Sunday, 1 June 2014

Halcali’s Twinkle Star

Halcali’s new studio album no Okawari (ハルカリノオカワリ) was released today. Split into two CDs, it is a painful reminder of how far Halca and Yucali have strayed from their earlier J-hop greatness (CD1) into J-pop mediocrity (CD2). For anyone unfamiliar with their work, I cannot recommend their first album (Halcali Bacon) highly enough. 8-bit infused bubblegum J-hop at its finest.

One of their crowning moments came in the form of the song “Twinkle Star”, the lead single from their third album Cyborg Oretachi (サイボーグ俺達). Not only is it immensely fun, the song displays how smart the band’s earlier material was. “Twinkle Star” is very consciously a transnational product, and its commentary on global cultural flow is worth contemplating.

Halcali have not received much commercial attention from Euro-American quarters because their lyrics are principally in Japanese. They have attracted some English speaking followers, particularly among audiences that have an established interest in Japanese popular culture, especially anime. That Halcali’s “Tip Taps Tip” was used as a credit theme for the series Eureka Seven greatly facilitated that connection. Consequently Halcali’s music videos have been subject to the same kind of fan-subbing that is common practice among English speaking anime fans.

The fansubbing movement has facilitated international flow of such cultural products, resisting against the notion that the language barrier and the particular conventions of J-pop are enough to render Halcali entirely unsellable on the US market.

Halcali’s early approach was much more noticably idiosyncratic than their rather more successful female J-hop counterparts Heartsdales, who directly mimicked the conventions and stylistic codes of contemporary American R&B (and were generally “too cool for skool”). As the Heartsdales’ image and sound evinces, American

R&B has had some impact on J-hop. That influence is reified in Heartsdales’ economic success. Halcali’s quirkier brand of J-hop took much longer to find an audience, and has been increasingly marketed as pop rather than rap, perhaps becuase they do not fit the US R&B style. That is not to say that Heartsdales’ appropriation of American R&B conventions/codes is evidence of cultural imperialism. They too have received little attention from the US marketplace. Japanese popular culture has also impacted on US R&B. Kayne West’s Akira influenced video for “Stronger” (which was shot in Japan) evinces that the cultural flow is not one-way.

“Twinkle Star” manifests that partially hidden international exchange. The song itself is founded on a series of samples culled from Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Magnificent Seven (1960). Being a Western, The Magnificent Seven may be mistaken for a quintessentially American text. Yet the narrative itself is set on the America-Mexico border. As such, it is infused with a sense of how simultaneously vague and yet significant geo-cultural boundaries are. The Magnificent Seven itself is a product of international cultural influence, being based on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai) (1954). Moreover, both the Western and the Samurai film are myth-making products. Although they appear to represent dominant cultural histories in one sense, those histories are more accurately fantastical fictions. They are a priori histories that never were and never could have been. The signifiers of those histories are little more than genre conventions.

In the new context of J-hop, ”Twinkle Star’s” appropriation of The Magnificent Seven theme – de- and re-constructed via sampling – shatters and rebuilds that cross-cultural flow. It lays a claim to The Magnificent Seven‘s obscured Japanese origins, and explores those in a new cultural context (rap). This milieu is a trans-national hybrid form of its own (J-hop). Moreover, “Twinkle Star” exposes the the fraudulence of The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai‘s cultural histories. Halcali’s bubblegum rap is disposable mass-produced music. That perspective reverses both films’ apparently stable, authored versions of history. “Twinkle Star” epitomises the opposing values of timeliness and fleetingness. It is entirely of its moment, laying no claim to a broader temporal narrative.

Furthermore, its lyrics are intentionally nonsensical, being created via a word-chain game Shiritori (where each new noun must begin with the final syllable of the previous noun). The connections that arise are purely co-incidental. “Twinkle Star’s” juxtaposed elements create unexpected new meanings and collisions, much like the transnational to-and-fro of fictional histories that constitute its sonic backdrop. The gorilla suits, donuts, defecating cats, washing machines and flying cows that populate the video only add to that breakdown of meaning.

Do yourself a favour and play the video below: you will be rewarded with four and a half minutes of multi-layered joy. Hopefully no Okawari will allow Halcali to bridge back into their former glory. The first CD certainly hints towards a desire to do so.

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