Tag Archives: Perfume

Patrick St. Michel – 33 1/3 GAME

Towards the beginning of Patrick St. Michel’s 33 1/3 series entry on Perfume’s Game, there’s a section where he discusses the impact on him personally of hearing their music for the first time while living in a quiet town in rural Mie. He talks about how J-pop was really the only domestic music available, and how discovering this strikingly different act appearing right in the heart of the mainstream gave him a way to connect with people he knew and worked with.

This was interesting partly because it reminded me a throwaway line in my own book about the Japanese music scene, Quit Your Band!, about how music had been partly a way to connect with the alien culture I found myself living in. It wasn’t something I’d thought of much at the time, but a lot of readers picked up on it as a significant insight.

It’s also an interesting piece of context for someone like me, whose experience of life in Japan has always been at the opposite extreme, having been embedded in the Technicolor blur of Tokyo from the very start. As a result, the appearance of Perfume impacted us both in different ways. To St. Michel it gave a foothold in mainstream culture and a way to connect with students and coworkers. For me, it injected a plastic-electric speedball of icy pop cool into an underground music scene that could often be drearily earnest.

That difference in how we both received Perfume may go part of the way towards explaining the pains that St. Michel goes to to emphasise the humanity and emotion at the heart of Perfume’s music on Game, which is an aspect I’ve tended to skim over or dismiss in my own interactions with their music. More than that, his willingness to engage seriously with their music on that level is important in ensuring this book is a rounded discussion of the group.

After these personal reminiscences, the book kicks off in earnest with a brief history and analysis of synth- and electronic-based music in Japan, from Isao Tomita through YMO and new wave groups like P-Model and the Plastics. Crucially, it also draws explicit parallels between Perfume producer Yasutaka Nakata (of post-Shibuya-kei duo Capsule) and ’90s mega-producer Tetsuya Komuro, who did similar work in introducing overseas dance music ideas into mainstream Japanese pop, albeit on an even larger scale. St. Michel makes the good point that for all that Perfume were trailed as a “technopop group”, their music was never really technopop in the historical sense. To interject my own thoughts here, what Perfume really inherited was a curious sense of nostalgia for the future that acts like YMO seemed to promise, and perhaps for the future that technology promised more broadly in postwar Japan. It’s partly from this nostalgia for lost futures that the melancholy that St. Michel astutely identifies in Perfume’s music derives.

The book also takes some time to put Perfume themselves in the context of Japan’s idol tradition, noting how pop singers would on occasion intersect with electronic pioneers like Haruomi Hosono of YMO in their careers. I think the Candies are a particularly important group to bring up in relation to Perfume, not only for the visual similarities between the two trios (a lot of people I know remarked at the time that Perfume seemed like “an electro Candies”), but also because of how the founder and chairman of Perfume’s talent agency, Amuse, had actually been the Candies’ manager back in the 1970s when working for their agency, Watanabe Productions. One key parallel not mentioned in the book might also have been the late-’80s/early ’90s duo Wink, whose flat emotional delivery and synthpop-based arrangements contain further early echoes of Perfume’s style and aesthetic.

St. Michel goes beyond the historical idol parallels, though, and lays out in some detail the extent to which Perfume were, especially in their early days, deeply embedded in the machinery of post-millennium idol production. Their origins in a stage school bootcamp, the handshake greeting events, handing out flyers on the street in Akihabara, the live video messages to fans from the basement of a shared house – all these gimmicks the group went through mark their early career as having been managed along typical idol lines.

All of which makes the distinctive form the group ended up taking the more striking. Two key points St. Michel brings up underscore this. The first is how he remarks on Nakata’s use of the word “cool” to describe the musical aesthetic he is reaching for. This is important in differentiating Perfume from other idols, because “cool” as a concept is largely non-existent in idol culture; icy reserve has no place in a world where all emotions must be on display to the maximum level. The other point is the extent to which Nakata’s decision to use an actual polyrhythm in the song Polyrhythm was considered controversial. So-called “underground idol” acts nowadays occasionally play around with ideas from indie or experimental music, but for a group in 2008 aiming for a big hit, the idea of including something so radical in a song gave record industry execs palpitations.

