J-Pop and the Non-Existent Content Barrier

As a student of Japanese Pop Culture, I often hear questions like “Dude, I love X about Japan, but why is Y so freakin’ weird?”

I think this music video can, at least partially, answer that question. Have a look then we can talk about it.

kyary-pamyu-pamyuThis is きゃりーぱみゅぱみゅ, or Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. She’s a sort of technopop singer, model, and blogger (yay!) and has been dubbed the “Queen of J-Pop” by people who don’t know much about J-pop. The song is PonPonPon and, as you can see and hear, it’s about as happy a song as you can sing. Now, judging from some of the YouTube comments attached to the video, a lot of Westerners, probably Americans, are basically asking “What the hell?”

But is this really so strange? I mean, okay, she’s got a weird stage name. She’s singing a rather weird, but happy tune. The music video features her dancing with toys, wearing strange makeup, while even stranger people dance in the background. So on YouTube and in other places here’s that question:

“Dude, I love music videos, but why are Japanese music videos so freakin’ weird?”

Simple, because she’s singing in Japanese.

No seriously, that’s it. That’s the only thing that’s absolutely foreign about this video. It’s the only thing about this video that Westerners don’t get. Why? Because we fixate upon language, even if we don’t speak it, and we tie that language to what’s going on around it. Since language is such a huge part of our understanding of the world, if we don’t get the language, we similarly do not get what’s going on around it. Incidentally, that’s not a Western trait, but a human trait.

She’s speaking Japanese. That is the only difference between this video and American music videos. Nothing in the content of the video itself, visually, is different from anything you’ve ever seen in an American music video.

Don’t believe me? Good. A little scepticism will take you far. Here’s some proof.

Let’s start with her name. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Sounds weird right? I mean, Pamyu Pamyu? What’s up with that? My answer is I don’t know, what’s up with Lady Gaga? Lady Gaga is precisely the same kind of name as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. It’s a stage name, as Pamyu Pamyu’s real name is Takemura Kiriko. That’s actually a pretty common name. It’s not quite the same as Jane Smith, but it’s right up there. It’s a common name, so she chose a stage name. One that’s designed to set her apart from other people in her field doing the same kind of business. Would you buy music from Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta? I mean, who? Who the hell is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta?

Poker Face
Poker Face

Lady Gaga.

She chose a stage name because her name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Like Pamyu Pamyu, her name is also a portrayal of a character. When Stefani (that’s Gaga Stefani not Gwen Stefani) is in Lady Gaga mode, you expect something from her. You expect her to act like Lady Gaga. However, when Stefani is off-stage, maybe cruising around town and taking a day off, she’s not Lady Gaga. If she’s speeding and the police pull her over, the speeding ticket will not be made out to Lady Gaga.

In case you haven’t figured this out by now, popular music is a lot like professional wrestling. These singers, these performers… they’re performers. They are, in many ways, just like pro wrestlers. They portray a character in the media, on-stage, and in interviews. For many of them, indeed for most of them, that is not who they are in real life. Ke$ha? You know, the party hound who sings about brushing her teeth with Jack Daniels and getting laid on the dance floor?

Probably knows more about the Cold War than you do.
Probably knows more about the Cold War than you do.

She’s a massive fan of Cold War history. She’s snuck into college lectures to listen to professors talk about the history of the Cold War.

That’s part of Kesha Sebert. It’s not part of the persona that is Ke$ha.

Okay, moving on. The makeup? The really weird makeup she wears in pat of the video? Back to Lady Gaga, indeed back to Cyndi Lauper, back to Boy George, hell, let’s go all the way back to Josephine Baker. She’s a performer. That’s what she’s wearing because she is there to get your attention and perform for you. The concept of striking makeup isn’t at all weird in American or Japanese cultures and its manifestations in pop music isn’t new either.

Maybe it’s weird to some people that she’s literally frolicking with toys. If that’s the case, then I’m not sure why. Owl City does the same thing in the video for Fireflies. The White Stripes have a classic video done with nothing but stop-motion Lego. I think really good music videos invoke a sense of fantasy. That kind of thing seems appropriate when you’re trying to bring music into a more physical, and visual, medium. Toys are child-like and they convey a sense of child-like wonder, or perhaps the innocence and fun of being a kid.

Perhaps it’s the little dance she’s doing. I can see how that might throw people. She’s doing this bouncy-cutesy dance. Surely that’s weird. Except it’s not. In 1994 another bouncy-cutesy dance called the Macarena took over the world for about a month. More recently LMFAO proudly proclaimed that they’re shufflin’ not every-so-often, but every day. 2002 saw an international pop phenomenon from a girl group called Las Ketchup with a song titled Aserejé. What’s a big part of the video? A bouncy-cutesy dance.

Let’s keep digging, we’re not quite there yet. What about the title? I’ve been asked about the titles of Japanese pop songs and why they’re so different. Are they? I didn’t really notice, actually. PonPonPon? So? What’s so weird about that when the Black Eyed Peas had a big hit with Boom Boom Pow? Though people regret it now, a song by Crash Test Dummies burned up the airwaves in 1993. It’s title: Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm actually makes it hard to write about because I had to verify the number of Ms in each section of Ms. In 1980, the Police hit the top ten with De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da. Oh and that reminds me, remember Da Da Da by Trio? It’s been used on several commercials and just won’t seem to go away.

As you can see, Miley is going for a minimalism in fashion and attire.
As you can see, Miley is going for minimalism in fashion and attire.

Finally, let’s look at Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s attire, skipping over the fact that attire is just as much a part of a pop singer’s act as is their music. Even in the realm of American pop, each star has their own look. Lady Gaga dresses nothing like Katy Perry who is distinct from Britney Spears who is now tame in comparison to Miley Cyrus who seems to be taking fashion cues from Rihanna. So we have little to talk about here after all. She’s wearing an almost fairy schoolgirl outfit here, which is different from Britney Spear’s sexy schoolgirl ensemble.

What I’m trying to say with all these examples is that 95% of the content here isn’t different at all. It’s presented in a novel way, certainly, but when you look at what’s really going on, there’s nothing in this video that hasn’t been done in an American music video. Odd visuals and strange faces with juxtaposed non-sequitur while the singer performs the song? Peter Gabriel did it before her.

So the performer’s name isn’t all that different. Neither is the title of her song. Her makeup isn’t anything new or unseen in Western music videos, nor is her video’s content. Even the fashion statement is almost subdued compared to a Rihanna or Madonna type of act. That leads us back to the only thing that’s actually different about this video.

The language.

Every culture takes something and runs a different way with it. That’s diversity. That’s humanity. When it comes down to it, you could understand this video far better by learning Japanese. I’m not saying you need to, nor am I saying you should. I’m merely pointing out the thing separating American and Westerners from this video is a language barrier, not a content barrier.

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  1. Pingback: Music Monday — Kyary Pamyu Pamyu | Daniel Messer

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