Issue #34: Pretend to Swim
Highlighting the new Kabanagu album, Hiromi Iwasaki's "Madonna Tachi No Lullaby" and 5 favorite drama tie-in songs of the year
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Drama music isn’t a musical genre onto itself. Admittedly, though, many tie-up singles for TV drama shows follow a uniform enough sound and style to possibly organize them into a collective genre. Songs tend to prioritize the sentimental over the fashionable, incorporating arrangements and pop structure designed to trigger a certain feeling. For examples of this “drama music,” I often point to acts like Back Number, Superfly and Leo Ieiri who regularly put out music tailor-made to be synced with a climactic moment of a TV episode—if they haven’t already been commissioned to write a song for that exact purpose as they’ve previously done for several releases.
Writing drama music can seem creatively stifling, but it’s a game a major-label act has to play for the drama-music industry takes up such a large space in J-pop. It can launch artists as much as it can box them in; it can feel like a great feat when a theme-song regular manages to write music that steps away from the established style—take Milet and her latest single “Checkmate.” For all the fuss, the stakes are perhaps lower to contribute a song to a TV series than its possible reward. Get lucky, and you can align your song and name to a hit show dominating the conversation.
The opposite is true in that a network producer buys the star power of the artist to hopefully get more eyes on an upcoming TV series. I’m a prime example of this. I’ve started watching at least a dozen shows over the past five years from my favorite artists doing the tie-up songs: I would not have discovered the TV adaptation of Akiko Higashimura’s manga Tokyo Tarareba Girls (very fun series!) without Perfume releasing “Tokyo Girl” for the show. Even this year, I’ve become curious to check out Omameda Towako To Sannin No Moto-Otto because the STUTS and Takako Matsu song for the show is just amazing.
While a TV series and a tie-up single can be symbiotic in their respective commercial successes, a great pairing of show and song can also benefit each of their creative merits. Just like how a memorable needle drop can elevate a TV episode, a rich story can add depth and dimension to its associated track. The more a TV show gets you invested in its world, its elements begin to get reflected on the narratives and protagonists of the tie-up single. A sign of a great drama series to me is when your time with a show improves the listening experience of the attached song. Who knows how much I would’ve liked Miwa’s “Reboot” had I came across it as a standalone release, and now as a figurative exclamation point at the end of every episode of Nagi No Oitoma—an absolute personal favorite, its highs I’m still chasing in other shows.
The year has already given some great show/song pairs, and I’ve put together a short list counting down five of my favorites. I’ve enjoyed listening to each of these songs after I got done watching the respective tie-in shows just to revisit the feeling. This list doesn’t rank the songs or the shows on their own, or else the order would’ve been very different. I instead took into account how the combination of the two works to each of their benefit. Honestly, this is a roundabout way for me to highlight my favorite Japanese drama shows of the year in a newsletter about music. I hope you find something nice to watch as well as some nice music to listen to.
“Pale Blue” by Kenshi Yonezu [Sony]
“Pale Blue” is far from being Kenshi Yonezu’s first single for a TV series: “Lemon” was made for the mystery drama Unnatural, and last year’s “Kanden” played at the end of the cop show MIU404. But despite his biggest hits in the past five years being a media tie-in, Kenshi Yonezu still leaves an impression to me as an artist who’s an exception to traditional industry practices like handing in theme songs for a drama series. His aura elevates the most straight-laced songs, and it does no different in “Pale Blue.”
“Pale Blue” supports the more typical drama show covered in this list. The episodes of Rikokatsu unfolds pretty straightforward as far as rom-coms go with it following a familiar “fight and make up” arc. The conclusion of every episode get cued with Yonezu singing the opening line “zutto… koi wo shiteita” (I always loved you), and it gets you moving especially during the early episodes when there’s still hope for Saki (Keiko Kitagawa) and Koichi (Eita Nagayama) to reverse their decision to divorce. The end of the second episode finds the couple embracing in the rain, with Koichi saying “but I’m still your husband” to a crying Saki, as Yonezu repeats in his wallowing voice the first elliptical phrase (“always”) for dramatic effect.
