New Teen Queen Reigns in Japan

TOKYO: The female idol singer is back in Japan, in a typically big way. After a decade-long drought with no teen queen, Japanese pop culture is awash with images of Namie Amuro, a 19-year-old from Okinawa.

Songs from her "Sweet 19 Blues" album, which sold more than 3.5 million copies in three months, are heard constantly on the radio.

She is equally ubiquitous on TV. She hosts her own show, sings on music programs, is a frequent guest on variety shows and appears in commercials promoting cassette tapes and beauty parlors. She also just starred in a feature film.

Her popularity can be seen on the streets, where young women dress like her, and heard in the language, where a new word was coined to describe those who copy her style. "Amuraa" refers to young women with golden tans, long hair dyed brown, heavy makeup and short, tight T-shirts.

The Amuraa look is a telling sign of how the genre has shifted focus from the playground to the disco. Idol singers used to be featured mainly for their adolescent looks and persona. Their one and only requirement was to be "kawaii," or cute.

Seiko Matsuda, the former idol star of the 1980s who still holds the Japanese record with 26 No. 1 hit singles, was typical of the craft. She dressed like a schoolgirl, danced childishly and sang in a pinched voice that was occasionally on-key. Dozens of desperately cute idol singers did much the same, creating a style of pop music that critics considered a travesty.

Amuro, decidedly more funky, has won the grudging respect of the same critics forproving to have some natural ability. She knows how to carry a techno-tune and dance to it at the same time, withmoves that go far beyond the old idols' limply robotics steps. Yet, even when dancing in skimpy clothes, the new idol projects an image that is young, clean and fun, sexy without the sex, disco for the innocent.

The problem some criticshave is not how but what Amuro sings. To the non-fan it can sound all alike, and suspiciously identical to the bland dance music heard in Italian and Greek discos in the 1980s.

The source is traced back to her producer, Tetsuya Komuro, who turns any act he touches into gold. The 37-year-old former musician at the Avex Trax record company is the reigning kingmaker of Japanese pop. Songs that he writes, arranges and produces are widely expected to sell at least a million units.

When Shin Miyoshi, a Polygram executive, was asked if he knew how to spot a hit song before it reached the charts, he said: "Sure, look for the credit that says 'Made by Tetsuya Komuro."'

The Komuro sound varies little among his various groups. Young idol fans are enthusiastic but not the most discerning buyers. Employing the same British engineers who invented the original Eurobeat, Komuro's hits have simple, repetitive and catchy melodies sung over a dance beat. The tone is upbeat and ever hopeful. Lyrics may offer inspiring paeans to youthful enjoyment or else nothing at all. Song titles from the first album by globe, an Avex group, are typical. "Give You," "Feel Like Dance" and "Gonna Be Alright" helped the album sell more than three million units.

Other hit acts from Komuro include Max, a four-girl dance group recruited from the same performing school in Okinawa that produced Amuro, a collection of DJs and dancers known as trf that was popular last year, and Hitomi, adancer who also tries to sing while fronting another Avex techno group.

Foreign music acts have long been popular in Japan, but they can't match the sales numbers of the current domestic stars. Now in the charts are Van Halen's "Greatest Hits" (250,000),Los Del Rio's "Macarena" (140,000) and Kenny G's "The Moment" (20,000). Japan's youngest music fans, whose appreciation of pop often starts with an idol singer, prefer to cheer for someone who looks and acts like they do themselves. Or at least how the record companies say they should look and act.

"What an idol needs today," saysHaruki Tanizaki, Avex PR manager, "is strength. The old image of the cute idol is gone. The dance beat makes a powerful sound so the singers have to be strong to go along with it. They have to be able to sing and dance fairly well."

Similar idol acts are also selling well, but it is still Amuro who has the industry buzzing. "Because of her," Mr. Miyoshi of Polygram said, "all the other record companies in Japan are looking for their own idol singers to promote."

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