Tag Archives: Aya Matsuura

Strange Boutique (November 2014) — Aya Matsuura’s Mirror

My November column for The Japan Times was one of the occasional retrospective pieces I do, looking back at part of rock or pop history. This time I wrote about Aya Matsuura, who might lay claim to being the last great solo idol before the age of the group (and megagroup) took hold. It’s a thoroughly self-indulgent choice of topic, but I have no shame.

I don’t really talk about her music in the article because the main focus was on her as a star or a pop cultural artefact, but we can perhaps say that she was given access to the cream of Tsunku’s songwriting crop and tracks like Momoiro Kataomoi and Yeah! Meccha Holiday would be standout songs in any J-Pop singer’s canon. She had some fine tunes.

Her star persona is what interests me most though. When I was first discovering J-Pop after arriving in Japan in the early 2000s, Matsuura weirded me out. She was drop-dead gorgeous and through the mediating factor of the screen flirted outrageously with the viewer, but she remained utterly inaccessible — she was like some sort of perfect pop cyborg. At the time, that seemed deeply manipulative, and of course it was in a way, but compared to the way idols nowadays push their physical accessibility so hard, the screen for Matsuura was as much a shield as a medium, openly keeping an arm’s length between artist and audience. The same barrier exists with idols now, but much greater lengths are taken to conceal it and promote the illusion of intimacy, so Matsuura feels more honest. This also made her more like how I feel a pop star should be, and that distance, that air of otherness that she exuded, is key to her appeal (yes, I still have a massive crush on her!)

The point I make in the column about the almost monomaniacal focus on her alone in the videos was first raised by my flatmate at the time (the Emmy award-winning comedy writer Josiah Madigan, namedropping fans) who wondered if it represented in some way the sort of intense self-focus of the kind of teenage girls who we assumed were Matsuura’s main audience. I’m actually not really sure who her main audience was — she wasn’t really an otaku idol, but she wasn’t really a female style icon either — but that may have been part of it. Part of it may also have been a conscious counterpoint to her main contemporaries within the Hello! Project, the mass idol group Morning Musume. In any case, it creates a sometimes surreal, almost Freudian internal universe in which the dramas of her faintly comedic (ironic even?) songs play out.

In its simplest sense, we can see it in the miniature angel and devil Matsuuras in the video for debut single Dokki Doki! Love Mail who battle over the conscience of the giant-sized singer as she towers over the city, beamed from giant screens and dances over the buildings, or the fantasy of the homework robot double the video also plays with. Other videos take it way further though.

Tropical Koishiteru I mention in the article, and it features six different Matsuuras, competing against each other at tennis, officiating over the match, serving as ball girl, singing at the game and watching the match on TV. She competes against herself, judges the contest and observes from behind a screen. It’s a joke, but it’s a joke that serves to fragment her identity and deny easy access to the “real” her. If we take it as a narrative aimed at teenage girls, however, the fragmented identity it displays could be taken as a humorous reflection of their own unformed and confused identities and thus more “real” for its embracing of unreality — the screen not only as medium transmitting the message, and protection keeping audience and star apart, but also as mirror reflecting the fans’ own internal dilemmas back at them.

You can see this too in the video for 100kai no Kiss, where one Matsuura repeatedly undermines another’s attempts to contact a boy she likes, stopping time and rearranging her world just before the point of contact. In one sense this is a simple metaphor for the struggle between shyness and desire, but there is something in the “evil” Matsuura’s glance at the camera as she turns away to leave that suggests she has her own designs on the boy, raising the possibility that this more confident and powerful version of her has a life independent of the “real” Matsuura — rather like the two Golyadkins of Dostoevsky’s The Double, if you want to put a literary gloss on it. Again, this is at heart just a joke, but it’s a joke that fragments Matsuura’s identity. Where in Tropical Koishiteru, the “real” Matsuura is watching on TV as the fragments of herself compete behind the screen (and she cheers on her “good” self), here the bad girl Matsuura is a powerful independent being.

