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.