When I first arrived in Japan I spent three days in Tokyo at an orientation for my new teaching gig. I attended a workshop about Japanese pop culture in an effort to become hip to life in Japan. Following an introduction to popular Japanese television, we came to the music portion of the lecture. The very first musical group brought up was Exile. I’m paraphrasing the instructor who said they are like the Backstreet Boys with nine more members and on crack. They also, she said, were the most popular group in Japan at the time.
Exile appear on Music Station tonight, offering a great opportunity to examine this group. Don’t expect a critical study of Exile’s music – save for a few good ideas here and there, it’s your usual J-Pop boy band music with a few keyboards thrown in to make it sound “current.” Tonight will be all about trying to understand what makes Exile one of the top musical acts in Japan, one capable of moving 17 million units.
Oh, and there is apparently other music too. Hope that’s good!
8:00 – Konbanwa and welcome to Music Station. Cue the creepy English voice. Exile comes out dressed as the Secret Service…and they also get the biggest reception.
8:02 – Unlike last week, it appears this week’s entertainment has chosen to forgo sparkly sweaters and stick with pretty straightforward dress. Save for Exile looking very sharp…all 14 of them.
8:04 – Hey, remember two minutes ago when I said the people on this show were dressed relatively normal? Well, the first performer is up and she and her backing band are sporting glasses with eyes on them…sort of like those fake specs Homer wore that one time he wanted to sleep through jury duty. The artist in question is Ai Otsuka and it’s tough to pay attention to her song when her set-up is so zany…she’s surrounded by heart shaped balloons and there is a hole in the wall pouring even more of them out. It’s like the Hallmark store in February spilling out over the stage.
Oh yeah, I’m supposed to write about music. Initially lost among the cute overload of this live performance is how good this song sounds. The “Smells Like Teen Spirit” aping guitars try to sully this song, but Otsuka’s cotton candy voice adds a very sweet (yeah I just did that) touch to this song. And that chorus! Otsuka somehow stumbles on the same twee singing that pushed The La’s upwards, marred only by those guitars that should be replaced by something a lot more reserved to let Otsuka’s voice really take center stage.
(Video, which comes close to replicating the live performance, here.)
8:06 – Time for this week’s single countdown. Slash’s shitty shitty collab with the B’z lead singer clocks in at #6, proving people in Japan will buy anything if Guns ‘N’ Roses is somehow attached. There are posters all over the local convenience store hyping up the early 2010 GNR “Chinese Democracy” tour that I’m sure will be sold out.
The #1 song for the week is by…Arashi! And it has suddenly dawned on me just how insane this week’s show is because nearly every female student I teach professes their undying love for Arashi. And now they are on the same episode of Music Station. I think my student’s heads might not be able to handle all of this.
8:12 – Arashi performs their just-top-spot-minted song “マイガール.” It starts with two members sharing vocal duties above a barely there piano line that grows into a barely there orchestra. I’m surprised at how bare this track is…all the emphasis is on Arashi’s five-man harmonizing which sounds pretty. But that’s all going on with “マイガール,” and even though it’s kind of novel a mainstream act isn’t drowning there pop in all sorts of robotic bells and whistles, I wish they found a way to fit something a little more lively into the performance. They didn’t even dance! They walked around and one member stroked another dude’s chin. You’re pop stars, not indie rockers, do something.
8:19 – The terrible truth about Music Station is it’s less a live music show and more of a clip show. They’ve shown nothing but old Music Station performances for the past five minutes – I’ve heard more music from 1998 than 2009 so far tonight.
8:24 – See the time on the left? Yep, still watching highlights. But they at least tied it into tonight – they show a clip of Arashi from 1999 and they are wearing what appears to be freezer bags as shirts. Somebody thought, “if we wrap this boy band up like a ham sandwich the kids will LOVE it!” I’m glad a decade later they chose to drop the Ziplock look.
8:28 – Oh hey live music. Now on the stage is シド, who open with some vintage Green Day riffage before playing some pretty straightforward J-Rock for the rest of the time. The lead singer, to his credit, has a pretty interesting voice. At least for what I assume is a big commercial act like シド. His voice wobbles frequently, so his verses sometimes sound sort of yodeled out while the chorus to this song sounds slightly off-balance (and that’s good!). This vocal tic is the only thing going for this performance – even Arashi put on a better show, and they just did line drills.
8:33 – Nothing of remote excitement is happening on the TV, so I’ll take a minute to give シド (translated to “sid”) credit on there press photo, available on their website. It’s just the band standing beside giant buckets of paint but it’s kind of cool looking. If only they could add a little color to their music, am I right? I’ll show myself out of this point.
8:40 Is it weird my favorite song of the night comes during the commercials. A duo called Rhythem had a pretty fragile-sounding piano number. I shall investigate!
8:42 – Time for Exile! And they’ve brought the world a…Spanish ballad? Uhhhh, apparently. There is a Spanish guitar plucking away and a dancey beat running behind it while the two lead singers of the group pour there hearts out to the world (I assume, they could be singing about the lack of Mexican food in Japan for all I know). It’s the slowest song I’ve ever heard Exile do…though I’m no master of their song collection…so this is a first. The guitar saves this from being an Enrique Iglesias knock-off…or maybe it elevates it beyond a typical Enrique Iglesias song. I don’t even know, but it sounds good.
Hey, Exile get two songs! How is that fair??? This second jam boasts a much more aggressive beat, complete with some disco guitar lurking in the back. I like the singing on the verses, but the chorus (featuring an out-of-nowhere “this is so real!” piano) seems like a dissapointment after all the build up. The singing just get a little more emotional and like two extra instruments get added to the mix. I’d rather listen to the unobscured beat running through the verses.
This performance did highlight the reason I think Exile is as big as they are – they are less a group of musicians and more of a spectacle. Only two guys in the group do anything remotely musical (the two lead singers), everyone else shows up looking good and dances around. Like AKB48, this band’s live show barely pays any attention to the music instead focusing on blowing people away with visuals…in there case dancing. Even more so than AKB48, though, this entertain first, music later mindset makes sense – Exile’s songs could be raffled off to any other J-Pop singer with a great voice and they’d sound exactly the same. The group has two great singers but the real attractions the dancing and the choreography. Another reminder of Japan’s emphasis on outright entertainment.
(Spanish-tinged song available here, other song here.)
Winner Of The Week – A surprisingly solid week as most of the songs were pretty middle-of-the-road. Ai Otsuka takes it, though, with her cut-above-the-rest vocals and chorus, rising above grungy guitars to still end up a good single.
A little YouTubing also reveals a song called “Strawberry Jam” that originally drew me in because…well, you can figure it out. Turns out it’s a nice, cheerful pop tune loaded with horns!