What’s the difference between pop and J-pop? What makes Japanese pop music distinct enough to earn that mysterious prefix that so many insist on giving it? Do those distinctions still matter in an increasingly globalized music industry? Can anyone actually answer these rhetorical questions? Well, yes actually; J-pop superstar Kyary Pamyu Pamyu can, and on her third album, Pikapika Fantajin, she appears to be doing just that.
Following close on the heels of last years NandaCollection, Pikapika Fantajin is noteworthy in just about every way an album can be these days. With less than a year between it and the last record, there are some understandable similarities to what came before, and even though NandaCollection did a lot to raise her profile in the western world, Kyary (and long term collaborator Yasutaka Nakata) has decided that now is the right time to capitalize on that by messing with the formula. As a result Pikapika Fantajin is simultaneously the most experimental and coherent thing she’s probably ever done.
Firstly, let me alleviate any concerns; this record is indeed home to the type of 4-on-the-floor pop tunes that Kyary is known for, there’s just slightly less of them than usual. Do do pi do and current mega-single Kira Kira Killer would get any dancefloor buzzing in seconds. The changes to the Kyary cocktail aren’t quite as obvious and cosmetic as you might expect and its only when you listen to the album from beginning to end that you get a sense of the change that’s gradually taking place.
Kira Kira Killer is immediately followed by, the equally huge, Yumeno Hajime Ring Ring, a track which stands completely alone in Kyary’s body of work in both style and sentiment. Mottai Nightland comes next, bringing us back into familiar territory, until Serious Hitomi delivers a serious shock to the system with metal drum samples, guitar driven riffage and half time breakdowns.
It settles eventually into something more typical of the 21 year old, but the rock influence is undeniable (there’s even a guitar solo and I promise I’m not making that up) and it’s not something Kyary and Nakata have ever acknowledged before. Family Party is classic Kyary, reminiscent of something that would play as a child enters a toy store in an 80s movie, but Ring a Bell is sung entirely in English and although Tokyo Highway has the same thumping club pulse as Kira Kira Killer, it’s got a melodic sentimentality that sets it apart from everything else. It’s almost as if Kyary were trying to keep us from getting comfortable, to keep us from falling asleep on the journey by changing the scenery every five minutes.
I spoke to Kyary last year at the London date of her NandaCollection world tour. (You can read that full interview here!)
She was tired. Both from touring and, I suspected, from carrying the weight of her career at such a young age. She mentioned to me that progressing was very important to her and that as she got older, it was becoming even more so. That desire to develop is audible on Pikapika Fantajin. You can hear it. You can feel it. Even when the beats are pounding like they always have, Kyary’s voice is taking a more central role than ever before. The production feels more sure-footed, less chaotic, as if tailored to being performed live by actual humans at some point in the future. This is Kyary Pamyu Pamyu being crazy and bizarre and outlandish as usual, and it’s also Kyary Pamyu Pamyu being honest.
Kyary is an anomaly. She’s one of the most beloved, most successful, pop stars in the world and yet stands respected as a symbol of Japanese counter culture. She has worked her way into the hearts of millions by simultaneously giving them exactly what they want and also what they never expected. At home, she’s seen as an antidote to the insufferable idol culture that dominates the charts while also dominating the charts herself. It’s almost as if she’s flipping the entire mainstream/underground divide on its head so that no one can tell where one ends and the other begins.
In the west, her role is yet to be determined. She’s frequently held up as an example of ‘strange Japan’ and it would be unfair to suggest that this was something she never played up to. At the same time Pikapika Fantajin does a lot to make her particular brand of childish exuberance a little easier to swallow, by playing it alongside some genuine sentimentality and some great melodies. Pikapika Fantajin is a step forward for Kyary, for J-pop and pop music in general. We’re not in Kansas anymore. Not that we ever really were to begin with.