If the past two years have taught the world anything, it’s the precariousness of predictions. January 2022 has arrived, but with the spread of omicron raising new concerns, all I can do is look at my recently purchased calendar and give up. Maybe leaving the dates blank would be a better decision than making plans.
J-pop has perfectly demonstrated this unpredictability over the past 24 months. Less than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and with most people unable to attend live events or visit music stores, the industry has long scoffed at its reliance on CD sales and reluctance towards anything digital and began to adapt to the internet. Major Japanese artists have started uploading their entire catalogs to streaming services, while a new generation of young artists have been given pride of place thanks to YouTube and TikTok.
There is no doubt that 2022 will bring even more changes. Still, there are enough developments and signs from the past year to make educated guesses about what’s to come. And hey, even if those predictions are wrong…it’s just a reflection of the times, right?
A brighter vibe for J-pop
The mood for Japanese pop music is at a two-year low. Hits from rising outfits such as Yoasobi and Ado linger on gloom and exhaustion, reflecting the mood of the country as a whole. The emotional and physical toll of living through a pandemic is bad enough, but there is also a general sense of existential dread and anxiety about the future. It’s understandable that so many people are drawn to the most depressing sounds.
The mood for J-pop will likely improve in 2022, however, as listeners seek brighter escapes from the world around them. Major artists have been tiptoeing towards upbeat sounds over the past six months, including Yoasobi, who let in some sunshine with their hopeful song, “Sangenshoku.”
The best indicator of a change in mood might come from Kaze Fujii, a singer-songwriter who has emerged as a new voice in the Reiwa era (2019-present) thanks to dizzying tunes celebrating the little thrills of life. love and life. He’ll likely lead the charge to balance J-pop’s serotonin levels over the next 12 months.
TikTok: the next star creator
For the most part, the short-form video platform TikTok has been like a slot machine for the Japanese music industry. Pull the handle and hope some teenager in the US created a catchy meme to your 40-year-old urban pop song. Even for national viral trends, TikTok hits require a degree of randomness.
With the platform now established in Japan, however, musicians and labels will no longer approach TikTok as a bet, but as a place to build fanbases, and savvy young creators such as genre whirlwind Wurts have used the app and other social media platforms to get established. Surprise hits will always emerge, but it won’t be as chaotic as more and more companies figure out how to introduce new musical names into this digital space.
Youth at the front
Most pop songs produced by labels these days target teenagers, who have the power to turn a track into an overnight sensation via social media, but songwriters are often outside of this demographic. . That will change as more Japanese teenagers start creating their own anthems and distributing them through platforms such as TikTok, allowing for varied perspectives on young people in the country today.
Recently graduated artist Neriame demonstrates this perfectly with her viral hit, “Yo-kya JK ni Akogareru In-kya JK no Uta”. The hip-hop-scotched cut rejects the usual trappings of high school youth (“caramel/marshmallow/strawberry candy”) in favor of Apex Legends video game and individuality. Why should kids settle for what labels have to offer when they can create their own hits?
Move over, city pop
The glitzy funk sound of 1980s city pop remains Japan’s hottest musical export. He may even have reached his biggest mainstream moment yet in early 2022: Canadian pop heavyweight The Weeknd sampled Aran Tomoko’s 1983 single “Midnight Pretenders” for “Out of Time “, a song from his latest LP, which is bound to be one of the bestsellers of the year.
Part of the thrill of the internet’s interest in this once-obscure genre, however, was the sense of discovery that came with it. It’s great that an artist who performed in the Super Bowl brings more shine to the style, but it also means that the feeling of undiscovered gem fades.
For the next wave of online cool inspired by the sounds of the past, let’s look at the Heisei era (1989-2019). Shibuya-kei of the 1990s once defined hip Japanese music for listeners overseas, and seeing as it was the next stage in the evolution of urban pop, it makes sense that modern listeners are flooding the style of a new love. Bank on Pizzicato Five, whose catalog still sounds fresh and finds its way to subscription streaming platforms at just the right time, to introduce Shibuya-kei to the extremely online generation of 2022.
Mental health at the center of attention
Sony Music Japan is already at the forefront of mental health support, having launched a program last August that offers mental and physical health checkups and counseling for artists signed with the company. Spurred on by the havoc the pandemic has taken on its performers, Sony’s decision has been a long time coming, given the heavy demands that come with being a major musician in Japan. Expect more companies to follow suit as other entertainment sectors also grapple with mental health.
Taking notes on K-pop
Last year, South Korean music companies dreamed up hybrid projects, using K-pop market know-how to take J-pop globally and launch bands such as NiziU and OJ1. In 2022, Japanese entities will try to do the same themselves, learning from their South Korean neighbors but finding their own voice in the process.
Leading the pack is Be:First, a pop group built from a Hulu reality program overseen by rapper Sky-Hi and featuring production from longtime staple (and critic) Taku Takahashi. J-pop. They’ve already garnered solid views and performed online, while also being dubbed one of the “big trends” of 2022 by Nikkei Trendy magazine. Whether they can show that Japanese-born companies can keep up remains to be seen, but they will certainly add some very welcome musical diversity to the J-pop boy band scene.
The cutting edge of J-pop: idols
The age of all-female idol-pop groups has long since passed, with once-ubiquitous names like AKB48 struggling to retain their relevance. All of these pandemic-induced changes have pushed idol music to the fringes, which is actually the best place for this corner of J-pop.
Safely removed from the zeitgeist, idol groups now have the opportunity to experiment in ways they haven’t before, and in 2021 some of Japan’s most exciting music came from idol groups. Recent highlights include the surreal house sounds of femme fatale escapism, the hyper-fast beat of @onefive and the heart-pounding drum ‘n’ bass of Batten Girls. Forget the sound of 2022, the ideas that idol groups will explore in the coming months will offer insight into the sounds that mainstream J-pop will embrace in the years to come.
In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is urging residents and visitors to exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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