When alternative music goes mainstream, where do you go for an alternative? I went to Japan.
I'm not talking Shonen Knife or Pizzicato Five, and certainly not Cibo Matto. I mean Japanese pop music: baby-faced teenage idols lip-synching to programmed beats. It's so cute, so innocent, and so very different from Alanis Morissette, and Beck, and even the Spice Girls. Yes, Ginger, Posh, et al. were British variations on the prefab cutie, but they wrecked it with their calls for "girl power." Japanese idols just do what idols are meant to do: They sing, they dance, they do product endorsements.
Nagoya, Japan, 1997. With my shaky knowledge of Japanese, and a heaping helping of luck, I managed to find my way to Century Hall, the site of a concert by the idol group MAX, four Okinawan girls with a high-energy synth-pop disc titled Maximum at the top of the Japanese pop charts. I had bought the CD in Little Tokyo after catching them perform on Hey! Hey! Hey!, a Fuji Television show broadcast in L.A. every Sunday on KSCI. Not that I could understand a word of what they were singing about, since all the lyrics were in Japanese (except, curiously, the titles of the songs, like "Get My Love!" or "Give Me a Shake"), but no matter; I had forsaken my prejudice against unintelligible lyrics ever since R.E.M.'s first album.
The crowd at the concert hall looked like any you might see in America, except everyone was Japanese and under 17. Or so it seemed to me, a 30-year-old hakujin ("white boy") suddenly suspicious of my own state of mind.
I studied my ticket, to make sure I was in the right line at the right time, but the vital information eluded me; concert tickets are not translated for MAX's English-speaking fan base (namely, me). So I did what any good nonconformist would do -- I stood in the line that had the most people in it, and hoped for the best. A few of the kids glanced my way, but no one spoke to me. It was quite obvious why I didn’t fit in -- I didn‘t have a fan. Nearly everyone, boys included, held oval-shaped fans imprinted with images of the MAX girls. Apparently, fans are as requisite a concert accessory in Japan as illicit drugs are in America.
Then, an announcement: On the overhead PA, a stern but, as usual, polite voice informed everyone of something I hoped wasn’t too important, since it was entirely in Japanese. Judging from the immediate mass opening of handbags, I assumed it was along the lines of "Your belongings will now be inspected for any contraband, such as Sudafed." Pseudoephedrine is banned in Japan, you know.
I shuffled along with the crowd through a gateway into the area adjoining the auditorium. A ticket-taker took my ticket, carefully detached the stub and returned it to me. No frisking at all, just a polite "Domo." (Which can be translated as Thank you; Please; Here's your ticket stub; or I want to sleep with your wife. In Japan, it's all about context.)
All that lay between me and my seat was an extensive spread of MAX paraphernalia for sale: T-shirts, CD singles, stickers and so on. I settled on a shirt, two singles and a program book. Just one challenge to go -- paying for it. I handed my merchandise to the girl behind the table and offered an assortment of yen for her to choose from. She said a few words in Japanese, which sounded like it could have been something from one of the learn-on-the-go tapes I had briefly listened to before my trip, but I couldn‘t understand. So I again offered her several thousand yen, but she refused to touch it. She just kept repeating, "Roku sen’en! Roku sen'en!" It may have been divine intervention, or just a timely synapse fire, but it suddenly clicked that roku means six, so I figured maybe she wanted ¥6,000. I handed her the appropriate denominations, and she looked relieved. She offered me a less-than-enthusiastic "Arigato." I found my seat without further difficulty.
The concert began. Synth sounds roared over bouncing bass. Mina, Lina, Reina and Nana spun across the stage. Their glittery miniskirts twirled dangerously; their platform boots stomped mightily. "Give me, give me shake!"
No antisocial ranting, no grungy, unwashed hair. Just pure pop fizz. This was why I had come to Japan.
The whole crowd started clapping to the beat. Smack . . .! Smack . . .!
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I refused to join in. Why this sudden burst of audience participation? Where had this collective clapping compulsion come from?
Smack . . .! Smack . . .! The longer I held out, the more out of place I felt. It was as if I had no choice.
I started clapping along with them.
Make no mistake, I felt ridiculous. This pep-squad routine was not something I would normally engage in, not in public or in the privacy of my own home. But here, in Japan, in a society where groupthink rules and conformity is king, I succumbed to the power of the people. And it was then, beat by beat, song after song, that I finally felt like I belonged.