January 18, 2005    Arts

Shiina Ringo and Polyphonic Imitation

Shiina Ringo, a 25-year-old Japanese singer / guitarist / drummer / pianist, has been invaluable in suggesting a much-needed new direction for contemporary Japanese music in an age when modern Japanese culture in general is commonly (and almost reflexively) perceived if not as a direct imitation of Western culture, then as something that is and always has been derived from a limited understanding of the West (a perception over 100 years old). Douglas Hyde, a famed Irish nationalist writer, gave a speech titled “The Necessity of De-Anglicising Ireland” in 1892 (24 years after the Meiji Restoration and Japan’s first significant, in terms of cultural influence, contact with America) in which he called upon the Irish to embrace their own national traditions and culture instead of unquestioningly importing their pastimes, names, and fashions from England, since this would turn Ireland into “a nation of imitators, the Japanese of Western Europe, lost to the power of native initiative and alive only to second-hand assimilation” (1). If in fact the post-Meiji Japanese culture is little more than an imitation of the Occidental culture imposed upon them over the course of America’s interventions into Japan over the last 150 years, then how can the contemporary or avant-garde Japanese artist produce something that is authentically modern and not either a regression to pre-modern (read: pre-Meiji) culture or a mere imitation of America’s? I wrote the words “authentically modern” as a place-holder for something that doesn’t exist: we don’t really have a way to universally categorize everything as modern, pre-modern, post-modern, or even non-modern, since the term ‘modern’ itself is a Western invention which can be interpreted as nearly-synonymous with capitalism and the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Who can define what this term truly means in any given non-Western nation, aside from the basic equation: Westernization + Capitalism = Modernization? (“+ Capitalism” can almost be ignored, it’s subsumed under the first term). We can’t say that each nation develops along its own lines and at its own pace, that we can simply have an “authentic” Japanese version of modernity, an Indian modernity, a Burundian modernity, since modernity, as Frederic Jameson says, is constituted by whether or not a nation belongs to the dominant system of global capitalism (2). And then ‘avant-garde’ becomes incredibly problematic, since there’s no way to truly be avant-garde, however you define it, if the art you produce is rooted in passive imitation of another culture. Taking this line of thought to its logical limit, Western (cultural) hegemony not only forces alien cultures into conformity with a new set of standards upon which art is to be produced, evaluated, and historicized, but it obliterates the possibility of an “authentically” modern, postmodern, or avant-garde art from emerging in a non-Western culture by controlling the terms and concepts which categorize and periodize art. But I’m making some huge leaps into waters best left uncharted by someone with my beginner’s level of understanding, so I’ll go back to talking about my favorite Japanese singer now.

Shiina Ringo’s music is often categorized under J-POP (a term for Japanese pop music) along with the mishmash of dance club music and derivative pop rock. I would draw some distinctions here . . . first let’s look at some lyrics. The following is from the J-POP superstar Hamasaki Ayumi’s song “Free and Easy”:

Believe in me.
I’ll always be here.
The proof that you’re alive
exists inside of me.

In this, this dirty city,
you’re the person who
gathers up and shows me
something beautiful.

(translation from Hamasaki’s official website).

As you can see, the singer centralizes the male figure (presumably) as the one who will show her “something beautiful” as she passively waits for him. The female is reduced to preserving a version of him within herself, not unlike Wordsworth’s narrator in “Tintern Abbey,” who demands that his sister become a passive retainer for his personal “exhortations”:

Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations!

Hamasaki’s “I’ll always be here” emphasizes a state of content situatedness. “Here” is an unproblematically defined place where fixed gender roles dominate (moving man, situated woman still “here” to remind him of who he is). “Here” is also where love is realized, emotion can transcend the limits of the “dirty city,” and scripted relationships last forever.
Now excerpts from two songs by Shiina. The first is “Tokyo Girl,” which I have attempted to translate:

My dream is over,
So now I’m looking for another one.
You’re not there, sometimes
The brightness dies, Aoyama

Since love is lost in the brightness,
I want to see the murky shade.
Alone I’ll dance freely one more time.
My dream is dead, Shinjuku.

Where can I go that’s good?
The night is aging over the dying city,
My happiness flows along and
Turns into fog. Tokyo.

