Sunday, January 28, 2007


Music Without Borders

This week I inflicted my J-Rock obsession upon the unsuspecting readers of Slate:

The iTunes Music Store has a secret hiding in plain sight: Log out of your home account in the page's upper-right corner, switch the country setting at the bottom of the page to Japan, and you're dropped down a rabbit hole into a wonderland of great Japanese bands that you've never even heard of. And they're nowhere to be found on iTunes U.S.... There are 20 more countries where iTunes users can lurk among the samples, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Greece, and Australia.
This is all started when, jetlagged beyond belief in Tokyo, I switched on my hotel room TV and immediately heard the math-rock song "Japanistan" on MTV Japan. (Here's an audio clip.) Wow, I thought, this is really good. And then another great song, and then another, and.... Half of the lyrics I couldn't even understand, though to my surprise I could understand the other half -- turns out a lot of J-Rock fuses Japanese verses with English choruses.

It also turns out you can't find most of it in the US. Import shops and Amazon are spotty at best, and don't have audio clips: you'd have to know what you're looking for in the first place. And that's where joyriding iTunes Japan and listening to their samples comes in -- or, for that matter, iTunes France or iTunes Australia. iTunes is an unprecedented window into international musical riches that we haven't a clue about over here.

(And yes, there's a gray market way to buy from foreign iTunes...)

I've been listening to almost nothing but J-Rock for the last year. I don't know a word of Japanese, so it's quite possibly the most naive enjoyment I've had of music since junior high -- I don't know the band's reputation, haven't read the reviews, don't know what they're singing about... doesn't matter. (Hey, indecipherable lyrics never stopped Yes or Cocteau Twins.)

My Slate piece singled out "Killer Tune" by Straightener -- here they are goofing on it in the studio -- check the drummer's expression as bassist Hidekazu Hinata gleefully sabotages the video:

But more than any of the bands I cited, the real crux of the piece is simple... Holy crap, you can change countries on iTunes.

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