The insanely great songs Apple won't let you hear.
So, what happens when this irresistible rock encounters immoveable corporations? Inevitably, Straightener's "Killer Tune" has shown up in its entirety on YouTube, where the band amuses themselves in an exuberantly goofy lip-sync. With YouTube sporting the clever animated video for the blistering follow-up "Berserker Tune," American fans might get the Straightener they need after all.
Meanwhile, a back door has appeared in the Music Store itself: While iTunes Japan pegs foreign undesirables from their credit card numbers, it can't screen fake Japanese addresses provided by prepaid iTunes Card users. There's a small but ardent underground economy among Americans in dummy addresses and e-mailed scans of Japanese iTunes Cards, picked up by friends in Tokyo convenience stores or openly sold online.
It certainly beats buying CDs. Import shops and Amazon.com lack most Japanese bands, and while Amazon.co.jp maintains a somewhat-English-language version, you may find yourself plunged into hair-raisingly incomprehensible pages while entering credit card information. If, for instance, this audio clip of the math-rock single "Japanistan" by the band Stan sends you running for their album Stan II, you'll find nothing at U.S. Amazon. Buying it from Amazon Japan costs 3,090 yen ($25) with international shipping. And, since Amazon Japan pages often lack audio samples, you have to already know what you're looking for. If you didn't catch that Stan video on NHK while jet-lagged in a Shinjuku hotel, you're out of luck.
iTunes United States maintains its own hamstrung Japanese Music playlist, where a few bands have broken into our realm of 99-cent downloads. Listen to the Rodeo Carburettor's head-rattling "R.B.B. (Rude Boy Bob)," the stuttering art-punk of the Emeralds' "Surfing Baby," and the propulsive stop-time of "Riff Man" by the Zazen Boys—a room-clearing roar of gloriously unhinged vocals—and you start to sense what's maddeningly out of reach across the Pacific.
And there are 20 more countries where iTunes users can lurk among the samples, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Greece, and Australia. They won't let you buy their songs, either. You can find an EP of Scottish sensations the Fratellis at iTunes United States, for instance, but their hit glam singalong "Chelsea Dagger" is in nearly every country except the United States. (Their randy burlesque video for it, naturally, is all over YouTube.)
Even so, window-shopping in the Japan store remains particularly instructive. Why? Because variable pricing—a label demand that Apple loudly and successfully fought off in other countries—has quietly appeared there in the form of 150- and 200-yen songs. Whether "Killer Tune" gets the success it deserves or not, someday we might all be turning Japanese.
Log on to iTMS for Slate's "jTunes iMix" playlists: one at iTunes Japan of Japan-only songs, including those mentioned in this article (foreign users can sample, but not purchase, them), and this domestic Slate jTunes iMix of songs available for purchase by U.S. users. U.S. iTMS users must log out of their account and switch countries at the bottom of their screen before accessing the Japanese iMix.
Note: Occasionally iTMS Netherlands refuses to allow you to change countries from the bottom of the home page. Simply click any song's "Buy" button, and a prompt asking if you're from abroad will get you to the Country Selection menu.
Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.