Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Photo courtesy Charlie Engman. All other photos by Benjamin ShapiroJ-pop is one of Japan’s major soft-power exports. Even if you haven’t heard the music, chances are you’ve got an opinion about it. At its worst, it's terrifying crypto-fascist kitsch as sung by gibbering chipmunks. At it’s best, it’s a hyper-contextualized spectacle so mind-blowingly awesome you don't care when your brains start to liquefy under the onslaught of candy-lacquered inanity. Anyone who's seen J-pop live will attest that you often come away feeling like you unwillingly led a pep rally celebrating the screaming void of our empty culture. But as anyone who's seen her knows, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is the weird future this genre desperately needs.
If you're a fan, it's probably because of her first single, “PonPonPon.” The song became an international hit in 2011 after foreign audiences saw the psychedelic music video, which features floating bread slices and neon-checkered skulls. There's a chubby dude dancing in a dress and Martha Stewart wig, and at one point Kyary farts a rainbow.If you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor and watch this right now:Like all of her videos, you never see anyone else's face besides Kyary's. She's one of the biggest stars in her country (the Japanese equivalent of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry fed through a Blue Velvet meat grinder), and her image is tightly controlled for maximum effect. Her image is eerie and disconcerting, expressing the extremes of light and darkness that define life.Kyary only recently turned 21, but she's been wildly famous for four years now. She first made waves in niche fashion circles as a Harajuku it-girl, style-blogging and modeling for street-fashion magazines. She released a line of fake eyelashes that afforded her a first taste of success, and not long after that she was approached by two major players in the Japanese creative scene, songwriter Yasutaka Nakata and art director Sebastian Masuda. The trio worked together to produce 2011’s Moshi Moshi Harajuku, Kyary's debut album. Her unique style married the distinctive Victorian-doll "Loli" look with an underlying wink to the weirdness of the whole thing, incorporating elements of body horror and surrealism that turn the sugary cuteness just the right bit of sour.
Kyary backstage at the Best Buy TheaterLast week, I went to see her perform at a sold-out concert at New York's Best Buy Theater. Her live show was one of the most incredible spectacles I've ever seen, featuring non-stop dancing, bizarre projected visuals, and a creepy guy in a bear suit who danced around maniacally whenever Kyary changed outfits, one of which was a hot-pink dress spotted with bleeding eyeballs.Before the show, I was lucky enough to interview her backstage. On our way to her dressing room, her managers made sure it was OK that she was being interviewed in "natural style," which apparently means looking adorable in a sweatshirt. My Japanese isn't perfect, but I was able to detect how much of a consummate professional she is. It's scary how difficult it is to pin down where Kyary ends and the machine of manufacturing and maintaining celebrity begins. But no matter what you think of her and her music, you've got to admit that she's putting boring old American pop to shame.
VICE: To start, how would you describe J-pop for audiences in America?
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: First of all, there are many different genres within J-pop. For example, rock and punk idols are very popular. Recently, there have been very few artists who are individually known to the audience, so I’d like to do my best to be known and succeed.Would you consider your own music J-pop?
Definitely. In J-pop, the music is meant to have a lot of personality. Many of my songs use Japan as a motif. For example, “Ninjyari Ban Ban” and “Furisodeshon” are very Japanese. I think I’m achieving my goal of giving off a “Japanese” feel in my music.
Can you tell me a little bit about your creative team?
There are several people on the Kyary team. Nakata Yasutaka is the producer; he writes the music and lyrics. I trust him with all of this work. Yet, during this process, I offer my ideas during meetings, and he often uses my ideas.This is your second world tour. How did it come about?
Last time it was very unfortunate that we weren’t able to bring in our set to the site, like we have this time. This helps us express our world view onstage. This time around, we brought our entire set with us, and I hope that the audiences are able to experience the same images we’re able to express on YouTube.
What is the most difficult thing you’ve experienced about this tour?
The most difficult thing is the jet lag. We’re on tour all the time, and the shows are far apart. In America, we’re traveling to three-to-five cities. Then we go to Canada, and then Japan, and then Australia. We’re always jet lagged and sleepy.What do you do to relax?
I like to go see nature. Even during the world tour, we open our concert around 8PM, so I usually have a lot of free time to go sightseeing and shopping. And I listen to music. My favorite American artists are Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Ariana Grande.
Can you tell me what you are most proud of among all the things you’ve done?
I think I’m most proud of the fact that people come to see me at my concerts. Even when I tour domestically in Japan, seeing the happy faces of my audience gives me so much energy. I feel the same during world tours as well. I receive a lot of motivation from my audience.Where do you see yourself going next?
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has a lot of childlike qualities. I’d like to include and express some adult sexiness through my music. If there is an opportunity to do so, I’d like to express this "adult-sexiness" worldview through my promotional videos and live concerts.Kyary's new record, Nanda Collection, is out now, through Warner Music Japan. You can pick up your own copy right here.Follow Maggie Mustard on Twitter.