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Doing a number on Numéro - click opera
February 2010
 
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Tue, Feb. 5th, 2008 09:26 am
Doing a number on Numéro

1. The first thing to say is that I really don't much care for -- or about -- Numéro Tokyo, which is a niche feminine title in the Japanese mag market, a spin-off from French Numéro. I did vaguely notice French Numéro in about 1996 as a mag with editorial content beyond the call of duty, ie quite good, but never bought it. Looking at the Numéro Tokyo website, I'm irritated by the mag's campy, vampy covers, its boring Helvetica design values, and particularly by the decision to use Western models (we'll really know China has won the peace when Western women start reading localized versions of Chinese magazines featuring Chinese-only fashion models).



2. So why then am I writing today about Numéro Tokyo? Well, I'm not, really. It's a lot narrower -- and a lot wider -- than that. I'm writing about some interesting questions which came up when John Jay met Ako Tanaka and then when Marxy blogged about it. Jay is Executive Creative Director at Wieden + Kennedy advertising agency in Portland, Oregon (a company I have tenuous ties with, having taken the Nike dollar from them at one point for some music). Tanaka is the editor of Numéro. Marxy is a marketing analyst specialized in the mainstream Japanese feminine press.



3. Jay did a guest blog for the New York Times last week about Numéro Tokyo. As a fellow information-sensualist, I liked Jay's intro a lot -- he describes lounging about browsing the art and fashion press until 3am at the Tsutaya Starbucks branch in Roppongi Hills, and contrasts it with Portland, where everything closes at 9pm. (Then again, if the sound ambience is as aggressive there as in other Tsutayas I doubt I'd last ten minutes. Or is that why Jay says he's in the outdoor lounging area?) Jay's account is refreshingly positive; Tsutaya is great, the editor of Numéro is "charismatic and straight-talking", the Japanese magazine scene is lively and competitive, the fact that editorial content is determined by advertising is "honest", and "it is no secret that the young women of Tokyo rule as the consumer engine, their influence and sophistication make them a highly sought after audience". Therefore "the best editors and art directors" vie to capture these people's attention. Editor Tanaka is "taking creative risks" and serving readers "with a high consciousness... very aware of the world". Everything in the garden is rosy -- as rosy as the Nobuyoshi Araki "flora porn" that illustrates the piece.



4. Now, this account is way too positive for Marxy who, however many blogs he launches (at last count he presided over five) sticks rigidly to the same theme: that Japan is in a slow downward arc from the glory days of 90s Shibuya-kei, when elite hipsters determined the direction of the mass market. In his Meta no Tame analysis of Jay's post in the New York Times blog, Marxy hammers this theme home once more: "The hipster culture of the 1990s has failed to win over the younger generation," he laments. "Every time I go to an “opening” or “reception,” I find the exact same people getting older and older, not parties over-run with young people... While the forward-thinking creative culture we [the hipster taste culture niche to which John Jay, his agency, and most members of Néojaponisme’s staff belong] tend to advocate had a lot of influence on broader mainstream Japanese culture in the past, that is not true anymore. If there has been a narrative for this group in the last few years, it’s certainly its fall from commercial viability."



5. Citing the failure of Tokion and Relax magazines as further evidence of the unfortunate detachment of elite hipsters from the mainstream, Marxy goes on to say that if the Japanese female consumer is leading the market, it's towards the aesthetic represented by massively successful mainstream magazines like Can Cam, With and More: "houndtooth-check coats and curly brown hair and bejeweled cell-phones". "The CanCam girls are a social movement in a certain sense, but since it’s not one we hipsters approve of, we tend to dismiss it," he concludes. "Almost no part of these popular magazines’ styling or cultural guidance has “trickled-down” from somewhere like Numero Tokyo."



6. Okay, that's Marxy's take, and I don't fundamentally disagree with it. I think he makes (between the lines, anyway) a good point about how progressive journalism (hipster elite creativity design culture journalism) is forever trying to make its own interests more widely relevant (and therefore less elitist) by implying trickle-down -- this month's niche development will be important in the mass market in a year or so, just you wait and see. And of course it very rarely is, but by the time we realize this the avant press is talking about something else, promising something else. It's a "trickle-down treadmill", if you like.



