Tag Archives: Kyary Pamyu Pamyu

Page views, AKB48, and the economic right to bore

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.

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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.10 – Capsule – Caps Lock

Caps Lock

CD/Download, Warner Music Japan, 2013

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.

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Top 20 releases of 2013: Intro

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.

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Japan Times albums of the year

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.

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Interview: Yasutaka Nakata (Capsule)

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.

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Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: Ninja Re Bang Bang

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.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.18 – Kyary Pamyu Pamyu – Pamyu Pamyu Revolution

Pamyu Pamyu Revolution

CD, Warner, 2012

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.

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