When it comes to the type of shows I like to watch, I mostly choose romantic comedies precisely for cute, sappy moments like this. TV is my small pick-me-up as I tune into a new episode after a long day, and love stories hit the spot for me more than mysteries or cop shows. That said, the list surprisingly includes only one more rom-com; the rest is hard to categorize into a simple genre.
“Till I Know What Love Is (I’m Never Gonna Die)” by Aimyon [Warner Music Japan]
If the goal of this list was to strictly rank my favorite drama shows this year so far, this Aimyon single for Konto Ga Hajimaru, or curiously ConPaji for short, would have been number one. ConPaji sits at the top spot for me partly because the story hits almost too close to home: three 28-year-old friends decide to disband their comedy group after spending a decade trying to hit it big but instead going basically nowhere in life. I’m the same age as the guys, and so I tend to layer their dilemma with my own almost-decade-long relationship with writing. We’ve both invested so much time to our craft, but now faced with the last year of our twenties, it’s hard to justify putting in more just for the sake of fun, if not for ourselves then for others.
If anyone can turn this complex frustration into a tender guitar-pop song, it’s Aimyon. Don’t let the big, sweeping melodies in the chorus fool you: “Till I Know What Love Is (I’m Never Gonna Die)” finds her struggling with heavy thoughts, searching for meaning in meaninglessness. The singer-songwriter sums up life in the candidly bleak way that she often does: “This episode named Life of the day until you die / that keeps going no matter how much you run and run,” she describes this experience with her overwrought poetry sticking out of the margins. The more melodic parts cut deeper as she sighs lyrics like “I wish I had something that no one else has” with alarming ease.
Consistent with her overall outlook, what Aimyon offers as consolation in “Till I Know What Love Is” is sobering in its realistic view though no less comforting. It’s life’s very mess that makes living worthwhile, she reminds, and it’s the tears and anger that lead to the titular love she’s searching for. ConPaji reaches a similar conclusion after every other episode, with the trio realizing what really matters after going through a series of intense fights, rooted in genuine fears and worries. While Aimyon doesn’t mine much newness in “Till I Know What Love Is” when it comes to style and format relative to her own catalog, her signature voice and perspective as a songwriter makes a great fit for such a heavy yet intimately warm drama series.
Speaking of TV, our Oricon flashback looks into a song that got a boost all the way to number one thanks to its placement for a TV program. The rest of the selections for this issue pulls from the top to bottom of the chain. The Album of the Week highlights an underground pick while the Singles Club go from a loud follow-up to one of the most popular names right now to a lo-fi, cassette-only release from an indie rock band. From the mega-popular to the big indies, this issues got it.
Album of the Week
Oyogumane by Kabanagu [Maltine]
Though Kabanagu’s Oyogumane EP is not officially assigned a hyperpop tag, the record exhibits stylistic quirks that should satisfy anyone seeking out music adjacent to the subgenre. A berserk synth loop keeps “Myoukai” on edge as it zooms forward with its stomping, happy hardcore-esque drums. The hip-hop kit of “Hatenite” is built around a languid, emo-friendly guitar riff. Kabanagu stuffs loads of information in a space of less than two minutes; styles and structures shift at the drop of a hat. A top-to-bottom listen of Oyogumane resembles a constant move across the radio dial, including the static cutting through in between stations.
Though the glitchy feel nor the data-overload nature of his music is overall not new, it’s a rather improved development when it comes to Kabanagu’s vocal-pop material. While earlier hyper-speed bass tracks saw him flex his beat-making chops—like the intense spin cycle of 2019 highlight “Divergent”—the pop songs of the Taiyo No Ajiwa EP are far more straightforward to a fault in retrospect. Perhaps Kabanagu got more of a hang of how to arrange pop tracks through his remix work from the past year: his rework of mekakushe’s “Hakoniwa Uchuu” with Emocute challenges him to get adventurous but without interfering the integrity of the original jazz-pop production.
