It’s amazing (SO AMAZING) how context and personal associations can influence–and change–one’s enjoyment of
2004 was a key year on both sides of the Pacific as far as my music interests go. In America, hip-hop heads were witnessing the release of The College Dropout, the anticipated debut album from then-hot-producer-turned-hungry-yet-unproven-rapper Kanye West that would open to rave reviews, tons of radio airplay, and an auspicious start to what has become a long and notorious career in the mainstream spotlight. In Japan, Hello! Project had turned half of its H!P Kids roster into a new group called Berryz Kobo, who debuted with their own hip-hop flavored release in “Anata Nashi de wa Ikite Yukenai” to start off their own decade-long run at J-idol stardom.
Unfortunately circumstances would not allow me to enjoy either artist’s rookie year. Before I could even get around to acquiring a full copy of my own, the hype and airplay of West’s album inadvertently became the haunting soundtrack to a summer gone wrong, following me on a horribly disappointing Las Vegas roadtrip (during which my “friends” actively gave me a hard time and hindered my plans to explore the town) and tempering the feelings of unrequited love towards a girl I met online who had just moved into my city but ended up with someone else. And while I would later become a huge Kanye fan through his subsequent work, this first album would long be associated with that depressing summer of 2004–like seriously, it was pretty bad, it took years for me to get over those events. As for Berryz…well, I simply had no idea they existed, as any attempt to get me to become an idol fan at that time would likely have been scoffed at, me being “too cool” for such “soft sugary pop shit”.
Both problems, however, would be rectified by a series of interesting coincidences and converging events eight years later.
The first half of 2012 saw me battling some personal demons. Financial woes forced me to take up a questionable IT job that emphasized a horribly outdated “business” image/culture over actual productivity in getting things done, resulting in a miserable work experience that slowly got worse over time–from the unnecessary and distracting semi-formal dress code to vague statements about “growing with the company”, it represented everything I hated about the traditional business/office world. Outside of work, regrets over not catching Berryz in Seattle the previous year (due to aforementioned financial woes, and admittedly some misguided concerns over certain people I would’ve run into over there), combined with a series of Momusu graduations to close off that group’s Platinum Era, led to the end to the “honeymoon period” of my still-new-ish H!P fandom; my entry into the fandom in 2009 felt uncharacteristic of me in the first place, so I had wondered if this phase of my life was about to wrap up and I should start preparing to leave it behind. Of course, the upside to having that shitty job was earning enough money to splurge on something, so with another Berryz appearance in the US coming up I figured I should at least try to have one last hurrah for H!P before resigning myself to a mundane 9-to-5 “salaryman” existence; a couple ugly meetings with the boss further fueled my motivation to book that red-eye flight to New Jersey in June.
During the preparation for that trip came a seemingly-unrelated realization: as a long-time Kanye West fan I never bothered to buy a copy of his first album. Again, lingering associations with the heartbreak of 2004 still complicated my ability to enjoy the songs I did acquire from that album, but after eight years it only made sense to finally suck it up, get over it, and complete my collection. I didn’t really plan for it at the time, but I was pretty much setting myself up for some pretty sweet exorcism with this purchase: in the week before my NJ flight I loaded up the album onto my iPod so I could listen to it while at work…and found myself connecting with it in a whole new light. As a college graduate whose career and life plans hadn’t quite panned out as expected, I found the album’s theme and lyrics resonating with me like never before; the underlying messages regarding the realities and drawbacks of pursuing higher education, regrets over choices I made in school, and the struggle to chase one’s dreams were finally hitting close to home in ways that they simply couldn’t when the album first dropped. In particular the song “Spaceship” finally fit its intended purpose as an anthem for this frustrated worker wanting more out of life, rather than a somber callback to a potential relationship that never was or that long angry ride back home from Vegas.
Then, of course, came the big trip to the east coast to see Berryz. Now, at this point I was sufficiently fed up enough with my job that I was simply happy to just be out there away from that walking-on-eggshells atmosphere, and also just thankful to have this second chance to catch these idols in person–that no matter what happened I could at least say I gave it a shot and got to see the NYC area for the first time in 18 years. But the crazy thing about setting such low expectations and coming off such a miserable work experience is that any awesome things that do happen would be made all the more sweeter: my New Jersey trip had a possibly-insane-but-still-awesome start when, after deciding to wait 9 long hours at the dreary Newark Airport with random strangers I met online, we were able to get a head start on other fans by greeting Berryz Kobo in person as they walked out of customs!
