I am addicted to Speed.
Not the drug, that scares me.
Not the Korean boy band, although it’s hilarious they share the name.
Not the Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock movie.
Addicted is probably too strong of a word, anyway.
But I am a huge fan of the Okinawa group. Ever since 4 Colors was announced back in September and released later in November of last year I’ve been thinking about the position Speed holds in J-pop. Less on their activity before they disbanded. I’m not even thinking about 2003, and their release of Bridge. I’m thinking about where they are in the modern-era of J-pop. From 2008 to now in 2013, from when they officially came back, as grown-ass women.
So consider this article part brainstorm, part crate-digging, and part thought-experiment as I retrace the group’s activity post-reunion in hopes of trying to find an answer.
The TV appearances for the group post-reunion are what you would expect. 2008 especially was good due to the group reuniting. Japan was excited at the thought, so much so that it got them an invite to perform at that year’s Kohaku. Fitting that they performed White Love.
2008 would be their last time being a part of the show as of this writing, marking their fourth appearance on the show overall.
They’ve done some variety TV as well. They competed against Arashi on their show and acted like they were kids again on their 2009 appearance on Tokyo Friend Park 2 as they were promoting their Welcome To SPEEDLAND tour.
I particularly enjoyed watching TFP2. Watching them play games such as Wall Crash with the Velcro suits, or the question game with the treadmills while summoning that teenage gusto was a delight to see. Especially fun for me, because I got the sense that throughout the episode, they thought, “We’re too old for this shit!”
More importantly, I loved seeing them together. It hearkens back to Speed’s heyday and the infancy of the internet. It was a struggle to find any good outlets for anything. When it comes to an overseas girl group? I was lucky I found what I did. When I came across, say, the Steady MV, my week was made. Seeing Speed as a whole was enough for me. Still is.
(Funny enough, from ’08 through today, I found more Speed content from that era than I did back then.)
So when the group made the rounds on TV, I was ecstatic. I get to see my favorite Asian Pop act again, but now it’s the remix. All grown-up. Certainly didn’t mind hearing the same songs again, but this time with those mature voices. I also think the Japanese audience didn’t mind either. It was nostalgia driven with visiting Utaban and watching old clips, or having interviews with celebrities that double as Speed fans. Early on, the mere thought of Speed together was enough.
Plus, the new music is on-point. Sure, something like Let’s Heat Up or Yubiwa won’t make the same impact as Long Way Home or April, but there haven’t been any complete misses with any post-reunion singles. Okay, Little Dancer is the skippable one, but even that isn’t by any means a huge turn-off.
The reality is, Speed is not going to break 1 Million units sold in today’s age. Their comeback single, Ashita No Sora, reached number 3 on Oricon and charted for 11 weeks, but that was most likely a result of excitement to the reunion.
In an English interview with Metropolis, Hiro said, “I think we let go of our stardom once and now we’re starting all over again from zero. We’ve been taking it slowly and considering what we want to do more this time.”
The Notorious B.I.G. once said, Things Done Changed. Girl groups in the same sub-genre as Speed (in terms of small number of members) do have their place. Momoiro Clover Z and Perfume do have mainstream success, but unfortunately, Speed reuniting in ’08 occurred around the same time as this current cycle of idols began to spin up as Ray from Idolminded documents. Is it merely a victim of timing? Say news broke that Speed would come together in 2013, or permanently banded together in ’03, would it be any different?
It’s certainly possible that if Speed stayed together in ’03, maintaining a position in the upper echelon of J-pop would’ve been much easier. But in ’08 or today? As Hiro said, they are starting over (I wonder if she referenced their first album on purpose). Yet, they aren’t starting from zero. The name still carries a lot of weight.
They released SPEEDLAND -The Premium Best Re-Tracks-, an album where they re-recorded some of their older songs. A bit difficult to simply let go of any past glory when you keep revisiting it. But, part of me feels guilty that I replaced the original songs for these self-covered ones on my iPod.
Another way to look at their importance is to look at J-pop groups that honor them. Happiness did a cover of Body & Soul on their Happy Time album. Speed took the stage alongside AKB48 during the FNS 2011 Music Festival. The girls of Perfume — A~chan especially — are fans of theirs. Their special joint performances (and the interviews) prove this so.
The biggest indicator to me that Speed is still in the J-pop consciousness is their success from their recent tours. With both ’09’s Welcome to SPEEDLAND and 2010’s Glowing Sunflower tours, it showed that people still loved them. You know the drill; chanting their names before the show starts, a huge pop once the lights go off, maniacal glow-stick waving, a huge sing-a-long once the microphones are pointed at the audience, the whole experience.
