Issue #36: PON PON PON
Exploring the new Daichi Yamamoto album, a '70s Song of the Summer, and a decade in Kyary Pamyu Pamyu
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Kyary Pamyu Pamyu introduced herself to the world in 2011 by the same methods later employed by countless pop artists throughout the next decade: by going viral on the internet from the music video of her debut single, “PONPONPON,” boggling onlookers’ minds in Japan and overseas. “Going viral” was still a foreign concept then. Labels could barely grasp how to capitalize on the phenomenon or figure out how to develop acts riding on the notoriety gained via the internet. Kyary also succeeded on another front by capturing international eyes via YouTube, delivering a singular impression of Japanese pop to places the scene hasn’t traveled before.
“PONPONPON” provided a window, even an entry point to Japanese pop music for many. This is also why I initially felt a very, very intense resistance to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Everything about “PONPONPON” gave me secondhand embarrassment, especially the music video, but not necessarily because it was abysmal on a creative level. For a young Japanese immigrant, the overall image of Kyary only confirmed the worst stereotypes of Weird Japan to a foreign audience who spoke about my home country like a place of fantasy; a stereotype I tried to escape from all my life. I recoiled at the idea of it being someone’s first look into Japanese culture, and I wanted nothing to do with it at first.
That said, Kyary was looked at as a curio and a weirdo even in Japan. “PONPONPON” referenced niche aesthetics from the subcultures that raised her. She was a teen street fashion model associated with Harajuku, already dressing colorfully in some fashion as she later did in her videos, until a chance meeting with Yasutaka Nakata guided her into a music career. Her well-defined creative identity gained her attention though it also made for easy parody, and Nakata’s nonsensical lyrics of later songs only further invited the jokes. The people in her home country made her out sometimes into a caricature, albeit in a slightly different context than those who looked on from overseas.
Considering how Japan looked at Kyary as an outsider, it’s amazing that the lasting impact of “PONPONPON” remains how it helped define the image of Japan as it appears in media abroad. The primary colors, the restless electronic beats, the assortment of cuddly mascots: the same aesthetic touchstones the Japanese public didn’t understand as their own somehow makes up the common visual language of Japan in the international imagination. Though other cultural waves before Kyary built the foundations, “PONPONPON” compiled a lot of disparate ideas into a single site in which people can easily access, consume and share.
It’s hard to complain about fixations on what appears on the surface when Nakata produced a project just asking others to obsess over it. Many Kyary Pamyu Pamyu songs were knowingly shallow with Nakata often reaching for more base pleasures. He often based his indelible hooks around the phonetics of a word—“pon pon, way way way”—with much disregard for deep meaning. Many of her early hits didn’t aspire to be much more than, say, a song about Kyary being an alien overlord plotting to take over planet Earth.
That world-domination anthem, “Invader Invader,” was what convinced me to give Kyary a chance—and I quickly fell in love with it. Nakata’s simple, onomatopoeic hooks not only sucked me in but got me to love the Japanese language in a pop music context: how could you not as he builds a playground for syllables? And my, how fun did the music of that playground sound. My favorite part is that obnoxious bass drop that interrupts a production that’s already full of blaring sirens, horn blurts and other cartoon-like sounds. “OK, let’s, world domination,” the song’s star declares in the chorus. A pop song has not sounded as fun and imaginative as “Invader Invader” in a while, and it’s definitely an essential track for me getting into J-pop.
But Kyary’s music is about building a unique identity as much as they were about complicating and breaking through that identity. While “Tsukematsukeru” pondered about the flexibility of identity, “Fashion Monster” lamented how her own world-building can let identity become a prison. Her screams to exist as more than her public perception resonates precisely because it arises from a medium where its surface aesthetics are so carefully constructed yet easily misunderstood in its depth. It’s also responsible for inspiring her best single during a later period in her career: “I’m just trying to be in love / I’m not a living machine,” she calls out in “Mondai Girl” as she gets ambushed by paparazzi in its music video. For how proudly shallow it can be, Kyary’s music also serves as a powerful platform for her to vent about feelings and thoughts she often keeps separated from her public persona.