Each verse ends by naming a district of Tokyo, the last one naming the city itself: Ginza, Asakusa, Aoyama, Shinjuku, Tokyo. The “dirty city” is now the divided city, “here” becomes a multiplicity of places only similar in that the singer feels isolated in each one of them, “I’m always here” becomes “You’re not there.” Perhaps the singer in the Hamasaki piece feels a little bit like Shiina’s: after all, both are waiting for an abstract lover to arrive and rescue them from isolation. The only difference would be that Shiina chooses to dramatize this process of waiting and reads into it something much more than the anticipation of a love sweeping down from the sky to redeem a lonely girl. Shiina expresses her own non-situatedness as well as the fundamental non-situatedness of everyone: waiting as the natural(ized) state of life (to borrow a theme of Samuel Beckett). “You’re not there” doesn’t imply that anyone is returning anytime soon, it simply says that the singer is waiting for lack of anything better to do. We can then read “Alone I’ll dance freely one more time” as the singer’s attempt to turn her detachment into something positive, which fails because she cannot remove considerations of spatiality from her mind: “Where can I go that’s good?” The naïve answer would be: nowhere! Not implying that there is no location in which she can be happy, but that to be happy, the preoccupation with location must be overcome. You exist in the mind alone, you dance freely regardless of your physical location, you walk the earth dispossessed of your attachment to any one place, any one person, or any one emotion. All well and good, if you’re a Zen master and not an early 20s Tokyoite trying to form a proper relationship with both your desire-object and the city which detaches you from him and you from the rest of world.

“Yattsuke Shigoto,” which translates to something like “A Half-Assed Job,” is a song on Shiina’s 2003 album “Karuki, Zamen, Kuri no Hana,” or “Chlorine, Semen, Chestnut Flower” (a title which I’m NOT going to attempt to explain). Here is an excerpt, translated by Brian Stewart and Takako Sakuma (3):

Nothing can hold my interest
Not much upsets me,
What day was today anyway?
It’s not really an issue.
...Ah I just wanna be hurt.

the more interest and motivation it takes away the more I fit the mold.
or perhaps I’ll do my job through copulation... am I planning this out?

Control me,
It’s so fucking tedious.
When is the last train on the Ginza line?
It’s not really an issue.
..Ah I just wanna be a machine.

Again, we get the theme of the city dissolving the individual, this time in a corporate setting. The abstract worker loses her/his temporal orientation (“What day was today anyway?”), sense of individuality (“the more I fit the mold”), and sense of purpose (“perhaps I’ll do my job through copulation”) under the demands of a repetitive and mind-numbing job. The verses are consistently sung in a sleepy, half-dead tone of voice, beginning with her drawn out “mainichi” (“every day”), over a slow, churning dance-hall backbeat and big band melodies which recall the urban traveling music of American black-and-white films of the 1950s and 60s. The possibility of our poor worker finding any satisfaction whatsoever in her/his job is not even hinted at; s/he can find meaning only in the act of reproduction, and even this notion is problematized (“am I planning this out?”). If this meaningless funeral procession is life, then what value could there be in bringing another life into this world, s/he asks. The line I’ve left out up to this point, “Ah I just want to be hurt” echoes the desperation of the cutter. As Slavoj Zizek writes, “cutting is a radical attempt to (re)gain a hold on reality, or . . . to ground the ego firmly in bodily reality, against the unbearable anxiety of perceiving oneself as non-existent” (4). Pain as a reassurance of one’s own bodily existence, the only way for our worker to convince her-/himself s/he is a physical being and not just a corporate automaton. However, what do we make of her having this very desire, to be “a machine?” If s/he actually becomes a machine, the obsession with knowing that the self is a real physical being disappears. It is this tension of having a physical human body which is appropriated to serve as a cog in a hyper-capitalist economy that drives the worker to despair. If s/he could be one or the other, either a human being in full ownership of the body, or a machine with no claims to ownership over a physical body, things would be much simpler.

