Marty Friedman is a guitarist who moved to Japan, where he now works as a musician and songwriter and where he has been living since 2003. You might know him from Megadeth, the group he was in from 1990-2000. This is a transcript from a workshop he gave this year on J-pop.
Reading through this, I recognize that a lot of what he is describing about how he fell in love with J-pop mirrors how I feel about K-pop. There are a lot of similarities between J-pop and K-pop on a general level, though I think they are very, very different. Nonetheless, his description of what he likes about J-pop is very recognizable to me (both in regards to actual J-pop and to K-pop). For example, he says:
The rock that actually was popular in the US was rather negative and depressing but in Japan it was quite the opposite. Japanese pop and rock was still very aggressive and powerful, yet positive and uplifting. The complete opposite of current American rock!I think that’s a pretty interesting observation, one that I’ve made in regards to pop in America versus Korea. What interests me most is the idea that in Japan or Korea, you can work within the same genre (rock or pop) and offer the same pleasures that those genres promise, but you can do so with an entirely different attitude, which ends up exerting more of an influence overall on how the music sounds and feels than the conventions of the genre itself.
He plays a song for the audience, “Heavy Rotation” by AKB48. This is what he says about it:
Now this is freaking rad man, this is just like everything that the antithesis of negativity, I mean you cannot be unhappy and watch this video, I’m telling you. It’s like pure sugar just going drilled into your teeth and if you can stand that it‟s the greatest thing. For me and my personal taste, when I see something like this, it`s just deep on every single level. I mean there’s absolutely nothing, no part that I can say “Well I don’t like this about this, I don’t like that” about it. To me when I hear that, it reminds me of the Bay City Rollers, but with 48 of the cutest girls in the country singing it with a powerful 8 beat behind it. World-class production and it’s just the ultimate. When I hear that song it makes me go crazy. And this is just one of their many hit singles. This is the type of thing that you can hear all around Japan anywhere you go in the department stores, the restaurants, the streets and stuff like that. This is not a brand new sound, this is very typical Japanese melodic sense and song construction.I really like his enthusiasm: he sounds a lot like me trying to describe what I like about K-pop! But I also like the way he talks about the music, which he describes essentially as very sugary pop, and honors it as something serious and worthy of praise. It’s interesting that a guy like Friedman with a metal background would go for this kind of music, but it’s not surprising. Metal may often sound dark, harsh, or even ugly, but there’s a solid grounding in music theory and composition, even a clear classical influence with a lot of it. Just like with progheads, there’s a lot of nerding out about things like time signatures (which Friedman talks about later on in reference to a Perfume song), chord changes, etc. In other words, there’s a respect for music composition and craft. The way he holds up this girl group song as something sophisticated and genius (he uses that word a lot to describe AKB48 later on), I think, reflects a genuine understanding of the real craft that goes into J-pop (which I think is also true of K-pop in most of the same ways).
