This past August, J-pop performer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu released a video for her new single “Gentenkaihi.” The song ostensibly marked a decade since she debuted as a musical act, arriving online a few days before the 10-year anniversary of her first EP, “Moshi Moshi Harajuku.”
In true Kyary fashion, however, she subverted the idea of looking back. The song title is a play on the Japanese term “genten kaiki,” which roughly translates to “returning to your roots.” By changing the last kanji character of the term, Kyary instead celebrates running away from where she started. The accompanying clip drives this message home by showing the 28-year-old flee from a big crimson bow resembling the sort of kawaii hair accessories that have been a part of her look since 2011.
Kyary’s newest album, “Candy Racer,” marks a fresh start for the performer. It’s her first album released by her own imprint under Nippon Colombia, KRK LAB, after leaving longtime label unborde (a sub-label of Warner Music Japan) a couple years back. She’s still working with prolific producer Yasutaka Nakata, but this fifth full-length offers some sonic experimentation alongside the rainbow-bright synth-pop that made Ms. Pamyu Pamyu the official ambassador of Harajuku in the 2010s.
“I really wanted to make this album a varied one, musically,” she tells The Japan Times via email. “I want listeners to hear a new kind of Japanese music.” At the very least, “Candy Racer” is new territory for her — she dips into 1990s Europop pleasure on “Jumping Up” and neon-tinged balladry on “Natsuiro Flower.”
The most attention-grabbing moments, however, come at the start of the album. The title track drops her high-pitched vocals into a techno chug, while highlight track “Dodonpa” is pure club bliss, Kyary’s vocals becoming just another sonic tool for a DJ to work with. “That’s the song that shocked me the most, too,” she says about hearing the completed track for the first time.
On its own, “Candy Racer” is one of the strongest J-pop albums of the year. This is Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, though, and no matter how much she wants to run from her origin story you can’t help but listen to the album with the knowledge that this is the woman who represented the Japanese pop culture aesthetic for the better part of a decade. In that light, “Candy Racer” isn’t just a new start for the artist. It’s also a chance to take stock of where she’s at, both musically and as a symbol for Japan globally.
From Harajuku to the world
Kyary’s look played a key role in introducing her to the world. Art director and designer Steve Nakamura could tell she offered something special early on in their working relationship.
“I was commissioned by Warner Music Japan to art direct her debut mini-album,” he says via email. “But before we got into that, I asked if we could conduct a test shoot so we could get more comfortable, to see how she would react in front of the camera.”
The pair wandered through the backstreets of Harajuku, and Nakamura recalls how Kyary, then an 18-year-old fashion blogger and model, suddenly twirled around a lamp post.
“Kyary and I come from completely different backgrounds,” he says. “She’s from Tokyo, I was raised in California. She likes pink things, I like other things. But I think that strange mixture (provided the) inspiration to create something different.”
That visual combination was on full display upon the release of Kyary’s debut single, “PonPonPon,” in July 2011. It quickly became a hit in Japan, thanks to Nakata’s delirious production and a video that flirted with Harajuku’s gurokawaii (grotesquely cute) aesthetic: Bright colors and cute fashion highlighted with unsettling touches such as pastel skulls, gummy tanks and rainbow flatulence.
For the single art, Nakamura captured Kyary’s face surrounded by teddy bears. “It was right after I graduated high school,” Kyary recalls. “(That’s when) I suddenly started my career as an artist.”
Timing also proved essential in creating Kyary’s legend. Coming out just months after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, “PonPonPon” provided a much-needed dollop of escapism.
“The mood was very low everywhere,” Nakamura recalls. “I almost feel like Japan needed a new energy like Kyary. Every female pop artist at the time had to either be a cool beauty or a stereotypical idol. But she showed that young girls can also be weird and creative, and still popular with the mainstream.”
That’s an understatement. Kyary’s subsequent singles such as “Candy Candy,” “Fashion Monster” and “Furisodation” were all hits, and her first three albums all performed well on the charts. She sold out concert halls, appeared in nationwide TV commercials and got her own disorienting virtual roller coaster at Universal Studios Japan. The “PonPonPon” video went viral, and soon Western performers like Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, Grimes and more were singing Kyary’s praises. She ended up meeting many of them when they visited Japan, or when she played shows around the world. Bright, colorful and zany soon became the go-to palette for what the rest of the world saw as “cool Japan.”
“I think that she’s one of the main symbols that has defined what Japanese pop culture is about in terms of attitude and style,” Nakamura says. “Over the years I’ve seen a lot of foreign artists and brands influenced by her.”
A colorful legacy
Kyary seems to have a complex relationship with nostalgia. She’s always trying to shed her past — well before “Gentenkaihi,” she was saying goodbye to her previous selves in the video for the 2014 single “Yumeno Hajime Ring Ring.” She’s still aware of its allure, though, as in recent years she has launched her own perfume line, Nostalgia Syndrome, with the “brand story” focusing on how smells can transport people back to calming times.
For most of the world, Kyary remains the embodiment of J-pop and kawaii culture, with representations and references popping up in cartoons, gamer livestreams and the third “John Wick” film. She was scheduled to perform at the 2020 edition of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which would have been her biggest international date yet if the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t messed up the schedule.
At home, though, she’s no longer at the forefront of music trends. She has slowed down her release schedule in recent years, while mainstream tastes have shifted toward a different kind of weird and creative female artist, represented by the more contemplative singer-songwriter Aimyon. Kyary’s 2018 return album “Japamyu” saw her playing around with rap, enka and other musical modes, and it was also the first time she and Nakamura didn’t work together on an album. (“I think we had worked for so long together, that it was time to try something different,” Nakamura says.)
“Japamyu” was pure Pamyu, but sold far less than her previous efforts, making its debut at 12th place on the Oricon chart. Still, in a much-changed music market that values digital and streaming over CDs, Kyary’s initial skills have served her well. Back in 2011, fans also knew her as a Twitter personality who used social media to introduce her own quirky style of speaking. She’s now better known as an online influencer than a pop star to most of Japan’s youth, so much so that she was recruited to help former vaccination czar Taro Kono sell the country’s youth on getting their COVID shots.
This puts “Candy Racer” in an interesting spot, smack dab between looking back and moving forward.
“For the release of this album, I’ve been interviewed many times now and been reminded that this year is my 10th anniversary,” she writes, her exhaustion coming across in the email. For all the desire to run from the past, she’s returning to what’s familiar, most noticeably with Nakamura coming back for the album’s artwork.
“Kyary wanted to reunite, to create that similar energy we had in the past,” he says. “The music is electro, fast, repetitive, so I felt like the visuals should also be in motion. Kyary has always been about being unpredictable, on the move.”
In terms of physical sales, “Candy Racer” has had a less-than-impressive debut, moving just over 4,000 copies in its first week. In the new digital-first landscape, though, the album has gained respectable numbers on streaming and YouTube, specifically via overseas listeners. Additionally, time isn’t as important a factor in determining the success of a new release anymore. Earlier this year, Kyary’s song “Cherry Bon Bon” became the soundtrack to multiple memes on TikTok, even though it came out a decade ago and was never one of her biggest hits. To a new set of ears, however, it’s what they know her for.
“Candy Racer” marks a fresh start for Kyary — new label, new ecosystem, new status — but, even if she wants to, she will never outrun her past successes. What she’ll do after “Candy Racer” isn’t clear, but it’s sure to make for a heck of a retrospective in another decade.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s latest album, “Candy Racer,” is available now. For more information, visit http://kyary.asobisystem.com/english.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.