7. However, I have a different take. I may be even more of a hipster elitist than Marxy is (possibly because I don't have to work in marketing, and therefore don't have to concern myself with dollar and circulation numbers). I don't actually care whether my values "trickle down" to the mass market; I do not require that process to legitimize what I do and what I like. When niche and mainstream meet, it's a double-edged sword. Sure, "hipster elite" values get to spread themselves through the mass culture, and that makes some hipsters and style mavens (Marxy's always harping on about Hiroshi Fujiwara and Cornelius) rich and powerful. But, in being diluted and copied and flogged to death in the mainstream, these values (which often start as semi-religious life-philosophies for some people) get quickly exhausted. Malcolm McLaren knew that when he put out the "Flogging a Dead Horse" Sex Pistols compilation, and Kurt Cobain knew it when he raised the shotgun to his head (no doubt as another Bush record came on the radio). Let me put it this way: ubiquity really is the abyss. Why is Creation Records no longer around? It's not because they had too few sales and too little impact. It's because they had -- thanks to Oasis, the band who became "familiar to millions" -- too many and too much.



8. I'm a "one swallow makes a summer" kind of guy. At any given point, I hate all pop singers except one, all magazines except one, all fashion designers except one, and all TV shows except one. But the one I love makes it all worthwhile. That swallow brings my personal summer. And, while it's really easy (and, in the digital mediascape, getting easier every day) to filter out the mass market pap, I don't discount the fact that that pap needs to be there to make the lone swallow possible. I'm quite happy to see the mainstream as a money-making mechanism which exists just for the subsidy of progressive minority forms. The lone swallow could not exist without an entire industry of crud, and the flamboyance of a Henrik Vibskov couldn't exist without an entire infrastructure of vanilla. I mean that in brute economic terms -- niche commercial artists need the mainstream to exist -- but also in terms of the relativism of taste and the processes of differentiation and distinction.

9. Ah, the relativism of taste. This is where Marxy -- despite being familiar with Bourdieu's book "Distinction" -- fears to tread. Marxy sees the dialectic between the niche and the mainstream in fairly simple terms: the elite taste groups who produce niche culture can either succeed or fail in going mainstream. What he doesn't seem to consider is that elite taste is produced by the mainstream, dialectically, in a Bourdieu-like "distinction strategy". It needs to be different from the mainstream, but not that different. Above all, though, niche culture must be designed to fail, because when it succeeds it fails too. By crossing over into the mainstream, niche culture stops being niche. Therefore you need to make new niche culture to replace it, new culture for people who want to distinguish themselves against the mainstream (that is, in reference to it, but negative reference) to embrace for the purposes of distinction. Nothing fails like success.



10. This actually contains some good news for Marxy: the hipster elite to which he belongs is not as sterile and separate and spent as he keeps saying it is. It's very intimately and vitally connected to the mainstream, although not quite in the way Marxy expects it to be (the way he hasn't seen happening since the 90s, and is a bit dewy-eyed and Golden Age-ist and retro about). I expect that's why executive creative directors at ad agencies pay so much attention to it. They weren't born yesterday. They see trend dialectics in a more complicated way than "Oh, we're not getting through to the masses".

11. The sole comment under Marxy's Numéro entry is from someone called Dudblankpathetic, who says: "People tend to make safe choices and play safe roles, and this has not much to do with creativeness, shifting the boundaries, pushing the envelope and other fancy words we adore so much... This is not a problem of Tokyo or Japan - this is mankind at its best and ugliest". And while that's a refrain Marxy (who tends to localize universal problems to Japan too much) hears a lot, we have to ask, is an aesthetic featuring "houndtooth-check coats, curly brown hair and bejeweled cell-phones" really such a terrible thing? As mainstreams go, that's a pretty benign one. Just imagine if your mainstream was the one I had to contend and flirt with in Britain early in my music career, for instance -- a mainstream consisting of aggressively mediocre major label A&R men, a bitchy music press and a toxic, venomous set of red-top tabloids which, at times, seemed to be vying to outdo each other in their condemnation of "pretentious" art, sex, refinement and beauty and their celebration of everything moronic, toxic, drunken and loutish. But you have to hand it to them -- they didn't put Chinese models on the front of their papers.