In Ne~e?, the whole internal struggle is flipped outwards and the question of who she should be becomes one she is asking the boy she likes (and by extension the fans). “Who do you want me to be?” “Which me would you prefer?” This is where you might get to a closer sense of the nature of Matsuura’s “screen” and an answer to the disconnect between her reflection of the “real” and her embracing of artifice. What it really depends on is whether the gaze that we cast upon her screen is male or female. To the male gaze she gives nothing of herself, only an endless series of hall-of-mirrors reflections featuring numerous versions of Aya Matsuura but bringing you no closer to the real thing, but to the (teenage) female gaze she gives a reflection of their own struggle to form a coherent identity in the face of competing internal and external pressures and demands. In Ne~e?, Matsuura confronts this disconnect directly: “Yeah, I am many things, because it is you who demands that I be so.”

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Strange Boutique (November 2012)

My latest Japan Times column is a tongue in cheek musing on the explosion in the number of Japanese idol group members in recent years, drawing an analogue with Japan’s demographic woes die to its top-heavy ageing population. Put simply, how can all these girls be put to work and made useful to society once they’re no longer seventeen years old and living on a flower.

Of course what it’s really about is casting a view over the various ways idols have moved on in their careers once they’re past their idoling sell-by-date. Even though she’s largely inactive now, or at least only sporadically active, I brought up Aya Matsuura, partly because she’s gorgeous and I’m in love with her, and partly because some of her post-idol performances exemplify the point I was making about how a sort of inoffensive, jazz-influenced easy listening pop and balladry seems to be quite common, and also because she’s a good example of an idol who’s actually a reasonably decent singer.

I’ve talked before about the importance of jazz as a baseline of Japanese popular music (in the way that R&B seems to be fore American and British music) and it seems to return there almost as a default setting whenever it’s unsure where to go next.

Basically a lot of it just comes down to talent, and much as people like me might sneer at the notion that talent matters in an industry as top-down and controlling as the Japanese entertainment biz, if an artist wants to outlive their notional shelf life, they probably need it, either in singing, acting or knack for self-promotion.

What would be really nice would be if a few of them did something really artistically outrageous. I can’t think of any examples, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some exist. Given the vast numbers of girls currently inhabiting these idol groups, firstly there are probably all types and temperaments involved and there’s no way they’re all going to carry on meaningful showbiz careers, so it seems to me that it probably wouldn’t be that difficult for some really avant-garde Nagoya musicians to hook up with, say, some girl who used to be the 37th most popular member of SKE48 or something, and make something absolutely mad. Given the large and growing crossover between indie and idol music (BiS and Dempa Gumi inc. both played at Borofesta in Kyoto alongside postpunk weirdos like Fluid and Worst Taste & Special Magic, for example) I think there’s likely to be more of this kind of thing happening.

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Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: Candy Candy

I got some flack last autumn for my jibe about Perfume’s recent singles being glorified advertising jingles, with one of the main arguments being “So what?” I disagree in that my diagnosis was that Perfume’s music had exhibited a drop in quality and I was blaming the constraints of advertising work rather than seeing the connections with advertising and deducing from that that the music must be rubbish, but at its core it is a fundamentally good point. Since pop music, and especially bubblegum pop, relies on simple, easy-to-grasp melodic hooks and repetitive, catchy choruses, it shares many characteristics with advertising jingles; the only difference is the product that they are trying to sell (ad jingles are selling carpet cleaning products or racist orange juice while pop songs are selling, well, themselves).

Ten years ago, there would generally be some distinction made between the official video and the commercial, even if the former strongly hinted at the latter, as with this idol pop classic by Aya Matsuura…

…and this shampoo advert:

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s latest song, Candy Candy, blurs even that fine distinction with the advert, the video and the song’s lyrical content all unified around the theme of “GIVE MONEY TO GLICO CONFECTIONARY PRODUCTS!”

(Videos of the commercials themselves can be streamed here.)

