SOPHIE and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu Are Working Together—So Who's Next?
Which J-pop stars could team up with Western producers now?
This article was originally published in THUMP UK
The last few weeks have seen exciting collaborations emerge between big-name Japanese pop stars and in-demand Western producers. J-pop's reigning queen of kawaii Kyary Pamyu Pamyu revealed she was working on music with SOPHIE, the Numbers-affiliated UK producer responsible for some seriously bubbly, technicolour dance tracks over the past year, and Parisian pop outfit Yelle. Soon after, Pharrell Williams presented a remix of the theme song to graphic designer Takashi Murakami's full-length film, Jellyfish Eyes.
That song featured the voice of Japan's top digital pop star Hatsune Miku, who also just opened up for Lady Gaga on some of her American dates. The aqua-haired singer appeared in a video alongside a cartoon Pharrell, complete with his giant hat. For a long time, J-pop was usually synonymous with blaring Dance Dance Revolution machines, squeaky singing and anime in countries like the United States. Regardless of whether those assumptions were true (they weren't), music from Japanese was always held at arm's length away, and never, ever remotely "cool."
Recently though, that's been changing. Producers have embraced the "cute" sounds of J-pop, while Japanese pop-culture imagery has become far trendier than ever before, especially on Tumblr. It's resulted in culture-blurring works like Princess Nokia's Metallic Butterflyand Ryan Hemsworth straight-up remixing J-pop. This change in how J-pop is perceived, coupled with exciting collaborations like the above, hint at the collaborative possibilities.
It isn't a totally new development. Meetings between Japanese and Western artists outside the commercial dance realm have popped up in various forms. The godfather of house Frankie Knuckles worked with Satoshi Tomiie and Ryuichi Sakamoto teamed up with Iggy Pop in the 1980s. More recently, producers such as Niles Rodgers and Timbaland have worked with famous J-pop stars. The key difference with those collaborations though, is that those were low-key team-ups that mostly flew under the radar. The Kyary/SOPHIE and Pharrell/Hatsune meetings featured articles devoted to them, and special music videos. There's more care and attention to curating a sound and aesthetic that marries the two, rather than a surface-level indulgence in the Other.
With Kyary and SOPHIE, it also makes a ton of sense. Both are associated with upbeat -pop sounds with a sinister edge, and there are plenty of other opportunities for complimentary collaborations. One of the rising pop groups in Japan at the moment, Dempagumi.inc, are a neck-snapping outfit whose songs zip in all sorts of directions, unafraid to reverse direction into an entirely new sound. It would be an intriguing match-up with someone like Rustie, whose tracks move in similarly hyperactive, unexpected shifts.
Dempagumi is an idol-pop outfit, a sort of J-pop pop unit usually made up of young women. In 2014 they usually have themes, often tied to a specific genre (though, with Dempa, the theme is "manicness"). One of the most interesting is young six-piece Especia, who mainly rely on throwback disco sounds but who also dabble in the realm of vaporwave. It would seems natural then to perhaps work with an artist like Saint Pepsi, an SPF420 regular merging the two sonic worlds together.
Bigger is the long-running outfit Morning Musume, who for most of their career have been associated with cheery pop tunes. They've undergone a strange transformation of late; turning into an EDM-pop outfit that's making the bass-heavy style that's currently more popular in Japan. Teaming up with an established EDM act would be a further way to spread their sound, and working with young festival-staple Porter Robinson would be intriguing. He already has expressed interest in Japanese music, and his new album features heavy use of Vocaloid, the software behind Hatsune Miku's digital singing.
Another pop star who dabbled in the wub-centric sounds of EDM was Koda Kumi, who tried out the style a few years back. She didn't stick with it though, and 14 years after her debut she's stylistically adrift and in need of a musical makeover. An easy fix—that would also win her points with a Miley-obsessed Western pop audience—would be fixing up with American rap-turned-pop producers like Mike Will Made It, who touches on the styles Kumi's made her name in Japan through (R&B, hip-hop and pop) while doing it in a way that's fresher than her previous efforts over the past decade. If she—or similar solo singers Namie Amuro or Nishino Kana—wanted to really wanted to make a splash, they could shell out for in-the-moment track maker DJ Mustard, and his slinky, minimalist approach.
On the artsier side of the fence is Shiina Ringo, often called Japan's answer to Thom Yorke or Björk. Her teaming up with the likes of Flying Lotus—who already counted Yorke as a partner, and wishes to work with Björk—would make lots of sense, though nearly anyone on the Brainfeeder or Hyperdub imprints would make sense too. For an artist whose best work was all about exploring where sounds could go, working with electronic labels sharing the same mission would be fascinating.
The other way around works, too. Japan is experiencing a boom in great, forward-thinking producers, who could present new sounds for Western acts. Kobe's tofubeats make colourful, hip-hop leaning music that would work wonders with a wonky rapper like Chance The Rapper, while Avec Avec's luscious candy-coated beats could sound even better with the marmalade voice of Rick Ross. The shape-shifting Seiho meanwhile has already collaborated with pop stars and rappers in his home country—so maybe someone abroad could dive into his world.
The key with all potential collaborations—and all existing ones—is to give ample time to the Japanese artist. If Avril Lavigne's atrocious "Hello Kitty" can teach us anything, it's that Japanese artists deserve an equal voice in whatever they are working on, and not relegated to be human wallpaper. Kyary is getting as much billing as SOPHIE, while Hatsune Miku (admittedly, not an actual human) receives more focus than anime-Pharrell. And that's how it should be—equal.
Patrick St. Michael is an American music writer and J-pop fan, who currently lives in Tokyo: @mbmelodies