There is a lot of talk about what is the next big thing in Japanese music. Some people say that there is a band boom coming, but then others say that idols are still on top so nothing is going to change. Patrick St. Michel of The Japan Times recently looked at what the youth market was into in 2015.
His article starts off by talking about how Japan’s music industry is behind the times, in part due to its love of CDs. The Japanese love of CDs is something that Western press loves to talk about when talking about the Japanese music market. But the CDs that sell the best in Japan are those by older acts and idols groups that few people would describe as “musically progressive.” Despite this love of CDs, the Japanese music market sees less and less sales annually. Instead of doing something new, records labels stick to tried and true methods, including releasing unneeded best albums, such as the recent one by DREAMS COME TRUE.
But there was a bit of a change in 2015, namely because the Japanese youth pushed 3 acts more to the forefront of today’s music scene: Gesu no Kiwami Otome., E-girls, and SEKAI NO OWARI. These acts helped to shake up Japan’s tired mainstream musical landscape.
Patrick describes Gesu no Kiwami Otome. as 2015’s biggest surprise. The band’s songs are very different than those of the boybands Arashi and EXILE, but then also from those of the older rock bands BUMP OF CHICKEN and B’z. The band’s breakout hit, “Watashi Igai Watashi Janai no”, displays jazz and progressive rock influences in a song where frontman Kawatani Enon talks about his existence. Once the song was a hit, Gesu no Kiwami Otome. made it onto variety shows, where they awkwardly tried to adjust to the banality of these shows, which are frequented by tarentos that sometimes dabble in music. Gesu no Kiwami Otome. is very different from these people though.
Looking at the Oricon charts though, Gesu no Kiwami Otome.’s rise to fame couldn’t really be seen. 2015 showed just how broken Japan’s music chart system really is. The Oricon charts, with their adherence to only counting physical sales, has been broken for years. For the past few years, the chart has been full of gimmick-heavy idol releases, which have inflated sales numbers due to the fans of these groups buying multiple copies of the same release. The Recochoku and iTunes charts, where Gesu no Kiwami Otome.’s star status was reflected, offer a different perspective on what is popular in Japanese music. But with the arrival of streaming services, digital downloads could be affected.
Another place where Gesu no Kiwami Otome. had great success was YouTube. More and more young Japanese today are turning to YouTube for music. The internet has allowed a new breed of acts who are internet friendly to connect to new fans. These acts include the likes of KANA-BOON, Kyuso Nekokami, and ONE OK ROCK. Even YouTubers are crossing over into the music charts now, with MACO being a prime example.
E-girls are another act who the youth has really embraced, in part because they reject everything that traditional idols like AKB48 stand for. Instead of performing cutesy songs in school uniforms, they wear age-appropriate clothing and perform songs that are more in the EDM and R&B veins. They resemble KPop more than they do Japanese idols. They’re also different from traditional idols in that they are marketed to young women as opposed to middle-aged men. They’re a girl group for girls.
E-girls’ album, “E.G. Time”, hit #1 on Oricon and the group’s digital sales were strong as well. Their music videos have also racked up millions of views on YouTube. And instead of milking a niche fanbase like traditional idols, E-girls have tried to broaden their appeal by making contemporary-sounding songs and singing about things that today’s youth can actually relate to.
The biggest act to find favor with Japan’s youth in 2015 was SEKAI NO OWARI. The band has been gaining in popularity for the past for years, but 2015 saw them hit superstar status. They may very well be the biggest band in Japan today. Their album “Tree” was a big hit, and they also landed the themes for the live action movie versions of “Attack On Titan.” SEKAI NO OWARI also held a 2-day mini festival at Nissan Stadium, which sold out.
SEKAI NO OWARI has been called juvenile by some, but that is part of why they appeal to the youth. They make music for a generation of people who will probably never live in an economically prosperous time, but are still optimistic about the future. The older people who don’t get them, probably don’t get them because they are older. This is a sign of a generational shift, which shows that the market is changing in some ways.
The youth of Japan further displayed their optimism through music by embracing the fun vibe of the band Kyuso Nekokami, and by making Hoshino Gen’s bubbly “SUN” a hit. This vibe carried over to Western acts that the youth favored in 2015, including Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and Zedd.
But not everything changed in 2015. Namie Amuro and Sandaime J Soul Brothers went full EDM and emerged winners. But then there was also Johnny & Associates. The company, perennially stuck in the 90s, continued to shun the internet, as well as restricting press and fan access to their acts.
Then there was the female idol world. This area of the music industry says even more about what is changing in pop. The past few years has seen an idol boom that was initiated by the success of AKB48, and the various copycats that came in their wake, saturating the market. These groups were inescapable, constantly on tv and in ads, even if the public thought that the no-dating rules and Minami Minegishi’s shame-induced head shaving were weird. It seemed as if the music industry had given up and was just creating more and more groups to appeal to a crazed, but ultimately limited, audience.
When a man attacked 2 members of AKB48 with a saw in 2014, public opinion on the group changed. People such as Shiina Ringo and Nakahara Masaya spoke out against AKB48, with the latter calling them “child pornography.” A rumor about an AKB48 supergroup called “Japan48” performing at the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olypmics sparked outrage. Matsuko Deluxe called the idea “embarrassing” on a popular radio show. Even though “Japan48” was only a rumor, the backlash against it was surprisingly intense.
AKB48 hasn’t disappeared though. They still sell a lot, but they’re becoming more and more of a niche thing. There are lot of alternative idol groups out there, with some getting mainstream attention, such as Dempagumi.inc. There are also some idol groups who are trying to distance themselves from their original “idol” tag, such as BABYMETAL and Tokyo Girls’ Style (a group Avex created to cash-in on the idol boom).
How will the changes of 2015 carry over into 2016?