A recurring theme in the Strange Boutique column has been the question of what has gone wrong with pop music in Japan. Amid discussions of the pernicious influence of advertising agencies, record industry conservatism in the face of declining sales, and the faceless, self-replicating Eurobeat monstrosity from out of Akihabara, there was one fundamental thing that Japanese pop seemed to have lost: The ability to make you go, “Wha…?”
For many, however, a pinprick of light emerged from the shade of not-quite-as-influential-as-it-was Tokyo fashion hub of Harajuku this July with the release of “Ponponpon,” a song by fashion model-cum-singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (her label, Warner Music Japan, refuses to confirm her real name). Largely passing underneath the mainstream media’s radar at first, it was a viral smash hit that annoyed people who deserved to be annoyed but delighted teenage girls, Belgians (where, along with Finland, it topped the iTunes electronic charts) and bemused netsurfers everywhere with the Technicolor blizzard of candy canes and eyeballs that made up its video, and its idiotically catchy “pon pon wei wei wei” chorus, courtesy of capsule/Perfume producer Yasutaka Nakata.
“I’m interested in exaggerating things,” explains Kyary. “I’ll be trying on wigs and I’ll get interested in seeing what it would look like if I just put them all on at once. Or rather than just having one teddy bear, why not have me completely immersed in hundreds of them?”
There’s a certain childlike glee in this, and that’s definitely where a lot of the appeal for fans lies, but it’s also part of a visual philosophy that underpins a lot of Harajuku fashion culture, from the magazine FRUiTS to 6%Dokidoki designer Sebastian Masuda (who created the set for the “Ponponpon” video): Take something cute and push it to such an extreme that it becomes uncomfortable. Kyary, however, seems to enjoy twisting meanings in both directions.
“I’m not just trying to be cute,” she says. “I have all sorts of strange things going on inside that cuteness. I like to find cute aspects inside things you wouldn’t generally think of in that way. For example, I like to collect bracelets made of teeth, or necklaces made of eyeballs — things that people normally think are weird, I like to collect.”
This is equally true of the way on her popular blog she regularly engages in wordplay, redefining language to suit herself. Just as slang usage has twisted the meanings of English words such as “wicked” and “sick”, in Kyary’s hands, the Japanese “kire-sou” changes from being an expression of anger to one of excitement and delight. Japan has seen the same thing with the way youth-speak has changed the meaning of “yabai” (dangerous), but it’s a rare thing to be able to trace the source to a single teenage girl blogging alone in her room. However, Kyary-isms are slowly seeping into wider use as they are picked up on by her legions of teenage readers and even by mainstream celebrities like Kaela Kimura.
Whereas in Western countries this kind of youthful disregard for the tedious strictures of mere dictionaries is often rooted in generational struggles — as portrayed vividly in the film “A Clockwork Orange”, language as a code that distinguishes the young from their natural enemy, the old — Kyary is perhaps understandably less militant.
“I don’t just want to write a normal blog,” she states, “and by playing around with the language, it’s a way I can make it more interesting for myself and for my readers. And after the earthquake, it felt like a way of cheering people up.”
It’s an attitude that has distant ancestry in the original ethos of punk rather than traditional pop music, with its emphasis on pushing back boundaries and creating one’s own unique sense of style. However, the long evolution process has seen the confrontational and political aspects defanged. While not an idol in the traditional sense, she is surrounded by the usual range of handlers, ready to micromanage her image at the drop of a brightly colored hat, although she herself seems to enjoy a degree of autonomy within this system.
Also, like anime and manga otaku (obsessive) culture, the kind of Harajuku scene Kyary Pamyu Pamyu represents requires a fanatic devotion to surface aspects, while deeper meaning must be reduced to easily definable and digestible emotions: cute, interesting, fun.
In this sense, what makes Kyary stand out in such a frenetically consumer-driven world isn’t that she rejects it so much as that she hurls herself into it with abandon. She’s not so much an artist as the ultimate creative shopper, devouring and reassembling the stimuli that surround her.
As someone who puts a great deal of stock in not being like everybody else, Kyary is aware that becoming a style icon is a double-edged sword.
“I like it when my fans imitate me,” she states. “I’ve seen people on the street with the same hair and the same clothes, but if I’m going to have my image copied by all these people, I don’t want to be just one of the crowd. I’ll have to keep going one up on them every time.”
Musically, she cites the likes of Lady Gaga, Gwen Stefani and Katy Perry as inspirations, which will perhaps disappoint those whose initial attraction to “Ponponpon” came from the joyous, uncalculated innocence it seemed (and was certainly in part calculated) to present. Nevertheless, they are logical choices for a person like Kyary who is interested in the ways people combine the musical and fashion-related strands of their work.
“One person I really love is (French singer/band) Yelle,” she enthuses. “At first the music really attracted me. Then I noticed more and more how she integrated the fashion and choreography into what she was doing, and that completely hooked me into it.”
Among her musical favorites, it always seems to be the artists that seek out the extremes of taste who attract Kyary. Enthusiastic about the current boom in Korean pop, she is nevertheless discerning in which parts interest her.
“Of course groups like Kara and Girls’ Generation are really popular and cute,” she says, “but I like the artists who push the style bracket out to a more extreme level. Some of the YG Family artists like BigBang and 2NE1.”
Similarly, with Japanese music, she has a soft spot for frenetic, fast-paced electronic sounds, citing post-Shibuya-kei duo Plus-Tech Squeeze Box, whose hyperkinetic car crash of high-sugar electronic pop, punk, new wave and children’s TV themes was introduced to her by Nakata after one of their prerecording discussions.
Despite the talented team of people who have gathered around the Kyary Pamyu Pamyu project, there seems to be an awareness among them that the kind of style and image she represents will have a hard time becoming more than a niche in the Japanese cultural landscape, which perhaps explains the “long tail” approach of releasing her music via iTunes in numerous overseas territories and building momentum via the Web.
There is also a sense, however, that after years in which the area’s influence on Japanese popular culture has diminished, the Harajuku brand image is positioned for a revival. Certainly it still occupies a place in the public consciousness both in Japan and elsewhere.
“I think people overseas have a strong image of what Harajuku is,” says Kyary, “and on YouTube I kept seeing comments like, ‘Only in Japan!’ so I feel like the video for ‘Ponponpon’ was exactly what overseas viewers think of when they think of Harajuku. It just fit the image.”
Despite the ownership that anime, male fantasy-driven Akihabara and otaku culture have been able to exert over the idea of “cuteness” this past decade, Kyary claims not to understand anime culture or ideas such as “moe” (originally a kind of pseudo-love for anime or manga characters), declaring her faith in the Harajuku way as something that feels “edgier, with a bit more attack”. This brings back to mind a small incident from right at the start of the interview.
As she entered the room, the first thing Kyary did was pick up a copy of “Shonen Jump” magazine and briefly flick through the bikini-clad photos of AKB48 in the gravure section. At first, it seemed to merely reflect an easy-going, casual attitude, but now, I wonder (or hope) if she might secretly have been sizing them up in preparation for taking them down.
For now, however, it is perhaps simply enough to know that in a pop world seemingly engaged in an arms race to concoct the ultimate formulaic female idol, a figure as sharp-witted and monstrously silly as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu can exist when we need her.