One of the key differences between writing on the Web and writing for a magazine or paper is the speed and precision of feedback, and this undoubtedly has an impact on the form the writing takes. In print media, the reader may choose one title over another, and may choose to skim over one article in favour of another, but in the end, they’re at the mercy of the editors when it comes to what they see. A music magazine could be able to reel readers in with attractive cover stories featuring artists readers already like, and then once captured, introduce them to the artists the editors think they should like. Readers’ natural bias against reading about the unknown is overruled by the fact that they’ve already paid for the magazine and so might as well get their money’s worth out of it. On the Web, the power dynamic has shifted over to the readers’ side, and media must now compete for their attention. Great! Democracy! Smash the elites! Except no. Readers are lazy, conservative creatures, and will always click on something that reinforces their pre-existing biases than something that challenges them. This is well observed in political journalism, but equally true in pop culture. People will always click on something about an artist they already know about over something new, and ideally that article should be parroting something they already feel about that artist. For the online media outlets, their stats provide instant feedback on what’s getting page views, and over time, there’s always pressure to cater to that stuff. When the Japanese music web site Natalie started, it had high ideals – it would be bilingual, and give coverage to independent musicians that the mainstream music press ignored – but sure enough, once the page view stats started rolling in, the English page was the first to go, and then the content became overwhelmed with idol music and popular rock music. MTV 81, which I have on occasion written for, still publishes some interesting stuff but has followed more or less the same path. It’s not personal, kid, it’s just business. I get the same pressure on this blog too. Whenever I write about Perfume or Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, or Momoiro Clover Z or Babymetal, my page views spike, and I get that little nagging voice asking, saying, “Finally, this site is getting popular! Now maybe if I just wrote a bit more about this kind of stuff…” before my rational brain takes over again and reminds me that since I’m not making any money out of it at all, my idiot audience can go hang. Anyway, the fact remains that Akihabara and Harajuku are what get the clicks, and any media that considers itself a business is going to be under immense pressure to pander to these audiences. The one case where these idol-induced spikes fail to occur is when I write about AKB48. Now part of this is perhaps that AKB48 just aren’t cool in the way the acts I mention above are. Another might be that I’ve been so beastly about them in the past that their coterie of English-speaking fans has been definitively warned off this site (and good riddance). AKB48 are such a divisive presence in Japanese pop culture that you’re either a mad, frothing-at-the-mouth fan of them, or you just don’t want anything to do with them – either way, it doesn’t translate into shares or retweets. People like me who have zero interest in either their music or the girls themselves as characters, but find what they represent on a pop cultural level fascinating simply don’t fit into the equation (again, no problem with that). What there is a demand for in the clicks marketplace is analysis of otaku-related culture that gives a supportive critical foundation to widely derided, usually for reasons of perceived sexism or outright creepiness, pop cultural artefacts or trends, giving fans a sort of intellectual shield behind which they can carry on consuming just as before, without allowing their bubble to be pierced by unwelcome alien ideological critiques or reflecting on any subliminal ideological assumptions their own consumer behaviour might be predicated on. These kinds of articles are the intellectual big guns that fanboys can wheel out and then duck behind whenever their hobby penetrates the mainstream consciousness with something outright icky, like the 2013 AKB48 hair shaving incident, or easily mockable viral curiosities like Babymetal or Hatsune Miku. Partly this is to be expected because of the way so many observations from outside come at otaku culture, idol culture or whatever from an inverted version of precisely the same mindset: revulsion followed by a need for an intellectual foundation for that instinctive reaction rather than any real need to deal with the assumptions and ideological positions underlying it. These two poles are essentially moral rather than analytical arguments, and the fighters on both sides are really just driving each other further and further into their trenches rather than making any progress. The comments under my Japan Times article on Babymetal earlier this year demonstrated this pretty well. I don’t feel entirely comfortable with Babymetal, but I tried to come at it from an explanatory point of view, so that newcomers will at least have some understanding of