Kyary Pamyu Pamyu Japamyu

[unBORDE; 2018]

Styles: J-pop, sour bubblegum
Others: PC Music, Pizzicato 5, vocaloids, Charli XCX, Momus

KyAry paMyu PamYu is KAMPY. Or at least we can read her through that lens. It’s an appropriate one, too, because camp, according to Sontag (the doyenne of the concept) encompasses a love of the unnatural, of artifice and of exaggeration, extravagance beyond the decorative, an uncontrolled sensibility, playfulness, style, the “off,” things-being-what-they-are-not, “things which from a ‘serious’ point of view are either bad art or kitsch.” Here endeth the review.

Except we have poptimism, and the cultural turn in academia (spreading as it has into the blogosphere) has given the lie to the concept of “bad art,” in the critical view if not in the popular imagination. So, if we’re not simply to define Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s pop as “bad art that’s good,” what else can interpreting her through Sontag tell us about her fourth studio album, Japamyu?

“Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.”

Japamyu is undeniably happy music, a delightful sugar high. Like any Kyary Pamyu Pamyu album, it’s full of (gummi) earworms, but a sugar crash is never far away — “after the red cordial, the tears” (as we say in Australia). Let’s not forget, after all, that sugar is made with bone char, and a surfeit of it leads to cramps. Carrie (“Kyary”) is a synonym for horror. Meanwhile, our Lolita is growing up, extending her interests beyond “just pop, sparkling and kawaii.” On Japamyu we wait with bated breath, at the top of her private rollercoaster, for the drop.

But this is not quite unexpected, because there’s always been something hysterical, weird, and dark around the edges of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s oeuvre, akin to the psychedelic visions of Yayoi Kusama in the way it combines the Instagrammable surface with swirling undercurrents of anxiety and tension — a nerviness that implies the threat of the monstrous and the unknown. These elements — literal in “Enka Natrium’s”s list of “atom characteristics,” and figurative in “Kimino Mikata’s” feeling of being lost and out of control in the face of global chaos — are not absent from the album. Admittedly, the latter sentiment may be as fruitful for the “Fake News” anti-PC Trumpians as for the left. But either way, despite being our spun-sugar princess, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is no longer eating desserts, and her most recent tour revives traditional Japanese monsters at Halloween (in contrast to the culturally hegemonic vampire or Frankensteinian creation).

A newfound appreciation of Japanese history can hint uncomfortably of darkness too, sitting in a tradition that proudly threw off Western subjugation while also straying into chauvinism. Among all of this, it seems fitting that Kyary Pamyu Pamyu doesn’t wear much color off stage — only black and white. But where is this “off stage,” and who is Kyary Pamyu Pamyu as a person?

“Character is understood as a state of continual incandescence — a person being one, very intense thing.”

The reason we don’t see the abovementioned shifts as novelties is because, in the sphere of camp, character does not develop. And neither does Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s music. This is not necessarily a bad thing — there’s nothing especially new here (except perhaps her rap flow on “Kimino Mikata”), but there needn’t be. Scoring the album out of five is beside the point.

From the first track, her realm sucks you in, Alice in Wonderland style: “It is about my imaginary kingdom called JAPAMYU, with this electronic noise as though it was a video game intro to lead the listeners to my world.” You may never emerge, or at least, not unscathed. This is the forcefulness and unity of her personal vision.

So we could say that the ongoing presence of producer Yasutaka Nakata continues to delight; that the album is a little front loaded; that “Harajuku Iyahoi” is an earworm among earworms; that opener “Virtual Pamyu Pamyu” is a chiptune, semi-martial frenzy, while “Oto no Kuni” has a standout hyperspeed future jazz feel; we could go on in this vein and compare Japamyu to her previous works. But why would we? What would be the use, when (ironically, given her new interests) Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is not a history, but a logo, an essence, a consumer product par excellence.

“It is a feat, of course. A feat goaded on, in the last analysis, by the threat of boredom. The relation between boredom and Camp taste cannot be overestimated. Camp taste is by its nature possible only in affluent societies, in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence.”

