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Perfume needs to walk a fine line on its path overseas

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

As Japanese pop culture is increasingly dominated by insular subcultural groups with little interest in what’s happening outside Akihabara’s otaku haven or Shibuya’s gyaru mecca, the news that electro-pop trio Perfume had moved to major label Universal and made its music available online to overseas audiences was a breath of fresh air that gave even the most cynical hacks at JT Towers a glimpse of hope for a long overdue international J-pop success story.

Despite (or because of) having pretty much the most distinctive musical identity in contemporary Japanese pop, Perfume could be well placed to avoid the mistakes that have seen so many others stumble.

The first thing anyone looking to market Japanese pop music overseas needs to do is abandon the ridiculous notion of “Cool Japan” — a nebulous concept that artist Takashi Murakami nailed in an Asahi Shimbun interview on March 10 as, “Intentionally created to satisfy the pride of the Japanese — and is nothing more than ad copy to allow public funds to go to advertising companies.”

The Japanese media loves images of foreigners acting Japanese. Partly, as Murakami suggests, for the sense of cultural validation, but partly it’s simply for the sense of oddity — the same way people like photos of dogs wearing hats or pandas riding go-karts: They’re curiosities, part of the TV entertainment merry-go-round. Hopefully the local media will resist the temptation to pick up on displays of ostentatious, otaku-style fan-love from abroad, such as the video skits by a Perfume fan known as “perfume444,” which have caused equal parts mirth and embarrassment among U.S. fans. This is not representative of a wider, financially significant Japan-style fan culture, and while he and his ilk are perfectly sincere, there aren’t enough of them and they carry little cachet in wider society.

Let’s forget the argument that it’s difficult to imagine how anyone in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry — or the “cool hunters” they may have hired — is in a position to dictate what is cool at all. The contention here is that considering Japanese culture as a unified thing in the first place leads to a superficial understanding of both it’s product and the market.

Japanese culture is the sum total of numerous, often disconnected, mutually contradictory parts, and Universal’s primary purpose has nothing to do with nonsense like advancing Japanese “soft power.” It is simply to understand its product’s strengths and fit it into a market niche.

And “niche” is the key word. The failure of Hikaru Utada’s attempts at mainstream acceptance is well documented, and even pop star Donnie Wahlberg of New Kids on the Block couldn’t save Seiko Matsuda’s 1990 self-titled album from chart oblivion. Trying to mimic mainstream U.S. pop seems doomed to failure.

Overseas success stories come when an artist can tread a fine line between exoticism and pandering to existing markets.

Yellow Magic Orchestra tapped into the nascent popularity of electronic pop and the then-popular disco boom. Cornelius paired a musically adventurous fusion of rock and electronic production with the sound of the ’90s alternative-music scene.

Each managed to retain a sense of their own identity, both musical and cultural, which helped them to stand out as something exotic while simultaneously being accessible.

Of course, it also helped that Cornelius and YMO were musical geniuses in their own right. Perfume’s appeal rests on a combination of the girls’ own style and their talented supporting team. A closer comparison in this case might be Puffy (Puffy AmiYumi in the United States), the quirky ’90s pop duo achieved moderate popularity via an animated series titled “Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi” (2004-06). Perfume’s “Polyrhythm” was included in last year’s film “Cars 2,” which suggests the group could now have fans in the U.S. animation industry. Perfume’s sci-fi-themed cyborgs-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown schtick would be ideally suited to a similar kind of anarchic children’s cartoon, with just enough offbeat appeal to bring in a sizable contingent of older viewers. The possibility of producer Yasutaka Nakata of capsule fame appearing in a supporting role (think Professor Utonium in “Powerpuff Girls”) might be too much to hope for — but we can dream.

Some suggest that Perfume should set its sights on Europe rather than America, since audiences there are likely to be more receptive to music that isn’t sung in their native language. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s “Ponponpon” was able to top the electronic-music charts on iTunes in Finland and Belgium last year, but it’s unclear as to whether or not the number of units moved was high. By the simple move of classifying Kyary’s music as “electronic” rather than “pop,” Warner Music Japan had managed to snag nine of the Top 10 electronic positions on iTunes Japan this past week.

Part of the problem a European strategy could face is a fragmented cultural, linguistic and media environment, meaning promotion would need to be carried out piecemeal, on a country-by-country basis.

It seems likely that what Universal is doing now is waiting and watching. By making Perfume’s music available to buy online worldwide, it can now monitor where the sales are coming from and will no doubt hope to gain a greater understanding of what kinds of people are buying. Also, the group would undoubtedly benefit from working with bigger promoters that have experience in the larger overseas markets and that can see the group’s reach extend out beyond the usual anime conventions and Japanese culture expos. Whatever way it goes, it’s exciting to see a major label taking what seems to be an open-minded approach to the wider global audience and — for now at least — it gives those of us with an interest in seeing Japanese pop culture succeed abroad something to feel optimistic about.