From the Moment We First Met
339 · 26 July 01
Puffy AmiYumi: Spike
Any commercial artist who reveals themselves in their work, or seems to reveal themselves, or seems to reveal someone, almost automatically becomes an social iconographer in addition to whatever else they are doing. In some cases, arguably, like Seinfeld or Douglas Coupland's book Generation X, the main enterprise the work is consciously engaged in is the reduction and encapsulation of complex social realities into evocative (and portable) symbols. It is possible to make music without getting into this in any but the most abstract sense (instrumental electronica has perhaps the easiest time separating music from meaning altogether, but there are also a fair number of conventionally-structured rock bands I have a difficult time associating with any particular social agenda, the first few that randomly come to mind being Hogarth-era Marillion, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Michael Quercio's various projects), but it's next to impossible to make mass-market music, with all the associated videos and concerts and personal appearances, without turning into a walking advertisement for some combination of products and lifestyles and slang. I suspect there's a case to be made, albeit not in proper detail by me, that rap has embraced this facet of its reception so enthusiastically that by now, formally speaking, music is no longer its primary medium. Commercial pop, to the diminishing extent it and rap can still be meaningfully distinguished, is rapidly following suit. It would have made little sense to talk about Steve Miller as a role model; but not only does it make sense to talk about Britney Spears as a role model, it hardly makes sense to talk about her as anything but a role model (the meta-absurdity of a role model who's a role model for being a role model notwithstanding). She, or the organization that channels itself through her, is a fame artist. If necessary, the Britney machine could probably operate without music (especially if it had some other way to maintain her presence on TV), but if it were reduced to just music, in the way that an indie artist who puts out small-run albums and goes on occasional short, sparsely-attended van tours is, I strongly suspect it would simply collapse, or be forced to become something fundamentally different.
If I'm right about this, it means that mainstream rap and pop should, at least in part, be appreciated differently than these hundreds of variously obscure records piled around me that constitute the bulk of my life with music. I realize, after a moment's reflection, that I don't actually object to this. The opposite, in fact: I already tend to evaluate all artists as potential role models, regardless of how few people they are likely to influence. I'm more accustomed to the romantic poignancy of "what if this hopelessly obscure record went platinum?!" than to liking the ones that actually turn out to, but certainly Alanis Morissette's commercial success and personal demeanor in the face of it were important factors in how passionately I came to support her. I persist in liking the Spice Girls despite so far hating every bit of music any of them have been involved in except Mel C's solo album. I kind of like Jon Bon Jovi, Garth Brooks and Henry Rollins, none of whose music does anything for me. Underneath many, many levels of reservations, I guess I'm even basically fond of Britney, exactly the way I'm supposed to be. But I also look around, trying to imagine what it would have been like to be fourteen today, and subjected to twenty years more progress in media saturation, with as shaky defenses and underdeveloped processing abilities as I had at my disposal in 1981, and I wish desperately that I saw more popular culture that didn't seem to be taking advantage of those vulnerabilities so shamelessly. At best, what does Britney stand for? The idea that you can sell out completely to advertising without seeming to become totally dysfunctional as a human being in the process? I fear that in operating as a role model, despite having a lifestyle and body type that will be unattainable for most people, she's helping to destroy our culture's ability to have practical roles modeled for us. Our lessons in how to exist in our daily lives come increasingly from people who don't have to. I can see how someone who grew up wanting to be Mary Tyler Moore, or looking for her, could end up happy and productive, much more readily than I can extrapolate anything from Lil' Kim or Christina Aguilera or Sean Combs or Fred Durst. Of course, you might object, I've mixed my examples. Maybe Christina Aguilera is no worse than Diana Ross, and Mary Tyler Moore no better than Sarah Michelle Gellar. But therein lurks a painful irony, for me. I've emotionally accepted that television is going to be terrible almost all the time. I think as a medium for good art it's structurally and terminally flawed, and notable exceptions are incredibly rare. Music, on the other hand, especially if we mean songs and albums and not radio and MTV, seems to me to have nearly infinite potential. It's much easier to produce and consume than literature or movies, and its commercial constraints don't restrict its expressive range nearly as much as they do in other media (even if, as a cynic might counter, the only reason they don't is that music is typically received in such an unanalytical way that sedition can be expressed but almost never communicated). If there are ever going to be cultural corrections effected by popular uprisings, I believe they will be led by music.
So a component of my reaction to all music, but especially to anything that seems to have commercial potential or aspirations, is to wonder what it could change or reinforce or pervert, in the world, if it were suddenly granted ubiquity. There is a particular feeling, a lurch in my heart, that I feel just often enough to recognize, when I encounter something I think might change the world for the better, in some small way, and seems poised to maybe get the chance. I felt it when I saw My So-Called Life for the first time. I felt it when Nirvana started to take off, and again, in an oblique and painful sense, when Kurt killed himself. I felt it when I first heard Shampoo and Kenickie. I felt it when I read Geri Halliwell's autobiography.
