Monday, February 25, 2013

Of Pop Music and Voice Acting

This post is rather random and not directly related to games. There is a link to voice acting though. Particularly in the JRPG genre, original voice acting has been largely preferred by fans because of its higher (perceived?) quality. A more peculiar preference in the past few years has been the preference of Japanese and later Korean pop music to American or European counterparts. Fundamentally they are not that different (or using the cynical expression: same shit, different package). I believe there are two sets of reasons why such a preference might be: the rational reasons - the ones we tell ourselves - and the irrational ones - the ones that might be the actual root cause of the preference. This is a personal reflection, but is based on my reading of psychology so it applies more generally.

1. Rational reasons

We like to think we know the reasons we are doing stuff. If questioned, we can muster up an explanation for any preference we might have. In this example, we are looking at reasons I have come up with while trying to explain why, despite being something of a musical elitist, I like certain Asian pop groups. My go-to explanation is that one of the most common downfalls of pop music is its shallowness. This is particularly evident in lyrics. My understanding of Japanese is weak at best (I have studied for two years and later proceeded to happily forget most of it) and my understanding of Korean is non-existent. The logical conclusion then is to attribute the preference of Asian pop music to language. Since I have no idea what they are saying, I need not facepalm to the lyrics. I can even be very aware of the general theme of the song, but not hearing the words truly seems like a blessing.

However, you don't find me listening to, say, Spanish or French pop music. Another theory also involves language. More precisely, the way it sounds. Japanese and Korean sound quite different than most European languages. Japanese at least is a language with very short syllables and heavy on the use of consonants. It certainly gives singing its own flavor. The flow of voice is indeed different. This theory is equally likely to not hold. This is actually where I run out of theories that are in any way related to the music itself. The rest go into the irrational category, and are linked to entirely other factors. The reason a lot of people prefer Japanese voice acting in Japanese games is more founded on reality though: some years back, the translations were indeed done with a shoelace budget and the (lack of) acting was quite simply horrible. Lately though I have heard some quite convincing translations, even some that I prefer over the originals (FFXIII).

2. Irrational reasons

The reasons given in the previous section are prime examples of rationalizing behavior. Humans do this to overcome discomfort that arises from cognitive dissonance. In my case, the fact that - against my general taste in music - I find some pop groups to be acceptable or even good creates dissonance. In this case the conflict arises from my attitude ("pop music is commercialized shit for the masses") and my liking of some pop groups (that are likely more commercialized). According to theory, there are a few ways to reduce the discomfort caused by this conflict. One is to fix my attitude, another is to refuse liking said groups and the third way is to find reasons why there are exceptions to the rule (i.e. this doesn't count because...). However there needs to be some explanation why I have come to appreciate these groups in particular and not other groups.

The Western culture is focused on the individual - we prefer to be distinguished from our peers. Therefore liking something that is exotic compared to the norm can be appealing. Such preferences can also be used to identify oneself as belonging to a particular subculture. There was this whole big thing among young teenage girls in Finland some years following the wake of rising popularity of anime and manga. Japanese visual style rock bands became very popular among this subculture, or more like, it created its own subculture with a certain fashion style. Although no such strong culture around Asian pop music exists in Finland, it is indeed more popular in my corner of the internet. However it is less of a group thing and more of a continuous exposure thing. My exposure to Asian pop music is indeed several magnitudes higher than my exposure to Western pop music for instance.

Continued exposure is also a possible answer to why pop music in video games sounds better - even when heard outside its context - than other pop music. Of course I can construct theories that it is indeed somehow fundamentally different, but chances are I prefer it because I have been exposed to it while playing the game (I am looking at you, Persona). The same goes for anime opener songs - which were indeed the first instances of Asian pop music I deemed acceptable. Continued exposure to discussion about Asian pop music can be linked to the availability bias: it is the only kind of pop music that is discussed, so there must be something special about it. This statement is very unlikely to be true in objective terms but alas, we function based on our very subjective perception of the world.

Western pop music is less available in this sense because there is nothing really prodding me to find good artists. Furthermore, it is quite possible that my attitude has not really changed - there is only the loophole exception for Asian pop music. However it may also be that comparison is in a way disjointed such that Asian pop music gets assessed in a different frame of reference than its Western counterpart. This is actually something that might explain why Japanese voice acting sounds better in games: in our Western society our primary source of Japanese voice has been anime, not movies so the reference point for voice acting quality is in fact much closer. On the other hand we are very used to hearing the English language in movies where acting is typically done with much higher budgets. The low budget voice acting in translations seems therefore especially weak in comparison.

For music this would mean that Asian pop music gets in fact compared to Asian music in general (which I do not listen to all that much) instead of Western music (which I listen a lot to). This reference point alienation is furthered by the fact that both J and K pop have been distinguished into their own genres. Although the usefulness of music genres can be argued, I would be massive amounts of not surprised if they have been found to affect the way we think about music. The thought "I want to listen to jpop" immediately excludes pop originating from any other country. Thinking is wacky that way.


This post belongs to the series "just blogging (for no apparent reason)" and is not all that much concerned with games. However, music preferences and game preferences naturally go hand-in-hand. Is there anything here a marketing person wouldn't know? Likely not, but as a thought experiment it was fun. If you find this stuff interesting, you might want to check topics like cognitive dissonance and cognitive biases. There's a lot of cool stuff to read there. You might even find something to use in either your game or its marketing.

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