“If music be the food of love, play on.” William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene I, Line 1

When I was little, I didn’t get why people listened to music.

I mean, sure, it sounded nice and the lyrics could be catchy, but in the tender years of childhood youth, I didn’t get the point of having favorite songs, favorite bands, or favorite composers. Music was music. Sometimes it was nice to hear and other times it was just downright terrible, but it wasn’t anything special. It certainly wasn’t “magical” or “healing” or touched me in some mysterious touchy-feely kind of way.

And while my classmates begged their parents to let them go to a Britney Spears/NSYNC/Backstreet Boys/[insert 90’s teen pop group of your choice], I was perfectly fine, chilling at home for a music-free evening with my family.

A lot has changed since then. Though I don’t put much stock into American music (that aspect hasn’t changed), I have become more interested in following J-Pop (Japanese pop) trends for the last few years. Which might be shocking considering how much flak J-Pop gets lately (the general consensus seems to be that J-Pop’s golden age ended somewhere in the late 90s).

So many schoolgirls...apparently, this is the height of J-Pop today
So many schoolgirls…apparently, this is the height of J-Pop today

[Note: To be fair, the oversaturation of J-Pop factory-produced boy/girl band groups might have something to do with this. I don’t know enough about the idol industry to have an informed opinion on whether or not this is a “good thing” but it does represent a marketing shift in the way music is being produced and how artists are defined, which itself is an interesting topic in its own respect.]

When you ask someone why they listen to music, you’ll get a variety of answers, typically along the lines of receiving some kind of benefit from listening to it. Whether that benefit be nothing more than “I like how it makes me feel” or as therapeutic as “It helps me purge my emotional stresses in a non-destructive manner”, for those who are avid music listeners, music is often considered an essential part of life.

I like to look at not just what kind of music I like listening to but why exactly I listen to it. Chalk it up to my tendency to analyze every little thing, but after several days of mulling over this (while listening to J-Pop, of course), I think I have a clearer picture of why I’m so obsessed with J-Pop. I’ll speak more generally about music, but will use J-Pop examples since that’s where my musical tastes generally lie.

Speaking about music in general, music appeals to me because  it speaks to my intellectual fixation on language and the written word.

Music and literature intersect much more deeply than people might realize. Songs, especially the ones with lyrics, are essentially poems set to notes and a rhythmic meter. You have ballads, which are poems made specifically for sung storytelling. Even the weird, seemingly hallucinogenic-induced modernist poetry of Stein and Eliot–fragmentary thoughts that tell of a world once whole–have a melodic (or cacophonous) strain to them. Poetry draws much from music, and even if the poet’s not consciously thinking about it, he/she has a keen ear for words that not only communicate well but sound good too.

An academic tangent…did you know that writers can blend physical experiences through the juxtaposition of sensate imagery?

There’s an actual neurological condition where experiencing one of the five senses can stimulate another sense. For example, you hear a note and you suddenly see “blue”. Or salty things taste “high-pitched”.

In literature, synesthesia refers to the specific literary technique where the writer uses figurative language to describe characters, feelings, ideas or places in a way that appeals to more than one sense. It makes the description fuller and more lively and poets love doing this. Check out Keats’ description of drinking wine in his “Ode to a Nightingale”:

O for a draught of vintage! that hath been

Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,

Tasting of Flora and the country-green,

Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth! (11-14)

That’s some wine our dear poet is demanding! You can see here how he combines the imagery of green countryside earth with the physical sensation of satiating thirst. Mix that lush cocktail with a call for dance and song and sunburnt laughter and we have a potent brew that we not only taste, but touch, see and hear.

Despite the round-table discussion being an essential part of my course of study, I’ve noticed that the acts of reading and writing have always been mostly solo endeavors. You have the stereotypical image of a person, their face buried in a voluminous book tagged with so much commentary that the footnotes easily outstrip the actual content. Listening to music–especially when you know it’s not exactly the mainstream stuff your friends or classmates listen to–is usually a private affair for me, which comes to my next point.

 Although listening to music can be a deeply personal (and private affair), it doesn’t have to be. And once you find the right people, listening to music can be an enjoyable social experience.

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Wh-what do you mean–it’s not as if I actually like Arashi. Someone must have just added it to my playlist!

I’m no hikkikomori by any stretch of the imagination but I will admit to being a pretty socially awkward person. I get really tense when there are too many people around (too many factors to take into account) and it takes me a while to warm up to strangers. It’s not that I don’t like being social but I’m not a natural at it and it’s definitely something I need to constantly work at.

