This has nothing to do with Billy Joel, sorry.
Another week of “special Music Station,” this time featuring a collection of J-Pop heavyweights. Like the past two episodes, these groups don’t necessarily have any new singles to promote so instead of go back a few months to a number we’ve already blathered about we will be diving into a special schtick this week. Given the names making up this lineup, we will be taking a listen to each group’s first hit in this edition of Station To Station. Whichever song was the first to chart at the top spot will go under the microscope. Let’s get into it!
Arashi “Arashi” (1999)
Today it’s tough to be in Japan even one day without seeing Arashi hawking Nintendo 3DS consoles or playing weirdo games. So it’s sorta weird to think of them as once being a hot new property busting onto the scene instead of the representative act of all Japanese music to the world. Yet that was the position Arashi found themselves before the turn of the century, bursting into the J-Pop world with a single named after themselves. “Arashi” would probably end up like “I Want It That Way” in many Western nations, a pop artifact that’s aged terribly and now mostly revisited for ironic kicks. In Japan though, and especially in relation to the still-dominant Johnny’s, “Arashi” could come out today and fit right into the environment. All the cheesy touches of this song also pop up in the music of KAT-TUN, NEWS or NYC, and I’m sure similar touchstones reared their goofy heads in older SMAP singles.
Arashi themselves, though, have changed quite a bit from their 1999 debut. Today they’ve morphed into far and away the most likable (least punchable?) Johnny’s product thanks to an embrace of lightheartedness that gives their songs legitimate personality and even makes them fun at times. On “Arashi,” though, the group’s as awkward as a retainer. The early line “We are cool!” gives it away…no actual cool kid has to declare said coolness to anybody. The single sees them trying out all sorts of styles to see what works best, like trying on cliche clique outfits to see what will look best on photo day. We get straight pop, rapping and A capella (not even gonna drag in the guitar solo or the dancing, yeesh). I see why this stuff would connect with kids at the time – it’s the sonic equivalent of buck-toothed teenage confusion. I think that explains why this song remains the group’s best selling single to date.
AKB48 “River” (2009)
Some acts parachute right into wide-spread popularity from the start like Arashi, while others need a few years to figure themselves out before they find the winning scratcher ticket to fame. AKB48, though being nearly as inescapable as Arashi right now, surprisingly falls into the latter. Many other Internet writers have documented the biggie-sized group’s story before, so here’s a condensed version – dude starts a musical project in 2005 centered in otaku-Valhalla Akihabara featuring 48 young women who sing and dance nightly at a theater. Group gains popularity and, shrewdly, the performers interact heavily with their fans, adding a personal dimension to it all. AKB bides its time, releases singles and albums, and finally breaks through to national fame and Oricon’s top spot in 2009. The song to push ’em over – “River.”
When I originally heard “River” at the time it was exploding, I declared the song terrible and other such snarky comments. Yet a media onslaught lasting a year and a half later, “River” really stands out among the group’s history. In the wake of garbage like “Heavy Rotation” and “Beginner’ (not to mention it followed “Aitakkata”), “River” might be the Akihabara group’s most left-field number. Most AKB48 singles head bob mindlessly ahead – “River” actually stomps, backed by a militaristic beat conjured up by a teenager armed with keyboards set to “bright.” It’s nothing radical for J-Pop…the chorus could be ripped from oh so many other artists…but the verses featuring heavy stepping and chanting show a rougher side for an act usually settling for the lowest-kawaii denominator.
EXILE “Real World” (2004)
Oh man this video, why don’t they make clips like this anymore? The dudes in EXILE play a game of baseball against an army of robots/guys wearing paintball masks, but instead of a traditional match the pop stars ignore all the agreed upon rules of the sport in order to go all Dragonball Z. That means one member punches the ball with his fist while another displays super reflexes in what appears to be a total rout in favor of EXILE. Just bizarre.
The song “Real World” just ends up being outright lame. EXILE actually beat Kanye to the sad-robot Auto-tune, but whereas he (and folks like Drake or Kid Cudi) used the tool to convey loneliness, this dance-heavy troupe slathers it on in a bid to have anything of interest going on. “Real World” just sorta hops along trying to sound all futuristic, but just ends up being cliche J-Pop waste.
KAT-TUN “Real Face” (2006)
Though the production value has been amped up and the group’s fashion smartened up, KAT-TUN’s debut single resembles Arashi’s first in many ways. Most prominently, “Real Face” shares the same musical insecurity “Arashi” does – KAT-TUN jump from style to style over the course of the tune, but not in an experimental way but rather a “please find one of these bits cool.” Opening with a falsetto fake-out, “Real Face” then dives into a guitar-heavy segment that imagines what nu-metal would have sounded like if Johnny’s thought of the concept first (hint: very bad). Then the more traditional pop outfits like SMAP and Arashi live in, with a few small detours into gravelly rap littering the side like roadkill. Yet Arashi’s identity crisis at least sounded tolerable – the lunk-headed guitar solos and idiotic barking make “Real World” unbearable. This ended up being the best selling single of 2006 – I’m honestly sorta surprised.
Mika Nakashima “Glamorous Sky” (2005)
Ahhhh the wonders of limitations. Mika Nakashima’s best selling single also happened to be her first, “Stars,” released in 2001. Yet I stipulated I’d be listening to the first song to hit the top of the charts for each artist…and “Stars” only made it to #3. “Glamorous Sky” made it to the peak, though, and also marked the only time in her career Nakashima reached the top spot. Stranger still, “Glamorous Sky” doesn’t really reflect her sound, which usually bends towards easy-listening balladry. This is an unabashed rock song, written for the film Nana. It clearly sounds like the sort of “rock song” one would write for a pop singer accustomed to adult contemporary, one that allows her pretty voice to stand squarely in the spotlight. Yet the actual music works well within these constraints, fuzzing out just enough and moving at a brisk rate that never makes this feel like a ballad in disguise. Way better than the VAMPS cover, that’s for sure.
Puffy “Kore Ga Watashi No Ikirumichi” (1996)
Enjoy the Teen Titans AMV above.
Maybe I’m overly cynical (me? Naaaaaah) but I just can’t imagine something as summer-breezy as “Kore Ga Watashi No Ikirumichi” taking the #1 position on the Japanese charts, not against all the polished pop-chem floating around the country. Yet Puffy did just that with this Blue Hawaii-by-way-of-girl-groups tune, a no-worries song guided by the duo’s sweet harmonies and Ventures-worthy guitar playing. They even get some dusty harmonica into this surf jam! Puffy deserve a ton more words written about them – they probably came closer than any J-Pop outfit to widespread success in America, for one – but “Kore Ga Watashi No Ikirumichi” is such a sunny jam, why waste words when you can kick back to this?
B’z “Taiyō no Komachi Angel” (1990)
A pretty inoffensive J-Rock number that, based on this live video, carries a tropical breeze. Nifty guitar work, but also nothing particularly classic here.