The Shibuya-kei Year in Review, part four: what was Shibuya-kei in 2014?

The concluding portion of Memories of Shibuya‘s year in review deals with a very valid question – isn’t Shibuya-kei dead and gone, like the HMV in Shibuya (there’s a new one there now, but it’s not the same) and Cornelius albums that don’t sound like Otomo Yoshihide outtakes? Are any boys, in fact, still firing the tricot? What did that line even mean? Well, read on to find out! Except for that bit about “Boys, Fire the Tricot”, that song is still a mystery.

In a piece on AKB48 (who aren’t Shibuya-kei and may hopefully never be mentioned on this blog again) for his personal blog, writer Ian Martin argues that, in the year 2014, “Akihabara and Harajuku are what get the clicks” – that Japanese music, predominantly that made by idol groups, generally is only of massive interest if it relates to the Harajuku fashion scene, as idealized by Kyary Pamyu “would be nice if this was the last time she got mentioned too, wouldn’t it?” Pamyu and her ilk, or the denpa-kei stylings that have come to characterize the “electric city” of Akihabara. Kyary or Momoiro Clover Z, that’s about it – Tokyo’s Shibuya-ku ward sure doesn’t mean what it used to. The major factor here, of course, is that Martin’s blog and my own are both English-language pages; thus, although I’m sure we would both love to be writing for an elite group of cultured tastemakers with influence and passion, we have to instead deal with the actual population of the English-speaking internet.

What makes Harajuku and Akihabara so appealing to outsiders, I would imagine, is the “wacky” appeal. Just about every article you are likely to read about Japan, even those from sensitive perspectives such as Daniel Robson of Noisey, plays up the “weird” angle as if weirdness and fuel-efficient cars were literally the only two things the Japanese people have ever produced. Hell, when “Gangnam Style” (this is now officially the most clickbait-y post in Memories of Shibuya history) mania hit, some of us in the J-music fandom were relieved simply to see people talking about how wacky something made by a non-Japanese culture was for once. It’s not hard to understand why people so often look at something Japanese and see unadulterated wackiness – I’m assuming we’ve all seen “PONPONPON” and I don’t need to lower myself to linking it, right? – and it’s also easy to see why people are attracted to that perceived weirdness. After all, most of our lives are taken up by monotony, and something different and unexpected offers an escape from that. Akiba-kei takes this even further, with its chaotic imagery suggesting a future of constant sensory overload where everything sounds like this. Not your bag? Not mine either. Shit is popular, though – English-language “Akiba culture” sites regularly enjoy high traffic, and I’ll refrain from commenting on the kind of people who visit these sites, but I will say that I regard them with condescension and oops, I guess I just commented on the kind of people who visit those sites.

Since Shibuya-kei lacks both the appealing “wackiness” of Harajuku and the “regularly featured in porno games” appeal of Akiba-kei, it’s a hard sell after its perceived expiration date – which, it’s worth noting, was over a decade ago. The bands that once made up the scene had enjoyed a full decade of people caring about their music, but pop music is fickle and so interest started to wane around the turn of the century; after which point most musicians promptly gave up on Shibuya-kei entirely. Cibo Matto and Takako Minekawa both went on hiatuses that lasted over a decade, Pizzicato Five broke up in 2001, Cornelius and Kahimi Karie entered a competition to see whose albums could be less fun and interesting (winner: Karie), Kenji Ozawa came just short of ceasing to make music entirely, and apart from a few stalwarts like Buffalo Daughter and Hideki Kaji, the whole scene seemed to be done with it.

However, as W. David Marx wrote of devoted Shibuya-kei revivalists in his profile on Flipper’s Guitar, we “fortunately [live] in a post-modern future when no one ever has to say goodbye to anything anymore.” So, yes, Shibuya-kei is dead and gone, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t here to stay. Not only are some of the artists still kicking – in addition to the aforementioned groups, Scha Dara Parr are still doing their thing, Asako Toki has apparently gotten all of that “Super Star” nonsense out of her system, Maki Nomiya is gracefully entering the “legacy tours” phase of her career and both Toki and Nomiya’s former bandmates are making songs for T-Palette – the old guard is still around, to a certain extent. Of course, just as the fact that Pink Floyd made an album in 2014 in no way means the British invasion prog-rock scene is alive and well, the mere presence of 2014 albums from performers like Nomiya and Buffalo Daughter is no indication of the scene’s livelihood. The young artists are the ones that show that.

