I never thought I'd say this, but I'm starting to think that SMAP songs are actually not too bad.
To clarify—that doesn't mean I would go out and buy a SMAP CD. Nothing will ever convince me that those guys are anything but a mediocre boy band. But what I'm talking about instead is the songs themselves. I'm beginning to feel that at least some of them are catchy, well-crafted and eminently listenable.
What got me thinking this way is buying an album by the group Sotte Bosse called innocent view. It's an interesting album: it consists of covers of chart-topping Japanese pop songs, but perfomed in mellow-out, acoustic, jazz-influenced ways. The thing that makes this album work is the great vocal performance by Cana, who sounds like she's singing to some pals at some sunny, weekend garden party. (I looked up who she was, and it turns out that she sings for the house/fusion band i-dep. I actually saw i-dep once in a club, but only for a few moments, because the club was an unplesant meat market jam-packed with people, and I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could. I think I should check them out again...) She covers songs like “Hanamizuki” by Yo Hitoto and Yumi Matsutoya's “Yasashisa Ni Tsutsumaretanara”, and often sounds better than the originals. And...one of the tunes she does is a SMAP song, “Yozora No Mukou”.
Living in Japan it's hard to avoid the better-selling SMAP singles, and I recall that NTT bombarded TV viewers with “Yozora No Mukou” for a while in one of their commercials (featuring the SMAPs singing on top of a rooftop at nighttime—none of them ever fell off...). Listening to its Sotte Bosse rendition, though, I was struck by how a different, better vocalist, backed by a skilled band, could make the song shine. This got me thinking, and in the end conclude that it isn't that surprising that a SMAP song minus SMAP would sound good.
The thing is, SMAP doesn't (can't) write good songs themselves, and their management instead hires composers and lyricists to put together the songs for them. These composers and lyricists are the best that money can buy, you'd assume. They are true craftmen of good songs. They create songs that sound decent even when SMAP performs them—small wonder, then, that when real musicians cover SMAP songs, they sound great.
In the West these days, I think there's a general assumption that, for the most part, serious pop musicians write their own songs. After all, songs aren't just about the music, but also about self-expression. You listen to songs not only for the sound, but also for what the musicians can communicate to you through music they wrote themselves. This is an assumption that's shared by the Japanese for the most part. But Sotte Bosse's SMAP cover reminded me that songs written by someone other than the singer can be great too, if craftmen of good sound are behind them.
You never know what will become popular, a 'boom' , in Japan, but it seems that kayoukyoku is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Specifically, kayoukyoku singles from the 60's and 70's are big these days. I think there was a Japanese movie recently that highlighted the pop music genre. And on a recent visit to a Shibuya book store, I found several guidebooks on kayoukyoku singles, including this pictured one that I bought.
Wikipedia gives two definitions for kayoukyoku: the wider definition, which is any popular Japanese music with vocals, and a narrower meaning, which places it someplace between regular pop music and enka in a map of vocal-centered music.
What got me interested in kayoukyoku was a display of old single record covers at Mona Records that I saw recently. I loved all the colors: solid blocks of primary colors, meant to attract attention. The covers also inevitably featured the singer, wearing a stage smile. There was a nostalgic appeal to these record covers: something you might have found as a child in a dusty corner of a import goods store, and the record looked ancient even then. But at the same time, looking at these records now, the cover art was exciting in a pop art way. I could see myself becoming a collector of these singles.
There's some sort of cultural force that makes people suddenly consider past eras as fresh and trendy: we've seen that happen in recent years with the 50's, 60's, 70's and the 80's. Maybe that's at work with the resurgent popularity of kayoukyoku: some people started playing the old songs, or showing old record covers and photos, and suddenly it snow-balled into a major trend. I mean, check out at the outfit in the photo at the top: how fantastic the look is, even though it's like something that's buried somewhere deep in Mom's closet!
But I also wonder whether kayoukyoku's popularity is a reaction to the current music scene. Like everywhere else, Japan's music scene is fragmented: people have very specific preferences in musical genres and listen to little else, and there aren't many national superstar musicians whose songs everyone knows. That's a by-product of the internet era and the explosion of media from which you can get music. But perhaps there's nostalgia for the days when everybody listened to the same songs on the radio or television, when the singers behind the kayoukyoku singles were true stars whose songs everyone from grannie to your kindergartener brother knew by heart. Is there some unconcious longing to get back to those days when society felt more unified?
And I wonder whether Sotte Bosse's popularity can be explained, at least partly, by this longing. Their album's songs aren't quite as universally known as the best-selling kayoukyoku singles were in their time, but they come close. Are those songs the final gasp of a unified Japanese popular culture? Maybe there's a desire on Japanese listeners' part to keep those tunes alive, even in a different guise.