When my older brother moved to Japan three years ago he spoke of sake in vending machines, judo on the Shimanto River, and J-pop. He spoke of J-pop as if the Ten Commandments were being channeled through its falsetto tones and ripe melodies, as if some abstract deity was speaking through its girlish glances and hip-hop reinvention. First he sent mix tapes: mix tapes that gave me more than pause, almost a xenophobic rash that can only be caused by fierce sibling resistance. I refused, clutching my Brit-pop, my indie rock, my pre-mod, post-mod pill pops. Anything artschool, anything with hummable melodies. Sad songs about bikes. Anything but J-pop, anything but allowing my brother to be right.
After the third tape started collecting dust, I got curious. This time, three years after the fact, I worked through the sibling stubbornness and listened to the glory of J-pop. Hark! These foreign waters aren’t so foreign after all! I recognize that Backstreet falsetto, that Britney Spears dagger-eyed stare. The youthful cool oozing from the ladies of Puffy (not to be confused with Puff Daddy)—a duo that could easily be Hello Kitty and Badtz-Maru jumping around at Gymbaree—is eerily familiar.
Turns out J-pop sounds like music I already know, only better and funnier. Laugh-out-loud funny, bordering on silly. J-pop in its American translation has received automatic indie status. Beck, ambassador to all things righteously indie, has already collaborated with songstress Kahimi Karie, playing harmonica on her current The KKKKK Album. J-pop crosses over: It crosses over seas and genres, and—if you look closely at the man-boys fleshing out some of the groups—it could easily be accused of cross-dressing. Imagine if the billowing romantic blouses and crusty eyeliner of heavy metal’s yesteryear were bottled in formaldehyde.
At first glance, J-pop appears steeped in imitation. But in fact, J-pop is imitation that exceeds copycat status. With the prominence of J-pop comes yet more AA-pop (Asian Alphabet pop, with its other subsets K-pop, T-pop, and C-pop— however not including be-bop), imitation at its best because it is imitation imitating imitation.
So enter Korean pop, J-pop’s second cousin once removed. Unlike J-pop, K-pop has little to no crossover audience in the states and has not yet received indier-than-thou status—maybe because it is, in fact, without pretension, without cool-kid stature. It is also available at any local Koreatown store.
K-pop is a world unto itself, yet steeped in references. Its music videos allow entry into a culture of rock stars too shy and uncoordinated to look straight at you. There’s the girl-trio Diva, sprawled in robotically seductive poses and pouts, sporting knee pads and pleather ensembles that shimmy in the silvery background— TLC and Debbie Gibson with a Spice Girls twist, except Diva have the early-’80s benefit of never knowing where the camera is. Their dance moves are straight out of a Kentucky teen pageant. Occasionally, Diva’s young misses punch the air to a pulsating drumbeat, dipping down to touch their matching tennies and shuffling side to side. These ladies bop to a David LaChapelle tiger beat, without the self-conscious smirk of an ironic iconic pop star. Less money, less makeup, less high-airs attitude; more rockin’ dance moves. Steps that don’t look like the product of computer-manipulated, sytexed-to-hell cyberfreaks. The band looks like kids who turned to each other with cheeseball smiles one afternoon and said, “Hey gang, let’s go down to the barn and put on a show!”
Handheld cameras and low-fi animation litter K-pop videos. Greg Brady choreography, pastel fades, Atari-esque electro-graphics. In the Bad Boys Circle video “Why Not! Why Not!” three adolescent-looking males strike a couch-slouching pose à la Green Day, with low-slung guitars and perfectly cropped I-don’t-care hair. But, in truth, BBC try so hard to be authentic they make Billie Joe and Blink 182 look like the postpunk posers they always intended to be. “Our name has meaning of a rebellious group against existing culture, breaking boundaries and doing free punk,” BBC’s guitarist says on the Korean Top 20 Video Show.
Or take JuJu Club, whose cutie-pie carefree K-pop air is doubly adorable when they tackle teen angst in English. (Without being condescending, I’d say their English is a little bit rocky, like fortune cookies that aren’t quite complete sentences but close enough to get a laugh and a good fortune.) On Ranisanisafa (Rock Records import), the CD sleeve reads, “same place, same age, but we’re different/same school, same class, same line, same age/you are beside me but why we have so much difference like that/do you think there’s someone who understand me/in another planet another age.” There’s something about the roaming naïveté that takes youth alienation and makes it something important, something simple, something universal. Delicious little haikus like this are sprinkled throughout the CD sleeve, even though all the songs are in Korean. It helps that lead vocalist Dain Ju can actually sing, her surprising range backed by raucous horns. Not just the English is fractured: The collage-style music floats through multiple genres before settling into an electro-dance groove.
Popland is a planet of common denominators. The drumbeat cheese and shameless posturing of AA-pop is a low-tech and homespun response to Western culture, recycling it into newness. I can even see beyond the fact that girlie-girls FIN.K.L. are trying to bring back Hammer pants, and that Spooky Banana are Queen for a day in their track “Mr. Fireman,” a punk/rapscape loaded with operatic interludes and spoken-word goofiness. K-pop imitates, and sometimes gets it wrong. But sometimes it’s better than the real thing.