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K as in Knife

[Originally published 1993 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

Shonen Knife is a rock trio from Japan. And they're great – most of the time.

No, make that fabulous – most of the time. Like the Ramones and the Ventures, Shonen Knife's frenetic power pop whisks you away with a foot-stomping beat. OK, so that's the visceral appeal. But Shonen Knife works for the mind, too: How many all-woman Japanese rock bands are there? (Use the term "girl group" if you want.) Isn't this a big step ahead for women in rock – and women in Japan?

Well, yes, I think so, and while Shonen Knife are so beloved among musicians that there's already a cover album of Shonen Knife tunes (Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them), too many rock critics dismiss the band as something of a novelty – enjoyable enough, but not Important. Admittedly, Shonen Knife can be cute bordering on cutesy. Its first genu-wine English-language album, the ultra-cool Let's Knife, amounts to a soundtrack for a John Waters movie as yet unfilmed, offering paeans to Barbie dolls (in "Twist Barbie") and penny candy (in "Flying Jelly Attack"). I'd lay odds that Naoko Yamano, Michie Nakatani, and Atsuko Yamano actually play up their Japanese accents for camp value – prick up your ears for the epenthesis in "Riding the Rocket" that makes "Pluto" sort of rhyme with "ice cream." All this, to mainstream rock writers, bespeaks a frivolity for which there just is no room in their world. Shonen Knife commits the sin of churning out fun tunes with guitars, which are of course a sacred penile substitute reserved for superbutch rock guys.

Paul McCartney may disagree, but I've certainly had enough of silly love songs. Why shouldn't Shonen Knife express sympathy for the endangered bison ("Bear Up, Bison") or yearn for the escape of interplanetary travel ("Riding the Rocket," "I Am a Cat")? I'm all for ditties about "little" things; pop music, after all, is supposed to relate to real life, and Barbie dolls, jelly beans, bison and so on seem real enough to me. Besides, the Ramones and Shonen Knife could easily perform each other's songs, and the Ramones are still taken seriously years after their heyday, right?

So forgive me if I detect an undercurrent of misogyny and anti-Japanese resentment in rock writers' diminution of Shonen Knife. You'll find the odd ballad on Let's Knife (and I do mean odd – the ode to Singapore sticks out like a sore thumb), and a careful reading of the lyrics will expose a subtle anomic melancholy beneath all the fun, but Shonen Knife's species of pop lends itself to forgetting all that and having a good time. With the B-52s so boring these days, Shonen Knife arrived just in the nick of time. Pop this album into your stereo, crank it up, and groove on go-go tunes for girls of all genders.

Out on a limb with Garth Brooks

How many albums has Garth Brooks sold? One for every household in Canada? The phrase "country superstar" barely begins to describe his pan-galactic celebrity, but being that famous at least lets you get away with things.

Like what? Like the treacly number "We Shall Be Free," which imagines a future world of liberty and justice for all – including us sensitive folk. All it took was one simple verse ("When we're free to love anyone we choose, then we shall be free") for Brooks to join the tiny coterie of country artistes to discuss queers in anything like complimentary terms. (The only other example I can cite is Pirates of the Mississippi's "Feed Jake." Country queens are invited to write in with others.)

[Note, though, that in a 1999 interview in George, Brooks admits that he was thinking of interracial love when writing the song. Touché.]

So it's too bad he had to mess it up by putting out what could be the worst possible video for "We Shall Be Free," with cameos by such paragons of community credibility as Jay Leno (ick) and Michael Bolton (double, triple, quadruple ick) telling us to love one another. Yeah, right. Egregiously tokenistic is the appearance of Marlee Matlin, who signs without interpretation or subtitles in a video that isn't closed-captioned on Canadian TV. Worse yet, all audio halts while she's signing, as if to emphasize to hearing viewers how "different" she is. Feh.

No matter. Though not a sexpot in Hollywood terms with his ample midsection and receding hairline, Brooks still gives off quite an aura. In fact, he burns with a charisma that stems from something hard to find these days. It's called integrity.