This Japanese Pop Star Is Giving Us A Sugar High

J Pop: Japanese pop music. Despite a few minor attempts to break through into the Western consciousness over the last decade, the genre hasn't managed to get much of a footing in the U.S. or UK charts. If you're unsurprised by this – given the obvious language and culture barriers – think of J Pop’s shiny South Korean cousin, K Pop, which has a cult following in the West. We don't see huge Japanese girl bands such as Perfume getting Western fashion mag features because the likes of K Pop girlbands 2NE1 and F(x) snatch them instead.

J Pop's hallmarks are high BPMs and even higher-pitched vocals for upbeat tracks, and more melodrama than a Celine Dion power-ballad for a slowie. If you're looking for an in, 23-year-old Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is the closest thing J Pop has had to an international breakout act. A YouTube superstar in the West, and alleged Kawaii queen in the East, KPP has an army of followers. She is currently celebrating five years of success with a Greatest Hits Collection, and a world tour that's taken her from Japan to Australia to a recent return show in London. Clearly, J-Pop has some kind of niche following in the UK.

If you haven’t heard the story, or have been forced to watch the video by an over-excited homosexual friend (that’s me) – Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's debut single "PonPonPon" vaguely broke the internet. The accompanying video has close to a billion views on YouTube despite the upload being horrendously low-res. It's a music video where EVERYTHING and yet nothing happens. It's mesmerising, inspiring and leaves you feeling somewhat sick and confused. A legitimate sugar-rush of a pop promo.
Despite being one of the most famous pop stars in Japan, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (KPP) occupies a fairly avant-garde role in the J pop scene. Think of her as Japan's answer to Lady Gaga, Sia or Grimes; a highly visual artist with incredible, boundary-pushing videos and artwork, she also has a solid if not spectacular chart record in Japan. Her songs don't always go straight in at number one like Japanese mega-seller Ayumi Hamasaki; they are repetitive, energetic sugar-highs that sound more at home soundtracking a game of Dance Dance Revolution than on radio airwaves.

Meeting KPP is a weird experience. She does not speak much English, so questions have to be sent over in advance for approval by management. Despite her low profile in the West, it's clear that her image in the East must be preserved, and her manager transcribes the entire interview while it is being conducted. KPP herself is tiny and doll-like, flanked by a Japanese entourage who are incredibly polite. "London is very Kawaii and super cute," she smiles, through her translator.

She is – when in costume – a poster girl for the Japanese kawaii subculture, which is defined by cutesy dressing and accessorising, bright pop colours and a childlike, sometimes called 'Lolita' aesthetic. On this note, KPP says that: “Subculture isn't for everybody, or received well by everybody in Japan. However I consider my birth to be from subculture. I was very shy at school, and dressing this way helped me to express who I am." At our interview, however, she's wearing a checked shirt and minimal make up. It couldn't be further from the KPP I've come to know from her videos.
Asian pop music itself has a slightly sinister reputation, with reports of Japanese and Korean pop stars training since childhood in strict pop star-making schools (there’s a chilling Korean Netflix documentary called Nine Muses Of Star Empire if you want to delve deeper.) KPP alludes to this herself when talking about K Pop stars: "My impression is they are really really well trained. They can sing and dance so well." Her guarded answer hints at an understanding of the murky reputation proceeding many Eastern pop acts – girlband members are frequently replaced if they aren’t seen to work hard enough.

Despite the bright, eccentric view of Japan we are frequently presented with in the West, it’s actually an extremely conservative and traditional country at heart. It's probably for this reason that KPP seems keen to avoid expressing an opinion on social issues in Japan, which may seem slightly at odds with her louder than life persona, but this is most likely to avoid a misquote scandal greeting her on arrival back in Japan. Generally, in the Western world, the louder the image of a pop star the more outspoken they get (think Madonna, Lady Gaga, Kanye West), it almost seems odd that somebody so visual seems so muted.

However, KPP is keen to stress that despite her on-stage persona, she's actually quite normal when not performing: "When I look at pop singers overseas in the West, they tend to be sexier and louder than Kawaii. I'm more like a character. I use my image as a way to express my art. It's not like I always dreamt of singing and dancing on the stage since I was very little, so in that sense I find I am very different. For me I am trying to express what I like through my art form, almost like a hobby."
Considering the highly conservative nature of Japan, where it is not uncommon to have several generations of a family living together at any time, KPP seems to have her family’s approval despite her on-stage antics. "My family are very very supportive," she explains. "They love watching my videos and seeing what I'm wearing. My mum knew I was coming to London for about five days and she helped me pack. They are really very excited for me." She seems genuinely elated when talking about her family, and it’s nice that somebody who must seem relatively outrageous – even by slightly eccentric Japanese standards – has a strong support network around her.

After 25 minutes we wrap things up, and KPP happily obliges my fanboy request for a super-kawaii selfie to wow my 386 Instagram followers with. Her posing is genuinely quite amazing, effortlessly reeling off kawaii pose after kawaii pose... all images of which are politely but firmly checked over by management before I leave the room. KPP is off to rehearse for her London show which has a 7.30pm start time to help accommodate her young fan base. She tells me that, after her tour is done, she hopes to have some kind of involvement in the Tokyo Olympics.

As I left, KPP was ushered into the room next door for a quick break, and I thought about how I can’t see many Japanese pop stars being comfortable enough with the extent of Western press expectation to genuinely break through into the Western music scene. Which seems a shame. We could perhaps see a one-off "Gangnam Style" novelty hit coming over from Japan (Gangnam was K Pop) but I think the cultures are simply too different for a sustained interest.

Still, KPP does remain utterly wonderful at what she does, and I look forward to seeing what bonkers visual she brings out next. Seriously, watch the first minute of the video for her track "CANDY CANDY" and try and tell me it isn’t one of the best things you’ve ever seen…

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