s you can clearly see, J-Pop Will Eat Itself is back. Francis Henville (the original author), however, is not. That would be where I come in.
Like my predecessor, I turned to the confectionary tunes of the East (not to mention their films), after growing bored with what most English-speaking musicians had to offer. As far as I can tell, I also more or less share Henville’s objective: shining a small spotlight onto the J-Pop scene, with hopes of acquainting the unacquainted.
On first glance, Namie Amuro is a sheep in lion’s clothing. A mixed metaphor, yes, but such a thing is all-too-appropriate for the long-time J-Pop fixture’s musical stylings. Back in the early 90s when she was with the girl-group Super Monkeys (which eventually became Namie Amuro with the Super Monkeys, as she Beyonce’d her way to the frontline), and even a few solo albums after that, Ms. Amuro was the perfect, shiny idol for young’ns to look up to. It wasn’t until she released 2003’s Style—a disc smattered with hip-hop songs backed by various male rappers—and her work on the side-project Suite Chic, that this began to change. Her present, and self-appointed reign as the “Queen of Hip-Pop,” cemented it. This girl doesn’t match her appearance anymore.
See, stacked against her fellow titans on the Avex record label—such as wide-eyed, golden-tressed Ayumi Hamasaki, or aggressively buxom Koda Kumi—Namie is decidedly delicate-looking. Soft, ¼ Italian, ¾ Japanese features. A warm smile. Occasionally sporting a flower in her hair. Namie looks like a sweet young woman that probably makes a great parent to her 8 year-old son.
Then you see that infamous tattoo. It takes up most of her upper arm and spells out the name “Haruto,” in honor of her offspring. It’s sweet, but somehow still intimidating—like a Hell’s Angels member with “Mommy” inked on their bicep. The next thing you know, she’s singing about dipping it in the “Violet Sauce” (a not-so-veiled metaphor for the other feminine V-word, I‘d say) or wanting someone to kick her harder, kick her booty (“Alarm”). And I’ll be damned if she doesn’t pull it off effortlessly.
Before you guffaw at the thought of yet another perfectly groomed starlet digging her claws into the ever-growing hip-hop industry by trying to be all ‘hood—take into consideration: Namie may actually have earned it. She’s had her unfair share of misfortunes—and I don’t mean the “bad-hair-day” or “boo-hoo-I’m-famous” kind: messy parental divorce at the age of three, her mother’s murder in 1999, and a failed marriage of her own, for starters. She could be releasing singles about heavy subject matter like that, and no one would have any right to raise an eyebrow. But, no, Namie just wants to dance… and be the Queen of Hip-Pop. It’s this—seeing a bright, young ingénue weather her pitfalls throughout the years without so much as a stumble, to become a steady, veteran talent—that makes her so compelling. She’s tough—but doesn‘t force it on her audience, or feign rebellion. She’s vulnerable—but she would never admit it.
There’s always been something raw about Namie’s music. Even though she’s under the mighty thumb of Avex records, and her stuff is slickly produced—there’s something different at work. I hadn’t been able to pinpoint it until reading up on her history. It all makes sense now. There’s a wounded, but strong and beating heart running through every one of her songs; whether it’s about sex, love, money, or an American guy she’s crushing on.
The nature of J-Pop (I think we can all admit, it’s pretty silly stuff) often makes it near-impossible to see what lies underneath. Behind every cuter-than-life icon is—gasp—an actual person. Sometimes that person is as shallow as their image. Sometimes that person is Namie Amuro. Of course, you can never really know someone—much less a celebrity you’ve never met—based on how many biographies or fan sites you’ve read. But can you know them through their music, even when it’s mega-label pop as opposed to the self-penned, soul-baring kind? In this case, it sure feels like it.
By: Teresa Nieman
Published on: 2006-05-24