Preface: Those who know me well know I'm a Metal fan. But I'm also a J-Pop fan. I've been to both sides; I've had the "but it's just screaming" argument when arguing Metal to J-Pop fans, and heard the exclamations of "but it's talentless" come from the Metal camp, but I did not develop an interest in the genre by simply picking it up at random, and I felt it high time for someone to dispel some myths.
1) It's Nothing Like Western Pop.
It sounds odd to state, but Japanese Pop music has completely different origins. It's often referred to as J-Pop precisely because of this distinction. The 50s Elvis Rock never took off in Japan and Blues never really made it big across either. Instead what once dominated the charts was Enka; a traditional form of Japanese folk you've probably heard without realising. Meiko Kaji's "Uremi Bushi" may have been penned in the 70s for the film "Lady Snowblood", but it entered western consciousness much later when Tarantino revived it for his "Kill Bill Pt. 1".
Enka isn't the only component however, and this is where things get interesting, because around the 70s Jazz took off in a big way. The free swinging, guitar tapping, blast beating and shredtastic fantastic saw American musicians flock to Osaka and Tokyo and deciding they'd rather not leave. Even now Osaka is referred as 'the second home of Jazz' (the first of course being New Orleans), and artists like Kaori Kobayashi and Hiromi Uehara continue to top the local charts. Now you'll note that these are all elements common in Metal and it's this influence in particular that becomes important because it means...
2) Musicians Actually Have to Know How to Play Their Instruments.
When Friedman left Cacophony to become a Japanese studio musician, I doubt it was because he was lazy. No, he left because being a western studio musician wasn't challenging enough. When the studio took Nana Mizuki's long time co-writers and collaborators away from her to work on other projects, she refused to co-operate until they could be reunited. Outside of idol groups, J-Pop isn't made by a committee deciding what will sell; it's made by bands and individuals.
There is this absence of focus on simply pouring money into one formula but rather an intention to spread it around and to figuring out what sticks. It means artists need to stand out and be different; it means guitar solos aren't uncommon and that Jazz experimentalism runs rampant. In fact, I rank one solo Pop/Rock artist as one of the most unique artists in any music genre: Miyavi. The man started out in a by-the-numbers Rock band but when it came time to strike out on his own, he developed a style of funky slapping and popping I didn't think possible on an electric guitar.
3) The Music is Often Incredibly Creative and Diverse.
I often say I'm a fan of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Now, whilst this isn't a lie, nor is it strictly true. Rather, it's more accurate to say I'm a fan of Yusutaka Nakata. So much so that I follow him from project to project; before Kyary Pamyu Pamyu hit the scene there was Marino, Perfume, Nagisa Cosmetic, Meg and countless others. Nakata cultivated a signature style that may have reached it's perfect complement with Kyary, but it was a style he had been creating long before she existed. Mariko Goto is another prime example of unbridled creativity, having made a career out of embodying the playfulness and mood swings of a ten year old girl—so much that the stage show for her Punk band prior to her going solo saw her dress up like a schoolgirl whilst the band in suits stared at her intently; this little Japanese woman bouncing around the stage like a pinball screeching that all the people looking at her were perverts—and she does this deranged child routine better than anyone else, even as she now approaches her 40s. Sadly this does result in her being somewhat 'unhinged'. Like the time she jumped off stage and hospitalised a photographer for being obnoxious and distracting her from her performance. Unsurprisingly, she was blacklisted from most major labels (except King Records JPN, because King Records give no fucks) and the tour cancelled, but what happened next is a perfect example of…
4) They Often Interact With Fans in a Way That Puts Other Artists to Shame
Mariko Goto was left without funding, without a venue, without a label. But she promised her Tokyo fans a show, and by the Gods did she give them one; now a free agent with little time to lose, she posted up her route, grabbed her guitar and took to the streets for a free, the-more-the-merrier walking tour of the streets, singing for anyone who cared to listen.
When artists become big in the West they often become hidden from sight, going to fancy restaurants and guarded bars. They ignore and slight the fans, and if you want to actually meet them you need cough up big time (note: this is not intended on a slight on the Metal scene in general, but rather the biggest names of the scene forgetting how they got there). J-Pop is the complete opposite; artists are often big because of their fan interaction, and the idol scene (and AKB48 in particular) is a perfect example of that.
I must confess it took me the longest time to understand the appeal in idol groups like AKB48, and it wasn't until I ventured to their café in Akihabara that everything finally clicked: they’re loved because they’re accessible. They perform twelve shows a week, constantly do games and competitions and vie for the affection of fans through their personalities. A Pop artist may sell out an arena, but AKB48 fill a small theatre so many times that the only way to get tickets now is through a literal lottery (there is admittedly only space for 250 people in the theatre to the best of my knowledge, but that not only serves to improve the sense of intimacy between fan and artist, and still means performing for 3,000 fans a week). I'm not going to pretend there aren't issues in the manner idols are sometimes treated, but the manner they blur the lines between an almost reality TV-like set of appearances and their music; the manner they showcase their personalities as well as their art feels beyond what other large names have accomplished.
Now this is one of the biggest names in Japan and a viable solution, but fan interaction happens more often than you think. In fact, I'd say a good 50℅ of the time an artist will do some sort of meet and greet, or hanging around after the show; about the same as underground Metal. Even the TV appearances they make don't feel staged. When Yukari Tamura had a new single she grabbed fellow vocalist Nana Mizuki for a radio plug in; no planning, just two friends being themselves, and the result is one of the most hilarious promotional plugs I’ve ever heard. How often do you see that in the West? How often does it sound like a specified phrase theyre required to say? How often does that result in a complete absence of personality? And it's not just public appearances that show this off, but also...
5) The Lyrics and Themes are About as Diverse as You Can Get (i.e. It's not all fucking love songs).
There are only so many ways you can skin a cat, and there are only so many way you can describe a single emotion. It's time the west stopped beating the dead horse and followed suit with Japan who have diversified their interests into topics such as righteous justice (Mell), children's fairy tails (HNC), Kyary Pamyu's array of Aliens, Monsters and Ninjas, or whatever batshit weirdness Plus-Tech Squeeze Box had in mind when they came up with their particular brand of insanity.
Plus tech squeeze box - Cartoom!
Mariko Goto - m@u
Kahimi Karie - K. K. K. K.
Me-al Art - Hemelocalis (ヘメロカリス)
Kawada Mami - Square the Circle
Antennasia - Qus-Cus
Perfume - Game
Gacharic Spin - Winner!
Strawberry Machine - Crazy Kilt
Chappie - New Chappie
Supercell - Supercell
Nana Mizuki - Ultimate Diamond
Hazel Nuts Chocolate - Cute
Tenniscoats - Tan-Tan Therapy
Polysics - Weeeeeeeeee!!!