Monthly Archives: August 2012

Perfume: Spending All My Time

Of all the reasons to love Perfume’s new song, Spending All My Time, the worst and best is that it’s guaranteed to annoy the shit out of loads of people.

“What’s going on? It’s just the same words and melody repeated over and over for four minutes! That’s not a song. And why are the lyrics in English? Perfume should sing in Japanese because that’s what people like about them. Plus the music doesn’t sound Japanese, it’s like some kind of 90s Euro house track. It just doesn’t sound like Perfume!”

Above are some complaints you might hear about this song. Look out for them so that you can privately dismiss the people making them as fools, because what you see above is a pretty good summary of everything great about Spending All My Time.

It’s just the same words and melody repeated over and over again. This is true. It’s also great. The biggest problem with Yasutaka Nakata’s songwriting over the past three and a half or so years since One Room Disco is that he tends to just make the same song over and over again. There’s a lot of clever and cool stuff going on in the production, but the basic structure of his songs is formulaic. There’s a mid-paced, plodding verse that breaks into the bouncy, catchy chorus. The chorus of Voice is magnificent — the kind of pop that makes your heart soar with giddy bubblegum joy — but you have to sit through a lot of nothing to get to it. Spending All My Time takes a leaf out of Swedish rockers Roxette’s book: Don’t bore us, get to the chorus. It is all chorus for the full four minute duration, and it’s catchy as fuck with it, which means that it’s not just pop music, but actually some kind of hyper-condensed superpop. The crystal meth, the Gelfling essence of pop.

This also could mark a return of sorts to the song development process that Nakata used to employ circa 2007, where he would be able to try out ideas with capsule and then export them to Perfume if they worked. Earlier this year, capsule released the song Feelin’ Alright, which even more than Spending All My Time, is all about repetition, with only a single phrase sung to the same melody, repeated for the entire song. It’s natural to be alarmed by something so sparse, and it took me a while to get into it, but it works and the repetition grinds its way into your head the way all great pop music should. Anything that suggests that the flow of ideas between capsule and Perfume might be back on is probably a good thing lest either band become stale.

It’s sung in English, and of course we can make much of the idea of English lyrics as a way of easing the group into overseas markets, which was almost certainly a consideration. I’m not convinced this was necessary in that sense, since I don’t think Perfume are really going to capture hit rather than niche status anyway, but it’s enough of an earworm that I can see some types of European club audiences going for it over the summer (although the idea of Perfume becoming a sort of Asian Vengaboys is terrifying). There is also a suggestion that the group themselves weren’t entirely happy with this as, “they feel Japanese ones are more seemingly meaningful.” Now I know some people get very protective about their pop music and feel very hurt by what they see as haters, but this point needs to be made:

All pop lyrics are shite.*

Spending All My Time’s lyrics are basically that a girl spends all her time loving someone, which she intends to do for ever. This basic sentiment comprises the lyrics to 90% of J-pop and all Nakata has done is cut out all the sappy poetry that clings like sticky, cloying residue around it. As a raw statement it’s a whole lot better for not being couched in bland, fluffy, pretentious terms that would be better suited to a biro scrawl on a teenage girl’s pencil case, and the single-minded way it’s drilled into the listener is entirely in keeping with Perfume’s almost Flying Lizards-esque habit of setting the bubblegum romantic off against robotic and mechanical.

What’s awkward on the ears about the lyrics is not in their content so much as how they scan in relation to the rhythm. Where Perfume have traditionally exaggerated the Japaneseness of their English pronunciation (“di-su-ko” or “ri-zu-mu”), here they do it straight, and grammatically it’s pretty sound, but the cadence is wrong. The stress on the word “spending” is the first syllable, but because of the way the word is repeatedly crammed into the melody, Perfume are sometimes forced to put the stress on the second syllable, rendering the sound unnatural. A more natural way of saying it in English would be to sometimes switch to “I spend”, where a stress on the second syllable is OK. It also mixes up the sounds while retaining both the sense of repetition and easy comprehension to the Japanese audience.

It’s not always a problem, and a habit for awkwardly-scanning lyrics can be as charming for one band (McCarthy) as they are annoying for another (The Manic Street Preachers). Since so much of Perfume’s image and appeal hinges on carefully synchronised moments of jittery awkwardness, the jury’s still out here.

