Saturday, February 23, 2008

miniT fever, catch it!

Kyoko on stageWhile I was teaching in Hamamatsu, I sometimes tutored individual students after school, typically in English conversation or composition in preparation for entrance exams. One day, I was approached by a homeroom teacher and asked to help one of her students. This girl also wanted English conversation lessons, but not for school. No, this girl needed to learn English because she was planning on moving to the US to become a rock star. I thought that was audaciously wrongheaded, and immediately told the teacher to have the girl meet me that day after class.

The girl that scuttled up to my desk that day was a second year named Kyoko that I had taught the year previously. Once I saw her I remembered her as the girl that did not speak or volunteer once in class the whole year only to suddenly deliver a flawless speech about her love of music for the final oral test.

We walk downstairs, find an empty classroom, and start talking. I am trying to be as delicate as I can, since she looks to be in danger of wilting under my gaze and going into a swoon at any moment. I ask her why she wants to practice English, and sure enough, she lets out that she's on her way to the States and, presumably, future rock godhead. She confesses to me that she already sings and plays lead guitar in a band called "miniT" with her two girlfriends. Tentatively - since I'm so excited at the idea of a student having a dream larger than working in a company that I'm hesistant to crush it, however incredibly absurd it may be - I ask her a series of questions: Does she realize she can't just go and stay in the US? How does she plan on getting a visa? Where will she live? Where in the US does she want to go? She is troubled. She doesn't seem to have thought very hard about any of these things. But, of course, she's just a 15 year old girl; she doesn't have to. I leave that for the next time, and instead we talk about music for an hour or so and call it a day.

We continue to meet at least twice a week after school each week. She becomes more comfortable talking to me - though never loses her nervousness completely, and, charmingly, always walks a step or so behind me while we walk downstairs to the classroom for each lesson, too self-conscious to walk together with me in front of other students. Gradually I convince her that the idea of just arriving in the US to instant stardom is a bit farfetched, but that if she's really serious about going, the easiest way is to go to college and then study abroad. That way, she'll be able to go on a student visa and see if she actually wants to live in the real country, not the US she holds in her mind pieced together from pop culture and popular prejudice. I point out that college is also a great place to meet other musically-inclined people, and if she wanted to form or join a band in the US that may be the easiest road. Finally, I make the obvious economic sale for college obliquely, asserting that realistically, only the most successful artists actually make enough money to survive on music alone, so she'll just have to do work of some kind. The difference is that as a college graduate she'll be able to do something easier and better-paid than waiting tables in between tours. I leaven these laudable yet leaden life lessons with lots of cds I burn for her from music on my computer. She proves receptive both to my advice and my musical taste.

A few months later is the school festival, and miniT is headlining the concert portion in the gym. Kyoko's band is playing 3 covers of American pop punk hits (some Avril Lavigne songs) along with one original composition, called "Let's Diet", that Kyoko wrote in English and asked me to correct for her, which I did to the best of my ability. Meaning I did so with the aim in mind of not making it into idiomatic English, since it would then lose the charm of phrases that no native speaker would think of. She also asked me for the specific pronunciations of different words in the songs, and then came to me constantly in the days leading up to the festival to double check her pronunciation and make sure she hadn't gotten it mixed up in the interim between meetings with me. There's actually a video on YouTube of her band performing this song in concert, along with subtitles:

miniT - "Let's Diet"

Needless to say, miniT was a big hit at the school festival. While I was pleasantly surprised by how capable and tight they performed their songs, I thought their problem was the material they were covering or being inspired by. Avril Lavigne and Hilary Duff aren't exactly fertile ground - in a musical sense, at least - and unlikely to inspire anything more than more cynical attempts to co-opt punk culture. What's strange or sad about Japan is that listening to Avril kind of would be punk there, since even American pop is quite hip compared to the insanely over-produced and under-performed sugar slurry of J-Pop. At least Avril songs have actual instruments in them.

For comparison's sake, here's a song by SMAP, the most popular pop group in Japan for like the last decade, none of whose members can actually sing alone, let alone together:

SMAP - "Sekai ni Hitsotsu dake no Hana" (The Only Flower in the World)

You'd think if you got 5 guys in a group together, you'd practice harmonizing, or at least, introduce the concept. But no.

There's also Ayumi Hamasaki, the "Empress of Pop," who has sold 50 million records and had a #1 single every year for 10 years, but does not look or sing like a human being. Or Def Tech, this unbelievably terrible rap group that had a hit with this one song for what seemed like the duration of my time in the JET Programme:

Def Tech - "My Way"

Shudder... I would often tell my students that if they didn't hate that song passionately they clearly needed to study more English to improve their listening comprehension.

Anyway, my point was that in comparison to this kind of "music," Avril is pretty fantastic. But like I told Kyoko, considering she's playing her own guitar, writing songs, and performing without intense vocal modulation, she's already cooler than Avril, so she should aim a little higher. I give her cds by bands that might be a little more suited for her goals - like Sleater-Kinney, an all-girl rock group - along with bios of each of the bands. Later, she tells me which songs she liked on each album and we talk about why, which leads to more recommendations. One day, she tells me she really liked the Pixies album Surfer Rosa, and it occurs to me that the song "Gigantic" is actually one of the few songs on the album sung by the female bassist. I do a quick search online, find the guitar and bass tabs, print them out, and pass them along to Kyoko.

Months later, after I've left the school and moved to Tokyo, I get a DVD in the mail with a note from Kyoko. She tells me the DVD is a recording of a recent concert in Hamamatsu, and I'm to specifically watch the part that starts about 9 minutes in.

And there I find miniT performing "Gigantic" by the Pixies:

In her note, she apologizes for the poor performance, saying it was their first try at playing it live. She also tells me that she's studying hard now so she can attend college next year and be able to study abroad in the US. I'm hoping the next time I see Kyoko will be playing a gig somewhere in LA or NYC, and though I'd love to see her play the Pixies live, I'm looking forward more to seeing what she's been inspired to write on her own.

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