Pop quiz! Which of these qualities makes a viral music video? Is it...
A. Dancing among flying doughnuts?
B. Unexplainable clusterfuck of Lisa Frank toys?
C. Harajuku-brewed fashion madness?
D. All of the above?
If you answered D, then clearly you've seen Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's 2011 music video for “Pon Pon Pon.” Five years ago this week, Japanese model turned pop star Kyary (whose IRL name is Kiriko Takemura) released the video for her hyperactive debut single, which has gone on to draw more than 95 million plays. It features Kyary singing in a cluttered room of rainbow toys, surrounded by skulls, bees, and flying pieces of bread as a solo, masked backup dancer shakes it in the background. Filled with moving parts and green-screen effects, the video is as addictive as its cartoonish electro-pop soundtrack, functioning like a moving game of I Spy. Did you see Kyary casually pick her nose right there? Why is that eye in the window crying blood?
“Pon Pon Pon” resonated with American audiences — not to mention fangirl pop stars like Grimes, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga — in large part because of its gleefully surreal imagery. Writer Patrick St. Michel has argued that Kyary's fame in the West has a lot to do with the way she stood in for aspects of “weird” Japanese culture that Americans love: the gothic Lolitas, the body pillows and kawaii cuteness. “It's an easy go-to story: Look at what bizarre stuff Japan is up to today — even if the subject is an extreme niche interest most ordinary Japanese people aren't even familiar with, or, alternatively, something that's culturally commonplace in Japan,” St. Michel writes. But three albums and a best-of collection into her career, Kyary is far from a one-hit wonder or a novelty act in the U.S. or Japan. Instead of being a branded weirdo, she actually might be a perfect pop star for our time.
Kyary's sound is notably different from most other Japanese pop stars. She's a solo artist rather than an idol in a huge girl group — Japan's biggest, AKB48, currently boasts over 100 members — and she's not a chart-topping singer-songwriter like Miwa (think the Japanese Taylor Swift). Many contemporary J-pop groups, like Perfume, lol, and GEM, have a heavy, dramatic EDM sound that couldn't be further from what makes a laid-back, trop-house hit in the West today. Kyary stands out from that crowd in part by mining musical nostalgia, with producer Yasutaka Nakata touching on a host of vintage genres from the baroque pop of ’90s Shibuya-kei to the picopop of the mid-’00s to make her hits — a unique approach that places her outside of both American and Japanese pop mainstreams.
And no, she can't really sing, nor do we even really know what her original singing voice sounds like, since she barely uses it live. Kyary has appeared in so many ads for Adidas, Suzuki, and more that it's easy at times to forget her singing career (her three albums have all peaked high on Japan's charts, earning platinum and gold certifications, and she's won five Japan Record Awards). Her outfits and photo shoots, which populate magazines and Tumblr blogs, are what made her popular in the first place, and they continue to embolden her fame. Her music videos, filled with Kyary playing fashion-obsessed vampires and queens and ninjas, seem to be almost 80 percent green screen. Her nonsense lyrics and many-wigged personas make her the sort of character you might find in some twisted Disney cartoon, and her songs are mostly about candy, true love, and even the joy of putting on fake eyelashes. A breakthrough pop intellectual, she is not.
So whether you think Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's fame is the sign of a coming apocalypse or a godsend is up to you. But I see a futuristic global pop fantasy: a freaky, tutu-wearing chameleon, a young woman who isn't oversexualized for the masses, a sugary pop machine who never plays her pop idol–dom too straight. Kyary presents a reliably fun alternative to the modern Western pop-industrial complex, where artists’ every move is endlessly analyzed for signs of growth or failure. You're either criticized for being an inauthentic bobblehead by pop skeptics, or lauded as a genius by people who take Top 40 far too seriously. The pleasures of Kyary's music and persona are simpler. While she emerged in an era when Lady Gaga and Katy Perry were wrapping Coke cans in their hair and shooting whipped cream out of their bras, today the flashy, bubbly American pop star has been replaced with a more down-to-earth creature. In that context, Kyary is way too cute, way too weird. She fakes it so much, she's actually beyond real at this point. And maybe that means she'll never be a huge pop star in America — but she'll always be an escapist treat for those who know her work. Not because of her exoticized “weirdness,” but because she might be having more fun than anyone else in the game.