In discussing Perfume’s influence, St. Michel makes further good points, noting the way the copycat acts they inspired all failed to replicate their success and noting the way Nakata’s career as a producer was perhaps the most striking immediate domestic result of Perfume’s rise to fame, with the group’s lingering influence on the Vocaloid scene perhaps its most enduring. The subsequent appearance of AKB48 (and we could perhaps add K-pop, with the electro influences that coloured much of it) carved a path for pop music in Japan to follow in a way that ensured Perfume remained a one-off. What the book doesn’t discuss is the way Nakata’s success with Perfume may have helped open the door for more indie and indie-adjacent songwriters and producers wo be given more or less free rein with idol groups, with the success of Kenichi “Hyadain” Maeyamada with groups like Momoiro Clover (Z) and Dempagumi inc. a notable example.

St. Michel’s discussion of Perfume’s (and in particular Nakata’s) overseas influence feels a bit overstated, but it’s nevertheless interesting. One part that stands out in particular is his discussion of Perfume’s much-touted performance at South By Southwest in 2015 from the perspective of someone in the hall at the time. The contrast the way parts of the performance were clearly designed for consumption on video outside of the venue (and presumably also in part for re-consumption back home in Japan) set against the more intimate experience of the audience of mostly hardcore fans inside the room felt like something worthy of more discussion.

In fact, if this slim volume (it’s a single comfortable afternoon’s read) is lacking, it’s that it raises interesting ideas that St. Michel doesn’t always pursue. There are many legitimate reasons why he may not have wanted to bore readers by spiralling into esoteric discussions of semiotics, but it nevertheless feels like he holds back at points. While the book analyses the music and lyrical themes of the album in an often illuminating way, the approach is never really critical. St. Michel acknowledges the influence, that Nakata typically elides, of Daft Punk (themselves pretty free with their influences) on Perfume’s sound, but not the extent to which some of their music directly references them (pre-Game songs like Linear Motor Girl and Electro World have direct parallels with Digital Love, while Nakata cribs liberally from One More Time all over the place). St. Michel alludes to but doesn’t deeply interrogate the relationship between Perfume’s music and commercials – in particular the way songs are written specifically for the commercials rather than simply being licensed for them post-fact. Meanwhile, his praise of the emotional complexity of Perfume’s songs perhaps overstates their sophistication, or else it understates the sophistication of a lot of other contemporary J-pop and idol songwriting.

The flipside of these criticisms, however, is that St. Michel writes about Perfume with a lot of affection, and it’s often infectious. Opening with a personal anecdote about his introduction to the group and the impact they had on him contextualises this affection and gives him a license to discuss the band in his own way, which he does all the while taking in a lot of broader context about the group’s origins and the history and environment of the Japanese music scene as a whole.

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Idol Music’s Garden of Forking Paths: Yurumerumo!’s “Hamidasumo!” and Perfume’s “Pick Me Up”

In this day and age where pretty much any musical or fashion subculture is ripe for co-option and exploitation by the idol scene, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at where it all kicked off.

The love affair between idol groups and indie/underground music, in its current form at least, started with Shibuya-kei and neo new wave – two genres that were already long on the road to convergence. The fading from the mainstream of Shibuya-kei around 1998 or so coincided with the brief bubble of retro new wave and technopop that grew up around the Tokyo Newwave of Newwave ’98 compilation album and bands like Polysics, Spoozys and Motocompo.

Gradually, some of the technopop remnants of the neo new wave scene coalesced with a sort of dead cat bounce of Shibuya-kei, around labels like Vroom Sound, Softly! And Usagi-Chang. Plus-tech Squeeze Box, Hazel Nuts Chocolate, Eel, Aprils, YMCK and others floated around in similar circles to the still extant Motocompo and Shibuya-kei revivalists like Capsule, sometimes guesting on each other’s records.

