Inside Second Street Jazz Club on December 18, a floor full of dancers cleared to make way for a spritely trio who took their places in a straight, horizontal line in front of the stage. As DJ Yuki mixed hyper Eurobeat-style music, similar to what one might hear during a game of Dance Dance Revolution, the three bounced back, forth and side-to-side. They moved their arms in elaborate, synchronized patterns called para para, a contemporary Japanese dance style that has grown so popular that it has spawned the video game ParaParaParadise. Surrounding them was a crowd of camera phone-waving club kids dressed as though they jumped out of the pages of the magazine Fruits. There are ganguro gyaru and gyaruo here, girls and boys sporting ultra-deep tans, bleached hair and brightly colored street fashion. There are kids dressed in decora, a hodgepodge of striking colors and prints accessorized with piles of dollar store jewelry and toys, and himegyaru, princess looks complete with gloves and tiaras. And, of course, there are Lolitas everywhere. If this were a weekend in Harajuku, the scene here might not turn heads, but it's Thursday night and we're in Los Angeles.
At the second installment of Tune in Tokyo, promoted by the International Pop Conspiracy team, L.A. fans of modern Japanese music, known as Jpop and Jrock, gathered to hear DJs Greg Hignight, Tora, Del, Ally Cat and Yuki give a sampling of what's big in Japan right now, ranging from electronic pop to a dramatic style of hard rock known as visual kei.
“It looked like a scene that was waiting to happen,” said Hignight. He was right. While interest in Jpop and Jrock has increased in the U.S., with fans meeting up on online forums like Jrock Revolution and heading out to see bands like Dir en Grey and Versailles live, it's still an underground phenomenon, one that has its roots in Stateside anime subculture. Hignight explains that this is because, in Japan, anime is used as a launch pad for up-and-coming singles. Popular artists often contribute music for opening or closing credits and a series will often go through six or eight themes during its run.
“The fandom is a door to other fandoms,” says club-goer Tommy Pedrini. “When you're 12, you're watching Miyazaki movies and Pokemon and then when you're 15 you're wearing [Japanese clothing label] Sex Pot ReVeNGe… and listening to Guitar Wolf.”
Tune in Tokyo co-founder Del Martin likens the Jpop and Jrock movement of today to the popularity of Britpop in the 1990s. Where 15 years ago, L.A. youngsters reacted against grunge by indulging in import singles from unapologetic pop bands with dashing lead singers, this generation is turning towards Japan for looks and sounds that currently don't exist in the U.S. Top 40.
“There is always a segment of the youth population that doesn't want to listen to what is pushed by mainstream media,” said Martin. “This generation was basically reading manga and watching anime and it was natural that they would start looking towards Asia — Japan and Korea — for their music.”
Also like Britpop, the fascination extends beyond the music. In the 1990s, when local Britpop fans were congregating at nightclub Cafe Bleu, it was as much about hearing the latest Pulp single as it was about drinking Boddington's beer, throwing around the slang picked up from watching BBC shows, modeling British-styled street fashion and planning pilgrimages to London. At Tune in Tokyo, it was common to see patrons sipping Sapporo, dropping words like otaku (fanatic) in a sentence, dressing in Japanese brands and mentioning trips to Tokyo.
But where will L.A.'s burgeoning Jpop and Jrock scenes head next? Since the Britpop kids of the 1990s became the more-British-than-American sounding indie rock bands of today, one has to wonder if the upcoming generation of local musicians will adopt the flamboyant and androgynous look of visual kei artists or the perky, electronic beats of Jpop. Considering Jpop and Jrock's roots in western styles like Italo-disco and glam metal, it will be interesting to see how American fans reinterpret these scenes.
“I think it says a lot about youth culture with the Internet and all,” said 20-year-old Jrock fan Ashton Amores. “It's nice that we can play off each other.”
We asked around at Tune in Tokyo for the DJs and patrons' favorite artists. Check out the selections below.
Perfume: “Love the World”
Just about everyone we asked, including DJs Del Martin and Greg Hignight, named electro-pop trio Perfume as a favorite. The band's sweetly synthetic sound has proven incredibly popular in Japan and last summer, they became the first electronic group to hit #1 on Japan's pop charts with the single “Love the World.”
Aural Vampire: “Freeze!!”
Jpop-loving couple Skylar and Marc Standley suggest checking out Aural Vampire. The Tokyo-based duo Exo-Chika and Raveman exhibit the style of visual kei, but the music appears more influenced by industrial and trance. Aural Vampire, who played a Second Life gig on December 20, just released an iTunes EP and has a new full-length album in the works for 2009.
Hignight recommends capsule for those of us who fell in love with bands like Pizzicato Five and Fantastic Plastic Machine in the late 1990s, think house beats and mid-century modern imagery. The duo consists of vocalist Toshiko Koshijima and producer Yasutaka Nakata, who also works with Perfume and runs the record label contemode.
Versailles: “The Revenant Choir”
If you're looking for an example of visual kei, Hignight suggests Versailles. Having only formed in 2007, the band made its L.A. debut last June with a gig at the Knitting Factory. The group, comprised of former members of other visual kei outfits, combines symphonic metal with Rococo fashion. For legal reasons, Versailles is now technically known as Versailles -Philharmonic Quintet- in the U.S.
An Cafe: “Cherry Saku Yuuki!”
Another one of Hignight's Jrock picks, An Cafe is similar to visual kei artists in that glam androgyny plays a big part in their popularity. However, this band's look is brighter and more whimsical than many in the visual kei genre and their sound is heavy on pop-punk. An added bonus with An Cafe is that their music is available domestically.
If you have another favorite Jpop or Jrock band, let us know in the comment section.