The Distance Between Far Away and Unlikely
457 · 30 October 03
Chitose Hajime: Nomad Soul
I have really tried to think of a good reason for the bonus DVD that comes with the limited edition of Chitose Hajime's new album to be region-coded. Actually, that's a little disingenuous. I haven't tried really hard to think of one, because I don't know where to start thinking about it at all. This is a DVD containing nothing but the existing videos for the advance singles "Kono Machi" and "Sen no Yoru to Sen no Hiru", for a total running time of just under ten minutes. Both videos feature Chitose lip-synching in the standard real-speed slow-motion trance used for all female Japanese singers, in one case intercut with some hauntingly lit city scenes, in the other with some similarly lit nature scenes. The "Kono Machi" video, which is sort of the plastic-bag scene from American Beauty recast as a travelogue, builds up some poetic potential only to waste it on a pathetically underthought ending. The "Sen no Yoru to Sen no Hiru" video fills its space uneventfully. They do not, individually or together, appear to aspire to much artistic significance, nor represent significant visual intellectual property. The limited edition was priced about two dollars higher than the normal one, at my Japanese mail-order source, but it's already out of print, so presumably it wasn't self-justifying. I believe the DVD existed to encourage fans to buy the album as close to its release-date as possible, so as to optimize its chart performance for an initial peak. I'm pretty sure the videos themselves only exist so that the songs can be promoted in visual media. It is in the label's interest, unless I have totally missed some subtlety of international commerce, for these videos to be seen as widely as possible, anywhere on the planet.
And yet the DVD is encoded for region 2, which means that no mainstream American DVD player or computer can show it. I have a Chinese multi-region DVD player I bought from an electronics importer in Canada, so this pointless restriction doesn't apply to me personally, but that doesn't make it any less idiotic. The CD, of course, has no region coding; the CD-audio format defines no such mechanism. Somewhere on the planet, no doubt, a cabal of oblivious music executives is currently bemoaning this fact. They would be happier if the CD was "protected", too. Half the CDs I get from Japan do purport to be "Copy Protected", in fact, although so far iTunes and my PowerBook have been completely untroubled by whatever that "protection" entails. Apple appears, at this stage, to be the only digital media company not spending the bulk of its creative energy on ways to keep its products away from its nominal audiences, with the result that "rights management" has become a booming business with the approximate market size, moral logic and future outlook of penile enlargement. And if the occasional no-allowance ten-year-old somehow manages to elude the music industry's welcoming rotating knives, they can always be threatened with remote computer detonation, having their single-parent's home and savings confiscated, or Lars Ulrich showing up on your doorstep to perform his impression of an insomniac leprechaun who blames you for his dysentery. The music industry's ritual self-disembowelment is now so enthusiastically underway that it's hard to even hear the radio over the squelching anymore. (And the only reason the movie industry appears to be patiently waiting their turn is that all their knives are props.)
The epic irony of this whole preposterous spectacle is that the big-business segments of these entertainment industries exist, almost by definition, to reduce their content to the lowest conceivable denominators. Big-label pop music searches, like fast food, for the place where the worst failings of the most people's tastes can be exploited most repeatably. So the music strives to reach everybody, at exactly the same time as the distribution technology strives to turn them away. How have the banal populists not noticed themselves becoming paranoid solipsist oligarchs? Even the omnipresent object lesson of "free" television, the most successful mass medium in human history, seems to be a little too abstruse for them to follow. The music business richly deserves to be boycotted.
The music itself, however, doesn't deserve to be boycotted. At least, some of it doesn't. Even some of the institutionally second-guessed major-label music doesn't deserve to be boycotted. Chitose Hajime is an Okinawan traditional singer, or used to be, and Epic Japan seems to be trying to turn her into a standard-issue minor pop diva with only the smallest amount of discernible individual distinction necessary to establish a brand identity. This is, in American terms, something like having Gillian Welch sing on a Hilary Duff record, or having Liz Phair sing on Liz Phair. But the terrible ideas that idiots endorse in weakness, somebody still has to perform. And sometimes there just aren't enough idiots for every task. So even if I'm entirely correct in my cynicism, and Nomad Soul is essentially the product of some pea-brained executive's crass hope to sell diluted regionalism as mild flavoring, I still think it turned out magnificently. They didn't leave Chitose to her sanshin and shima uta scales, but they didn't try to turn her into Ayu dance-pop, either. Maybe they meant to, but her producers heard her voice and couldn't go through with it. Maybe they tried to, and it didn't work. Or maybe they just knew better. Or maybe this album is an egregious disaster on its own terms, but along a cultural axis so foreign to me, anyway, that I can't tell. But it got here in the mail, and I know only what I know, and so I'm left with my own happiness.
