J-Pop Will Eat Itself
SMAP



in this series, clicks’n’cuts dilettante Francis Henville describes his descent into the netherworld of Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean commercial pop. Track by track, he navigates deeper into the genre, searching for ever-more-toothsome morsels with which to satiate his jaded appetite…

SMAP
Lion Heart (from Vest (Japan Version))


They're like the Backstreet Boys of Japan, only they have their own cooking show. They are SMAP, the unavoidably harmless collection of Tokyo trendsetters. Bishounen—beautiful boys.

Vest is a collection of their singles. The significance of the title, and the eponymous mauve item, eluded me at first—I thought there'd be a picture of the SMAP boys looking depressed and staring off at various points in the distance. But then I realized that if they just printed up cheap mauve vests with the word SMAP on them, they could cross-market their album release deliciously. After all, their images have already permeated the Japanese media.

But marketing aside, SMAP do manage to pump out some catchy singles. "Lion Heart" is one of their big hits, although I never heard it on the radio while in Japan. The SMAP team sing everything from rock numbers to ballads. But on "Lion Heart", the group takes on R&B, moving their vocals between Timbaland-style doubletime hi-hats, prickly triangles, synthetic percussion hits, g-funk sine whistles in portamento octaves.

But the chords that move among this orchestration are strictly mainstream pop, as are the simple call-and-answer vocal harmonies. Most of the time, we hear a boyband-style alternation between a solo and a unison line. A four-line verse will award one line to each of the members, who rejoin to sing unison in the pre-chorus. Nothing spectacular, but their voices are undenaibly easy on the ear.

Most revealing about this track is the mix of 'deadly' down-tempo R&B programming with skim milk vocal production. The result is an ineffable softness. This music is mental tofu. Not bland, almost tasteless, refreshingly pure in color, without any fat, endlessly malleable, incongrous in all situations. No matter what Eno thinks, this is the real music for airports. It's simultaneously pleasant and odd to find this music emerging to fill a market that in the United States is occupied by soft rock radio, muzak and the continued irrelevance of classical music.

Ah well. Enough theory. With this on my MD player, I will now retire to the arcade to drink bubble tea and watch the kids compete fiercely at Dance Dance Revolution.



By: Francis Henville
Published on: 2004-09-16
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