Back when I was playing in the band, occasionally friends who knew me outside of the group would ask what I got out of the experience. I was never shy to point out that I rarely listened to the sort of proggish-metal we composed and performed in my personal life, Tool/A Perfect Circle and the odd System of a Down track being the occasional outliers. The response I would always give is that the simple explanation behind my musical preferences is likely no different than anyone else’s, I just require music to make me feel something. When I was striving to be the loudest thing onstage with three of my closest friends, that made me feel transcendent; when I listened to 90’s-era Manic Street Preachers I felt invincible; when I heard Sam Cooke I felt longing but never lonely.
You could argue I experience emotion a little more acutely than others (while being simultaneously oblivious to the feelings of those around me. It’s a process), I don’t think I’m unique in what I want out of music. We all have our artists that we cherish more than others because they strum that string in our souls that can be guaranteed to instantly summon a certain feeling. But it’s important to reiterate as I investigate how I became the guy who wrote a book on J Dilla and became totally enthralled with a Japanese girl group in the same year.
It was a strange confluence of events that brought me to this point. Two weeks ago, I’d have thought I’d be writing this post on my fascination with Harajuku weirdo Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (she of “PONPONPON“ notoriety), who released her third album earlier this month. While Pika Pika Fantajin makes some regrettable decisions (“Family Party,” written as the theme for a theatrical installment of the Crayon Shin-Chan anime, has no place here, and “Ring a Bell,” is an admirable attempt to use English to reach out to her global fans, but is terrible), it’s not without its highpoints, one of which is “do do pi do.” An infectious little trifle of house-seasoned Shibuya-kei, the song was originally performed by [capsule], a duo consisting of vocalist Toshiko Koshijima and Yasutaka Nakata, who does all of Kyary’s production. I’d been impressed by enough of the music on Kyary’s projects to give a look into Nakata’s other work, which is where I learned he’d spent over a decade with a trio called Perfume, currently one of the best selling and acclaimed pop acts in Japan. So I threw them into YouTube. And this happened.
And I wasn’t overly impressed. I thought the chorus was a little screechy, it wasn’t as weird as Kyary and the way the three members were doing their slow-motion hair-flips felt like a shampoo commercial. But that quick step-dance they do (the full routine’s at the 2:46 mark), is such a surprising juxtaposition of ideas, these women done up like fashion models doing the Roger Rabbit in heels like it’s nothing, looking badass with their hands in their pockets. It intrigued me enough to keep me clicking links.
And then my weekend was over, and I never even noticed. By my commute to work on Monday morning I had four of their albums on my phone, and I’ve been listening to them damn near exclusively for the past week. This isn’t my first obsession with a Japanese artist, pop-rock quartet the pillows have been a perennial favourite of mine since discovering them on the soundtrack for the anime FLCL (and I’ll still put their 90’s run of Please Mr. Lostman, Little Busters, Runner’s High, and Happy Bivouac against any band ever. Even their b-sides were amazing). And I’m not above jamming out to the odd opening theme to a magical girl show now and then, but I haven’t responded to anything from Japan like I’ve reacted to Perfume. I’ve succumbed to the sort of unironic, intense and irrational fandom that makes me understand the Beyhive or the Little Monsters better.
So. To what do we owe this?
1. The three sides of Nakata.
While the global success of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu brought his work to a much wider audience, Yasutaka Nakata was already considered a superproducer in Japan, based on his work with Perfume and [capsule]. He’s a prolific and multifaceted composer, and writing all the music and lyrics for the three projects allows differing sides of his musical philosophy to manifest. Kyary seems to be his most collaborative project, where the music is made to fit whatever visual idea she wants to pursue, and [capsule] is where he lets his freak flag fly doing whatever he wants with little commercial concern.
Perfume seems to be a sort of amicable work-for-hire arrangement, to the mutual benefit of all involved. Nakata had no burning desire to work with them, he was just approached by their management. He clearly doesn’t mind it that much, no artist would spend ten years doing something he didn’t like, but it’s a fact that everytime gets in the studio for Perfume, he has to be aware that Song X is for a cell phone company and Song Y is going to sell fizzy drinks. What’s amazing, is that he doesn’t seem to let it play too much into his work.
The music Nakata makes for Perfume has none of the tinkly toy pianos of KPP or occasionally scattershot ideas of [capsule]. After a few years trying to blend his particular skill set within the predominant Jpop sensibilities of the time (like on the maddeningly catchy if unremarkable early single ‘Sweet Donuts‘), Perfume’s music evolved into the sort of maximalist club beats that fill European festivals but was still rare on the Japanese pop charts. While the evils of commercialism are never fully eliminated (“Mirai no Museum,” written and performed for a children’s movie, could ruin someone’s career in America, and almost derails their 2013 album Level3 just by being on it), most of the time I’m amazed Nakata convinced everyone involved to let him do what he does. One minute Perfume sounds like every song Kylie Minogue should have made during the 00’s, the next it’s a tour of the sort of stuff I used to hear on Detroit radio at two in the morning on a Saturday night , and I’m surprised and delighted he gets away with it.
