“RIVER” is to AKB48 what the 3rd Symphony, “Eroica,” was to Beethoven.
And the way I figure is this: “Eroica” was pretty much the first step in Beethoven revolutionizing the form of the symphony FOREVAR. Before that, his other symphonies had been cute little copies of Haydn, albeit already with the fancy-ass introductions and whackjob key changes that would become his trademark. But whereas, in the olden days, a symphony was supposed to be this 20-minute piece of fluff that you could knit to, Beethoven said to himself, fuck that shit, how about 20 minutes for the entire FIRST MOVEMENT. And how about the entire symphony be, like, 45 minutes long. I bet I can make those Viennese n00bs sit down and listen for 45 minutes if I felt like it!
So he did.
Fortunately, one does not need to sit down for 45 minutes to enjoy “RIVER” (although it would be awesome if you could), but you do have to sit down for 5 minutes and withstand a barrage of unexpected musical styles, including an entire first minute that is essentially notated as “N.C.” (no chord). The whole thing is as transformative as the idea of a 45-minute symphony; it’s a song that overturns the idea of AKB48—if not all of idoldom—being these randomly hyper dance-pop songs that you can knit to. (Besides knitting, they are also great for multiplayer shooter games. You try popping a cap upside the head of some bad dude in Uncharted 2 with “Aitakatta” blaring in the background. THUG LIFE.)
Even thematically, they are similar: “Eroica,” after all, is moonspeak for “heroic” (and not some OTHER word you were thinking of, you perv), and “RIVER” is nothing if not an incredibly heroic song, both from an aural and visual perspective. Funny story about the “Eroica”: when Beethoven was working on it, he was planning on dedicating it to Napoleon, who at the time was a great war commander, much like Minami Takahashi. But then Napoleon let it get to his head and declared himself Supreme Ruler of the Moon, or something, at which point Beethoven decided he didn’t like Naps anymore and re-dedicated the symphony “to a great man.” I mean, I would be pretty freaked out (although not surprised) if, say, Atsuko Maeda went bonkers and decided to declare herself Empress of the Universe, at which point “RIVER” would be re-dedicated to … Jurina Matsui or something stupid.
But “RIVER” does for the girl group pop song what “Eroica” did for the symphony.
Yoshimasa Inoue’s greatest masterpiece
You are probably familiar with Yoshimasa Inoue without realizing it. If you have enjoyed “Seifuku ga Jama wo Suru,” “Oogoe Diamond,” “10nenzakura,” “Namida Surprise!,” to name a few, you’ve been enjoying Inoue, who basically carries a large portion of songwriting duties for AKB48. Also, his given name is written in katakana (井上 ヨシマサ), kind of like Yasutaka Nakata of capsule and Perfume fame, which probably means it’s some kind of pen name. I mean, doesn’t “Yoshimasa” totally sound like some anime or video game character? He’s probably one of those anime protagonists where the naming convention is really cheesy and obvious, like they’re all named after seasons, or colors, or birds of prey, or like the guy is the main hero in the series so he’s called Hiro Nakamura (hurhurhurhur). So. Yoshimasa Inoue spelled with katakana.
Therefore, let us not give Yasushi Akimoto too much credit. He is, first and foremost, a lyricist and an impresario. He is the Bernie Taupin to Elton John, the Howard Ashman to Alan Menken,the Lorenzo da Ponte to Wolfgangus Theophilus Johannes Chrysostomus Mozart. (Ponte wrote the words to The Marriage of Figaro.) And also, as an impresario, he is doing a pretty bang-up job, because you always need a guy with a natural entrepreneurial flair to succeed in the music business. And it definitely looks like AKB48 is succeeding in the music business right now.
But about lyrics. The reason you don’t want to give Aki-P too much credit, is because there are really only 3 kinds of idol songs anyway:
1. Love is wonderful
2. Love sucks
3. Do your best
Guess what kind of song RIVARRRR is? Yes, it is No. 3. And its greatest contribution to the idol milieu, from a lyrical perspective, is that it sets the words of “Do your best” to a badass chant and stepping routine. I suppose Akimoto wrote the entire thing with a certain rhythmic concept in his head, told Inoue “I think it should sound like this,” and then Inoue wandered off to his studio, did all the REAL work, and vomited out this staggering pile of AWESOME.
