Been thinking a bit about true otaku culture recently (as in, our friends the Japanese ファン), what with Patrick Galbraith’s new book out on the Japanese market (and a fall release for the American audience on the way).
Previous post here
Lifted from the unkempt desk of Alexander C. Leavitt, Adjunct Professor, Department of Alchemy, 4-273
9 月 30 日 2008 年
The protean weather patterns of the fair city of Kyoto have as of late been lending a pinch of vigor to my lesser health, allowing a brief escape from the minutiae of my daily interactions and distractions around the office to let my mind wander like a Kamogawanian river koi. I have decided to approach once again the fickle topic of cross-culturalization and its implications in the contemporary Japanese nation-state. As recently as recent can ever be, I dissected the captivating subject of Jero, Pennsylvania-born Jerome White turned enka extraordinaire in the grand land of Japan. Having mastered the subtle strands of traditional enka vocalism, this young lad has captivated the minds of old and young Japanese alike, particularly given his American-hip-hop-ified clothing, dance breaks, and music videos. Realizing that I had only grazed the surface in my previous report, I have now set out to reanalyze the musical (or is it visual?) phenomenon known to all modern Japanese citizens as Jero.
From my previous engagement, I would like to reintroduce some important points, to be thrown momentarily into a paper shredder. Direct from Wikipedia’s article on what Japan calls its traditional music, enka:
Enka lyrics… usually are about the themes of love and loss, loneliness, enduring hardships, and persevering in the face of difficulties, even suicide or death.
Enka suggests a more traditional, idealized, or romanticized aspect of Japanese culture and attitudes…
Jero is bridging the generation gap.
And to quote my own phrasal abuse:
Basically, as hiphop was remixed in Japan stylistically and culturally, Jero re-remixed the hiphop genre and culture through enka’s respective genre and culture.
Lately, I have been immersed in Ian Condry’s “Hip Hop Japan,” an anthropological look at the Nipponese hiphop clubs and underground scenes, while being bombarded with criticisms from my fellow Japanese Popular Culture colleagues.
Just this week, much was to be discussed over the matter of authenticity of image, authenticity of sound, authenticity of culture. My own observations tend toward agreement with [name of source not included, as written document is here illegible], supporting culture as based on habits (read: actions) and subculture as grounded in style (read: impressions). Hip-hop, in just terms, falls under both culture and subculture: the former, through the trends in its music and associated dancing, graffiti, etc.; the latter, by ways of an aesthetic that conducts the masses into a homogenous flurry of caps and chains. Japan’s history of music follows a sinuous, beaten path of meticulous appropriation, ever striving for the pure authenticity of that which had been borrowed (ie. early jazz in Japan). The same seems to follow with image, even in modern times: Gucci and Prada and Coach; cut, dyed, and chemicalized hair; high heels and high-style garb of popular (American? Hollywood?), pleasurable visuals. Four weeks walked on the streets of the old capital accumulate to one word: image.
To emphasize, I must restate that enka as an art form, whether it shares any history with Western music (particularly country and/or folk songs), partakes of the same emotional urges that lead to its moving music and lyrics. “Enduring hardships” and so forth mirror the same sentimentality found in either blues (jazz) or hip-hop, a common area of some musical Venn diagram that led Snoop Dogg to cover Kyo Sakamoto’s Ue o muite arukō on his premiere album (read Condry for more).
The amalgamation of hip hop and enka in Jero’s compositions result in a harmonization of genres that pushes both styles beyond their original expectations, one that brings together modern and traditional, one that can no more contradict the statement that “enka suggests a more traditional, idealized, or romanticized aspect of Japanese culture and attitudes” (Wikipedia, above). In the first video I had displayed, a music store owner comments, “Great voice. Fantastic and tender.”
