Politics of Rebellion vs. Politics of Prescription: Engaging Japanese Contemporary Music

Music and politics has long been a well known combination throughout history. In fact, whole musical genres were founded with that combination in mind. Punk rock might be the most obvious example of that. Japanese music has been no exception, with musical genres well known for its politics making political statements in their Japanese versions as well, with rap, folk, and punk rock groups using their songs to discuss politics in Japan and in the world. Japanese music has not only limited its politics to local issues. Former superstar rap group King Giddra have recorded in the past a song about the events of 9/11 in New York, with lyrics that said:

“Is this terrorists vs. nations? No, wrong. That would me mistaking one part for the whole. The media’s strategy is to push good against evil. Makes me see again an atom bomb that fell in the past.”

This is certainly not to say that everyday life politics of Japan are also not taken into account. In a more recent music, Kyoto based rapper Anarchy sings:

“Gambling on payday and without money. I’m sick of hearing “I won’t drink again”. […] This hard environment got us trapped in a cycle. The heart is as strong as the amount of tears.”

However, there is another music genre in Japan that I have dedicated the last 5 years researching about that give us some new way of performing politics within music. That would be a genre called “Visual Kei”. Whereas traditionally political music is framed at an external problem to that of the singer, such as a culture of war, poverty, nuclear politics, and so on; Visual Kei’s political lyrics usually change the focus from the external to that of the self. It is the violence directed at yourself as a way to deal with the pain caused by your surroundings. Sometimes the “violence against self” goes beyond the metaphor and strikes directly at the flesh.

Kyo No Future Blood Kyo No Future Scar

Yet, what political Visual Kei lyrics do is to drop from the focus at the issue and bring the focus to the individual, the victim, the sufferer. Dadaroma’s first released song can exemplify this shift of perspective:

“The beautiful images you show on TV are just making our eyes worse. I wonder if you will even set a price on the warmth that slightly remains” […] “An airplane fell, too many people died, I’ll forget the TV’s number by tomorrow”

Dadaroma’s lyrics can be seem as a tale of loss of the senses in an age of post-modernity commodification and velocity. Just as the materiality of the TV only hurts your eyes no matter how beautiful the images that they show are, and how even the warmth can have a price putted on it, the velocity with which the news fly by, as informational numbers and data, robs one’s capacity to relate or empathize with the lives lost and the suffering shown. Another band, the Gallo, give us another example of portraying critique through the broken lenses of the self:

A dandelion is being trampled in the greater Tokyo area that I used to dream about. I’m casting my fears aside due to the methamphetamine and I’m looking for tender passion in the red-light district.” […] “I glare at miserable rich-men while I’m rummaging through the garbage of the red-light district.”

This self that looks for tender love in the red-light streets, where delicate flowers are trampled upon in the land of dreams set us again in a path of looking at the dirt and ugliness of reality while being invited to imagine dreams and have tender feelings in it. It is hard not to give more weight to these lyrics when one remembers the context of Tokyo’s over-developed “love” industry.

The point here is that while political Visual Kei lyrics don’t let go of critique of the social, they are doing so without so much of the prescriptive element that more traditional forms of political lyrics have. The calls for political union and devotion to a common cause. The idea of standing together against evil. Nonetheless, Visual Kei manages to give voice to a post-modern generation that is often lost in nihilism and hopelessness, and bring them to address these topics that might have otherwise been swept under the rug in more general political discussions of mainstream Japan.

As Japanese philosopher Toshiya Ueno said that there are no longer a public sphere in (Metropolitan) Japan, as people are more and more forced to congregate ideas and perspectives in privatized spaces (And as someone who frequently used Mr.Donuts as a space for debate, I can vouche for that), some Visual Kei performer can be seem filling this space, using the privatized space of music industry and live houses to express that which is hidden in public discourse. Making politics beyond prescription. A new form of politics for a new era.

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