what kind of mechanics are going on behind the scenes. Fans liked my article because they felt shielded by it, while critics just ignored most of it and continued to focus on paedophilia as their main concern. Matt Alt’s very good article for The New Yorker on Takashi Murakami, lolicon, and Pharrell’s new video had a similar effect in discussions I saw. It’s understandable, because when issues of underage sexuality loom so large in the wings as they do in idol music and lolicon, it’s difficult to simply put that aside and have a disinterested debate about the semiotics and pop cultural meta-discussion that’s going on. Still, get into one of those debates and don’t expect it to go anywhere fast. Anyway, over the summer, another bit of AKB-related strangeness hit the news when a man attacked two members of the group with a saw (yeah, I know, a saw!) at a handshake event, where fans can line up to briefly meet and touch their favourite girls in exchange for purchases of goods. Coupled with this was the way the incident coincided with the annual extravaganza of the group’s “election”, and I felt there was a parallel between the two events in the way they both speak to the central problem the group has balancing the need to be credible as a mainstream pop cultural commodity and the need to maintain the illusion of connection with fans. If you want to see a stark visual evidence that this conflict exists, just check out the photos of a post-attack handshake event at the bottom of the page here. Nippon.com published two articles about AKB48 this summer, both touching on different aspects of the same issue. In one of them Jun Mamiya I think correctly dismisses the notion that the group’s popularity has anything really to do with something zeitgeisty and forward-thinking in their music – the hits are a result of the popularity, not the other way round. Instead he discusses the group’s elections and fan meeting events in terms of people’s alienation from the democratic process. Mamiya projects the group as a largely positive force here, shining light on the failures of society through a carefully structured artifice of meritocracy that mirrors how fans wish the country still was. Whether it ever really was like that, and whether such ruthless competing for favour is desirable in the first place, is a question Mamiya doesn’t really discuss. To get to this point, Mamiya has to put aside the saw-wielding fan and any question about what the sexuality/sexualisation issues that concern so many overseas observers. That doesn’t mean the issue has gone away, but clearly not every article can address it as the core of its argument. In the end, Mamiya’s article provides just the sort of legitimising analysis many fans of derided subcultures seem to need: “We’re not perverts. We’re just ordinary, good people disenfranchised by the elites.” (You see the same arguments made by the racists in the Tea Party and Ukip, so in that context, AKB48 might be pretty benign.) Mamiya’s article is interesting, but what it provides first and foremost is a cultural explanation, and I’m instinctively suspicious of arguments that appeal to culture. The little Marxist homunculus that controls the levers in my brain always wants to think about the economic factors, and in my article I try to look at fan culture through the lens of the business model’s response to the changing economic conditions in which idol groups have had to work. In the end, economic and cultural factors will always intertwine. Extend Mamiya’s argument just a bit and you can perhaps see the disaffection he talks about more broadly from the sense of economic vitality and meritocracy in people’s professional lives due to an ageing society and stagnating economy. Take my discussion of idol music’s changing economic environment a step further and you have to question what underpins the changes in fashion that saw idol music drop out of the public eye to such an extent in the 90s. Looking back on it though, I think one other reason for the attraction economic arguments hold for me is the way economics is a rare area of discussion in pop culture where its appeal to numbers, or at least the implication of a numerical underpinning, creates a framework for discussion that feels rational and disinterested – it provides an intellectual mooring amid the stormy conflict between the unthinking and the uninformed, between self-justification and knee-jerk outrage. Of course this rationality is an illusion. Economic discussions are just as capable of dissolving into furious, spitting insanity, and they are (I think rightly and inevitably) just as ideological as cultural arguments at heart. Also, while I try to be openminded, I’m far from neutral in the cultural skirmishes that rage around idol and otaku culture: I just try to be honest with myself and conduct any argument I make in good faith, from as well informed and well thought-out a position as I can. Not that any of that has an effect on page views. There as well, however, economics is my friend: where there’s no money at stake, there’s no obligation to please or court one group or another. I can insult, irritate and bore my readers all within the space of one rambling blog post and none of it matters one jot.