Her debut single already aspired to break her and everyone who listened out of their shell. “Wouldn’t be boring if we didn’t try at all,” she asks in “PONPONPON” as she giddily leads into the nonsensical titular chorus. The vibrant production practically wears a clown nose, further reinforcing that it’s a waste of an opportunity standing idle with arms crossed. The urge to convince listeners to throw away their inhibitions was there before Kyary fully established her world-conquering persona. And in return, she introduced new scenes, sensations and a language now inseparable from Japanese pop culture.
Welcome back to This Side of Japan! After a couple weeks off, the newsletter is back in production. For those who checked it out, I hope you found the Anime Issue a worthy feature to hold you over for last Wednesday. We return to our same three sections with a rap album for our Album of the Week, a summer song from the ‘70s for our look back into the Oricon and a diverse range of new singles in Singles Club.
Album of the Week
WHITECUBE by Daichi Yamamoto [Jazzy Sport]
Daichi Yamamoto approached music-making in last year’s Elephant in My Room EP as a means to tough out the days, especially during quarantine. He channeled isolation into raps that sounded like shadowbox sessions while holed up in his home studio, pictured on the cover art of the EP. Bleak as his self-reflections could be, though, his songs also glowed with a renewed inspiration from the very process. Yamamoto let you feel both the stress building inside and the relief from letting it all go.
WHITECUBE gets more complicated. Yamamoto’s latest full-length resists offering easy emotional release as before. The rapper zooms out to observe a bigger picture, confronting a seemingly endless run through the same steep hills. The triumphant intro track “Greeting” impresses a record with a promise to eventually cross some kind of finish line, but the album hits upon more circling introspection than clean victories. If his previous EP riled up confidence to get through a tough year, WHITECUBE puts on wax the sobering realization that the work is never over.
The smooth production plays crucial to lighten the heady topics. The collection of beats indebted to jazz, funk and R&B call to mind the hip-hop jam sessions from Los Angeles crews like the associates of Top Dawg Entertainment or the studio rats who hung out with the late Mac Miller. The lush keyboards cool down the tracks into plaintive pieces while the rhythm section lays down patient, nimble grooves. A few songs invite styles outside the album’s own hard-drawn lines, like a faint hint of drill in “Ego” or the modest UK garage shuffle in “Kill Me.” Though, WHITECUBE mostly stick to this “3 a.m. in the West Coast” vibe: hermetic and slightly downcast but doesn’t forget to keep it funky.
Yamamoto answers to the contemplative mood with private ruminations of his own. The deceptively warm breeze of “Pray” triggers a childhood memory of living in Kingston, Jamaica and a friendly storekeeper who was slain by gunshots. The ghostly garage-house of “Kill Me” flashes back regretful actions made to a former significant other. As sorrowful and troubled the contents may be, Yamamoto recollects with a solemn cool. His chill cadence eases the tension in scenarios that could be dramatized into a far more tragic stories, though it also hints at resignation from obsessing over matters now beyond his control. “Just kill me, baby / just kill me,” the sighed titular refrain goes as if Yamamoto has reached this conclusion many times before.
While Yamamoto takes listeners deep into his psyche in WHITECUBE, the album’s best songs find him shaping his navel-gazing stream of consciousness into striking pop flows. The vacant boom-bap of “Simple” provides an abundance of space for the rapper to experiment with flow, and he takes much advantage choreographing his earnest, humble lyrics about self-love into many playful arrangements. After he punctuates the lyrics “I just wanna be myself / that’s really it” with a hypnotic staccato, the addendum bit of “do it for you and nobody else” gets delivered in one suave melody. The hooks roll out effortlessly, like a casual refrain to hum under your breath precisely when obstacles arise.
As stressed out as Yamamoto can sound, WHITECUBE remains down to earth. The rapper’s freewheeling verses apply the same amount of gravity to his stark thoughts as his mundane asides, balancing his meditations with a sense of reality. Because the dark moments will keep materializing over the long haul with no complete reprieve, just temporary peace, and the album’s matter-of-fact demeanor suggests it’s just a fact of life. That said, WHITECUBE offers a rewarding big-picture look at the value in perseverance, that the simple act of sticking through despite the odds is inspiring enough.