I mean, nothing against his extensive body of work, but this may be Inoue’s greatest masterpiece. He made his reputation writing idol songs, and then finally comes up with the idol song that breaks all other idol songs. After years of everyone having convinced themselves that adhering to formula is the best way to proceed, Inoue is the one who shook the beaker of formula and made it explode.
The entire first minute alone seems to be a confrontational dare issued out to all of fandom. The military drill callout? That’s to stop stupid ass wotas from doing that ridiculous “Tiger! Cyber! Viber! Favre!” shit that they always do during the intro. (Mendelssohn did a similar trick with his E minor Violin Concerto, making the last note of each movement tie over to the next so that people would stop applauding in between movements.) The near-impossible stepping routine? That’s a challenge to everyone on YouTube; “Hey, why don’t you try copying THIS dance!” And the complete absence of traditional melody or harmony is going to trip up a lot of instrumentalists who thought they’d be able to play along to this one. (Just you wait. I have an idea for this on the piano.)
And it is not just the heroic introduction that smashes the structure of the traditional J-pop song (although it is certainly the most impressive part). The verse jumps right to the chorus without any sissy in-between prechorus. The bridge is two melodies at once; the call-and-response “AHH-AH-AH-AH” figure overlapping with a more standard lyric. And the final chorus stopping right on the dot instead of going to an outro—well, they probably needed that to keep it under 5 minutes, but it is also “RIVER”‘s final act of self-assertion, proof that it will not, CANNOT, be bound to the traditional laws of song structure, any more than Mayu Watanabe’s blog posts can be bound to the traditional laws of Japanese spelling and grammar. “Yabyaa~” indeed.
“Actually, I like the B-side better”
One thing I have found strangely hilarious is the anti-”River” backlash that swelled up even before the single’s release date. And it went something like this. “I don’t like the chanting.” “I wanted ‘dark’ but the song isn’t dark enough.” (Well, what the hell kind of dark where you looking for? This is idol pop for goodness sakes! Are they supposed to sing about the maggots crawling under their skin while two metal guitarists shred off in the background?) “The chanting is different but the chorus sounds like all other AKB shit.” “There’s no coherence to the song, it’s like each section has nothing to do with each other.” (If you want to talk about melodic incoherence, listen to “10nenzakura” sometime. At least everything in “River” centers around a very specific ethnomusical aesthetic.) And the most damning of all, once the B-side PVs came out: “Actually, I like ‘Kimi no Koto ga Suki Dakara’ better.”
Which is kind of like saying, “Well, I prefer Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto to his Eroica symphony.” They were both composed around the same time but carry quite different levels of artistic importance! The Eroica is a freakin’ landmark of ALL OF MUSIC, while that piano concerto pretty much falls in the niche of piano fans and Beethoven fans, and even then it’s not the best of his piano concertos. (5th, 3rd, 4th, 2nd, 1st, in that order.)
But hey, if you honestly like KimiKoto better, MOAR power to you! It’s an opinion, and everyone is entitled to one. Heck, for the record, I prefer the 4th Piano Concerto over the “Eroica” myself, because even though the “Eroica” is UTTERLY EPIC, it also ceases to hold my interest by about the the middle of the 2nd movement. (Although it wins me back during the 4th.) Ludwig-chan, you totally broke the mold for the structure of the symphony, but you also made it freaking LONG. Like Longcat. By which I mean, Yuki Kashiwagi.
So. The 4th piano concerto (“Kimi no Koto ga Suki Dakara”). And the Eroica Symphony (“RIVER”). Two sides of the same disc (to say nothing of “Hikoukigumo”—which probably equates to one of the non-nicknamed piano sonatas), but of very different moods and ambitions. In fact, I put it this way:
“‘Kimi no Koto..’ starts on the same chords as ‘Iiwake,’ on the same instruments, keyed one note higher. Just saying.” [Pata quote]
Which may, in the end, not mean anything! Certainly not when one is too busy fawning over Lovetan’s dimples. But anyway. What is particularly clever about the song is how certain melody lines overlap each other at the points of greatest tension: the transitory phrase into the chorus (which coincidentially also sounds very much like the lead-in to the chorus of “Namida Surprise!”), and the “DA! I! SU! KI!” that connects the chorus’s first and second segments. If you’re gonna pick a place to “crowd” the voices and have someone sing over someone else, that’s pretty much the best place to put it. It’s not quite stretto, but it’s loli counterpoint, and it works specifically because you have however many girls running around cleaning up the pool and therefore have sufficient vocal resources to pull it off.
