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Get ready America; Japan's J-Pop phenomenon has all eyes facing east.

By Dave Gibson

NOVEMBER 2, 1998:  "Hide is dead."

At 7:30 a.m., Saturday, May 2, 1998, Japanese guitar hero and heartthrob Hide (pronounced hee-day) was found hanged by a towel suspended from a doorknob in his Tokyo mansion. A shocking story that is still a topic of speculation in Japan (foul play wasn't ruled out), in the U.S., the event received scant media mention.

In Tokyo the memorial service attracted more than 50,000 fans and forced police to mobilize helicopters, boats and more than 100 officers to patrol the Hoganji Temple area. Within hours, Asahi News reported two related suicides, two attempted suicides, 170 patients treated at an emergency aid station set up at the temple, and 50 rushed to hospitals because of "emotional collapse." The mystery and hype surrounding Hide's death and the accompanying frenzy, a culturally insulated version of Kurt Cobain's suicide and idolization, is drawing attention to Japan's bizarre popular music scene.

The validity of Japanese popular music, or J-Pop, has in the past been questioned because of its domination by bland mainstream pop and cute, talentless idols. Though this phenomenon is losing momentum, big production agencies still groom young, would-be pop stars and supervise their education and training until they are ready to be marketed. This factory process has revitalized Japan's music scene and now threatens to influence U.S. record companies in the new millennium.

One of the most successful of these agencies, Johnny's Jimusho, sometimes waits years after a band's television debut before it releases its music. Jimusho creation SMAP (which stands for Sports Music Assemble People although they are not known as such), a hugely successful male vocal/dance group not unlike N-SYNC, has its own variety show, members starring in television dramas, and appearances in commercials for phone giant NTT, Lotte sugarless gum and Ace Cock noodles.

The hype only begins there. One can expect SMAP to release at least one single every few months and up to five full-length albums per year. To make things juicier, the tabloids spout stories about their love affairs and even their hair cuts: like SMAP member Shingo Katori having his buttocks insured for 200 million yen for his drama, Toumei Ningen, in which he flashes some cheek. In addition, there are hundreds of licensed toys, watches, shirts and other tchotchkes on the market.

With this multi-media approach, J-Pop artists are marketed the same way Disney films (and associated products) are over here - the possibilities are limitless and often ridiculous. Japanese tv dramas have firmly engaged the practice of musical tie-ups in the J-Pop industry. Imagine every time a four-hour Jane Seymour mini-series hits the tv, fans could run to Blockbuster and pick up the theme music as performed by Foo Fighters or Firewater. "Maybe 80 to 90 percent of the songs on the charts are tie-ups to dramas or commercials," says Norio Yamamoto of Universal Records. "They put the title of the songs and artists in the commercial." Additionally, anime and video game soundtracks are sprinkled throughout the Oricon Charts (Japan's Billboard.)

Amid the shameless promotion, Japan actually has some icons who do justice to the J-Pop process. That's why Hide and others in the new rock movement are so important: they're original and they're selling millions of units. As the guitarist of X-Japan, Hide (real name Matsumoto Hideto) was a pioneering member of a new J-Pop sub-genre called "visual rock." Born of a combination of hard rock and metal, visual rock leans toward a more theatrical presentation emphasizing imagery as much as music. One only needs to watch an X-Japan video to recognize its decadent glam influences, as drummer Yoshiki is often decked out in lace stockings and torn black leather vests. However, the band's androgynous looks can be attributed as much to kayou kyoku (traditional Japanese pop) as to the eccentric costumes of '70s David Bowie and '80s hair bands. It is precisely this hodgepodge of international styles that makes visual rock such an noteworthy new genre. Couple that with the high-dollar, idol-influenced publicity that goes behind these bands, and you've got a new brand of rock that makes KISS look like shoegazers.

Stateside it's evident that the glorification of music idols is big business. Though few other artists have exploited markets as diverse as the candy, toy, video game, motion picture or tv industries, many are looking to Japan for direction. Recently, artists such as Crystal Method and Pitchshifter have contributed songs to Playstation soundtracks, and Welsh band Super Furry Animals appears in a video game as a soccer team. Additionally, artists such as Marilyn Manson (who has kids buying mascara by the crate) are reviving the trend of creating lifestyles around their music in the glam, goth and now J-Pop traditions.

Television could be the final frontier in exploiting bands to an American audience. "Tv [in Japan] is like radio here," Yamamoto says. "They see the bands on tv. ... [For example] the singer of [the visual rock band] Luna Sea is in commercials and shows and is more like a movie star."

Another example is the neo-glam punk outfit Glay, the most popular rock act in Japan today. Formed in 1988, the band developed a fan base through incessant touring and an unrelenting schedule of releases. This summer the band played a series of sold-out stadium shows behind their multi-platinum album Pure Soul. On the day concert tickets went on sale, Japan's phone system shut down as millions vied for seats.

In fanzines and on the internet, member stats include everything from blood types to wardrobe changes. Merchandise sold at the summer tour included Glay action figures, power drinks, picture frames and even a manicure set. In an attempt to remain mass marketable, their new release (not surprisingly) is a tv drama tie-up song due out at the end of November.

Hide and his latest band, Spread Beaver, were poised to be the first to make an impact stateside. In addition to three successful singles released this year (one of which won MTV's Video Awards' Best International Song) he recently formed the project Zilch, a post-apocalyptic techno/metal trio with ex-members of western acts Killing Joke and the Professionals. Post-death, the impact of Hide's music and the entire visual rock phenomenon continues to break new ground. Don't be surprised if in the coming years your friends are buying cd's by neatly fabricated virtual idols or listening to the latest glam anime soundtrack by The Dandy Warhols.

Because in the future image will be everything.

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