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Pattern Recognition Vol. 10: Pon! Cuter Love

In this edition of his monthly column, Adam Harper—the premier writer on emergent, underground music—deconstructs the cuteness, prevalent in J-pop, that is the hallmark of a new movement. Illustration by Inka Gerbert.


I think Power Lunches is my favorite club in London right now. The place is like a weird light blue diner and it’s always full of aliens. It’s got flamboyant artificial plants and avant-garde beer bottles and its sound system is proper good—it loves to make a parping noise that sounds like the universe ripping open. Weekend before last, I squeezed myself into its basement and had my brain scrubbed by digital damagists Brood Ma and Recsund, then soothed by the elegant dream-dance of Emotional. Last weekend I dragged some friends down there with the promise of cuteness.

The night was JACK댄스 (which translates to “Jack Dance”) and the bill read A.G. Cook, Felicita, Sophie, DJ Paypal and Tielsie. Everyone who came in was given a sticker of the head of a chuffed-looking retro anime space boy, angled like he was just turning round and was dead pleased to see you. A.G. Cook did an adorable mix for DIS and turned up on that Xmas miracle, Christmas 2.0 Forever, which saw like-minded U.S. label Priz Tats team up with Cook’s own hypervirtual.magic browser-based label PC Music. Lately, Cook and PC Music have been racking up thousands of plays with sprightly hi-voiced and proper cute London-flavored bangers like “Pink and Blue” and “Like You”. Felicita has been mangling up small rooms in London with the most diverse sets you’ve ever heard for a while now, and has cute, playful and groovy experimental tracks like “Climb Up Eh” and “Doves”, where in the video this little kid eats a load of chocolate spread and makes you well jealous!

DJ Paypal I knew from Sewage Tapes, the same place I found a i r s p o r t s, Karmelloz and RAP/RAP/RAP. Paypal also did a Boiler Room set full of all your fave cute lil uptempo hardcore voices and is one of my best friends on the internet, helping me to keep my financial information private and protected while I shop online. Tielsie I didn’t know, so before I went I looked up his Soundcloud and found some cute, fast high-pitched juke, a DIS mix in which Tielsie introduces her/himself in the voice of a young female android, and a fuckin’ lovely fast remix of one of my favorite tunes of 2013, Sophie’s “Bipp”.

Oh yeah, Sophie, who you might have heard of. Well, we all thought Sophie’s set was one of the best things we’d moved our tushies to in ages, and it was cute, too. The set sounded like it was full of new material—wiggly synth lines and pushy pop divas with their voices pitched up, like grime all painted pink. The other acts played all kinds of tunes—I think we heard Avril Lavigne and a rave remix of the Fireman Sam theme tune. So yeah, it wasn’t a dubstep night or anything.

Cuteness is coming up. Seems like a network of younger producers and DJs are not particularly inclined towards the more po-faced and straight-laced tastes and traditions, be they the screwface macho mainline of the old UK hardcore continuum or the leagues of frowning analogue avants or the Right and Proper Preservation of House. They’d rather have the even more euphoric, poppy, often faster-paced melodic hardcore with pitched-up vocals—the whole thing pitched up really, often so’s there’s no real bass to speak of—and a pinch of weirdness thrown in. And it’s not just in London: A.G. Cook and Sophie have appeared at a Creamcake night in Berlin, Tielsie is from Lyon, and the Rustie-led sparkly sound of Glasgow, Brighton and other U.K. parts has been heading in this direction for years. Most of all, in various mostly-U.S. currents in the online underground, it’s looking like cuteness is a slowly awakening giant. Or maybe it’s more of a small pink furry thing puffing itself up and trying to look like a giant and going rrraaarrrr and ending up looking adorable instead.

‘Cuteness’ is not quite the same as ‘twee’. Twee has been coming and going in independent music for decades, and even though both relate to pure, direct, positive emotion and childhood, ‘twee’ tends to refer to a gentle, old-fashioned, handmade aesthetic. This cuteness is electronic, virtual and intense. The cuteness I’m talking about is not really a sexual attractiveness either. It was best refined in Japan, where it bears the name ‘kawaii‘.

