|Share Our Stories! - Click Here|
Gwen Stefani's Harajuku-Inspired Hits
By Yoichi Shimatsu
A tidal wave of PC criticism is engulfing pop songstress Gwen Stefani, and hopefully she will ride it out defiantly like the avid surfer Ka’iulani, the Last Princess of Hawaii, who opposed the American takeover of her Polynesian islands. So what was the pop singer’s racist and culturally insensitive “violation” according to an AA (Asian American or Alcoholics Anonymous, whatever is appropriate) interviewer for that high-brow magazine, Allure? Cultural appropriation of Asian culture by saying: “By God, I am Japanese and didn’t know it.”
What God’s got to do with it is unfathomable. The singer got swept up two decades ago (has really been that long?) in J-pop aka Japanese pop music, like much of her generation back then addicted to sushi, Japanese beer, Subaru cars, Kawasaki motorcycles, and entranced with boy groups, girl groups, anime, manga, bizarre fashion, cuteness and exchanging personal name cards. Japonism 2.0 was a fad, a passing phase of silly amusement following the premature death of the New Wave scene in the States, that ritualistic rite combining simplistic pop chords with bizarre fashion shows.
OK, the mirror image of foreign fascination is my taste for bourbon whisky, horse riding, old gunslinger movies, pearl snap-on buttons and glowing sunsets. Does that make me American? Well, no, even though my citizenship papers are issued by the USA. Could I also be simultaneously Japanese, no and yes: not as a citizen but culturally due to family origins, maybe a lot because I swill Nikka whiskey with my sembei crackers. Well, if you insist on challenging that mized-up identity, then maybe I will challenge you to a sword duel, judo bout, Fight Club fisticuffs or maybe a fast-draw duel, your choice of weapons. Every American is a mix of nationalities and tribal origins, right? Some of us are adoptive, due to foreign wars or maybe fascinated with somewhere far out of one’s ball park.
Ms. Stefani is an Irish-Italian SoCal airhead who wishes to be Japanese. Can you blame her? I recall sitting on a couch in a luxury apartment in Bangkok watching a local version of MTV, showing Gwen prancing around. At first sight, I thought she was a knock-off of Cyndi Lauper, before realizing her four-girl dancers were ethnic Japanese. The Harajuki craze at last was getting international legitimacy from that girl Stefani, who most notably was not a former Mickey Mouse club graduate. Her start as a singer with her brother Eric’s Ska band called No Doubt. In personal rejection of becoming one of the female zombies in the heavied-out Grunge scene, which soon had swept under the rug with the needles after Kurt Cobain let the cat out of the syringe.
Gwen stuck it out with trad pop in a two-horse (bad choice of words) race with Christina Aguilar, the mouseketeer who adopted some of the grunge influence, grew more depressed and soon thereafter faded into the shadows. You fans still love you, Christy.
Stefani was the self-appointed successor to Debbie Harry, that clean-cut darling amid the filth of The Sex Pistols and their raging lunatic front-man Johnny Rotten who cuffed and shot his girlfriend. That insane act of love terminated the punk scene (other than the last slam dancers at the Mabuhay club aka The Fab Mab on Broadway opposite the Carol Doda stripper joint on Broadway in San Francisco. Note here: I’m old enough to have suffered through punk craze in Manhattan and New Wave in SF during their gory years and glory days. Replacing punk, the New Wave scene was constructed by art students, who were not great musicians but just banged out synthesizer-assisted chords. Their talent instead was focused on staging live-music to enhance dizzy fashion shows staged by bizarre amateur designers. The affection for and shock of outrageous fashion were the roots of Madonna and two decades later Stefani, class acts who knew how to sing and dance.
OK, my next intersection with Gwen’s obsession was in Tokyo, after the collapse of Japan’s economic bubble when the real estate inside that city’s circular Yamanote train line was worth more than all the real estate across the rest of the world. The price of that wealth, the largest ever amassed in human history, was that every boy and girl had to grow up to became an obedient “salaryman” or an OL, a neatly attired office lady, aka a silent tea-pourer.
Fabulous Takeshita Street
After the financial bubble blew apart in the mid-1980s, Takeshita Street in the Harajuku district, near the Meiji Shrine, went from being a kid’s toy shopping center to the epicenter of youth rebellion against adult conformism. The dichotomy between acceptable good taste and defiant parody powered the Harajuku phenomenon. I cannot vouch for this but coming from uber-wealthy Southern California, where the casual lifestyle was actually a subtle straitjacket, Gwen became immediately entranced by the quiet but fierce commitment of those Japanese kultur-kampers, no matter the personal risks of familial rejection and public disdain, impoverishment and zero future chances.
