Every month, Memories of Shibuya will be taking a look at a different artist or group, with featured songs – one per week – highlighting the peaks (and, occasionally, troughs) of their musical career.
Towa Tei’s work has always had more going on beneath the surface than it would initially appear; this week we take a look at what is easily his most controversial work. Like rap CDs back when we used to buy those, consider a “parental advisory: explicit content” sticker stuck on this one.
The most bothersome thing about Shibuya-kei, to those who would wish to characterize Western and Eastern cultural norms as being absolute and diametrically opposed, is how it flies in the face of a dogmatic belief that even many supposedly enlightened types seem to maintain: the idea that the Japanese don’t “get” irony. This misconception usually manifests itself as a Western reaction to seeing the way Japanese embrace symbols of American pop culture, assuming that the Japanese are fooling themselves into believing that, by indulging in symbolic Americana, they can become American themselves. This misconception is shown brilliantly in Philip K. Dick’s alternate-history novel The Man in the High Castle, when the paranoid Robert Childan is invited to the house of a young Japanese couple:
“What words mean to me is sharp contrast vis-à-vis them. Their brains are different. Souls likewise. Witness them drinking from English bone china cups, eating with U.S. silver, listening to Negro style of music. It’s all on the surface. Advantage of wealth and power makes this available to them, but it’s ersatz as the day is long.”
The Childan character, typically Western in his prejudices, assumes that the young couple likes all these symbolic items – English-style tea cups instead of the traditional Japanese style, American silverware instead of chopsticks, black music instead of the Japanese “light music” that would have been popular at the time – because they believe that this “ersatz” approximation of Western life is authentically American. Never does it occur to Childan that they could understand the irony of their fascination with artefacts of their nation’s erstwhile enemy, nor does he ever entertain the idea that perhaps they just happen to like a lot of Western things. No, Japanese adoption of things from outside cultures must be indicative of both an unearned sense of entitlement and a deep-seated desire to not be Japanese – while Childan was thankfully a fictional character, the many people who hold such beliefs are most unfortunately not.
Where Shibuya-kei so flagrantly violates this dogma is in revealing that the Japanese can understand kitsch just as well as any Westerner, and in fact they’re often better at it. Nowhere is this more prominent than in the work of Towa Tei, who has spent his entire career with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek – a rebellious spirit far more in line with the sly “self-Orientalization” of his idols in Yellow Magic Orchestra than with anything Dick’s paranoid shopkeeper could imagine. While his musical style is never particularly confrontational – he makes dance music first and foremost – Towa Tei has long been one of the most subversive figures in Japanese pop music, playing with expectations so subtly it can be hard to even pick up on what he’s doing.
Take his first collaboration with international superstar Kylie Minogue, “German Bold Italic.” Although yet to become the juggernaut she would be after 2001’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” took over the world, Kylie was still no slouch, having established a critical reputation for making some of the most unique and challenging pop music of the late ’90s (including some particularly left-field work with her countryman Nick Cave). Yet, in a shocking inversion of the stereotype, the song and video finds Minogue occupying a role one would expect a Japanese idol to play; infantilized and objectified as the personification of a typeface – the titular German Bold Italic font – while dressed in an exaggerated approximation of a traditional geisha outfit, being fitted with a leash and led around by a Japanese salaryman at the end of the video. The song works as an ethnically inverted counterpart to Dimitri From Paris’s “Love Love Mode,” with Minogue’s forced giggling and affected Engrish pronunciation echoing the earlier song, while skewering its obvious pandering to Orientalist ideas about Japanese cuteness and submission.
Towa Tei, and Shibuya-kei musicians in general, did far more than merely appropriate Western culture. At its best, Shibuya-kei comments on and subverts expectations of Japanese behaviour, finding unexpected common ground with their American and European contemporaries while skewering themselves and everyone around them. There’s a depth to the cut-and-paste approach to obscure pop references that goes far deeper than mere imitation, and the many artists who were inspired by Shibuya-kei got the message; Towa Tei and his contemporaries were showing us how it was done, and the smart ones listened.