As I continue on with my debut linkup journey, I am now joining my second linkup: Timeless Thoughts.
This linkup is hosted by Tara and Georgie. In a nutshell, once a month, you can blog about the things in your past life that you truly miss. It can be one, two, or more. The linkup is open for only two weeks, starting at the first Saturday of the month. ((I edited this thanks to Tara earlier, but then I’m wondering why only two weeks when it’s a monthly linkup? I thought you’ve got the entire month to write a linkup for that month? What if you submit your linkup after those two weeks?))
Alright, I’m gonna lay it all out. I have been 39-years-old for four months now, and if you’re someone around my age, you will have to admit along with me with this proven fact: The ’90s RULE! In this case though, one of my personal reasons why the ’90s rules would be the innovative music. Without the ’90s, you wouldn’t be having all that mainstream
crap music you’re currently hearing on the radio, iTunes, Spotify, whatever. This, of course, includes two genres: Japanese Pop (J-Pop) and Korean Pop (K-Pop).
The late ’90s became the period of my first stage towards independence and adulthood. College and new discoveries began to nurture the person I was to become today, and real-life experiences still continue to shape who I am. These discoveries include J-Pop1 and K-Pop.2 On these first timeless thoughts, I’m not just talking about my first discoveries of J-Pop and K-Pop, but I’m specifically talking about the four groups that really lead me to fandom.
These four groups are the following: Two from J-Pop and two from K-Pop. Two female groups and two male groups. I’ll save the other three for the next upcoming months.
Ladies first, starting with J-Pop.
Girl groups during the ’90s were both hot and cool at the same time if that makes any sense. Girls in the music industry in those days don’t need to get 95.9% naked just to get the world’s attention,3 and even though the girls then were street but sweet,4 they actually got raw and real talent with no useless auto-tuning whatsoever. Japan was not quite far behind from the real deal in music, and SPEED became Japan’s first girl group to represent the “street but sweet” brand of all-girl pop music.5
SPEED hails from the Okinawa, in which back then, was known as the prefecture that brought the COOL in Japnese pop culture. The four girls: Eriko Imai, Hiroko (Hiro) Shimabukuro, Hitoe Arakaki, and Takako Uehara were properly trained at the famous Okinawa Actors School. The girls aimed to follow the footsteps of success and fame as their fellow alumni, Namie Amuro,6 and their sister group MAX, whoever their manager and producer were, these girls did very well at the start. Not only did these girls break the Japanese idol gender barrier,7 but they also became the most widely recognized girl group throughout Asia, especially in Taiwan, and (maybe a surprise to some so-called “K-Pop” experts that some claim as of late) Korea.8
When the group debuted in 1996, they were introduced as Namie Amuro’s little sisters. But when the girls performed, they earned their own name that all of Japan would remember for the rest of their days. They were also one of the first J-Pop groups whose most of their music videos were shot outside Japan.9
Here are a few of my favorites, including their debut single, Body & Soul.
Body & Soul
I will admit, I first learned of SPEED from the news at the local Asian channel when they were shooting the video of their debut single Body & Soul here in the Bay Area10 and in L.A. If you were alive during the ’90s, you should take note of how pop culture was like back then. I remembered it as being really urban, cool, with that fresh swaggy flavor in between, and at the R&B/Hip-Hop scene, both San Francisco and L.A. were two of the pioneer cities that pushed the music genre to the mainstream that we have today (in a way). SPEED just had to be in those two cities to be one of the first few groups to introduce R&B and Hip-Hop to the Japanese pop scene. They were also the youngest J-Pop group to ever make it to the top,11 but at that time, the “conservative” types of the J-Pop scene considered SPEED as (a little bit too) “mature” and too “liberated.”
When I was watching the video, I felt a beam of pride striking through me. The outfits they wore on that video… from Hiro’s hockey jerseys to Eriko’s “one-strap” overalls… I was proud to wear them when I was in high school and even in college. You can never get more ’90s than that.
Steady was their second single right after Body & Soul, and I liked it better than their debut. Then again, that’s how it usually is with me when it comes to new artists. The girls continued on with their “street but sweet” style in a simplistic video for this single. I’ve always loved simplicity in music videos, and I promise myself not to compare the past to the present again.
It was actually in this video that I somehow got the idea what the roles of the girls were in the group:
- Eriko and Hiro were the two lead vocalists of the group. I think their “pairing” works so well because Eriko has got the alto voice that most R&B vocalists are known for, while Hiro represented the cuteness and innocence of the modern Japanese girl. They are also the two youngest of the four, with Hiro being the youngest of the entire group.
- Hitoe, the oldest, is the best dancer of the group. In fact, in a later time, even though we barely hear her singing voice in the group, we begin to notice her with her very, very individual style that’s very uncommon in Japanese pop culture during that time. It started with her hair.12
- Takako, the second oldest, is considered every guy’s “eye candy.” At age 13 on the time of their debut, many considered her looking a lot more mature than her age. Eventually, she also became an actress, model, and a radio personality too. I believe she was the only member who did all other aspects of showbiz other than music, compared to the other three.
If I were to choose my all-time favorite, it would be this song, Alive. I actually chose this song for my Japanese class translation project with another friend, though I don’t think we did a good job at it.13 There was something about this song that just really… I don’t know… touched me in a way. Was it because of the message of the song? (not quite a love song, but more of an inspirational song, just like many of the songs we loved back in the ’90s) Or was it because this video gave us some kind of a reminder that it just feels good to be alive, you know?