The music doesn’t sound Japanese. Well, when has J-pop ever sounded Japanese? The sound we have today is a medley of different imported sounds. Spending All My Time sounds like a sort of 90s Euro house track, which is a sound that’s doing the revival circuit nowadays. Wonder Girls borrowed it on their last song, Like Money (which I discuss alongside another Perfume track here), and it’s got plenty of traction in the West too. This is what Yasutaka Nakata does: he finds trends in contemporary dance music production, copies them and adapts them. In fact ripping off and adapting ideas from contemporary foreign dance music is what created J-pop in the first place, from the synthpop of disco queen Chisato Moritaka to the decade-straddling factory sound of Tetsuya Komuro that formed the basis for about half of 1990s J-pop (the other half was produced by Takeshi Kobayashi, who was too busy ripping off The Beatles and Pink Floyd).

Spending My Time might not sound Japanese now, but that’s because it’s a new sound in the current market. Japanese pop is not a classical relic, never to be touched or tampered with except by trusted scribes who labour year on year to copy by hand its sacred teachings. It’s pop music, and pop music is about listening, stealing, adapting, and reforming ideas from wherever you find them.

As for it not sounding like Perfume, the same applies. The Perfume that made Linear Motor Girl didn’t sound like the Perfume that made Monochrome Effect, and the Perfume that made Edge didn’t sound like the Perfume that made Chocolate Disco. It’s only recent years that have seen their output congeal around such a similar sound, and the fact that they’re kicking on with something different is to be welcomed.

It’s easy to see how the group themselves might have been dismayed at the track given that their role in it is basically as an elaborate Speak & Spell for producer Nakata to play with in amongst all his synths and beats. For any fans who are upset that it dares step outside the established Perfume comfort zone (which let’s remember was only ever really established thanks to the need to provide reliable musical content for advertisements), those old songs they like aren’t going anywhere, so why not just listen to them on repeat and let the rest of us enjoy this rush of something different?

*Yes, your painstakingly researched list of exceptions is brilliant and admirable. Miss the point much?

NOTE ON THE VIDEO: There’s a short clip from the promotional video up, which sees the group reprising their uncanny valley robogirls schtick with added alien fingerpopping while locked in an old school building. Reference to The Girl Who Leapt Through Time there in the numbers on their arms (“time”, geddit?) but not much more to report without the full thing.

UPDATE: The full video (linked at the top) is now more or less available, even if Universal still won’t put it on the official page. Nothing much to add on it apart from that I dig the way the directors and choreographers they work with seem to be at least creating a distinctive atmosphere and style even when some of the psychic/magic stuff in it makes it just seem a bit Tommy Cooper.

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Sonmi~451 vs. The Windup Girl: Wonder Girls’ “Like Money” and Perfume’s “Spring of Life”

With the release earlier this year of Japanese electro-idol trio Perfume’s Spring of Life and Korean popsters Wonder Girls’ Like Money just as both groups are beginning to make attempts are reach out to Western audiences, it’s curious that both groups chose to adopt the personae of cyborgs, and I think the similarities and differences in their approaches says something about both the way the groups want to be perceived, as well as how they think we want to perceive them.

Now it’s obvious that the whole cyborg motif of both videos itself operates on a level of self parody, ironically commenting on the manufactured nature of this sort of pop music. You’ve got to be wary of letting the “irony” excuse act as a free pass for any kind of dubious imagery, but it’s important to bear in mind that in this case, it’s pretty clear cut that they’re both making fun of themselves a little and avoid taking the imagery too seriously.

That said, this is exactly what I’m going to do, so put your “you’re overanalysing this” and “it’s just pop music” hats away and grab your “pop culture is a vital window into how we perceive ourselves and each other” hoodie and let’s take a look.

The kind of cyborgs that Wonder Girls portray in Like Money lie somewhere between Austin Powers style fembots and full-on Terminators. Their goal is domination, but not that sort of domination. “Love me like money, love me like cars” — the message comes with an air of swagger and self-confidence, but it’s a materialistic message (to the point of parody, really), and the girls are clear that they themselves are material objects. Money, car, girl, they’re just one more item of bling and the song is a celebration of acquisitive consumerism, and their confidence is like an advertising spot: Buy me, because I’m worth it. Collaborating with that notorious whore Akon is just icing on the cake (Little-known fact: Akon will sing heavily autotuned guest vocals on your answerphone message in return for a hot meal and a set of panther-skin pillowcases). The video reflects this with its slick, shiny glitz, the tight-fitting, futuristic costumes and the speeding car, like a shit batmobile, that one of the girls is seen driving. It’s all whiz, bang and flash, worshipping the pre-Lehman gods amid the remains of a shattered landscape.

