[ reviews - album ]
Girls' Generation, "Girls' Generation" [ 09/02, 2011 ]
A common comparison to Girls' Generation is AKB48, since the two groups present such starkly contrasting images of femininity, as well as radically opposed musical styles, and some of Girls' Generation's popularity in Japan must surely be down to the fact that they provide a convenient stick with which Yasushi Akimoto's critics can beat him and his mass idol venture.
On the other hand, while Girls' Generation provide some answers to what is so horribly wrong with AKB48's music, the reverse is not true. As far as Girls' Generation's music is concerned, a more useful comparison is probably Perfume, probably the only properly modern sounding idol group in Japan, and one with whom Girls' Generation share an electro influenced sound.
Perfume are in many ways a more precariously balanced product, with producer Yasutaka Nakata's constant pursuit of contemporary sounds often putting him in opposition to the Japanese pop industry's inherent conservatism. On the other hand, the sound on "Girls' Generation" is a thoroughly international one that is the result of constant cross-fertilisation of ideas between numerous countries, genres and scenes over many years. Perhaps because of this, it's a thoroughly modern-sounding and energetic album, yet also a curiously characterless one.
While Perfume remain the work of a single writer and producer, Girls Generation employ numerous overseas songwriters, and the result is that while Perfume's music is instantly recognisable and has a certain conceptual purity to it, Girls Generation often have so many ideas battling it out for space that it's hard to pin down exactly where this album is shooting from.
Compared to the mainstream of current Japanese pop, however, it's certainly a striking musical statement. "Girls' Generation" inhabits a tradition of pop music that could perhaps loosely be classified as Euro-R&B -- a sound particularly associated with Scandinavian producers like Max Martin, that fused American R&B with European electro and defined the early sound of artists like 'N Sync and Britney Spears. It's a constantly evolving sound though, and throughout the album, the songwriters and producers mine ideas from more cutting-edge artists in the electro and minimal techno scenes and appropriate them for themselves, fusing them with pop melodies that would have sounded at home in the hands of almost any singer from the last twenty-five years, from Madonna to Avril Lavigne.
"The Great Escape" kicks off with a thrillingly dirty, scratchy piece of electro synth-abuse, which the song goes on to use as the base for what might otherwise have been a fairly standard slice of clubland R&B. "You-aholic" does something similar, although it does a better job of integrating its pop and electro strands.
Elsewhere, "Run Devil Run" and "Beautiful Stranger" deploy the schaffel beat (listen carefully, that sound you hear is a thousand Japanese record company executives having heart attacks at hearing the schaffel beat at the top of the Oricon charts). The former deploys it more effectively, with the swing on the off-beat more robotic and mechanical than rock, although neither song neglects to include a genuinely catchy chorus, and the mixing on both is sensitive to the notion of multiple vocalists in a way that AKB48 with their mass shouting or even Perfume with their glacial, auto-tuned Hatsune Miku-isms rarely are.
Critics of the group who would like to label their music as being somehow "un-Japanese" and something that will never fly in this country (generally these people seem to be foreign J-Pop fans who can't help orientalising Japanese music) are missing the point. The sound of "J-Pop" today is more the result of conservative music industry practices than public taste. Opening track "Mr. Taxi" is a case in point. An aggressively catchy bubblegum electro-glam stomp, it might seem a risky choice for the group's first exclusively Japanese language single, but it's one that paid off in the charts, and suggests that Japanese pop audiences are more musically open-minded than the entertainment industry thinks they are.
Sometimes the need to differentiate the nine members of the group creates awkward sounding moments, and the occasional American-accented growls, moans and purrs with which members of the group embellish some of the Japanese phrases can sound a little incongruous, but as with the deliberately exaggerated katakana way Perfume enunciate English words (the word "di-su-ko" is rapidly becoming the trio's calling card), it's perhaps excusible as a function of the music's style.
There's a brutal efficiency to the album, with the twelve songs coming in at just over 40 minutes, averaging about 3:30 each (the correct length for a pop song -- in fact no pop sing should ever exceed 3:45 as an extreme outlier), and each with its own infectiously catchy chorus, often involving the same word repeated three or four times just to ensure that it sticks in your head like a tumour for weeks afterwards. It's also a thoroughly filler-free album, where pretty much all the songs would work as singles. That said, the constantly evolving nature of the musical world in which "Girls' Generation" is positioned means that it will likely date badly and quickly, with the excellent "Gee", a song one can just as easily imagine being performed by Pink Lady over thirty years ago, perhaps the only track that will age gracefully.
A listener immersed in modern Western music would likely recognise the quality of the songwriting craftsmanship but would probably not find "Girls' Generation" to be a particularly revolutionary work, and compared to someone like Lady Gaga they come across as positively tame, but look around the rest of the Oricon charts and it's clear that they offer something very different here in Japan.
It's worth remembering that Japanese pop has only really sounded the way it does now for the past ten or fifteen years. The early 1990s were a period of great creativity with bands like Judy And Mary, producers like Tetsuya Komuro and Takeshi Kobayashi, and insurgents like the Shibuya-kei generation causing a series of revolutions that killed off the moribund late-80s kayoukyoku scene, and similar revolutions typically occurred at roughly ten year intervals before that. In this context, the popularity of a group like Girls' Generation should be a sign that Japanese pop is in need of a similar revolution right now, and it will be interesting to see if it gets one. Ian Martin 2.September.2011