The emergence of Perfume in 2003-2004, produced by Capsule’s Yasutaka Nakata, set off a lot of light bulbs in the collective imagination of this post-neo-new-wave, post-post-Shibuya-kei scene and people started to realise that even as their own music had been sidelined by the music industry, the idol scene was musically malleable enough that they might be able to do something within its structures. More than that even, Perfume were a ray of light through the whole indie, underground and punk scenes who perhaps needed a splash of colour as they laboured under the receding shadow of brilliant but discordant and angry bands like Number Girl. Perfume were cute, colourful, cool and contemporary, but at the same time, there was a nostalgic sort of retro-futurism to them. They may have been heavily influenced by Daft Punk, but one of their earliest songs was a cover of the new wave classic Jenny wa Gokigen Naname by Juicy Fruits, and their path from technopop through electropop left echoes of beloved bands of eras past, particularly YMO.

Yurumerumo are an idol group very much in that tradition. Drawing from a songwriting and production talent pool rooted in new wave-influenced artists, they regularly work with lyricist Ai Kobayashi from technopop duo Miami (Yurumerumo often perform the Miami song Shiratama Disco, the original version of which appeared on my own Call And Response label’s 2005 debut compilation) and it should come as no surprise to see TNWONW98 alumnus Hayashi from Polysics taking charge of them for Hamidasumo! (side note: Dan Cervi, who plays the newsreader in the promotional video, is another figure I remember from the scene back in those days and man does it make me feel old seeing his face crop up again).Yurumerumo: Hamidasumo!

So namedropping aside, what does all this mean for the song? Well, for all their new wave gloss, Yurumerumo have until now always sounded pretty much like any other generic idol group (i.e. awful) but Hayashi stamps his identity over Hamidasumo! far more distinctively. It sounds like a Polysics song – which is really the whole point of getting in someone like Hayashi in the first place – with all the good and bad that entails. It’s a high-fructose explosion of colour with frenetic beats darting every which way and skronky guitar bits around the edges. It’s all handled with the utmost confidence and control, and well it should be since Hayashi’s been writing essentially the same song over and over for the best part of seventeen years.

Now it’s a solid track, but if I sound weary and cynical here, that’s because I am. The whole nexus of idol music and indie or underground musical subcultures is built around the novelty of “Ooh, it sounds underground… but it looks pop!” and those juxtapositions can only be reproduced as time goes by to diminishing returns. Take a bit of time and listen to Ryotaro Aoki over on the It Came From Japan podcast, talking about Dempagumi.inc’s Neo Japonism and you can hear the word “crazy” turn to ash in a person’s mouth. It’s not that there’s anything in particular wrong with this stuff – it’s just that it’s a musical approach that relies for its whole existence on its freshness, and it’s simply no longer fresh.

For a Japanese pop group to sound fresh right new, what they’d need to do is get back to making pure, unpretentious, shamelessly straightforward pop music, completely free from triangulating subcultural market niches, and there’s something satisfyingly circular about the fact that the group who do that most consistently and best right now is Perfume.Perfume: Pick Me Up

Pick Me Up is the most striking thing Yasutaka Nakata’s trio have done since 2012’s Spending All My Time, with its opening crash of synth chords and relentless ‘90s Hi-Nrg pulse. Nakata even lets the girls try singing properly, and while I’d normally be utterly opposed to such dangerous innovations, such are the joyous, anthemic, dancefloor good vibes of the song that they get away with it.

Talking about musical progression is an increasingly futile exercise in a world where evolving styles generally just means magpie-like hopping from one influence to another rather than any real development. With that in mind, it’s nonetheless interesting how just as so many 80s new wave musicians graduated from synthpop to techno (Dave Ball’s transition from Soft Cell to The Grid is a classic case study, and in Japan Tetsuya Komuro’s career took a comparable trajectory), Perfume have taken the same journey twenty years down the line. More importantly, however, Nakata and Perfume have navigated these shifts while remaining consistently and instantly recognisable as themselves.