How does socially awkwardness tie in with music? Well, in any case, music preference is a common conversation topic. You feel an instant kinship with someone who has similar tastes and for better or worse, it’s a quick and easy metric people can use to draw certain conclusions about you.

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You haven’t heard of [insert Top 10 song of your choice]? Gee, you must live under a rock. Or you’re a hipster, you know, if you were actually cool.
Getting into J-Pop, funnily enough, helped me meet more people. Sure J-Pop’s not as popular as K-Pop in the United States, but I was blown away by how many people (who also happen to be anime folks) were familiar with many of the same bands/groups I was (i.e. Asian Kung Fu Generation, L’Arc en Ciel, SID, AKB48, Mizuki Nana, GreeeeN, to name a few). It was hitting two birds with one stone–I got to exchange some great music with friends and I got to meet people who were really into anime like I was.

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I have friends! Who are into the same weird stuff I am! I feel GOOD!

Music, J-Pop included, has the power to connect people. Much like how a story can elicit different reactions from people, a song similarly evokes varying emotional responses. Sometimes people like a song because they agree with the lyrics, or they just really dig the composition. Other people like certain songs because they’re attached to certain memories they find very pleasant.

Or unpleasant.

Emotional attachment to music is a double-edged sword. While certain songs can uplift your spirits, other songs can crush them.

While I’m still feeling mushy-gushy, let me give an example.

But seriously. Once upon a time, not so long ago, I crushed on a friend. A good friend. Someone who was arguably just as crazy about anime and J-Pop as I was.  It was my first real crush and I, in typical fashion, had no idea what I was doing. My idea of subtlety was something along the lines, “Hey, how about a raucous karaoke night of our favorite J-Pop songs, just the two of us?”

As you might imagine, it didn’t end well. Your textbook example of unrequited feelings. The whole, “Boy-this-is-goddamn-awkward-so-let’s-pretend-this-never-happened” deal. Before I knew, our friendship kind of just wilted and died a malnourished death. It was horrible. Cue in the spasms of self-loathing, confusion and just plain resentment.

Worst of all, I went through a hellish period where I couldn’t tolerate any J-Pop. Simply because it reminded me of the friendship I’d lost. And let me tell you, it is a horrible thing when you’re unable to enjoy the things you used to enjoy. But the post-rejection mope is a strong force indeed and I had grossly underestimated my strength to tackle it head on.

Meet Hatsune Miku, the Vocaloid character that's sweeping J-Pop by storm...err, sort of.
Meet Hatsune Miku, the Vocaloid character that’s sweeping J-Pop by storm…err, sort of.

I’m not a big fan of Vocaloid or Hatsune Miku but there is one song I really like, “Senbonzakura” (literally “A Thousand Cherry Blossoms”). It’s arguably the most popular Hatsune Miku song out there and it’s not hard to see why.

For reasons I don’t understand, my crush also incidentally really likes Hatsune Miku (and, in fact, introduced this song to me).  I grew to like her too, mainly because of this song (which actually makes some clever references to Japanese history) and because my friend liked it so much. Which is why it hurt to listen to it for a long time. If I was feeling particularly masochistic, I would even play it, with every note sharply punching me as hard as that rejection.

Much like when we read a text, each reading is never completely the same. Our life experiences shape our perceptions and beliefs and in turn, our perceptions shape the way we experience stories and music. In this way, we are as much a contributor to the whole experience called “story” or “music” or “poem” as much as the author or composer. Not that this belief belittles the author’s creative process–it’s just that the story isn’t really complete without a reader,  and similarly, a piece of music, no matter how masterfully composed, is unfinished without an audience.

“Where words fail, music speaks.” -Han Christian Anderson

Obviously I got over it seeing how I’m back to shamelessly consuming anime and J-Pop. And yes, Miku is as kawaii as ever. But while in that funk, I did get some time to do some seriously cheesy soul-searching. I can’t say I came to some profound revelation, unless something along the lines of “You can still enjoy J-Pop and anime even if it brings up bad memories” counts but that period where I didn’t watch anime or listen to any J-pop music, save for the really dark ones, did make me realize how much I actually missed it.

Time may heal all wounds but there’s nothing like some soulful notes of epic to expedite the process.

***

Why do you listen to music? And if J-Pop’s your thing, what is it about J-Pop that you like? Any songs that hold a special meaning for you? 

Past romancing debacle aside, Senbonzakura is a pretty awesome song. In fact, it’s so darn popular that there have been a million covers made. Some are better than others. For the original version, click here. For those who aren’t Nico users, click here for the Youtube link.

