Visual Kei: How androgynous looks can be popular

I chose the topic of Visual Kei. I came across this subject while talking with my Japanese roommate. We were talking about the differences between American music and Japanese music and he mentioned that Japanese Rock has been the current mainstream music genre for the last 20 years. When I asked him what was so special about Japanese rock music, he responded “Visual Kei”. Not knowing what he meant, I immediately wiki-ed it.

Visual Kei, which translates into visual style, refers to a movement of Japanese musicians that occurred in the beginning of the 80’s and has been very popular amongst Japanese rock bands since the 90’s. It is usually made up of all men who dress up in a wild style of clothes and “fashionable” looks (Fashionable at least to Japanese people). It is characterized by the use of make-up, elaborate hair styles that almost seem to be taken from anime and seems to defy gravity, and at times coupled with what Americans would call an androgynous aesthetics. While Americans may think that the “look” of visual kei shows men dressed as women, Japanese people think different. According to my roommate, it is this “cool” look that has made bands embracing visual kei very popular and widely known.

A member of Dir en Grey who dresses with Visual Kei

Within the visual kei movement genre is a variety of style and imagery. There isn’t just “one way” to dress with visual kei. On one side of the spectrum, we have groups who dress up in a variety of flamboyant and sometimes provocative clothing styles while on the other we have the tamer visual kei groups who adorn strange jewelry, have hours spent on hair, and look slightly effeminate. Some of the bands who have incorporated this look into their music are: L’ar en Ciel, Dir en Grey, XJapan, and etc.

Visual Kei bands are considered to combine a variety of genres together: such as heavy metal, punk rock, pop and etc. Their music has an emphasis on minor-keys, theatrics and dramatics of gothic music, dark undertones, and a heavy emphasis on the lead guitar and drumming. Structurally, the music seems very similar to the basic conventions of pop and rock with the same verse-chorus-verse-chorus bridge structure. So what makes bands with visual kei different from bands without visual kei?

Visual Kei has become an important part of Japanese music and culture. Initially with the advent of this particular look, the majority of Japanese people were shocked. This seems especially against Ibister’s discussion about Japanese culture where collectivism and tradition seemed to be the predominant attitude. Instead, visual kei seemed to be more of a rise in individualism and steered away from the traditional. However, what makes these bands so popular is that they have combined sight and sound to create a rich and enjoyable experience. Almost like an opera, their look may emphasize the style and lyrics of what they sing.

If I had to compare this visual kei look to American culture, it would seem very Goth-like. However, if I had to compare the advent of this look in the music scene, then they would most remind me the American Band Kiss or American heavy metal. Sure they look shocking at first, but have produced music that has appealed to a particular crowd and has risen in popularity across Japan.

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