Media Mix, Oct. 21, 2012

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about an ongoing scandal involving singer Sachiko Kobayashi. In the column, I refer to Kobayashi as “the queen of enka,” though that label tends to be thrown around a lot in the show biz press and is used to describe half a dozen other female entertainers. Kobayashi is a lesser light in the enka world in terms of talent–not for nothing does she invest so much in costumes. Until she got married, she was a real success as a brand, which matters much more than singing ability. The column might be misleading by giving the impression that Kobayashi is something of a rebel by having quit her production company in 1987, but that’s a fairly common route for enka singers who truly make their calling into a lifelong career. The style itself is characterized by suffering and overcoming (or not overcoming) great difficulties, so the whole idea of paying penance for quitting a talent agency and then spending years in the wilderness building up one’s reputation from zero fits the enka image quite well. As with so many creative endeavors in Japan, apprenticeship is central to the business of enka. Traditionally, singers became attached to established songwriters at a very early age, and if they were females there were the inevitable rumors about love affairs, even if the apprentice was a teenager. The vocal skills needed to sing enka properly are formidable, and it can take years to master them. Nevertheless, it is the material that determines success, so young enka singers tended to be identified with their mentors, who wrote their songs–or, at least, their lyrics, since, like the blues, the musical patterns associated with enka are limited. After a certain number of years in the limelight, the singer may then decide to quit whatever talent agency he or she is signed to and go solo, at which point the real hardship begins. In the enka world, concerts are called “eigyo” (sales activities), because that’s what they are. Though top enka singers occasionally land singles on the pop charts, very few make any kind of living on recordings. It’s all made through concert appearances in small towns where people pay good money for a show that usually includes several support singers as well as lots of funny banter and dramatic sketches; and, of course, many costume changes, props, and a full complement of live musicians, all of which cost money, which is why enka concerts tend to be more expensive than the average pop show. As mentioned at the end of the column, enka is dying as a popular art form as the country ages because older fans aren’t being replaced by younger ones. Kobayashi, in a sense, represents a dying breed, and it should be noted that her new single, written by superstar singer-songwriter Masashi Sada, is not enka. Another “queen of enka,” Aki Yashiro, who is, objectively speaking, a much better singer than Kobayashi is and certainly a more successful businesswoman (she followed the usual enka practice of marrying her longtime manager), has just released an album of Western jazz standards sung in both Japanese and English. It’s a one-off, not a career course correction, but it keeps Yashiro relevant commercially.

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