Article is the opinion and research of Samehada.
JAPANESE MUSIC IN AMERICA
There are many differences between American music and Japanese music, Visual Kei (or Visual style), is but one of the many sub-cultures in the Japanese music scene and is just as rich in history as the rest of Japanese culture. What started as a movement by one band has since evolved into the main stream stage act it is today, and has branched off into many sub cultures and sub-sects of Kei, including the Gothic Lolita look. The performers get much more attention from their fans then do American acts, and as such there is a greater sense of unease among the fans when a band evolves or disbands, and the uproar when a favorite artist dies can reach over the ocean and effect even the public not interested in the music. Language is certainly no deterrent, and die-hard non-Japanese fans study the lyrics like one might study for a test, learning all the lyrics and pronunciations with a speed any native Japanese speaker would be proud of. The increase of attention to the Japanese music scene has made it even easier for the average non-Japanese speaker to learn the lyrics, as online sites are more frequently finding or translating them. Though some lyrics are straight forward and easy to translate, the poetry that most lyrics use is not lost in these translations, though sometimes the footnotes required to make them make sense are longer then the lyrics themselves. Genre-hopping and side projects are not uncommon in Japanese music, and often times pop-like songs can be heard along side harder metal tunes on the same album, and artists that might play pop tunes with their bands, could scream and growl on their solo albums. Visual Kei is very different from mainstream American music, though it has many similarities as well.
History of Visual Music
Origins in the Late 80’s X-Japan.
In 1980 two childhood friends, Yoshiki and Toshi, started a band called Noise. Soon they changed their name to X and began playing in clubs with support musicians, gathering a small fan base. In 1987 they added three new band members: Pata, Hide, and Taiji. With a more permanent roster, the band began trying to make their presence know throughout Japan, but the band couldn’t find a label willing to sign a band with their sound. Such sound and such androgynous looks weren’t acceptable in Japan’s society in 1987, and the band found it tough to get record executives to even look at them twice. Knowing that her son would be successful, Yoshiki’s mother sold the family’s business and gave him the money to start his own label, Extasy Records, and soon they had released their first album, Vanishing Vision. This album was a hit with Japan’s very small metal scene, but didn’t go bigger as “violent” music wasn’t the main stream at the time. Eventually they had achieved such a cult following that they couldn’t be ignored, and Sony Records Japan gave them record deal. Their next albums were instant hits, and soon the band was playing to sold out crowds in every part of the country. X became a household name, and their outrageous clothes, makeup and hairstyles could be seen in countless interviews and TV ads. In 1992 Taiji left the band and was replaced with Heath, who would remain with X till it’s disbandment, during this same time, X changed record labels, hoping to gain fans overseas. Finding an American band by the name of X, they changed their name to X-Japan to avoid confusion and copy-right infringement. In 1994 the band released its first single under the new name, Art of Life, famous for being one of the longest songs in Japanese music history, at 29 minutes. In 1996, X-Japan released it’s final album, Dahlia, though most of this album had been available as singles, it still sold well. In 1997 Toshi, co-creator and vocalist announced that he was leaving the band, and even today the reason is still speculated. Everything from creative differences, to cult brainwashing has been cited as a possible reason for his departure, though Toshi has never confirmed any rumor. Soon afterwards X-Japan announced its disbandment, performing its last live on December 31, 1997 at Japan’s Tokyo Dome.
The Bands that Followed. In the nearly 10 years of X-Japan’s reign as one of the top bands in Japanese music, scores of other bands appeared. Following the trends set by their idols, these bands dressed in drag costumes and wore over-the-top hair and makeup styles. The music itself was a mix of heavy metal, melodic metal, and pop metal with the most emphasis on the outward visuals. When X-Japan cut their trademark hair and began going for a more masculine visual look in the 1990’s many fans openly wept, and many bands followed that trend as well. What had started as a movement by one band, had expanded and encompassed an entire generation of musicians, and what had started as bright colored hair and makeup had split into several different visual styles, including brighter more fashion conscious styles and almost frighteningly dark and usually blood drenched theatrical styles.
