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Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: The World's Strangest Pop Star

15 July 16 words: Paul Klotschkow
Japan's J-Pop sensation was in the UK recently as part of her ‘5ive Years A Monster’ tour
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu

5ive Years A Monster: Kyary Pamyu Pamyu

In September 2014 at the end of the her then current world tour, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu broke down in tears on stage in Toyko and gave what sounded like a sort of farewell speech. Not only a touching moment but it was also a tiny glimpse in to the stress and pressure you must be under when you are held up as an icon for an entire culture.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has been hailed as the queen of Kawaii, the Harajuku princess if you will, and over three studio albums and numerous singles she has become the J-Pop megastar. Go to Japan and you don’t just hear her music being played on television and radio, her face can be found beaming out at you from various billboards thanks to the Japanese’s easy-going approach to endorsements. Many of Kyary Kyary Pamyu’s songs are sometimes first commissioned and written specifically for adverts before finding their way on to their parent albums. Selling-out isn’t really a thing in Japan, especially when you are already one of the country’s biggest brands yourself. 

But Kyary Pamyu Pamyu hasn’t become the global J-Pop star that stands before us just by helping to flog a line of desserts. It has taken a lot of hard work. This is her third world tour since 2013, this time touring a show titled ‘5ive Years a Monster’ in support of her recently released best-of KPP Best, a compilation that draws upon an array of singles she has steadily put out since the release of the irresistibly infectious PonPonPon in 2011.

I first discovered Kyary Pamyu Pamyu when I went to Japan in the spring of 2014 for work. I asked an associate to recommend me some Japanese pop music and she mentioned Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. After typing her name in to YouTube the top result was a song called Yume No Hajima Ring Ring. I clicked on it and I was hooked, intrigued at what I was watching. Instead of writing a report or doing some follow up emails as I was supposed to, I was heading deeper in to a Kyary Pamyu Pamyu k-hole, jumping from video to video with wide-eyed wonder, each click of the mouse bringing further visual delights that were unlike any music videos I had ever seen before. They were joyous, an explosion of colour and non-sensical characters, with a hyperactive soundtrack that seemed to take in everything from bleeping chiptune, pumping dance music, 60s pop, surf rock and much more, and as in the case of Invader Invader, often in the same song.

But it was Yume No Hajima Ring Ring that I kept returning to. I had no idea what it was about, but it hit a nerve. The video was low-key compared to the chaotic overblown technicolour of the others. I watched it over and over again, transfixed as this young woman walks through this ever changing landscape. There is a sense of longing and sadness, it has a bittersweet sentiment to it. The music is less manic than her other songs, a simple piano melody and a chiming guitar. I had no idea what it was about. I eventually found a blog post that translated the lyrics in to English. It explained that the song was released to coincide with the time of year in Japan when many students graduate from school and get ready to move on to the next stage in their life. Released when Kyary Pamyu Pamyu had recently turned 21, in the video we see her transform from a small child and in to a young adult with clever little callbacks to her previous music videos and looks.

It’s a powerful song and video and there was something in Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s performance that meant that even I was able to understand the song without understanding the lyrics or the context. It also felt like a note from Kyary Pamyu Pamyu to her fans to say ‘look, I’m growing up, I’m changing and ready to move on’. It’s the best thing that she has done. When the song was later released on the Pika Pika Fantajin album it had been given a remix that ruined the original’s breezy under-stated simplicity. The song is included on KPP Five Years but much to my disappointment she doesn’t perform it tonight. But tonight isn’t about subtleties.

The reason why Kyary Pamyu Pamyu works so well - and I could be alone in thinking this, but bear with me -  is because in everything she does, whether it is her over-the-top giddy music, the grotesque and bonkers videos, or the whacky outfits, there is an underlying strangeness and weirdness to it all. She’s obviously more than aware of the ridiculousness of what she does, and in a way, by exaggerating everything she does she is satirising herself and the culture around her. She does after all have a song called Fashion Monster that plays up to this idea.

While Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is praised for her quirky fashion sense with many fans copying her look, for me it’s all about her music. Some of the songs may be ridiculous and nonsensical and about such frivolous things as eating your favourite sweets or wearing false eyelashes, but there is no getting away from how irresistibly catchy and well crafted they are (it’s here that I should give a nod to her frequent producer and collaborator Yasutaka Nakata). Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s songs sound like how you might imagine pop music will sound like in the future, yet she is making it it now. The world maybe falling apart outside, but tonight inside the Koko this is two hours of pure escapism, a world of absurd techno-pop that is a joy from beginning to end.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu performs on stage in platform shoes to boost her height and is flanked by her ever-present squad of vogueing dancers. KPP may not be the world’s greatest dancer or singer, but that doesn’t matter as she perfectly personifies this wonderfully loony yet absolutely thumping future pop. The run of songs near the start her set of Candy Candy, PonPonPon, and Ninja Re Bang Bang has the audience throwing their arms in the air in sheer unadulterated delight. These are gargantuan J-pop ear worms and I feel like they’ve burrowed in to my brain and made glitter bombs explode in my synapses.  

At one point I start to wonder what this show would be like if I had taken drugs, perhaps if I had dropped a well-timed pill or had a handful of that old Camden delicacy magic mushrooms. I soon come round and realise that this is a ridiculous idea. Plus, how do you go about scoring drugs at a J-pop gig? The teens next to me dressed up in cosplay sure don’t look like they would be dealing. What I realise is that I just want to capture what this Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s show is making me feel. A collective delirious euphoria has broken out amongst the entire venue and there is wave after wave of undiluted elation coursing through me. This is an unashamed feel-good gig; Kyary Pamyu Pamyu a lively spectacle of playful dancing and singing amongst the riot of colour and characters beaming out at us from the stage and backdrop, and often encouraging the audience, who don’t need much encouragement to be honest, to dance along with her. I’ve not been to a show this enjoyable in a long time. I don’t think I’m alone in having a smile a mile wide by the end of it.

The release of a best-of usually marks the end of an era, a contractual obligation after an artist  has been dropped or a band has decided to pack it in. Who knows what Kyary Pamyu Pamyu will decided to do after this latest run of worldwide shows, five years is practically a millennia in the world of pop music. I’ve read stories that she either plans to take a break from music or that she is eager to move her sound on and wants to work with with new (Western) collaborators and songwriters.
If she is retiring or taking a well-earned break, perhaps the clues were there all along. One of the versions of her latest studio album Pika Pika Fantajin had the image of KPP’s wounded and bloody face, while it also contained the aformentioned Yume No Hajima Ring Ring, a song about growing up and moving on.
Two years on from that teary on-stage speech and with the release of KPP Best rounding up her work, this may be the end the end for Kyary Pamyu Pamyu as we know her. Whatever Kyary Pamyu Pamyu decides to do next she can do it safely in the knowledge that she has hand a hand in creating some most wonderfully weird pop music of recent years, and like all the greatest pop stars, she did it in her own unique and strange style.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu performed at Koko, London on Friday 8 July 2016.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu website 

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