Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: Candy Candy

I got some flack last autumn for my jibe about Perfume’s recent singles being glorified advertising jingles, with one of the main arguments being “So what?” I disagree in that my diagnosis was that Perfume’s music had exhibited a drop in quality and I was blaming the constraints of advertising work rather than seeing the connections with advertising and deducing from that that the music must be rubbish, but at its core it is a fundamentally good point. Since pop music, and especially bubblegum pop, relies on simple, easy-to-grasp melodic hooks and repetitive, catchy choruses, it shares many characteristics with advertising jingles; the only difference is the product that they are trying to sell (ad jingles are selling carpet cleaning products or racist orange juice while pop songs are selling, well, themselves).

Ten years ago, there would generally be some distinction made between the official video and the commercial, even if the former strongly hinted at the latter, as with this idol pop classic by Aya Matsuura…

…and this shampoo advert:

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s latest song, Candy Candy, blurs even that fine distinction with the advert, the video and the song’s lyrical content all unified around the theme of “GIVE MONEY TO GLICO CONFECTIONARY PRODUCTS!”

(Videos of the commercials themselves can be streamed here.)

Of course this kind of whoring about is nothing new, with The New Seekers/Hilltop’s I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing being written to sell soft drinks to fans of cloying sub-McCartney sentimentalism in the early 70s, and for that matter pretty much every great artist of the Renaissance having made a living shilling for the Catholic church. Obviously the difference is that (gobsmacking levels of corruption aside) people at the time of The Renaissance found genuine spiritual inspiration in the religious themes that art carried (and which it often transcended). Even with The New Seekers/Hilltop, what you have here is Coca Cola trying to appropriate the idealistic, hippy-era message of peace and love for the purpose of providing global branding for their product – that is to say that the cultural driving force behind the music comes from a movement with origins beyond the advert’s narrow commercial purpose, with Coca Cola simply parasitically latching themselves onto it after the fact.

Candy Candy pretends to no such countercultural ties, with even the Harajuku subcultural finesse that gave Kyary’s Ponponpon so much of its spark here watered down. What it does do is link into a tradition of bubblegum pop (the clue’s in the name) and confectionary references that goes right back to the genre’s origins. Again though, the meaning is different. When The Archies sang “Pour a little sugar on it honey,” they weren’t talking about sweets, they were talking about (whisper it…) s-e-x.

Similarly, when French teen idol France Gall sang “When the barley sugar / Flavored with aniseed / Sinks in Annie’s throat / She is in heaven,” she may have thought she was singing about lollipops, but writer Serge Gainsbourg was most definitely not writing about them — and the set designers on this video were clearly operating on Gainsbourg’s rather than Gall’s level:

Now in the 1960s, for all the era’s (probably undeserved) reputation for free love and youth rebellion, sex was still very much a taboo topic for pop music, which meant that children on the cusp of puberty, who were the target audience of bubblegum music, could only play out their new sexual feelings vicariously through metaphors that their parents were too innocent to decipher. In present day Japan, where the image of teenage girls is hypersexualised to frequently disturbing extremes, this kind of metaphor is mundane (it’s present in a limited fashion in the way the lyrics pun on the English verb “chew” and the Japanese onomatopoeia “chu” — the sound of a kiss), and in fact many girls reject it. The kind of cuteness Kyary Pamyu Pamyu represents is basically a rejection of the sort of sexual objectification represented by AKB48, which it does by retreating into a pre-teen, prepubescent world, both sexually and socially. This is part of the key to her attraction, because contained within this kind of childishness is also a kind of punkish self-reliance rather than the helpless dependence of Japanese culture’s more eroticised preteen fantasies – she doesn’t need boys and she takes no shit from no one. It’s also what makes Kyary Pamyu Pamyu the perfect marketing doll to reach these kinds of female consumers. The character she plays may be attractive to guys, but she exists independently of the male gaze and exemplifies a child’s self-absorption, selfishness and I-WANT-IT-NOW! simplistic consumerism.

As Kyary sings in Candy Candy:

“I heard your request, but I didn’t have time to attend to it / Because, because after all, I’m a girl, so ‘now’ is precious.”

