What a difference a year makes. As with last year’s Summer Sonic, Tokyo edition, I started the festival Saturday morning with the first act on the Sonic Stage, which this year happened to be Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, the mostly self-invented fashion-idol fixture of Harajuku, whose musical efforts are just one aspect of a personal brand best explained by her first entrepreneurial success, a line of fake eyelashes. It’s pointless to talk about irony because she’s as genuine as marketing gets and fools absolutely no one, including her millions of fans. I’m not going to say a lot of people bought tickets to SS this year, which, again, was said to be sold out, just to see her, but it was really crowded in the dungeon of the Makuhari Messe convention center for an 11:30 show, and the mostly female audience knew the songs and boogied vigorously. As dance-pop goes it was sufficiently entertaining and certainly superior to your average idol-related J-pop. Or, at least, the beats were. Everything else was conventional, from the cartoony backup dancers (all dressed like acid flashback hallucinations of junior high schoolgirls) to the Simon Says choreography and the requisite stage patter. It probably says more about Kyary’s status as a successful businesswoman than about her qualifications as a musician that she didn’t seem to enjoy herself too much, and I’m cool with that. In the space of a year she’s become a superstar performer and announced from the stage that she will be playing the Budokan in November. I assume she’ll have a larger repertoire by then; or, she can simply talk more.
But why was she at Summer Sonic? Ostensibly it’s a rock festival, though in recent years, for reasons lost on no one, it’s become more and more pop-directed. Kyary only played for 30 minutes, so her real purpose at the festival wasn’t to get her fans to show up, but rather to show her stuff to anyone who probably knew about her and was curious to find out more. As I mentioned above, many of the people in the hall obviously were already familiar with her songs, and that says more about cross-platform media exposure than any single appeal she may possess. “Fans” used to be defined by the artists they adored, but the term seems so fluid now. And as a friend pointed out to me the next day, a lot of the young women at the festival were if not Kyary acolytes then at least adherent to the same childish style parameters she champions so effectively, in particular those big false eyelashes, which were ubiquitous.
When it started, Summer Sonic was mainly a showcase for foreign hard rock acts, mostly punk and metal, which means it mainly appealed to boys. Over the years, it has also become a venue where vanguard indie artists could get their first exposure in Japan, and to a certain extent it still is, but commercial realities, which have seen foreign acts lose in popularity to homegrown ones, have come to the fore. Big foreign acts are still the main headliners, but parochial tastes are being served more assiduously, and not just tastes for Japanese rock. Perfume, the “veteran” idol J-pop trio, probably attracted more people to the main Marine Stage than any other act this weekend except Sunday night headliner Rihanna. I believe that because I watched the end of the show on the Jumbotron in the convention center, which contains the three secondary stages, and the place was relatively underpopulated at the time. I missed the teen, superhero-costumed female idol group Momoiro Clover Z‘s closing set on the mostly J-music-centered Rainbow Stage Sunday night. It was probably the most hotly desired “ticket” of the weekend, and reliable reports had the room as stuffed and stacked as the Saikyo line during the morning commute. Should we assume these people are all dedicated fans, rubber-neckers, or folks who know what they like and have given themselves over to the familiar pleasures of J-pop, even if they identify themselves as rock aficonados? Pop is no longer just for philistines, but rather than assume that the rock crowd (read: males) was succumbing to more frivolous pursuits, my eyeballs told me the pop crowd (read: females) were opening themselves up to a wider spectrum of experience, and not by hanging on the arms of their Offspring-T-shirt-wearing BFs. They traveled in orange-haired, temp-tattoo-sporting, glitter-makeup-applied packs, giggling everywhere they went, snapping pictures of one another standing in front of anything that might qualify as a landmark, including the artists on stage.