Tag Archives: Kyary Pamyu Pamyu
I’ve already written a lot about this album, so regular readers will know that I love it and think it’s one of the most exciting things Yasutaka Nakata has done in a long time. To drop a genuinely experimental record like this in the middle of a year when his work with Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Perfume was scaling ever greater commercial and creative heights was a surprise and one that seems to have left a lot of fans scratching their heads or just outright disgusted. It was certainly a poke in the eye to those Capsule fans who seem to wish the group was just an idol project built around Toshiko Koshijima; it avoids obvious dance beats, instead exploring the possibilities of sampling and layered loops, cutting and splicing Toshiko’s vocals like a Vocaloid voice synth.
The key track to unlocking what Nakata is doing with Caps Lock is the six-minute 12345678, a track that sets itself up with a defiantly irritating klaxon loop and then challenges you to find musicality in the shifting layers of sounds underneath. Get that track and the whole rest of the album falls into place. Control and Shift are the closest things to traditional Capsule pop songs, while closing Return sounds like a cross between a Jo Hisaishi Ghibli soundtrack and a Ryuichi Sakamoto instrumental work, suggesting that there might be a high profile Hollywood film soundtrack in Nakata somewhere should the opportunity arise.
Caps Lock is also the most Shibuya-kei thing Nakata has done in years, with Cornelius an obvious point of comparison. It’s short at only about 35 minutes, but after the excesses of Perfume’s (also excellent) Level3, that economy makes a nice contrast, ensuring Caps Lock is a tight, fully-formed package in its own right. Clever, imaginative, fun and still at its heart pop, Caps Lock doesn’t so much take you on a journey as lay out a musical landscape before you and leave you to explore it by yourself, and the result is the best album released by a major label in 2013.
I’ve put off doing this for plenty long enough, so before January ends, I’d like to get started on counting down my top releases by Japanese or Japan-based artists of 2013. As with previous years, I’m basically sticking to releases with three or more tracks, I’m not imposing any particular genre restrictions although given this blog’s focus, it’s obviously going to be more or less entirely indie-biased. In addition, it’s obviously limited to albums that I’ve had a good listen to, and finally, this list and ranking is entirely subject to my own whims and on a different day might look totally different.
This means that singles like Merpeoples’ excellent Silent Sleep and Miu Mau’s (last year’s top placed band) magnificent Monochrome/Spring 7-inch aren’t included. It also means that Hikashu, who released two albums this year if we include the one they did with Charan Po Rantan, don’t feature simply because I haven’t had a chance to listen to any of their new material yet. Likewise I can’t assess Fukuoka indie quartet the Hearsays who I’ve been very excited about for a long time, Yokohama postpunk weirdniks Sayuu, and Tokyo indiepopsters Boyish (who featured last year) because I haven’t copies of their albums.Sugardrop: Breeze Flower
Because I decided to keep this list as a strict Top 20, there were a few albums by bands I very much like that I didn’t have space to include. On another day they might have been in there, and they remain highly recommended, so Pop-Office’s Portraits in Sea is one well worth checking out, as is Ykiki Beat’s Tired of Dreams. Hotel Mexico’s Her Decorated Post Love was another fine album that didn’t make the cut but on another day likely would have and if you haven’t heard it, you should go out and do that right now, as you should Sugardrop’s superb, shoegazetastic Yeah Right. As I said earlier, there’s a strong indie bias to this list, and while Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Momoiro Clover Z both put out genuinely good and highly recommended albums, neither album really stuck with me enough to warrant a place among my top 20 of the year. Sakanaction also put out another very good album and remain consistently the best “mainstream” Japanese rock band, but somehow their stuff still doesn’t quite jive with me the way I feel it should. It’s a top notch album, brimming with creativity and thoroughly deserving of its massive sales and huge popularity, but I don’t know. It’s a model example of an album that does everything right and shows signs of maybe even being a classic, but doesn’t make my heart sing the way my real favourites did. It’s good so listen to it and a lot of you will feel it in a way I just can’t quite. It’s not you, Sakanaction, it’s me.Sakanaction: Yoru no Odoriko
Last of all, and again as with previous years, I’m obviously not including albums I released myself through my Call And Response label, which means the brilliant Я не могу без тебя (“Ya ne mogu bez tebya”, or “I can’t live without you”) by Mir and Hysteric Picnic’s fantastic Cult Pops are out of contention, although of course both would be right up near the top if I were honest about my feelings for them.
