Souls and Doorbells
377 · 18 April 02
At the little language school where I'm learning Japanese, each session runs only eight weeks. I have just finished Japanese 1, and there's a week off before Japanese 2. You can learn some things in eight three-hour classes and a little bit of homework, but not a lot of things. My goal is to learn enough that I can follow the lyrics of Japanese pop songs. It's going to take a few more sessions. At this point I can read and write the letters of both phonetic alphabets, count to about a million, tell you when my birthday is, describe very simple spatial relationships, and relate incredibly basic details of my personal activities. I can exhort a collection of us to go out, I can ask for pardon, and I can denigrate my own fluency. I can ask you where the post office is, and if you say, very slowly and clearly, that it's in front of the flower store, it is possible that I will understand what you mean. Unless there is a vein of Japanese pop songs obsessively concerned with the locations of post offices relative to flower stores, however, my repertoires of grammar and vocabulary are not yet up to the challenge of real lyrics, at least not at any semantically useful length. But I am making progress. I can't follow the sense of sentences, but I can now recognize some of the parts of speech. "From now on, your something and my something somethings", I can provisionally discern. We don't get to any kanji until Japanese 2, which means I still can't really read anything, but I do have a kanji dictionary, and after some practice I can now usually track down a kanji character in it a) with confidence that I'm right once I find it, and b) in less than ten minutes. Rough translations of song titles are now sometimes within my grasp. And walking home after class number four, I actually understood my first whole (albeit short) line of a song just from hearing it.
I've yet to understand a second one, so I can't feel too triumphant, but it was a profound moment nonetheless. I wasn't even listening to the song at the time. I had some other J-pop album in my discman, but somebody had just asked me for directions, so I'd paused it. Turning into the Public Gardens, not yet having put my earphones back in, I was running some of the day's classwork through my head, and one of the useful words we'd just hit in a textbook dialog was "kudasai", a verb meaning something like "please give me". As I muttered it to myself it dawned on me that I'd heard it in a song, and one that I'd liked well enough that strings of its syllables had stuck in my head even divorced from meaning. "Aye woe coo dah sah ee", this bit went. Something kudasai: please give me something. And then, with a jolt, I realized that I could actually translate the rest, too. "Ai" is love. We hadn't formally covered that in class (I think we do gradations of interpersonal romance in Japanese 4), but I'd come across it during one of my early attempts to reverse-engineer the kanji for Nanase Aikawa's surname (which involves a completely different "ai", it turns out). And "wo", although we've been taught to pronounce it simply "o", is an object marker, which is sort of like a little bit of the diagram of an English sentence creeping into the spoken structure of it, labeling the object of a transitive verb. "Ai o kudasai", then, would be "Please give me love", which fit the mood of the music quite nicely. When I got home I tracked down the song, got the booklet out, and painstakingly verified that the two kanji characters in the printed line were, in fact, "ai" and "kuda", to go along with the easy hiragana for "o" and "sai". I was right.
The song is called "Zoo", by a group called "Echoes", and what other supporting material fills out the rest of his entreaty, I can't report. The subject of truth comes up, as does shopping, and there's something in the middle he either dislikes or thinks is pretty (I'm still having trouble with kirai and kirei). But I see that one of the lines in the lyrics has quotes around it, so maybe she's the one who dislikes something (or thinks its pretty). There are some English bits, as well, but the key one, "Stop, stop, stop, staying", sheds little light. Since I'd already become fond of the song when it was total nonsense to me, though, the rest of the translation can certainly wait. The compilation I have is recent, but "Zoo" is from way back in 1988, although it appears to have been resuscitated recently to be the theme song for a Japanese TV show. Some of the other Echoes songs remind me pleasantly of Big Country, and the "Stop staying" in this one invokes, maybe intentionally, the Pretenders' "Stop sobbing", but otherwise this is a perfect late-Eighties semi-power ballad. Stern acoustic guitars and pensive tambourine rustles are eventually joined by striding piano, fond electric guitars, an unhurried drum beat and some rueful harmonica. An English version would have had Eddie Money or Bryan Adams or somebody, and overplayed the emotion. Echoes singer Jinsei Tsuji opts for a less histrionic tone, and thus one that sounds a little more like a man trying to tell a woman something, rather than a man trying to sweep up a football stadium of people in the thus-dubious fervor of his love.