Consider “Granew,” the closest Kabanagu gets to a polished pop song in Oyogumane. The rubbery bass line animates the song in a much more dynamic fashion than the naive hip-hop of “Keppeki” from 2019; the ethereal vocal harmonies elevate it as something more otherworldly. While both songs look on to the dawn of a new day, the former best delivers the feeling of anticipation: a brash drum break officially launches the song about halfway in, the track now fully awake with the music bursting with excitement.
Apart from his remixes, the album closer “Iidake” calls to mind his producer peers like hirihiri and phritz, who both can be also easily pinned with a hyperpop tag. Kabanagu recently joined the two as well as Amane Uyama of Kamisama Club for “All Night,” a contribution for FORM’s All Nighter Vol. 6 compilation. Though the screeching electronics in the collaboration felt more then like the work of phritz or hirihiri, Kabanagu adopts the noise for his own material here. “Iidake” drops as much power and intensity as his quick-strike drum ‘n’ bass cuts, though the main hook is now one blunt hammerhead dropped over your skull.
For all that it accentuates his best music, providing it a new kind of thrill, that same damaging noise ultimately acts as a force Kabanuga strives to transcend from. “I won’t move until it wrecks me / Even the embarrassment will finally go away / all you have to do is stay with me,” he sings in “Iidake,” repeating the latter titular lyric ad nauseum. His voice grows into a desperate scream for it to reach the other person. He fights against the sound as if to break through the distortion, and the tension creates a new kind of emotional noise that color his wheezing voice. The message hits blunt in its earnestness as it gets shrouded in caustic static.
The introspection and confessions of Oyogumane leave the biggest mark, and how they’re perceived goes hand in hand with the album’s experiments in sound. The drifting guitar of “Hatemade” capture the numbness in staring at the big picture while the architecture of the production suddenly warps like his anxiety levels began to rise; the fast tempo of “Myoukai” gets down the antsiness from staying idle. The final parting words of “Iidake” echoes almost too close to home as everything gets pressed into the red. Overwhelmed with both internal and external noise, it’s a mindset that the music in Oyogumane expresses best.
“Odo” by Ado [Universal Music Japan]
While the pissed-off Ado in last year’s “Ussewa” has been Japan’s favorite this year, I’ve been having a lot of fun listening to the singer drunk with power in “Odo.” She calls in the big guns for firepower: the explosive EDM beat is supplied by TeddyLoid and Giga, and the two hand an obnoxiously huge production for her to just run wild in. Each round of the chorus presents a brand-new head-smacking beat drop; a personal favorite is the second with its percussive rattle and sizzling synth stabs, all propelled by seismic brass.
The EDM fireworks are orchestrated, of course, by Ado. Her snarling voice sounds high off the thrill and danger, and the lyrics penned by DECO*27 reinforces the over-the-top deliriousness: if she’s not roping you to join her to dance and celebrate, she spits out seemingly nonsensical phrases strung together more for how they sound when uttered out loud. Not only does Ado sound like a person you don’t want to fuck with, she sounds ready to have the time of her life moving to the beat. “Start dancing,” she roars in the chorus. From the sound of “Odo,” it’s best you follow her command.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“Pink” by Erika Nishi (ft. PARKGOLF) [self-released]
Erika Nishi knows exactly when to switch her style up. The past year since releasing her latest LP, 2019’s Love Me, has seen the singer settle into her central vibe of sleek, coy R&B with an air of the retro. “Pink,” meanwhile, swings more adventurous. PARKGOLF hands in a beat that’s busier though no less effervescent in detail than Nishi’s usual. The change in production brightens the singer’s mood, too, inspiring her to get upfront about her feelings for the one who her heart is set on. “Pink” brings a welcome shift for Nishi, especially following the late-night yearning of “Stay” earlier from this year. She was full of unrequited desire and need for company then; now she’s ready to act on her feelings.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“rabuka” by KUNG-FU GIRL [self-released]
Gearing up for their upcoming album, KUNG-FU GIRL share some new material on cassette tapes series vol. 1 as a hint for what we can expect soon from the indie-rock band. While not foreign to cassettes, the four piece rock a cruder sound in “rabuka” than anything they’ve done on the format. The lo-fi roughness, though, gives a unique charm to the song, heightening the exuberance of the overall music as well as the sweetness of the melodies. The latter hits like a bite into pure sugar from the way milk’s vocals and aya’s harmonies bleed out into the rest of the production. The band cites the lo-fi mixing as a result born out of simple circumstance: “we couldn’t spend a lot, so we mixed it ourselves,” drummer Happy recently told Indie Grab. The sweet pop-rock core of “rabuka” holds a lot of promise for that eventual album regardless of polish.
