Music Monday V: Morning Musume 105

This post was originally only going to be five of モーニング娘。’s recent songs, but I decided to double it (since I skipped the last two weeks) and make it more of a “brief retrospective” of their 20 year career. Of the 20 years, I’ve been a fan for about 18 (thanks to my older brother), although I have to admit I had a break of a few years just as the 9th/10th generation was added; I’d say I came back around in about 2014-2015. I have a few other artists I’d like to do this with as well, so keep an eye out for those posts!

The post title’s number, “105,” refers to the fact that this is an “accelerated” post—it’s not quite introductory, yet it’s also not quite comprehensive. With 64 singles and many more album/coupling tracks, it’s quite hard to boil them down to just 10; I tried to choose representative tracks with my own explanation and anecdotes attached. Consider most of these songs to be “milestone songs,” with a couple personal favorites thrown in the mix.

YouTube Playlist

愛の種 (Ai no tane, Seeds of love)

The original concept of Morning Musume was to actually find a rock female lead vocalist to sing with Sharan Q; they found Heike Michiyo, kind of didn’t promote her as well as they should have, and she ended up fading out of the music industry a few years after her debut (although she helped pave the way for future soloists in the newly formed ‘Hello! Project’ brand). The show, ASAYAN, produced some major hitters including J-League soccer players, CHEMISTRY (and most of the audition participants, such as Urata Naoya and Fujioka Masaaki, went on to be in other projects), Suzuki Ami, and Kato Miliyah, but most importantly the crux of this post: Morning Musume. They had “failed” the Sharan Q rock vocalist audition, but seeing potential, Tsunku chose Abe Natsumi, Fukuda Asuka, Iida Kaori, Ishiguro Aya, and Nakazawa Yuko to create a subgroup of female vocalists. Their first job? Sell 50,000 copies of this single (Ai no tane) by themselves within five days (keeping in mind that it was 1997—people still bought physical CDs). They accomplished the feat in four, and got their major debut within the year.

I still get chills listening to this (and especially the 20th Anniversary Version) knowing that if they didn’t sell their 50,000 copies or Tsunku hadn’t thrown them a lifeline, the entire music scene of Japan today would be completely different. Although there were other idol groups like Onyanko Club back in the ’80s, almost every musician and musical scholar points to the success of (and fascination with) Morning Musume which led to the “Battle of the Idols Era” today, which includes AKB and its sister groups, as well as Momoiro Clover Z, e-girls, and other female groups.

Fun fact: Tsunku originally didn’t plan on the group being aidoru, but it just so happened after the next song.

LOVEマシーン (LOVE MASHIIN, Love machine)

This is when I really started liking Morning Musume—my brother had the VHS of the music video, and he used to play this song quite often. Tsunku noticed his songs getting darker and darker, and decided to go with something more upbeat for the addition of 3rd Generation member Goto Maki. In retrospectives, Morning Musume also attribute Tsunku to creating the basis for the choreography, which was supposed to be ‘moves anyone can copy/do.’ In particular, 2nd Generation member Yasuda Kei also expressed her belief that every song composed was made for the group at the time: in my interpretation, it’s supposed to be a snapshot in time which allows the members at the time to “own” the song. With the addition of Goto Maki and the graduation of Fukuda Asuka a couple singles prior, Yasuda believed that Love Machine may have never been a thing if Fukuda didn’t graduate.

This is the song that catapulted Morning Musume into the center spotlight, and really secured their status as the representation of Japan and idol culture. The next couple years would be referred to as the “Golden Age of Morning Musume,” encompassing single success, variety television invitations to almost every music program, and an overall hold of nationwide attention; the 4th and 5th generation auditions attracted a total of roughly 40,000 girls, of which only 8 were chosen. Notable tracks between this song and the next include Koi no DANCE SITE, Ren’ai REVOLUTION 21, and Do it! Now.

シャボン玉 (Shabondama, [Soap] bubbles)

The 6th generation’s debut track, which included a newly added Fujimoto Miki (who had auditioned in the 4th generation but was chosen to go solo first), brought the grand total to 15, the highest amount of girls there’s ever been in the group. The sixth generation also served the group the longest, for a combined 32 years (with Michishige Sayumi serving as a member for almost 12 years and 39 singles). Between Tanaka Reina and Michishige, the two also had the most distinct era changes (as noted by fans): the Golden Age (ending with the next song), the Platinum Era (which lasted until the 9th generation’s addition), and the ‘Current Era’ (which starts roughly from “Ren’ai Hunter”).

