Last year I was blessed to see two J-pop acts that have been at the core of my heart and my ears for years: Perfume and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Outside of both being wonderful experiences, what I took away was the important and ever-changing impact both have on my life.
I remember first watching Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s video for PonPonPon on my birthday in 2011, two days after it hit. It was the summer before my first year at college, a time I feel can be pivotal in building a new you. And indeed that video was one of the first times that Japanese pop culture really struck me as, well, me.
This isn’t to say I hadn’t been exposed to it prior. My friend group in high school increasingly got into anime and through that I had seen a fair few anime series. But I was never swept into the culture of it like they were (though I definitely played more Japanese games in retrospect). The social stigma in my school of the hardcore anime kids also held me back, a group I quickly realized I wish I got to know better after graduating.
This is all to say that the discovery of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu was a revelation for me. It was the moment I started down my path towards otakudom. The bubblegum colors, non-sequitur imagery, and overall cheery fun-ness swept over me like a wave of dislodged eyeballs and faceless nannies dancing in pink outfits… you know, in another context this stuff would be horrifying but Japan has the distinct ability to make anything cute.
Finally seeing her perform live last year was a big moment for me but it came after some slight consternation. Not all of her latest singles were landing with me like her previous albums had. There was a growing dissonance between her music persona and actual self; it felt like she was distancing herself from her audience. As immediate as her Harajuku style is its overtness gives way to its manufactured nature with time.
I don’t mean this as a put-down! It just felt like the Kyary being sold to us wasn’t the real Kyary, that she wore a professional mask to play her role. Her audience has to be able to buy into the act for it to work, to go the distance with the make-believe. And that’s a distance I’m willing to go but it means my connection with the artist behind the smokescreen will never feel wholly genuine again.
This is a realization that was cemented at her live show. She and her backing dancers shuffled out onto a stage overrun with plastic cartoon fauna. They barreled through the hits and in between she would occasionally briefly address the audience with the super-polite Japanese phrases common to idol culture. Kyary herself isn’t an idol but from my perspective as an outsider to Japanese culture it struck that same chord.
That’s not to say it wasn’t a blast dancing and chanting at the appropriate moments. The key word is appropriate, though. It felt independent from what Kyary was doing even though she led the audience in these rituals. The smoke-and-mirrors break down when you realize this is the exact performance she gives every night. This is routine.
But I still enjoyed the concert. Hearing the hits live after five years of fandom felt like a culmination of an era. I put a lot of emphasis on seeing my favorite artists live and I’d lamented having to miss her prior New York show so it was a special night.
There’s another side of this coin: Perfume. They’re perhaps a bit less known in the West since they haven’t had as many splashy viral videos. They opt for impressive choreographed dancing rather than flooding the screen with imagery that strikes the Western eye as funny (you’ll notice this trend with Asian pop music videos that have gone viral outside of their home countries). Thus it took me until 2013 to discover them and another year after that to dig into their discography as the few songs I heard crept up in my mind.
Both Perfume and Kyary are produced by Yasutaka Nakata, a producer extraordinaire who helped bring these artists to massive prominence in Japan. The goal of his production with both acts is very different though: with Kyary it’s about emphasizing the kawaii element whereas with Perfume it’s straight-up city pop dance electronica where the synths overwhelm you and the percussive rhythms get you on your feet. That might lead you to believe Perfume’s style to be manufactured but the way they carry themselves make them perhaps the most personable pop group I’ve ever encountered.
Perfume’s personal angle comes through in the structure of their concert. The first twenty minutes were an unrelenting dance party on a pop set with massive theatrics. Even though the show took place in a theater-style venue with a general admission floor I felt like I was watching an arena-quality performance. It was pulse-pounding, exhilarating. There they were! Singing! Dancing! Gah!
And then, a sudden change.
The house lights came up and the girls walked out. No pretense of performance. No masks. They began to speak to the audience in what English they could, discussing the meal they had that night and some personal anecdotes. Then they pointed out and commented on fans in the audience who came to the show cosplaying in their various costumes (people put some crazy effort into this stuff!). And the girls were super funny!
They co-opted a member of the audience who spoke Japanese to translate for them when they couldn’t find the words in English. He was initially flustered and nervous but they gently encouraged him, giving him the confidence to successfully translate. I’ve been to hundreds of concerts but I’ve never seen anything quite like that. It brought the fans together with one another as well as the performers on stage. It was pure magic.
This went on for nearly a half-hour. And then it was back to the show with smaller moments of these interactions interspersed throughout. Everything had changed. It had become a family experience, an interpersonal conversation through dancing, pounding beats and shared laughs.
Dancing at a Perfume concert isn’t like dancing at a Kyary concert. It’s free-form and personalized, more what you’d expect from a concert. It might sound like I’m putting Western values on this but if you look at Perfume videos from Japan you’ll find this description is at least somewhat more true than it is with, say, an idol performance. There’s still well-timed chanting but the crowd is more rambunctious.
So what makes Perfume stand out as a group is how genuine they come across. Go to their YouTube channel and you’ll see videos of them cheerfully discussing their upcoming events and plans with friendly banter. Go to their show and they’ll spend time interacting as themselves with the audience. And then listen to their music and you’ll feel like you’re spending time with friends.
The Perfume approach has ultimately grown me closer and closer to them over the years, landing them easily as my favorite pop group of all time. On the other side I’ve felt a gap between me and Kyary over the years as I’ve felt my perception of the facade crumble. I still have a lot of love for Kyary but it takes that extra step of suspension of disbelief whereas with Perfume I slip right in as myself, no put-up.
I also have to acknowledge that Perfume’s music has integrated better with my changing taste in music over the years. Their music hits that calculated-yet-personal sweet spot of many of my other favorites, such as LCD Soundsystem and Hot Chip. But honestly my love for the girls shines above it all, an affection they have manifested.
There is actually another J-pop concert I attended last year, that being Hatsune Miku. It was my second Miku show but easily the better of the two. There’s an inherent distance built into Miku as she’s, well, a hologram. Her live band brings a lot to the table to sell the show as a live experience but at the end of the day you’re watching projections of cute anime girls and boys dancing across a screen.
What makes the suspension of disbelief work with Miku where it’s more jarring with Kyary is that it’s expected with the former. It’s obvious you’re not watching real people (but they’re real to me…). It frees you to feel comfortable in participating in the lock-step glowsticking and call-outs when the person you’re directing it to isn’t actually there.
Part of this was also it being my second Miku experience so I knew what to expect, although they’ve notably perfected the show in the few years between her New York appearances. It’s a real spectacle that if you asked me five years ago I would have never believed could work… hologram concerts? But hey, it’s a great time! Watching videos online doesn’t quite sell it.
J-pop is an intersection of two things I love: Japanese pop culture and music, especially live music. It’s a cornerstone of who I am and how my interests have developed over the years. I’ve learned a lot about myself through it. I might not be here writing to you right now if I hadn’t seen Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s PonPonPon at that pivotal moment in my life.