However, and here begins the dissatisfaction with my previous entirely-positive critical eye toward Jero, the amalgamation of hip hop and enka in Jero’s performances result in a general dissonance, both audially and visually. As my astute colleague Christina Xu has pointed out, “One thing I am wondering, though, is what role hip-hop plays exactly in all this. It seems to me that to characterize his music as enka remixed with hip-hop is a bit of a stretch. I listened to Umiyuki… in full, and there’s none of the beats or the flows that you would associate with hip-hop music.” Rewatching the Umiyuki music video, the first five seconds include an introductory phrase of hip-hop, but slowly transition to the electric-guitar-led, conventional enka sounds. As Jero and crew walk down a poorly-lit sidewalk, the pause and subsequent hip-hop break moves clash hard with the Japanese country tunes. As Jero initially begins to sing, his body stays firmly rooted on stage, hands passionately roaming in front of his face in the cliched manner that classical enka singers are known to use. If the music and lyrics were muted, the graffiti-styled lyrics displayed on screen plus Jero’s ghetto getup give the impression of authentic American hip-hop. Sound returned, the lyrics of frozen rain, ocean whitecaps, lost love, and desperate suicide confront the succeeding bridge, during which synchronized dance moves are displayed against a graffiti-covered wall behind a fence reminiscent of a public Bronx basketball court. The strangest transition of song and setting occurs between the first and second sections of the melody (preceding and following the bridge), when during the enka portions Jero stands lit on a stage, removed from the actual “hip-hop locale,” instead now performing enka in its original context. By the end of the song, the music jumps back and forth between the street and theatrical settings, to remind the viewer of the stark contrast between the hip-hop and enka styles, while they are forced together throughout the four-and-a-half minute music video.
Agreeing with Xu, I hold that much of the pleasure behind Jero’s popularity is derived from his foreignness (read: that black American who can sing in Japanese). In interview, although some of the audience comment on his perfected tenor, one woman merely mentions, “I nearly fainted when I first saw him. He’s so cute.” And this comment comes from the young Japanese lady sporting cornrows and a Fubu-style hoodie.
The fascination of image and style in Japan is not a negative aspect of the fashion culture or popular culture of the area by any means. Consequences abound, such as the visual’s penchant to categorize and stereotype. Such an emphasis on the visual merely means that in the battle for authenticity, the subcultural attitudes shine much more brightly against a cultural background. Instead of discovering a new genre or remix, we see Jero as a black mask over a yellow face. In the first photo in the set above, Jero’s profile gives the appearance of an ordinary album cover (one that may or may not typify enka albums); however, the diamond earring stands out as a beacon of the hipo-hop subculture awaiting any listener. In the second photo, we see Jero in his hip-hop-styled attire, but his background dancers were hats, clothes, and a crewcut that disguise the bodies underneath, as if their Japanesenes must be repressed to achieve the authentic American rap style. Finally, in the third picture, more than the microphone or headphones shine a thick ring, watch, and chain — the bling to which younger fans uninterested in the enka will be drawn. Jero certainly bridges the generation gap, but it seems that he sits between the generations, stuck among two conflicting genres, instead of drawing the two eras together.
I want to retract my previous statement: “Basically, as hiphop was remixed in Japan stylistically and culturally, Jero re-remixed the hiphop genre and culture through enka’s respective genre and culture.” Remix as it is known contemporarily cannot be used to describe the Jero phenomenon. Instead, Jero’s boon of popularity is caused by an attempt to remix two cultures, the enka musical culture and the hip-hop musical culture, but one that results in the layering over of the style-based hip-hop subculture on the enka musical culture. It is a masque of masks that imitates an amalgamation of genres but one that in reality echos facial make-up or the wrapping of a gift.
Please expect to see more writings soon; I promise I’m working on composing my ideas into solid forms. Next up, probably more on Japanese visual culture in the analysis of Engrish, quotidian philosophies, and the massage of the message. Also, Japanese toilets.
Even though I’m off to Japan at the beginning of September, which will prove to be an epic and unforgettable experience, I have to deal with news about events, activities, and orgies that I’m missing out on while across the Pacific. Brings a tear to my eye, really (especially those orgies). To be frank, though, I really am bummed about having to skip out on a specific concert to be performed on BU campus in late September: Girl Talk.
Girl Talk, or Gregg Gillis, the engineer-turned-DJ (though he’d rather call himself an artist), remixes clips from a variety of popular songs to create
new songs clips of songs glued together by a common BPM. Honestly, it’s nothing special, but there’s something appealingly freakish about it that I’ll keep his MySpace page on loop for a good hour at work. It’s like the nineties joined up with the 00s and drove a car through the panoramic window of my storefront. It’s music improbable to dance to yet so possible that I find myself dancing anyway. You can actually buy Girl Talk’s latest album, “Feed the Animals”, for any price.
Well, Girl Talk’s been all the… talk… on the Students for Free Culture national mailing list for the past week or so. The issue: Girl Talk’s defense of fair use to create his music without having to deal with musical industry copyrights. Tech Dirt explains Girl Talk’s theory: Girl Talk uses a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license for Feed the Animals, even though the songs on the album were made by using hundreds samples from other artists. Gillis claims his songs are fair use on the basis of being transformative and because the clips used are very short. TechDirt mumbles about the definition of transformative, but Girl Talk is furthering the production of a newly popular, cultural, musical genre and form: remix, also known as the mash-up. The New York Times uses the term collage, which I find fitting.