Evolution of the 1990’s and 2000’s. The visual style of music evolved greatly in the 90’s, from big hair and garish makeup to almost stylish hair, though still strangely colored; and more tame, though still feminine makeup. Many bands were created in this decade, and many more still broke apart. It was during this decade that Japan’s music scene first became noticed in America, and many Japanese artists began laying plans to come overseas and gain even more popularity. Though much of the Japanese music scene has only achieved a cult following in America, a few bands are beginning to find more mains stream success.
Visual Kei Today Today’s Visual scene in Japan is much different then it was back in the early 80’s when X first exploded onto it. The differences between many of the styles of visual music have become even more pronounced, with Oshare Kei and the Gothic Lolita subcultures being in the forefront of the movement. Visual bands today dress in suits and ties, blurring the line between Oshare and Visual Kei, with many bands keeping the overly androgynous look to a bare minimum. Though there are bands, such as Phantasmagoria, that continue the traditions of their visual forefathers and clothe themselves in leather and androgyny, these bands are rare, and most are mixed, somewhat, with the darker Eroguro (Erotic-Grotesque) genre. A band’s visuals change with each single they release, going from tame, almost masculine styles, to almost traditional kimono depending on the mood of the band, it’s stylist, and it’s kei genre.
Types of Kei (Style)
Visual Kei Androgyny. Early Visual Kei was characterized by intensely feminine fashions, including big brightly colored hair, and extreme makeup styles. Men wearing women’s dresses and skirts were not an uncommon practice, and usually nail polish and jewelry were added to complete the look. The trend of almost homosexual stage interaction, called fan service became a trend as well, and this became an almost expected and anticipated practice among the many visual bands, and many still fan service today.
Visual Kei’s Evolution. Visual Kei artists of today wear suits and ties, or other stylish men’s fashion. Makeup is still worn, though more to accentuate already present features then to create new ones, and nails are still painted. Today’s visual band is still seen as somewhat feminine, even with the addition of more masculine clothing.
Oshare Kei Oshare is a sub-set of Visual that began appearing in 2001. Oshare means “fashionable”, and that’s exactly what those who are considered among this set are. Oshare is bright and colorful, and uses more “street fashion” then typical Visual Kei, and its music is usually pop-punk with themes of love and other happy things. The line between Visual and Oshare is constantly being blurred, as more and more Visual bands loose the outrageous feminine clothing in favor of more masculine attire.
Gothic Lolita Subculture Gothic Lolita (or GothLolly, pronounced Gosurori in Japan) is a culture marked by Victorian era children’s dresses either in soft, pastel colors or dark gothic colors. People of all ages and both sexes seem to be drawn to this subculture, made popular by Japanese guitar idol, Mana, who later founded his own clothing line that caters specifically to the culture. The magazine The Gothic & Lolita Bible has become a very popular resource both in and outside of Japan to keep the public up to date on the current fashions of the trend. Containing interviews with Gothic Lolita icons, pictures of the fashion worn by models, and store ads, The Gothic & Lolita Bible has become a staple of the sub culture.
Treatment of the Artists
Performers Treated as Idols Showered with Gifts. It isn’t uncommon at concerts in Japan (and Japanese concerts outside Japan) to find gift boxes placed for the artists prominently inside the venue’s door. These boxes are for items that the fans bring, usually for their favorite performers. Items such as jewelry, clothing, and an artist’s favorite collectables are common gifts, but sometimes stranger more expensive items are purchased. Several artists have confessed to never having to buy clothing or underwear, that their fans keep them well supplied with such things. Many Japanese performers are very forward about their likes and dislikes, and it isn’t uncommon to find such things as ring size, shoe size, and waist size listed in their profiles right beside their height, weight, and birthday.
Fans annoyance when bands evolve. Perhaps due to the amount of time, energy and money that the average Japanese (and non Japanese) fan puts into their favorite band, there is a certain amount of anger and discord when a band evolves, or changes. Such simple thing as a change in haircut or hair color can cause an uproar among fans, and this uproar can reach a deafening cacophony when a band has member changes or music style changes. Most fans treat their favorite bands almost as an obsession, and it isn t unusual for fans to have their favorite member’s profiles memorized. When a change in a band occurs, the fans will treat it as a major change in their family, and there can be many tearful moments involved when this happens.