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14 thoughts on “Music, the Food of Love: An Ancedotal Account on How J-Pop Changed My Life

  1. I listen to music for a few different reasons, but there are two main ones for me (that I can think of right now). One is that I find some music to be beautiful and/or interesting, in the same way that art can be beautiful and/or interesting – it’s just that it’s an auditory experience rather than a visual one. And the other main reason is that I tend to use it to enhance whatever mood I’m in at the time; if I’m feeling happy then I often want to listen to faster-paced and upbeat songs, and if I’m sad then I often want to wallow in my own misery for a bit by listening to more angsty material that will allow me to vent in the privacy of my own mind.

    I do really like J-pop (and also some J-rock) – Kalafina, Superfly, YUI, Ieiri Leo, some Hamasaki Ayumi, among a bunch of other acts. There are some songs that hold a special meaning for me for various reasons, but mostly I just like the sound of their voices or their general musical style.

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    1. Music works wonders as a mood enhancer. Upbeat music seems best when one’s in an upbeat mood and sad songs appeal a lot when one’s down. Since I’m more attracted to upbeat songs, sometimes I use upbeat music to bring up my spirits, or if I just need to get up for work. :P’

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  2. I think the biggest difference between J and K-pop is in their marketing tactics.
    K-pop, I think, was always marketed to have mass appeal to a global audience, incorporating the latest Western-style dance moves, popular uptempo music so favoured by today’s music scene, and a ‘cool’ image accepted in the mainstream public. In addition, many of the K-pop singers are also trained in multiple languages like English, Mandarin and Japanese for better promotional touring overseas.

    J-pop, however, tends to heavily favour the local Japanese market and local fans. Some of this can be attributed to risk-averse music producers unwilling to spend big money for an otherwise risky venture, or overprotectionist policies to keep intellectual copyrights solely with the Japanese groups(which also prevents a lot of music going overseas).
    J-pop singers also speak mainly Japanese with little fluency in other languages, which disadventages them from communicating with overseas fans not fluent in Japanese.

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    1. That’s a good point. I’ve definitely noticed that marketing campaigns for Kpop are more aggressively global. I think J-pop’s made some similar attempts too, though the general trend is to appeal to an insular audience. Which is really a shame because I know a lot of people in the US would like Jpop if it weren’t so obscure. Getting music there can be a hassle and expensive.
      I see a similar trend with Japan’s cultural exports, specifically anime and tokusatsu. Although there have been some forays in getting anime subbed and distributed internationally, it’s still really tough to get one’s hands on a lot of anime and dramas legally. Rather a shame that Japan’s recent cracking down on anime and manga distribution sites (RIP Nyaa.torrents) might actually hurt their sales.
      Thanks for the comment!

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    2. I was talking about this the other day with a friend. I was watching the latest NEWS (the j-pop band) PV and it’s really cute and well-produced and all, but next to your average k-pop PV it looks almost homemade.
      K-pop seems to shine through heavy makeup and video editing, choreographs that make the dancers look almost like machines and really heavy marketing. I guess this is why I never could get into k-pop, even though I tried and listened to many groups. Their quality is undeniable but it’s also undeniable that it lacks heart and inspiration. I would forgive it all if I liked the songs – after all, this is why k-pop fandoms are huge, right? – but it’s just not for me. I’m open to recommendations, even, if this sounds preconceived.

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      1. I don’t follow NEWS but I’m familiar with most Johnny’s bands. And yes, their PVs do have a laidback “casual” feel compared to the heavily produced K-pop videos.
        I went through a very brief phase where I liked K-pop. Girls Generation was cute and some of the other songs by DBSK, 2pm and Super Junior were actually pretty catchy. I wouldn’t go so far as to conclude that K-pop music lacks heart and inspiration, but the way it’s marketed does give off that impression and marketing shapes the music as much as the composer or artist does. No doubt every top K-pop artist works very hard to get to where they are today, so it’s harsh to say that their work is lacking in passion.
        I’m not part of the K-pop fandom so I can’t speak on their behalf but from my understanding, K-pop is so much more than just the songs. Just like idols in Japan but on a more international-scale, K-pop stars aren’t just singers–they’re entertainers, comedians, actors, and marketing products for the music industry. Arguably, their music is what defines them but almost any hardcore K-pop fan will tell you that as much as they like the music, they like the stage personas (carefully marketed to be as “authentic as possible”) just as much. K-pop and J-pop are similar in that they are ultimately products to fulfill the self-fantasies of adolescents and young adults.
        I do get what you mean about trying to stay open-minded about K-pop but not having much success. But you might find that K-pop and J-pop aren’t as separated as you think. If you watch some of the more recent PV’s from other Johnny’s groups (i.e. KAT-TUN, even Arashi), you’ll see J-pop’s been taking some lessons from their K-pop counterparts and fusing those techniques in some very interesting ways.

