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Power Puffy girls

by Steve McClure

Is America ready for Puffy? The pop duo’s record label, Sony Music Entertainment (Japan), apparently thinks so. Sony Music Imports released Puffy’s most recent album, “Spike,” in the U.S. on May 1, in the hope that Americans will go gaga over Ami and Yumi in the same way Japanese and other Asians have.

Sony has decided to market the duo as “Puffy AmiYumi” in the U.S. — hardly the most euphonious appellation. So why the name change? Well, it seems that big-name producer Sean “Puffy” Combs had first dibs, in a very real and legally binding sense. I hear that one proposed alternative was “Puffy Japan” — pretty lame. Why not just “Ami & Yumi”? Or why not hold a contest to come up with a new name? This could have at least drummed up some publicity.

On the plus side, the U.S. release of “Spike” includes a great English-language version (Puffy’s English debut) of the track “Sumire,” retitled “Love So Pure.” Longtime Puffy collaborator Andy Sturmer of American band Jellyfish wrote the song’s lyrics and music, and he and the girls have come up with a winner: a great, radio-friendly tune, with brilliant retro-style productions and catchy hooks.

Sony, which like many Japanese labels has been less than spectacularly successful in breaking its artists in the U.S., last year decided to take a radically different tack in promoting Puffy there. It first tested the waters by distributing to U.S. critics and other music-biz types a series of promo CDs called “Japan Not for Sale,” featuring its various Japanese acts, including Puffy. That helped create a buzz not only among American J-pop fans, but also among connoisseurs of the kind of lightweight, fun pop that is Puffy’s forte.

In an inspired move, Sony had the girls make their American debut in March 2000 at the South by Southwest music-industry confab in Austin, Texas. SXSW is attended by key tastemakers from the American music biz, and the acts that perform at the conference shows, especially those from Japan, tend to be from the radical/avant-garde end of the musical spectrum. Obviously Puffy are not that kind of act, but appearing in such a context gave them a hip cachet.

From there, Sony should have put on the U.S. market an album made up of previous Puffy hits, such as “Asia no Junshin” and “Kore ga Watashi no Ikiru Michi,” re-recorded in English. “Spike,” an album of Japanese songs (except for “Love So Pure” on the U.S. release), is going to be a hard sell.

Speaking of promoting Japanese music acts in the U.S. (a topic that never ceases to fascinate and frustrate the music biz here), some TV wide shows and sports newspapers have recently reported that female vocalist Kumi Koda (signed to Avex in Japan) has taken the U.S. by storm.

Well, not quite. The English-language version of her single “Take Back” (released in the U.S. by Sounday/Orpheus) is No. 18 on the Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles chart in Billboard’s May 5 issue. It’s the chart’s “greatest gainer,” meaning that of all the singles on the chart, “Take Back” has racked up the greatest sales or club play increases this week.

All well and good, and omedeto to Ms. Koda. But contrary to what some media outlets here are claiming, Koda’s achievement is not unique. Other Japanese acts (Towa Tei, Nokko, Satoshi Tomiie and, yes, even Seiko Matsuda) have done equally well or better on various Billboard charts. It’s great that another Japanese artist is trying to break into the incredibly tough American market, but hey, people: Turn down the hype-o-meter a little bit, OK?