2. Rihanna’s vagina.
All right, that’s not technically accurate, but it is rooted in truth. Somewhere between ‘S&M‘ and ‘Pour it Up‘ I realized I’d been watching the same story play out in Western pop music for damn near 15 years, from Britney to Christina to Ke$ha to Katy to Riri: Ass. Titties. Ass and Titties. Booze. Party. Fuck the haters. Turnt Up.
And, commemorating my full transition into early-middle age, I was god damned tired of it. If
this year’s pop starlet (say, I dunno, Ariana Grande, though she doesn’t seem the type), wants to hit VEVO with her labia spread, Nicki Minaj wants to announce her new single by spreading her ass all over Instagram, cool, that’s her right and decision and ass. As it is mine to decide that I’m out on that (as lovely an ass as it is).
The simple solution to this conundrum might be to check out of pop music altogether, just accept that I’ve long since moved out of the genre’s target demo and start listening to The National.
Unfortunately, I realized a long time ago that a white guy in a vest with a beard and an acoustic guitar was never going to do it for me. I represent hip-hop first and foremost, but I love pop music, always have. And I know that regardless of where it originates, pop music is usually trying to sell you something, whether that’s youth, or sex, or Ciroc.
But JPop, despite being a wholly commercial venture rooted in the need to provide a soundtrack to advertising, is really only trying to sell you one thing: happy.
While never marketed or promoted as idols (the members tend to bristle at the designation, especially now as grown women in their mid-20s), Perfume still exists just to the side of that system, and they tend to play by the rules established by it. With so much of their careers dependent on their profitability as commercial spokespeople, many Japanese singers maintain fairly chaste and sanitized public images, their apparent aversion to pants notwithstanding. In Japan, the money isn’t spent making sure the audience wants to fuck the artist (as it often is in the West) it’s spent making sure the audience feels actual love and affection for the artist (this is not a blanket rule, of course; I see you, AKB48, and you’re creepy).
Chalk it up to the ultimately insubstantial nature of the music (with rare exception, the lyrics are never about anything aside from vague ideas of love and keeping hope alive, another reason the language barrier never bothers me), but Perfume’s whole raison d’etre, is just to make you smile, because when you’re smiling you’ll spend money.
To some that might seem sinister, but experiencing their work on this side of the globe, far from the accompanying marketing blitzes that come with every album cycle, I’m freer to enjoy the music on its own merits, reaping the benefits of that primary purpose of inspiring happiness without having it attached to an advertising campaign for a flatscreen television. It’s such a basic notion, and one we take for granted, because it seems artless or unsophisticated, but happy is a powerful, not to mention profitable motivator. It worked for Pharrell.
And real talk, friends? Simple, uncomplicated happiness is kind of what I’m ready for this summer.
3. The three girls from Hiroshima, or, Sincerity in the Inauthentic
When something new piques my interest, I’m the sort to spend an afternoon devouring any and all information I can find on it, which is what happened with Perfume. I was curious where they came from, and how they ended up where they were.
The three members, Ayano “Nocchi” Ōmoto, Ayaka “A-Chan” Nishiwaki and Yuka “Kashiyuka” Kashino met at a performing arts school in their hometown of Hiroshima and formed Perfume in 2000. They released a couple of singles locally in 2002 and signed with an artist management service that moved them to Tokyo and put them in something called the Bee-Hive, a sort of combination dorm/studio/indie label where a number of young acts would rehearse and record. They were about 14 years old. If you dig online, you can find footage of them from this time, performing at a park festival for a dozen people, or running around the streets of Akihabara passing out flyers. You can also find footage of them recording confessionals into webcams, breaking down into sobs of frustration; three girls alone, far from their families, trying to fulfill their dreams in one of the largest cities in the world.
Single after single failed to generate any noticeable buzz, and their management was ready to drop them, but took a gamble and got them a deal with a major label in Japan. Nakata and the group’s team decided to abandon the more traditional pop lane and veer into techno, something no other group in Japan was doing. But despite turning a few more heads, sales were stagnant and they were still grinding away doing tiny gigs in Apple stores and on the street. Despite that, they got what might have been their final green light to release one more single, which was the first of the two that would change their lives.