Meaning ‘lovable’, ‘adorable’ and, yep, ‘cute’, kawaii might be one of the most prominent aesthetic currents in contemporary Japan. You’ll know it from Pikachu and Hello Kitty. Kawaii celebrates innocence, diminutive size, high-pitched sounds, big eyes, tiny mouths and the all-round vividly neotenous, or biologically childlike. Although kawaii itself isn’t particularly mixed up with sex or sexual objectification, it leads to some harsh standards of physical beauty and even attitudes to romantic behavior that could be regarded as regressive, so it’s not all puppies and pumps. But while manga and anime involve representations of the human form that are cute and neotenous, only a small amount of it significantly embodies kawaii culture. The same is true of J-pop and K-pop—there have recently been videos with child-like color palettes and playful themes (such as Crayon Pop’s “Bar Bar Bar” or Dream5’s “Doremifusorairo”), but there are just as many rugged and sexy acts in J-pop as in any other pop milieu. It takes a particular effort to fully embody kawaii in both image and music.

In recent years, that effort has come from the one J-pop musician most famously associated with kawaii, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Kyary, or to use her full name, Caroline Charonplop Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, went viral in and outside of Japan with the 2011 video “PonPonPon”. It depicted her as a child in bright pink patent boots, procrastinating with a number of absurd props and poses when really she should be tidying her bright pink and blue bedroom. Whether you understand Japanese or not (although if you were to guess at a cross between a pom pom and a bon bon, you’d be pretty much there), the song’s extraordinary catchiness is undeniable—little vocable bubbles earnestly hopping and skipping through a big (doll)house extravaganza. Kyary’s songs are written and produced by Yasutaka Nakata (who has been behind a few other J-pop projects), and last summer’s Nanda Collection, along with its videos, handed her the cherry-trifle-like crown of the kawaii princess. And say what you like about cuteness, but I think the way she turned up to a TV studio wearing a bow so enormous that it eclipsed the boy-band sat behind her, drawing complaints from the band’s fans, was pretty fucking funny.

While you might have feared that Kyary’s music, videos and performances are little more than a raging torrent of soft, small, pastel-colored objects and lurid affirmation, what makes her art supremely cute is not ultimately the intensity of the cute imagery, but the subtle and charismatic way she wears it. Underneath all the sets and costumes, the slightly restrained, modest, almost shy way she performs the songs and their dance routines cleverly makes her both human and even more cute, since cute things are sooooooo much cuter when they aren’t aware of their cuteness. Kyary’s western counterparts, usually considered to be Lady Gaga and Katy Perry but almost any other pop star really, are flawless machines of fabulousness, intimidatingly athletic and confident. Kyary, on the other hand, toddles along with a slight bob, a little sway and a bashful smile, brilliantly offsetting the gargantuan totems of kawaii that surround her.

I think the essence of cuteness is not just in being cute, in being diminutive, young, pastel-colored, sweet-tasting per se. It’s in being made cute, in having to perform cute, and perhaps in getting it slightly wrong in the process. Kyary’s critics point out that she isn’t anything special as a singer or dancer, but they’re missing the point. Kyary is not a spectacular pop deity—she looks like her parents dressed her. What’s cute is not the larger-than-life dresses, but the way the person wearing them is not quite as large. It’s not cute because her videos transform her into a princess or a fairy or a puppy, it’s cute because each one of them is her fancy-dress birthday party, with her at the center of attention. It’s not cute because she’s surrounded by monsters and robots, but because she’s surrounded by people in costumes, pretending. And yet you can be quite sure that all this is a deliberate tactic on her part—I think Kyary dresses up as ‘dressing up’. Her act is about getting by in the world with a dash of courage and self-confidence when all kinds of crazy expectations and situations are foisted upon you. And so, surprisingly, it’s very relatable.

In fact, plenty of the elements swirled into her video sundaes are quite fearful, lending them a tragicomic feel, as if their dramatizations were a way to defend herself against the dark. “PonPonPon” featured brains, eyeballs, skeletons, an anatomically correct heart and a tank. Kyary’s dancers always have their faces obscured, sometimes by numbers or characters, as if they were extras in some oppressive dystopia. Several of the videos end with strangely silent tableaux, some where the performers hold their poses for so long that the kawaii drains away—in “Candy Candy”, the camera also pans back to reveal the studio equipment, and thus how it was all just ‘dressing up’. “Mottai Night Land”, whose name derives from the term for wastefulness, is particularly complex, suggesting nightmares, death, defecation, sexual objectification, fear of sex, manipulation and atomic warfare, and has a creepy moment when you realize that Kyary and her pals are dancing in front of a giant red chainsaw. When you remember that the figure at the center of all these parades is a representation of a pre-pubescent child, the videos can become remarkably poignant.