Their parents’ generation were mostly part of the New Left that rebelled against the Vietnam War and the US-Japan Security Treaty, but upon rreaching young adulthood collectively caved into corporate conformism Their idealism was all in the head and never outwardly expressed, other than with quiet mumbling with old buddies at an izakaya, a pub. In contrast, the Harajuku kids were exuberantly anti-conformist, churning out bold new statements in clothing, art, music and lower-end job choices. One of my younger buddies, for instance, sells hand-ground coffee from his van at flea markets up and down the main island and his choice of garb is retro, with a head band and fundoshi or loin cloth (underneath carpenter’s pants). Traditionalism is the next level of escape for a former Harajuku rebel. Oh, well, different strokes, I guess, and he managed to marry a hairdresser, which pleased his aging mother.
So the big attraction at Harajuku on the weekends was the song-and-dance performances by “maids” and goths, those zombie girls in black Victorian costumes, clown wear folly-ists, the “kawaii-ii” boom of pre-adolescent cuteness, and school girl uniforms with plaid skirts nd rolled down bobby socks (off-limits, you pervs.) There were amateur guy groups out there on the pavement, too, on the neo-samurai path blazed by the eternal SMAP: today’s DANdism, Arashi, KAT-TUN, Bullet Train and hundreds of other contenders, most plastered with make-up but not gay. What might confuse foreigners is that many of these lads mince around like poofs but are not queer, the latter crowd being macho rough-neck types and ordinary-looking necktied salari-men congregated in the nearby Shinjuku Ni-chome (2nd district). So, basically, these massive enclaves of the Japanese capital are mad-houses of nonconformism of a polite sort in a nation of conservative retards.
So Stefani recruited a 4-girl grounp of native-born talent and JAs (Japanese Americans) renamed “Love, Angel, Music, Baby” (the nicknames of the foursome) for her 2004 debut album, followed the next year by her “Harajuku Lovers” North American tour. Notably she did not then tour Japan and Asia, but I do recall that she subsequently performed without the dancers across Asia.
My assessment is positive: that she brought the Harajuku cultural movement to world recognition, outside the narrow circle of gaijin (foreign) tsukebe (sex maniacs and pervs) in Japan for the enjoyment of women and girls worldwide astonished at the immaturity on dispay. That was a defining moment, however one chooses to condemn or praise this remarkable cross-cultural phenomena. Therefore, my appraisal as former editor with The Japan Times newspaper group in the heart of Tokyo is that the wave of PC criticism of Ms. Stefani by suspected lesbians and feminist nerds is unacceptable, ahistorical and, frankly, the usual self-pitying holier-than-thou venom from the LGBTQIA+ sourpusses who desperately need to quell fun outside of their egocentric manias.
The main critique of Ms. Stefani should be that she still needs to put together her greatest-ever hit, regardless of sales potential, since “Hollaback Girl” doesn’t quite put her among the eternals. For that challenge, Gwen deserves encouragement and also praise for her Nippon phase as a cross-cultural experimenter who succeeded at breaking the ice to a greater than lesser degree across the vast Pacific Ocean. She achieved this transmission despite the fact that no Japanese singer has ever made it big in the Western world since Kyu Sakamoto’s great “Ue o muite aroku” (Looking up as I walk), racistly mistranslated as “Sukiyaki” since his walking was done after dinnertime in the purple-darkness of night. Sadly, Sakamoto-sensei died in the mysterious JAL crash on Mount Fuji.
By contrast, American and European singers and music groups are a known quantity, respected across Asia, including Japan. Cultural reciprocity is more important than fair trade rules, bringing us all into the same orbital cycle of Planet Earth. Fair trade in culture is arguably more beneficial than shipping cars to the USA and weapons to Asia. Frankly speaking, most American song-writing and performing nowadays is third-rate as compared with the great performers of the past, so interacting with the wider world might help uplift the dismal cultural scene across the USA.
At a moment of decline of American rock, jazz and pop music after the turn of the millennium, Gwen Stefani’s Japan daze should be remembered as a breath of fresh air away from funky dance music and a jolt to a smug fashion scene as well. Maybe her next inspiration might come from her family’s Italian and Irish homelands, cradles of boisterous song, dance and classical works.
So let’s wish her “in bocca al lupo” and a “adh mor, Erin go Bragh!” Cultural diversity is a joy to celebrate and not an irritant to condemn as being somehow inauthentic. One last point: frankly speaking it’s high time for African Americans to leave behind hip-hop in search of melodic music arising from Southern traditions and African origins like the blues and jazz masters attempted in the past. The creation of music is an eternal search for what moves us anew, from the eerie voices of angels to the far end of outer space, there should be no limits.
Yoichi Shimatsu is a retired editor and news reporter for The Japan Times group in Tokyo and also served as its critic for opera productions composed in Japa