Takashi Sorimachi: "POISON"
I can't follow a damn thing in Takashi Sorimachi's ringingly affirmational "POISON", another song with a TV tie-in, and I'm surprised to discover that it isn't of Eighties vintage as well. All discarded idioms, I've often maintained, are alive and well somewhere in the world, and "POISON" is a refugee from that dream America in which Jon Bon Jovi, Peter Gabriel and Rick Springfield share a beach house in Santa Monica, and on the weekends record sturdy, technically-sophisticated pop songs with no significant agenda other than making people feel good. I assume, from the title, that there's something dark lurking in this one, but there is so little acrimony in the offhand way Takashi delivers the word "poison", as if he's just hit the wrong elevator button but is still ten minutes early for an appointment on the right floor, that I'm left imagining it's some oblique term of endearment. Guitars spark and flare, drums sputter and crash and bound. A "movie mix", elsewhere on his greatest-hits album, wanders off into saccharine strings and a distracted fade-out, but this one clomps along cheerfully right to the end, pile-driving its riff like Butch Vig has gotten ahold of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark".
Glay: "Global Communication"/"One Love"
If I ever feel bad about my Japanese incompetence, I need only remember Glay. Not only is their name unmistakably English despite having no meaning (romanized Japanese uses "r" for the hybrid "l"/"r" sound, and there would be no "gl-" sound in Japanese even if there was a "l-"), but their song titles are frequently in unsteady English ("Way of Difference", "ALL STANDARD IS YOU", "mister popcorn", "THINK ABOUT MY DAUGHTER"), and it is only when I look at the printed lyrics that I have any idea that most of "Global Communication" is nominally being sung in English. One Love, from which it's from, is Glay's sixth album since 1995, but they too sound like a band left over from what was, for the English-speaking world, the Eighties, that simultaneously less and more self-conscious era when even the Blink 142s and Sum 41s would have had a keyboard player and matching outfits and songs that were easier to dance to. Glay are as exuberant as REM are somber, and as un-self-important as U2 are overbearing. The guitarists are probably metal fans, but the band as a unit doesn't harbor any delusions of menace. "One Love", the album's atmospheric instrumental coda, combines Enya-esque calm with little scratchy turntable noises, sonar-ping piano hooks, a short spoken text seemingly delivered by an adolescent robot, and a comically gruff bass-line borrowed from some fluttery boy-band lullaby.
Siam Shade: "Bronco"
Katakana is a particularly amusing game. Katakana and hiragana are the two phonetic alphabets, and they both represent the same set of sounds with the same number of characters, but hiragana is for native Japanese words and katakana is (mostly) for words imported from other languages, similar to the way we're taught to italicize foreign words, except imagine that italics were so different from regular letters that you had to learn them separately. The most common source for imported words in modern Japanese is, of course, English, but katakana represent Japanese syllables, not English ones, so once you know what the katakana characters represent, deciphering the words is a matter of reading them aloud in a cartoon Japanese accent and then trying to back the accent out so you're left with the original English sounds. The katakana title of this song expands phonetically as the four-syllable construction "boo rah un coh", the first three of which we collapse in English to the single syllable "bron". The more adjacent consonants the English word has, the more extra syllables you get in the Japanese version. In katakana, "spring" is a five-syllable word.
Siam Shade are another veteran J-rock band, the b-sides collection Siam Shade VIII (which contains "Bronco") being, obviously (roman numerals work the same way in Japanese as English...), their eighth album. They occupy the same general stylistic range as Glay, but shade a little further toward punk, and spend a bit more energy maintaining an aggressive facade (the cover of Siam Shade VII featured an x-ray photograph of a suitcase with a bomb inside, which now no longer seems like such a clever idea; the cover of VIII settles for a woman sticking out her tongue with a razor blade sitting on it). "Bronco" has a chugging, syncopation-laced, progressive-metal-ish rhythm and corresponding upper-register guitar flourishes, but it also has plenty of shiny keyboard noises and tinkly faux-harpsichord runs, and moves at a 3:33 pop-song skip, not a Dream Theater-ish 11:45 marathon lope. The vocalist (whose name is in kanji and I'm not going to try to translate it) sings in a straightforward rock timbre, though, not a metal shriek, and the combination is heroic arena-pop somewhere between Ozzy Osbourne and a-ha.