A glimmer of hope
To the asshats on 2ch who “leaked” the supposed “plot” of the PV which involved a rescue mission, a sniper, and Mariko forgetting her sunglasses: may God’s fire rain down upon your butt-shaped faces and send you to the same Hell as the place where the guy who wrote the “Hollywood version of Death Note” script is resting right now.
But more to the point of the PV: CLEARLY, JURINA IS THE SPY. C’mon, she doesn’t even LOOK twelve!
The cryptic ending of the real PV, meanwhile, has been a point of contention for a couple of weeks now. Flowers? That’s it? Did someone die? But when taken in context with the chord progressions used throughout the song, it totally makes freaking sense. Of course, not many people are interested in sense being made because they’re too busy living in the froo-froo world wailing and waving about sales figures.
But here’s what it is. You listen to the first verse of “RIVER.” It starts in the key of C# minor (SAD), a.k.a. the “Moonlight Sonata,” a.k.a. “Kanashimi Twilight,” which is pretty dark except without being forcibly emo about it. But in the space of just eight measures, it has moved to the chord of B major, which can mean a lot of things but in this particular situation implies most strongly the dominant of E major, meaning that it’s about to modulate to relative major (HAPPY) of C# minor. A glimmer of hope, right? SAD goes to HAPPY.
EXCEPT IT DOESN’T.
Instead, it drops the floor out from under you. You don’t get E major. The chorus of “RIVER” is in bloody E minor!!
The PARALLEL MINOR of the RELATIVE MAJOR of the original key!
But so here comes the chorus. And it sounds a lot like Inoue’s other AKB48 choruses, I mean the bastard pretty much used the same progression in “Oogoe Diamond” and “10nenzakura” and did little to hide the fact, and again you’re getting the same thing here where you move via stepwise chord motion to get to the relative major of the key you’re in. Except “RIVER” is less obvious about it, although perceptive ears will still catch the hints in the tune: the lowest notes in each phrase of the first strain move downward from E to D to C to B. This song can’t help but move somewhere—moving where?—crossing the river, perhaps. And then, at the last line, you get … a glimmer of hope.
It moves to the most stable position in that key signature: the tonic major, G.
AND THEN IT DROPS THE FLOOR OUT FROM UNDER YOU AGAIN!
Because right after the last note of the chorus it jumps RIGHT BACK TO C# MINOR!! A frigging tritone interval! It is the most dramatic harmonic leap in all of Western music theory and “RIVER” fucking shoves it IN YOUR FACE!!!
And you start to realize what “RIVER” is totally about. It uses all these dark, minor tonalities to reflect the struggles of life but moves irrevocably toward the major key, always reaching toward the shining light of hope—only to have it ripped away at the last moment, at the end of the first verse, at the end of the first chorus, the end of the second verse, the end of the second chorus, even after the bridge (which is written in E major), because the struggles of life are never-ending. Only on that abrupt last chord does the song finally rest and say: “YOU CAN DO IT!!”
And even then, a four-word phrase that describes potential yet to be fulfilled, a promise of things to come, because we cannot for a moment rest on our accomplishments. Modulated to the major key? Now do it again from the relative minor! Got the entry-level job you were shooting for? Now prove that you have what it takes to lead a project team! Thrilled about meeting AKB48 in New York? Now fly to Japan and see them THERE!
Except, most stupid ass wotas are too thick to understand Yoshimasa Inoue’s mastery of the major-minor duality, so you gotta put it in obvious terms they can understand. Like the rest of the song’s lyrics. And also: the flowers.
If the entire harmonic structure of “RIVER” is a glimmer of hope amidst endless struggle, then the flowers in the PV codify it in tangible form, a convenient visual cue that stands out from everything else. The PV, after all, is everything that’s wrong with “realistic” and “gritty” video games these days: greens and browns and grays, from the props and backgrounds to the very school uniforms they’re wearing during the dance routine. But amidst all the drabness and grit: a shock of purple at the end, a sign that there are still Marios and Katamaris in a world full of Halo and Call of Duty. And that Mariko, if she actually did forget her sunglasses, can always come back for them.
So if this is Beethoven’s 3rd, what are the other singles?
The nice gentleman that I met at Webster Hall turned out to be, among other things, an aficionado of classical music. That made, like, two of us in the entire freaking venue. As it turns out, he was a big fan of symphonies in general, moreso than myself and my piano-centric fandom. Actually, I’m still not sure if I can forgive him for calling Chopin “one-dimensional.” Asshat!! Chopin is one of the pillars of piano literature! You wouldn’t understand.
