During Japan's gilded era, perhaps, they made pop-cultural sense. Japan was innocent, proper and full of promise, just like its teenage idol singers belting out their warbly, feel-good singles. It was a simpler time, when a nation that was sure of its direction looked to entertainers for affirmation that life was, indeed, saccharine sweet. That Japan is as dead as Yamaguchi Momoe's career. The ubiquitous teen idols now bear little resemblance to the abrasive reality of modern-day Japan dropouts, suicides, unemployment, teen pregnancy. And rather than reflect a tranquil society they serve as an over-made up, escapist fantasy. That façade, like the economy, has now cracked and a thriving, gritty subculture of hard-core female rock 'n' roll is now bursting onto the scene
EX-Girls are to Japanese idols what mutts are to French poodles: beneath contempt. The most conservative definition of their music is punk. Their look is, um, eccentric. At a recent Tokyo concert the trio danced on stage a la Chris Kattan in A Night at the Roxbury, dressed head-to-toe in bubble suits of neon pink, green and white. Then they stripped, revealing polyester dresses before launching into nonstop guitar riffs over heavy drumbeats.
The group want nothing aside from their fat record deals to do with the rainbows-and-unicorns world of J-pop princesses. Their attitude onstage, if anything, knowingly mocks their papier-mâché counterparts: bassist Kirilo stared wide-eyed at the audience, robotically tilting her head from side to side with a fake grin plastered on her face. Producing karaoke hits is not on the agenda. Instead they yodel like Yoko Ono, harmonize like choir boys or bust frog-ribbit raps that would stir P. Diddy's soul. They're so far removed from the mainstream they claim to be from another planet.
Now those worlds are colliding. Hard-core female rockers, in their army boots and ragtag outfits, have begun infiltrating the clean-scrubbed world of Japanese pop music. Groups like Mean Machine, Softball and ZONE mug for covers, sign with majors, hog the charts and even threaten to snatch coveted commercial slots. "In Japan it boils down to whether or not you like the way they look," says the host of Tokyo FM's Radio Unlimited Hisashi Yamada. For Japan's dreamless generation, the fairy-tale idol look just isn't cutting it anymore.
Japan's fertile underground of female punk has been booming in various subterranean venues since the 1970s. But the paradox they present onstage as mild-mannered sayonara ladies thrashing out nu-metal on low slung guitars has traditionally appealed more to audiences overseas than at home. Kero! Kero! Kero!, eX-Girl's sophomore venture, for instance, spent three weeks at No. 1 on San Francisco college radio station KUSF's playlist. They've done several international tours, both in Europe and the U.S. Bands such as Shonen Knife toured with Nirvana while all-girl punk label Benton, which represents, among others, Lolita No. 18 and Mummy and the Peepshow, will be mounting reviews in Asia and the States this spring.
Back in Japan, however, eX-Girls remain mired in small clubs or live houses while idols who are unknown in the West pack in thousands on national stadium tours. Japan, it seems, tolerates punk-colored hairdos and strange gaudy dress only on its boys. In the pop music scene, every girl has to look, well, girly even if she's on stage in knee-high boots and a micromini. Anything else is, in the eyes of crusty Japan's wallet-wielding middle-brows, unacceptable.
Prissy girliness is exactly what eX-Girls and their fellow hard-core punkers are rejecting. It's a grrl movement with a twist: this time it's society's downbeat, nihilistic attitude that gets these girls raging. They may sound like Liz Phair, Hole or Riot Grrl, but instead of ranting about suicide, overconsumption or hating boys their messages are life-affirming. It's punk rock with a public service message. Back to the Mono Kero, eX-Girl's latest release, is full of positive lyrics: "Some danger and hopes are waiting/ Get through the surprising darkness/ Don't give up to fear." And some verses even veer more toward Olivia Newton John than Joe Strummer with imprecations to "Train and train and train your muscles strong/ Wholesome body makes wholesome your mind."
Japan should heed those upbeat words. Its gung-ho days of inventiveness are long gone, having been replaced by complacency and pessimism. The eX-Girls know that's no solution to the country's problems. And they're on a mission to teach that to the rest of Japan.