“Chocolate Disco” is not the first song I would give to someone new to Perfume, but it’s a fun little jam pushed along by a propulsive bass synth and a sweet melody. It was enough to catch the ear of Kaela Kimura, a successful idol singer who began co-signing for Perfume and playing the group on her radio show. A commercial director heard them on Kimura’s show and selected the group to feature in a spot he was working on for a national recycling program. After eight years in the gruelling Japanese star system, they’d finally made it, and they’ve been on or near the top of the Oricon sales charts ever since.
And who cares, right? It’s the same story of hard work and adversity that accompanies every successful act. It’s a Behind the Music paint-by-numbers. What’s more, these girls aren’t even musicians.
Every successful pop act in Japan has, at minimum, a Seacrestian work ethic. You’re never just a singer: you dance, you have a radio show, host a television show, maybe some bit part acting in a soap opera, you do modelling and as much commercial work as humanly possible, and you’re never really expected to be exceptional at any of it. This is a major difference in the Eastern and Western attitudes. In Japan, “selling out” isn’t something to be avoided, it’s necessary for survival. I wouldn’t even be writing this post if Perfume hadn’t been picked for that recycling commercial. You could make the argument that these women are nothing more than props, mascots for the machine running behind them, and I don’t know that I could say you were wrong. So why do I love them so much?
Eliminating the purely subjective reasons that I think all of them are beautiful and very charismatic and so much more sophisticated in how they’re styled: Nocchi always in shorts, Kashiyuka in a mini skirt and A-Chan in a pleated one, using variations on a theme or pattern instead of the identical or colour-coded, “Sailor Scouts on their off-time,” motifs used by so many of their contemporaries.
No, I love them because watching those documentaries, I grew invested in their struggle. Sue me. These are grown women now, if they were traditional idols they’d have been “graduated” long ago and moved on to make room for the next batch of 14-year-olds, but they’re still around, on their grown women shit and reminding these children who the bosses are, always with smiles on their faces. Not only are they a miracle success story that defied a ruthless celebrity machine, they understand, and what’s more, they appreciate their good fortune, and that gratitude is obvious to anyone who sees them perform. They don’t write their own music or lyrics. They rarely sing live, their concerts are more of a dance recital-slash-hosted nightclub experience than what we think of as live performance. Yet I feel more of a human connection to these women than I ever have from a pop star who speaks my own language. And I can point to the exact moment that happened.
After ten years in the game, Perfume celebrated their anniversary by playing a series of shows at the TokyoDome, a 50,000+ seat baseball stadium, which they sold out. They closed each show with the song from that recycling commercial, the one that changed the course of their careers, the one that landed them in a Pixar movie, 2008’s sublime “Polyrhythm.”
There’s a moment, after the titular polyrhythmic breakdown in the song’s bridge, where the pyro’s exploding and the crowd’s coming unglued, and you can see A-Chan has her hand over her mouth, because she’s crying. And even as she sobs, she never misses a step of the choreography (because she’s a PROFESSIONAL, DAMMIT). Shortly thereafter, just before the beat comes back in, she releases a scream that is one of the purest expressions of joy I’ve ever heard. That scream had nothing to do with amping up the crowd, it was just a primal release of everything she was feeling in that moment. Their entire careers may be built on a sort of artifice, but you cannot fake that, and it almost moves me to tears every time, as the confetti explodes and the crowd lets out another roar of appreciation for the three girls from Hiroshima. It’s such a triumphant moment, and whenever I watch it I feel such pride and happiness for them, total empathy. If you can look at their faces as they thank the crowd at the end of that clip, stunned and bewildered that not only did they succeed in achieving their dreams, they actually surpassed them and you’re not moved? Keep it moving, homie, because I just don’t have it for you.
Despite the unwavering allegiance they’ve inspired in me, I may have discovered them at a critical moment. They announced a second world tour earlier this year, including their first ever North American dates. But the three members have also started asserting their individuality a little more, if translated magazine articles are to be believed: A-Chan (the closest thing to a leader among the three) is hosting a solo radio show, a cause of some concern for fans who’ve been assured for years that the group was most important. And all three of them recently admitted to thinking about what life looks like after Perfume. It saddens me to think I discovered something that’s had such a sudden and significant effect on me during the last half of its career. But you best believe your man will be finding a way to New York this November because it might be the only time they come to this continent and I am going to watch those women lip sync and dance their asses off and talk to me in broken English they don’t fully understand, in a ballroom full of people who feel the same way I do, getting what I believe is referred to as, “every bit of my life.”
Because sometimes you just need to stop giving a shit and choose happiness, and damn if it makes sense to anyone else. Even if the happiness you choose is something as trifling as a silly little pop group.
See you in November, ladies.