“The Night of Neon Light” by DE DE MOUSE & TANUKI ft. HITOMITOI [not]
A producer like TANUKI would’ve eventually flipped the nu-city pop of HITOMITOI into a glossy future funk track, but he went over and beyond and cut a brand new song with the singer herself. The collaboration also invites DE DE MOUSE, a producer who knows plenty about chopping up samples and re-arranging the pieces into vibrant, energetic electro-house. While the sleek shininess and nostalgic air of “The Night of Neon Light” places the single alongside TANUKI’s other Bubble-romanticizing creations, the meticulous skips and glitches feel one with DE DE MOUSE. The two together serve a louder, more muscular funk than ones found in the HITOMITOI discography, though the singer sits unfazed as she graces it with her signature nonchalant cool.
Listen to it on Bandcamp.
“Never Again” by Dizzy Sunfist [Caffeine Bomb]
Dizzy Sunfist have been supplying potent shots of pop punk since their 2013 mini album, FIST BUMP, and they got plenty of fuel in the tank in “Never Again.” For the follow-up single to this year’s solid Andy EP, the three piece hone in on an earnest feeling made for a subgenre that thrives from a youthful spirit: “tonight will never be the same night / listen to me / and just live in the moment,” the band advise in the titular chorus to the tune of an irresistibly hearty riff. Amid a time full of flaming and fake news, Dizzy Sunfist presents the best case to put the phone down and just live.
Listen to the single on Spotify.
“Ruirui” by samayuzame [self-released]
The gossamer arrangement of “Ruirui” entices with its haunting synth pads, the smokiness of it heightening the tactile feel of the prickly drums. Alluring as it all seems, samayuzame’s single from her upcoming sophomore album, Plantoid, also suggests something more treacherous existing underneath the prettiness. Some hints lie in her surrealist lyrics that remains elusive as the emotions it’s trying to convey: “a toxic flower bloomed in me, so hopeless,” sighs the singer-songwriter, her vocals as spectral and vaporous as the ghastly music. Samayuzame brilliantly captures the thorniness of desire in “Ruirui,” fully aware of its poisonous nature yet powerless from its seduction.
Plantoid is out July 28. Listen to “Ruirui” on Spotify.
This Week in 1973…
“Koi Suru Natsu No Hi” by Mari Amachi [Sony, 1973]
No. 1 during the weeks of July 16 - Aug. 20, 1973 | Listen to it on YouTube
I couldn’t resist choosing a summer song for an entry in July, and so here’s an idol song from nearly 50 years ago capitalizing on the season. The warm ‘60s R&B of “Koi Suru Natsu No Hi”suggests a jolly romantic dalliance while Mari Amachi sings with a carefree bounce as though she’s about to skip across a field. As expected, the music plays modest compared to today’s idea of the Song of the Summer, but it evokes a familiar sunny innocence carried by the artists of the present day in the records they put out around this time of year.
The titular summer day in love finds Amachi at a tennis court, waiting for the arrival of her love at first sight. He strolls through with his bicycle, as always, and his white shirt shines especially bright under the sun. For how vivid the details are, it remains uncertain if the idol has ever talked to the guy she pines for, as she tells what happens from a distance, but it doesn’t make her feelings any less precious. “I won’t ever forget this summer,” she joyously sings in the chorus, the melody rising as if to confirm her excitement. “I learned about love for the first time.” Is it really worth questioning the details with her so high in the clouds?
“Koi Suru Natsu No Hi” may document her first memorable summer encounter, but Amachi is not all new to the business of singing about love. While her first number-one, 1971’s “Chiisana Koi,” had her second-guessing, she sits in the comfort knowing genuine love in “Hitorijanaino.” She knew about the absence of it, too, as she lamented in “Wakaba No Sasayaki,” another number-one, before following up with her much more radiating Song of the Summer as though her life has come full circle.
Amachi recorded more love songs as singles throughout the ‘70s, though “Koi Suru Natsu No Hi” would be her last number one. She was enjoying her peak around 1973, selling out shows as well as merch as idols do, but she had moved away from music by the end of the decade. Amachi’s tennis-court romance remains one of the best remembered when it comes to her output in retrospect. Her summer reminiscence, then, feel slightly bittersweet as it literally fades into a memory.
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