[Something] in Words
371 · 7 March 02
JUDY AND MARY: FRESH
If anybody is spying on me, they will have been perplexed to note that I am now getting up earlier on Saturdays than I do any other day of the week. If they have followed me (which I think would be difficult for a single operative to do undetected, but easy for a pair with cell phones), they will have discovered the reason: I have begun learning Japanese, and my class meets Saturday mornings. There is an apartment building across the street from the classroom, they could set up surveillance there. Or, if they were really curious, they could devise a disguise of some sort, and enroll in the class under the pretense of being a fellow student. Actually, disguise and pretense would be fairly superfluous, since they could hardly look any more incongruous than I do if they were dressed as leprotic harlequins. Going around the room, here is what they would see: Japanese, Chinese, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Korean, Korean. And me, the pasty half-Scotch-Irish/half-Sicilian. Admittedly, this is the only Japanese class I have any experience with, so for all I know the school cancels Japanese sessions in petulant frustration unless at least .5 Sicilians show up. But I doubt it.
So far I have had two classes, which means that I now know almost as much Japanese as a basset hound with a Cowboy Bebop concordance. I can recognize about four words in a hundred in spoken Japanese, as long as they are "I", "tomorrow" and "Ayumi Hamasaki". I can count to nineteen in less than a minute. I can read and write half the symbols in one of the two phonetic alphabets, which is approximately equivalent, in English, to being able to painstakingly spell out "Gabe fed a bad cab", and then read it back accurately as long as nobody has italicized it by accident. I have yet to comprehend a coherent Japanese sentiment outside the confines of the classroom, and if "working vocabulary" is defined as words I have myself employed for their sanctioned purposes, I am up to at most two, having said what I believe to be "thank you" (polite form) to a sushi chef once.
But I am really enjoying it. I hoped to, obviously, since I'm doing this at nobody's behest but my own, but it's been twelve years since I took a course of any kind, and sixteen since the last language, so I was more than a little apprehensive. It sounds admirably cosmopolitan to say that this is my sixth language, but that's 1) English, 2) enough Spanish to ask Isabelle how her aunt is feeling and get excited about corner kicks, 3) enough French to say "I love you, your automobile" and mistake "roast" for "eel", 4) enough German to complain that the television is broken, and 5) so little Swedish that it might be fair to say it is a language in which I can now only lie. I would not say that I particularly enjoyed learning any of these. At the time I would have attributed this to a temperamental aversion to memorization, but I now have the better theory that I merely didn't have anything to do with them. In Swedish we read Pippi Langstrumpf, which is exactly what you think it is. I attempted to read L'Étranger in French, and Also Sprach Zarathustra in German, but both were well beyond me. Besides, not only were translations of those things readily available, but I'd already read them. I did not, at any time, harbor a nagging suspicion that the French, Germans, Spaniards or Swedes were deliberately hiding anything incredibly cool from me. Moreover, since their cultures didn't seem qualitatively different from ours, and learning their languages felt a lot like learning another English in which, for no especially compelling reason, all the words had been subtly fiddled with, it was hard for me to imagine that I ever would think of something I wanted to do for which knowing how to speak in any of these funny ways would be necessary or sufficient.
I refer to this as a good theory because at least it hints at some possible reasons why I'm enjoying Japanese so much more. Japanese is different. In six hours of classroom exposure we've already hit three fundamental grammatical constructs that don't have direct English translations, learned enough about (if not of) the writing system to have the genuinely profound realization that written Japanese is not a transcription of spoken Japanese, and begun to grasp exactly how much more foolish we're going to seem, if we try to go to Japan and talk, than any Japanese tourist in America ever will struggling with "parallel". I feel like this is the first time I've learned a foreign language in which the word "foreign" is meaningful. There's some reason to hope that I will learn new things to say, not just new ways to say the same things. But then again, it may only be that this is the first time I've studied a language because I wanted to. I took Spanish because I had no choice, French and German because it was that or more Spanish, and Swedish because at least it meant I didn't have to remember any French or German. Even French suddenly got a lot more interesting when I finally visited a French-speaking country and realized you could use it to buy waffles and chocolate. But that was coincidence, not purpose. I'm taking Japanese for a reason. Not a very sophisticated or noble reason, mind you: I want to understand the lyrics of Japanese pop songs. The seven Asians in my Japanese class laughed when I said this, but when the instructor asked me which ones I had in mind, and I started listing them, everybody stopped laughing. I like to think that they were impressed by my knowledge and commitment, although more-likely explanations would include "What the hell is he talking about?", "Is he making those names up?" and "I really do not want to know why a shaven-headed thirty-four-year-old half-Scotch-Irish/half-Sicilian from Boston [and it's lucky they don't know I'm actually a Texan] cares exactly what some cute twenty-two-year-old Japanese pop starlets are singing about." But they have their reasons, and I have mine, and if they're enough to get us out of bed at eight o'clock on cold Saturday mornings, they will do.