So I ask myself why I declared “RIVER” to be the “Eroica.” Why not the epic and instantly memorable 5th Symphony? (Because “Aitakatta!” already took that spot. BUH BUH BUH BUMMMM!~~ = AITAKATTA! Don’t you hear it? 3 repeated notes and a major third down; 3 repeated notes and a perfect fourth up! They’re practically sisters of each other.) Why not the virtuosic “Waldstein” Sonata, which has enough ridiculous 16th-note runs to give the entire stepping routine a run for its money? And where the hell is “Für Elise”? Quite frankly, I like to stay as far away from “Für Elise” as possible, it being one of my most hated over-requested piano pieces that reminds me too much of Chinese six-year-old piano-playing robots who walk into piano stores with their moms and that’s the only thing they can play because they (and their parents) think it sounds cool. In fact, I am utterly convinced that there is this secret cadre of overcompetitive East Asian parents whose entire method of keeping score is based on how quickly their kid learns to play “Für Elise.”
I mean, it doesn’t even deserve to be on the Top 10 of Beethoven’s greatest works. It would be … like … one of those AKB songs that everyone adores but I just don’t give a shit about. “Für Elise” is “Seifuku ga Jama wo Suru.”
“BINGO!” is the “Spring” Violin Sonata because it’s just so full of hope and sunny optimism, plus the melody suits itself amazingly well to the violin. I can tell you this because I’ve tried it. Plus it a strings version of “BINGO!” would sound so sweet on the Nodame Cantabile soundtrack.
“Namida Surprise!” is probably the “Moonlight Sonata” because, like the “Moonlight,” it does a parallel minor-major shift (the “Moonlight” between movements, “Surprise!” between verse and chorus), and it has this goofy bit in the middle that seems to have been shoved in there just because they could (the Minuet vs. HAPPY BIRTHDAY DEAR MY FRIIIIEEENNNDDDD), and it’s only popular because there’s that one bit that everyone remembers (DUH-nuh-nuh Duh-nuh-nuh Duh-nuh-nuh) but they couldn’t give a crap about the rest of the piece, just like how everyone recognizes the chorus of “Namida Surprise!” but half of them can’t hum the verse to save their lives.
“Baby! Baby! Baby” is the 7th Symphony in A major because it is relentlessly joyful with lots of brass, and admit it, you’d pay a helluva lot closer attention to the 7th Symphony as well if it were performed by hawt girls in bikinis.
But “RIVER” is where it is because of what it does. I would like to believe that it is not AKB48′s greatest achievement, but merely a herald of greatness to come. Greatness that comes in the form of 50 seconds of clap and slap, of a minor-keyed struggle reaching inexorably toward a glimmer of hope, of the very bones and flesh of the contemporary pop single being mutated into a new form. There will never be another “RIVER” again. Which is good, because Beethoven never made another “Eroica” either. Instead, he pressed ever onward, smashing barriers left and right until he left nothing but the corpses of the Classical period in his wake and a newly broken passageway into the blindling light of the Romantic era. A Watarirouka that you could Hashiri through, if you will. Let’s discuss this again in a few years when AKB is on life support and the Next Great Idol Unit is rising through the ranks. I’ll point out to you which of their songs is the “Ode to Joy.”
I can’t wait to hear how it’ll sound like.
Tags: 4th Piano Concerto, 5th Symphony, 7th Symphony, Aika Ohta, Aitakatta, AKB48, Atsuko Maeda, Baby! Baby! Baby!, Beethoven, bikini, BINGO!, Call of Duty, Elton John, Eroica, Für Elise, Haydn, Iiwake Maybe, Jurina Matsui, Kimi no Koto ga Suki Dakara, Longcat, Lorenzo da Ponte, Lovetan, Mariko Shinoda, Mario, Mayu Watanabe, Mendelssohn, Minami Takahashi, Moonlight Sonata, Mozart, Namida Surprise, Napoleon, parallel minor, PV, relative major, relative minor, RIVER, Seifuku ga Jama wo Suru, Spring Sonata, stupid ass wota, symphony, The Moon, THUG LIFE, tritone, Uncharted 2, Webster Hall, Yasushi Akimoto, Yoshimasa Inoue, Yuki Kashiwagi