With the melodies too, Yasutaka Nakata understands Kyary’s image, and as he hones her musical style down, he is drawing further away from the early-capsule/post-Shibuya-kei musical motifs he employed in Ponponpon and more and more towards ultra-simplified nursery rhyme melodies. It’s better than the thoroughly naff Tsukema Tsukeru, and musically it’s still a fairly effective application of Nakata’s chosen Pamyu Pamyu formula of “don’t use too many notes, have one melodic hook, and have a chorus where the lyrics are just the same two sounds repeated endlessly”, but among his various contemporary projects, it’s third grade stuff.

The problem is that the appeal of bubblegum lies in how it balances on the edge between childishness and sophistication. It projects something superficially simple, but peel away the layers and there is something more complex at its heart. Nakata’s best work with Perfume does this, usually by interlinking different musical elements in a creative and surprising way, although he’s not averse to slipping in a little Gainsbourg-style naughtiness where he can get away with it. 

Candy Candy, on the other hand, is like the onion that graces its promotion video. Peel away the layers and all you get is more of the same. There is no heart, even in the limited sense that bubblegum pop offers, only surface. It is conceptually smaller than even The New Seekers/Hilltop’s cynical reduction of naïve idealism to what is at best empty commercialism (with a dubious side order of cultural imperialism). The self-reliant island state that is key to Kyary’s charm and appeal is subverted once she is reduced to a dancing doll for a commercial entity like Glico. Thanks to the overt commercial branding across all facets of its being, Candy Candy’s message is simply “Candy, candy, candy. Buy candy. Buy candy from Glico. Because girls are shallow and superficial.” It’s music made totally subservient to advertising and branding, and it’s worse for it.


Filed under Reviews, Track

15 responses to “Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: Candy Candy

  1. miffy

    I had to read this a few times to get it but i agree with your point
    But isn’t this part of the shameless consumerism of Jpop/Japanese in general? My memory is a bit fuzzy but I’m pretty sure song creation is subservient to advert and branding goes way back.(early 90’s perhaps?)

    • In Japanese pop culture the primacy of advertising basically goes back to the 1980s, which is when the concept of the “CM idol” was created — a multi-purpose “tarento” whose image was built up through appearances in ads, leaving everything else subservient. It’s a matter of degree though. Generally speaking though, there’s usually some sense in which the advertisement and the song itself are kept discrete, as with the Aya Matsuura song I linked to. Sure, the official video winks and nudges towards the advert with the shower scene echoing the shampoo ad’s imagery, but the song itself could stand alone outside of the world of shampoo and cosmetics. With I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing, they removed all the branding from the song’s lyrics for the single release and Coca Cola gave up all profits from the song to UNICEF in order to pretend to a separation between the marketing and artistic aspects of the song. Even with Perfume, where the product branding often does appear in the videos (the video for Secret Secret a few years back prominently featured Pino chocolate ice), you can still conceive of the song as something discrete. When I first heard Candy Candy, I immediately thought, “OK, who was this written for? Morinaga or Glico?” and then when I found the ad, it was shot together with the video, on the same set with the same costumes. There is no separation at all.

      • miffy

        So you are saying this is a new thing in Jpop? The money has really gone eh? Notice how Japanese music entities are embracing Itunes and Youtube recently, (2011 and 2012)?
        And instead of finding different revenue streams, they just give more control to advertising companies with diminishing returns…..

      • Something like that I guess, or at least that it represents what seems like a significant step along that road. On the other hand, there’s an interesting argument that this is really just art reverting to what through most of history was the norm: that the idea of art as something sustained solely by its audience is relatively recent, and that patronage was what has traditionally supported music etc. I’m not totally against it because I think restrictions can be good for artists — one of the problems with the government funded art that you often find in Europe is that the money often seems to be handed out without really thinking in very clear terms about what they want done with it, which can result in some quite empty, directionless stuff.

