J-Pop And Its Unlikely Fusions

By Jack Cooper

KISS. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the band is more readily associated with their distinctive make-up and avant garde performances than with their music itself, elevated as they are to the status of hard rock icons. They obtained almost universal recognition in the mid-to-late 1970’s with their infamous live performances, highlights including fire breathing, pyrotechnics, and blood-spitting – sometimes simultaneously. Of course, KISS is not the only artist to place such a focus on pushing the boundaries of performance, Bowie springing immediately to mind. KISS has traditionally avoided collaborations with other artists, preferring to keep their performance distinct from their contemporaries. It would take a break-out act from the Japanese pop scene to change this.

The KISS brand is known worldwide, and Japan is no exception. KISS has toured Japan 11 times; their prominence so great that they have even collaborated with Hello Kitty, the feline in question playing dress-up with the black and white makeup of KISS members. However, this mash-up of aging rock icons and Japanese popular culture was but a caffeine buzz to the drunken stumble that is Yume no Ukiyo ni Saite Mi na (Try to Bloom in a Dream about the Floating World), their joint single with girl group Momoiro Clover Z.

A collaboration between the two groups may not seem like the most natural fit. Momoiro Clover Z is a deliberate parody of the excesses of J-Pop. Their performance and music videos descend into tongue-in-cheek, saccharine mania, and their music often bridges disparate genres within the same song, the group achieving and surpassing the revolution of pop music that Lady Gaga aimed for at her prime.

While it is true that Momoiro Clover Z could be seen as the natural culmination of Japanese idol culture, it would be simplistic to see them just as an exaggeration of their competitors. Momoiro subverts typical J-Pop imagery in the same way that KISS subverted rock. They twist the femininity expected from female pop stars, pairing dehumanising, barbed masks with tutus in one music video, and performing complex choreography that combines ballet with rave. This provocative edge has gained them legions of fans, being the first female group to hold a solo concert at the National Olympic Stadium, a feat achieved by only six acts before them.

In this light, a KISS/Momoiro single begins to make more sense. Both bands place great emphasis on performance and personal brand. Before their collaboration was conceived, the members of KISS watched videos of Momoiro Clover Z performing. Co-lead singer Paul Stanley was impressed by the spectacle, enthusing “spectacular show! Great choreography! Music like we never heard before. We said, “this is something we can do!””.

The result was underwhelming at best, KISS composing and performing the track, and Momoiro Clover Z providing vocals. Combining the two bands simply created a song with the clichés of both, and the innovation of neither. KISS delivers a track that is neither fresh nor interesting, and Momoiro Clover Z provides none of the drama that typifies their other songs – there are no howling choirs or clipped repetition to be found here. Given that much of the appeal of both bands comes from their strengths in performance, all could be forgiven if the music video delivered on the promise of this unusual fusion. Sadly the video is fairly bland, a strange hybrid of anime and live-action that culminates in a stare-down and the characteristic KISS tongue.

It would be easy to blame this failure on an incompatibility between the respective genres of KISS and Momoiro Clover Z. It is hard to imagine how hard-rock/metal and super-pop could be combined in a way that honours both, while creating something new. That is, it is hard to imagine until you see it executed flawlessly by BABYMETAL, a trio of Japanese schoolgirls who deliver frenzied metal verses alongside cutesy pop choruses. BABYMETAL have gained a degree of international renown, and even performed at Reading Festival 2015. Probable attempts to distance their collaboration from the style of BABYMETAL worked to the disadvantage of KISS and Momoiro Clover Z, but although they failed to deliver novelty this didn’t stop commercial success. Yume no Ukiyo ni Saite Mi na reached number two on Japan’s Oricon weekly singles chart, and formed the basis of a joint tour.

Mainstream Japanese pop music has maintained an experimental, inventive outlook largely lost to its British and American equivalents, and it can only be hoped that this filters through, whether it happens with the help of KISS, or not. J-Pop frequently drives pop music to logical extremes, creating a diversity not seen elsewhere. This could not be more clearly illustrated by the existence of AKB48, a Japanese girl group with an ever-changing roster of members, with any of its 48 members replaced once they reach the age of 25. AKB48 is the logical conclusion of Japanese idol culture, where artists are equally (or indeed more) valued for their personality and appearance than their talents, and are expected to be accessible to their audience. Indeed the motto of AKB48 is “idols you can meet”, a promise greatly aided by its sheer size. While it seems unlikely that J-Pop will ever gain much prominence in the west, collaborations such as that between KISS and Momoiro can at least expose western audiences to pop artists with music as formidable as The Starchild and The Demon

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