There’s a distinct lack of makeup in this track’s promotional materials, which reminds the audience they really are just girls—the average age at the time was roughly 15~16. We also get a great amount of solos from almost every member, as well as a spoken interval by Ishikawa Rika.

Fun Fact #2: Each member sings the full song when they record the studio track. It’s only when they start recording the music video/photographing the jacket art when they find out what parts they were given. Members who’ve talked about it on variety shows calls it “survival of the fittest,” which also helps encourage a healthy rivalry and the need to improve.

THE マンパワー!!! (THE MANPAWAA!!!, The manpower!!!)

The end of the Golden Age, mostly due to the graduation of final original member Iida Kaori. This is also the first in a series of songs for the baseball team Rakuten Eagles, with others provided by other Hello! Project groups Def. Diva and C-ute. This song really shows Tsunku’s ability to use the same chorus/hook throughout a song in a catchy way without it getting overwhelming or feeling too repetitive. Personally, the euphemism in the dance is quite endearing as well.

恋愛ハンター (Ren’ai HANTAA, Love hunter)

I consider this the initial resurgence in the popularity of Morning Musume. This was released several years after ‘The Manpower!!!,’ between which concerts went slowly from stadiums and arenas to smaller concert halls. Since the addition of the eighth generation in 2006-2007, the lineup slowly got smaller with no new additions until 2011, when two generations were added in the same year (for a total of eight new members).

Not only was this Niigaki Risa and Mitsui Aika’s graduation single, but this is widely considered to be the first song to contain a ‘formation dance,’ in which members’ precise dancing was more paramount than having certain members stand out. After watching this variety show, I found myself revisiting their catalogue and getting back into them (as many others may have too).

Help Me!!

After looking back at the time I missed (including this song), I can see why this started a string of #1s for the group: Oda Sakura. Hyadain (songwriter for Momoiro Clover Z and others) had rated her highly in a retrospective on Morning Musume, referring to the group as “the group Oda Sakura is in” to refer to their second coming. Tsunku said she also had one of the best voices as of her debut, comparing her to Takahashi Ai and Matsuura Aya. Some would call her the second Goto Maki, but I think Oda’s voice is the strongest Morning Musume has ever seen.

The song itself had imagery of a phoenix and a full-fledged formation dance, which is what I think drew in new fans and brought back old ones. Not to mention the two longer lines Oda sings are incredible in the studio version (and in later live versions after she was able to control her voice even more).

わがまま 気のまま 愛のジョーク (Wagamama ki no mama ai no JOOKU; Selfish, willful joke of love)

Admittedly, this is the real song that got me back into Morning Musume. The dance, the song itself, the styling… and the fact I actually recognized Michishige Sayumi helped, but overall this was a fantastic single/song. I really can’t say more about it, but I’m still kind of obsessed with this song.

見返り美人 (Mikaeri bijin, Looking-back beauty)

The turning point when any connection to the original Morning Musume was lost; Michishige sang with Abe and Iida, but with her graduation the connection would be lost until November 2017 when Morning Musume started their 20th Anniversary celebrations. Marketed as ‘danceable enka,’ I thought the song was a great tribute to the last few members to come before them. Their outfits, including their necklace, were made in the image colors of all the members since Takahashi Ai (someone pointed out).

ムキダシで向き合って (Mukidashi de mukiatte, Go forth with bare-nakedness)

This entire single (which was triple A-sided) was incredible; I originally didn’t quite like ‘Sexy Cat no enzetsu,’ but I’ve been listening to it a lot lately. This song (‘Mukidashi de mukiatte’) seems to be the happy medium between the two others: ‘Sexy Cat’ was seen as more of a fans’ song, while ‘Sou ja nai’ was more of a song to gain more fans. I think this satisfied the needs of both the fans while probably gaining new ones with this song. The styling was amazing for this song, to be honest.

The song is also featured in their mobile rhythm-based game.

女子かしまし物語 (Joshi kashimashi monogatari, Noisy girls’ stories)

I included this as a ‘bonus track’: I think this became Morning Musume’s signature song, only after “LOVE Machine,” at least maybe within their fan base. I liked this version where the others sang about one of the girls, but it’s probably easier to compose verses everyone can sing on their own (from songs ‘2’ and beyond), and it allows members their own recognizable solos. I can imagine as a member after 2003, having a verse in this song is what makes you feel like an actual member.

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