There’s plenty to criticise about Pick Me Up, and a permanent bugbear of my music producer friends is Nakata’s dedication to “anti-music” brickwall mastering. Personally I can count the number of shits I give about that on no hands — it’s the sonic equivalent of the Hollywood summer action blockbuster and while there are undoubtedly plenty of people for whom this style is without exception an act of cruel violence against art, I take the view that it’s a tool that can be wielded for good (Marvel Studios) or evil (Michael Bay). In any case, those who find Nakata’s brickwalling tendencies annoying will hate this as much as everything else he does.

It’s also an elaborate advert for a department store chain, with a suitably confusing and pretentious video that may or may not be ripping off the closing scenes of classic 1980s Jim Henson fantasy adventure Labyrinth (sadly sans David Bowie – and a return cameo from OK Go doesn’t really make up for it) and seems to present the store as a malevolent nightmare hall of mirrors that sucks you in, terrorises you with armies of shopper-zombies and then spits you out complete with bags of shopping. Now delightful as it would be to paint this as somehow subversive, it’s still an advert masquerading as a pop video, and regardless of how ubiquitous that becomes, being annoyed by it is a bare minimum moral duty.

As I say though, and stupid video aside, it’s a marvellous song. It’s pop that only cares about being pop, and for all its frisson of EDM embellishments, it’s reassuringly old-school dance-pop with an earworm synth hook that digs in and never lets go. More Eurobeat than Asiatica, it diverges slightly from the formula Nakata has built up for Perfume songs since roundabout the time of Voice in 2010 (and which he perfected with Laser Beam the following year). A song it shares a lot in common with in fact is Korean idol group Kara’s 2011 hit Step, which remains one of the most outstanding songs of the K-pop boom for the same reason: its foregrounding of classic pop songwriting, melody and hooks ahead of fancy zeitgeist-grabbing studio fun.

Representing diverging paths from a common origin, both these songs have a lot going for them. For all that Yurumerumo’s transparent triangulations leave an icky feeling, it’s a solid and distinctive track within its field, and as with Nakata and Perfume, Hayashi’s own identity as a songwriter and producer stands out, which bodes well for the role of musicians behind the scenes in Japanese pop, even if it also underlines the depressing fact that they are simply unable to get the same level of attention without a cluster of girls in the roles of dancing marionettes in front of their music.

Even in that, there is something positive to be gleaned, in how in their own different ways Yurumerumo and Perfume both manage to avoid the creepy, sexually exploitative imagery that pervades the idol scene. If the growing convergence of indie subcultures and idol groups has done one good thing, it’s been to foster a less overtly regressive (if still highly infantilised) set of roles for girls in the idol scene.

Nevertheless, it’s the Perfume track I feel far more comfortable with. As someone whose interest and musical background lies firmly in the indie and underground scenes, I don’t need pop groups holding up a mirror to my tastes in an attempt to sucker me in as a customer. Pop music is at its best when it doesn’t try to be anything other than pop, and in Japan right now, no one does pop better than Perfume.

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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: No.17 – Perfume – Level3

Level3

CD, Universal Japan, 2013

Perfume albums have for a while now been basically collections of singles strung together with a few filler tracks and B-sides without much sense of cohesion, and it’s easy to see with Level3 how this album’s length, track listing and timing were determined by the same set of commercial demands. Where Level3 stands out is in how despite these constraints, producer Yasutaka Nakata works the material together into a form that actually feels like a proper album. The last couple of albums have seen the increasing use of album mixes of older tracks, although on Level3’s predecessor JPN the mixes were largely unnecessary and on the earlier Triangle they were interesting more as discrete items than as part of the album’s larger context. Here, the three reworked tracks are cornerstones that dictate the pace and rhythm of the album, in particular the new versions of Spring of Life and Magic of Love that kick off a run of tracks that recalls the relentless dance party of Capsule’s World of Fantasy, climaxing in the monstrous monument to hedonism that is Party Maker, just one of many “how the hell did they get away with that?” moments that the album offers.Perfume: 1mm

