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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8 Comments

Filed under Reviews, Track

8 responses to “Perfume: Spending All My Time

  1. jc

    “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.”

    “There’s a mid-paced, plodding verse that breaks into the bouncy, catchy chorus.” Um. You could say this very general thing (except for the editorial note of “plodding”) about ALMOST ALL POP MUSIC. But the thing is that, on JPN alone, “Nee”, “Fushizen na Girl”, “Kasuka na Kaori” and “Laser Beam” ALL start with the chorus. “Natural ni Koishite” has an instrumental intro then goes right into the chorus. This chorus-emphasized songwriting approach is ALREADY a pretty bold move; one could call it a form of super-pop. So acting like these songs have been structurally boring is just a rhetorical trick for you to say how great this one song is. But it’s not really a fair or interesting claim.

    • “Um. You could say this very general thing (except for the editorial note of “plodding”) about ALMOST ALL POP MUSIC.”

      Sure, it’s the standard formula for pop music, agreed, although I’m not sure why cleaving to a formula should be anything pop music should particularly aspire towards. But taking the verse-chorus-verse structure as one of the basics of pop (which I agree, it is), the editorial note of “plodding” is the key to the criticism. They’re naff verses and they leave me hanging around waiting for the chorus instead of enjoying them. Yeah, it’s my opinion so take it for what you will (it’s a music review so guess what: it’s all my opinion). I think Laser Beam is an excellent song because the A and B melodies are both strong, but Ne~e, Voice, Spring of Life and One Room Disco, while all fine songs, carry some slack on them that Spending All My Time does away with, so for that I praise it. Sure, you can do interesting pop songs in the traditional formula, but it’s still refreshing to hear pop so brutal and stripped-to-the-bones.

      I’m not really sure I understand your second point. Are you saying that starting with the chorus is a radical move? If so, it’s a radical move that’s been around at least since The Beatles wrote She Loves You fifty years ago (and Buddy Holly kicked off That’ll Be the Day with the chorus five years before that). I don’t really see how it makes any difference what order the interesting and dreary bits are arranged in. Getting rid of the dreary bit in its entirety is the part that excites me and that’s what sets Spending All My Time apart from previous Perfume singles. I did look back for precedents in Nakata’s work and felt there was one in Feelin’ Alright off the last capsule album (linked and discussed in the article) so I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss that point as simply a rhetorical trick.

      It seems to me that any debate over this has to hinge over whether you agree or not with my “editorial” judgment that Perfume songs over the last few years have tended to sag in the verse. If you can honestly say that you think the verses of, say, Ne~e, Spring of Life or Voice are genuinely catchy pieces of pop songwriting rather than finger twirling placeholders for the catchy choruses to follow, then I guess you and I will just have to respectfully disagree. If you’re saying you agree but that it doesn’t matter because all pop music is like that (and I assume and hope you’re not saying this), then, well, I guess I think you should hold pop music to higher standards. If you’re saying something else entirely, then I missed it and welcome a clarification.

      • jc

        No, I wasn’t saying that starting with the chorus is radical. And yes, the debate does hinge entirely on taste. And yes, it’s all your opinion too. And your tastes and opinions(–or rather, the grandiose articulation of them–)are, in my view, wrong.

        I mean, who can take this statement seriously? “He tends to just make the same song over and over again.” That’s not thoughtful music criticism; it’s not even thought–just bloggeriffic hyperbole. He hasn’t been making all-chorus songs before now, so they’ve all been the same song? Because they’ve been verse-chorus-verse? And your tone throughout entirely belies your statement that it’s all your opinion. “The problem” with Nakata’s work, is how you framed it–some kind of objective problem he had addressed in one song. You’re making a huge claim just to talk about how cool this one song is.

        But, this is what bloggers do–so I waste my breath.

  2. jc

    And you know, after a few more listens to “Spending All My Time”–with which I’m only very recently familiar–what really matters is that it’s quite obviously a verse-chorus-verse song! Not at all “all chorus for the full four minute duration.”

    The words are identical, but 0:07-0:36 is verse, and 0:37ff. is chorus. Then again we have verse at 1:21-1:35 and chorus at 1:36ff. The words are the same but the melodies are different, and the rushing sound (and sensation) at 0:35-0:37 marks the entrance to the chorus.

    Alright, I’ve spent enough time on this.