e.mu: "Message"/"love around"
I give e.mu credit for attempting some English wordplay for the title of their 2000 debut, Force of Fifth, falling short only by virtue of neglecting to choose a phrase with a first meaning. In Japan, apparently, young men with attitudes still wear PVC jackets and eye-liner, and still form thrashy four-piece punk bands. But they dream of being movie stars and subway-poster idols, too, and they haven't quite got the hang of nonchalance or anti-elitism, and so e.mu set out to be the Ramones and end up more like the Undertones formed by the guys from Orgy. "Message" is busy and pealing, with the insistence of Pearl Jam, the extravagance of Guns N' Roses and the impatience of the Housemartins. "love around" is more squalling, edging over into blues caricature, but resolves into a glorious pop chorus worthy of the Goo Goo Dolls. My copy of the album came with a laminated souvenir backstage pass with a glamour shot of the drummer on it, and the clear implication that I ought to try to collect the other three. If this is really what Japanese teenage girls listen to, though, then I probably don't want to try to compete with them.
Do As Infinity: "SUMMER DAYS"/"Toku Made"
Besides, if I were (and I stress that this is purely hypothetical) going to become obsessively devoted to any Japanese singers, they would more likely be female. I'm aware that my reactions to music, in English, are influenced (if hardly determined) by the singer's gender, but the effect seems to be an order of magnitude more dramatic in Japanese. I have a bunch of theories about why, but they all smack of snap-judgement psychology, which doesn't necessarily make them wrong but makes me want them to be wrong. Do I interpret unintelligible male voices as threatening, and unintelligible female voices as alluring? No, I hardly feel threatened by the J-pop bands I like with male singers, and "alluring" is a gender-biased term anyway. Do I associate pretty Japanese voices with attractive Japanese women? Sure, probably, but I associate pretty American voices with attractive American women, too. A woman with an appealing singing voice is attractive to me for that reason alone, I don't think ethnicity really enters into it. I suspect there's a real explanation, though, and that it's rooted far deeper in Japanese culture than my very limited experience has taken me. It is a society with intricately contrived gender expectations, and I suspect that they result in overtly feminine performing art (even when some of the players are male) having a pervasively different character from overtly male performing art. It means something different to be a girl who gets up in front of a crowd, in Japan, than it does to be a boy, and the difference is manifest in the music, subtly enough that I can't explicate it without a lot more study, but unmistakably enough that I can sense it after very little.
Another confounding factor, of course, is that I'm mail-ordering all this stuff from Japan, in most cases based on a short sound clip or a stray allusion or some similarly tenuous link, and usually that means that I don't have any idea what these people look like until the CDs arrive and I see the liner art. But that's logistical, and I will admit that I have, at least twice in my life, purchased a compact disc solely because I thought the woman on the cover was pretty. I don't condone this behavior, as it's superficial and objectifying (although anybody who allows an attractive picture of themselves to appear on the cover of a mass-produced CD is cooperating in the objectifying enough that I'm no longer completely sure what my role is). And remember that I have ten times as many CDs as you, so me buying two based on lust is, statistically, like you picking one up, leering at it for seven seconds, and then politely putting it down again. But if Cambridge record stores were fully stocked with J-pop albums, and I got to buy them by flipping through bins of them, the way all right-thinking people decide what music to consume, I would have bought Do As Infinity's best-of, Do the Best, on sight. The picture on the front cover is small, the two band members slumped at the bottom of it leaning against a wall. Tomiko Van, the singer, is wearing a denim jacket over a pink T-shirt, with her sunglasses on top of her head and her hair in no particular deployment. She is looking at the camera with an uncommunicative expression on her face. It's hard to believe there is enough of her evident, in physical or emotional terms, for it to be lust that I'm feeling, but whatever it is, it's riveting. I've done some more web research, of course, now that I know her name, and she's a part-time model as well as a singer, so there is no shortage of pictures. But the others don't have the same effect. It appears to be this particular picture I'm drawn to, not the actual person in it. Somehow the girl in it looks like someone I want to talk to, someone I want to find out about, someone I want to understand. But if the other photographs of Tomiko Van suggest that she isn't the girl I'm seeing in this picture, then maybe that girl is in these songs somewhere.