Anyway, now that you’re primed, I’ll be starting the countdown from tomorrow, so get ready.
I’ll be posting a definitive list of my personal choices in the new year, but as a taster, last week Clear And Refreshing contributor Ryotaro Aoki and I joined James Hadfield, Mike Sunda and Patrick St. Michel in The Japan Times to talk about our favourite Japanese albums of 2013.
First up, my choices will perhaps not be much of a surprise to any regular readers of this blog, with Melt Banana’s Fetch taking top place among my recommendations. I suspect that under other circumstances, Ryotaro might have made the same pick, but instead he went with heavy riffsters Church of Misery’s Thy Kingdom Scum, which given that Ryotaro and I review all albums in our Quit Your Band! zine on something called the “Sabbath Scale” is a choice I am more than happy to endorse.Church of Misery: Brother Bishop
Patrick’s beat is pop, so he went with Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s Nanda Collection. Kyary has always been my least favourite of Yasutaka Nakata’s musical projects, and I found Nanda Collection a difficult and pretty intense listen despite not actually disliking anything on it in particular. I don’t like to shy away from challenging music though, and it’s an album rich in musical ideas that pushes them further than Kyary’s earlier releases, so it may yet make my Top 20 of the year (although probably somewhere behind the top notch 2013 releases from Perfume and Capsule). Mike’s choice of Sappire Slows’ Allegoria ensured that the JT bests represented the woozy cut & paste bedroom electronic pop that seems to be everywhere these days. She’s certainly very good at it, although whether she’s one of the best is hard to tell since there really is so much of it. I might have gone with Jesse Ruins over this, but that may be more down to my 80s synth bias and not having spent enough time with the album I can’t really say. Definitely a worthy addition to the selection though. James Hadfield, who I do the monthly Fashion Crisis party with in Koenji, went with Yosi Hosikawa’s Vapor, which I must admit not having heard but James has impeccable taste and what I have heard from the album is marvellous.Yosi Horikawa: Stars
Note: If you’re running up against The Japan Times’ new paywall by clicking all these links, just register for free (they won’t spam you) and you get access to 20 articles a month, which will likely be more than you’ll ever need from this blog.
I did another interview with Yasutaka Nakata recently and you can read the feature I wrote in The Japan Times. I was pleased with the way this one went, and it was made easier by just how musically rich and interesting Capsule’s new album, Caps Lock, is.
It’s the weirdest thing Capsule have done since before Flash Back and it’s also the most Shibuya-kei, largely because it captures the experimental, eclectic spirit of Shibuya-kei’s best stuff rather than just pastiching that sort of bland, loungey boutique-pop sound that I still hold mostly responsible for killing it as a living scene. The track Control seems to be intended as the lead track but Warner have only put up a shortened “crippleware” version of the video, so I’m not going to link to it on here (this sort of behaviour must not be encouraged). It’s an obvious choice for the “single” though, being (along with Shift) one of the closest things to a pop song on the album, and also being representative of the creative way Nakata messes with Toshiko’s vocals.
It’s interesting that just as he takes Capsule’s club influences and pushes them over into Perfume, he’s also mashing up Toshiko’s vocals to an unprecidented extent just as he’s letting Perfume sing in their natural voices. It always makes sense to look at any of Nakata’s projects in the context of what he’s doing in his other projects.
Personally, it’s the track 12345678 that I think is the creative core of the album, with its layers of samples and synth-loops casually shifting up and down in the mix. It pushes each just to the point of being irritating before showing you that no, actually this is very musical, see? If Perfume’s Level3 is Nakata showing us what we already know he can do very well, Caps Lock is him showing us how great he can be when he’s exploring new ground. If he can manage to find a way of integrating some of these ideas into Perfume without compromising their essential poppiness, it could be truly wonderful.