Appearance as drawing point For many Visual Kei fans it’s a band’s appearance that draws them in. Once past that, most fans are able to find a happy medium between a band’s appearance and their sound. For some fans, it never gets that far, and they remained fixated on appearance. For many Visual bands, especially those who straddle the line between Visual and Oshare, this can spell disaster when they drastically change looks, and many bands have lost much of their fan base with such changes. The popular Japanese band Dir en Grey is one such. Dir en Grey or Diru to their fan base, started as a Visual band in the late 90’s and gained popularity throughout Japan. In the last five years their popularity has exploded world wide, and they participated in their first American tour in the summer of 2006. Just after that tour, they announced that they were no longer a visual band, and their musical style changed dramatically, becoming more Western in sound. The fans revolted, many of them lamenting the end of an era. Diru lost many fans to that change, and though they gained many more with their subsequent headlining tour, many of their old fans miss the old days of heavy makeup and lighter, more melodic music.
What happens when good artists die? Hide Matsumoto. Starting his career as the guitarist of X, hide (his name is never capitalized, and pronounced hee-day) was a brilliant musician. His career with X was only the beginning; as he went on to have quite a successful solo career, even performing with the American band Zilch as vocalist and guitarist. On May 2, 1998 hide was found dead in his apartment, of apparent suicide. His friends, former band mates, and family were shocked. Over 50,000 fans mobbed the streets of Japan the day of his funeral, there were countless injuries and several attempted suicides in the days following his death. The surviving members of X urged his fans not to follow him, to send him off warmly. During his wake and funeral fans could be heard in the streets screaming like banshees, and the crushing mobs were too much for many of the young fans, who had to be carried away to get medical treatment. His death caused his music to sky rocket on the charts, and suddenly his songs could be heard even in America. His fan base here mourned just as his fans in Japan did, though for many the news didn’t arrive until days after his death. Hide has gained many fans post-mortem, and many of those who are just finding his music are surprised to learn that it was created almost 10 years ago. The things he wrote about were timeless, as were his melodies, and seem to fans as if they were written just yesterday.
The effect of hide’s death on the music scene. Many artists were inspired by hide’s death, and several bands dissolved and formed in the wake of his tragedy. The ripples of his death were felt all over Japan, and the members of X-Japan were probably the most effected. Yoshiki, creator of X-Japan and one of hide’s closest friends openly mourned his friend’s death, and even today he is known to write on his web-site of his emotions concerning hide. Much of Yoshiki’s current work is inspired by hide’s death, and a reuniting of members of X-Japan, namely Yoshiki and vocalist Toshi, is being discussed, much to the fans rejoicing. Several new bands popped up in the months following his death, many listing hide among their inspiration, some band members even naming themselves after him.
Japanese The Japanese language is differs vastly from the English language, especially sentence structure. The English sentence structure commonly uses Subject/Verb/Object, while the Japanese structure is more flexible. The only particular about Japanese sentence order is that the verb be at the end of the sentence. The Japanese language is more flexible with descriptions, as one Kanji (the letters of the Japanese alphabet), has both a sound, or many sounds, and a meaning of its own. Lyricists commonly use this duplicity to their advantage when writing and many lyricists will write a word with kanji meaning one thing, and sing another pronunciation of the same kanji meaning something completely different.
Use of other Languages for Emphasis in Lyrics The Visual Artists of Japan commonly use other languages such as English, German, and Russian in their lyrics to add emphasis to their songs, though not always well. It is common for the English in Japanese songs to be grammatically wrong, as Japan doesn’t have the same method of making words plural or the same sentence structure. Lyrics such as: “I will walk together, the future not promised It keeps walking together, to future in which you are” are the usual mistakes made, though hardly noticeable when sang due to the Japanese accent on certain letters. The use of guttural languages such as German are commonly used to emphasize anger or annoyance, and the French language is used quite often for song titles.
English speakers understanding of the lyrics Inspires fans to learn the language. Many fans use the Japanese music they listen to as an impetus to learn the language and increase their understanding of the lyrics. More and more Japanese music and anime fans are using the language in their everyday speech. Words such as “Kawaii” and “Sugoi”, cute and awesome respectively, are finding their way into the English language as more and more fans discover the media exports of Japan. This trend works both ways, as several of our words are used by the Japanese, some with such frequency that they are abbreviated for ease of speech.
