Let’s start from the basis, from the actual meaning of the word: ビジュアル stands for “visual” in a very broad sense, while 系 indicates some kind of affiliation to the word it precedes. According to this definition, then, one might say that a band or an artist can be called so if it uses “visual” elements in their performance.
This definition, still, present many difficulties as well. For example, is Marilyn Manson a visual kei artist? What about Wagakki Band? Or Lady Gaga? It is evident that we need more specificity if we want to isolate some kind of parameters in order to judge if a band is visual or not.
Let’s go a bit deeper, to the agreed origin of the word “visual kei”: “psychedelic violence-crime of visual shock”, the slogan written on the album “Blue Blood” of X Japan. An important element is added to the previous definition, that is “violence-crime”, underlining the aim of the visual aspect: to shock the viewers. What about the psychedelic, then? It may probably be some kind of remnants of American bands which influenced both sound and appearance of X Japan and other bands.
But, even though we may be able to identify more accurately what’s “visual” and what is not “visual”, with such definition one cannot distinguish between “visual kei” and “punk” or “glam rock”.
Looking at the context in which this last definition was created, one could argue that being “visual” was nothing but a trend to make things look cooler: one would actually be surprised of how many bands were formed and disbanded in few years which lived off mediocre music adorned with the “visual” aesthetics. In such a chaotic fervor for such a style, inevitably the genre has become more and more diverse, making it impossible to classify “visual kei” under a musical definition.
Still, if we were to accept such a definition, “visual kei” would only be used to refer to the visual band born in the span between late 80s and 1999, excluding other key bands like Nightmare, The Gazette and many others: unless one would want to over-simplify this genre, we cannot accept this definition.
Then, how can we identify Visual Kei?
I personally think that Visual Kei shares many elements with other musical genres but every visual kei artist has always tried to put himself/herself/themselves in contrast to that. I’ll try to be more clear.
A strong element in this genre is “idolization” (the phenomenon of using an artist image rather than the music as a selling point), something which is not exclusive of Visual Kei: there have been many male idol band even before Visual Kei, artist of this genre tried to create a different model of a pre-existing image. This element is clearly visible in the persona of Gackt, hide, Mana and many others. This mark a strong difference between Visual Kei and Punk, which emphasize “going against the rule” but doesn’t fit in the model of “idol”.
One other feature is “unusuality”, something that has become one way to express the “shock” of X Japan’s slogan: the stress on diversity which Visual Kei promotes is denoted by the number of different costumes/look the artists have produced in almost 30 years of the genre. This mark a strong difference between Visual Kei and Idol, which lives off the image of the artist but tend to be more political correct with their appearance.
There’s also a tendency in the genre to aim to a certain “performance aestheticism”, linked of course with the theme of the band and the persona of the artists. There is no self-declared visual band which hasn’t tried to create some kind of “ideal” in their work. This differ from industrial, black metal which tend to emphasize on the destruction of aesthetic rather than creating it.
These three element keep being interpreted in many different ways from time to time, but may represent the core of the genre with a certain degree of accuracy.
So, what do you think? Let me know!
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