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.