But there is still the question of Shiina’s voice. To get back to the starting point of this essay, how can a Japanese singing under the American genre of rock music be anything but an imitator and how can a Japanese pop/rock singer distinguish herself from the large mass of J-POP music which is generally (and perhaps rightfully so) construed as a mere imitation of American pop music? The very general answer is that she must sing within a multiplicity of different voices (something I hinted at in the last paragraph), knowing full well that a single authentic voice that would separate her from other imitation-based acts is at the moment impossible, but that a new voice can properly emerge by singing through the voices currently available to her. While this may seem like a bit of a generalization, Japanese pop music emphasizes a vocal gender division: men’s voices (in rock music, at least) are expected to be raggy and guttural, while womens’ are generally velvety and almost always high-pitched (even the singer for the rock group “Brilliant Green,” whom I think is great, maintains a bubbly voice over the heaviest of guitar riffs). Shiina demonstrates her capacity for polyphonic singing in her “Torikoshi Kurou” (“Worry Wart”). The first verse, in Japanese and English (translated by Brian Stewart and Takako Sakuma), is as follows:

e, i mama yo haji mo sutesaran
anta hodo no otoko nado iran
moesakaru tsume toke ni keri
anta dake ha ubawaretakunai

I don’t care, I’ll toss away my shame.
There’s no man as good as you.
As if burning, my nails melt (into your back)
I won’t let anyone take you away.

There is a marked distinction here between “anta hodo no otoko nado iran” and “moesakaru tsume toke ni keri” (which correspond the 2nd and 3rd lines of the translation). The former sounds like a typical J-POP tune (think of Hamasaki: “You’re the person who gathers up/ and shows me something beautiful”). But the latter brings about powerful images of not just an innocuous and abstract desire for love, but an overwhelming, possessive desire rooted in physicality. Accordingly, and this is where Shiina’s genius comes in, her voice is a baby-girl whining for “anta hodo no” and “anta dake ha” and a throaty moan for “moesakaru tsume” (“burning fingernails”). This continues throughout the song, as the harmless “Please, don’t go anywhere” and “stay here with me” are sung alongside the more troubling “I’ve grown out my hair” (in Japan, indicating a one-sided romance) and “If you want to believe in this woman, shut up and come along then” (an implicit request for sexual intercourse). Each line is given its appropriate vocalization: submissive baby-girl for the former and hardened, mockingly-masculine for the latter.

I don’t want to simply equate her throaty “moesakaru” (“burning”) with a masculine voice and suggest that Shiina switches facilely between feminine and masculine modes of singing. Rather, the way she strains out the first two syllables, “moe,” indicates not that she has adopted the masculine voice, but that she is struggling to adopt this voice and to rid herself of the passive attachment to her lover we see in her whiny “anta hodo no” (“as good as you”). It’s a struggle she can’t win, a struggle that is doomed to cycle between her physical need for sex and her attempt to transcend female embodiment through adopting the male voice; it’s a struggle that necessarily ends where it started: with the narrator’s indifference to this cycle: “e i mama yo” (“I don’t care”). This is perhaps what Shiina’s new voice is: neither a feminine nor a masculine voice, but a feminine voice straining not only to become masculine, but to become something other than what Japanese pop-singers’ voices have always been. Maybe we can call this attempt to escape from the vocal modes within which Japanese pop music must operate Shiina Ringo’s truly avant-garde moment. Yes, terms like modern, post-modern, and avant-garde have arrived from abroad to categorize art, and yes, Japanese pop-music is often excluded from the realm of the avant-garde because of its supposedly inherent trend towards imitation, but it’s the struggle to dissociate one’s self and one’s voice from these past trends and tired performative modes that I think allows for something like a non-Western avant-garde to emerge. In other words, all contemporary Japanese music is necessarily influenced by American rock and hip-hop to the extent that Japanese performers are required to imitate, to varying degrees, these forms of music. In order to create a truly original way to sing rock, the performer must first sing within the pre-given modes as they currently exist, and then find ways to distance oneself from these pre-given modes. And I feel that by introducing the idea of struggle (for a new voice, for a new body, for a new location) into the genre of Japanese pop music, Shiina Ringo points to the world beyond J-POP and takes important steps towards altering the pop-rock genre of music as it was imported from America so that a specifically Japanese form of pop-rock can emerge.

1.) Douglas Hyde, “The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland,” (Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press, 1994).
2.) Frederic Jameson, A Singular Modernity, (London: Verso, 2002).
3.) http://www.centigrade-j.com
4.) Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates, (London: Verso, 2002).
5.) http://www.centigrade-j.com