear in TV shows and star in movies. This year, though, so their long-burning star starting to fade out…a concert tour wasn’t selling as hot as expected, and China canceled what would have been their first shows in that country. Other Johnny’s groups even started gaining more traction. So “We Are SMAP” isn’t a musical miracle as much as it’s a possible end-of-the-road. The horrid J-Pop king is dead, long live the horrid J-Pop king. Now SMAP have to make room for…
3. Arashi “Monster”
2. Arashi “Troublemaker”
…these guys. The best example of Arashi’s pop power in 2010 came when they became the focal point of a textbook distributed to every school in Japan featuring the members of the group traveling around the country visiting stuff. It was meant to teach kids about Japanese culture…and it ended up a big success, at least from where I sit. Students at the schools I worked with went to the library on their own free will to read (well, maybe just look at pictures) of some Arashi guy going to Nintendo headquarters. Japan made these dudes the musical ambassadors to the rest of the world. They are…and will continue to get…huge.
At their best, Arashi come off like the one Johnny’s group with a hint of personality. Though the majority of their 2010 singles output eventually took a turn deep into shitty balladry, two earlier releases showed them at their most accessible…when they act goofy as fuck. “Monster” does the same thing Kanye West would do with his “Monster,” namely embracing the goofy idea and playing to it as much as possible. So…Arashi do their group-sing thing over a Haunted-Mansion-lite musical backdrop full of silly “spooky” sounds and a ghost-waltz breakdown. It’s gimmicky beyond belief, but since most Johnny’s groups feel like bland corporate seals of approval, the gaudiness works wonders. “Troublemaker” doesn’t fall back on as many schticks, but makes up for it by giving the group the catchiest melody and chorus of the year, a song that actually uses strings and horns for something positive instead of moping about. Though the chorus mentions, suicide. Don’t know what’s up with that.
1. KAT-TUN “Going!”
KAT-TUN dropping “Going!” on the world would be like Ryan Leaf returning to the NFL and leading a team to an undefeated season…maybe. Prior to this single (and, well, after), KAT-TUN seemed like perfect posterboys for everything wrong with Johnny’s type of music. “Going!” though dazzles (in Johnny’s terms, though it’s also a solid enough J-Pop song) and almost manages to wash away the bad taste of the rest of their career. It’s not a perfect song…be strong and survive the opening screams, but don’t hesitate to stop when the faux rapping kicks in…but far and away the most interesting pop single any Johnny’s released this calendar year. KAT-TUN pretend to be Perfume for a bit, embracing an electro-to-the-wall sound that turns their singing glitchy and adds these hints of black-hole bass to the music…all welcome additions to their sound. The hook, though, shines brightest of all…a slice of cheesy but glorious 80s robo-funk that skitters at just the right times. KAT-TUN might as well call it a career…this is their Sgt. Peppers, their Gatsby, their The Wire wrapped up in one.