What does 2021 have in store for J-pop?

Last year marked a paradigm shift for the music industry in Japan. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a move toward digital, an area the nation’s labels and artists have long bristled at embracing. With people stuck at home, unable to go to concerts or pop into CD stores, companies had to adapt to the internet, whether by uploading entire discographies to subscription streaming services or putting on livestreamed shows. In 2020, J-pop finally caught up with the 21st century.

Even in the new year, however, the novel coronavirus continues to disrupt the country’s music community. On Jan. 7, Japan announced a second state of emergency that affected Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama prefectures, and expanded the heightened safety measures to include seven more prefectures on Wednesday, forcing in-person events to postpone or cancel. Large-scale gatherings are still off the table.

While much remains in limbo, there is plenty of change as the new year settles in. If 2020 served as the start of a more internet-friendly (or at least internet-tolerant) era in Japanese music, 2021 will see just what developments this reality can foster.

With new calendars still largely unmarked, it’s a good time to look at what trends could guide Japanese music forward over the course of the year. As 2020 proved, expect the unexpected — but there are enough hints to indicate where the nation’s music scene is headed to start speculating.

Nobody will fill the Arashi-sized hole in J-pop (and that’s fine)

After a farewell process that lasted nearly two years, and a sudden push at an international crossover featuring Bruno Mars, J-pop group Arashi went on hiatus from Jan. 1. For the past few decades, no act has been as omnipresent in Japanese entertainment as Arashi. Now there’s a boy-band-sized hole in the industry.

Who will step up and fill its place? While the outfit’s talent agency Johnny & Associates Inc. is cultivating an array of newer projects in hopes of achieving similar success — notably pop units such as King & Prince and SixTones — the reality is that it’s impossible. Arashi was the last ubiquitous music group that could tower over Japanese entertainment while avoiding the internet. Consumers in the nation now expect their pop idols to be online and for songs to be relatively easy to access.

Creating a new Arashi-level sensation can’t be done in the same way the group rose to stardom, and that’s probably a good thing. Instead of clinging to a past that’s already fading away, it would be better for the music industry to focus on fostering projects that work well within the fragmented digital space entertainment now exists in.

Falling in love: Duo Yoasobi’s uptempo track with a downbeat message, 'Yoru ni Kakeru' ('Racing into the Night'), was one of 2020’s biggest hits, and other pop outfits have clamored to imitate its sound and style. | SONY MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT (JAPAN) INC.
Falling in love: Duo Yoasobi’s uptempo track with a downbeat message, ‘Yoru ni Kakeru’ (‘Racing into the Night’), was one of 2020’s biggest hits, and other pop outfits have clamored to imitate its sound and style. | SONY MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT (JAPAN) INC.

J-pop will imitate Yoasobi and similar groups (even as they change)

One of the biggest songs of 2020, Yoasobi’s “Yoru ni Kakeru” (“Racing into the Night”), became a hit thanks to a galloping piano melody, grim lyrics and an animated music video that has racked up more than 143 million views on YouTube at the time of writing. Along with sonically and aesthetically similar outfits Yorushika and Zutto Mayonaka de Ii Noni, the duo has crafted a unique sound complete with a take on pop that’s more realistically aligned with people’s lives today.

Naturally, J-pop at large has glommed onto Yoasobi’s vision. SixTones released a song and video resembling the Yoasobi’s work on both fronts. Meanwhile, Yoasobi producer Ayase has been brought on to create music for other fledgling groups, resulting in more projects sounding a lot like his main gig. Pop inspires imitation, and in Japan that means seeing if that “Yoru ni Kakeru” magic can be sprinkled onto other acts.

In six months, though, these efforts will likely feel outdated as the groups responsible for creating this style pivot to something different. It’s already happening, with bands like Yorushika trying out sparser sounds coupled with videos featuring real people. Don’t expect any of the projects at the forefront of trends to settle as the year goes on.

Japanese music will enjoy global success (thanks to TikTok)

At the very end of 2020, musician Miki Matsubara went viral on a global scale. Her 1979 debut, “Mayonaka no Door / Stay With Me,” morphed into the soundtrack for multiple TikTok memes, including a wholesome one centered on playing the song to Japanese mothers. While Matsubara couldn’t enjoy this — she passed away in 2004 — her debut single topped Spotify’s Global Viral 50 chart for several weeks in December, along with country-specific rankings in the United States, Great Britain and other places.

She had the biggest breakthrough via the short-form video platform, but not the only one. Viral charts on subscription streaming services featured many Japanese works over the course of 2020, from LiSA’s theme to the “Demon Slayer” movie to songs by Vocaloid-producer-turned-solo-act Eve to lewd numbers from anime series. Forget coordinated pushes into international markets — Japanese music works best when the fans get to create their own content featuring the songs they can’t get enough of.

While out of the control of the music industry, TikTok provides the perfect platform for Japanese music to leave an impression overseas. That’s only going to continue in 2021, as the app remains hugely popular among younger people seeking new songs to set memes to. Labels and artists will likely become savvier about creating viral moments on TikTok, though ultimately they will be pushed to boost music based on what users are vibing with. Take Matsubara again — her label Pony Canyon is now promoting “Mayonaka no Door / Stay With Me” online, complete with a lyric video with looped anime on YouTube.

K-pop companies will take J-pop to the world (but rock will do better)

More and more South Korean music companies are stepping into the world of J-pop, a trend highlighted by groups such as NiziU, JO1 (pronounced as Jeiowan) and a forthcoming boy band from BTS’ company Big Hit Entertainment. By working some K-pop magic, these acts are an effort to take J-pop global and pull in plenty of yen along the way.

Japan’s best chance at making a musical mark on the world, however, comes from its homegrown rock groups. Internationally, the rock genre has been off trend for a few years, but since music trends work cyclically, it feels like we’re due for a shift away from polished pop. That move is already starting to manifest, with more rappers embracing elements of rock ‘n’ roll in their music.

Japan has continued to celebrate rock despite what’s popular abroad — just look at Official Higedan Dism and King Gnu, which have been some of the biggest breakout acts in recent memory. So why shouldn’t Japan stick to what it knows and wait for the rest of the world to come around to that sound? Rather than trying to catch up to the global popularity of K-pop groups, it’s probably better to have something at the ready for listeners who are close to burning out on pop (which seems to be the case for a lot of people in South Korea).

If recent history has taught us anything, it’s best to be prepared for a lot of surprises over the course of a year. A good lesson for the Japanese music industry heading into the unknown is to embrace your strengths, and see who comes to you.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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