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.