But if my dream girl is hiding in Do As Infinity songs, I don't know what she's trying to tell me. When I get the booklet out to see if I can make any sense of the Japanese surrounding the scattered English phrases in "SUMMER DAYS", I'm appalled to discover that the song is entirely in English, and I like it less for a while until it starts sounding foreign to me again. "Toku Made" ("so far away", the chorus helpfully translates, although I had to translate it myself to realize that) actually seems to hover closer to coherence for me, something about Tomiko's encouraging delivery momentarily convincing me that if I play it one more time (or one more after that) that fish will finally get seated properly in my ear. I'm also mystified by the presence of something that sounds exactly like "komo levy", even though the printed lyrics have no katakana and so shouldn't have any "l" or "v" sounds, but it's extremely hard for me to believe that Van is making a living as a singer in a Japanese pop group with an English name despite being forced to sing both English and Japanese phonetically. "SUMMER DAYS" is a shrieking, manic sprint, with a magnificently out-of-tune bass part constantly on the verge of destroying the whole thing. "Toku Made" is at once grander and more circumspect, pulsing and soaring with a surer sense of control. The former is obviously an early recording from the band's long-ago garage years, the latter a mature composition from their glossy studio period, so I deeply distrust the discography I found that insists one is from their second album and one from their third, released seven months apart in 2001.
Nanase Aikawa: "Koibito ja nakunaru nichi"
The first thing I will translate, when I feel like I'm ready to translate more than a line in a sitting, is the beautiful extra booklet that came with my copy of Nanase Aikawa's EP The Last Quarter. "I wanna be your only one.", it says in English on the cover, and the last page has a picture of Nanase looking across at what I assume is the last stanza of a short poem about love. I don't know what it says in between, nor how, if at all, it relates to the seven songs on the EP. My favorite is the first, "Koibito ja nakunaru nichi", which I have stretched my abilities to render in romanized form for you, and will likely stretch past the breaking point to actually translate. "Koibito" is "lover" (athough not, I think, with quite as sexual a connotation as in English), "nakunaru" is "to die", "nichi" is "day", and the "ja" in the middle has some sort of tense function I don't understand, so the whole thing might mean "the day my lover dies", or "the day my lover died", or maybe "if my lover should ever die". Conceivably I'm missing a negation, and idiomatically, for all I know, it means "I have misplaced the card-key for my medium-price hotel room". Regardless, the whole EP is a deliberate departure for Nanase, focusing on slow, pretty songs to the exclusion of the sweeping rock anthems that for me anchor her albums. A few of them slow down so far they lose me, but this one strikes what feels to me like exactly the right balance, crunching along indefatigably in the mold of Tom Petty's "Learning to Fly", but with Nanase's swooping voice bearing her version aloft as surely as Tom's drawl grounds his.
Hitomi Yaida: "Ring my bell"
I've now been following J-pop long enough, I'm happy to find, for some of the artists I know to start putting out newer material than what I discovered them with. Yaiko starts the journey towards a third album with this single, which is not a cover of the old disco song. This one, too, has an English section I thought was Japanese from listening: "Your soul ring my doorbell, / Heaven knows that lives and you're beautiful, / Your soul ring my doorbell always". If I'm allowed this much leeway in Japanese, it may not take me as long to reach a conversational level as I'd thought, although if Japanese people think I'm speaking English I'll have a hard time getting them to tell me where the post office is, and even if I write them down, I'm skeptical that my Japanese errors will be as poetic as this. I tried a sentence in the course of testing unicode support at work, and one of our Japanese customers informed me that I'd just said "I ate a letter, then I am the post office", but a) that was a few weeks ago, b) eat/write was a typo, and c) that's far cooler than what I was trying to say.