        I think perhaps it’s a question of ownership. I tend to think in terms of a sliding scale with fans at one end and artists at the other, with good music striking some balance between the two. I wonder if a lot of the resentment people sometimes, myself included, feel towards record companies, talent agencies, journalists or in this case advertising agencies is that they’re a third wheel, interfering with the relationship between fan and creator. In the case of record companies and journalists, I think it’s a bit unfair, because these people are often fans themselves too and they’re just trying to help (I run a label and work as a journalist, as do many people I know, and there are few people in the world more passionate about music than these types). I have it on good authority that advertising people really don’t give a shit though, and this is just as true in Japan as it is anywhere.

  2. Anthropology101

    this entire article actually sounds a lot like cultural imperialism. as if the rennaissance was any more than arabesque sparked by the cardinal inventions of china, rehashes of rome, all done by germanic barbarians who now insist it was the peak of culture. Nice review Asshat: your distinctions between ‘high’ art and ‘low’ art are really just the superficial inventions of your culture, which you impose on others. if you have an aversion to elements of culture/sexuality which is foreign to you, you should know that most living human’s real aversion is to western hypocrisy, eurocentrism, and western inability to judge a culture on its own terms. these western convictions would be ok though, if europeans were capable of living in peace with isolationists/tribal groups, but something about self-sufficient cultures makes westerners want to berate/proslytize/destroy. By the way: Fuck you. Your entire blog reeks of haughtiness and slight bitterness.

    • There are some points nestled in there that could be the basis of an interesting and fruitful discussion. Perhaps if you come back after you’ve learnt to be civilised, I might be able to engage with them.

  3. UltimateMusicSnob

    I would agree with nearly everything about ‘Candy, Candy’ in the blog post, and probably still do, except that when I look at the video I have a lot of elements that don’t fit this conception. My first look at Kyary was of course Pon Pon Pon, and I did many double-takes because of what seemed to me the subversive elements. A crown of bullets on a duck? A bleeding eye? The carton of macaroni struck me as a take-off on Warhol–probably a third-hand influence rather than first-hand, but the parallel is there regardless. Likewise, the big masked dancer in Candy Candy? The drawing of the distorted, furious Kyary ready to attack? The M-15? Even right near the end, the larger masked male dancer is creepily stalking around and photobombing Kyary and the other child dancers–the camera angle on this one matters, someone definitely knows what they’re doing with the visual language here. There’s a *bunch* in here that is far away from ‘sweetness’. Where I stand outside the culture I can’t interpret this music/image as its creators would, but it strikes me at the very least as subversive. This might be a stretch, but it seems to me I can see a subversive meta-conversation going on as well between Nakata and commercial entities in Japan. “You want candy?–I’ll give you candy.” (the Kyary song, of course). “I’m making Perfume into my music puppets? [because of the autotuning], OK, I’ll give you puppets.” (Spring of Life) “You think I’m too Western? Okay, Japanese it up with this.” (Ninjya Bang Bang) “It’s all just style (harajuku) and no substance? Thanks for the song idea!” (Fashion Monster). Asked to fill in the blanks for a corporation, it keeps looking like Nakata complies–but by overdoing it, or doing it ironically, or doing it meta. Maybe I read too much into it–but I have to say that’s one of the functions of the artist, to give you a rich object into which you can read perceptions the artist did not necessarily conceive of. OK, yeah, Nakata = Artist, and Kyary Pamyu, too, in her own right, commercialism and all.

    • All good points, although I think the word “subversive” is a dangerous one here. There’s a strand of Harajuku fashion culture that’s very influential on Kyary, but probably a bit on Nakata himself generally, since he’s a very Harajuku sort of guy, best exemplified by Sebastian Masuda, that likes to say “Oh, you like xxx? Well here’s all the xxxx in the woooorld!!!!” However, calling this subversive depends a lot on what you think subversive means. It’s subversive on the simple level that it takes certain visual ideas of what cute are and then undermines them by either going so far overboard that they become grotesque or by taking something grotesque and fetishising it to the point that it becomes cute, but in the wider cultural sense, I don’t think there’s anything really subversive, because as part of the fashion industry, all it’s really doing is co-opting that subversion and commodifying it. It’s finding a niche by redefining cuteness, but there are no values attached to it beyond the playing around with generic (in the sense of genre) signifiers. It’s interesting in a postmodern sense, and I do think there’s something substantive about Kyary’s image from a feminist perspective, but I’ve been burned before in things like this and I’m wary of putting too much significance on it. Sorry, I don’t know if I explained myself very well there. It’s a long time since I wrote this so I’m a bit rusty — all I remember is that I wrote it in 30 minutes while I was bored at the office one day.

