Strange Boutique (May 2012)

My Japan Times column this month follows up on some ideas from Daniel Robson’s Perfume interview in the same paper the other week, looking at how they might go about making a mark overseas. I primarily talk about the marketing rather than the music in this one, although I don’t think there’s anything in their sound that would necessarily cause them problems. It’s distinctive, which could see them bracketed as “too weird” by some particularly musically unadventurous listeners, but on balance, it’s probably probably a good thing. They have a lot of repetition in the choruses, which might help them overcome the language barrier, at least partially, and even their less striking recent stuff is still pretty sound pop music.

In the article, where I drop the phrase “cyborgs-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown”, I was thinking of the last few minutes of this live clip, which is still one of my favourite pieces of J-pop ever. I think that in years to come, when people look back on now with the rose-tinted filter of history, it’s this that they’ll pick up on, not musical pink slime like Exile:

As I say, I think there’s a lot to be positive about, but a lot will depend on what tie-ups they get with overseas promoters and media. What they’ve done so far (making the music available to download via iTunes) is the bare minimum of what every pop group in the world should be doing. That it seems remarkable just shows how backwards the Japanese music industry is. It’s worth noting that Yasutaka Nakata’s other production project, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, seems to be doing OK, although the obvious caveats regarding YouTube hits vs. actual sales apply, through taking a more (visually at least) offbeat tack, which seems to support my thesis that niche marketing is the best way to make J-pop work. Kyary’s fashion connection ties her into an interest group outside of the usual Japanophile crowd (and really, the existing overseas J-pop fan community is probably something any sane label will want to keep at arm’s length) but she’s striking and exotic enough that she stands out. Perfume have a strong image, but their niche is less clear, and I think it will take a while for them to find it. The pop-cyborg thing is cool, but it’s hard to know what it ties into. For example, stick them in a sci-fi film as some futuristic pop group and they’ll get lots of the comics/SF crowd thinking it’s cool, but at the same time, it’s also a kind of self-satire, which means the audience won’t necessarily transfer thinking “it’s cool” to thinking “they’re cool”. I think children should probably be the primary focus, because they’re less hung up on stuff like that, but make sure whatever you do with them is cool enough that an older crowd can convince themselves that they’re getting into it in a sort of hipster ironic way.

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