    • The problem with that statement you single out there is probably down to my lack of musical training meaning that I can’t frame my point in more technical terms along the lines of “uses such-and-such a modulation” or “such-and-such a specific note cluster”. I haven’t deconstructed the songs along those lines and I doubt I’d have the ability to, so the tools I’m left with are blunter ones.

      But do you not see a difference between the musical variety of (even just sticking with the singles) songs like Electro World, Chocolate Disco, Polyrhythm and Dream Fighter compared with the run of singles post-One Room Disco?

      You’re right that Spending All My Time uses two melodies (it’s not quite as brutally one-note as Feelin’ Alright for sure), but I don’t think there’s a distinction between them like, “Wait for it… wait for it… the chorus is coming soon OK, just hang on a bit more… HERE IT IS!” Each melody would stand as a chorus in its own right so they feel more like simply A and B melodies rather than being stuck in any kind of hierarchy like that. Yeah, I’m splitting hairs. You make a good point, and I took a shameful shortcut in how I wrote that, trading precision of language for rhetorical flourish. I’l just return to my previous point: can’t you hear the difference?

      “And your tone throughout entirely belies your statement that it’s all your opinion. “The problem” with Nakata’s work, is how you framed it–some kind of objective problem he had addressed in one song. “

      It’s a music review. All music reviews are subjective. That’s the baseline from which you approach any non-academic critical writing about music. The author’s “tone” has nothing to do with it. For some reason Perfume fans seem particularly bad at getting this. I have the pulpit so I can adopt any tone I want, but the baseline doesn’t change and since you seem smart enough to get this, you should have faith in other readers that they can filter this as well; I’m not deceiving any naive J-pop fans into believing me the prophet of absolute pop truth with my highfalutin’ prose and any arguments about “objectivity” are ones I find desperately boring. I’m sorry if I’m picking on you specifically about this point, but it’s something I come across too often not just in people’s responses to my writing but in discussions about music across the board.

  3. jc

    In the cold light of the day after, I’m a bit embarrassed by my own somewhat arrogant tone. So: sorry for that.

    “You’re right that Spending All My Time uses two melodies (it’s not quite as brutally one-note as Feelin’ Alright for sure), but I don’t think there’s a distinction between them like, “Wait for it… wait for it… the chorus is coming soon OK, just hang on a bit more… HERE IT IS!” Each melody would stand as a chorus in its own right so they feel more like simply A and B melodies rather than being stuck in any kind of hierarchy like that.”

    I do see your point here, with regard to this song. And with regard to some of the later singles, I am sympathetic. (BTW I think Nakata’s best song of the last few years is probably KPP’s “ピンポンがなんない”)

    But “Laser Beam,” to me, works throughout. I think the slow, calm verse lines keep it interesting precisely because they’re such a contrast to the rest of the song.

    I would also say that–stepping away from the singles–“Kasuka na Kaori” is beautiful and consistent throughout, verses included. I think it’s a really underrated song. And “My Color” is also structurally pretty similar to “Spending All My Time.” There is a “verse” that starts out, but you could also just say that it’s all A-melody/B-melody until you get to the (admittedly boring) verse section at 1:15, which is the only verse in the whole song.

    I don’t buy objectivity as a goal (or possibility) of pop music commentary, either, for the record. But I do think if you make large claims it’s perfectly fine for people to ask you to justify them. It’s not all irrational fanboy tribalism that makes people defend Nakata/Perfume from criticism.

    • Absolutely, and I think it’s an important point of the blog format that it allows people to take me up on aspects of what I’ve written that have been painted with perhaps too broad strokes and hopefully lets me address those areas below the line.

      Laser Beam is a song that does a great job throughout and I think it’s Perfume’s best song in ages. For me, I also think Natural ni Koishite stands out among recent (-ish) stuff as a song that does something lively and fresh sounding with a fairly traditional pop format. I think he was trying to do something different with Glitter, although I’m not sure exactly what and I don’t think it worked. Still, kudos for trying, whatever it was.

      I get the impression that Nakata can play around with Kyary’s stuff (album tracks at least) a bit more than he can with Perfume because he doesn’t have to write all of them to specifications set by ad agencies yet. I haven’t listened to her album much but it was a lot of fun. I think Step On The Floor by capsule also deserves credit for being a particularly lively, up-and-at-’em pop tune that doesn’t let itself get bogged down in marking time and just chucks interesting ideas at you from the get go.

  4. Pingback: Top 20 Releases of 2012: Afterword | Clear And Refreshing

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