In the early days of mass-market global pop, it was relatively easy to manufacture a profitable group: You just hired some songwriters, amplified and distorted the members' backstories, gave them suitable haircuts to identify this one as the bad boy or that one as the heartbreaker, and made sure they can dance. In retrospect, the images crafted around acts like the Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears come off as as undeniably quaint, relics of an age in which the stealthy glossing over of a performer's off-message traits was enough.
But in a world where producers have become the frontmen and literal holograms go on tour, it takes more than a stylist and a few carefully managed media appearances to make a musician stand out in a crowded marketplace. At least, that's how I imagine we get acts like FEMM, the mesmerizing J-pop electro duo with a backstory more inventive than anything on the SyFy channel right now.
FEMM, which stands for Far-East Mention Mannequin, is fronted by two performers, who are, in turn, backed by some of the last decade's most successful pop engineers; their songwriters, producers, and engineers have worked with Beyoncé, Skrillex, and Mariah Carey, just to name a few. But according to FEMM's mythology, the project is also the name of an organised syndicate seeking to liberate mistreated mannequins - as in literal dolls - from the abuses they suffer at the hands of the human race (being crushed in crash dummy tests, for example). FEMM has dispatched agents all over the globe to find and identify mannequins that meet a "certain criteria" and animate them using a gadget of undisclosed origin.
They say the agency has revived two now sentient mannequins: RiRi and LuLa, who are the unnerving, mechanical performers in FEMM's super-glossy, high-production-value videos. In space-age catsuits or leather French maid outfits, RiRi and LuLa sing (sometimes equipped with machine guns) about the basic insufficiency of men; they mouth lyrics that reference American baseball players and romantic quadriplegia in perfect, lyrical English. In the videos - choreographed by the Hidali group, which previously worked on precise robotic dances with World Order - they maintain the same creepy, impassive mannequin gaze as when they make their rare in-person appearances.
But if you try to interview RiRi and LuLa - which I did - you'll get Honey-B and W-Trouble, the "syndicate agents" ostensibly responsible for the mannequins' reanimation. ("We're not performers," they told me at one point.) The agents appear as "themselves," briefly, at the beginning of one of FEMM's videos, jumping around in front of the camera dressed for an LA club. It's all a brilliant and pretty deeply meta set-up - we're talking about two performers, backed by some of global pop music's most well-regarded names, pretending to be artists pretending to be mannequins. FEMM isn't a supergroup in the strictest sense of the word, but it probably would be regarded as one if we we more honest about how pop music really gets made.
Not that I knew any of this when a friend first showed me the videos; what caught me, in the videos for "
Fxxck Boys Get Money" and "Wannabe" was that FEMM had managed to stylise the uncanny valley to the point of its being totally glamorous - an impressive feat, given how boring pop music's sci-fi strains has been for the past, say, 20 years (if you're excluding dance label PC Music). Intrigued by that aspect and the group's weird lampooning of the super-cute kawaii culture sometimes associated with crossover J-pop acts, I got in touch with FEMM - you know, the "agents" that brought FEMM back to life - to see how we should be preparing for the mannequin revolution.
VICE: Hi, Honey-B and W-Trouble. First off, can you tell me how you met RiRi and LuLa, and how you became their agents?
W-Trouble: Hi, we are agents at FEMM's agency syndicate (FAS). We represent RiRi and LuLa. They cannot speak for themselves, so we will be answering your questions today.
Honey-B: FAS is a agency where we work to save the rights of all mannequins and dolls in the world, which have been mistreated for long years. We created RiRi and LuLa as leaders for this movement.
What kind of mannequins were RiRi and LuLa before they became super-mannequins?
Honey-B: Just like any other mannequins. But we spotted their potential of becoming the best FEMM leader.
W-Trouble: RiRi and LuLa have been watching human activities through this past year or so, and learned a lot.
I've heard that RiRi is a combat mannequin and LuLa is more of a healer. How did they get those skills?
Honey-B: Just like humans, mannequins have feelings and personalities too. RiRi had the fighter's soul to begin with. It was in her skin. This is what we call potential.
W-Trouble: We decide which power would be suitable for which mannequins. LuLa had a sort of a motherly feel to her, so we thought healer was the best option for her.
The two of you show up in the beginning of the music video for "Astroboy," and you're good dancers, but RiRi and LuLa have a very unique style. How often do they practice the choreography for their videos?
W-Trouble: Oh, I'm a little embarrassed. Honey-B and I aren't performers to begin with. But, don't you love Hidali choreography team's unique dance of FEMM?
Honey-B: Thank you. Very kind of you. FEMM rehearsed for "Astroboy" for like a month. It was a first-time experience for all of us and it was very exciting.
What is FEMM fighting against? What kind of mistreatment did RiRi and LuLa see that made them so mad?
W-Trouble: It's sad but true that dolls have been treated so badly for years. Like the dolls that are used to test cars' airbags. They show them in the commercials being crushed. Also in everyday life, mannequins always have to be dressed in clothing that they don't even like. But we're not trying to fight against humans; we just want people to be aware.
Honey-B: FEMM stands up for the rights of mannequins. They are just like us. Dolls are not just props, toys, tools for human. We are looking for a way to unite.
A teaser video launched last year showed syndicate FEMM members busting mannequins out of shop windows. Is FEMM recruiting now? How are they choosing mannequins to join them?
Honey-B: We are always looking out for more mannequins to join FEMM. The agents can judge which mannequins have the potentials to become FEMM, and they're selecting the mannequins using such ability.
W-Trouble: I'm sure that a lot of mannequins who've put up with mistreatment are on the same page.
Do RiRi and LuLa listen to music when they aren't working? What do they like? What do they do when they aren't onstage or filming?
Honey-B: Of course they love to listen to all kinds of music. We try to introduce a range of style to them. It's one if their studies.
W-Trouble: FEMM try to watch and learn from humans. When FEMM goes out lots of human surround them. They especially adore kids.
If RiRi and LuLa had a message for the world, what do you think it would be?Honey-B: RiRi says she is really happy and excited that lots of human agents have been so kind to her.
W-Trouble: LuLa is a healer. She think it's important to be calm, so that you can pay attention to others, like to mannequins too. There are a lot of false information out there about dolls, but if you can really understand the truth, it would be a better place for all of us. This is what she thinks.
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