I was able to see this video on a recorded VHS tape that one of my Korean classmates received via UPS from her cousin back in Korea. I remembered how low quality it was, I mean it was directly recorded from an MTV-like Korean TV show, so it had all the Korean subtitles there for the song lyrics. I don’t remember quite well, but I believe this was the first time that I was beginning to see the change in Hitoe’s unusually (in conservative Japanese pop culture’s eyes that is) urban-style hairdo, plus I got all happy when Hiro’s bob cut looked exactly like mine back then. I think this was back in 1998, maybe?
Takako was getting a bit more noticeable as a “blooming sex symbol” here. Maybe that’s the wrong term to use. Eriko is… still Eriko.
All My True Love
Back in those days, the internet wasn’t exactly quite popular with the masses just yet, so my Korean classmates back then relied on their family and friends to send them VHS tapes of whatever it is they can tape from TV. This was the first video that I saw that was “imported” into American soil when I hung out at one of their dorms. We got all giddy back then when we watched this video. They shot this (obviously) at the mighty Grand Canyon in Arizona, and how awesome it is that the girls got their first exposure with Native American culture. I just had to post this here.
This song (and the video) came out before Alive, but I didn’t hear this song until about two years later after its release. Another heartfelt song about growing up, and as you can see in the video, we can see more of the individuality of each of the members. I still think that Eriko and Hiro represent the innocence of Japanese young girls, but in a way opposite of each other. Not sure if that makes any sense. Both Hitoe (that hair!) and Takako are getting a lot more mature than their age in this one.
Long Way Home
Little girls no more, and all we see are smart, sassy, individual young women who are seeking their own solo goals in the times to come. Long Way Home also became one of my top favorites, probably second to Alive. It was also the last song that I’ve heard from SPEED, because at some point after this song’s release, SPEED disbanded… temporarily. I’ve read that the girls wanted to pursue other endeavors, and of course, they’re not getting any younger, so to speak. Other girl groups are slowly budding the same way as they did those years ago. Familiar names at the beginning of the millennium should ring a bell: Morning Musume, ZONE, SweetS, and more.
From what I’ve gathered then, these were their post-breakup endeavors starting in 2000:
- Takako was the first to release her solo single back in 1999, and even started looking into other things, such as modeling and acting.
- Hitoe was the second to release a solo single, also in 1999. The heavy influence of R&B and Hip-Hop on her has become way too obvious (I mean, again, the hair! Even the clothes too!) that she decided to move out of Japan to study art and urban culture in New York (and eventually, learned English as well). Last piece of news I read was that she got married to her long-time boyfriend she met as a student back in New York.
- Eriko continued on as a soloist, knowing she already has the voice and talent to continue on her own feet. She eventually became one of the more successful female soloists at that time. Of course, at this time, soloists such as Ayumi Hamazaki, Mai Kuraki, Kumi Koda, to name a few, were already making huge names around Japan, as well as throughout Asia. In 2005, Eriko changed her stage name to Elly and continued on releasing successful indie singles.
- Hiro just did not want to be the “cute and innocent” little girl of the group and wanted to continue her singing career in full force to show the world that she wants to be known as a real deal singer (and she really is a real deal singer). She had a successful start in her solo career during her first four years. In 2004, she started to explore “the classics” when she fronted a jazz band called Coco d’Or and released an all-English classic cover album.
In between the first millennial decade, they did a few reunion concerts here and there for charity, starting in 2001 when a deadly earthquake struck Kobe. The ladies did not perform together again until… 2008.
So, to make this short, SPEED eventually got back together after an almost decade of splitting up and taking their own personal treks to discover who they really are. Now as four successful adult women, they’re back and better than ever.
Their first single since their official reunion in 2008 just proves their phenomenal coolness since their “innocent” start in 1996.
I’m ending this entry with two of their newer music videos. Still kick-ass as always. Enjoy!
Walking in the Rain
In March, the next group I would like to reminisce would be…
On the sidenote...
- from the local Asian channel we used to have here in the bay Area classmates in Japanese class [↩]
- same as how I discovered J-Pop [↩]
- unlike some female artists today… today’s generation really needs some help… [↩]
- remember Aaliyah? This was her signature style that made the entire world fall in love with her. [↩]
- in short, R&B and Hip-Hop [↩]
- when she was still part of a little-known dance/pop girl group called Super Monkey’s [↩]
- if you’re a bit more familiar with Japanese entertainment, their idol girls before SPEED were always the pretty and cutesy types with high-pitched voices and donning in pretty and cute dresses… you’ll see what I mean… [↩]
- My Korean classmates in Japanese class knew more about SPEED than any other Asian back then, and I have to thank them for letting me borrow their SPEED CDs and later on burned their CDs too. [↩]
- U.S., the Philippines, other Asian countries. [↩]
- to be specific, San Francisco. [↩]
- Hiro Shimabukuro was only 12-years-old when they debuted. As you can see, she’s the “cutest” dimpled girl who can seriously belt out her voice, along with her “big sister” vocalist, Eriko Imai. [↩]
- you’ll see what I mean… [↩]
- We got an A- for it… still not enough though. [↩]