Looking back at that weekend from a more externalized perspective, I realize that it probably wasn’t as epic as I personally remembered it. The convention itself, located in the middle of nowhere, was small and crowded, with an intimidated security staff chasing our huge crowds away and trying to cull us at key times; the concert suffered from a venue with poor acoustics and a muffled sound system; a lot of us fans did nothing more than wait in impromptu lines for the next scheduled Berryz appearance rather than explore what else the convention had to offer; Berryz themselves didn’t even stick around for the last day of the convention, and neither did a good number of us. But context is everything: to just be out there for a change of environment, finally seeing a H!P act in person, finally interacting/bonding with many other fans that I only vaguely knew online (at this point I was still unaware that other H!P fans actually still existed back home), seeing how Hello! Party got down all was good enough for me. And of course the unexpected bonuses that happened out there simply made things even more memorable: greeting Berryz at the airport, shaking hands with Miyabi at the autograph session (and developing an oshimen dilemma in the process), getting hooked up with a priority pass for the concert, snagging some free CDs from generous Japanese fans, joining a big group for karaoke in midtown Manhattan…and let’s not forget the craziest part of that weekend, the post-concert riot:
I bought two Berryz albums while I was out there, but I didn’t have a CD player with me (because who still carried portable CD players with them in 2012???) so I couldn’t listen to them until I got back home. I did, however, have my newly-purchased iPod Touch with me, the same iPod Touch on which I had just loaded a certain Kanye album, so during the flight home from that memorable weekend I wasn’t listening to Berryz, I was listening to–you guessed it–The College Dropout.
Demons were exorcised that weekend. The declining interest I had in H!P was fully renewed, establishing my fan status for the long term (and just in time to see the brand start to take off again). The lament of not seeing Berryz in Seattle was made up for by seeing them in New Jersey, especially when I later discovered that they didn’t get an airport arrival greeting from fans in Seattle, making my group of six in Newark–jokingly dubbed “the Berryz Avengers” by one person–all the more special. Songs that I had only passively acknowledged before, such as “Rival” and “Maji Bomber”, were given new life after seeing them performed live. The bad situation at home was temporarily forgotten with all the friendly faces I got to meet on the other side of the country. Even simply visiting New York City again was a coming of a full circle, having visited the World Trade Center as a child, being emotionally affected by its destruction in 2001, then seeing the new building under construction and nearly finished with my own eyes.
(Also: I would end up quitting my job a few days after returning home; what should’ve been a short meeting to clarify an assignment and salvage my work unexpectedly turned into a half-hour of my boss digging up all kinds of excuses to blame me for his own insecurities somehow)
(Also also: my own quest for redemption fittingly coincided with that of LeBron James–the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals were happening at that time, and to hear of his game 6 heroics agains the Celtics and how he “won’t regret game 7” inspired me even further to embrace and cherish my situation)
Then there’s Kanye’s debut album. Sisqo’s Return of Dragon may be structurally similar to the new Berryz CD of the time, but it’s The College Dropout that served as the proper hip-hop companion material for my adventure. No longer a reminder of past heartbreak and anger, it was now a reminder of fun times and positive vibes–what was once the soundtrack for a vacation gone wrong was now one half of a soundtrack for a vacation gone right. The songs I already knew from back in the day no longer carried a sense of guilt and lament but instead finally became enjoyable for what they were, while the songs and skits I never got around to hearing the first time got to carry a more pure sense of enjoyment–in particular the album-ending songs “Family Business” and “Last Call” bring the strongest sense of that east coast nostalgia, the former carrying an inherently nostalgic tone in its sound and lyrics, the latter specifically mentioning travel to New Jersey in its long-winded outro. In a way, revisiting The College Dropout in full was like coming back to a city you once grew up in, checking out old hangouts and places of hardships as an adult while also exploring parts of town you didn’t get a chance to see the first time around–it was also akin to playing the first title of a video game franchise long after only getting into it from the second game onward, seeing how certain motifs started and how raw and unrefined a developer was at the time. But while I probably would’ve eventually learned to love this album anyway due to it simply being so good–many critics still consider it Kanye’s best work–attaching it to my quest to see Berryz Kobo made squashing those old negative associations even easier.
To Saki, Momoko, Chinami, Maasa, Miyabi, Yurina, and Risako–congratulations for being in the game for 10 years making idol tunes…and also a huge thank you as well: for giving me a reason to stay a fan, for inspiring me to seek out good people and positive environments when I most needed to, and for helping me finally appreciate a legendary work in a more familiar realm.