And so, although it was not all that many weeks ago that I wrote "I've never formed a significant bond with a band that doesn't sing in English at least half the time", that is clearly no longer true. Garnet Crow, Every Little Thing and Nanase Aikawa are now right there on my buy-anything list with Manic Street Preachers and Aimee Mann and Slayer. Giving up on Fanatic Crisis and My Little Lover feels exactly like conceding that I'm never quite going to get in sync with matt pond PA or the last Travis album. None of these Japanese bands sing in English anywhere near half the time, and often even when they are singing bits in English I don't realize it until I check the printed lyrics. And yet, my experiences of them feel identical in character to my experiences of any English-speaking band whose lyrics are not the primary factor in my attachment. Maybe it's only a temporal anomaly that I'm liking Japanese pop in advance of understanding it, or possibly it was never true that I didn't form bonds with bands because they didn't sing in English, it was just that those were the wrong bands.
Frighteningly, from the point of view of my already tenuous capacity to keep up with my own obsessions, I am beginning to assemble an alarmingly long list of the right bands. Many of them are surprising in one way or another, but a few are not. JUDY AND MARY (and one day I will figure out the rationale behind J-pop capitalization) may be the most glaring example of a band I could have fallen for years ago if they'd been making records in America. I don't know if they realize that their name sounds like a folk duo to us, but in fact they are (or were; they've recently broken up) a quartet, with a female singer/lyricist, a male guitarist/primary-songwriter and two male rhythm players. FRESH is a best-of from 2000, covering songs from what I believe are their first five albums, going back to 1994. It would be reasonable to guess, from the stop-motion milk-drop splatter on the cover, that they are a meditative techno band, but the CD-tray photo of a bored-looking white mare with a peace tattoo on her hip stoically getting screwed by a huge dappled-grey stallion is far more indicative. Especially on the earliest material, JUDY AND MARY are cheerfully bratty pop punks. "POWER OF LOVE" is all snarly guitars and snapping drums under Yuki's waifish yelp. "BLUE TEARS" teeters teasingly on the verge of plummeting out of tune, and "DAYDREAM" sounds something like the Buzzcocks doing "Lola". The strutting "Hello! Orange Sunshine" (titles notwithstanding, incidentally, none of these has more than four words of English) could be Adam and the Ants simultaneously discovering bubblegum jazz and rockabilly scat. "RADIO" starts betraying some musical maturity and ambition (though maybe not in that order), and by "Fusana [something] kara" (maybe) Yuki has noticed and backs off her deliberate childishness a little. The glorious track seven (title all in kanji, so I can't tell you anything about it yet), is edging into big, sunny pop like the Housemartins going from "Get Up Off Our Knees" to "The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death", and by "Over Drive" jangle is starting to displace snarl in earnest. "Kyoto", the first one in this sequence with prominent keyboards, chimes and sways and sputters like the goodbye-song at the end of Bandits. "Dokidoki" (katakana, but I cheated and looked ahead) is effusive and urgent, and "Sobakasu" ("rented grandmother"? translation is a good deal harder than knowing what syllables the symbols represent) conjures some old girl-group poise, fractured with a few blasts of manic guitar squall. "Warashitsuwa" (is my dictionary supposed to have these words?) is dense and grand, but tracks thirteen and fourteen break down almost entirely into components, choppy guitar and burbling bass glaring at each other from opposite corners. Fifteen is a cartoonish novelty-song, careening from noodly "do-be-do-bop-bop" vamping to caterwauling punk rants to some strange swirly interludes. "LOVER SOUL" slows down a little, but "Brand New Wave Upper Ground", the finale, is a minor tour de force, marrying noise-guitar, complicated progressions and showy bass sprints to a startlingly adept vocal from Yuki.
What does it mean? It means something in words, I'm sure, and one day I hope to be able to tell you what, but there are fine stories here that you don't need even two weeks of Japanese to follow. Reduced to this partial career summary, JUDY AND MARY's history traces the same quintessential punk-to-pop developmental arc as the Buzzcocks and the Undertones and the Jam, or later the Wonder Stuff and later still bis, a band born of enthusiasm evolving into a band that, to their own surprise as much as anybody's, has learned how to do all the things they expected to have to do without. As I plunge happily into a new world where I am suddenly a full adult awareness trapped in the functional capacity of a two-year-old with a speech defect, it feels entirely appropriate for part of my soundtrack to be an object lesson in how it is in our limitations' natures to obviate themselves.
