Any country with beer vending machines is going to appreciate the things we Americans value: instant gratification, escape, and getting drunk and making an ass of yourself in public. That's why Japan's got us beat in so many ways. They one-up us on everything, especially culture that we initially created. Example: who's cooler, the Blob or Godzilla? How about this: Holly Hobbie or Hello Kitty? They whomp our ass like Don Knotts in a sumo ring.
Maybe it's just the American appreciation for "bigger is better" that makes us admire Japanese culture, because they take our shit and run with it. Take music. Japanese Pop, or J-Pop, takes the idea of the pop star and blows it up into a cavalcade of cornball sparkle and trendy bombast. If you think you've seen Lilo and Stitch on enough cereal boxes by now, you should see Japan markets its pop icons.
The latest sensation over there is a duo known as Puffy, who have appeared on shoes, clothes, toys, and shampoo bottles. Now they have to call themselves Puffy AmiYumi because a certain American rip-off artist didn't like them ripping off his name. "We don't know what 'Puffy' means to this date," says Ami in an e-mail interview, translated by their manager.
"Although we didn't know what it meant when we were given this name, we liked the sound of it," adds Yumi. The reason the girls didn't name themselves is that they were manufactured after a talent search -- another great American creation. They didn't even know each other before they became superstars.
But these gals -- wow. First there's the music, some of which was produced by Jellyfish's Andy Sturmer, so you know it's going to have nods to '70s AM radio. But not just that -- it's all over the place, with one song borrowing a samba beat, the next a rockabilly beat, with whole riffs stolen almost completely from songs by the Who, the Beatles, and ELO. The themes of the songs are somewhat bovine: stuff like taking naps, enjoying the sunshine, and being "raised naturally," whatever that means. As usual with Japanese groups, the song titles translate to great stuff like "Live a Long Time, Okay?" "A Body with Merit," and "Destruction Pancake." In short, they are awesome, and to date they have sold more than fourteen million records in Japan.
And their shtick? They can't dance. They kind of jump around in a freestyle dancing-in-your-bedroom-to-your-favorite-song kind of way. Not that it's not choreographed; it is. But leave it up to the puppetmasters behind J-Pop to make not being able to dance seem cool and somehow intentional. The tastemakers wanted to give audiences something that was the opposite of the techno-inspired stars that dominated the market, so they picked two girls, dressed them in torn jeans and old T-shirts, and asked them to please not dance so good, okay?
Now they are ready to conquer America, whose hipsters and kitsch-lovers have already picked up on the vibe. Frankly, if they end up on MTV it'll be a miracle. But stranger things have happened. "It would be great," says Ami of gaining fame here. "But what I want is for many people to listen to Puffy's music."
"I haven't really thought about it -- being big or small," says Yumi. "As long as we can have fun with what we do, size doesn't really matter." There you go, guys.
And if all of this reminds you of Pink Lady, well, you are on to something. Pink Lady, or PL as they are affectionately referred to on fan sites, were a Japanese pop duo in the late '70s. They were bigger than sliced squid at one point, eventually tackling the American market by appearing on the TV show Pink Lady and Jeff and having a hit single "Kiss in the Dark." The variety show was hands-down the best "worst show in TV history." Godawful! Pink Lady were the duo of Mie and Kei, with comedian Jeff Altman thrown in for bad measure. The women spoke little English, but that didn't stop the network from giving them many comedy bits with Jeff, usually consisting of the gals teasing him, followed by his feckless retorts:
Jeff: You guys are the biggest thing in Japan!
Pink Lady: No Jeff, the biggest thing in Japan is Godzilla!
The similarities between Puffy AmiYumi and Pink Lady are endless -- both were created by marketers, both hawk beer and beauty products on TV, and both are being pushed on the American market not so much for their music, but for their departure from the norm. And, not coincidentally, Pink Lady actually made its splash in Japan by introducing a new style of dancing to the masses. Before Mie and Kei hit the scene, female pop stars stood still and did complicated hand gestures to the music. Pink Lady flat-out got their freak on and it was a smash. Puffy's grungy slacker approach to teen pop moves is no different, it's giving the people what they didn't know they wanted.
And you know you want it.
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