I have another, shorter, piece on Capsule appearing (already appeared?) in Time Out Tokyo, who are apparently putting out a paper edition for the first time. It’ll go over the same basic ground as the JT piece, but with more Time Out editorial pizzazz (something I’m thoroughly opposed to: I’m only happy when my work’s tediously dry and intellectual), but in the meantime, here’s an edited transcript of the interview I did. Special thanks as usual to Ryotaro Aoki, who took on the always difficult task of translating Nakata and myself:
CAR: So how did you go about making the new album?
NAKATA: The way I made the new album was very much how when I started making music.
CAR: What do you mean?
NAKATA: Recently with Capsule and my other work, I’ve been making music for soundtracks, commercials and all these things that are pre-arranged. With this new album, none of these songs are tied up with commercials or movies, so it’s making music for music’s sake, very much like when I started out.
With my more recent work over the last couple of albums, I was making the songs specifically for a DJ setting or a club setting, whereas with this album, I didn’t really think about the situation or how the songs would be played, so in that sense too, it’s similar to the way we started out.
CAR: You’ve moved to a new label and management, changed the design motif and changed the sound, so is there a sense in which this new album is a reboot of the band?
NAKATA: I’ve had some changes in my life and now seemed like a good time to change everything. I’d wanted to change the logo to all caps for a long time, and now was an opportunity to do that. I don’t feel like I’ve changed the fundamentals of what Capsule do. I wasn’t really thinking about anything. I just made music freely and this is what came out.
CAR: Your last few albums were very club-orientated but recently that club sound is more apparent in your work with Perfume and to a lesser extent Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Caps Lock feels a bit like a reaction to or a shadow of that shift in your other projects.
NAKATA: It seems that way when you think of the other projects as the centrepiece, but when you think of Capsule as the centrepiece, what I’m doing is just doing the things that I can only do with each project and taking them to their limit. With Capsule, we don’t have to play shows or anything, so I can decide what I want to do pretty much on my own.
CAR: You’ve pushed some things a lot further on this album, especially the degree to which you’ve processed and manipulated Toshiko’s vocals.
NAKATA: The processed vocals stems from the fact that we don’t have to play live. If we were performing on stage, I’d have to think about how we’d be able to do them live, but we don’t have that responsibility now. With Capsule, we don’t have any rules, so it frees me up to do what I want to do.
CAR: How does your working relationship with Toshiko compare to the other singers you work with?
NAKATA: It feels like we’re playing one instrument together in the studio. She’s not singing things that are pre-determined by me. It’s more like we’re playing an instrument that we wouldn’t be able to play unless I had her with me. With Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, it’s more like a collaboration where we talk about it and work together. With Capsule, one way of looking at it might be if Toshiko was a pen and I’m using her to draw something, but because it’s that pen, it influences what sort of thing I draw.
CAR: The way the album uses the motif of a computer keyboard gives it almost the feeling of a concept album. Where did that idea come from?
NAKATA: The keyboard motif came out of the change in the album title and I used the keys as symbols. I had the logo and the title first, and then after making the music I came up with the titles, but at the same time, I wanted there to be a kind of story to it, so the I chose the words from the titles so they’d read together as a sort of story.
CAR: You’ve also done a lot more with samples this time round.
NAKATA: A lot of music these days is being made on machines that are built to make music, which is very easy, so I thought it would be interesting to make music from sounds that weren’t designed to make music. I had a library of samples that I used, but some of the samples I could make myself in the studio I made myself.
CAR: Do you have any thoughts on new directions you’d like to go in the future?
NAKATA: I’d be interested in doing film scores for different kinds of films. I like science fiction, so it would be interesting to do soundtracks for films about unknown worlds. It wouldn’t have to be sci-fi, it could be fantasy or something like that.
CAR: How about internationally?
NAKATA: Like I said earlier, I’d be interested in doing more soundtrack work. Maybe someone reading this will think, “Oh right, let’s do something together!” I don’t really see myself as performing on stage and travelling the world, but movies transcend nationalities and countries, so that might be a good way to get my music out there on a global scale.
CAR: With Caps Lock it feels like the album is a bit more “composerly” as it were, with more emphasis on the layers of sound rather than the impact of the sound hitting you in the face.
