Harajuku fashion idol-cum-singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu spent most of 2013 frantically leaping from TV commercial to billboard to magazine spread, but somewhere amid that flurry of activity and hailstorm of green paper, she and producer Yasutaka Nakata somehow found the time to come up with full-length debut album Pamyu Pamyu Revolution.
Now that Kyary is a marketable media star, naturally her management are whoring her out to any product endorsements they can, and this album contains songs that have been used to advertise everything from job listings magazines to Kentucky Fried Chicken. With Nakata’s other big production gig, Perfume, it seemed like the commercial requirements had led to a gradual homogenising of the Perfume sound and it was telling that the first big break from the established commercial Perfume formula was this year’s Spending All My Time — the first song of any kind they’ve done in years that wasn’t written specifically for a TV ad. With Kyary, the effect of her new position as a “CM idol” or advertising face is less obvious.
For a start, most of the commercials her songs are associated with actually feature Kyary herself and so the boundaries between the performer, the music and the product are more blurred and the whole package is more integrated. On the downside (and it’s a big downside), the reduction of her to the status of a puppet dancing to the tune of an ad agency undermines the essentially free spirited charm and bubblegum-punka self-reliance of her idol persona. On the other hand, it provides a forum for Nakata to play about with the nature of the advertising jingle itself.
The standard approach to the CM song in Japan is that the song should express a mood that is in keeping with the marketer’s idea of the product image, although the song itself is usually expected to stand alone apart from that. What Nakata seems to be doing is reaching back to the old days of advertising jingles in the 1980s and trying to channel that into the pop song format. In Candy Candy (used in a candy advert), he repeats the words “candy” and “chewing” over and over just like an old ad jingle might. It doesn’t really work because the song is too bland, lacking the frenetic immediacy of a 15-second commercial, and the result is that the song hangs awkwardly between the two, containing the worst of advertising’s crassness without the benefit of its high-density pop infectiousness. On Kyary Anan, however, this approach really hits its mark, drilling the recruitment magazine’s name (“An”) into the listener ruthlessly while taking the opportunity to remind them of Kyary’s own identity over and over again at the same time. It does this by channeling the hyperactive bubblegum post-Shibuya-kei spirit of Plus-tech Squeeze Box and Cute-era Hazel Nuts Chocolate and despite its shamelessness, it’s also devastatingly effective as both a pop tune and in reinforcing Kyary’s own only-too-much-is-enough philosophy (Remember the gazillions of teddy bears? That.)
Most of the album is free from the specific constraints of advertising though, and lurches playfully from the sort of disco nursery rhymes that see their nadir in the horrible Tsukema Tsukeru (thankfully dispensed with right at the start of the album) to the slightly more sophisticated post-Shibuya-kei influenced pop tunes like Drinker (a failed pitch to usurp one of Perfume’s chu-hi commercials?) and Onedari 44°C. Despite Kyary’s growing ubiquitousness as a marketing icon, there’s some of the exuberent freshness of Hello Project in its early 2000s prime (Aya Matsuura and some of the smaller Morning Musume spinoff groups), combined with some of the faux-punkish couldn’t-give-a-fuckery of Tommy February6 in her early days. The schtick doesn’t quite rub anymore, but there’s enough of it there that when taken together with Nakata’s sharply intelligent arrangements and production-side flourishes, Pamyu Pamyu Revolution, while no Russia 1917, is at least the best mainstream pop album to have come out of Japan in 2012.