Composer of 1,000 J-pop songs Joey Carbone says the success
of Lost In Translation may have finally paved the way for
a J-pop hit in America.
|Joey Carbone with J-pop
Few would be surprised to learn that the latest hit by MAX
or SMAP wasnt penned by the bands themselves. But how
many would think that the song was written by an American?
For 20 years, American composer Joey Carbone has been penning
songs for J-pop acts, providing the music for hits by SMAP,
MAX and dozens of others. Close to Johnny Kitagawa, the legendary
producer of boy bands like SMAP, Carbone has an insiders
perspective that comes from decades of working with Japans
But recently, Carbone says over coffee in Shibuya, its
become hard to keep up with the rapid changes transforming
Japans music business. When I first started out
in Japan, there was a system of never firing people, and never
changing companies, he says. Since the Bubble
burst, more people are getting let go from record companiesespecially
older guysand a lot of people are moving around like
crazy. As a foreigner, its very difficult for me to
keep my finger on whos where.
First coming to Japan in 1985 when one of his songs won the
grand prize at the Tokyo Music Festival, Carbone came to be
represented by Taiyo Music, owned by Tats Nashima,
at the time the most powerful person in the Japanese yougaku
(Western music) scene and also, notes Carbone, the man who
brought the Beatles over and got Paul McCartney out of jail
when he was arrested for marijuana possession in 1980.
Carbone became infatuated not only with the country and its
people, but with the distinctive flavor of Japanese music.
I grew up on Motown, the Beach Boys and Phil Spector
stuff, so I was really taken with the melodic structure of
Japanese pop, he says. It always seems to be very
catchy and has a strong melodic sense, as opposed to American
music which is very linear in nature.
Notwithstanding J-pops increasingly Western flavor,
the native New Yorker says he can still hear an undercurrent
of kayoukyoku (Japanese ballads). These days, Japanese
record companies say they want Western music. But they dont
really mean that: They want a Western feeling, rhythmically,
but when it comes down to the melody, they still want a really
hook-y chorus that everyone can sing in karaoke.
Despite the changes wrenching the music business and the increasing
musicianship of Japanese artists, Carbone observes that the
obsession with youth remains impervious to change. The
idol scene, which some people thought would go away, never
seems to go away. When I go to a Japanese record company to
promote a female artist, everyone is looking for someone 17,
18 years old.
Bucking the trend are SMAP, who Carbone notes are as successful
as ever even as its members push 30. You see them on
TV and theyre not thin, young boys anymore, theyre
not what you would call idols. Shingos put on a little
weight. He looks like a typical oyaji. But if you go to a
concert youll see girls who may have aged along with
him, but theyre still screaming like 15-year-olds.
Central to the success of SMAP and countless boy bands over
the past four decades has been Johnny Kitagawa, head of the
powerful Johnnys Jimusho agency. Carbone has worked
closely with Kitagawa.
While granting that Kitagawa wields considerable influence,
Carbone differs with some who say this has a stultifying effect
on Japans entertainment industry. I agree that
his company is powerful, but if a TV show puts one of his
acts on, its only going to be great for the ratings;
if a magazine does an article on Johnnys artists, it
will sell magazines. I think they will all be happy to use
Carbone says Kitagawas genius lies in finding someone
at a young age, and imagining what they might look like a
few years later. As a businessman, I have a tremendous
amount of respect for Johnny because, in a sense, hes
more creative than his artists. His creativity is to put these
acts together. If you listen to a SMAP album, the vocals might
not be world-class, but you will notice that the songs are
usually pretty good, and the production is first-class. So
as a lover of pop music, when I look at the whole package,
Im nothing but impressed with what I hear and see.
In Japan to market a batch of new songs, some of the rights
for which have already been optioned by current J-pop darlings
Boa and Yuki Koyanagi, Carbone is also working on a compilation
album series, Japanese In America (JIA), to introduce expatriate
Japanese and Japanese-American artists to audiences on both
sides of the ocean.
So as an insider, what does he think of J-pop artists
Quixotic attempts to crack the American market, which havent
succeeded since the Sukiyaki Song became a surprise
No. 1 in the early 60s?
The biggest problem has been the lack of singers who
sing effectively with emotion in the English language. Out
of all the artists Ive heard, I think Utada Hikaru has
the best chance because she grew up in New York and her English
Carbone also sees a darker reason for the lack of success.
I also feel theres been some discrimination from
America in accepting Asian artists. I think Japan has always
been open to accepting any music, whether its reggae
or French pop, but Americans only seem to be interested in
black or white artists, or some English artists, maybe occasionally
a Swedish or Australian pop act.
He does, however, note some easing of prejudice. Theres
been increased interest in recent years with The Last Samurai,
Lost In Translation and the big animation boom. I hope those
walls come down.
Joey Carbone is looking for singers
who can sing in Japanese to introduce to Japanese record companies.
He invites interested readers to contact him by email at:
credit: Joey Carbone