The last time I felt it, a soccer game had just finished on television, and I was flipping around to see what new channels I had. My antipathy for television, in general, wars with my love of soccer, my despite-ambivalence dedication to movies, and my technophilia and obsessiveness, the latter forces emerging handily victorious, with the result that although I don't have every TV channel known to man, I do at least have all the ones my local digital cable company has figured out how to deliver. Their last upgrade brought me a number of things I'd been wanting, notably Telemundo (Mexican soccer), the Independent Film Channel, some extra MTV and VH1 channels that play old music, and the US version of the Canadian music channel MuchMusic. I'd have preferred it if they just sent me MuchMusic in its original Canadian state, just like I would rather see the BBC BBC instead of BBC America, but MuchMusicUSA is still different enough from the American music stations for there to be some initial novelty to watching it. And this time, when I flipped over, I landed in the middle of something startling. The music itself was only a small part of it, a strange brassy pop cross-breed somewhere between "Mambo No. 5", Pizzicato Five and Adam Ant's "Goody Two Shoes", and I didn't really like it. But the singers instantly mesmerized me. They were two young girls exactly the right physical types to be circa-2001 pop stars, but first of all, they were dressed in normal clothing, jeans and sweatshirts or their moral equivalents, their long hair just hanging down the way hair does if you don't interfere. And more importantly, and incredibly, they were not dancing. The rest of the cast of the video were whirling around them in typical frenetic pop-video fashion, but where the two of them ought to have been swept up in the aerobic chaos, they were instead cheerfully shuffling along in the eye of the storm, moving in rhythm to the music but the way you or I might, walking from the computer to the kitchen while a record is playing. I leaped to the conclusion, since neither girl was playing an instrument and the movements of the people that were weren't being blocked as if we were supposed to care about them, that the duo were manufactured pop stars, but in Britney's videos, or NSync's, the performers are part of the construct, collaborators in the manufacture. By refusing (I imagined) to learn any synchronized gyrations or flashy hand-gestures, though, these two girls tagging along in the middle of their circus had extracted themselves from the machine and declared an allegiance to us, and in doing so made a rare video in which the real audience, and its non-dream-world reality, was explicitly represented. They didn't sing like manufactured pop stars, either. Actually, they didn't even sing that well. And it sounded amazing. I staggered under the impact of something, not sexual attraction exactly, since they seemed too young for me, but a kind of visceral empathy for which I don't have any closer referents. I didn't like the song any better by the time it ended, but I went out and bought the album anyway.
The girls, I can now report, are named Onuki Ami and Yoshimura Yumi. They are from Japan, where they are collectively known as just Puffy, which has been amended to Puffy AmiYumi for this, their fifth album and first US release. They were just kids when they had their first hit in Japan, but now, a few years and what sounds like a full-scale media circus (including their own TV show and clothing line) later, they're in their mid-twenties. Maybe they will become massive stars here, too, now that Sony has put its mind to exporting them, and this explanation will come to seem redundant and inexplicable. Or maybe they'll never get past cult status. I'm no good at guessing, and won't bother. But I want them to make it. I want to see hordes of young girls dressed in comfortable clothes, and pestering their parents to sign them up for Japanese classes instead of to take them to fast-food places to collect Backstreet Boys and NSync promos. I want to see what kids not accustomed to being asked to think for themselves do when they start loving songs in a foreign language with translated titles like "Destruction Pancake" and "This Is the Song of Sweet Sweet Season When Cherry Garcia Blossoms Bloom". Maybe this is the next stage of a sneaky reverse cultural imperialism for which Pokémon was laying the groundwork. I want to see what happens when mainstream American youth culture latches onto Japan the way the underground picked up on Hello Kitty and the way Japanese culture has so happily absorbed and reprocessed Western pop. Noodles and sushi as the baseline cuisine, instead of burgers and fries. More global awareness. More cognizance of the costs incurred by our built environment.
And I would be thrilled if Puffy's approach to pop music ran the whole current generation of Western puppet pop off the charts. The song whose video I saw, "Boogie Woogie No. 5", has grown on me only a tiny amount. It's too muddled and opportunistic, too self-conscious about how many things it's borrowing and how willfully it's misusing them. It's also not very representative of the rest of the album. "Shut Your Mouth, Honey" is straightforward guitar/bass/drums punk-pop, complete with rustling tambourines, cracking snares, grumbling bass and braying electric guitar. "Cosmic*Wonder" is twittery disco spy-music, but "Destruction Pancake" sounds more like Tony Basil fronting the MC5. "Su-i Su-i" sounds a little like rockabilly played on toy instruments, and the companion piece "Sui Sui" switches to grown-up rockabilly tropes but throws in a weird Beach Boys surf-harmony hook. "Swimming Pool" is right off of a Seventies movie soundtrack, but "Green Apple" is peppy guitar pop to make Josie and the Pussycats proud, and the Cherry Garcia song is galloping, sort of Euro-Western and endearingly artless. "Into the Beach" is blasting rock. "Puffy's Rule" is a sprinting theme song that probably learned the form from cartoons. "Dec." is so sunny a California-pop pastiche I half expect to find out that the Japanese lyrics translate to "One is the loneliest number, / But two is the best!".