But back to that difference. Last year, the opening act on the Sonic Stage was Odd Future, the ragtag collective of skater-rappers from Southern California who attitudinally are the polar opposite of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Musically opaque and profanely provocative whereas Kyary is creatively inviting and deferential to everyone’s shared sensibility, OF didn’t attract as big a crowd, but those who came had obviously heard the buzz even if they didn’t know the music that well: OF’s beats are harsh and amelodic while their words are often indecipherable even to native English speakers, but the crowd enjoyed the purposeful chaos. Like Kyary they only played a half hour, so the set could have been called a showcase, but it’s hard to imagine these street kids giving a fuck about some manager’s or booker’s promotional gambit. You wanna fly us to Japan to play 30 minutes in front of people who won’t get us at all? Well, it’s your money. We’re just gonna party. I’m not sure if Kyary’s motivations can translate in quite the same way, but they may not be that different in shape.
SS continued the idea it started last year of featuring Asian indie bands on the Island Stage. In 2011, the stage was situated indoors in an area slightly off the beaten path and so didn’t get a lot of traffic. This year it was located in the parking lot outside the QVC Marine Field, which held the main stage, and thus was visible to all, but the few times I passed by there was never more than a few dozen people watching, if any. Still, it’s a good idea, a noble one even, and I hope the current “island disputes” with Korea, Taiwan, and China don’t intimidate reporters from covering the artists who played there, since those three countries were where all but two of the 16 bands were from. The only one I watched for any length of time was Guckkasten, from Korea, who were interesting and exciting in the usual postpunk manner–edgy, irreverent, loud, sartorially challenged. In that regard, they, as well as the rest of the Asian Calling roster, weren’t typical of the other Korean acts playing at the festival and who weren’t ghettoized in the same way. Though there were no top-line K-pop acts on the bill this year–no Big Bang or Girls’ Generation, who played at previous Summer Sonics–there were enough rock acts and second-tier pop groups to convince me that the organizers no longer look at Asian musicians as exclusively topical but rather as additions that improve the overall viability of SS as a festival. The Korean indie rock band, Jaurim, even headlined the Rainbow Stage on Saturday night. That said, I didn’t find the ones I saw distinctive. Infinite, a Korean boy band who, in the earnest K-pop style, sing well in both Japanese and English and were backed by an able rock ensemble, couldn’t quite transcend their busy choreography to exude anything like a presence. And Mayday, a conventional Taiwanese rock band, was, despite the subtitles on the big screen (in both Japanese and Chinese), dull in ways that so many rock bands are, mainly due to our overexposure to all the trappings of rock music. In such situations familiarity is the key to enjoyment, but there didn’t seem to be enough true, informed fans at either gig to make those who casually dropped in for a look-see want to hang around and get a feel for the groups, including me.
The smooth incorporation of more Asian artists into the Summer Sonic vibe also worked to contrast it more starkly with that other big foreigner-centered festival, Fuji Rock. The two festivals have always been more different than alike, but the differences were easy to describe: Fuji is rustic, SS urban. Fuji categorically refuses to feature idols or idol-identified pop, while SS has, at least in recent years, been only too happy to accommodate them. In this regard, Fuji has tended to stress what one person who books acts for it once described to me as “authentic music,” meaning artists who play their own instruments and are the authors of their art and image. Of course, Fuji has plenty of electro artists and DJs and dance acts, but even they somehow fall within this purview since they are usually masters of their own success. Idols and their ilk are “manufactured.” Fuji went all out with the authentic thing this year with at least a half dozen acts that identify as playing music that is Jamaican-derived even if they don’t come from Jamaica, and four groups from New Orleans. Fuji also features African groups quite often, as well as artists from South America and Europe who play what for want of a better term is called “ethnic” music. You get almost none of that at Summer Sonic though you do get foreign groups from places other than Japan, North America, and the UK. The thing is those groups all play something alike, music that is homogeneous, not locally derived. All the bands on the Island Stage played some form of globally familiar rock or dance music. The Korean acts all traded in traditional rock or dance pop forms. Romanian pop star Alexandra Stan sang traditional Eurobeat in front of canned tracks. For that matter there were no Japanese bands who played enka or kayokyoku. The closest you got was Def Tech x Dub Master X and Begin. Despite the heavy name, the former is an Okinawan outfit that plays mostly laid-back hip hop with the occasional Okinawan musical motif thrown in for spice. The latter is also from Okinawa but plays an acoustic, soft rock version of J-pop, sometimes on Okinawan instruments. I suppose you could call J-pop a unique, native musical style if you allow that it’s a unique, native musical style that’s less than 30 years old.