Of course this kind of whoring about is nothing new, with The New Seekers/Hilltop’s I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing being written to sell soft drinks to fans of cloying sub-McCartney sentimentalism in the early 70s, and for that matter pretty much every great artist of the Renaissance having made a living shilling for the Catholic church. Obviously the difference is that (gobsmacking levels of corruption aside) people at the time of The Renaissance found genuine spiritual inspiration in the religious themes that art carried (and which it often transcended). Even with The New Seekers/Hilltop, what you have here is Coca Cola trying to appropriate the idealistic, hippy-era message of peace and love for the purpose of providing global branding for their product – that is to say that the cultural driving force behind the music comes from a movement with origins beyond the advert’s narrow commercial purpose, with Coca Cola simply parasitically latching themselves onto it after the fact.

Candy Candy pretends to no such countercultural ties, with even the Harajuku subcultural finesse that gave Kyary’s Ponponpon so much of its spark here watered down. What it does do is link into a tradition of bubblegum pop (the clue’s in the name) and confectionary references that goes right back to the genre’s origins. Again though, the meaning is different. When The Archies sang “Pour a little sugar on it honey,” they weren’t talking about sweets, they were talking about (whisper it…) s-e-x.

Similarly, when French teen idol France Gall sang “When the barley sugar / Flavored with aniseed / Sinks in Annie’s throat / She is in heaven,” she may have thought she was singing about lollipops, but writer Serge Gainsbourg was most definitely not writing about them — and the set designers on this video were clearly operating on Gainsbourg’s rather than Gall’s level:

Now in the 1960s, for all the era’s (probably undeserved) reputation for free love and youth rebellion, sex was still very much a taboo topic for pop music, which meant that children on the cusp of puberty, who were the target audience of bubblegum music, could only play out their new sexual feelings vicariously through metaphors that their parents were too innocent to decipher. In present day Japan, where the image of teenage girls is hypersexualised to frequently disturbing extremes, this kind of metaphor is mundane (it’s present in a limited fashion in the way the lyrics pun on the English verb “chew” and the Japanese onomatopoeia “chu” — the sound of a kiss), and in fact many girls reject it. The kind of cuteness Kyary Pamyu Pamyu represents is basically a rejection of the sort of sexual objectification represented by AKB48, which it does by retreating into a pre-teen, prepubescent world, both sexually and socially. This is part of the key to her attraction, because contained within this kind of childishness is also a kind of punkish self-reliance rather than the helpless dependence of Japanese culture’s more eroticised preteen fantasies – she doesn’t need boys and she takes no shit from no one. It’s also what makes Kyary Pamyu Pamyu the perfect marketing doll to reach these kinds of female consumers. The character she plays may be attractive to guys, but she exists independently of the male gaze and exemplifies a child’s self-absorption, selfishness and I-WANT-IT-NOW! simplistic consumerism.

As Kyary sings in Candy Candy:

“I heard your request, but I didn’t have time to attend to it / Because, because after all, I’m a girl, so ‘now’ is precious.”

With the melodies too, Yasutaka Nakata understands Kyary’s image, and as he hones her musical style down, he is drawing further away from the early-capsule/post-Shibuya-kei musical motifs he employed in Ponponpon and more and more towards ultra-simplified nursery rhyme melodies. It’s better than the thoroughly naff Tsukema Tsukeru, and musically it’s still a fairly effective application of Nakata’s chosen Pamyu Pamyu formula of “don’t use too many notes, have one melodic hook, and have a chorus where the lyrics are just the same two sounds repeated endlessly”, but among his various contemporary projects, it’s third grade stuff.

The problem is that the appeal of bubblegum lies in how it balances on the edge between childishness and sophistication. It projects something superficially simple, but peel away the layers and there is something more complex at its heart. Nakata’s best work with Perfume does this, usually by interlinking different musical elements in a creative and surprising way, although he’s not averse to slipping in a little Gainsbourg-style naughtiness where he can get away with it. 