Like many Japanese artists, commercial ties in Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s music are so many, so numerous, and so gauche that they surpass gaucheness. Constantly entangled in webs of advertisement, she nonetheless maintains a weirdness that is unimaginable for an artist of similar stature in the Anglosphere. Camp rejects elitism; it is a taste in the arts of the masses. And as for boredom — it’s refreshing, today, to hear these straight-up bangers that eschew the snoozeworthy midtempos of most contemporary pop and the eternally suspended buildups of recent PC Music pop-oriented fare.

Sontag quotes Wilde: “It’s absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.” Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is most definitely charming. She performs a kind of ultra-feminine sexlessness, while at the same time distancing herself from the “very feminine” when discussing the album. Camp rests on innocence, but here in a slightly different way than Sontag intended: while Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s is an innocence of the economic and of the aesthetic, her intentions for her art are not sincere and ridiculous, but rather unknowable.

“Camp which knows itself to be camp is usually less satisfying … probably, intending to be campy is always harmful.”

In the post-post-modern age, this maxim is still sometimes true (The Love Witch, to take a random example, is a fantastic film which still feels somehow secondary to Vampyros Lesbos) — but its center can’t be expected to hold. Does Kyary Pamyu Pamyu know herself to be campy? Kawaii culture, from which Kyary Pamyu Pamyu takes many of her cues, is both unironically and ironically cute. In somehow existing at the locus of these, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu manifests a quality of unselfconsciousness self-reflexiveness combined with theatrical performativity that runs through Japanese art from Sei Shonagon to Yukio Mishima.

It’s difficult, therefore, to interpret and decode Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, to know anything about her intentions. These days, that may be the usual state of affairs for underground acts (hi Dean Blunt! I just saw Dean Blunt gurl!), but it’s uncommon for stars of her size. This speaks to her unusual position in the Anglosphere, to the English in which this piece is written, and to the fact that she broke globally not for her music, but for her visual aesthetic in the “PONPONPON” video. As Sontag puts it, “We are better able to enjoy a fantasy as fantasy when it is not our own,” when the weirdness is refracted through stereotypes of bizarre Japanese game shows and shokushu goukan.

The very title of this album, Japamyu, suggests a “Nihonjinron,” Japanese-ness, even as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu explains that it refers not to Japan, but her “imaginary kingdom.” It’s a video game Japan, Japan of historical myth and consumer fantasy, a self-objectifying vision, a kind of psychogeography-in-reverse, where the subject’s self, including her self as receptacle of culture, expands to become sovereign (a royal Hime Lolita) who literally is her own body politic. But where does this leave her?

“Camp taste transcends the nausea of the replica.”

It doesn’t leave “her.” There’s something holographic, something vocaloid about Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Something that goes beyond the literal replicas of Roy Orbison or Amy Winehouse beginning to dot our stages and into simulacrum territory. Because where is her original? The trends she has anticipated — from her recombinatory aesthetic encompassing retro-futurist visuals, cuteness, psychedelia, and a touch of horror, to her maximalist bangers, to the death of the concept of selling out — have since burgeoned forth, from the plastic pop and pseudo-commercials of PC Music to the wyrd 3D of Troye Sivan’s “Bloom.”

Indeed, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is now being imperfectly reproduced in forms such as Poppy (of whom the less said the better). In this vein, “Harajuku Iyahoi” is the clip that launched a thousand faces — portraits that shatter, only to reveal further Kyarys behind them, to be joined by Kyarys masked by oversized versions of t/he/i/r own face. In “Kimino Mikata,” meanwhile, her fractured visage is recreated on numerous tablets and then recreated again in layers that eventually coalesce to represent the scene taking place behind them. The meta levels of representation are staggering, almost unbearable.

And yet she is producing unironic pop with a capital P, in a way that could be done unselfconsciously only once upon a time — a golden era that breathed its last gasp in 90s dance pop and rave (perhaps why we’re so nostalgic for these genres) and is a rarer commodity today. Paradoxically, then, her work is an experience of both camp’s underinvolvement and camp’s detachment — through its meta-reflexiveness, digitized aesthetic, and relentless cheer — while also being both innocent and deeply invested in happiness. On that note, join me in crying out: hoi hoi hoi hoi hoi hoi!

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