世界は廻る “The world rotates…”
Suddenly, the girls of Perfume are graduating from the little leagues – i.e. Japan – and are beamed into the very heart of the globalized entertainment industry (i.e. the end of the line). For on this day most fair and foul, the Disney / Pixar film “Cars 2” begins to open in theaters across the world…
Perfume’s 2007 hit Polyrhythm is featured on the Cars 2 soundtrack, sandwiched in-between songs by their “new” contemporaries Robbie Williams (who?) and Weezer (remember them?).
Strange times. While holograms and virtual idols from Japan are stealing world headlines, last week’s promotional splurge for Cars 2 saw Perfume standing around in person at a Hollywood premiere for an all CGI film. One of them appears to have even made eye contact with an actual fan! A-chan, Nocchi & Kashiyuka sure have come a long from their humble beginnings as starry-eyed dance students in Hiroshima. And while their techno sound – created by the increasingly robotic Yasutaka Nakata – isn’t quite yet setting the world on fire, it is safe to say that their music (well, just this one song, unless Radio Disney deems otherwise) will soon be heard by a much wider audience: starting with little kids and their parents.
But what about me? As an early adopter of Perfume who gets excited when Godzilla gets a star on the Walk of Fame or when Tadanobu Asano wanders onscreen in Mighty Thor, I think I should be at least be kind of thrilled about this sort of development. But my feelings are mixed at best.
Partially, that’s because we are in the realm of a long and weird relationship between Japanese pop culture and the Disney empire, which most recently has been playing out in their domestic handling of the Studio Ghibli films. For those of you who need a little reminding...
Like Ghibli, Pixar – also distributed by Disney – offers works that are high in production values and technical accomplishment, but are also devoid of spontaneity or surprise, calculated down to the last pixel to affirm the most MOR of values. Formula seeks out other formulas to strengthen itself. And so, the already artistically tenuous electro-pop of Perfume has been cut and pasted into the mix.
Was "Turning Japanese" by the Vapors not available?
ANN explains (via Oricon): “Director John Lasseter was searching for appropriate music to represent the Japanese party scene (in Cars 2) when Pixar staff members who were fans of Perfume recommended the group.”
Why am I taking this so hard? I swear it's not merely a case of the fat hand of Hollywood taking a song I like and dropping it into a multiplex, thus endangering an emotional attachment to it by allowing total strangers to hear it too (see: the entire Wes Anderson filmography). It's more like a matter of the crossover happening at a moment when a once worthwhile musical act has become inessential.
I’ll just come out and say it now: Perfume have arrived at the center of the world, and all they have is a song that is four years old.
There’s a good reason why Polyrhythm was cherry picked out of the Perfume discography. Their recent tracks don’t stack up in terms of quality or novelty.
I first wrote about Perfume on this blog in 2007, just before the release of Polyrhythm, I described them as a “virtual idol group aimed at web addicted otaku”. Now, armed with VOCALOID software and IDOLM@STER product, web otaku themselves can make their own virtual idols and groups and the results are increasingly outpacing the real thing. For example, the VOCALOID song “Just Be Friends” is clearly inspired by the Perfume sound, but throws down the gauntlet with greater lyrical complexity and a very strong melody.
Problematic signs are everywhere. Perfume songs used to feature names that seemed plucked from the pages of New Scientist magazine, which – along with their CGI-heavy videos – helped to give Perfume a forward-looking sci-fi sheen, eventually copied (unsuccessfully) by AKB48 and others in the J-pop charts. Key tracks from mid-period Perfume include “Liner Motor Girl” and “Monochrome Effect”. By contrast, their latest song is simply called “Laser Beam”. Filled with the usual knob-twirling tricks that producer Yasutaka Nakata presumably does in his sleep now, it sounds as exhausted of ideas as the title (wow, a laser beam!) would indicate. They don't even use wild SF imagry in their videos anymore, so why should I keep hanging around?
Since all we can do now is look back fondly, I’m going to regard the “Electro World” single and accompanying PV clip as Perfume / Nakata’s crowning achievement in retro-future soundscaping. The chorus genuinely gives me goosebumps nearly eveytime I hear it. But “Polyrhythm” – which was Perfume’s debut in the Oricon charts and made them stars in their native country– is their most representative song; destined to seem as quaint to tomorrow's post-humans as Pink Lady’s UFO does to us today, and to become just a durable as a pop cultural landmark.