Kyoko Fukada: Moon
I said I'm taking Japanese to find out what these people are singing, but Kyoko Fukada is the specific reason I took the decisive step of signing up for the class. I bought a bunch of random J-pop compilations off of eBay a while back, and although most of the songs I liked had English titles and/or romanized artist-names, so I could deduce their sources, one of the ones I liked best did not. I tried gamely to decipher the symbols using whatever reference pages I could find on the web, but made no headway at all, and resorted to taking a picture of the track listing with my digital camera and posting it begging for help. Someone from what is now my favorite Japanese mail-order source, correctly intuiting that it would be worth their while to help me find things to order from them, helpfully converted the gibberish to "Hukada Kyouko" for me, and although that wasn't right, it was close enough for me to figure out what was wrong. But the helplessness was unacceptable. If I was going to like this stuff, I was going to have to at least learn how to match up the labels by myself.
And if we're going to be suspicious about my apparent disproportionate fondness for disconcertingly young female singers, Kyoko Fukada would be a fine subject with which to begin ominous inquiries. On record she could easily be older than Björk, to pick only one obvious example of how bad I am at judging women's ages from their voices, but in the booklet pictures she looks like she could be a teenager with quite a few teen years still to go, and between her doll-like make-up and the succession of tops in which she is photographed, I have an uncomfortable sense that if she was a friend's daughter I'd be trying to convince him that this is creepy, and she should be spared a "career" until she's legally old enough to decide to embark on it on her own.
But if I'm no good at guessing ages from voices, I may be no better at guessing it from photographs, particularly posed ones. And I've heard my share of albums made by young performers desperately out of their depth, and this isn't what they sound like. I can't really understand the credits with any confidence, but I don't see Kyoko's name in what seem to be the writing and performing lists, so it's very possible that this is studio-manufactured music over which she is only asked to sing. But at this point I still don't know enough studio-manufactured J-pop to recognize anonymity when I hear it, so I'm free to assume the best and enjoy this.
The song I was looking for is the first one on the album. I still don't know what it's called, but it's magnificent ultra-produced pop, somewhere between Nanase Aikawa and Puffy, or between a less-cynical Garbage and a much grittier Britney. Gated-noise crackle, a crisp, simple kick/snare groove and a pulsing bass hum along under raw guitars, squawking solos, dramatic synth-string sweeps and bubbly tube-warming-up whooshes, and Kyoko sails gracefully over it all. The verses of track two slip back into twitchy pop, but the choruses crash and roar again. Track three switches into full trance-techno mode, instrumentally, all pulse-kicks, flanged synth twitters and echoey piano pings, but the delicate, effortless chorus melodies are Roxette-grade, and the structure is pop-song succinct rather than dance-floor distended. "Into the Light" is a sumptuous ballad, double-bass, acoustic guitar and cello grounding the Enya-esque banks of synth-strings and timpani. "[Something] no [Something]", track five, reminds me very pleasantly of my favorite Garnet Crow songs, shreds of late-Nineties aggression woven into early-Eighties synth-pop composure. "prayer" threatens to wander off towards over-engineered r&b flutter, but an unequivocally pop chorus-melody arrives in time to keep it on course. Track seven might be the nine-tenths-forgotten real-song blueprint for what would later become Britney's "Stronger". Track eight's post-ABBA Wagner-as-house-music thump would be prefab and ill-advised on any continent, but track nine's disco swoon would fit right in on a pan-cultural remake of The Last Days of Disco, and I wish I liked Kylie Minogue's last two albums worth of attempts at this anywhere near as much. Ten is a wistful prom slow-dance interrupted periodically by alien-radio static. Eleven resorts to another painfully mundane techno-ABBA backing track, complete with diva-esque guest-vocal fragments, but Kyoko's own vocal part is serenely unexaggerated, a few Ayu-ish helium chirps even sneaking in, and for me that just salvages the song.