NAKATA: This time with the album, when you listen to it all the way through, there are moments and sounds that appear that you can only experience if you sit down with the album, take your time and listen to the album as a whole in one sitting.
CAR: Are there any particular moments that you’re really pleased with how they came out?
NAKATA: It’s hard to pick out particular moments. I took time over each individual sound this time round. There isn’t a person there in the sense of someone on stage performing it, but it sounds like there’s a person there. It’s like arranging dominoes, and all you do is flick a switch to make the first one topple over, and then something cool happens. The music itself is automated, but there’s a person behind it fundamentally. A lot of people think of computer music as being automated, but you need a person there, hammering out the details. I wanted to show the gears in the music and how it works together.
CAR: It feels like very much the opposite of the trend in “EDM” which seems so popular in the USA now.
NAKATA: The recent trend in how people consume music is that they don’t really spend much time listening to a whole song, but because of that, I wanted to make an album that’s very layered, that you have to listen to carefully.
CAR: Like people with their iPods constantly set on shuffle?
NAKATA: Not just like shuffle, but on YouTube, you can just go to a particular moment that you think is cool in a song or an album, and they have these digest versions where you have three-to-five seconds of songs lined up together, and the trend these days is that you have to make something where you can get people’s attention within that three or five, or even one second. The album I wanted to make this time, I wanted to do something more layered, with more density in the sound, and you can only really experience that density if you listen to it in full, because there are moments before that where there’s no sound. You can only pick up those feelings and those details by listening start to finish.
CAR: So you’d like people to listen to Capsule’s new album in a different way?
NAKATA: Lately the feeling of plunging into the unknown, of not knowing what’s going to happen next in music has become weakened these last couple of years. Personally, I want to take the idea of listening to music slowly, all the way through, and I’d like more people to be able to listen like that. Take the example of SoundCloud, where you can see the waveform visually, so you can see when the song gets really loud or dynamic. When you hear that part, you already knew it was coming, and you can play only the most exciting parts.
CAR: Soundcloud actually parodied that form of listening with their April Fool’s gag, where they inserted these markers into the waveforms of songs saying “Here’s the drop!” It got everyone really angry until they realised the joke.
NAKATA: Ah, but of course I do that as well. With Perfume, it’s all about making songs when people hear for the first time, they know when it’s going to be the big chorus or the dynamic. It’ll be as if they already know the song. With Capsule’s new album, if you skip to a certain point in a song, you won’t know what’s going on, but with my other projects, you can skip anywhere and it’ll be a cool moment. I can do that with them, so with Capsule I wanted to do something different.
Even with Capsule, I’ve made music like that, but since I’m doing that with my other projects, it seems like a good time to do something new with Capsule. If Capsule was the only project I was doing, I probably wouldn’t have made an album like this.
Over the past year or so, it seems that of Yasutaka Nakata’s two big mainstream producer/songwriter gigs, Perfume appear to have got the better deal on the singles, while Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has tended to do better for herself on album tracks. Part of that might be down to him having spent more time with Perfume so he knows what kind of thing works with them, partly it might be something to do with them just being the bigger of the two artists from a commercial point of view, at least for now. Mostly though, I think it’s got something to do with the way that in contrast to Perfume’s modern and sophisticated image, Kyary’s appeal is based on her offbeat kookiness, and so her music works best when it’s a bit off the wall, whereas singles, especially ones designed for big ad campaigns, are naturally a bit wary of anything too odd.
Either her commercial backers are starting to feel more comfortable with the viability of Kyary’s weird side or Nakata’s getting better at working that aspect of her into a more mainstream context though, because since last Autumn’s Fashion Monster, things have been getting a bit more interesting on the singles front and Ninja Re Bang Bang might be her best single since her debut, Ponponpon.