If you were in Japan in 2007, “Polyrhythm” was ever-present and inescapable. That it didn’t sound like forty-eight hamsters all singing at once was much to be thankful for. Even W. David Marx, tireless critic of much of recent J-pop music, is willing to give the track a pass, saying via email:
“Polyrhythm may be the only J-Pop offering after 2005 that remotely functions as actual music, i.e., Nakata intended the song to be enjoyed by human beings who are not already obsessed with those three girls from Hiroshima. Nakata's Tron-like genius was to take the girls 'out of the equation' by Autotuning them into automatons and then using the vocals as a melodic synth line backed up with a good dance beat. It's as if someone with good taste played around with Hatsune Miku. Compare this to anything by Perfume's contemporaries AKB48, and 'Polyrhythm' instantly sounds like it was written in modern times by someone who likes modern music — not by some horrible committee of 50 year-old men who want to get the whole songwriting and production thing out of the way so they can get back to picking out the bikini styles that will force hapless nerds to each buy 500 copies of the upcoming single."
On one hand, Polyrhythm has hit the wall; exported well past Perfume’s actual sell-date. On the other, it is fated to always sound like Japan circa 2007. So how is this song durable enough to occupy both positions at the same time?
Well, I reckon we better watch the video and listen to the song about now...
Since names mean a lot in the Perfume cosmology, let’s start there.
“Polyrhythm”, of course, means multiple rhythms simultaneously playing at once. It’s a word deeply associated the word with the Krautrock movement and Afro-Cuban sounds adopted by Western musicians like Talking Heads and King Crimson. I’m not certain if Yasutaka Nakata’s music nerd roots go that deep, but he’s definitely got some Detroit Techno and Kraftwerk records in his bag. Either way, “Polyrhythm” is meta enough to do what it does what it says on the label, but it takes some time to get there.
The song begins with big airy open suspended chords. The verses alternately ascend and descend before giving way to a chorus that’s less of a melodic hook and more of a repeated tribal chant (“Kurikaesu kono polyrhythm”), but the lyrics, as usual, don't matter much. The beat is 4/4 time, which is downright lethargic for a Perfume single (hey, has anyone else noticed that Chocolate Disco, an earlier Perfume track, is the same song, only faster?) and the overall effect glides along like a monorail headed for the glowing I/O tower in Tron. Or maybe just Odaiba.
Nakata saves his hand for the bridge (1:31) where, as someone helpfully explains on Wikipedia, “the song's bridge is polyrhythmic, incorporating 5/8, 6/8 in the vocals, common time (4/4) and 3/2 in the drums.” This section of the song lasts little more than 30 seconds, but it has a fantastically disorientating effect on the listener: it's the trip-out musical equivalent of a hit of nitrous oxide (Sometimes, I will leave Polyrhythm on repeat in an attempt to get high on this one part of the song over and over). Keep in mind that the sort of sonic wizardly featured on the bridge is usually reserved only for remix albums or bonus tracks. Indeed, the record label actually insisted on removing the bridge for the radio edit, resulting in a hilariously useless version of Polyrhythm without any polyrhythm. (Side note: the PV for Polyrhythm – which sees the girls sifting through the genetic makeup of planet earth in much the same way that customers browse for accessories at Spinns Harajuku – tries it's best, but fails to capitalize on a major opportunity for some creative visualization. However, when Perfume perform the song in concert, their spirited dancing finally helps give it proper highlight status.)
The bridge, in tandem with the daring use of what sounds like a snake charmer's pungi flute on the outro, marks Polyrhythm as a real creative high point for Perfume and Nakata, both of whom could have used more moments like this in their work. But maybe the sum was always greater than the parts. Perfume’s very best songs brought a conceptual sophistication to J-pop. It was music that nostalgically evoked the ‘80s synthesizer sound as a way of commenting on our now hopelessly and completely computer-depended world. The dodgy part was a lot of the hooks tended to be referenced from a single source: Daft Punk’s “Discovery” LP.
