How listening to a Japanese idol group became a public self-teaching moment
Words by Aldus Santos
Header Art by MC Galang
This may sound like a flaming crock of horse doo-doo, but my big fear as both creator and critic is stagnation. I mean, I like what I like, and I know that’s not a lot of things. I’m forty, and getting to this age means accepting that a thirst for culture is an ironic thing, and I’ll explain why. In a nutshell, it’s this: We should be on a wretched quest to quench that thirst, sure, but we also need to make sure that we stay thirsty. Or that we stay in a place where that thirst is everything. In other words: The thirst and its quenching are of equal import. Now I’m pretty loyal, and that makes me pretty parochial, but that loyalty also affords me a level of mastery in the lexicon of whatever it is I’m being loyal or parochial towards.
Which is why, in lieu of a proper review of Japanese “idol” band RAY’s excellent record Pink, you’re reading…this. Because while I did take it apart—it essentially employs hallmarks of shoegaze but with the buoyant songwriting of people like, say, the Deal twins—it does exist within a bigger universe whose surface could use some scratching, beyond all the washed distortion, swaths of reverb, and precision drumming. And I would usually say otherwise, but in this instance, I think the most curious thing is the context of consumption. To my mind, these are pretty songs performed with great aplomb, but the glare of Japanese idol culture (cult?) does cast a tall shadow. I mean, look, I listened to Pink on Spotify, just pure audio, which means I wasn’t treated to the great lengths the band undertook to deserve being lumped in with the idol big-leaguers. No view of the wardrobe, choreography, or set design. And I’m a Bowie disciple so you don’t have to worry about my pulse on theatricality, but yeah, this time around I had blinders.
And I don’t know how much it matters that I instantly dug “The End of the World with You” with its discordant “Kashmir”-like changes and anime-singalong choruses. Or that I was immediately floored by “Blue Monday,” largely because I’m easy to impress with orchestral treatments spiked with doom-laden electronics. I honestly don’t know, because after learning certain things after the fact, I feel this is one of those secret-handshake things I’m just not privy to. It is clear beyond a reasonable hunch, however, that idol music is accepting and celebratory in ways that Western indie could never ever be. It is devoid of misanthropy, and all the hairsplitting goes on before the band even hits any stage or studio. The music in Pink exists, ultimately, as mercenary artifact; not as cold product or soulless commodity, but as small devotions anchored on form, tradition, and discipline. It’s scholarly and weird and obsessive, and to a guy like me, that’s like porn.
I will never appreciate it the way its true devotees do, which is why I resolved to just tread these grounds they hallow with a sympathetic, copycat reverence. And with that comes a realization: idol music’s respect for what pundits would condescendingly relegate to “incidentals”—the character of the mix, the precise modulation tones, the dialed-just-right echo—is a triumphant dance of science and art. That much is true in Pink, certainly, especially in numbers like “Meteor” and “Everything About My Precious You,” whose clinical production doesn’t overwrite their capacity to be heady auditory trips. That RAY and similar bands even exist, operating not just within idol confines but within shoegaze confines as well, is pretty extraordinary. It is, in some ways, like the textbook definition of a paradox, chiefly because shoegaze doesn’t lend itself well to bombast and spectacle.
I will never appreciate it the way its true devotees do, which is why I resolved to just tread these grounds
they hallow with a sympathetic, copycat reverence. And with that comes a realization: idol music’s respect
for what pundits would condescendingly relegate to “incidentals”—the character of the mix, the precise
modulation tones, the dialed-just-right echo—is a triumphant dance of science and art.
A fellow writer sent me one of RAY’s live performance videos over chat, and naturally it had choreographed routines and they were all decked to the nines like absolute dolls. But you know what? I didn’t have the patience to sit through it. And maybe I’m rockist that way—and believe me, I’m ashamed to admit to that, and “Aldus, you’re missing the point,” and I know it—but perhaps that means composition and arrangement can and will suffice. The pull of RAY’s debut, I’d wager a guess, isn’t that it is big in irony, but that it is ironclad in its musical convictions.