Here’s what he says about the Perfume song “Polyrhythm”:
This is a three-piece female unit that is also a household name in Japan. The main thing about this unit is the producer is a genius. The producer, Nakata Yasutaka, has basically created this sound for his artists, Perfume, as well as several other artists, so he has an immediately identifiable sound as a producer. What I really like about this is that it’s musically intense. It’s kind of dance music but it has odd-time signatures in it. So for me as a progressive musician, usually when I hear odd-time signatures I think “this is boring jazz or boring progressive music.” But when I hear it mixed in pop music so cleverly as in Perfume’s case, it makes me go, “Oh my God, this is so unique.” This is another thing about Japanese music is they can accept deep technical concepts within the context of ultra pop music. It’s like candy pop music but the structure has got some deep technical elements in it. My American musician friends would go, “Oh my God, what did you just play for me and why is this number one in Japan?‟ If someone were to do odd-time signatures in a pop song in America, it would be in a cheap record bin over there somewhere, no one would ever want to listen to it. But in Japan they find clever ways of mixing progressive music with dance pop.I think his thoughts here apply way more to J-pop than K-pop, but I think what he is getting at, and which applies to both, is the sense of creativity behind what we otherwise think of as manufactured, formulaic pop. Here’s an interesting section where he talks about singing styles in Japan:
When I first heard this on the radio, I was like, “You`ve totally got to be kidding.” So, I sent an MP3 of this song to all of my progressive guitar friends back in America, I would say “Dude, I live in Japan, this is number one right now, check it out.” And people were just like, “Oh my God, what is going on over there in Japan? This is just sick.” And I would go, “This is rock in Japan.” I saw them at Budokan, and the audience were not like club people, these were like rock people. It’s totally regular, you know, to have Joe six-pack type of people going to this concert and they are just rocking out to this kind of strange trendy music is very futuristic. When I saw the audience, it was like an AC/DC kind of crowd, but the music is just like the future. So when I listen to Perfume, I’m like this is the music of the future—at least in Japan, and I think that somehow it’s going to slide its way outside of Japan.
One thing that I really like to point out, particularly about her song and many female singers in Japan, is that they just sing the melody. There’s no bullshit, there’s no like ad-libbing, there’s no gospel singing, there’s no screaming. If a girl sings high, she’s just singing high, she‟s just singing the melody. It’s almost like playing the melody one note at a time, on a keyboard; which is unlike American pop singing. Especially the female ballads, the American girls have to constantly show all of their vocal ad-libbing, how great they can riff and stuff like that. That’s fine if that’s your taste. For me it’s not my taste at all. To me that’s all American Idol stuff and American Idol, in my opinion, is everybody is just searching for the next Celine Dion and the next Mariah Carey, and it’s all about the vocal skill and range. Whatever happened to just singing the melody? Whatever happened about having magic that‟s in your voice so you don’t have to show all these vocal tricks to do? Now that’s only my concept and I’m only one person, so my opinion is not any more valuable than anyone else’s. But I’m just saying this is what stands out to me in Japan. So there’s very little of that kind of Mariah Carey ad-libbing scat singing or “melisma” as they call it. That’s a very important thing to know about Japanese music, they stick to the melody. You don’t need to be this great virtuoso singer, if you sing and you have your own tone to your voice, that may be just enough magic. That actually shows a vulnerability to your voice, as opposed to if you are only singing scales and singing adlibs and stuff all the time; where is the personal vulnerability, where is the personal magic to the voice? It’s all technique, so that is a very important thing to know about Japanese music.Now, I like R&B plenty, and I like singers like Mariah Carey, but I find his observations really interesting. J-pop and K-pop singing can sound very anonymous at times from our perspective, especially because the groups are often so large that you lose sense of individual identities. But I really like how he turns our own standards of singing on their heads when he praises Japanese singing as being about “personal vulnerability.” We tend to associate more virtuosic singers with vulnerability, but that’s not necessarily always true. And in a lot of cases, those virtuoso approaches tend to obscure what can be very vulnerable. Perhaps this is why I like some of the Girls’ Generation ballads so much (and their popularity in Japan perhaps has to do somewhat with their vocals): they are just so clean and pure, naked even. It’s also interesting that Friedman praises J-pop against stuff like American Idol, though many Westerners would lump J-pop (and K-pop) into this same category quite easily.
I highly recommend you take a look at this transcript if you have any interest in J-pop (and you K-pop lovers will find much of interest too, I think, in the comparison between Western and East Asian music). One final quote from Friedman: “I think the best thing to happen in American music is Lady Gaga.” He also later compares Lady Gaga to J-pop and notes the similarities between them. Well, as someone who thought Born This Way was a masterpiece, I don’t know if I fully agree with the statement, but I’m definitely sympathetic.
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- subdee said: You probably know already, but Lady Gaga famously tried to recruit Teddy Park (but he turned her down to work with artists he knew).
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