I was playing a solo gig at a Halloween dance party last fall, dressed as a vampire and singing Bob Dylan songs (I had to take the plastic fangs out to sing “Mr. Tambourine Man” properly), when I noticed Freddie Mercury hopping around near the back wall, making distracting air-guitar gestures. Later I learned that, not only was he NOT Freddie Mercury, and not only was he simply dressed as Freddie for Halloween, but he was in fact the lead singer of the Queen cover band that was next on the bill that night. He had been trying to demonstrate his enjoyment of my show.
As his band was setting up it was my turn to get excited, because I’m a big fan of old 70s Queen rockers like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Will Rock You.” I can even tolerate their disco-y “Another One Bites the Dust” from around 1980. But my stomach lurched when the cover band instead launched into “I Was Made to Love You,” a soppy feel-good anthem from Freddie and Company’s twilight years that here in Japan has somehow come to represent “Queen music.” I thought about jumping on stage in costume and dentally assaulting the singer’s neck, but I could see that the rest of the crowd were getting into the song. And it’s easy to understand why, when “I Was Made to Love You” is practically the only Queen tune you ever hear in Japan as background music in malls and other public places, unless you specifically ask the Muzak people if they take requests.
(Speaking of which, I remember one night long ago playing in a bar band in Seattle when, after we had just wrapped up a cover of Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart”, a girl came to the foot of the stage and asked, “Do you take requests?” I smiled and said, “Of course!” “Please don’t ever play ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ again.”)
Much in the same way I’ve felt my authority over the English language slip in the years since I left the USA—“manspread”?; “YOLO”?—so have I lost my presumed superior sense of Western music culture. Of course English-speaking Anglocentric musicians continue to score hits here in Japan, from Aerosmith to Taylor Swift, but I can no longer nod with authority when someone at karaoke suggests I sing a “popular” English song: “Can you sing ‘Uptown Funk’ (2014)?” “Uh, no, but if you like I can take you to ‘Funkytown’ (1980)!”
It’s not just an age thing. But mostly it is. One of the biggest hits of 1983, the year I graduated high school, was “Pass the Dutchie ‘pon the Left Hand Side,” which I thought at the time was a social justice manifesto for southpaws like myself. It had a multicultural beat and a vérité message that deserved to live longer in our collective conscience than it did. (Maybe too many dropped “dutchies” helped blot it out of our memories.)
Since then songs topping the charts internationally seem to have become more and more vacuous. In 1994 there was “Macarena,” the pulsing beat of which was actually stolen from a prototype sonic cannon being developed by the Spanish navy as a deterrent against Mediterranean pirates; in 2003 we had “All the Things She Said” by a pair of Russian high school girls called t.A.T.u. who apparently said it all in that song and were never heard from again. (Some of you might remember Japan’s failed attempt at a worldwide hit around that time: a samurai in a gold lamé kimono dancing the “Matsuken Samba.”) You would think in this instant digital gratification age that we would be able to locate, somewhere in the world, more substantive music to obsess over. But no: Between live acts at the above-mentioned Halloween party, at which “Freddie” had showed that he was made to disappoint me, the house DJ was wowing the crowd with Pikotaro’s “PPAP” song. For those who don’t know, its lyrics are a basic English language practice dialogue:
A: I have a pen. I have a apple.
B: You have no grasp of indefinite article usage.
A: I have a pen. I have pineapple.
B: I have a taser and I’m not afraid to use it.