      Another thing to remember is that the videos for Spring of Life (and Spending All My Time) were by the director Yuusuke Tanaka, who is one of Japan’s hottest music video directors right now, and I don’t think Nakata had much to do with it. I think with Perfume, it’s just that they’re surrounded by people who “get” them and are imaginative and talented enough to be able to work with and play with their image. Must admit that Nakata’s influence in constructing that image is probably still key though. I wrote a lot about the Spring Of Life video too, somewhere in here, although again, I don’t remember exactly what I wrote.

  4. UltimateMusicSnob

    I can easily see that I might be interpreting something Kyary and Nakata are doing as subversive because I’m thinking about it through a Western Romantic interpretation, while no one Japanese would think so, from their native and direct contact with the Japanese culture. I do have at least this to refer to directly, though — Kyary Pamyu: “I love grotesque things. My concept is scary things that become traumatic with their cuteness. There are so many “just cute” things in the world, so I add grotesque, scary and even shocking materials like eyeballs and brains to balance out the cuteness.” That’s from an interview at It makes me think I’m interpreting the bullets/floating brains/eyeballs/etc correctly as grotesque, at least.
    I have no other context, though, Japanese or otherwise, for trying to interpret ‘kawaii’, except Kyary Pamyu and the writing in the West that has popped up around her and the other kawaii proponents in Harajuku. I’d have to know a lot more than I do about the fashion industry in Japan in order to back up anything truly subversive about her presentation. I **would** love to know if what I’m experiencing as echoes of Warhol (Kraft box), Damien Hirst (is this shape familiar?, Lichtenstein, etc., are real or coincidence—and of course it’s probably MORE likely that such echoes if real were included by the director, not Kyary. It would be cool if the video art director were participating, or even a source of, the subversive elements. From what I know about Western businesses and Marketing principles (I do know a little, there), some of these things WOULD undermine the corporation goals for the image. The overweight dancer in Pon Pon Pon for example: in a Western ad campaign-linked production??? — never in a million years! So then I start to think she’s playing against the surface in a subversive way, because it at least potentially undermines the commercial message. Not counterculture, by any means, just playfully subversive, and getting away with it.
    The thing is, after discovering Nakata, I started scanning around for more examples of this fantastic music—and I come up dry. Currently I have a couple of very weak leads from MEG’s early albums, and that’s IT, once I’ve exhausted Nakata’s catalog. So I jump the gun a bit and see it as subversive. God knows AKB48 et al strikes me as straight-up corporate machine music, with nothing redeeming about it artistically, either aurally or visually. So I take the Japanese idols I’d heard before since about 1990-something as the standard examples (instantly forgettable), and start taking Nakata as an outlier.

    • I’ve interviewed Kyary just after Ponponpon came out and she told me straight up that the sharks are in there “because I like sharks” (she was wearing a necklace of shark teeth at the time as well, I think, although I might be misremembering that), and that to her, they’re just like the eyeballs and stuff. She said something like how it was about taking something grotesque and thinking that maybe there’s actually something cute about it. She struck me as intelligent, self-aware, and career-minded, and as someone who knew exactly what she was doing (although her image was clearly being micromanaged by all sorts of label, agency and management staff, and the way the label went absolutely psycho later when the issue of her real name came up made me very suspicious about how much of what I was being fed was true). I agree there’s a pop art element to what’s happening. I think there are some Warhol-influenced pop art ideas buried in the culture that Kyary comes out of, and in terms of the content of the videos, the people she works with do seem to use her as a springboard for developing the ideas in her songs and videos. Like I said, Sebastian Masuda is the key figure here, and just as important as Nakata in Kyary’s image. Masuda and his fashion label 6%DOKIDOKI are a pretty big thing in Harajuku, and Harajuku fashion culture definitely keeps its nose closer to the streets than most. The word “punk” is overused and misused to the point of near meaninglessness, but there’s definitely something of punk in the Harajuku fashion scene. Here’s something on Masuda that I don’t entirely agree with but which I think gives a small but useful insight into his world:“real-punk”-within-its-own-unique-style/

