Spice World was 1997 in a nutshell. The Spice Girls took the world by storm and were on every item you could find. Spice Fever, I believe, was the word for it. I had a favourite: Posh. She was the best looking of them all, and she was my first pre-pubescent crush. It didn’t take too long before that went away, and I developed something a little less ‘dictated’ in terms of musical interest. Spice fever receded and the Spice Girls became little more than a nostalgia trip and little else.
I open with these remarks because living in Tokyo has reminded me of this period. Yesterday, outside my workplace, the press was surrounding some guy. I asked who it was and my work colleague said it was ‘the main singer of the ‘come on baby, America!’ group, DA PUMP. (My students had been singing this song and I’d successfully gotten them to sing Australia instead of America). I approached the crowd to take a photo but a man flashed a ‘no camera’ sign in my face. I initially resisted, saying “But I tourist!” He wasn’t having it.
The truth is though that no one will remember DA PUMP in a few years time, in much the same way that Kimi No Na Wa has been forgotten along with the accompanying RADWIMPS song.
Everyone must like it.
Theodore Adorno, one of the most famous philosophers of the Frankfurt School wrote of The Culture Industry. The Culture Industry, Adorno argues, is an industry prevalent in a capitalist society that relishes in superficial products designed to lull the masses into a state of control or inertia, through the passive consumption of these goods. It specialises in mass media – dictating what’s in with fashion, film, and music. They’re the gatekeepers of culture, motivated by money and not art for itself.
Some of Adorno’s complaints were fairly lodged in how the capitalist society relished in ‘pop music’ over classical, rendering any of the intellectual value of music obsolete. Whilst this is not entirely true of all pop music, I think for what I am writing here it holds some water.
I wrote previously on my experience here as an experience of utter sensory assault. The screen distracts and disseminates from all angles. In some of the busier areas, a cacophony of sound distracts you from your own inner life. This sensory assault, coupled with the cultural expectations placed upon the individual, lead to a life of either distraction or decay.
Coming back to the Spice Girls.
While much of the Western world has moved on from this kind of music, many Asians countries have not. It could be blamed on how Asia is sometimes a little slower on the development of music, at least from the consumerist perspective. But I feel that the better explanation is linked to the overall lifestyle of the culture or at least the means of hinting at what’s under the surface. The Spice Girls were the ultimate distraction, scratching many itches: lust, fun, all pleasure.
In Japan, as I mentioned, there are trucks driving around populated areas with a new J-Pop idol group posing on the side. Their songs are blasted as the weary-eyed truck driver looks for a place to park, and probably catch a moment of rest. AKB48, the biggest all-female J-Pop group with 134 members, dominates sales in Japan with an ever-rotating roster of ‘fresh’ talent. Here is the Culture Industry: fresh sashimi and a fresh woman. Consume. Along with a consumerist thirst for ‘fresh’, young Japanese women that look like school girls is a borderline pedophilic culture (more on that another time).
The curious thing about all of this is that these people are called idols. The culture around us reflects what society wishes for in a free market. These things are really a reflection of what is truly valued, what comes from within.
Hence, The Culture Industry.
Everyone must like it.