No, not the Genius.
From the songwriter/producer who brought you Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and the choreographer behind BABYMETAL, I present… A group that is flashy in a different way but will never be as popular in the West. This Spotlight is dedicated to EDM-idol trio Perfume, known for their pounding beats, incredibly-intricate dance routines (performed in heels), instantly-recognizable hairstyles and love.
They’ve performed at the Tokyo Dome, Nippon Budokan, Paris, New York, and South by Southwest. They’ve been covered by Pentonix and are friends with OK Go. They’re probably the hardest working women in show business.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves….
Part I: Dream Fighters
Once upon a time, there were 3 pre-teen girls living in Hiroshima, who wanted to be J-Pop idols more than anything. In fact, they had met each other at a special training school and in their second year were finally allowed to form a group together, naming themselves ぱふゅ〜む (“Pafu~yu〜mu”). Armed with big dreams and… not much else, Ayaka Nishiwaki, Yuka Kashino and Ayano Ōmoto (“A~chan”, “Kashiyuka” 1 and “Nocchi”) practiced diligently day and night with their choreographer MIKIKO to “not lose to anybody.” (If you want to know what that environment was like, have a look at this video.)
At the ages of 13/14. they released two singles in their hometown before graduating. They were… certainly high-spirited, but still had a lot to learn. Nonetheless, they were considered worthy enough of moving to Tokyo and becoming junior indie idols.
I’m not saying this performance of their 2nd single,”Kareshi Boshuchu” (“Looking for a Boyfriend”), is good, but do keep it in mind as we move forward.
Meanwhile, there was an eccentric electronic-music producer named Yasutaka Nakata, gaining a name for himself with his group Capsule 2. Somewhat serendipitously, he became their producer and there was… friction at first. He Romanized their name to “Perfume” and coached them to deliver their vocals as plainly as possible while seated down–exactly the opposite of how they were taught. A~chan & Kashiyuka mention breaking down crying in the vocal booth.
As Nakata later noted, how much could a 23-year-old man and 14-year-old girls have in common?
While continuing their studies, Perfume released a trilogy of singles 3 plus B-sides in 2003-2004 heavily indebted to the “Shibuya-kei” style of the 1980s, chirpy in both voices & electronics. They became regulars at one shopping area’s open stage (showcasing their dancing prowess by performing hip-hop moves over Lil’ Kim’s “How Many Licks”–more on that later), handed out their own flyers on the streets of Akihabara and performed at small festivals to maybe a dozen people–half of which were from their label. Despite all their efforts, they were still not making inroads.
But they did not give up, and their management gave them a shot at a major-label debut anyway, as a “good experience to go out on.” The 3 of them convinced the higher-ups to keep MIKIKO on as their choreographer & they released another trilogy of singles in 2005-2006–but not before Nakata gave their sound and image a huge makeover. He envisioned “near-future technopop idols,” with auto-tuned vocals (which he now wrote) and plain, single-color outfits. If the members of Perfume objected to this change at the time, they certainly did not show it.
Their second of these singles, “Computer City,” reached #45 on the Oricon singles chart, but still few people took notice. They released a greatest-hits album and a live DVD, promoting the former inside of an Apple Store. “We hope you at least remember our name by the end of the show,” A~chan says.
Their 4th major-label single, “Chocolate Disco,” finally saw Nakata figuring out what to do with Perfume. It’s a Valentine’s-Day-themed song, about the Japanese tradition of girls buying chocolate for boys they like 4, and the wishes of the speaker to “Please let this feeling reach you / The day of showdown has come”. In fact, most of Nakata’s lyrics for the next 5 years would focus on teenage-girl melodrama.
Though not big at the time, it won them a major fan in the form of radio DJ Kaela Kimura, who promoted them heavily on her show. That attention led to them being picked up by national-broadcaster NHK for a recycling PSA campaign, using their new song “Polyrhythm.” Maybe you’ve heard it:
At long last, in September of 2007, here was their big break. “Polyrhythm” went to #7 on the Oricon charts, and all of their subsequent singles cracked the top 3.
Marty Friedman of Megadeath covered the song, calling them “the group that have the largest influence on the Japanese music industry in 2008”
4 years later, when the song was selected to represent Japan in Cars 2, John Lasseter personally invited the members to the LA premiere, saying “The moment I listened to ‘Polyrhythm’ I loved it; it was like falling in love.” 5
From here, their rise was swift, as if all the stored fuel finally ignited. Just as Brian Epstein put the young Beatles in suits but otherwise let them be themselves, people came for the J-Pop beats but stayed for the girls’ unique personalities (more on that later). They appeared on Music Station and other famous programs, graced magazine covers, hosted variety shows, performed at famous venues before thousands, everything they had ever dreamed and more. Yet the members to this day remain humbled by their success. I don’t think you can chase something for that hard and that long and not be grateful.
For their final song on their 1st tour, their crew arranged a surprise for them. Just feel the love…
…And again when their album GAME reached #1 (The first electronic act to do so since Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1983!)
The trio revisit their old school and meet the new students there who look up to them. 6
Perfume became one of the first idol groups (and still one of the only) invited to the large music festivals in Japan.
In 2010, they even make it all the way to the 50,000-seat Tokyo Dome!
Starting with this Tokyo Dome concert, they teamed up with the visual-production collective Rhizomatiks, led by Daito Manabe, to give their concerts a look that matches the grandeur of Nakata’s beats and the elegance of their dance moves. They are world-class in their own right.
Remember their dance-showcase “How Many Licks” performance from earlier? Well that eventually evolved into set-pieces like this.