The problem I have with Girl Talk with regards to copyright license: the copy.
In one interview, Gillis explains the effort required to put together one of his CDs, Night Ripper.
Pitchfork: The samples are very specific– when you listen to a song for the first time do you know which lines you want to pick out immediately?
GG: Sometimes. Anyone can make a mashup in 30 seconds but that record took me– outside of collecting the samples– at least a year of putting everything together. It’s always just trial-and-error, I get all the loops and mix-and-match them on my computer.”
Girl Talk mixes hundreds of fragments of songs together — a process which has been thoroughly documented on Wikipedia, such as on Feed the Animal‘s page. The wonderful power of the Internet has even provided the initial play times of every sample included in each track. This last point is the key to unlocking the copy. Well, no, I would consider it to be more the tumblers of the lock.
The ultimate key that moves those tumblers is the creative environment, specifically software. Special thanks to Tim Hwang for helping me realize this (look out for future related awesomeness on his part). The improved availability of software and ever-lowered ability requisite of the user to operate said software will complicate copyright beyond anything we’ve seen yet.
To explain my idea, I’ll ask a simple question: What if you produced an exact copy of a song, but without actually copying and pasting the original music?
By this I mean creating a cover of a song, entirely self-produced, but one that exactly (read: PERFECTLY) matches the source material. Of course, such a dream is impossible: no garage band will ever replicate the exact twang of a Hendrix guitar or a flawless warble akin to that of Johnny Cash. When we use our own instruments, musical covers will remain covers, ever removed from the classic prototype that retains the value. And according to copyright law, royalties are due to the original musician if you decide to market a cover song.
However, what if you’re provided with the materials, so that you avoid having to reproduce anything? Here’s where the trouble lies.
Girl Talk licenses his latest work with a Creative Commons license that prohibits others from garnering money from the retail of his music. I cannot download his CD and sell it to another person. However, assuming that Girl Talk’s claim to fair use upholds, then I also may use fair use to put any clips of music together to create another song. If I decide to choose the same original songs as Girl Talk to create the same tracks on his CD, then I have not copied or reproduced his work as long as I have personally toiled to put together each song.
Props to the new genre of remix, because musical recognition is simpler than ever before. The recirculation of cultural works (read here: music) into the mainstream (or even tributaries of popoular culture) certainly seems beneficial to a generation branded as “unable to create any new meaning.” Girl Talk mirrors the Internet: he’s making ideas available. If a young kid of this decade listens to Feed the Animals, he’s likely to miss most of the references to the popular songs of an older generation. However, Girl Talk refreshes the material, while at the same time refreshing the genre. Yet even if Gillis were not indirectly advertising music from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, technology has kept up with the pace. A program called Listen on the iPhone will analyze a piece of music and identify the name of the song, its composer, and the track’s album.
With new technologies, composition is also easier than it ever once was. Given the availability of open source software (eg. audio programs like Audacity) and the ease-of-use provided by these new software, it does not take much effort to (re)create Girl Talk’s music while avoiding literally copying and pasting it. In fact, I could probably spend much less time producing my own songs compared to Girl Talk’s “at least a year,” since I have a storyboard for each song on Wikipedia, samples available on Pandora, free editing software available online, and the optimum cheat sheet, Girl Talk’s compilation. If Gillis had decided to sell his CD for the ’90s average price of $12, an unemployed, middle-school-based teenager could spend an afternoon recreating the music, possibly even extending the production to suit his own needs.
This post has been about copyright, but instantly the issue has evolved into a debate over intellectual property. Does Girl Talk have legal rights to protect his idea to mash together a bunch of previously-released songs (down to each second that he switches to a new sample on each individual track)? Or do we have to start from the beginning by ruling Girl Talk’s appropriation of songs as illegal?
Compared to composing an academic essay, obviously we cannot copy the words of another person and claim it as our own. The MLA would kick our ass (I mean, that’s why we’ve been writing citations pages, right? because we’re afraid?). However, I can write a book while quoting other people and still sell my book without paying royalties. If we read music like words, Girl Talk has already plagiarized, although he has created a new idea out of it. So, by creating my own (identical, but personal) version of Girl Talk’s music, I am plagiarizing from the artists’ original songs from which I take the samples, but am I also plagiarizing Gregg Gillis?
Or, to spin these questions another way: what if an eight-year old kid did all of this? Well, not entirely similar, but we’ve already seen some teeth bared.