cassette tapes series vol. 1 is out now. Listen to the A-side on Bandcamp.
This Week in 1982…
“Madonna Tachi No Lullaby” by Hiromi Iwasaki [Victor, 1982]
Hiromi Iwasaki in 1982 wielded a powerful voice fit to sing fierce dramas backed by grandiose arrangements. But despite the steely personality she presented on record, the singer was still a young 23-year-old idol in real life. “Honestly, I was puzzled when they handed me the lyrics,” she told The Sankei News in 2016 about recording her surprise hit “Madonna Tachi No Lullaby.” “The song had a lot of lyrics about warriors and battlefields. I struggled at the time to figure out how I should exactly sing them.”
The chorus of “Madonna Tachi No Lullaby” indeed has a tone slightly beyond her years, though it stems less from the aforementioned wartime lyrics than what Iwasaki tells through those metaphors. “This city is a battlefield / and men are all wounded warriors,” she sings, setting the barren, melodramatic scene with her signature stoic voice. “Go ahead, take off the pain in your heart / Return to your childhood’s past / And warm up to my passionate heart.” She brazenly assumes the role of not so much a lover or play thing but a caretaker of lost, lonely men. Iwasaki drags her words later in the song as though she’s holding back tears, her voice ethereal but also slightly torn from the fact she inevitably has to bid farewell, like a mother preparing to depart with her child.
Iwasaki gets literal expressing that motherly love in the top verse. She sweetly calls you over to offer solace in the form of a lullaby, but then proceeds to show affection in a manner that rubs a very awkward way in retrospect: “Ah, if I could, I want to become your mother / give up even my life / and protect you.” It’s hard to read it another way than her tapping into her male audience’s deep Oedipal complex as she affirms her presence in their life as their protector. It feels even more discomforting after reading Iwasaki share how salarymen much older than her would tell her they liked the song during its initial release.
The salarymen likely heard “Madonna Tachi No Lullaby” first as the incomplete version placed at the ending of Kayou Suspense Gekijou, a Tuesday night TV block airing two-hour thriller dramas. The track was not meant for proper release before it was cut as a full single due to popular demand. Iwasaki said her fans skewed younger prior to the surprise hit of “Madonna,” her first Oricon number-one in seven years since 1975’s “Sentimental.” For better or worse, the primetime spot worked wonders to expose the idol to a whole different demographic.
While the TV version of “Madonna” is a stately ballad as expected from a lullaby, the single version curiously changes the arrangement into a funky, robust R&B track that suggests a whole different mood. The latter certainly leaves a stronger impression with the former’s exotic pan flutes swapped for muscular guitars to play the main melody, though the song loses some of its essence as the new music lightens the downtrodden feel of the original. Iwasaki thankfully serves as an equalizer of both versions with her voice suited to express bittersweetness as much as the bliss in getting to be the one to provide such enveloping love. For all the awkwardness of the lyrics, and the challenge she experienced recording the song, Iwasaki in 1982 was prepared to deliver the adult melodrama of “Madonna Tachi No Lullaby.”
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