39CommentReply

imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Feb. 5th, 2008 08:52 am (UTC)

It occurs to me that my relationship to mainstream culture is the same as my relationship to Japan -- that everything works as long as we hold each other at arm's length and stay foreign. As foreign and distinct entities (yet intimately related) we define and create each other. Everything breaks down when we try to become each other, to merge, to influence, to blend, to cross over. At that point our distinct identities, our defining differences, crumble. I probably believe this about the genders too.


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butterflyrobert
RND
Tue, Feb. 5th, 2008 10:43 pm (UTC)

So you're saying that if you move to Japan full-time and view your spirituality/world/life in a Zen/Shinto way, your identity will be destroyed?


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petit_paradis
petit_paradis
erik
Tue, Feb. 5th, 2008 09:07 am (UTC)
my kindly friend the censor

why are all the images in your post, except the top, pixeled? not that it shows pubic hair or anything, right?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Feb. 5th, 2008 09:16 am (UTC)
Re: my kindly friend the censor

Cos the images on the Numéro website take a while to load up, and I actually prefer the jaggy pixelated temporary version of them to the boringly glossy finished image. So I decided to go with that as the look of my page, and screen-grabbed them.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Feb. 5th, 2008 09:11 am (UTC)

Yeah, I get it, I work in marketing. You are like the author in The Shining.

I take your point that you need mass markets to have niche, and I am not in disagreement. I regret, however, that you are trying to paint my critique as a "cultural elite" lamenting the fall of cultural elitism, when I was more trying to pick out our natural self-biases. I think that CanCam is an equally valid consumer movement in Japan as CUTiE, but since cultural elites want to see their analogs around the world, Ebi-chan doesn't make the cover of books about Japanese street fashion. And objectively speaking, I have no problem with houndtooth-check coats and curly brown hair and bejeweled cell-phones. You just read my "subjective dislike" into it.

I've calmed down a bit about "my team" not being on the music charts or hip with the kids anymore, but yes, I can still listen to bands I enjoy. My problem is that when you are given a position to speak to the world about Japan, it's a bit silly to over-enthusiastically talk about the members of a former generation rather than what's actually popular. The reporting seemed mostly like a means to reaffirm the whole trickle-down cool-hunting philosophy.

M*A*R:X+Y


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Feb. 5th, 2008 10:28 am (UTC)

One thing that illustrates the dialectic between niche and mainstream in a sort of hilarious way is when we observe Keigo Oyamada building up his cultural capital as the king monkey of Shibuya-kei by playing and apparently endorsing the kind of Blue Rondo a la Turk, Haircut 100 and Modern Romance numbers we "elite hipsters" in early 80s 4AD bands used to switch off the TV to avoid.

Actually, that's not true, we were much more ambivalent at the time. I remember telling Ivo (who ran 4AD) that we half wanted to be Haircut 100, half A Certain Ratio. At that point the only difference between those bands was that one was on a major, the other an indie label, and that one played salsa and funk riffs with session-player polish whereas the other played them deliberately (and interestingly) badly. Oh, and that one smiled while they sang and the other didn't.



Okay, also that, although they both had black drummers, ACR let theirs become the lead vocalist:



Actually, there are whole universes of textural and -- dare I say it -- spiritual difference between "Favourite Shirts" and "Knife Slits Water", but it's difficult to pin them down with mere words. Being dour and arty and indie and hip, I of course bought the ACR record, not the Haircut 100 one. But we were aware of both, and in a sense they're both using the same musical vocabulary.

I think a Shibuya-kei angled more towards ACR and less towards H-100 might have been a better one, but it probably wouldn't have shifted the units it did.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Feb. 5th, 2008 10:15 am (UTC)
A list of swallows?

I cannot hate all except one, but the point is a valid one. Care to tell us what your various swallows are momus?

wewillbecome.com


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Feb. 5th, 2008 10:39 am (UTC)
Re: A list of swallows?

Actually, right now I don't like any pop singers at all. I listen pretty much exclusively to Akio Suzuki's album and watch Toshio Morimoto films on my projector. Magazines I like: 032c, Ku:nel, Monocle (I've come round). Fashion designer: only Henrik Vibskov at the moment! Oh, and the people he carries in his store (Vik Prjónsdóttir, Bless). I've got a bunch of new blogs I like, which I may list in a separate entry soon. The things I love are each the tip of an iceberg of hate. But, without the iceberg underneath, they wouldn't even break the surface.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Feb. 5th, 2008 10:15 am (UTC)

About yesterdays post from Copenhagen and racism. I'll point out that the current Danish goverment, reelected last year, is based on the right wing Dansk Folkeparti (Danish Peoples Party) slogan: your country, your choice.

