y now everyone knows the cultural stereotype—the Japanese are hopelessly, adorably behind the curve when it comes to Western music styles. Need I remind you how Full House’s Jesse Katsopolis and his band Jesse and the Rippers scored a number one hit in the land of the rising sun with the hairspray-damaged power ballad “Forever”—in 1992?
But seriously, how Japan’s sluggish echo chamber ever became pejorative is beyond me. One listen to multi-platinum princess Hamasaki Ayumi’s newest release, My Story, opens up a world of possibilities for pop-rock cross-pollination that our current slew of ingénues can barely imagine.
See, America’s rocker chick revival is fairly recent, which may explain why it still sounds so clean. Adding guitars marked a huge leap of faith in the post-Britney era, and the transition needed to sound as seamless as possible. The resultant Avrils and Ashlees may rock, but it’s tastefully, tamely done, the baby steps necessary after a forced derail from the dance-pop gravy train (more on the inherent silliness of such a split later).
On the other hand, like her fellow countrymen who’ve taken it upon themselves to sustain the careers of Night Ranger, Nelson, and Mr. Big, Ayu isn’t at all averse to pop-metal cheese, which we Yanks appreciate in a VH1-list kinda way but don’t actually want to hear on the radio anymore, despite the fact that it can still be brilliant when properly used. “Moments” seems like innocuous pop-rock fluff until the sweet-ass Guns ‘n’ Roses-styled solo comes out of nowhere and sends it into the stratosphere, never to return. “Liar” and “My Name’s Women” are also coated in the stuff, the former with a riff that exudes twice the sleaze and abandon of “La La” and “He Wasn’t” combined.
Of course, Ayu’s not just a momentary idol that happens to pack a few hot hard-rock licks. She’s arguably Japan’s biggest and most beloved pop star of this millennium, an industry standard that inspires messianic devotion from schoolgirls and salarymen alike.
Not only does Ayu hawk an array of products and set fashion trends as often as most folks do laundry, she delivers at the cash register as well, single-handedly accounting in 2002 for 42.6% of the revenues earned by Japan’s most lucrative record label, Avex.
Certainly savvy marketing plays an estimable role here, but listening to Ayu’s music makes it abundantly clear how she’s able to fill the girl-for-all-seasons role. For one, she pens all of her own lyrics, and while I know you’re already rolling your eyes cuz the authenticity defense is always Dullsville, you have to admit that Ayu’s poetic inclinations lend another fascinating element to her music, and in fact her verses account for a large part of her appeal in her native country (the translations are definitely worth a Google, especially “My Name’s Women,” the most sonically derivative and ridiculously artificial track on the album, which also happens to be a fiercely pro-feminist tirade against sexual exploitation—“Me Against the Music” indeed).
More importantly, however, while American chart pop remains highly compartmentalized (Brit and Jojo’s dance-pop here, Ashlee and Avril’s rock moves there, the more introspective and “serious” Vanessa Carltons somewhere else), Hamasaki gladly salts her club-ready hits with power-chord propulsion and spices up her unrepentant rock with credible beat science. Maybe “About You” sounds like a cut from Under My Skin superimposed with Japanese lyrics, but “Game” is on some next-level shit, initially a New Age red herring that quickly blows up into pure dance-rock madness. Hell, “Inspire” actually sounds sorta Latin even, the kind of groove Paulina Rubio could easily own, but a Japanese girl with a fondness for mall-punk guitars? Muchas gracias, Mr. Roboto.