No music, no life

This album was the beginning.

In the early ’90s, my perception of the Japanese music scene was limited to anime soundtracks and idol pop. I was a big fan of the Bubblegum Crisis soundtracks, and I loved hearing Western music sung in a different language.

The early ’90s was also when post-punk music crossed over into the mainstream and became alternative rock. Women, in particular, were a driving force in this “new” type of music — Sinéad O’Connor, Throwing Muses, the Breeders, hell even Margo Timmins of Cowboy Junkies were seen as an antidote for, say, Paula Abdul.

Women in Japanese music, on the other hand, were primarily idols.

I got tired of Japanese pop pretty quickly because of its prefabrication — it became hard to tell one voice from another.

I was introduced to Cocco in 1998, on a night shift at the newspaper where I worked. A co-worker was playing the Japan Nite Sound Sampler, and most of the preceding tracks came across as bizarrely cute in a mistranslated sort of way.

And then “Count Down” started up, and the two worlds that divided my musical loyalties eight years earlier had merged.

Here was a singer with a beautiful voice who could have gone the easy route and sang what was given to her. Instead, she wrote her own music, and it raged harder than anything prancing about the Lilith Fair tour at the time.

I missed her performance at SXSW by one day.

But I found a copy of Bougainvillia at an Austin record store and bought it. And for the next two years after that, I couldn’t stop playing it.

American press at the time compared Cocco to Fiona Apple and (not as a compliment) Tori Amos. Cocco’s own fragile live persona puts her closer to Apple in temperament, but musically, she mopped the floor with both of them.

The production work of Tailor Tereda and Dr.StrangeLove’s Takamune Negishi showed a heavy influence of grunge, which was reaching its waning days in 1997.

The unison two-guitar attack on “Hashiru Karada” and “Nemuru Mori no Oojisama” made those riffs darker than they already were. The distortion on all the instruments on “Baby Bed” gives the song an ominous feel.

Cocco’s lyric booklet also established the unprecedent move of translating her lyrics into English, revealing a poetic but unsettling mind.

“Count Down”, a song that brings the Nirvana loud-soft aesthetic to an extreme, goes further than Alanis Morrissette’s paen to an ex-boyfriend, “You Oughta Know”.

Morrissette merely asked if the new woman in the man’s life would go down on him in a theater. Cocco threatens to shoot him if he doesn’t return to her.

In “Isho”, a song that serves as a last will and testament, Cocco asks her executor to kill her if she becomes incapacitated.

Not all is doom and gloom on Bougainvillia. “Gajumaru” is a children’s song misplaced among the rest of the album. “Sing a Song ~No Music, No Life~” questions the societal norm of restraint.

Bougainvillia was not a successful album for Cocco. It barely cracked the Top 30 in Japan. Her second single, “Tsuyoku Hakanai Monotachi” (“The Strong and Ephemeral”), would establish her success and demonstrate to Japanese audiences their best singers don’t all need to be idols.

But on Bougainvillia, Cocco already proved she had a strong voice, in both a literal and ideological sense.