A Party that almost everybody you meet love to hate, but somehow still manages to grow stronger with every election.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
akabe
akabe
alin huma
Tue, Feb. 5th, 2008 11:07 am (UTC)

What I mean by that when you look at the blacks, asians, orientals & hispanics (who as a whole make up the majority of the world population) they nearly always have black hair & dark brown eyes - the general level of aesthetic homogenity between them is much higher than that of white people. It makes white people stand out as the black sheep.

oh man you really do go where angels fear to tread. i'm loving it.
the 'white race' category is the biggest load of crap ever invented (indeed by white people) - of course you know the whole spiel of (christian) white everything else a dirty version of it. think the only yellow(ish) people i've ever seen come from scottland or ireland maybe germany and scandinavia.

as a genetically south europeaner i feel , racially speaking (whatever that really means) much more 'other' to those 'yellowish' people with funny red hair and beards than to say people here in japan.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Feb. 5th, 2008 11:59 am (UTC)
toad balls

whats that joke about the toad wanting his balls back


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slime_slime_sly
slime_slime_sly
slime_slime_sly
Tue, Feb. 5th, 2008 02:57 pm (UTC)


mainstream and the hip underground etc
haircut 100 dont really play salsa rhythms, just the odd conga touch
real salsa performers usually smile a lot.in its golden age, salsa was both mainstream and amazing. Nowadays a lot of it is pretty cheesy.
John Cassavettes didnt want his films to be watched only by film snobs. He saw things in success that were more important that money. But he failed to grasp what he needed to get there.
Elvis Presley. American artists need to be big. Only when everyone from all social classes is talking about it have you really made any difference.
Japanese mainstream TV used to be a lot more fun when it wasnt so PC and there was more to it than people saying oishii all the time.
otaku culture. real otakus vs akiba-kei.
smiling on stage vs not smiling on stage.
i dont think this argument has a solution.


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slime_slime_sly
slime_slime_sly
slime_slime_sly
Tue, Feb. 5th, 2008 02:59 pm (UTC)

also john cassavettes didnt smile throughout his teens because he was embarrased about his chipped teeth. But he disliked the french nouvelle vague because it was too negative, and he felt art needed to be positive.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Feb. 6th, 2008 12:45 am (UTC)

hey what about the toad


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stretchling
stretchling
Stretchling
Wed, Feb. 6th, 2008 01:14 pm (UTC)

Why do all the models have the same, open-mouthed, irritated looks on their faces? It that supposed to be hot?


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Feb. 7th, 2008 06:00 am (UTC)

Hi Kumakouji,

Haven't you considered that you only perceive the vast diversity of "white" people because that's how you've been conditioned? I am distinctly "Asian" looking but when I went to a rural black neighborhood in South Carolina, children came out and yelled, "hey, look at the white person!" Similarly, I doubt that people in a remote Chinese village necessarily distinguish between blonde and red haired Westerners, although they may be more attune to the subtle, or not so subtle, differences among the 56 different ethnic groups comprising the nation (so goes the party line...). Indeed, Europeans were historically referred to as red-haired barbarians (http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&client=safari&rls=en&q=red+haired+barbarians+&btnG=Search) in both China and Japan.

You could further split linguistic hairs by noting that again, in both Chinese and Japanese, green and blue were commonly referred to as the same color (qing in Chinese, which can also refer to "black" cloth; aoi in Japanese), so it's entirely possible to imagine a Chinese or Japanese person who can't even distinguish the difference between the hazel, blue or green eyes in which you take such satisfaction. To be fair, the Chinese, at least, have a rich literary array of names for different shades of blue-green.

One of the amusing things about this blog is seeing all the ways people interpret Japan and Japanese culture. Nevertheless, I find your comment disturbing because it reflects the naive assumption that a unified visual regime connects individual modes of perception when the well-worn cliche of the glass half-empty or half-full suggests otherwise. Often, visitors to another country impose their native visual regimes upon the host environment—contributing to the experience of foreigness—thus I had the odd childhood experience of a visiting friend informing me that Tokyo is nothing compared to El Paso. Having never been to El Paso at the time, I was at a loss for words.


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