But "your soul ring my doorbell" is enough to attach a mood to this music, and I won't be too surprised if this song ends up on my 2002 top ten somewhere. It could be a sequel to Astrid's "Boy for You" or Jewel's "Standing Still" as easily as to Puffy's "Love So Pure", a firm mid-tempo rhythm and sweeping guitars complemented by bouzouki and mandolin (two foreign words that translate into Japanese pronunciation without any extra syllables, semi-interestingly). I don't wish to claim that there's no room left for genuinely new sentiments in love songs, but newness certainly isn't an evaluation criteria. Like any present, the artistic content of a love song doesn't have to mean much, it just has to be lovely enough that you'll cherish associating it with the giver, and whomever this is for, now or ever, ought to be ecstatic. These are the duetting sounds of inevitability and an open heart.
Every Little Thing: "Jump"
But Every Little Thing's new one is just as thrilling, frankly, so I have a feeling the list is going to be especially difficult this year. "Jump" and "Ring my bell" are more than a little similar, but ELT's version seems slightly more kinetic to me, leaning forward where "Ring my bell" leans back, and thus also a little less dramatic. Maybe this whole J-pop phase of mine wouldn't have happened if there were American bands writing songs like this, but "Jump", in particular, seems to me to have no exact American analog. We have bands that can combine guitar crunch and girlish vocals, but not ones that can make the shift from guitar crunch to chiming, keyboard-augmented redemption with such fluidity. Imagine Britney fronting Night Ranger, maybe, or a version of Loverboy with the technical ability of Asia backing up Mary Lou Lord. Colleen Fitzpatrick might have been up to it, if she hadn't sold herself. Garbage has the talent, but neither the selflessness nor the presence of mind. Sheryl Crow has the contacts, but not the anima. And the rest of us, we have credit cards and the mail.
Garnet Crow: "Timeless Sleep"
Garnet Crow is so far the only J-pop band for which the combination of my fascination and the catalog's size and availability have led to my acquiring all their singles, which would usually be my pattern with English (particularly English English) bands. They've had four singles since First Soundscope, my favorite of which is this sweet, measured, lilting lullaby, which borrows heavily from Enya's breathy singing and cinematic arrangements, adding warm guitars and traces of GIZA's twitchy, r&b-derived production style. The pizzicato fake-string runs here serve the same function as the synth pings in "Jump" and the Celtic jangle in "Ring my bell", and the three songs go well enough together to make me suspect collusion, if I didn't also have a dozen other examples of 2002 J-pop that don't resemble this at all. But this is how I know I'm starting to relate to J-pop as more than novelty: I'm not only figuring out what I like and what I don't like, but I'm starting to separate what I like from what I really like. I like Fanatic Crisis, My Little Lover and rumania montevideo. I like rina aiuchi, Chihiro Onitsuka and Kyoko Fukada (and it's too bad I don't like Kyoko more, as CD Japan keeps sending me enormous posters of her without my asking). But liking things is a means to liking other things better. Like is "suki", really like is "daisuki". "Daisuki ongaku wa..." is the beginning of a sentence about my favorite music. I don't know any of the right Japanese words for the rest of it yet. Arguably I'm not sure what they are in English, either. The sentences about my favorite music end a hundred different ways, or don't end at all. This thing I've dragged you along on is my (our?) search for the right things to say. I have filled this week off from studying Japanese with Japanese music, and it might seem inefficient of me to search for universal truths in Japanese, or myopic not to search for them in every other language, but when we say that music is a universal language, we are misusing terms. Music is no more inherently universal than anything we make. We are universal. And "universal", in this context, just means humanity-wide, and "humans are humanity-wide" is tautological. When we say that music is universal, what we mean is that we assume -- we stipulate -- that simply by virtue of being human, we share an emotional and existential grammar and vocabulary, and seek to express common truths with it. Those truths are omnipresent, but it's hard to look for something that's everywhere. If we want to find the beliefs we share, better to look where we seem to be different. So we learn other languages, as exotic and nuanced as one with three writing systems spoken on a volcanic island on the other side of the planet, or as prosaic and constrained as what your soulmate means when she first rings your doorbell, because if we are all the same, but don't know how, then surely the clues lurk precisely where we say we're most different. We learn to say things we don't understand, in other people's languages, to find out what we haven't learned to say in the ones we think we know.