I finally got around to seeing the Tonight Show clip with Minimoni. For those not familiar with this, it was a gag that aired earlier this week: riffing off Black History Month, it talks of how one of the African American musicians for the Tonight Show band was the first black man in the Partridge Family and then of Minimoni. While in Minimoni, this guy was discovered by Minimoni “supergroupie” (not super-otaku?) Jay Leno, and the rest was history…
It was funny enough, though I must confess to not being partial to Leno’s brand of humor. Perhaps more important, it also got me to thinking about how subbacultchas interact with mainstream media. Between this and the pork-chop lizard video from a few months back, it’s strange to even ponder the notion that H!P was making its presence felt in the American mainstream. How did it make me feel?
Well. Let’s take the long way to an answer…
As a young fanboy who loved his comic books and wanted the world to love them just as much, I’d take desperate validation in any vaguely positive mention of comic books in the mainstream media. This was a different time, before Watchmen and Sandman became pop-cultural institutions and it became hip for filmmakers and TV geniuses to write funnybooks on the side. Somebody reading a comic book on a sitcom was big news, and any simplistic Bam! Pow! reference would be cause for moody pouting.
Actually, it was kind of like being a Filipino American and seeing a Filipino on TV. Members of my family flipped out over one the dancers of In Living Colour being Pinay, kind of like how I’d watch eagerly at the comic book posters on the walls of that geek’s room in Roseanne.
When I got into alternative music, I was less interested in sharing this interest with the outside world but in making sure that those who spokeof it were on the inside with us “real fans”. If you wore a Dead Kennedys pin, you better know some DK songs and not just like the name (which meant something, man). If you claimed to like L.A. punk, you better know Repo Man and The Decline of Western Civilization. Later, as I got into the even more obscure territory of noise bands like Pussy Galore and Superchunk and Borbetomagus, the self-selecting process was pretty complete: only a truly connossieur of avant garde rock would’ve heard of these groups in the first place, or so it seemed.
And when I got deep into manga and anime… well, anyone familiar with American otaku know how that subculture works. Proving one’s bona fides can take on many different forms – do you read/watch the good stuff? sub or dub? do you cosplay? do you know Japanese, as in the language? do you know Japanese, as in people? – and some highly misguided turn their fandom into a strange bid to claim not only anime and manga, but all of Japanese culture as their exclusive realm of expertise.
This tendency seems to be strongest in alienated adolescents who have had little interaction with real Japanese culture but feel they truly understand it because they truly “get” Neon Genesis Evangelion or whatever it is that’s popular (but not too popular) these days. Age, experience, and common sense has a way of blunting these impulses in all but the most pathetic of American otaku… though unfortunately, those bottom feeders are often the loudest and most visible.
By this time, my sense of subculture and interaction with the mainstream was along the lines of: please, don’t embarrass me. I think of an anime fan I knew in my Iowa days who took her first Japanese class and, believing she was already fluent, horrified her (Japanese native) teacher by speaking like a cartoon character.
Of course, there’s something of the eternal parent-child conflict in all these attitudes: the desire to be praised, versus the desire to simply be left alone, versus the wish to be respected for one’s independence. Or to be blunter, childhood versus the teenage years.
As I’m older and actually about to be a parent, I guess my attitude to seeing my favorite subcultures pawed over by the mainstream has mellowed somewhat. In the case of Jpop, as with manga and anime, it involves the added layer of cross-cultural understanding. How often is Japan mischaracterized in the American media? Far less than in the past, but watching TV with my wife can still be instructive in that light. (Less so here in Hawaii, though, which is much more Nippon-friendly than the mainland.)
As a fan, I find myself less concerned about Jpop being praised or having my fandom left unsullied but just wanting to see that no harm is done. You want to cover it? Fine. I don’t care. Until there’s that tipping point where Jpop suddenly becomes a hot cultural import like manga and anime – and in doing so affects how I can buy, watch, and listen to Jpop (a tipping point, by the way, that hasn’t happened to comics yet, despite their new cachet) – then it really makes no difference to me. Such coverage won’t change my habits. But if American media is going to look at Jpop and poke fun of it, don’t show yourself to be a complete cultural boor about it. It’s like that ancient saying from classical times: Don’t be a prick about something if you don’t fully understand it.
That’s not much of a criteria, I know, but it’s still enough of a standard that a good amount of non-fan scrutiny of Jpop in the United States falls short of the mark.
As much as I like Keith Olbermann (and I really do like him), his attitude about that Morning Musume clip was defined by a lack of understanding and cultural insensitivity that boiled down to, “The Japanese people are different from us and worse as a result.” He makes fun of America’s cult of celebrity on a regular basis, though, so perhaps he just doesn’t like how celebrity has gotten out of control in general. Beyond that, the horrified at the world going to hell in a handbasket tone is Olbermann’s shtick in general, so a part of me suspects that he deserves more slack than I’m giving.
As I’ve written before, Stephen Colbert got it dead-on right in his own twisted way, using the porkchop clip to make some strangely insightful points. But he was going for self-effacing satire, not righteous self-aggrandizement, so that was in his favor.
Believe it or not, people are still discovering the porkchop lizard clip – the half-a-decade old, tiresomely familiar, proof that old news not read is still news to the uninformed porkchop lizard clip – and blogging about it, sometimes with remarks along the line of “those crazy Japs” (in an unironic fashion) that make me shake my head and move along as quickly as possible. Those fall far short of the criteria I now use, though I’m positive they don’t care.
And as for the Jay Leno clip… well, it was cute, and sorta funny in a Leno way, and poked more fun at Black History Month (and Jay himself) than at Japanese pop culture. It may not have had the same impact as Colbert, but all it wanted was an easy laugh, and it didn’t do so at anyone’s expense, especially not Minimoni’s. So as far as doing no harm and not looking like a prick, Leno and his gag writers pulled through with flying colors.
Is Jpop making inroads through the American mass consciousness? Lord only knows. All this attention on H!P in recent months may just be a fluke or it may be the start of something big. I’m betting on the former. But if it turns out to be the latter, I may have to think through my criteria some more.
All that said, it’d be real funny if some Utaban clips with their portrayal of black men (like the black male version of Morning Musume, or that English quiz with Zone) makes their way to the American media. Lord only knows what Jay Leno would make of that…