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  3. First of all, hi! I just found out your blog and I’m glad I did. I could relate quite a bit to this story – well I never took a crush to a karaoke but. I wasn’t big into music back when I was little either. The first kind of music I grew to like, around the time when I was 12 or 13, was j-pop and anime songs, because listening to them brought back memories of the anime series I liked even when I couldn’t watch them. And some songs were just really good – Love Hina’s Sakura Saku, Gundam Wing’s Just Communication and Gakkou no Kaidan’s Sexy Sexy are some that come to mind. I even recall sharing a MP3 player with a friend who also liked anime songs and we were surprised because we both had this one on our MP3 players, so yeah, I know what you mean when you say “bonding”.
    Eventually I grew into other genres and became a big fan of j-music in general, from Nightmare to TM Revolution to Johnny’s bands. If I were to share all I think of music nowadays, it would be worth another post. 😛 But the thing is, I had a short “grew out of anime” phase in which I couldn’t stand j-pop; Then I knew Kyary, and things went downhill (in the best way possible). Music is just too powerful. Last month I went to a concert of a japanese band (FLOW, that is) and being able to sing along to – or rather shout out loud – my favorite anime’s opening lyrics, with a crowd of thousands of people equally excited, was pretty up there in the “most fun I ever had” list.
    As I write this, I’m listening to music. English songs I found out through AMVs, actually. So I may listen to music to remind myself of anime. No, kidding. I have this feeling that music promotes, in one word, synthesis. It evokes some feelings and gives closure to others. Sometimes, when I watch anime, I empathize so much with characters, and then listening to fitting songs – songs I feel that they’d like to listen to – it’s like venting out. I guess this is why I like to make AMVs too. I do that when I am feeling good or bad about something too of course. Oh, but I also listen to anime OST to remind myself of how great certain series are. I think a better question would be “why not listen to music?”.
    Anyway, thank you for your post! I thought it was a fun read and I enjoyed being able to share my thoughts on the matter.

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    1. Hi and welcome to Anime Monographia! I fell into J-pop the same way you did–through anime and through friends who enjoyed watching it. There’s always that surge of affection you get when you find out that a friend and you like and/or recognize the same anime song. Music can bring people together, which makes it so great.
      Ahh, Nightmare and TM Revolution are excellent. Johnny’s bands, as with all idol groups, are an interesting feature in J-Pop. Kind of interesting how boybands, which typically have a life expectancy of a few years, have a very long shelf life in Japan but idols are much more integrated and have a bigger presence in Japanese media. Envious that you had the rare chance to attend a live concert–it’s a dream of mine to attend a Mizuki Nana (or Arashi) concert. Synthesis is a good way of describing the listening experience. You have the song as the base but when you listen to it, you add to it in a way, whether it be emotionally or aesthetically. And yes, anime OSTs-especially the memorable ones-have a knack of letting you relive the experience of watching an anime (for example Kajiura Yuki’s compositions evoke a very particular set of moods).
      Glad you enjoyed this post. I typically focus more on anime from a literary standpoint but every now and then, I think it’s important to look at why we like music or anime. Hope you’ll stick around on this blog for future posts.

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  4. I’m mostly into Jpop (or, let’s just say, Japanese music) as well, though I have a limited list of artists that I listen to on a regular basis. And while I like some English and local songs, I don’t really listen to them as much as I listen Japanese songs. My love for Jap songs is mainly from my love for anime (we have OP, ED, insert songs, and OSTs that we can’t not listen to while watching anime). But my interest towards the Japanese language itself further shifted my music preference towards Japanese–in an almost polarizing manner. I couldn’t help but be curious of the meanings of the lines being sung every time I hear my anime music playlist. Thus, I looked for English translations, and now I just freely listen to the music and let my mind interpret the words. I still refer to existing fan translations from time to time, though, as I still can’t perfectly decipher the lyrics being sung. As I watch more anime, my music library just keeps on growing. In the process, I also discover great artists outside the familiarity of anime fans. Every time I discover new artists, I have this good sensation that I often address as a personal musical pleasure. To really enjoy their music, I listen to them for a long while before I decide to look for other groups/bands to add to my library.