Fans learn to sing along in Japanese. For many fans the fact that their favorite music is in Japanese isn’t a deterrent. They just learn to sing along in Japanese, learning every nuance of the language through the music with a speed and accuracy to be proud of. Kaoru, guitarist of the popular Dir en grey said in one interview, “It’s very amusing that fans in America will sing along with our songs, even though the lyrics are in Japanese, Japanese is a very difficult language.”
Sound of the music
Differences in the writing style The lyrics are more poetic. The Japanese language allows for greater poetics with fewer words, and nearly untranslatable puns. Emphasis isn’t on the rhyming scheme of the song verse but on the meaning behind the words themselves. Many Japanese music verses don’t even stick to the conventional verse/chorus/verse layout of most American songs. While Japanese songs almost always have a definable chorus, it isn’t uncommon to find them at the end of a song, or as part of each verse. The song titles aren’t conventional either; titles aren’t commonly pulled from a line in the song, but encompass the feeling or meaning of the entire song as a whole.
Concept Bands. Some bands choose to create music based on a concept to which all their music will relate. Once such band is 12012, a band formed in 2003. Their concept is “The Madness inside a human”. All of their albums and singles are written as chapters in a book which is based off an insane young man. The music follows him through his early childhood, through his insanity, and then out again, as he beings to regain himself. The story takes a twist as the band introduces a new character, Six, into the plot. The plot will continue soon, with their newest release, eagerly awaited by fans.
Individual bands not bound by genre It isn’t uncommon for music from one band to range through all the genres, from pop to punk, rock to pseudo-rap. The Visual style is a magnet for all types of bands, and though it’s only recently achieved mainstream overseas success, with bands such as Dir en grey and the Gazette, it’s sound continues to grow and expand. It isn’t uncommon to hear screams and growls on one track ascend into beautiful, almost operatic lyrics on the next. Driving guitars accompanied by electronic piano tracks are another mainstay of the visual style, and it isn’t uncommon for driving drum rhythms to accompany acoustic guitar riffs. Not being bound to any specific genre allows bands to experiment and find a sound all their own.
Solo projects more common Another thing common to Japan are solo projects. Many artists at some point in their career want to experiment in ways that their band does not. When this happens it’s common in Japan for the artist to create his own sound, with his own look. This may take the form of a few songs on a single, or many songs on a full length album. The solo career might last one release, or several, depending on the success of the solo music, and the drive of the artist. Sometimes these solo careers do lead to the artist leaving his band mates and continuing on his own, but more often then not, the solo career acts as a separate creative outlet that the solo artist has more control over.
Visual Kei’s Continued Rise in Popularity Dir en Grey.
The most popular Japanese act in America is the Visual-turned-Heavy Metal band Dir en Grey. With a spot on 2006’s Family Values Tour, and a headlining spot on their own tour in early 2007, they continue to gain popularity. Since leaving their Visual roots behind them, they have lost many Japanese fans, but gained American (and other international) fans that know very little of their visual past, and the band seems to like it that way. Dir en grey is currently touring Europe, before coming back to America to open for the Def Tones this summer. They have begun paving a road that will make it possible for other acts to achieve mainstream popularity in the states.
The J-Rock Revolution.
The brain child of Yoshiki, former X-Japan drummer, J-Rock Revolution is a two night showcase of Japanese Visual Kei. With some of the most popular acts in Japan heading the bill, this two night festival promises to be a major stepping stone in getting other act overseas for the American fans to see. Although the two night show is being held in Los Angeles only, the fans hope to see it elsewhere either this summer, or perhaps next year.
Growth and expansion of Visual Kei As Visual Kei becomes more popular outside of Japan there is sure to be more and more influence from American music evident in the music styles of Japan. Such growth is to be expected, and has already been shown in such acts as Dir en grey, who’s style has evolved to sound close to American heavy metal, but with their own unique twist. Other bands are sure to begin traveling the road paved by acts such as X-Japan and Diru, as everyday seems to see them closer and closer to playing to major audiences in America.