Chiptune Album Review: YMCK’s “Family Innovation” — 8bit Cynicism Toward Web 3.0
By Jeremy Ray Jewell
In its ninth album, YMCK shows that it is becoming self-aware. They are no longer just avatars we are to identify with, but also (satirically) the corporate entity behind them, a corporation preoccupied, like all others, with innovation.
While chiptune (a.k.a. 8bit) has flown below the public radar for most, this approach to synthesized electronic music has not only earned a devout fanbase but, on occasion, has inspired mainstream culture. Beck, Kesha, Nelly Furtado/Timbaland, and Eminem have all sipped from its fountain. It is hard to call it a genre, per se. In its purest form, it is no more or less than the creative use of programmable sound generator chips culled from the earliest computer-age consumer tech. In the 1970s and ’80s, Commodore 64 home computers and Atari arcade cabinets changed the soundscapes of art. The then fresh but increasingly familiar bleeps of the arcade found their way into a wide range of music, helping shape the future of electro and hip-hop sounds. Japanese electronic music pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra not only sampled game sounds starting in 1978 but also had their own music featured in a 1982 arcade game — via an appropriately modified form.
Critics were still unconvinced by what the market labeled a “fad” with the video game crash of 1983. Meanwhile, among hobbyists a culture of cracking and modifying existing software emerged. They took the technology seriously, and this gave rise to demoscene culture, which produced our current generation of game development studios, as well as the 2000s revival of chiptune. The allure of simplicity — inspired at the time as much by Steve Jobs as the White Stripes — called for doing more with less. Dedicated to demonstrating how programming techniques could challenge hardware limitations, demoscene culture evolved into an exercise in minimalism: the effect was to point out the various inefficiencies of big software developers. The chiptune revival that followed, coming on the heels of Auto-Tune’s grand debut, seemed destined to undercut big music producers in a similar way.
YMCK is a Japanese group from Tokyo that emerged during that 2000s revival. Its three members, Takeshi Yokemura, Midori Kurihara, and Tomoyuki Nakamura, wholeheartedly embrace the minimalist impetus. They market themselves in the form of three pixelated figures. Videos by Nakamura — shared online and accompanying live performances — support the aesthetic. The members of YMCK, some years before Nintendo introduced their Mii avatars, did not want us to think of them as artists manipulating machines. They inhabited retro technology. As characters, they are functional and agreeable in the way the old “Jumpman” sprites were: generic figures we can project our experiences onto.
Unlike purely tracker-based music, YMCK composes its songs with instruments before converting them into chiptune form. If you listen carefully, you can hear their commitment to traditional musicianship. Chiptune has always drawn from diverse genres, but YMCK’s stylistic sensibilities lean toward technopop, swing jazz, and other genres that heavily inspired the earliest Japanese video game composers, such as Yuzo Koshiro or Koji Kondo. They differ from other groups in that they welcome the sound of a human voice. Singer Midori Kurihara recalls the bossa nova-inspired vocals of early J-pop genres city pop and shibuya kei. She playfully delivers Yokemura’s lyrics, which normally tell upbeat stories endemic to the world of retro gaming.
Family Innovation is YMCK’s ninth album, and it reflects a change in tone. Many of the group’s established conventions continue, such as naming each album after the formula “Family _____” (a nod to the NES/Famicom, or “Family Computer”). Yet the mood is now more critical and often ironic. The music is, at times, cynical about its value. Still, the group is more self-conscious about the past than ever. “ひこうき雲のフォトグラフ” (“Photograph of Airborne Clouds”), an attempt to capture the style of ‘80s Japanese idols like Seiko Matsuda and Akina Nakamori, makes two appearances on the album, once in a city pop version (mirroring a current trend). As Yokemura suggests in an interview with Real Sound, he never previously saw chiptune music as associating with nostalgia.
In “レトロ・リバイバル” (“Retro Revival”) we find reflections on music as a product. The culture has changed over the last 20 years: “Infinite music archives from all through the past for ten dollars per month. Your competitors are now the evergreens and the masterpieces.” It could be that chiptune still offers a way to escape the business cycle, powered by what Yokemura has called a “benefit of inconvenience.” He told Real Sound: “In this age of digital books, the act of making a zine using offset printing is the same” as making music with older technology. This may answer the questions posed by the catchy and upbeat “コンビニエント” (“Convenient”), a meditation on our motivations for utilizing technology. “イチオクブンノイチ” (“1 of 100 Million”) is about the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The tune suggests that it is high time to reevaluate just how beneficial our contemporary conveniences are.
This leads to what is, without a doubt, the album’s strongest gesture: “グローバル・イノベーション” (“Global Innovation”). Taking aim at “Globalization: the financial power that covers up the globe,” we are warned that “we have no choice to make. Look, here comes big capital!” An international list of cities follows and we are told that there is no escape. (This is a curious reversal of the message on the 2012 video for “Go YMCK, Go!”, which celebrated the group’s earlier international success.) AI will no doubt replace us, but we may not receive the promised convenience of innovation. Instead, we will need to work harder and produce more. “Just like uncle Karl [Marx] warned us before,” the song warns.
Family Innovation indicates that YMCK is becoming self-aware. They are no longer just avatars we are to identify with, but also (satirically) the corporate entity behind them, a corporation preoccupied, like all others, with innovation. They even pressed the point home by promoting the album with a performance dubbed “Innovation Conference 2022.” Nakamura jokingly suggested that Yokemura “appear in jeans with a black turtleneck.” The move recalls Devo’s creation of a corporate anthem or Yellow Magic Orchestra’s sarcastic self-hyping cover of Archie Bell’s “Tighten Up”. At the same time, it echoes “Uncle Karl’s” reverence for the “wonders” of capitalism, wherein “the intellectual creations of individual nations become common property.” Still, there is something very Japanese in this strategy that taps into the concept of ma (間), or negative space. “This is where we are,” YMCK seems to be saying — before the group leaves the space open for us all to sort it out.
Jeremy Ray Jewell hails from Jacksonville, FL. He has an MA in history of ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a BA in philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. His website is www.jeremyrayjewell.com.