      I think if you go back to the 70s, there were idols and mainstream, manufactured singers working with songwriters and backing musicians who were genuinely good pop songwriters and producing music that really pushed Japanese pop forward. Momoe Yamaguchi and Saori Minami worked with some of the best songwriters of the day and have excellent back catalogues. Going back to the 60s, Chiyo Okumura did some fantastic stuff, and this run of stuff she did in the late 60s/early 70s is really sexually transgressive, and was pretty controversia.

      My favourites from this period are probably the Candies, an idol group who were kind of like a proto-Perfume. Their songs are all perfect pop gems, but some of their arrangements are pretty out there by the standards of the times. In the 80s, there was this duo called Wink, who were another prototype for Perfume. They took some ideas from British and European discopop and gave a bit of a shock to the Japanese pop world not by being subversive or anything, so much as by being different to other stuff here at the time. They didn’t smile much in their videos, which made them instantly a lot cooler than other idols. Tomoe Shinohara is another interesting figure. Her music’s mostly awful, but she’s a clear prototype for Kyary in lots of ways. I wrote about her on this blog somewhere as well. Actually, I’ve written about most of the artists I mention here somewhere.

  5. UltimateMusicSnob

    Okay, thanks for all the music references, I needed those badly! Does the Masuda article reflect a sort of working-from-the-inside approach? That’s sort of what I got from both Kyary and Nakata. They’re both inside the massive corporate music machine, and it’s using them, but they’re using it, too. Well, so did the Beatles, I have to admit, and nearly every other band I ever heard of; if they hadn’t played along, I wouldn’t have gotten a chance to hear them, after all, unless I happened to run into them live in a local club. That’s the genius (curse?) of Capitalism, it can co-opt and monetize pretty much **everything**, including cultural movements which targeted Capitalism explicitly. In the end, there IS not ‘outside’….

  6. UltimateMusicSnob

    “no outside”

    • I don’t know, so don’t take this as any sort of definitive “in the know” statement, but I think Masuda’s approach is just that of a normal businessman. Find a niche, gain popularity, sell as much as possible whilst retaining core market. I think the same’s true of most creative culture in Japan. It’s happy to play around with signs and signifiers, but it pathologically shuns meaning, to the point where people become genuinely panicked if the subject comes up. The collapse of the student movement and the radical left in the early 70s really traumatised youth culture, I think, and nowadays, I don’t think anyone really draws a distinction between working on the “inside” or the “outside”. Postmodern paradise or post-ideological hell, I don’t know. Elements of both, I suppose.

  7. AN

    I think it’s a delusion to state that Kyary is interesting. She represents completely cliche ideas of “weird Japan” and is the definition of mediocrity, even within her own context. She’s comparable to the “scary cute” style of Avril Lavigne or the Powerpuff Girls — it’s all gloss, the idea of something and not the thing itself. No detail, no narrative. While an inept analysis may bind together the culture surrounding Gundam toys and Gundam cartoons, the truth is that the toys mean less than nothing. Kyary is the cheap plastic toy and Nakata is the cartoon.

    What Kyary does is bound to be despised by anybody doing anything cutting edge, because it’s blatantly a recycling of cliche cute-ugly ideas of everything from shallow examples like Ugly Pets, Hot Topic and Emily the Strange to, at its best, Murakami, who always struck me as Teriyaki culture alongside anime like Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell – products to impress Westerners with stereotypical ideas of Japan. There is nothing visually in PONPONPON that can’t be deduced from work already done by others, and for her to simply be the face of a) recycling and b) hideous singing really does no justice to Nakata. I think it’s a shame she is so successful and considering the limited number of songs he has made for her, I question whether their artistic partnership is even genuine. I was surprised he recorded and released her version of “Jelly”, it was so unbearable.

