Happiness is dead. Joy is deceit. A good mood is a telemarketer’s window of opportunity. Excitement is for hashtags. Pleasure is an abstraction, utility alone is real.
All too often, it seems to me like the most sensible approach to pop breeds curmudgeonliness. In a world where music is just another form of branding and the gears of consumerism are greased by “‘capturing the emotional power of music and putting it to work for businesses,’” happiness is the most weaponizable and least trustworthy response to music one can have. All the worse when a song is “catchy;” a tune stuck in the head is the private but irrefutable mark of the dupe. So in “critical” audiences, the gland that secretes that oft-tapped consumption-readiness juice is tied off, and the music manufactured to stimulate it — usually by a nexus of producers, managers, executives, costume and makeup designers, dancers, and art directors under the aegis of the pop star, whose function is little more than a face, a vessel, and a factory floor for all this labor — is written off as an easily consumed puff pastry, a shallow indulgence, as if such a dismissal were subversion of whatever medicine it’s helping down. Tastes become more self-conscious and Puritanical. This reasonable defense against corporate-music cynicism (it’s often my own reaction) can push a listener to new and challenging material, but it’s also an easy way to ignore a strong and undeniably authentic feeling — a feeling that’s often just as, if not more, self-enlightening than music that demands “deeper” involvement. There’s a gap between the sweet tooth of soundtracked happiness and the diabetes of consumerism, and in that gap, shitting strawberry ice cream while she waits for you to find her, is one Caroline Charonplop Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.
Pika Pika Fantajin is a reminder that our foolish tendencies for music whose apparent purpose is arational uplift weren’t invented for ulterior motives, just appropriated for them. Harajuku wunderkind Kyary Pamyu Pamyu specializes exclusively in this kind of irresistible uplift, and this album offers very little in terms of sound or production that wasn’t on last year’s Nanda Collection (maybe an extra layer of complexity here and there). Producer Yasutaka Nakata is just a man doing his job: he takes a rote pop-structure template and a plastic menagerie of instruments to assemble formalist treasures, embellishing every intro, hook, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, hook, chorus, instrumental, verse, pre-chorus, hook, chorus, bridge, chorus, and outro with so many elegant riffs and ad libs that on repeat listens it’s easy to go through entire songs without paying any attention to melody. A mandolin buried deep in verse 2 of “Kira Kira Killer.” A faint drone sloshing through the final pre-chorus of “Tokyo Highway.” Glockenspiels everywhere. And every one of these subtly considered touches is a passing flourish on top of infectiously cheerful vocal lines that stick like glue, even in a foreign language. The carat weights of the songs might be garish if they weren’t so well-matched by clarity and color; on close inspection, the maximalism comes off more as intricate than frenzied. If it seems formulaic, well, so is serotonin.
Maybe I’m just drawing from my limited Western perspective of Japan, but there’s something Jiro-esque in Nakata’s work on Kyary’s music: cleanliness above all; an unusual level of care for a product typically produced quickly for shopping-mall consumption; a faith that progress consists in repeating, refining, and detailing conventions rather than subverting them; a straightforward but refined result swallowed with minimal chewing required.
That devotion, austere in its own way, makes Kyary’s other commitments, namely to farce and fantasy, all the more compelling. KPP is, after all, better known as a visual artist than anything else, her intercontinental fame being mainly the result of her music videos’ viral success. Each one is a blitz of harrowing harmlessness that blurs a line between kawaii (“cute”) and kowai (“scary”): body parts, faceless dancers, skulls, chainsaws, and American foodstuffs supplement or replace objects typically associated with Harajuku and A-pop cuteness (cupcakes, big-eyed animals, miniatures, etc.). These cascades of emptied signifiers take place in increasingly macabre scenarios: a child late for work, a haunted castle, death and an animist underworld. A delicate presence heaping fantasies atop illusions, melting imaginary anxieties into air. Rather than make any attempt at resembling reality, KPP makes escapes about escapism, and in so doing, she touches much deeper than stars who adopt the weight of real-world relevance into their performance identities. To see the all-sweetening effects of teen pop tunes played out so literally is to look absurdity in the false-lashed eye.
Ultimately, in spite of whatever description or explanation I give, passion for Kyary’s music is subjective, and others will inevitably feel a similar passion for different “guilty” pleasures. But what differentiates Pika Pika Fantajin from other confections is that I (and maybe only I) feel an unmistakable sincerity in its inauthenticity. In fact, it feels guiltless, almost a duty, to pay attention to an object crafted with a generosity toward its audience well beyond what’s necessary. It’s hard not to feel assured and comforted by an artist who can see the horror in an artificial smile, especially one working in a system built just for that reaction. Even if Kyary herself is just the heart-dotted “i” at the front of a heartless industry, the creations that flow through her feel absolutely vital.