the complete guide to j-pop

From PC Music's Danny L Harle.

by i-D Staff and Ian McQuaid
20 May 2016, 2:42pm

This summer Tokyo's Banana Gakuen theater company is coming to the Lift Festival, London's month-long celebration of modern performance. Founded by former underground pop star Toco Nikaido, Banana Gauken's current show 'Miss Idol Beserker' pays homage to the super fandom that accompanies the obsessive world of J-Pop, where fans are proud to describe themselves as geeks, showing their love for their idols through intricately choreographed and perfectly executed dance routines. 'Miss Idol Beserker' recreates this all-encompassing obsession with a chaotic sensory overload of a performance; 25 performers hurtling through song and dance with an intensity that never slackens. It's a bombastic experience that dissolves the lines between theater and spectacle, and serves as a high octane introduction to Japan's great love; J-Pop.

To the majority of Western audiences, the artifice and mania of J-Pop is still a relatively unknown phenomenon - and a show like 'Miss Idol Beserker' is likely to confound and entertain in equal measure. However, this unfamiliarity looks set to change. Danny L Harle, classically trained musician and brightest light of the prankster-ish label PC Music, is an avowed J-Pop fan. PC Music has secured daytime Radio 1 play and millions of fans with a mix of frenetic dance pop, glossy, highly manufactured imagery, and musically complex song structures that draw from the lineage of Japanese Pop. So here, to prepare us for a trip to see Banana Gakuen in action, we have asked Harle to give us a breakdown of the performers and themes of J-pop that he has drawn inspiration from, past and present.

"J-pop is fascinating music because it's very similar to Western pop music but alien to it at the same time." Danny explains. "It's the classic Japanese thing of copying the West, but doing a very Japanese version of it, so it creates a new thing rather than just an imitation of the West, like their approach to baseball. For that reason it's a quite uncanny take on pop music. The same is true of K-pop as well, but they're both different interpretations. K-pop is more contemporary whereas J-pop has its roots in older pop music - you'll hear chord sequences that are like the Beatles, where the chorus has a different chord sequence to the verse - you don't really hear this in western pop anymore. "

Yellow Magic Orchestra
"Long before the term 'J-Pop' was coined, Yellow Magic Orchestra (founded by Oscar-winning composer, producer and important man Sakamoto Ryuichi) were introducing Japanese music to the world stage via their virtuosic synth-pop. A pioneering force in the explosion of electronic music in the 80s, YMO were among the first bands to use synths, samplers and drum machines in a pop context."

Utada Hikaru
"J-Pop became a recognized genre in the 90s, as Japanese artists like Utada Hikaru, Hamasaki Ayumi and Yamaguchi Momoe began incorporating R&B, hip hop and jazzy vibes into their music. Utada's album First Love - a mixture of sentimental ballads and R&B - became the highest-selling Japanese language album of all time, when it was released in 1999."

"Perfume graduated from stage school to pop stardom in the early 00s, when they started making music with J-Pop super producer Nakata Yasutaka. Their first widely distributed single Sweet Donuts established their saturated and extreme sound and they have since gone onto become one of the biggest girl bands in Asia."

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu
"Along with Babymetal, KPP is one of the few J-Pop artists to have attracted a large following outside Asia. Another of Nakata's protégées, her kawaii sound and visual aesthetic epitomise the spirit of Tokyo's Harajuku district. The video for her 2011 single PonPonPon was a viral smash hit. There are vending machines everywhere in Japan where you can get keyrings with her face on. Her music is really insane, she's kinda exploring the areas between cute and grotesque, it's quite extreme and it's interesting to see what a popular act she is in Japan. I went to one of her gigs recently- it had a fake gorilla DJing. It was quite extraordinary."

"Nothing less than a cultural phenomenon, AKB48 has 130 members, who are split into subgroups or 'teams', allowing them to perform simultaneously across different venues. The group have their own theatre in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, in which teams take it in turns to perform on a near daily basis. Their legions of super-fans are able to vote on which team members will feature on future singles, can buy merchandise at the AKB48 shop and eat themed food at the AKB48 cafe. In 2011, the group introduced Eguchi Aimi - their first virtual member - created by combining the features of six other members."

Hatsune Miku
"Essentially a piece of software, humanoid pop star Hatsune Miku's name translates as 'the first sound of the future.' Her character is depicted as a 16-year-old school girl with long turquoise pig tails and her image is projected onstage for live performances. The software package is available for anyone to buy and hundreds of thousands of songs have been made using her voice. She has featured on tracks produced by SOPHIE and Pharrell Williams. J-pop has a great take on the false nature of pop music. When people listen to pop music they're listening to a very highly edited music - when you're listening to a Rihanna there's editing that's gone on - it's not like listening to someone singing in your front room, there's a lot of distance between you and Rihanna singing the song. In Japan they're a lot more willing to accept that; Hitsu Na Meku fans go to these gigs they know are fake and they still enjoy it, even though they know there's not a human performing. They're comfortable with that distance and knowing that they are listening to electronic sound - people have got a bit of a way to go to accepting that in this part of the world, they still want to feel that there's a person at the end of the song, even if there often really isn't."


Text Ian McQuaid

PC Music
Hatsune Miku
Danny L Harle
Broken Flowers
Yellow Magic Orchestra
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guide to j pop