The music comes from a variety of sources. Long-time Puffy puppeteer Tamio Okuda, of the Japanese band Unicorn, produced and helped write six of these, Yakuma Shinichi and his band Sparks GoGo handled two, Furuta Takashi produced two more, and Jellyfish veteran Andy Sturmer took care of the other four. Ami and Yumi are credited collectively for music co-writing on two songs, lyrics on four, and individually for the words to two more each. Ami gets sole writing credit for "Destruction Pancake", and plays trumpet on one song and guitar on two; Yumi supplies sax on one and guitar on another. Mostly, though, they just sing. And while they aren't quite as confrontationally unpracticed as Shampoo, they sing like people, not divas, and the producers do not attempt to disguise this fact. They lose track of the melody when they get overexcited, they yelp a little at times, they plunge in blithe straight lines through passages that I suspect were written to have grace-note articulation. I wouldn't call Spike a punk album, by any means, but the lack of vocal manipulation alone would make it a stark contrast with its American peers, were it to make it onto the charts here.
And "Boogie Woogie No. 5" might be enough to get them there, but if Puffy are going to win the US over more lastingly than the Macarena did, they're going to have to do it on the strength of the English-language bonus track here, "Love So Pure", written, produced and played on by Andy Sturmer, who is also listed in the credits as the band's godfather. Jellyfish had some moments that approached simple pop perfection, but their over-the-top arrangement and production aesthetics tended to sidetrack them. Writing for Ami and Yumi, Sturmer seems to rein in his more baroque instincts, and what they end up with might be as great as any single pop song ever recorded. For that matter, it probably steals from most of them. The kick-snare-kick-kick-snare rhythm and guitar/bass framework could have been taken from the Go-Go's "Head Over Heels", the "ooh-la-la" harmonies from their "Turn to You", the theremin whooshes (Sturmer can't quite play it completely deadpan) from Nick Salomon and Mary Lou Lord's "Martian Saints", and the little "Dancing Queen" piano hook is a deliberate ABBA reference, if not a sample. Sturmer's English lyrics, which Puffy skip through without apparent difficulty, are an uncluttered profession of faith in love, lacking the twists of image or metaphor that drive "Kayleigh" or "Ana Ng" or even "I Melt With You", but instead casting this as a love song the girl sings about her romantic bliss, to her girlfriends. "The kind of love that lasts a girl for life!", she bubbles.
And it's only after hearing this whole album several times that I realize that "Love So Pure", track 14, is actually the same music as "Violet", track 2. This is an instructive lesson in how much difference words make in the way I hear music, not just the way I process its meaning, as "Violet" uses Puffy's own lyrics in Japanese instead of Sturmer's in English. Once I notice this I ought to write off "Violet" as irrelevant, but the two versions combined, I'm dumbfounded to discover, affect me even more powerfully than "Love So Pure" does by itself. I don't have the slightest idea what they're saying in the Japanese version, and the separate title and credits suggest it has nothing to do with what they're singing in the English version. But I imagine all sorts of things. I imagine that "Love So Pure" is the public statement, the simplified version of the love story, the way they explain it to strangers. "Violet" is the personal history, the texture and nuance of the lovers' passion that "Love So Pure" only asserts and refers to. How did they meet, where were they standing when they decided they were meant for each other, what do they think they've decided about marriage, and in what proportions is their confidence wisdom and innocence? What happens next? "Love So Pure" is unfinished until we find out how the story ends: if they really do last the rest of their lives, it's a triumphant anthem; if they break up two months later, or if even at the outset her trust and surety isn't mirrored, it could be a sad salute to crushed hope, or scathing condemnation of naïveté and the total unworkability of this syrupy conception of love. At least half of my feelings about this song remain locked in a Schrödinger's box until I get some resolution, but all the real clues, I imagine, are in "Violet". I need to know what they're saying. I search the web for translation, but can't locate one. I finally come across a "Lyrics" button, only to find that when I hit it, I get a script error, and they've hidden the code so that I can't debug it. But maybe, they implicitly admonish me, as I take a deep breath and back away from fury, the clues are in a foreign language for a reason. Maybe the chapters of their courtship, their itemized points of conflict and the terms of their reconciliations and compromises, aren't really my business. If they can be ecstatic in the moment, I should quit demanding that they explain how they reached it, and thus insinuating that they haven't. Maybe all they need me to do is to sing along, helping to celebrate that they happened, and to promise that when I find myself in that position, I too will believe in pure love so intently that it will defy whatever it has to defy to exist. And maybe all we need from them, in return, are gentle, cheerful, exhilarating reminders of what it is we're trying to earn the right to feel, how little it matters whether anybody but us understands exactly why we want it, and how superfluous it is to betray any part of ourselves in the quest.