In the New Year, Splashing Rocks' eyes turn towards East Asia, where a cluster of entirely unrelated phenomena, involving the near future and the recent past, attract our scrutiny and interest.
As a welcome diversion from the combative or controversial policy issues we often confront, we begin with a renewed examination of the peculiar yet abiding influence of SR's favorite musical artists, the Carpenters, on the musical cultures of Japan, China, and other East Asian countries. In ensuing posts we will explore the forthcoming high-tension Battle of the East Asian Ice Queens --Yuna Kim of South Korea and Mao Asada of Japan -- in the Sochi Olympics; and then the increasingly ominous friction between China and Japan in the more menacing arena of potential military confrontation.
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Splashing Rocks has previously examined the remarkably persistent appeal of the music of the Carpenters, and the near mythical status of the late Karen Carpenter, in Japan, China, and other countries of East Asia. See, e.g., "Opening Splash: East Asia and the Carpenters," at splashingrocks.blogspot.com. While a wide range of Carpenters recordings have enjoyed success in these countries, two songs in particular have achieved such widespread and longstanding popularity in East Asia that they have risen to the status of transnational pop classics. Both of them were written by the adroit composing team of Richard Carpenter (music) and John Bettis (lyrics), and both of course featured the flawless contralto vocals of Karen Carpenter.
The first of these perennial East Asian favorites is the international anthem of pop music nostalgia, "Yesterday Once More" (YOM). Although YOM was a mega-hit in the U.S. when first released in 1973 – it reached No. 1 on 3 of the 4 relevant pop charts at that time, and easily reached Gold Record certification – it has not enjoyed the longstanding popularity of a classic in the U.S. market. While that may be attributable in part to the systemic bias of the American rock/pop music establishment against anything that could be considered middle-of-the-road, wholesome, or family friendly, it may also reflect the fact that YOM ranks well behind numerous other Carpenters classics (e.g., "Superstar," "For All We Know," "Good-bye to Love," "Close to You," etc.) in terms of sheer musical depth and quality.
Record Jacket of the Japanese version of Yesterday Once More
Regardless, YOM went on to achieve unparalleled success and popularity in Japan, China, and other Asian countries from its release in 1973 and continuing well after Karen Carpenter's death in 1983, and up to the present. It quickly reached No. 1 on the charts in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia in 1974, and the album on which it was the featured "bookend" song, Now and Then, reached No. 1 on the Japanese album chart (the single held No. 2 in Japan for several months). As documented on this blog and many others, YOM achieved such popularity and ubiquity in post-Maoist China that Western hipsters traveling or sojourning there were completely mystified by its cult-like popularity in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and even more remote corners of the PRC. A poll taken by the popular Chinese radio station "China Drive" in 2007 showed that YOM was the first English language song heard by well over 50% of the respondents. As evidenced by countless reports, articles, and Internet postings out of China, there is little doubt that YOM was the most popular and widely played Western song in China from its first openings to foreign music in the late 1970's until the current era of digitally accessible music on a world scale.
Karen Carpenter memorably sings Yesterday Once More at Tokyo's Budokan in 1974
Considering YOM's prolonged primacy among popular songs in the world's most populous country; the range and duration (30 to 40 years) of its popularity not only in China, but in other populous East Asian countries like Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and the Republic of Korea; and the number and striking diversity of the countries in which it reached No. 1 (U.S., Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Venezuela, Belgium, and Israel, among others) or No. 2 (Japan and UK) on the national charts; taking all this into account, a credible case could be made that more persons have heard "Yesterday Once More" than any pop song in history, at least in the pre-Internet and pre-digital age (the "viral" spread of music via the Internet today renders comparisons between the two eras inapposite, as today's conditions permit a degree of access and distribution far beyond that allowed in the earlier era, wholly without regard to the quality of the music or of the listeners' approval).
The second Carpenters song to achieve cult-like status in East Asia (essentially Japan in this case) is the 1976 recording, "I Need to Be in Love." Although the recording reached No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Adult Contemporary chart (then called the Easy Listening chart), it peaked at only No. 25 on the more inclusive Billboard Hot 100. The Carpenters' U.S. popularity – and their personal health – had been on the decline by 1976, and the song was soon forgotten in America by all but dedicated Carpenters fans. Interestingly, however, it was reportedly Karen Carpenter's personal favorite of all the duo's recordings, probably because of its deeply personal associations and lyrics, including the poignant and memorable line, "I'm wide awake at 4 A.M., without a friend in sight."