The Perfume we see in Spring of Life are a different kind of product entirely. For a start, the video is much more dense with meaning, drawing on Perfume’s own frequent habit of portraying themselves as malfunctioning robot dolls as well as a long sci-fi tradition of lonely androids. The tragedy of the artificial human is always that no matter how much they mimic, they can never become the real thing, and the video exploits that by repeatedly showing the girls acting out the kinds of activities “normal” girls are supposed to enjoy (eating, applying cosmetics, chatting on the phone) with jerky, windup movements that drag the actions down into the uncanny valley.

These moments of awkwardness also reflect the Japanese otaku-derived moe fetish, with the tragedy and vulnerability inherent in their failure to be “normal” girls playing on the protective instincts of the audience. They don’t want your money like Wonder Girls, they want your love and protection. The image of Nocchi slumped against a wall, repetitively rolling her head from side to side is disturbingly reminiscent of the images that flooded the news of mistreated children in Romanian orphanages after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, while the tear we see running down her cheek at one point drives the message home and accentuates the contrast with the cheerful chorus.

Perfume also benefit from having a talented and idiosyncratic production and choreography team who have worked with them for a long time, with the result that they are able to inhabit the roles set out for them in the video whilst retaining their own distinctive identity. The set design is simpler but more carefully thought-out, and dance routine is genuinely quirky and joyful. The song, while being basically a repetition of the same basic recent Perfume formula, is layered with offbeat production-side digressions, slipping into minimal techno at one point, before just as quickly giving way to chiptune. They aren’t just Asian cyborgs, they’re their own Asian cyborgs.

Both songs and both videos nevertheless share elements in common. You could choose to make a big deal out of Wonder Girls singing in English and Perfume sticking to Japanese — I think it’s self-evident that Perfume are being more cautious, trying not to subvert their own appeal, while Wonder Girls are more chameleonic from the start and are going all-out for whatever market they can grasp. That said, a quick reading reveals that neither of the songs themselves have much on the surface to do with the accompanying videos, and both songs treat girls as passive items with love on the other side of the trade. Like Money is love as full-on aggressive capitalism, while Spring of Life is love as as self-completion (with those who don’t possess it as tragically incomplete creatures).

Another curious thing lurking under the surface is an idea which I’ve touched on before, which is the idea of robots or androids as a natural fit for how Asian women are perceived by Westerners, which makes me wonder if somewhere along the line, the producers of these videos have internalised this idea of Westerners thinking “they all look the same” and given up on trying to present them as in some way individual. Coupled with that is the still lingering image of Asian women as being somehow servile and submissive, doll-like creatures and there could be an interesting dialogue going on between Western perceptions of Asian women and Asian perceptions of Western perceptions of Asian women. Are they pandering to the West’s simplistic attitude towards Asian femininity, or perhaps even mocking it? We should be shaky about investing this thesis with too much significance, firstly because it’s not confined to female idols, and also because the image of cute female androids is every bit as popular and then some among Japanese and Korean audiences as it is in Europe and America, but seeing two groups seize on this image just as they try to break into Western markets at least flags up the possibility of a racial element to the semiotics.

To look at it from another angle though, it’s also true that Asia, and particularly Japan and Korea, has a deservedly strong reputation in robotics and genetics, which has been cemented in Western and Asian minds by science fiction over the years. In the case of Wonder Girls, they are part of a trend among a certain type of girl group towards uniformity and synchronisation, while Perfume encourage pretty distinct differentiation between the three members and have employed sci-fi elements in many of their songs in a nod to their otaku idol and Daft Punk-influenced electro roots, so perhaps on a purely individual level, we can say that it’s an appropriate image for both groups in different ways.

Now as I say, yeah, they’re not taking themselves 100% seriously, but but even as a joke, it’s one that says a lot about the pop cultural ideas behind them and about the groups themselves. In the end though, the thing they may have caught onto is perhaps the most significant nugget of cultural data of them all: that robots, cyborgs and replicants of all types are just fucking cool.

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