There are missteps like the way the cutesy kids’ song Mirai no Museum kills the flow of the aforementioned run of party tracks, and Point is still a musical atrocity no matter what anyone says, although pairing it up with Furikaeru to Iru yo was a smart move that limits its damage to the album as a whole. These bum notes are far overwhelmed by the quality of the whole though. Like all the best albums, Level3 has two sides irrespective of its actual physical format (at 65 minutes it wouldn’t fit on a single piece of vinyl anyway) with the more subdued second side emphasising the kind of sophisticated pop with retro-futurist faux-Asiatic elements that have increasingly coloured much of Nakata’s pop songwriting and strongly recall the work of Ryuichi Sakamoto, particularly in album closer Dream Land. It’s too long but we all know how to use the programme and skip functions if we need to and in any case, that shouldn’t detract from this being the best J-Pop album by an easy margin in a year that, in the also Nakata-produced Kyary Pamyu Pamyu album and strong albums by Momoiro Clover Z and Sakanaction, gave us a surprisingly strong field of mainstream records.

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Strange Boutique (November 2013)

My November column for The Japan Times is about the minor fan community scandal that bubbled up after A-chan from Perfume made some awkwardly worded remarks about gay fans. It was obviously not intended with any negative inflection, but looked at a certain way, it’s perhaps a little clumsy. I’m not going to go into what actually happened, you should read the original article here.

(First up, the opening is paraphrased from the American playwright August Wilson. I wasn’t sure whether I should cite him or not and in the end left it up to my editor. In any case, it’s his idea and I stole it. Just putting that out there.)

Now as a straight, middle class, white man, I’m have pretty much the most privileged life and background in all human history, so I’m not going to start telling people what kinds of things are legitimate and illegitimate sources of distress or offence. On one level, all that happened was that a fan asked her a silly question and she didn’t know how to answer it, but as she relates the story, her language (“neither” gender) segues rather awkwardly into the discussion about gay (presumably just as male as anyone else) fans and then her description of the fan’s partner as a “girlfriend” (did the fan use this term or was she editorialising?)

As I said, I don’t want to dismiss this as a non-event because gender politics are a tricky subject, but that said, the story here really shouldn’t be about A-chan. I spoke to the journalist who carried out the interview and asked him his assessment based on the context of the interview and from what I can gather, she was just being bubbly and ditzy. Perfume say they’re not idols like AKB48, but they’ve been brought up by the same kind of social machinery, inside the same pop industry bubble, and also in a wider sense part of Japan’s whole cultural bubble.

One thing that starts to hit you after a while when you live immersed in Japanese pop culture is the sheer narrowness of range it offers in terms of thought, ideas, and values. The significance of the “We Japanese” mindset is sometimes overplayed, but it’s definitely true that far more than European or American societies, the idea that as a Japanese person you can sit across from someone on a train and know that they are thinking the same way as you is a great comfort. Pop culture here is completely geared towards the reinforcement of this idea, and people who deviate from it are usually only permitted a pop cultural platform if they either perform obeisance to Japanese cultural traditions (“Wow, he is more Japanese than Japanese!”) or neuter themselves, rendering the outsider that threatens the consensus harmless by playing the clown.

This is often true of transgender people on Japanese television (although it’s not quite that simple and m’colleague Philip Brasor has written brilliantly about LGBT issues in Japanese TV here, here and probably many other places), and it’s certainly true of foreigners. A commenter on my Facebook page relayed a story of the naturalised Japanese but Nigerian-born TV tarento Bobby Ologun, whose son was appeared on a show with him and popped the awkward question, “Daddy, why are you so foolish on TV but not at home?”

Not only minorities, but a woman’s role on TV variety shows is far too often simply to nod along and smile to the older male comedians. Show hints of intelligence or independent thought and there is a ritual of ridicule they must go through to ensure they are cut down to size. Only loudmouthed female comedians, usually from the Osaka/Kansai area, are allowed to openly joust with male guests and co-hosts.

