NFB Listens To Number Ones: “Japanese Boy” – Aneka

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this one doesn’t get a great deal of air-time anymore: it’s essentially “Cultural Appropriation: The Song”. Aneka – real name Mary Sandeman, from Edinburgh – manages to just about avoid her tune being flat-out racist, despite that hint of a put-on Japanese accent and the stereotypical oriental musical tones that we hear throughout, but she gets pretty close. That kimono and that wig, worn in the video and in stage performances, are bad enough though, and while acceptable in a time of when chinoserie thinking was very much “in”, it isn’t so much now. There are far worse examples of racism in popular music down through the ages, but no-one could be blamed for getting that queasy feeling when giving this one a listen in 2021.

But the song isn’t a crime against music at least. The phrase “very 80’s” has rarely been more apropos, with those musical effects, basic romance-gone-bad lyrics and vaguely techno styles. If it has a flaw it’s that Aneka is actually limiting what I think is a decent voice in trying to get it to conform to that quasi-eastern lilt, and as such she can come across a little ill-pitched at moments. This is the sixth number one I’ve listened to as part of this series, and I can honestly say that it’s the only one that I found myself humming in the shower a few days later. And I don’t mean in the sort of annoying way that the sounds of “Head And Heart” made it into my brain and took a while to dislodge. I mean in the way where the actual tune and music, even if it has that 80’s simplicity where the effects were work enough when it came to crafting a song, are decent.

A poster child for “one hit wonder”, “Japanese Boy” is a song that the artist – a mezza-soprano and folk singer who was stunned by the success of this recording – has tried to distance herself more and more as time passed, with its #1 status pigeon-holing her and her career in a spectacular fashion after its release. It reached the top in various places, including Ireland for a single week in 1981, evidence perhaps of how western culture is more than happy to occasionally grasp at the vaguely eastern as long as it is non-threatening and appropriately homogeneous. But then the singer just vanished into the ether, unwilling to sing in a kimono, or be tied to one single pop song for the rest of her life. She’d never have made a Eurovision winner, that’s for sure. I hope she’s able to make a bit of peace with “Japanese Boy” though: there’s a good song for the era there, you just wish she’d been allowed her own voice in full, and a different wardrobe.

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