It’s easy to see how Nakata got sucked in. Released waaaaaay back in 2001, before things got really complicated (see: 9/11), Discovery now belongs to a select handful of club-ready dance / electronic albums that actually work as albums, were enjoyed by a wide variety of people, and ultimately achieved best-selling status (Moby’s “Play” comes to mind, as does Primal Scream’s “Screamadelica”, although you had to be blasted on drugs to really hear that one). Released with an promo campaign based around the animation of Leiji Matsumoto, Discovery literally wore it’s otaku cred. on it’s sleeve and made this set of French disco robots ripe for collectable action figure status in Japan.
But what if they stole it all from Leiji Matsumoto?
Previously an dabbler in middling post Shibuya-kei pop sounds with his unit capsule, Nakata seems to have taken to Discovery with roughly the same enthusiasm that Charles Manson took to the White Album. The throwaway lyric “why don’t you play the game” in Daft’s “Digital Love” was interpreted as a call to absorb wholesale Daft Punk’s arsenal of harsh compression, rhythmic use of attack/decay, and – for a punchline – to ultimately make an entire Perfume album called GAME. Big smudgy fingerprints of YMO and Kraftwerk can be found all over Perfume’s singles as well, but you’d have to be deaf from standing between a pair of massive Seismic Audio speakers all night not to hear how much is really pinched on their “Complete Best” LP. Start with “Linear Motor Girl”; a barely disguised rip-off of, or homage to, (take your pick) “Digital Love”.
Ok. I don’t want to come down too hard on the Daft Punk / Perfume connection. Especially since Polyrhythm sounds pretty original and is really just a great song to boot. Plus, Japanese pop music is deeply rooted in appropriation and outright theft, perhaps a legacy of post-war kayokyoku cover songs that never acknowledged, or paid royalties, to the Western originals that spawned them. One of the crucial lessons at the heart of all this madness might as revolve around how the factor of “influence” can give Japanese pop culture enormous novelty, or make others reject it outright (I’ll never forget when I mentioned to a Japanese music critic that I liked the band Number Girl only to be told, “You realize they’re just a lame copy of the Pixies, right?” and then having to convince him that, while I could see his point, I was still ok with it).
The fact that Perfume were not rejected by Japanese listeners and eventually made it to “Hollywood, California” more or less intact is a testimony to how far Nakata could run with someone else’s sound. But, as I was harping on earlier, the well has been awfully dry of late. Nakata’s recent work with capsule and as a resident DJ suggest that the bridge of Polyrhythm may have been a failed starting point for a new sound: one that can only work as "music" when blasting from a humongous club’s wall-shaking stereo system (where I have to admit, in that context, it sounds pretty good). From club music back to club music, I guess.
And Perfume…without more songs to equal or surpass Polyrhythm, Perfume now resembles Pixar's would-be Hollywood blockbusters: every new release a carefully calculated tie-up, marketed months in advance for maximum exposure, never mind the diminishing creative returns, gotta meet that quarterly report...
UPDATE: Commenter Ian Martin, who recently interviewed Yasutaka Nakata for the Japan Times, added some info that's just waaaay too important not to put here:
With Perfume these days, I think Nakata's kind of working with his hands tied behind his back. He told me that since all the songs are pre-sold to advertising campaigns before he's even written them, he has to sort of work on them with that in mind (I guess that means just having a big hit that lots of people would want to buy isn't enough -- he also has to please the chaps at Dentsu who are going to be screening every new submission). He also said this means he can't mix their stuff the way he would with capsule now, so that probably explains why he's shied away somewhat from the heavier, dancefloor-ready sound that Polyrhythm had, while capsule have gone into full-on nosebleed electro-house mode. When he plays Perfume tracks at his DJ parties, he seems to have beefed-up mixes ready.
In a shocking twist that no one saw coming (for once, I’m saying that with zero irony), Cars 2 is now taking a beating from critics who were convinced that the studio that made it could do no wrong. The Wall Street Journal lists off some familiar complaints that could be applied elsewhere, “a lack of variety, originality, subtlety, clarity and plain old charm.”
Anyway, after all that build-up here's the less-than-earth-shattering scene from Cars 2 where Polyrhythm acutally appears (I would embed it, but, as my 9 year old newphew would say, "it's for babies"). It makes more sense to show this instead -- a performance of Polyrhythm at the Budokan complete with a crowd totally in synch with the spirit of '07.
And that's all I have for now, but the song itself must have the final word:
Your very precious feelings
Won't be wasted The world rotates
My little feelings．
Will circle again too