There’s one thing that these later tour DVDs have that their previous tour home releases don’t have: appreciation. Not to say that the four of them never appreciated their fans when they were younger, but age teaches a lot. They realize they might not perform again in front of thousands of fans. Watching SPEEDLAND and Glowing, I felt the women reciprocated the love back to the fans in a way they haven’t done before. They have a career and legacy to look back upon. In addition, their lives are more than just music now.
That perspective matters. When you are in a group during your preteen/teenage years, what other stuff do you really have going on? The reason they first disbanded was they wanted to pursue solo careers and other budding interests. Hitoe studied art and got a yoga license. Takako ventured into acting and modeling, and got married last year. Hiro formed Coco d’Or, a jazz cover band along with her own solo career. Eriko has a solo career herself, but most importantly, has a son to take care of. It takes time to gain perspective. Speed has that. I enjoy watching them now because I sense their admiration and appreciation.
4 Colors had all this potential. New material means new performances, new interviews, new everything. Their reunion is now complete. A full-time return to music. Speed would be regularly mentioned in J-pop circles again.
Outside of a video of them shooting for the album cover, there was no promotion. When 4 Colors was new, the women were on twitter, tweeting pictures of themselves on vacation or other events in their lives. I like the pictures, but shouldn’t they have been tweeting pictures from backstage right before going on-air? There wasn’t even a new music video either. It’s like when rappers put out free mixtapes for fans to consume, and them just move on. There are two reason I could think of that led to this.
One was that Sonic Groove (a sub-label under Avex) didn’t believe it would sell. Looking at the numbers, it only did around 11,000 units sold. Yet, that result reeks of a self-fulling prophecy. Can something be labeled a failure, when it was set up to fail in the beginning? They got TV spots for singles and their tours, why not the album? I have a hard time believing that even one radio interview, sprinkled with a Music Station appearance and one morning TV spot wouldn’t have helped at all.
Facing facts, it’s true that they faced diminishing returns on single sales further along their post-reunion careers, so it makes sense to project that the album could fall into the same pattern. The facts also show that both Ashita no Sora and S.P.D. sold more than 4 Colors, along with their self-cover album. It’s also possible to assume that the first time Speed releases anything in the post-reunion era means it will do well, so it makes sense that 4 Colors could fall under that pattern. Regardless of 4 Colors having previously released songs, doesn’t it make sense that new material plus even a little promotion backing would drive numbers?
The other reason is that, the women simply didn’t want to get into the promotion circuit. Perhaps this is another example of them letting their stardom go. Maybe they wanted to test the market to see the reception. It’s even possible that they scheduled things during the release and couldn’t/didn’t want to cancel those plans. As improbable as that may be, it’s just as possible that the group didn’t want to do any media. In their collective list of priorities, music isn’t as high as it once was.
The truth, most likely lies in the middle. Regardless, I wanted more. I could keep watching Alive performances again and again, but I would’ve liked to broken it up with a brand new live performance. I fully admit that my expectations were unusually high, but how was I to predict that the album would low-ball?
Yet, I am extremely happy that we got a new album with new material. As a hip-hop nerd, it makes me chuckle that in my hypothetical list of favorite musical acts of all-time (which I haven’t officially worked on), Speed would displace some of my favorite MCs. I don’t like the lack of effort shown to promote 4 Colors, but I respect it. They earned it.
They earned it.
That’s where Speed is now in this modern-era of J-pop. While they aren’t bodybagging the charts like they used to, the public knows how successful they once were, and to a generation of fans, hugely influential. Read the Hiro quote from before. She says, “I think we let go of our stardom once and now we’re starting all over again from zero. We’ve been taking it slowly and considering what we want to do more this time.”
The second part of the quote is the key. They have the clout to dictate their careers in a way they haven’t before. They want to pick and choose their battles. Although I still believe Sonic Groove should’ve gave their album a bigger push, after ruminating over it for a couple of months, I’ve come to accept the possibility that Takako, Hitoe, Eriko, and Hiro chose not to promote. Disappointed over the lack of activity, but I’m more proud that Speed has control over their careers.
No doubt I would love new content. But, I’ll take anything I can get. Just like old times.
I have people to thank for making this piece successful.
To Sophie: For talking the time to read the rough draft, and poking holes in the piece for the better.
To both Nia and fellow JPH!P member muppet: For helping me find the important connections between Perfume and Speed. Much appreciated.
To Nicole: You get two because that gif is great.
To You the reader: Thanks for wading through those words.
To Speed: Thank you, for everything.