One of the biggest surprises I got in the few months since starting this blog was the discovery of pertorika – a young group with an old sound, here was a band that took the Shibuya-kei approach as seriously as anyone did in the halcyon days of when a Kahimi Karie single could reliably move over 100,000 units. Blending styles in an approach they call “all-in-one pop”, they seek to recapture the feeling of an era where the words “taste culture” were more than just something that W. David Marx likes to say in the past tense. The fact that they’ve been cursed to make their music at a time when “musician” has become a supremely poor career choice, financially at least, is especially heartbreaking – when even former industry titans like Yasuharu Konishi are making music for idol groups, what hope do these fresh-faced indie kids have? Shibuya-kei leaning indie acts like ayurock in the park and color-me frog (Japanese indie *hates* capital letters) cut their teeth in the trenches of idol music, the former writing for ski resort Hakodateyama’s in-house idol group. Yes, resorts have their own idol groups now, and writing songs for acts like that may be the best that many contemporary Shibuya-kei artists can hope for. In this way, Saku (whose charming Oricon profile opens by proclaiming she has the “cute looks of an idol” – music is clearly what her marketing wants to focus on), with her employment at Tower Records in Shibuya being a large part of her persona, can be seen as something of a role model. As more people start to realize that making money with music, statistically speaking, isn’t something that happens anymore, we can start to destigmatize the dreaded “day jobs” and learn instead to celebrate the music made by the people still working them. Yes, pertorika deserves to live off their music, as does every artist I’ve mentioned (the idol groups aren’t artists), but any philosophy student will tell you that a true meritocracy is neither achievable nor desirable – very few people ever get what they actually deserve.

“But, anonymous Memories of Shibuya writer, what about those idol groups that you said were bringing Shibuya-kei back?”, you may now be asking – and the answer to that one is a little trickier. While yes, T-Palette Records is doing a bang-up job of bringing taste and style to idol groups through Negicco and Vanilla Beans, it’s not exactly like Negicco fans are necessarily Shibuya-kei fans. Vanilla Beans pushes the “idol group for the discerning listener” angle far more noticeably, their performances and music packed with the kind of referential density usually never seen outside of Quentin Tarantino movies – and, predictably, Vanilla Beans is quite considerably less popular than their sister group. While it would be unfair to say that all Negicco fans are ignorant of the Shibuya-kei background that their songwriters almost all come from, it seems incredibly unlikely that more than a tiny minority of their fans maintain even a passing familiarity with the work of “Triple! WONDERLAND” songwriter Hiroyasu Yano. The sound may be coming back in miniature, but the macro picture remains completely unchanged – idol music in the mainstream generally either sounds like something Diplo and Skrillex might come up with, or a stasis-frozen relic of the waning days of kayokyoku. Indeed, if the Shibuya-kei connection is acknowledged at all in coverage of Negicco, it serves roughly the same purpose as the garbage metal sound of BABYMETAL – a watered-down version of a distinctive musical style that gives the group novelty value that they would have otherwise been missing. The Shibuya-kei stylings of singles like “Hikari no Spur” don’t have the easy novelty of the aforementioned Harajuku and Akiba-kei scenes, but this is most likely very intentional; as the mainstream gets ever louder and more abrasive, a demand for reserved, comparatively classy pop music opens up. As the popularity of groups like AKB48 only continues to wane, the ensuing struggle for dominance in their absence may lead to some interesting new paradigms – and among them may very well be the demand for more Shibuya-kei idols. I don’t have the power to see into the future, of course, so the best I can offer is conjecture; but the possibility is there.

Ultimately, in 2014, Shibuya-kei was where it perhaps always should have been: right on the periphery of pop culture. Let the masses have their easily-digestible “weird Japan”, there’s still enough people interested in Shibuya-kei to keep the scene from disappearing altogether. It was not the most visible, nor the most commercially successful, but as the Oricon charts show year after year, in Japanese pop, “success” is almost never an indicator of quality.


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