Barring a surprise in December, the best-selling album of 2014 in Japan will be by a group of more than 100 members called AKB48. That gigantic outfit has spent the last five years looming over the Japanese pop marketplace, with their music moving millions of copies. They also represent an extreme take on the dominant trend in J-pop today. AKB48 are an idol group, loosely defined as a pop unit usually featuring young women singing uptempo songs. Idols sell people on a fantasy of closeness. CDs and singles often come packaged with incentives, including tickets for meet-and-greets, and rabid supporters scoop up dozens of copies of the same musical product to gain more of these items. This practice — embraced by almost all idol groups along with many artists from other genres, and juicing sales dramatically — has resulted in a stagnant pop scene where musical ideas are often an afterthought to marketing.
Many writers and fans have tagged Tokyo singer-songwriter Oomori Seiko as an “anti-idol.” She wears idol-appropriate pastel clothes and often sings over the same chintzy sounds that outfits such as AKB48 embrace, but she twists her music into something darker and more interesting. Seiko’s voice often approaches a scream, and she includes stretches of confrontational noise to her songs, which also veer toward less-than-upbeat lyrical topics including depression and death. She’s gained increased attention over the last couple of years, and she’s landed on major label Avex, which is releasing her new album Sennou (the title translates to Brainwashing). The album is more than simply a reaction against idol culture; it’s a genre-blurring collection offering something even rarer — a new voice.
Seiko hails from a corner of the country’s capital not known for producing idols: She got her start playing in the neighborhood of Koenji, the birthplace of punk rock in Japan and today a thriving home for live music unafraid to get weird and raw. Her earliest creations featured just her warbly voice and acoustic guitar — a setup she still uses in many shows, including ones at idol-centric gatherings — resulting in direct, intimate numbers. Only one song on Sennou, “Date Wa Yameyou,” comes from that skeletal mold on Sennou, but it breaks down what makes Seiko so interesting, as her voice moves from near whisper to impassioned cry, the emotional punch registering even without understanding one word of Japanese.
On Sennou, Seiko dresses up her soul-baring sketches in bouncy idol pop, lacing them with dissonant touches. Advance single “Kyurukyuru” plays out at an uptempo speed loaded with cheesy synthesized strings, but Seiko spikes it with her off-kilter, at times near-hysteric singing. The twinkly “Nostalgic J-pop” mimics the saccharine ballads idols routinely sing, but swaps in lyrics about suicide and introduces hints of guitar feedback, the dreamy exterior hiding tension.
Sennou isn’t an extended spitball aimed at idol pop, however, which is made clear on second song “Imitation Girl,” where Seiko goes full-on EDM, complete with Skrillex-ish wub outs. Whereas other pop singers — both in Japan (and not just idols) and abroad — tend to use brostep freakouts as code for “I am down with the kids,” Seiko creates a harp-accented dash building up to a sticky-sweet hook. From there, she zips across sounds, often smashing them together on the same song in a way few mainstream Japanese acts today do. She merges dramatic balladry with woozy synth pop (“Yakiniku Date”) and chugging rock with dance (“Rock ‘n’ Roll Paradise,” which sounds like it snuck in the Jersey Club bed squeak sound).
Seiko appears to be following the path laid out by one of her biggest inspirations, turn-of-the-century rocker Sheena Ringo. Sennou features a few sonic nods to Ringo’s work — most clearly on the sample-backed “Nana Chan No Saisei Kouza,” which owes a lot to Ringo’s 2003 masterpiece Kalk Samen Kuri No Hana — but most clearly echoes her ethos. Ringo, too, came from a smaller-scale rock scene before landing on a major label, where she used the new found attention to push her artistic ideas — all written by her — forward. Musically Seiko resembles Togawa more, but Sennou carries Ringo’s attitude into the J-pop sphere. Seiko has a long way to go to achieve larger commercial success, but in an environment where idols mostly perform other people’s music — many of whom also hail from Koenji, writing for acts such as viral-hits Babymetal — her being able to push great, unfenced music written by her to a larger audience is exciting.