    I agree with your post that the music Nakata has made really has plummeted down to the status of noxious jingles. Candy Candy is the worst offender, but in truth the image matters not in the slightest–music is at the heart of what Nakata does, image is gloss, and nothing about Perfume’s videos or dancing will ever sustain their music in the long term. The video for Polyrhythm means nothing; the song means everything. It’s unfortunate if people can’t discern that by simply viewing the two in tandem, but it’s truly delusional – the image is NOT interesting. There are video directors like Jonas Akerlund whose videos are great unto themselves, but 98% of the imagery of popular music will not endure meaningfully. It’s music.

    • When you talk about pop music as being “interesting” I think you have to step outside yourself a bit and ask not only, “Is this interesting in the whole sphere of all musical endeavour?” which can be an impossible task sometimes anyway considering the range of musical creation history offers, but more specifically, “Is this interesting in the context of contemporary Japanese pop?” Next to Plus-tech Squeeze Box, who were obviously a big influence on the kind of thing Nakata does with her, she obviously loses out, but then PSB never had even the faintest sniff of the mainstream. Next to pretty much anything else in mainstream Japanese pop she’s (or she was) a breath of fresh air precisely because she recycled ideas from so many other places and introduced them into a mainstream J-Pop world. Working within the mainstream means working within all manner of restrictions, most of which mitigate against making anything interesting or challenging, so praise for anything in that arena should always I guess be qualified by acknowledgment of what the restrictions of that arena are, but good work done within market restrictions still deserves praise.

      Candy Candy is awful (as was her truly dreadful version of Jelly) but Ponponpon wasn’t, and a couple of other singles have been good bubblegum pop tunes, which Nakata appears to have a knack for writing. They’re all commissioned specifically for TV commercials though, which takes the restrictions commerciality places on the songwriter/producer way further than bubblegum pop typically had to deal with in the past. I think it takes it too far, and if this is the only way pop music can make money now (aside from grasping AKB-style fansploitation), I think it’s a big problem for pop music. It also means that when Nakata/Kyary do come up with a decent bubblegum pop tune like Ninja Re Bang Bang, that’s all the greater an achievement.

      I get your points about image, and when I’m writing about someone like Kyary, I do it with the video playing in another tab so it doesn’t get in the way of the music. That said, the music is only one part of the “product” that Kyary is, and so while the music needs to be assessed on its own merits, once the conversation moves into how the character is constructed, all the rest of the stuff like set design, costume, choreography, and even the CM spots becomes relevant because it’s all working together to construct this media product that she has become, with its own set of meanings. How successfully and consistently it does that is also worth looking at, and there the music’s role is rather different. Both discussions are worth having though.

      I’m not sure I completely get how the analogy you draw with anime ties in exactly. With Gundam, surely the big takeaway from that is that the toy is the product and the show is just a way of selling the toy. That works as an analogy for Kyary/Nakata, but surely it’s Nakata that it diminishes, not Kyary. With Ghost in the Shell and Cowboy Bebop, I don’t think they’re pushing any particular image about Japan. GITS (the original 1995 film at least) was just a very good sci-fi film in the tradition of Blade Runner and the novels of William Gibson, while Cowboy Bebop was a really well done space adventure that drew heavily and fairly indiscriminately from trash culture of both East and West. I don’t know who’s holding them up as stereotypical ideas of Japan, but I don’t think it was the people who made them. What you call “Teriyaki culture” makes sense in relation to selling something like Kyary (or now Babymetal) overseas off the back of some orientalised Japan stereotype (although I think it’s important to maintain that the cultural roots of both of them are still based on real trends or circumstances in Japan), but the key to what made Cowboy Bebop and GITS work overseas was how un-Japanese they were, and how they tapped into threads of popular culture (cyberpunk, Tarantino, kung fu films) that were popular at least with significant subculture audiences in both Japan and abroad.

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