Unlike some of the more intense moments of Plus-tech Squeeze Box-influenced sugar-rush mayhem on last year’s Pamyu Pamyu Revolution album, Ninja Re Bang Bang is a fairly straightforward piece of bubblegum pop with a formula diverging little from the one that Nakata seems to have established for the standard Kyary single — the bouncy rhythm with a bit of an off-beat and the cheap, early-2000s Mini-Moni synths — but while there’s superficially and structurally not that much different between this and some of her more mediocre singles like Candy Candy, Ninja Re Bang Bang has a bit more of a kick.Perfume: Voice
There’s a formula that Nakata seems to have hit upon with Perfume a while back, which involves taking the slick, modern electropop elements of their sound, feeding 70s/80s kayoukyoku and new wave melodies through it, and embellishing with toy technopop bleeps and bloops, with the end result of something both aggressively modern, recognisably classic, and retro-futurist all at the same time. It’s a sound early capsule flirted with too, but it’s most obvious in songs like Laser Beam, with its YMO-influenced Asiatica, or in the way the chorus of Voice is only a couple of notes shy of avant-pop weirdos Hikashu’s Pike.Hikashu: Pike
This combination of classic, modern and retro-futurist not only enriches the sound, but also hits buttons in audiences that are plugged directly into positive sensors in their brains, feeding the sensations of innocence, optimism and a burgeoning confidence in Japan’s own sophistication and global emergence that the late 70s and early 80s evoke. It’s a feeling that goes way beyond mere national nostalgia too: it’s a sound that hooks in neatly to a lot of the positive notions of Japanese pop culture that exist abroad, sidestepping the uncomfortable and infantile cryptosexual fantasies of otaku culture and painting an image of Japan as the colourful, ultra-modern Oriental utopia it still in many ways is (and which Korea is rapidly in the business of usurping).
So to come back to Ninja Re Bang Bang, it kicks off with a little 8-bit synth flourish and then dives straight into one of those YMO-ish choruses from the starting gun, it pulls on all the retro Asian pop clichés it can in the instrumental breaks and ties it all down to the established Kyary rhythmical formula. There’s something like a verse in there somewhere that does fuck all melodically, but the song dispenses with it as quickly as it can in order to get back to the crucial business of just repeating that insanely catchy chorus over and over again, and the result is an utterly straightforward and quite lovely piece of bubblegum pop.
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.
My Japan Times column this month follows up on some ideas from Daniel Robson’s Perfume interview in the same paper the other week, looking at how they might go about making a mark overseas. I primarily talk about the marketing rather than the music in this one, although I don’t think there’s anything in their sound that would necessarily cause them problems. It’s distinctive, which could see them bracketed as “too weird” by some particularly musically unadventurous listeners, but on balance, it’s probably probably a good thing. They have a lot of repetition in the choruses, which might help them overcome the language barrier, at least partially, and even their less striking recent stuff is still pretty sound pop music.
In the article, where I drop the phrase “cyborgs-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown”, I was thinking of the last few minutes of this live clip, which is still one of my favourite pieces of J-pop ever. I think that in years to come, when people look back on now with the rose-tinted filter of history, it’s this that they’ll pick up on, not musical pink slime like Exile:
As I say, I think there’s a lot to be positive about, but a lot will depend on what tie-ups they get with overseas promoters and media. What they’ve done so far (making the music available to download via iTunes) is the bare minimum of what every pop group in the world should be doing. That it seems remarkable just shows how backwards the Japanese music industry is. It’s worth noting that Yasutaka Nakata’s other production project, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, seems to be doing OK, although the obvious caveats regarding YouTube hits vs. actual sales apply, through taking a more (visually at least) offbeat tack, which seems to support my thesis that niche marketing is the best way to make J-pop work. Kyary’s fashion connection ties her into an interest group outside of the usual Japanophile crowd (and really, the existing overseas J-pop fan community is probably something any sane label will want to keep at arm’s length) but she’s striking and exotic enough that she stands out. Perfume have a strong image, but their niche is less clear, and I think it will take a while for them to find it. The pop-cyborg thing is cool, but it’s hard to know what it ties into. For example, stick them in a sci-fi film as some futuristic pop group and they’ll get lots of the comics/SF crowd thinking it’s cool, but at the same time, it’s also a kind of self-satire, which means the audience won’t necessarily transfer thinking “it’s cool” to thinking “they’re cool”. I think children should probably be the primary focus, because they’re less hung up on stuff like that, but make sure whatever you do with them is cool enough that an older crowd can convince themselves that they’re getting into it in a sort of hipster ironic way.