The label's commercial hopes are most obvious, predictably enough, on the singles. Of the two that preceded the album, "Kono Machi" is a grand lullaby and "Sen no Yoru to Sen no Hiru" is elegant mid-tempo rock. "Itsuka Kaze ni Naru Hi" (some not-directly-translatable idea on the order of "The Wind-Becoming Day"), the new third single, assembles acoustic guitar, sentimental strings, an array of other jangly stringed instruments and a watery rhythm section into a love theme for shy porcelain dolls. My guess is that there will be two more singles, yet. The fourth, and the one that I'd try to base an international campaign on if I were in charge of Chitose's marketing, should be the spiky, surging, near-Celtic anthem "Neiro Nana Iro" ("Seven-Color Tone"), which for me translates the central charm of last year's very-nearly-perfect b-side "Hummingbird" into a full rock arrangement with dizzy aplomb, ending up something like a sparklier version of Tsukiko Amano's bracing glower. The fifth single, alternating back to slow and pretty, would then be the burbly, majestic "Hisui" ("Jade"), its instruments spinning in disciplined framing orbits around Chitose as she sings, in a way that would try to suggest that you might like to hear her do more of it.
Taken one by one, those are actually my five favorite songs here. I feel a little sheepish about that, but I'm an unmistakable tourist in mainstream Japanese pop and culture, so it can't be too surprising that I like the popularized versions of its marginal culture, too. Buy only the singles, though, and you'll get nothing more than their sum. Sometimes selectivity is just subtraction. The reasons I'm impressed with this album, not just pleased, are the other five songs. If the singles are carefully predictable, the album tracks are inspiringly erratic. The piano/bass/voice intro, "Triangle", is almost as much a poetry reading as a song. "Aurora no Sora kara Mitsumeteiru" ("Staring From the Aurora Sky"?) is twitchy clockwork half-jazz, like Edie Brickell's "What I Am" redone by the Brothers Quay. "Getsurei 17.4" ("Moon Cycle 17.4"?) clanks and undulates in a loping, sultry funk, like it ought to be a Cowboy Bebop episode. "Yuri Korekushan" ("Lily Collection") is a wheezy accordion flirt. "Uruga no Oka" ("Uruga Hill") sounds like pastel reggae from an island we haven't chewed up and digested yet. The label may only have asked for singles, but Chitose made them into an album. They sent money for products, and ended up paying for music.
What is it they add up to, these five songs from due diligence and five unassigned? I'm happy that I don't really know. I don't hear a metaphorical theme in the music, and I haven't taken the time to translate all the words. But the longer I don't know what this album means, the more I enjoy playing it. As the industry searches desperately for a plan in which they don't have to learn anything new, and tries to anonymize its performers so they're as close to interchangeable as the market will tolerate, the "successes" will be self-defeating. The more disposable Liz Phairs you ship, the faster you have to replace them. Chart pop now has the shelf life of fast food, as well as the taste. But the major labels, in their desperation, aren't organized enough to spoil everything. Albums sneak through, and more of them the tighter they're squeezed. If we can push the industry the rest of the way to complete panic, maybe all the albums will get through.
So maybe the music business deserves to be boycotted, but I bet we can wreck it faster with money. Buy into its weaknesses, and pull it on towards its doom. Buy the records it couldn't ruin, or can't cross-market, or only sells in other countries. Confuse it. Keep feeding the beast just enough that it can't figure out it has to change its lifestyle. Don't fight it, help it defeat itself. I used to think the music business was invulnerable, if only because money tends to take care of itself. But money's stupidity isn't as creative as people's, and maybe this time critical idiocy is actually going to beat critical mass. Perhaps mediocrity isn't natural law, after all, and a huge sucking evil we've lived with for decades is about to implode. Or maybe it isn't, of course. Mostly the revolutions don't happen. But then every once in a while they do. I don't know if the liberation of music would truly qualify as great, even if "liberation" were that simple, but I'm ready to give it a try. The world could use some good news. The world could use some good news that reminds us how the good news isn't just the opposite of the bad news. I don't know how many more great things will happen in my life, but this is what I was listening to when I realized this one could.