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Controlled Karaoke: Western Media Tackles Asian Pop, And Not Very Well

Last week, an article in in the London Evening Standard made the rounds in the Japanese music Twitter-world, one titled “Tokyo Is Trending: The Rise Of J-Pop.” The piece details the apparent “trend” of Japanese pop music and fashion gaining traction in London, pulling out the usual array of “Harajukus” and “Lolitas” that litter any piece mentioning style inspired by Japan. On Twitter, the article mostly offered up a chance to snigger at what appeared as a terribly researched story, one a decade late (more on that later) and ultimately riddled with clichés one practically expects from the Western media talking about Japanese culture. It was, sometime last Wednesday, a good laugh.

Yet the more I read and think about that Evening Standard piece…and another article that cropped up last week about Asian pop…I become disturbed, because it’s press like this that makes it so difficult for music from this continent to be taken seriously in the West. The aforementioned article not only misleads factually, but barely talks about music, reducing Japanese pop to pure fashion, less art and more like a hoodie. Other articles featured similar mistruths, ones pulled from a branding meeting. Music journalism can be a very serious pursuit, but when articles about Asian music are sloppy and full of mistakes (or, worse, stealth marketing), it is tough to take any of it seriously. And that’s no good.

The most glaring problem with “Tokyo Is Trending” was what the author claimed represented “current J-Pop icons” – Morning Musume, ALiBi and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Everyone joked on this point, many pointing out Morning Musume’s heyday was a decade ago (the group still exists, but in a very different and far less prominent incarnation) and that without Google nobody would have a clue who ALiBi even is. Kyary, meanwhile, at least is contemporary, but to call her an “icon” seems quite misleading, seeing as her success has been small thus far. I’ll give the author Ayumi Hamasaki, but one out of four? A few argued that these things could be popular in London, a fair point, but one ignoring the fact the writer says these are “current J-Pop icons” without specifying in London. Factually, this article is terrible.

More troubling, though, is how the idea of J-Pop being a “trend” gets thrown out mid-article in favor of talking about Japanese fashion. As commenter Daniel…who I assume is Japan Times writer Daniel Robson…notes, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s fashion sense dominates the conversation about her instead of her musical endeavors. After that, the Evening Standard talks almost exclusively about fashion, which would be fine if this article had just been about fashion instead of music. An attempt to connect Japanese style with American artists seems forced – pop stars have been coloring their hair for a long while now, and nobody compares them to J-Pop stars. Everything here seems jumbled – there is plenty to talk about in regards to Japanese music, so why even bring up fashion? Would it have killed this publication to ask the writer to maybe interview somebody?

(Devil’s advocate: To be fair, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu plays up her fashion image like crazy – see, her music videos, which unfortunately spark the most conversation among Western Internet users. To some degree, music is secondary for Pamyu – but she lucked into a great producer who gives her great sounds anyway).

Less immediately groan worthy was an article in Newsweek magazine about “K-Hop” which is like K-Pop with rap. At first glance, it’s an introduction to South Korea’s 2NE1 (and one other group, briefly mentioned), who plan on taking a stab at the American market in the near future. Unlike the Evening Standard, Newsweek sticks to what they say they will feature, and at least they get most of the info right.

What I find problematic, though, is how this feels like stealth PR rather than an article. Most immediately, the term “K-Hop” smells of an advertising department, the sort of genre invented by dudes in suits staring at PowerPoints. I have never heard the term “K-Hop” to this point, and just in case I am out of the loop, I certainly have never heard 2NE1 referred to as “K-Hop.” I’ve only heard them called “K-Pop,” and while getting caught up in genre titles might sound stupid, the use of a term called “K-Hop” just seems like a way of branding 2NE1 as a group different than Girls’ Generation and Wonder Girls (who, by the way, feature a lot of rapping too) who beat them to the American market. This, coupled with half-truths seemingly wheeled out to make them more appealing to Americans – “signature tune” “Ugly?” I get it, you want Americans to think 2NE1 are “deep” instead of the brash group that appears on real signature song “I Am The Best.” At least they interviewed someone, I guess.

(The first thing I noticed about this article, though, was what I presumed to be an error in the opening sentence. 2NE1’s “debut” in Japan actually came in the form of a mini-album released in the Spring of 2011, not “last October” as Newsweek says. The album didn’t get much pub because of the March 11 disasters, and others have told me the October “debut” refers to the “industry debut.” Which….OK, but a journalist shouldn’t bend language to suit “the industry” unless they really just want to get in good with them. Hell, all Newsweek had to do was say “live debut” and they would be fine. I digress.)

Of the two, the Evening Standard is more outright bad, riddled with lazy research and switching topics midway through. The Newsweek story, though, is more sinister, less journalism and more covert branding. It is, admittedly, a fine line – I write about bands in Japan whose music I love, and I genuinely want them to do well. Difference is, I write about why I think they deserve attention, why I like them so much. Newsweek’s piece reads like it came from a PR kit – the effort to create a genre, “K-Hop,” being the giveaway, because unless you are Hipster Runoff trying to invent a genre is some forced work – and seems less enthusiastic and more like a slimy salesman. And I say this as someone who really really like 2NE1. Plenty of places write about Asian music intelligently, but it seems like stuff like this is what breaks through to the West. And if sloppy work like this represents the music scene here, how will anyone take them seriously?