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.
Here’s my Japan Times end-of-year roundup column. I’ve not much to add really other than that AKB48 are really the worst thing ever. I do think it’s worth mentioning (and this is my view, not that of the japan Times editorial section) that I really don’t think SMAP’s charity and fundraising work gives them license to use the Tohoku tragedy as a marketing hook off which to hang their new Greatest Hits album that they rushed out in time for their Beijing trip. Giving 5% off the sale price to charity is a fine gesture, but calling the album SMAP Aid, with that cutesy sticking plaster logo, is just cashing in on tragedy and they should be called out on it.
At the bottom of the article, there’s also a little box where I give my top five girl-group bubblegum pop tunes of the year. I’ve already posted one or two of the clips, so sorry for any repetition. Anyway, if you want to check them out, here they are:
1. Perfume: Laser BeamI’ve written about this extensively before, so I’ll just add here that I agree with Patrick from Make Believe Melodies that the single mix is better than the over-fussy album mix.
2. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: PonponponAgain, not much to say about this other than that it’s magnificently stupid, even without the video.
3. Girls’ Generation: Mr. TaxiThis is actually good for a lot of the same reasons as Ponponpon (i.e. the chorus is simple, catchy and features just them doing a silly dance and repeating the same couple of nonsense sounds over and over again), but it’s also important for bringing a bit of modern electro polish, sex and glamour into the Japanese pop scene.
4. 2NE1: I Am the BestTotally stupid, but really quite musically radical when you pull it apart. 2NE1 are by far the most fun group out of the 2011 K-pop pack.
5. Momoiro Clover: Mirai BowlAnother let’s-chuck-everything-in-and-see-what-happens song. On its own, I don’t think I’d like any individual part of this song, but the way all these completely incompatible musical segments are chucked together makes it so much more than the sum of its constituents. Add in the cheesy theatrical drama section that goes with it and you have a minor idol pop-opera masterpiece. Also the last thing they did with the beautiful Akari Hayami (a.k.a. “Blue”) still in the group (chokes back sobs).
If I were to add some more, I’d say:
6. Seifuku Kojo Iinkai: Da! Da! Datsu genpatsu no Uta — Nothing special about the tune, but idol pop with an angry anti-nuclear message in 2011? Hell yeah.
7. Secret: Shy Boy — Infectiously happy pop tune that isn’t quite sure whether it’s trying to be a 50s doo-wop tune or a 60s bubblegum-Motown pastiche, and then remembers it’s a K-pop song and shoves in an absurdly incongruous rap segment. Wonder Girls pulled the same trick on Be My Baby, but they over-egged the production a bit so I’ll go for this bouncy number instead.
8. Nozomi Sasaki: Pa-pe-pi-pu Pa-pe-pi-pu Pa-pe-pi-pu-po — Ridiculously annoying, stupidly catchy, gleefully, calculatedly nonsensical, Sasaki’s terrible singing voice gives it an air of almost punky couldn’t-give-a-fuckery, and those wonderfully cheap 80s synths just get me every time. Awful song. I love it.
9. Afterschool: Let’s Step Up — Not really a proper song so much as an album intro, but tapdancing electropop? The little Riverdance thing they do in the middle? Someone has clearly decided somewhere that the rules of pop don’t apply to them, and if there’s one thing that 2011 proved, it’s that whatever we thought the rules were, they’re not.
10. Momoiro Clover Z: Rodo Sanka — Showa Era nostalgia abounds in this worker’s anthem, written by Ian Parton of The Go! Team. After Girls’ Generation made an album almost entirely full of songs by Western songwriters, it’s interesting to see a Japanese idol group go the same path and come up with something completely different but no less striking. And yeah, I know I had another song by basically the same group earlier — so I cheated.
There are probably a few other’s I could put in — T-ara had one or two good songs, and 2NE1 and Perfume both had one or two more really good songs — but I’ll leave it at a clear ten.
[Edit: Added in Secret at No.7. and Nozomi Sasaki at No.8. Can’t believe I forgot such an adorable pair of little tunes.]