Candy Candy, on the other hand, is like the onion that graces its promotion video. Peel away the layers and all you get is more of the same. There is no heart, even in the limited sense that bubblegum pop offers, only surface. It is conceptually smaller than even The New Seekers/Hilltop’s cynical reduction of naïve idealism to what is at best empty commercialism (with a dubious side order of cultural imperialism). The self-reliant island state that is key to Kyary’s charm and appeal is subverted once she is reduced to a dancing doll for a commercial entity like Glico. Thanks to the overt commercial branding across all facets of its being, Candy Candy’s message is simply “Candy, candy, candy. Buy candy. Buy candy from Glico. Because girls are shallow and superficial.” It’s music made totally subservient to advertising and branding, and it’s worse for it.

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Aira Mitsuki x Saori@Destiny: Park of the Safari

CD, D-Topia Universe (2011)

Both Aira Mitsuki and Saori@Destiny emerged blinking into the light in that brief period following Perfume’s transition from underground idol wannabes to bona fide mainstream pop phenomenon when it seemed as if technopop was going to be big. Songs like Aira Mitsuki’s Colorful Tokyo Sounds No.9 and China Discotica seemed designed to sweep in riding Perfume’s slipstream. However, when the gates to pop stardom subsequently clanged shut behind Kashiyuka, Nocchi and A-chan, both singers went through a period of transition, embracing the plastic sounds of technopop that Perfume had started to abandon after Linear Motor Girl and pushing the techno angle of their music in a more frantic direction.

To be honest, Mitsuki’s rather fine Robot Honey aside, none of it was that striking, the tunes not really catchy enough to work as pop, and the techno elements too tacky to really function as credible dance music either. Bearing that in mind, it’s a pleasant surprise to find that this collaboration between Mitsuki and Saori@Destiny is probably the best thing either of them have done.

There’s nothing revolutionary in here, but there’s plenty of interest. The thundering beats and cheesy 80s hair metal guitars that kick off first track Gate or Exit make an arresting opening statement, with the saccharine sweet vocodered vocals offsetting it in a gaudily effective way. Discovery is in more familiar territory, although the synths and beats continue to do their own melodramatic thing in the background. Curiously, it also borrows the same stock vocal sample around which Yasutaka Nakata built capsule’s The Time is Now.

Panama is probably the best straight pop moment on the album, with the sort of breezy chorus and sweet chord progression along with which one can imagine crowds of technopop fans doing that strange choreographed arm waving thing they do (the one that always makes them look like they’re in a cult, you know the one) and a fine piece of work it is too.

Of the two solo tracks on the album, Mitsuki’s Umbrella sounds like it should be a straight idol song, with its comedy pratfall timpani recalling Aya Matsuura’s superior Yasuharu Konishi-produced Ne~e. The trouble with idol music is that it’s not just the idol’s image that you’re selling but also their character, and while hiding Aira Mitsuki’s voice behind autotune works for as long as she’s a sci-fi robot barbie doll, in this song it reinforces the former at the expense of the latter. It’s the kind of song that needs to display the singer’s real voice in all its amateurish glory.

Saori@Destiny’s solo offering, Last Song, comes over like a Perfume B-side from about five years ago, with its grinding synth intro recalling Perfume’s Game and the main song’s disco pulse hinting at Electro World. It’s not as good as either song, but it works on its own terms as a pleasant enough dreamy electropop song.

It’s far from a perfect album though. Ballads, or indeed slow songs of any kind, rarely ever work in this genre since they rely on making an emotional connection that the cyberpop sheen actively works against, and the cheesy Euro-thump of closing number Special Link (the theme song from the computer game Soul Master) suggests that both singers’ work is still stuck appealing to a specialised and predominantly otaku-based audience. Nevertheless, for all its clumsiness and rough edges, Park of the Safari seems to offer a step forward for both Saori@Destiny and Aira Mitsuki if not in terms of widening their audience, at least in terms of musical diversity and quality.

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