Music my students like

It’s often said by language teachers that one perk of your job is meeting people you’d ordinarily have little chance to meet.  This is true.  Since I quit running my own English school in suburban Japan, I haven’t spent nearly as much time with office workers or high schoolers.  On the other hand, I have spent a lot more time with my guitars, who are only late when my right hand isn’t cooperating.

A reliable topic for language teachers is food.  Another one is music.  Both tend to produce conversationable (now there’s a coinage I won’t be crowing about) differences in students that are unlikely to produce argument or unpleasantness, just “oh, I feel I know you better now” slightly better rapport.

I’ve been regularly exposed to music that I would never have listened to on my own, and only some of it has made me grumble something about kids these days.

Read on for a selection of the only Japanese music I’ve listened to on purpose since Shiina Ringo and Seikima II.

Sakanakushon

Well this is better than I expected.  Literally my first thought was “nice guitar sound”.  One thing I always notice about modern Jpop is that the production pushes the vocals way up to make them karaoke-friendly, which in this song unfortunately hides the playful instrumentation under the average vocals.

The guitar solo is boring.  Did you ever notice Jpop bands in particular seem enamored with the 16th-16th-8th hi-hat pattern?  It makes an appearance here, although some other clichés are thankfully absent.

This isn’t bad, but I don’t see anything about it that would make me understand why they’re as popular as they actually are.  And while it’s good that there are women in the band, surrounding them with cheerleaders is a less than female-friendly move.

The lyrics are:

このまま君を連れて行くよ 丁寧に描くよ

揺れたり震えたりしたって 丁寧に歌うよ

それでも君を連れて行くよ

I’ll take you there just like this / I’ll draw it with care

Even if it shakes and trembles / I’ll sing with care

Even then, I’ll take you there

Well, I’m not sure what it means, but it seems inoffensive.  Jpop lyrics always seem to strive for maximum inoffensiveness, so this is true to pattern.

Gracoron

One of my students was very into a capella, despite not being a singer or seemingly interested in music.  I find it refreshing when a student is very into something for apparently no reason, because it shows 1) they have enough free time between school activities to devote to pure amusement, and 2) they don’t care about liking all the same things as their classmates.  This isn’t the greatest a capella in the world – the lead vocalist in particular is out of tune – but I’m happy someone is listening to things besides the other, much more popular, bands on this list.

It is inspiring when students give you a hook of personal interest on which to hang class activities.  I don’t know if students know how much of a boon it is to a language teacher to have a sincere attempt by students to steer the discourse of the classroom.  Far from resenting having control taken away from us, we tend to look at it as a highlight and a break for us from having to find content that is both useful and interesting for people that age.  A few high school students in the last few years of our school were into slightly unusual music, and we were able to harness that energy in a few different ways in addition to some very animated conversations.  We wrote fan letters, some of which got responses – not from this band unfortunately.  We also figured out some harmonies for the songs that every high school English student is forced to learn, adding a bit of interest to a stale topic.  A comment from a student that they’re interested in something a bit odd can yield quite a trove of material.

Having said that, I’m a bit of a hypocrite, because all the entries on this list came from students mentioning their interests.  I guess we felt like planning classes more around interests that seem to reflect something unique than around the ambient pop culture that every teenagers seems obligated to talk about.  Or it takes something pretty noteworthy to change my default reaction upon hearing new music from “condescension”.

Sekai no Owari

Ugh.  There are parts of this song that even ruin other songs for me.  It’s not like I was a fan of accordion music before, but now it seems pretentious and self-conscious in addition to everything else that was already wrong with it.  Gibson SGs suddenly look a lot less rockin’, undoing years of positive reinforcement from Black Sabbath and System of a Down.  That chromatic chord progression in the chorus feels especially cloying, like it was designed to be played by a music box.

A lot of Jpop nowadays makes me think the youth of Japan have decided to deal with their declining fortunes by eschewing reality altogether in favor of a fantasy world where everything is yasashii and kawaii, two words which I can no longer hear as anything but symptoms of undiagnosed depression.

The lyrics start:

空を青く澄み渡り 海を目指して歩く

怖いものなんてない 僕らはもう一人じゃない

The sky is a clear blue; let’s walk to the ocean

There’s nothing to be scared of; we’re not alone anymore

It gets better from there, but man it’d be hard to find a more concise summation of Jpop lyrical clichés than that.  The only ones they missed are 抱きしめて dakishimete “hold me close” and そばにいる soba ni iru “by your side”.

Shonan no Kaze

Reggae is more popular in Japan than you might imagine, and the gravel-voiced singing style that is present in this song occasionally presents a nice contrast from the exaggerated, nasal vibrato that one hears far more often.  I would say more but I don’t want to have to listen to this again.

Maximum the Hormone

A breath of fresh air.  I like that they devoted a full half of the song to taking the piss out of the ostentatious innocence that love songs in Jpop affect.  The riffs thereafter are anonymous nu-metal, but the bass and chanting portions are novel. I like bands that a layman might think sound 90% like this, but really this isn’t my cup of tea.  I just respect their attitude.

Speaking of Jpop clichés, here is a selection from the lyrics in the first part:

大きな瞳 愛を見つめ
優しさに 溢れて欲しい

Your big eyes, staring at love

I want you to overflow with kindness

Lovely.  It takes solid familiarity with a genre to parody it well, and these folks know Jpop.  The lyrics in the second part follow a pattern I’ve seen before in Japanese metal, heavy on anachronistic vocabulary and unusual kanji.  That would be hard enough but they also sing like they learned Japanese phonetically without ever hearing it.

Honeyworks

Honeyworks call themselves a “creative unit” rather than a “band” or “idol group” (“band” in Japanese is restricted to musicians playing instruments, so One Direction is, refreshingly, not called a band here).  Unfortunately they have directed their creative energies into the heightening and veneration of the same clichés that are inescapable everywhere in Jpop.  The fact that they have tied themselves to Youtube as a medium for delivering their song-video products is forward-thinking, or at least shows a recognition that because many young people only get music from Youtube nowadays, they might as well stop pretending that their music stands on its own.

I used to wonder about “idol groups” like Arashi and AKB48 – who also rely on multimodal presentation as well as the personalities of their members as displayed on a Japan’s numerous talk/variety shows to activate feelings of loyalty and familiarity in their target demographics and lead them to show their support financially via various types of purchases – who ever buys their CDs just to listen to them sing.  It seems the evolution of Jpop is making singing or music altogether less and less of a part of what makes up the genre.  Is it still accurate to call Jpop a genre of music, or is it more a suite of multimedia products descended from popular music?

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