The blew the crowd away at SXSW with this performance of a song called “STORY” written for the occasion.
Part II: Love the World
Why am I telling you all this? Why so much exposition? Because to me, where they came from is crucial to understanding Perfume’s appeal. Music-writer Patrick St. Michael says that the idol industry is built around the idea of the journey. That the performers are on a quest to the top (or some other destination), and you as a fan are right there with them to cheer them on–even if both sides know that it’s largely a facade. But the 3 members of Perfume have been on a journey–and have the bumps to prove it. They were not formed by an agency conducting a nationwide talent search. They weren’t even guaranteed a debut at any point! They fought for every release, every gig, every fan, together. Through sheer will power, they honed their craft and never gave up, and they were flexible/willing enough to tackle any idea, any challenge thrown at them. And through sheer chance, they stood out enough in the J-Pop world of 2007 that the whole nation took notice (AKB48 would debut a short time later and alter the landscape to this day).
Nakata later wrote a song for them about it: “Dream Fighter”.
I’m embedding this video to showcase the translated lyrics. For a better live experience, watch this one.
An idol’s modes of self-expression are limited. They don’t write their own songs 7 and even their interviews are often tightly controlled. But watching the girls of Perfume on stage or in interview chairs… they have a presence and a rapport that can’t be faked. They’ve quite-literally dedicated their lives to this and they’ve been through the ringer together.
What other group of people could be be brought to hysterics by breaking a friend’s birthday gift?
Perfume doesn’t answer to their management in quite the same way as other idols do, but they do answer to Nakata. (He sees Perfume—along with each of the other acts he writes/produces for—as “muses”. And Perfume are the “good girls” who will go along with almost anything… More on that later) So in this way Perfume exists at the intersection between artists and idols.
I’ve said before that it couldn’t have happened any way other than how it did. You could not have manufactured this (and others have certainly tried to since). In my opinion, I don’t think Kashiyuka or Nocchi would have ever made it in a traditional idol group: Kashiyuka because of her unusual, almost-child-like voice (used to great effect by Nakata) and Nocchi because… well, she’s Nocchi! She’s what TVTropes calls an “Otaku Surrogate.” She’s the one allowed to be weird and imperfect, and is even an avid gamer! We are all Nocchi.
Meanwhile, the girly, super-extroverted A~chan is often times the unofficial leader of the group, dominating interviews (though she is quick to quiet when the others talk), their pre-concert pow-wows and the audience-participation segments of their live shows.8. She’s also the most traditional-idol-like, having honed and honored her craft since childhood. Her singing voice is the most average-sounding, but her screams can fill and her smile can light up a whole arena (It really has to be seen to be believed). She will innocently lip-sync another member’s part or even make fun of them in interviews, but it’s obvious it’s all done in love.
And the posh-yet-cute Kashiyuka gives a little spice of sex appeal (and helps ground the group IMO). And of course her voice is distinct and her hair is something to behold. Yep… She sure is there…
These 3 GIFs replaced a whole mish-mash of other GIFs the night before, so be thankful.
But in general, Perfume have always opted to go for the glamorous route rather than relying on pure sex appeal 9–a move that, as it would have it, has granted them a longevity that others in their industry can only dream of. Perfume has a very wide fanbase; male & female, old & young, and–against all odds–across barriers of language & culture.
Like I said at the start, they’ll never have the novelty factor (TVTropes called it “Widget,” or “Weird Japanese Thing”) of Kyary or BABYMETAL. Nor the hipster points of whoever is popular in K-Pop right now. People have called them old-fashioned, despite their image of futurism.
And there are other criticisms I could say about them. Their high-pitched voices, how eager-to-please they seem, how Nakata has been phoning it in for X number of years, how they almost-always lip-sync during live performances… This last one has been a stickler for me too—but you know what? Watching their intricate dances, you won’t care. I could talk about their intersections with nationality or feminism, but I’ll spare you those thinkpieces for now.
Part III: Future Pop
Perfume exists at the intersection between artists and idols, the human and robotic, hot and cold, past and future, pure and corrupted. Like Daft Punk, their appeal lies in the continual tug-of-war between these two sides. Compare “edge” and “Kasuka na Kaori,” two of my favorites by them:
In addition to releasing their 6th major album, Future Pop, in August 10 and an arena tour this fall, it seems that Perfume are pushing new boundaries still. They have been busy with Rhizomatics and telecommunications company Docomo for their “PerfumeXTECHNOLOGY” and “REFRAME” projects, a series of art-like fusions of dance & visuals that seem to everyone like dry runs for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Rhizomatics & MIKIKO already organized the Rio 2016 handover ceremony). We in the fandom hope beyond hope that Perfume will get to perform there & dazzle the whole world, but the members will be 31 then in an industry where 25 is considered over-the-hill… So stay tuned, and…
From Hiroshima to Tokyo, from Tokyo to Japan, then Japan to the world, throughout metamorphoses of image and technology, they never really changed who they are. (They’re certainly more poised and professional now, but you can still see the eager children underneath.) After 17 years of performing together, they’re still driven towards new challenges and still use the same cute little self-introduction they came up with when they were just starting out.
They say that the true mark of a professional is to make the hard things look easy. If that’s the case, then Perfume are some of the biggest professionals in music I’ve ever seen. They’ve more than earned it.
For further reading–especially with regard to where Perfume fits into the J-Pop landscape, I recommend Patrick St. Michel’s discussion of them over on the One Week, One Band blog. He also literally wrote the book on their GAME album for the 33 1/3 Japan series.
They sure have come a long way.