The first and last time Hello! Project idol unit Buono! truly left an impression on me was probably three years ago. It was early 2008, shortly before Perfume, capsule and the J-electro scene as a whole would sweep me away and take me on a trip, take me on a ride. I was 16, and despite the fact that I was slowly being pulled towards other artists and genres, idols were still kind of the best thing ever to me.
I know, I know.
Nowadays, it’s really rare that I can go back to what I used to listen to every day and connect with it on the same level as before. It sounds pretentious, but I’ve frankly outgrown most idol music. There are still idols that stand out to me and the music is cute and honestly harmless in moderation, but man cannot live by idols alone, as they say. Some may argue otherwise, but these individuals are lacking in taste and should be ignored. Trust me, I am no music elitist — I’m speaking as someone who’s been there.
And yet, having dusted off the single that made me love Buono! after seriously wondering if the cutesy idol-rock trio’s music had always been as bad as it is now, I’ve realized that “Renai Rider” actually sort of remains a jam to this day. The anison touch is really evident, yes, but it also feels classic; I can listen to this now and honestly say that it hasn’t aged at all. This was truly Buono! at their greatest, and foolishly, I went into their latest effort partenza with the hopes that they could pull it off one more time.
I think part of the reason for the widespread disappointment following this release is that things have simply changed. It’s been over a year since the end of Shugo Chara!, the popular TV anime Buono! tied into to help establish their relevance, and its absence seems to have left the group floundering. What to do when you’re no longer needed to sing about guardian eggs or being cool and spicy?
Our answer lies in the definition of the Italian word partenza, courtesy of Wiktionary:
- 1. departure, leaving, starting
2. (sports) start
3. sailing (of a boat)
4. take-off (of a plane)
5. blast-off (of a missile or rocket)
This, I believe, is what’s been missing in the critical evaluations I’ve seen of this mini-album so far. This release is a departure: they’ve left the anime-oriented Pony Canyon label for Hello! Project’s old standard Zetima, and though their music remains untouched by Tsunku or his usual line-up of arrangers, I can see that they’re most definitely becoming one with the Hello! Project machine. Leaving the security of the guaranteed anime tie-ins they used to have means picking up and realizing that the world has shifted their interests to new artists and new genres — and most importantly, that if Buono! wants to catch up, they’ll have to move forward as well.
And for better or worse, right now, K-pop is what the girls need to measure up to.
Put simply, the blippy, synth-dominated “partenza ~Let’s Go!!!~” is everything you need to know about the turn Japan’s music industry has taken since Buono! stepped onto the scene four years ago. After all, it was 2007 when Perfume spurred their first big “electro-pop boom” in a long while; the Korean wave that followed not long afterwards seems to have only encouraged the public’s insatiable hunger for dance beats and gratuitous vocal processing. Today, between South Korea’s slick, pitch-perfect performers and Japan’s ever-consistent blend of looks, personality and that ubiquitous thing we call “charm,” idols have officially come back into style — and partenza, to my ear, catches Buono! in a somewhat desperate attempt to ride that trend.
Of course, I don’t think the K-pop sound is all “partenza” can be compared to. For instance, I hear much of underground J-tek favorite Saori@destiny’s “Klaxon” in Buono!’s lackluster rapping and rousing ganbare lyrics, regardless of the opposite paths both songs take in their own respective moods. Not to go unmentioned, though, is its resemblance to After School’s “Bang!”, known best for the cheer-like hook prominent also in “partenza” and mere days away from its own Japanese single release as part of their considerably high-profile foreign debut. All in all, it’s on-trend for the current market: mindless, catchy, danceable. Too bad all it’s missing is, well… Buono!.
Though Buono!’s signature manufactured pop-punk fare remains out in force, it’s represented mainly by their previously released singles from this year, all tossed haphazardly amongst the other tracks as if whoever laid them out had no particular care for the obvious disconnect it would cause. Songs like the BOUNCEBACK-produced (or maybe Gwen Stefani-plagiarized would be more accurate?) “Frankincense” only add to the mini-album’s overall sense of disarray, especially with the knowledge that it came as a hand-me-down from failed Hello! Project unit SI☆NA rather than as something created with Buono! in mind. Similarly, all ears turn to full-time ℃-ute front girl Suzuki Airi as she takes on the solo song “My alright sky,” but before her vocals ever even have a chance to appear, composer and lyricist Hayashi Yoshimi cuts in for a hip and vaguely accented English monologue straight out of a Girls’ Generation release. She spends the rest of the number hovering indiscreetly behind Airi’s every line, presumably with the aim of making her promising but still immature voice more listenable. As a last-ditch attempt at restoring some rock ‘n’ roll cred to Buono!’s now irrevocably tarnished name, a cover of the ’90s SIAM SHADE classic “1/3 no Junjou na Kanjou” is tacked on to the mini-album’s bitter, bitter end, inviting the girls to showcase their rarely explored lower ranges if nothing else.
partenza is a mixed bag, to say the least, and its inability to do anything particularly well has left my thoughts on it decidedly mixed also. For something that was meant to be fresh, it could’ve so easily gone the route of, say, an electro-rock record and stayed completely within Buono!’s image. It’s actually a bit of a shame that it ended up such a wholly lazy attempt at any kind of novelty.
Yet it has to be said: that’s the risk you run with idols. The shock and disappointment I felt when I learned that Perfume’s A~chan went practically her entire life without fully grasping the concept of disco and didn’t even particularly care for her own unit’s sophomore album release was, to be honest, my fault. I put trust in so-called “artists” who have little to no say over their music and image; it’s really no surprise that I ended up on the receiving end of increasingly pop-leaning singles and a group who seems to get further away from what made them special to me with every passing release. See Buono! up there rocking out with their live band? Yeah, Perfume can play that game too. It’s all image, plain and simple.
And idols, maybe more than any other performers, need to have an image. I am all for Buono! getting back to theirs. However, anyone who’s followed Morning Musume for a year or more will know that Hello! Project idols have basically never heard a botched and utterly mishandled genre of music they didn’t like. Every group will be subjected to fifteen different styles just to find something that clicks and, above all else, sells. Everyone remembers when Mano Erina was that basic girl with the keyboard, but it doesn’t mean she stayed that way.
Four years ago, Buono! was three girls assembled from other groups and handed leather jackets when rocker chic was probably fashionable. Now they’re three girls rapping and belting under Auto-Tune due to the prevalence of pop singers who are currently doing the same. I commend them, at the very least, for hanging on to the wardrobe. Still, whether it’s as unfortunate as partenza was for me or not, their music will undoubtedly continue to evolve and branch out into new things. There’s not a lot more to do than accept that it’s happening and try to love them the same.
Besides, when you listen to Buono!, you’re basically listening to the Japanese idol version of Nickelback.
Think about it.