by Spank The Monkey
Even an old fart like myself can appreciate the sterling work that Mr Moth has been doing for Europe’s Best Website with his Mostly Pop pieces. He’s got a genuine appreciation for the genre, and it comes across even when he’s slagging it off. But pop is like heroin: after a while, you come to realise that the regular stuff simply doesn’t do it for you any more. One day, Moth will look at his Girls Aloud records, sigh, and realise that he needs something stronger. He needs to go to Japan, basically.
J-Pop is the crack cocaine of popular music. Any impurities and unnecessary material have been refined out of it by years of scientific research involving men in lab coats. You know that old joke about why they don’t make planes out of the same material they use to make the black box recorder? J-Pop is the answer to the equivalent question about why they don’t make pop music entirely out of hooklines. It breaks down your natural resistance: once you’ve been exposed to it, nothing of standard strength has any effect on you ever again.
I’m a 49-year-old man, and my favourite record of 2012 is a J-Pop album by a 19-year-old girl called Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. STOP JUDGING ME.
I’ve been observing the world’s most addictive pop music from a distance for a decade or so, ever since I accidentally tapped into the J-Pop channel on a long-haul flight and ended up listening to the looped programme three times over just to hear two songs again. One of them was Last Smile by Love Psychedelico: serious, semi-acoustic, with that Didoesque yodel in the voice that was popular back in 2001. The other was Renai Revolution 21 by Morning Musume, a raucous piece of disco fluff performed by a manufactured girl band whose staff retention policy was apparently inspired by Logan’s Run. They’re both equally brilliant songs, but for diametrically opposite reasons.
Since then, I’ve been listening to both extremes of that musical spectrum, and come to this conclusion: the best J-Pop artists are the ones who attempt to straddle the divide, the manufactured groups who subtly reveal a mind of their own. Sometimes it’s simply a warped sense of humour: like Dempagumi.inc, who extended their cover version of the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage into a full series of cop show skits. Or it’s a quiet refusal to play the game: like Vanilla Beans, who rarely smile, never dance anything other than a slow motion hand jive, and constructed the set for their best video out of a Fisher-Price My First Plane Crash kit.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is the latest pop star trying to subvert the Japanese mainstream. She only released her debut album Pamyu Pamyu Revolution in May of this year, but she already has plans to crack the global market. Up until a few months ago, I would have laughed at that, and pointed at the huge burial ground where they keep all the Asian artists who failed to make it in the West due to language and cultural barriers.
But that was before Psy. Nobody really understood (or cared) that he was taking the piss out of a pretentious stratum of Korean society, Gangnam Style being their equivalent of what my nan used to call ‘all fur coat and no knickers’. Psy didn’t need English lyrics: he had a squelchy bassline, a ridiculous dance routine, and – crucially – a video that was tailor-made for viral transmission.
So, does Kyary Pamyu Pamyu do videos?
We’ll take that as a ‘yes’, shall we?
At the age of 19, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has already been a model, a fashion blogger, a TV personality, and whatever the technical term is for someone who sells a range of false eyelashes. In a culture where celebrities multitask whether they’re up to the job or not, Kyary becoming a recording artist wasn’t such a big deal. What is a big deal is that she’s very, very good at it.
What’s also a big deal is that unlike many of her contemporaries, she seems to have a pretty solid idea of what she wants. You can tell from the pictures that Lady Gaga is a major influence, and that extends to a small team that’s as integral to Kyary as the Haus of Gaga is to Stefani Germanotta. Producer Yasutaka Nakata is responsible for everything on her records that isn’t her voice. Video director Jun Tamukai is in charge of the viral element. And then there are the stylists who take Kyary’s experience of the Harajuku fashion scene and translate it into jaw-dropping design.
It’s fair to say that the visual aspect is a large part of Kyary’s appeal – after all, it was the cover image at the top of this page that initially inspired me to check out her videos. They’re all surprisingly different. PonPonPon, as seen above, is an overload of kitsch imagery that’s very Harajuku in its styling. Tsukematsukeru dabbles in arcane symbolism to such an extent that it’s been accused of being Illuminati propaganda. My personal favourite is Candy Candy, which uses a variety of tropes inspired by manga and anime: it starts with Kyary running down the street with a slice of toast in her gob (a traditional visual signifier of unpunctuality ), and ends with her shooting the onion with a pink Kalashnikov.
All of this would mean nothing if these were just visual trappings covering up a lack of tunes, but that’s not the case at all. Nakata has provided Kyary with a bulletproof collection of pop songs, crammed with hooks and inventively arranged, frequently surprising you as they take the scenic route through a standard chord progression.
Nakata has worked with a few Japanese pop idols in his time, and he’s not daft: he knows that Kyary is a bubbly teenager, and has given her lyrics all about bubbly teenage things. There are songs about eating sweets (not as a metaphor for desire, but actually eating sweets), the joy of clapping, and an amusingly detached pre-pubescent perspective of what drinking booze must be like. Best of all, there are no soppy ballads to lower the mood: the one slowie is a charming lullaby performed over a knackered calliope backing.
Kyary throws herself into these songs with precisely the right amount of enthusiasm. Sure, she’s almost certainly got the might of ProTools behind her, but there’s still a detectable personality under the processing. She’s carefully avoided the sexualisation accorded to older female singers, and also not fallen victim to the fetishisation of youth that forces members of Morning Musume onto the dole as soon as they hit 20. Whenever any hint of cutesiness comes into play, she tends to stomp it down immediately with a grotesque or macabre grace note. This is especially notable in the video for Fashion Monster, which climaxes with Kyary being drenched in pink demon vomit.
Every so often, I wander over to my CD collection looking for something recent to listen to. Right now, it could be Richard Hawley’s psychedelic freakout, which brings back wistful memories of the time when I thought distorted electric guitars were the answer to everything. It could be the hilarious cynicism of The North Sea Scrolls, even though the album omits the Jimmy Savile State Funeral sequence that was a highlight of their early live performances. Or it could be Scott Walker making farting noises with his mouth for twenty minutes.
But more often than not this year, when I’m looking for a sure-fire mood changer, I’ve found myself turning again and again to Pamyu Pamyu Revolution: its inventive arrangements, addictive melodies and sheer [insert Japanese for joie de vivre here] work for me every time. And I’m here to warn you: soon, I may not be the only one. Because Kyary has plans.
Take another look at that PonPonPon video: it’s racked up over forty million hits in a little over a year. Statistically, they can’t all be Japanese viewers. There’s a growing foreign interest in Kyary’s work, and she knows it. She’s already blagged herself a cover feature in Dazed And Confused magazine, and is currently arranging dates for a world tour. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a couple of her live videos, and it’s pretty obvious that her mic’s turned off for 90% of the gig. But you know what? Lip-synching or not, I’ll probably be there anyway, barging my way to the front and singing along to not-entirely-understood songs about skipping school and wearing false eyelashes.
Okay, now you can judge me.
Spank The Monkey wishes to thank The Belated Birthday Girl for her translation assistance, and for not automatically assuming this is some sort of mid-life crisis thing.