OK, now someone who watches more Japanese TV than me (almost anyone in the country really) will be able to pick holes in this assessment, but the overall picture is very much as I describe it. So pop music is really part of a wider pop cultural world devoted to maintaining a certain set of values and a certain sense of what Japan is and what the Japanese are.

Why this is is another matter. I suggest two theories in my column, the first of which could be summarised as the Antonio Gramsci view, where the channels through which culture is transmitted are used by a ruling class to establish “hegemony” and instill in the population a set of values that don’t necessarily benefit them. The other view is basically that of Theodor Adorno, namely that capitalism by its very nature drives the “culture industries” towards standardisation, in which all choice is an illusion. Likely there are elements of both conservatism and commercialism at play in bringing us to this point.

Whatever the reason, the Gramsci and Adorno positions both describe a system that serve the same ends: that of limiting discourse in the public arena.

But of course Japan isn’t homogeneous. Despite strict visa requirements, it’s racially less and less so, certainly in Tokyo, and among Japanese themselves there are many different kinds of people as well. By enforcing this limited and limiting media metanarrative of Japaneseness, it at once restricts people’s ability to empathise with and engage with people who don’t fit the standard, and at the same time gives those who don’t fit the mould a stark choice between conformity and alienation.

Gay people are a particularly pertinent example here, because more than almost anyone they have no control over what makes them different. Westerners are visibly different and are freed from the choice of fitting in or not (we never will, so just suck it up and learn to enjoy it — the situation of Zainichi Koreans is rather more complex), and it’s possible to a limited degree to drive unwanted ideologies like Communism out of the media to the extent that the ideas cannot easily be disseminated, the propaganda cannot be propagated. Gay people in Japan, however, do not choose their identity or arrive at it through social circumstances the way one might adopt a political position. Also, unlike foreigners they are just like “standard Japanese” on the surface so cannot escape the subtle added pressure that going unrecognised in the media creates to put on the face of conformity.

I’ve been quizzed many times about why there are so many gay British men and so few gay Japanese, and looking at the British and Japanese pop industries, there are certainly far more openly gay stars in the UK. Is Japan a uniquely heterosexual nation? Of course not. It’s just that there is a tacit agreement in the media that it’s not part of the discourse (in Britain, Freddy Mercury’s death pretty much put an end to that). Japan’s gay pop stars remain in the closet, Japan’s gay teenagers repress their sexual identity, Japan’s gay salarymen get married, have kids and sneak off to gay bars on the sly or just simply keep it to themselves, and straight Japanese lack the familiarity or the vocabulary to talk about homosexuality comfortably.

This isn’t discrimination in the direct sense of the word, and the people who do it aren’t nasty homophobes. Japanese sociologist Yuki Senda relates a good example of how it works in practice:

“I was recently speaking with an American friend who happened to mention a mutual friend had just got married. ‘But isn’t he gay?’ I asked, a bit surprised by the news. My friend, in turn, was surprised by my own reaction, and said: ‘Yes, of course—and that’s why he married a guy.'”

“This incident made me realize that even though I specialize in the sociology of the family, my own outlook still seems to be bound by traditional Japanese notions about the family. Needless to say, I know from my research that same-sex marriage or civil unions exist. But the notion of gay marriage is still such an alien concept in Japan that the possibility did not immediately occur to me when speaking to my friend.”

Of course once discussion about offence and language gets round to the idea of political correctness, people like to whine. Political correctness is the black beast that stalks contemporary debate on media culture, but in its bare essence, as the great Stewart Lee pointed out, political correctness is really just, “…an often clumsy negotiation towards a kind of formally inclusive language.”

I mention that political correctness can be restrictive and Orwellian in its extreme applications (the term itself was coined by 80s lefties as an ironic reference to Stalinist newspeak, along the lines of, “Your new girlfriend seems nice, but is she ideologically sound?”) but real and much more extensive restrictions are being put on both language and thought by a media culture that doesn’t give people the tools they need to engage with ideas, values, and even people outside the mainstream.

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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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