Like all non-Western pop, Kyary has offered underground Westerners a welcome alternative to our own tedious, oversexualized dance-pop chart-toppers, and it’s made her a hit on Tumblr, which is increasingly the young mutant’s alternative to Facebook. Because of the way subcultures can more readily rub shoulders online, the Japanophile underground has been blurring together with the online new-music underground, seeing anime imagery and references frequently cropping up in the latter. Vaporwave, with its big-hearted and awkwardly eager-to-please melodies, can be seen as a reflection of cuteness, and has always had a solid Japanophile element—Kyary has received the vaporwave treatment at least once, and the name and cover of a recent Fortune 500 release references classic magical girl anime Sailor Moon.

The one online genre most consistently associated with cute (and often, regrettably sexual-objectified) anime-style imagery is nightcore and its various cousins in hi-tech hi-speed helium hardcore. With a method that parallels the minimal interventions of vaporwave, for the past decade nightcore has become popular on YouTube by raising the speed and pitch of dance pop tracks and often mixing them together into hour-long sets. This makes the tracks much cuter, which is probably why it seemed right to match it with pictures of neotenized anime females (type the word ‘nightcore’ into Google image search, and you’d think it was a style or art rather than music). J-core is similar, being either hardcore from Japan, hardcore derived from J-pop or other Japanese samples, or both. Last year a decent effort from Iowa’s Kanja, ブラウン管 [BURAUNKAN] rose up the J-core tag chart on Bandcamp, mixing a restless range of different hardcore textures with pop samples and 8-bit synth, and it features a bit of a gem, “Tap That”. It also has a remix of Kyary’s “Furisodation” and the cover has a cutie dog with a boo-boo on it!!!

The California-based Zoom Lens label has a japanophile and cute flavor in much of its imagery and music, which blends dreamy indie with 8-bit and rave euphoria. Slime Girls’ Vacation Wasteland offers really well-composed melodic rock album rendered in 8-bit, yasumiyasumi’s Tokyo Digital Love is a more diverse, almost cinematic take on the same, while i-fls’s Residential Town Loneliness skirts vaporwave with its endearing lil instrumentals (more of which can be found on their own page). One of the more prominent hubs of middling-to-strong cuteness has been the TinyChat (a free online chatroom service) gig platform SPF420, where gigs have an overwhelmingly warm and upbeat atmosphere and where the track selection mixes underground sounds with songs so unashamedly poppy you wonder whether you’re at a school disco.

Zoom Lens is co-run by Meishi Smile, whose album Lust was released last Tuesday on Attack the Music, a label that has previously released J-core compilations. With a sad blue moekko on the cover, it’s been an instant hit with Bandcamp account-holders and explores a more expansive take on mildly 8-bit melodic cuteness over a pumping anthemic beat, mixing the build-up and drop structures familiar from blissful trance with some of the bittersweet emotional blur of vaporwave and shoegaze. One of the better remixes comes from Yoshino Yoshikawa, who also has a track called “Kawaii Candy”. Meishi Smile has performed sets for SPF420 and released an EP on the long-running Tokyo-based label Maltine, who got some love from SPF420 in a recent interview and tend to put out a chill, often cheesy or kawaii-flavoured dance and electronica of the sort that’s currently spreading throughout the post-vaporwave underground.

If 2014 is going to be a year of cuteness in the online underground, it represents yet another in a series of severe challenges the area has posed to the tastes of more traditional music undergrounds. First there was seapunk, then vaporwave, and now this?! All of them are ridiculous affronts to classic cool and bearded vinylologists—it’s like they don’t yearn to be taken seriously by the establishment or something! But since they’ve been matching the DIY ethos of punk with its brash, unashamed attitude—and a lot less of its original negativity—I guess that’s exactly the point. (ノ◕ヮ◕)ノ☆ かわいい! ☆(◠‿◠✿) ~


Adam Harper is the Rouge’s Foam blogger and author of Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making. For more editions of Pattern Recognition, click here

Published February 06, 2014. Words by Adam Harper.