PV for "Chocolate Mint Time" by Vanilla Beans
Around 24 hours ago, I was back in America dying of jet lag watching an anisong / idol music DJ in Japan via Ustream while waiting for day to begin (or end) when suddenly, in between the usual stew of 8-bit laser blips and post-human helium vocals, this wonderful happy day toy town piano hook came tumbling out of the speakers and pinned me to the wall.
The tune was “Chocolate Mint Flavor Time”, the latest song by idol unit Vanilla Beans (AKA Rena and Risa), whom the new regime at Tower Records, along with label Tokuma, has been hyping as some kind of “neo idol unit” for a few years now. The girls have since settled into a sweet spot with subculture pundits (including Okite Porsche, a key advocate of Perfume during their early days) and the usual idol otaku alike. The mainstream has been more elusive, but who needs them anyhow when you've got a steady diet of this:
But even as I sat here writing this, “Chocolate Mint Flavor Time” popped up on yet another live net DJ playlist, implying that the song is now touching a nerve in other places as well. For me, it’s really just the simple piano sound, handclap beat, and reverb-y guitar solo that makes me reach for the replay button. True to their name, the vocals might be guilty of being j-pop slick to the point of vanilla, but the way they step off the chorus into a big burst of harmony is nice. “Chocolate Mint Flavor Time” winds up sounding like someone covering a lost Tracey Ullman cover (my idea of a complement) and the arrangement is clever enough to hold it all together.
Then there’s the video (above), which isn’t likely to set the world on fire in the PONPONPON sense, but still has enough charms to be filled under “refreshing”. In a post-Lady Gaga/Nicki Minaj world where whoever wears the craziest outfit gets the most views, here's two girls clad in bows and baby doll dresses just havin’ some ice cream. And on a post Pamyu Pamyu planet, where whoever makes the most dazzling insane over-wrought video sets the standards, here are two girls steadily transmitting blasé cool underlined by little more than an occasional retro font and background… havin’ some ice cream.
The visual and sonic touchstone is, of course, the jet-setting sixties: specifically “yeh-yeh” Francopop, Brill Building, UK girl group, with some mod pop art style in there, too. And beneath all that is another level, one more specific to Japan: the decades-straddling image of the two girl idol unit which harkens back to The Peanuts (‘60s), Pink Lady (‘70s), Wink (‘80s) Puffy (‘90s) and Kiiiiiii ('00s).
PV for "D&D" by Vanilla Beans (released 2010), mimicking the look of TV variety shows, crica late '60s, early'70s.
PV for "Nicola" by Vanilla Beans (2011), a halfway point between Perfume and Pizzicato.
As older videos from Vanilla Beans (like the two above) make plainly clear, someone behind the scenes is drawing from the same rich 20th century palette that Pizzicato Five used to make their stock in trade, where shuffling references is more valued than originality by audience and artist alike.
I don’t want to imply that the Beans have anywhere near that level of sophistication and talent for remixing the past that the gods of Shibuya-kei did-- but there is a definite cultural component to Vanilla Beans that at least creates a feeling that there might actually be something here to chew on. Maybe it's only nostalgia for nostalgia... but in today’s post-historical landscape, where the likes of Las Vegas and Disneyland have replaced pop muzik’s former haunts of “New York, London, Paris, Munich”, even that has to count for something.
Still, as Philbin the roadie points out in Phantom of the Paradise, the stakes for a "pop cantata" need not always be so high:
And "Chocolate Mint Flavor Time" is a song that I dig.
It might even actually be as simple as that.