Music

The queen of kawaii: Kyary Pamyu Pamyu reflects on her reign

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s trip to the Museum of Death in Hollywood proved to be a 2018 highlight for the 25-year-old J-pop star.

“I thought it would be about murder and crime, but it was actually about everything related to death,” she tells The Japan Times. “It kind of shows, for example, how to avoid dying in specific ways, or photos of certain deaths. It was quite shocking, but something you don’t see here (in Japan). I feel like it might be unique to America.”

The museum — founded in 1995 “to fill the void in death education” in the United States and boasting “the world’s largest collection of serial killer artwork” — happens to be a short distance away from the Los Angeles hotel where Kyary stayed during part of her North American tour in June. An afternoon taking in Manson family memorabilia would seem to be at odds with the “queen of kawaii” brand the singer, whose real name is Kiriko Takemura, has represented since debuting in 2011.

“But I love watching horror movies and psychological thrillers and stuff in my private time,” she says. To some, this dark side may come as a surprise, but Kyary’s brand of Harajuku cute has always been tinged with the grotesque.

Causing a stir: Pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu
Causing a stir: Pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s new album, ‘Japamyu,’ sees the singer moving toward a more mature sound while trying to maintain the charm that made her a star.

In late September, Kyary put out her fourth album, “Japamyu,” which produced a few more surprises. The 10-track collection features a subtle attempt at showing her fans a different side. Plenty of the songs, all produced by longtime musical cohort Yasutaka Nakata, feature the twinkles and synth melodies that defined the playroom pop of her early releases, but she’s experimenting, too. She describes advance single “Kimi no Mikata” as “more adult,” while “Enka Natrium” (“natrium” being the Latin for “sodium”) finds her rapping the names of molecules in the style of traditional Japanese enka. During our interview, Kyary even demonstrates her approach to kobushi, the singing of one note in a fluctuating style.

“It’s kind of a fictional country, actually, based a bit on Japan,” she says, describing her latest album, which features gagaku (traditional court music) done in a future bass-style on “Oto no Kuni” (“Country of Sound”) and a cover of “Koi no Hana” (“Flower of Love”) originally done by Nakata’s Capsule project for his own Japan-celebrating album, 2001’s “High Collar Girl.” Kyary has long embraced sonic and visual elements from her home, but on “Japamyu” they’re much more pronounced.

Add to it Kyary’s familiar brand of pop with the kinds of nuttier detours that are typical of sequels in general, and a few new vocal deliveries — “Chami Chami Charming” in particular puts more of the focus on her voice — and you have a pretty solid release.

“I was worried about (the vocals),” Kyary says. “I wondered if I would be able to sing well. A certain amount of nervousness is good, though. I try to find the right amount.”

Critical reception to “Japamyu” has been mixed, which only underlines the strange spot that Kyary finds herself in within the musical landscape of 2018.

It’s easy to forget just how big Kyary was early in her career. She had established herself as a model and social media titan before pivoting to music. The 2011 song “Pon Pon Pon” rocketed her to fame domestically, while also turning her into a viral smash overseas. For the next three years, Kyary was the face of some exciting developments in J-pop. “It was all great, everything that happened, and how quickly it happened,” she says.

Kyary was named the ambassador of Tokyo’s trendy Harajuku neighborhood, she played nearly every major festival in Japan, she showed up in commercials for everything from oral hygiene products to Nintendo consoles, and she had her own virtual reality ride at Universal Studios Japan. There’s a whole argument to be made that Kyary’s 2012 goth-gone-kawaii clip for “Fashion Monster” even helped make Halloween more commonplace in Japan.

“Japamyu,” however, has arrived in Japan to indifference. It debuted at No. 12 on the Oricon album charts. While the Oricon rankings have become less influential in recent years, it was still a significant drop for an artist whose previous two albums landed at No. 1. It hasn’t shone on digital charts, either.

The Japanese media has even been willing to take shots at her. Kyary performed during the halftime show at a Kawasaki Brave Thunders basketball game, and reports gleefully focused on how the crowd did other things instead of watching her perform.

A lot of this domestic reaction can probably be attributed to the gap between the release of “Japamyu” and Kyary’s 2014 effort, “Pika Pika Fantajin.” Four years is a long wait for any artist, and Kyary only released a handful of singles during this time (including just one in 2016). She kept busy with tours, but the J-pop scene changed quite a bit over that stretch. Kyary is fully aware of the downside of taking a break.

“It felt like a bit of a limitation, especially when doing live shows,” she says. “I would do all the hits, and they would get a huge reaction, but there’s only so much you can do with the old songs,” she says. Still, she and her team didn’t rush. “It was ultimately about making a good album filled with good tracks.”

In that, she has succeeded. “Japamyu” is far more focused than the hit-or-miss “Pika Pika Fantajin,” it’s a shame the domestic media has checked out early.

Pretty in pink: Pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is still the face of J-pop for many fans overseas.
Pretty in pink: Pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is still the face of J-pop for many fans overseas.

Kyary’s reach overseas, meanwhile, remains pretty much as strong as it has ever been.

“Are you guys ready to Pon Pon right now?!” Those words have become a victory cry for Ninja, the most popular video game streamer on Twitch. After he scores a win, he’ll often celebrate with a dance set to Kyary’s signature hit as a way to hype up the thousands of followers watching him via livestream. He has admitted not really knowing the backstory behind the track, but that hasn’t stopped him from spreading it to a whole new set of ears.

“It seems to me that artists like Charli XCX, Sophie, Katy Perry, Poppy and Grimes in particular have most likely been influenced by Kyary’s work. I think this is because it’s so visually driven, which is something that, historically, Western pop tends to dip in and out of,” Erica Russell, managing editor of the site PopCrush, says. “Kyary’s music and visuals are so seamlessly fused as a package that you can hardly disengage them from one another.”

“I feel like my fan base abroad has gotten bigger and more diverse,” Kyary says. “I’ve done four world tours. Before, I would notice people in cosplay and all that. Now, though, I notice more regular-looking folks and older people coming to my shows. I mean, how did they get to know about my music?”

Kyary thinks about her international audience a lot. When asked what she would do differently if she went back to the start of her career, she says she would tell her younger self not to be so nervous about playing overseas.

“I think Kyary has done a good job in terms of universalizing J-pop for the Western market. Harajuku fashion and culture are undoubtedly still major points of interest in the West, and Kyary embodies that,” Russell says, adding that her darker additions help connect with Western audiences as well. “also a sense of accessibility to Kyary: she’s on Instagram, she’s on Twitter, she’s connected on internationally-reaching platforms. That’s not something you can say about every J-pop idol.”

The singer is already thinking of her next move, and it involves mixing things up. She says one way she finds inspiration is by going to concerts for major international acts when they tour Japan, which she refers to as the “let’s check out the legends series.” Past legends have included Madonna, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars and Katy Perry, a pop star who has long been Kyary’s biggest inspiration.

“I want to turn dreams into realities, like Katy Perry does,” she says.

That one eureka moment that comes from studying the greats has so far yet to materialize. However, Kyary definitely feels like she’s open to even more experimentation.

“Sometimes I feel like making music can become a routine — you make it, you put it out, there’s a tour,” she says. “I want to do something that excites me … something that makes me feel special.”

“Japamyu” is in stores now. For more information, visit kyary.asobisystem.com.