Jrock is becoming a buzzword in today’s teenage youth. Even as the Japanese music industry is moving into America, Chinese, Taiwanese, and Korean music also has had influence in the U.S. Music Industry.
For the longest time, one of the biggest questions that has plagued the Asian industry as a whole is, "How do we enter the American market?" followed by, "What kind of artist can break through the wall?" Taiwan has tried, numerous times – illustrated by artists like Jay Chou, Jolin Tsai, Wilber Pan, and Leehom Wang, with performances at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and various venues in Los Angeles. Despite the fact that both Leehom Wang and Wilber Pan were raised and educated in America and are fluent in English, for whatever reason, neither SONY Music Taiwan nor Universal Music Taiwan (Wang’s and Pan’s labels, respectively) see reason to use that to their advantage, perhaps believing that America is not yet ready for a pop star with an Asian face.
It is undisputable that Wang would be the best Taiwanese artist to make a breakthrough, given that his music is most definitive of America’s current market conditions — a mix of pop, R&B, with just enough hip hop influence to soothe the recent American need for a hip hop "feel". But SONY’s apprehension towards breaking into the market is with good reason. The collective Chinese industry has tried, consistently, to break into America for the past ten years, beginning with Chinese-American Coco Lee. And they have failed, for the past ten years, to break through that wall of xenophobia that seems to dominate American culture.
There are few Asian artists in the industry recognized by non-Asians in America, and I can count them on two fingers: Jin (Ruff Ryders) and Mike Shinoda (Linkin Park, Fort Minor). While Jin gained prominence with a career that began in freestyling, Shinoda’s opportunities were opened by Linkin Park’s tremendous success. However, while Shinoda’s Fort Minor was highly acclaimed, embraced, and accepted, Jin’s career soared and fizzled out with an unimpressive sour note.
While many critics have argued that Jin’s demise was due to the American inability to associate hip hop with Asians (nevermind the fact that the vast majority of Asian Americans listen to nothing but hip hop), it is unmistakable that Fort Minor’s success undermines that argument — as Shinoda is unmistakably Asian. Fort Minor’s hip hop, however, is simply of a higher, more refined quality brought about by Shinoda’s years of industry experience, coupled with skillful collaborations with many other artists such as Jay-Z — which was what set Fort Minor apart from Jin’s nascent efforts, plagued with uncertainty, to break into the industry. Shinoda’s success, perhaps, is what has given other Asian countries more courage to step forward and make their attempts.
2006 has seen more attempts by Korea and Japan than any other in the history of music and entertainment, to break into the American market. But while Japan has failed to appeal to America’s popular mainstream culture thus far, Korea has somehow managed to infiltrate through the cracks, with Korean artists selling out the Madison Square Garden, appearances on MTV’s Total Request Live (complete with massive crowds of screaming, sign-bearing fans standing on Broadway), the launch of MTV-K, a surge of Korean-oriented parties in New York that attract both Chinese and Japanese attendees — the list goes on and on. With Mark Shimmel (former LaFace Records CEO) taking Se7en under his wing to groom into the first Asian import to break mainstream, Korea’s efforts have certainly not been ignored by America. The launch of MTV-CH has also given the Chinese markets hope, as the scramble to find the right face to import to America commences.
But what of Japan? It is undeniable that anime has been hugely successful in America, and Letters From Iwo Jima has seen unprecedented success, but their music still has yet to catch on. MTV has not recognized their efforts with an MTV-J, and do not plan to, despite constant tours by rock bands and other artists nationwide (in addition to visits to anime conventions). The American industry seems rather ambivalent towards Japanese artists—especially their pop acts, which arguably have not seen the overwhelming success their rock acts have in America.
Perhaps this failure is because Japan’s pop culture still falls into the dance genre that America left behind ten years ago in favor of hip hop and R&B. Even former pop boy band crooner, Justin Timberlake, has left his bubblegum, dance-infused pop tunes behind for a mix of dance, hip hop and R&B, which sounds eerily like the genre that Korea is so well known for. His bold and risqué move has resulted in his most successful album to date — propelling him to become the #1 best selling male solo artist of the year (making the neologism, "sexyback" a widely-used term that has entered urban discourse), and has given such aspiring imports such as Se7en even more courage to step up to bat on a playing field that is starting to look more level.
As Taiwan scrambles to find their face to catch up with Korea’s head start, American industry professionals sit back and wait to see the results of this ambitious attempt to break into a market that might not be ready for an imported Asian to break through. Not even Asian Americans have been able to see the success Korea and Taiwan hope for their artists in America, save for Mike Shinoda with Fort Minor.
I don’t see Japan breaking into the American popular mainstream any time soon — especially considering just how much of Japanese popular entertainment, whether it be music, movies, or dramas, are dominated by the products of Johnny’s Entertainment — which certainly would not be embraced by the American pop mainstream. However, the question that remains to be asked is this: why does it have to be mainstream? Furthermore, why does it have to be pop?
Rock saw its heyday during the 1970s and 1980s, but severely recessed at the end of the 1990s. With the turn of the century, hip hop and R&B became very big contenders that don’t look like they’re moving anywhere in the near future — especially given Timberlake’s phenomenal success with bringing “sexy” back into a market that had begun to go stale, one so competitive and saturated by so many of the same, cookie-cutter artists whose sound has become homogenized, as opposed to diversified.
Perhaps an Asian face might be exactly what America needs to reinvigorate a stagnating music industry falling further in decline. And perhaps instead of pop, it will be a rock revolution, one that is uniquely Japanese—a movement led by bands like S.K.I.N. (a Japanese superband formed by some of the biggest names in Japanese rock) that will deconstruct conventions of culture, ethnicity, race, and language. S.K.I.N. guitarist SUGIZO told Guitar Lab last year, “I think that what people call "rock" is really the idea of breaking down old ideas and stereotypes and creating new things.”
With S.K.I.N.’s worldwide debut looming in the horizon, the time has come for rock to reposition itself at the forefront of the music industry—breaking down old ideas and stereotypes and creating a new era of music. A new era of rock and roll.