|For those about to J-Rock|
by Subha Arulvarathan
Songs in the visual kei of life
TORONTO (CUP)––As I was recovering my scores of music after my darling computer decided to crash, I stumbled upon “Mayonaka ni Kawashita Yakusoku” by Malice Mizer. Once I got past the mouthful of a name, I listened to the odd combination of pipe organs and operatic chorus, with the melancholic and distinct vocals of Klaha rising over it. I was reminded once again of my infatuation with visual kei, a genre little known outside certain music circles.
This can partly be accounted to the fact that visual kei is a branch of Japanese rock (affectionately referred to by fans as J-Rock). It has its roots as an underground movement in the late ’80s and early ’90s and can be considered pastiche, as it aims to experiment with various established genres such as rock, punk, metal, goth and glam in an attempt to create a wholly new sound. Relatively new bands like Schwartz Stein (unfortunately now disbanded) attempted to push this label even further by incorporating elements of electronica as well.
The term visual kei is attributed to one of the first big visual kei bands to make it mainstream: X-Japan. The etymology of the phrase also does little to hide the importance of the element of show by the use of the English word “visual”, and the kanji (Chinese typography) of “kei,” which can be translated to “style.”
Indeed, the aesthetics of a visual kei band are just as important as the music. This includes elaborate live shows, larger-than-life personas and yes, even androgyny, heightened with heavy makeup and elaborate Victorian, bondage-style or even animé-influenced costumes. It all culminates to promote a kind of fantastical and perhaps even escapist style of music; an effect that David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust era attempted to promote. But with a twist.
Such prominent visual components play an important part in the attractiveness of the genre, perhaps reflected in the demographic of visual kei fans, which consists customarily of teenage girls.
As with any popular genre, it also came to the attention of huge music corporations like Sony, which allowed (previously) visual kei bands like L’Arc en Ciel, Glay and Pierrot to become more mainstream. Ironically, however, this almost always means that the band loses the visual kei label, as they then tend to play more established genres like pop and tone down their indie look.
Visual kei bands are more successful and well-known than ever, with an expanding fan base, even in Western countries. However, are new fans really being exposed to visual kei? Originally founded on experimentation and innovation, has visual kei’s primary motive become one solely of entertainment and profit? Here lies a conundrum that any music fan can understand.