    It’s amazing how my passion for this side of the music world made me act. As a socially awkward person myself, it was not easy to meet people with similar musical preference as mine. But there’s this friend whom we share a similar preference towards English rock/punk rock songs/bands. Lately, she’s been interested in watching anime (she has just started watching some that I recommended her this year). She made comments on how some of the songs were really catchy. Then she asked me for any recommendations. Since I knew full well that she’s really into rock, I gave her the list of Jrock artists that I really like (e.g. nano, Aqua Timez, ONE OK ROCK, MY FIRST STORY). Since I was pumped up sharing my favorite music, I assisted her in her Jrock discovery by sending some YouTube links of the original music videos of the mentioned artists (primarily nano). She listened to them intently and one-by-one. It made me happy how she would comment on each one of them. XD Right now, she’s hooked to nano and OOR. She’s even memorized her favorite nano song, Now or Never, that it makes me proud not only of her own achievement, but also of my endeavor to share my favorite music. Plus, she’s begun taking interest in the Japanese language. XD

    It really made me happy that I somehow turned a friend into someone not just an ordinary friend anymore, but into someone I can openly and cheerfully discuss my music with.

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    1. Thanks for sharing and welcome to Anime Monographia! My foray into Jpop is similar to yours. I found J-pop through my favorite anime shows and used that as a jumping off point into other non-anime Jpop songs. Funny how listening to music, which I consider largely a solitary experience (with the exception of concerts), can help one reach out to more people. It’s something that can happen with any hobby but there’s something quite special about the moment when you realize someone shares similar tastes with you. Also, ONE OK ROCK is pretty awesome. I’m not familiar with J-Rock as much, but I have listened to some nano and Aqua Timez songs and have liked them.

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  5. I am glad I stumbled on to this post. It really feels good to see a following of people because I have felt alone because I would love to express myself but nobody that I know can appreciate J or K pop. How can you like it if you can’t understand the lyrics. Is what I get. I just know its alot deeper than just the words. I know that I am an extremely deep and emotional person, especially for a man and the music I listen to everyday just effects me.
    I like most of you stumbled onto it through anime and while I am not a huge anime person, I found myself drifting deeper into my favorite singer, Nana Mizuki. I fell deeper into her music and learned more about her as a person. Its hard to explain completely but there are so many reasons I listen to her. As mush as I have followed music through the years, I cant recall an american artist where I have seen so much passion. First, she has an awesome voice and her passion is incredible. I know in general, I have noticed alot of differences, but I have watched many of her live performances and this is a show, I mean the costumes are fabulous and you can see the culture behind it. She interacts with the audience and the audience responds. I can’t really put into words how much she affects me with her music, but I do know that her passion with her singing and performing is just heartwrenching. On another note before I get to long. MY k-pop group is SNSD or Girls generation, basically for the same reasons. Yes they are so cute but the way they perform is cute too. I just love the culture of how they perform and the passion. I know that watching one live performance they had tears flowing because of singing the song “Complete” and what the audience was doing. I have a strong belief that Jpop and Kpop react to their fans and appreciate them more than american artist. I have never seen and its just me, but to me they seem real when they get out there. I wish I could put into words how their music effects me, but I listen to Nana and SNSD everyday, so much a part of my life now.

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    1. Glad that you found the post relatable. I can relate to having friends or meeting people who view my musical tastes with raised eyebrows. American pop seems so artificial and bland, and the music industry here is very different from Japan or Korea’s. Music is more than the lyrics and given how the lyrics from American songs are pretty unoriginal anyway, it’s unfair for people to say that you can’t enjoy a song if you don’t understand it. Music is a different experience for everyone and we get pleasure from it in different ways. For some, it’s the lyrics, for others, the melody or the arrangement. If you like listening to J/K-pop, go ahead! If you have friends who are into anime, chances are, they might be a J/K-pop fan too, which can be exciting to find out.

      Mizuki Nana is AWESOME and I hope to one day see one of her performances live. She has a lot of power behind her voice–something you don’t see too often in female Japanese pop artists. Plus her songs are catchy (“Preserved Roses” easily ranks as my #1 most played on my iTunes).

      I don’t follow K-pop as much as J-pop, but I can definitely see they’ve got a lot of infectious positive energy in their performances. Japanese/Korean pop artists tend to be perceived as more personable, partly because they have such a big marketing presence in not just music, but television (many idols are also actors/actresses) where they star in dramas, host variety shows, and perform their music.

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