Nanda Collection Warner Japan; 2013
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is the most popular J-pop performer in the Western Hemisphere, which makes sense because she’s the most Western J-pop performer in Japan. It’s a quality that’s embedded right in her name: “Kyary” is the closest Japanese-language approximation of the Western name “Carrie,” which her high school classmates teased her with when they thought she was dressed in a too typically “American” style. (She added the “Pamyu Pamyu” part just because she thought it sounded good.)
Her fashion sense isn’t the only element that makes Kyary such a Western-oriented artist, but it explains some of it. Before she began her musical career two years ago she was a hardcore harajuku girl who managed to flip her sartorial instincts into a career as a fashion blogger and model, and even released her own signature line of fake eyelashes. It’s a far more independent, entrepreneurial backstory than most J-pop artists, who tend to be plucked out of obscurity by managers who mold them with factory precision to a prespecified blueprint before they’re introduced to their audience.
The video for her 2011 debut single, “PonPonPon”, introduced viewers to a Kyary Pamyu Pamyu aesthetic that was already fully formed, a hyperkinetic pileup of lysergically vivid Japanese design sensibilities and American pop culture detritus-- a literal pile of garishly colored, mostly plastic stuff including a giant box of Kraft mac & cheese, creepy stuffed animals, and a Green Bay Packers “cheesehead” hat. It also established Kyary as a multimedia artist along the lines of Björk and Lady Gaga, whose aesthetic instincts are strong enough that she’s allowed to scribble way outside of the lines most pop stars have to operate within. Along with the kawaii props and posing there’s a dancing woman in a full-face stocking mask (who seems to be a man in drag) and at one point the video’s star farts a beam of strobing abstract computer graphics.
Nanda Collection, her second LP and first to be officially released in the U.S., continues in the direction that “Ponponpon” established, which is to say it feels like a face-first dive into a Takashi Murakami painting. Its unrelenting Day-Glo anime psychedelia isn’t for everyone, and the level of constant overstimulation it maintains throughout its running time on could probably trigger a panic attack in more sensitive listeners.
If you can handle the barrage of synthesizer marching bands, PS1-era video game noises, and Kyary’s overwhelming kawaii-ness, Nanda Collection is a fascinating listen. It’s very much a J-pop record, with the requisite synth-pop and smooth disco numbers that entails, along with a jazzy piano flourish here and there, but it frequently breaks from the form’s conventions. Its first single, “Invader Invader”, is essentially a Rapture-style dance punk track rendered in candy-colored electronics, at least until the part where it turns into a synth emulation of a metalcore breakdown mixed with a dubstep drop. Halfway through the straightforward-seeming “Fashion Monster”, the song’s high speed bubblegum melts down into a psychedelic drone for a minute before swerving back.
Like Murakami, Kyary’s take on kawaii has a weird, sinister edge to it, and she seems to enjoy keeping her audience slightly unsettled. For instance she’s fond of painting over her real mouth with oversized, distorted mouths that are cartoony but also freakish-- a grotesque mutation to put a strange spin on her overwhelmingly cute image. She does something similar musically, and at times Nanda Collection feels almost like a twisted parody of J-pop, with overclocked tempos that are just a little too fast, and the usual cheery mood amplified to a discomfiting level. “Kurakura” feels downright malevolent, alternating between lurching oompah-band circus music and Kyary’s multi-tracked voice chanting “kura kura” over and over while a glockenspiel repeats a maddeningly dissonant figure, and overall it sounds like Danny Elfman at his most intentionally nightmarish.
Despite years of predictions that J-pop’s big American break is just around the corner, it still seems supremely unlikely to happen. The style’s earnestly upbeat mood isn’t edgy enough for American tastes, and for the most part we aren’t interested in foreign pop culture. The odds of Kyary finding a mass audience here seem slim, but not exactly zero. She’s already found an audience outside the usual Japanophile consumers, specifically a cultish following of Tumblr users who look up to her twisted interpretation of kawaii, and it’s not unimaginable that she could find some fans in the mainstream. She’s already breaking most of J-pop’s rules and traditions. What’s one more?