Like "Yesterday Once More," however, "I Need to be in Love" (INTBIL for brevity) enjoyed a second and much more significant surge of popularity overseas.
The Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force Band Plays Seishun no Kagayaki in Yokosuka
In 1995, a teen-oriented television series named "Miseinen" (roughly translated as "Under Age" or "Beginners") was a major hit in Japan. Seizing on the long-time popularity of Carpenters music in Japan, the show's producers utilized three Carpenters' songs for the themes and soundtrack of the series: "Top of the World," "Desperado, " and "I Need to be in Love." As documented in my earlier posts, this led to an enormous resurgence of the Carpenters' popularity in Japan. A CD single with "Top of the World" on one side and INTBIL on the other reached No. 5 on Japan's Oricon all-pop chart and was certified as a quadruple platinum record; and a repackaged compilation of the "22 Greatest Hits of the Carpenters" (with INTBIL as the lead-off song) became what was then the largest selling album by non-Japanese artists in Japanese history, with over 3 million in sales. Eventually, and rather oddly to Western perception, the song came to be known in Japan as "Seishun no Kagayaki," roughly translated as something like, "The Glow of Youth." The bizarre retitling is likely attributable to the song's association with the teen-oriented Miseinen television themes, but, for whatever reason, it has stuck.
Although the song's enormous revived success in Japanese record and album sales 20 years after its original release was significant in itself, it was the almost obsessive fondness for the song on the part of Japanese musicians, both professional and amateur, that has made Seishun no Kagayaki (SNK, for short) a genuine cross-cultural phenomenon.
A cursory search on YouTube, using either "I Need to be in Love" or the Japanese characters for Seishun no Kagayaki, will reveal that literally tens of thousands of videos of this 38-year-old American song have been posted. The vast majority of these videos record instrumental performances of the song by Japanese orchestras, groups, or individuals. And new video recordings of the song by Japanese posters appear almost daily.
A sax-led rendition of SNK by the Kashiwa Brass, circa 2010
The scope of this cultural phenomenon is demonstrated by the incredible variety of Japanese musicians who have performed and recorded the song. The plethora of video recordings of SNK include formal recitals by the official bands of both the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force and the Japanese Air Self Defense Force; vocal renditions by popular Japanese songstresses like Keiko Toge and Rei Fu; studio recordings by sophisticated combos like the quartet of elegant Japanese lady instrumentalists known as Vanilla Mood; and, my personal favorite, jazz-club style performances by the likes of a mini-skirted lady saxophonist wearing a Blues Brother-style chapeau, somewhere in the depths of the Shinjuku musical underground. And the song has been video-recorded by Japanese professional and amateur instrumentalists on almost every instrument imaginable: piano, organ, guitar, violin, cello, flute, and especially all varieties of the saxophone.
The remarkable oddity is that so many thousands of Japanese musicians and singers have been (and continue to be) inspired to perform and record what was a relatively minor hit by the Carpenters in the U.S. nearly 40 years ago. A combination of factors likely explains the phenomenon: the near-mythical stature of Karen Carpenter and the Carpenters in Japan's pop music culture; the popularity of Miseinen and its iconic musical score; the mellifluous and user-friendly quality of the song's musical composition; and the Japanese people's exceptional appreciation of beautiful musical compositions, coupled with the exceptionally large number of Japanese who are trained and talented in all varieties of instrumental music.
Whatever the reason, it appears that somewhere in Japan someone is always playing or singing Seishun no Kagayaki – just as somewhere in China, someone is always listening to "Yesterday Once More" on the radio, in a karaoke bar, or in a hotel lobby.
Who would think that two songs that originated in the 1970's with three earnest American suburban kids in Downey, California -- Richard and Karen Carpenter and John Bettis – would endure as beloved classics in the musical cultures of Japan and China some 40 years later, and likely for decades yet to come?
Somewhere up there, Karen must be smiling like she did in 1970.