And if I don't know enough to really judge this album's uniqueness within its own context, then so what? One of the great virtues of discovering a foreign culture is that for a while, at least, everything about it is novel. I'm sure I'll outgrow many of these albums, and Moon may or may not be one. But I am in no hurry to learn how to be harder to delight.
tohko: tohko BEST ALBUM 10+5
My list of totemic musical moments in movies is fairly short, and I've gone through it before: "Catch Me" at the end of Bandits, Renée Zellweger on the roof at the end of Empire Records, Meryl Streep singing "Amazing Grace" in Silkwood, the a cappella version of "God Give Me Strength" in Grace of My Heart, the karaoke version of "The Bluest Eyes in Texas" in Boys Don't Cry, Alyssa's song in Chasing Amy. Except for "Catch Me", those are all of a single type, deliberately and disarmingly human anti-performances of their underlying songs. My sixth one is the blue-diva aria in The Fifth Element, which is of a completely different sort and significance. It's on the list less because the actual song is that archetypal than because the setup for the song ought to be archetypal. The performer is at once alien and recognizably female, the arrangement is at once atmospherically operatic and dance-pop synthetic. The range of human creativity is such that somebody should be able to make me feel like I'm watching that scene and hearing the right music, which to me the music in the movie isn't. My past candidates have been Happy Rhodes' "Roy (Back From the Offworld)" and scattered moments from Angelica and Nightwish songs. There are few more extremely-plausible moments on this collection from last year by another all-too-young-looking Japanese singer: the twists as she glides in and out of the choruses of "take a breath"; her voice stepping far up over the music in the pattering "LOOP [Something]"; the wordless sighs and drawn out final syllables over the sputtering beats of "Fuwafuwa Fururu" (and please tell me those are nonsense words in any language); the careful acceleration in "HEARTS". The whole songs still aren't what I want, but tohko definitely has the voice. Sadly, for me the rest of the album ranges from syrupy to, when it gets to a couple remixes at the end, soulless and dreadful, but I probably wouldn't have liked the rest of that blue woman's best-of, either.
Hitomi Yaida: Candlize
My J-pop investigations have been so heavily dominated by slick techno-pop and closely-allied rock variants that it took me several perplexing listens to realize why I was having trouble fitting Hitomi Yaida into my sketchy taxonomy: she's a better artist. Well, no, "better" is glib; she's a more ambitious and independent artist. She writes her music and lyrics herself, and although at their most engaging these songs are no less pop than Puffy's or Kyoko Fukada's, they pursue a much wider range of impulses. "Kiyandoru" (I think) opens with eerie piano rustle before easing into mid-tempo pop that only comes unglued at the ends of the choruses. The verses of "Buzzstyle" are spare and nervous, but the choruses are fast and pealing. "Look Back Again" is careening and anthemic, but "Not Still Over" sounds bizarrely like Jennifer Lopez leading a New Orleans jazz funeral. "Over the Distance" is basically a piano-ballad, but the melody retains Asian influences where many other Japanese singers would have opted to smooth them over and go for a more Westernized, Celine Dion-esque delivery. "I'm Here Saying Nothing" turns half-Latin again, but the strident choruses creep over towards Kristeen Young. Track seven has a grand, stomping chorus, but oblique, ticking verses; eight sounds to me a lot like a new Go-Go's song in which we discover that Belinda Carlisle and Gina Schock, in particular, have been seriously holding out on us; nine ("[Something] to [Something]") is busy and surging. Watery synths splash against the edges of the Alanis-via-Vitamin-C-ish "Life's Like a Love Song". Only "Maze", the final song, feels like a letdown to me, sentimental piano and bloopy percussion, deadpan exit music where I expect one more twist. In Alanis terms, Candlize is somewhere on the way from Jagged Little Pill to Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, somewhere in the process of disentangling cultural memes from personal mantras. I'm less viscerally thrilled by it, because I like it in more-familiar ways, but the converse is that I'm also more confident in my reaction. I can imagine looking back, a year from now, and being amazed that I ever thought Kyoko Fukada, of all the J-pop footnotes in the world, was a striking talent. (Although I can just as easily imagine looking back and being amazed that I lucked across her so early in the process.) Candlize, on the other hand, I bet I will keep liking in exactly the same way, indefinitely. It's Japanese, and so inevitably part of my J-pop understanding, but it also belongs to the world of Paula Cole, Tasmin Archer, Chantal Kreviazuk, Julia Darling and Emm Gryner. Yaiko is part Ayu, part Alanis to me, and although everything on Ayu's side of that divide is still so new and intriguing that finding bridges between the two is weirdly disappointing, I also know that the newness is ephemeral, and that none of the interesting tests of what learning Japanese is going to mean to me have happened in the first two classes. I've got eighteen hiragana symbols to learn for Saturday, eight more stragglers for the week after that, a whole parallel katakana orthography to follow, and then the yawning chasm of kanji to confront starting in the next term. But that's the easy part. Learning a new language may be a good exercise, but it's also a form of procrastination. At some point, you will start knowing it. And then you will again have to confront the oldest question (and maybe the ability to pose this question is what makes a language): all those words, and all this air; so what are you going to say?