Still, the acts I enjoyed the most were pop, and for the same reasons that people always enjoy pop–because they satisfied my expectations. For the most part, the acts I enjoy at Fuji are the ones who surprise me or go beyond what they do on record. In that sense, Adam Lambert came closest to that particular ideal, since I don’t think his records do justice to his considerable strengths as an entertainer. Singing in front of a tight rock band he demonstrated excellent timing and thrilling moment-to-moment choices. The guy has peerless instincts as a showman and vocal skills that take full advantage of them. One could say the same for Rihanna, except that her material is better, or, at least, more original sounding. If her show lacked the visceral excitement of Lambert’s, well, that’s because it’s in a stadium and is a show, as beholden to planned spectacle as it is to its star’s peculiar gifts. It had a sort of Egyptian theme, with the head of Pharoah in the back emitting laser beams and dancers done up in a Nubian slave couture. I suppose you could say Lambert was more genuine (authentic?), since he only relied on his band for support, but Rihanna was amazingly composed for a young woman singing solo in front of 40,000 people, and certainly much more genuine than Ke$ha, who also had a set and backup dancers (in strange, bright red futuristic centurion getups). I like Ke$ha’s records more than I probably should, but most of the things I don’t get about her brittle electro-pop and self-made bratty club kid image were more prominently on display in concert. After she drank fake blood at the end of “Cannibal” I left, realizing that there wasn’t going to be anything that deepened my appreciation of her music or, for that matter, her appeal. Rihanna was different. Even during upbeat or salacious numbers there was a vulnerability to her presentation, and though I sometimes winced at the amount of extra juice she was getting from the mixing board I never once thought the voice wasn’t hers. I can’t say the same for the J-pop acts, for whom lip-syncing is a kind of sacred art. When Kyary Pamyu Pamyu or Perfume sing with their real voices, they’re blended in with processed pre-recorded vocals to the extent that it doesn’t make much difference. That, of course, is what makes it a pop show. The people get what they want, the hits in their original form. Rihanna did the hits faithfully, too, but somehow managed to elevate them with the force of her personality.
So what to make of Passion Pit? Though they would have been welcome at Fuji, I think they fit better at SS. Whatever Michael Angelakos’s emotional problems and however those problems are addressed in his music, on stage that music adheres resolutely to “pop’s pleasure principle,” to quote Pitchfork. Moreover, Angelakos seems incapable of pretension, and his desperate need for release–and for that release to be acknowledged by thousands of screaming people–is as liberating for the audience as it is for the artist. Due to preconceived notions of what this sort of electronic music is supposed to achieve, I have so far thought of Passion Pit as an indie band, but the sheer ambition on display at the massive Mountain Stage and the chops to make good on that ambition render them a formidable arena act. Angelakos was sweating through his shirt by the end of the first number, and though one can’t discount his good looks (those screams were more often than not squeals) it was his unhinged determination to lift us up that made it more than just a rock show. “How am I?” he said several times. It might have been more proper to include the band in that query, but we understood where he was coming from. He can only take responsibility for himself, and he was going to deliver it if it killed him. So a show that started out intense just became intenser.
But not as intense as Azealia Banks, who was assisted only by a DJ and two dancers in mufti. Like Kyary she only played a half-hour, performing the four songs from her “1991” EP and a few tracks from her mixtape, and it was enough to convince me that she has enough natural talent and originality to be the biggest pop star on the planet someday. Anything she raps or sings sounds as if it not only just occurred to her, but is the best idea you’re going to hear all week. I loved the way Rihanna oozed control, but Azealia oozed something more–cocky confidence in the service of control, like Donald Trump on a buying bender, only she’s not an asshole. If anything, she brings the audience in on the deal, assessing their level of acceptance and adjusting her delivery for maximum involvement. The hall was jumping and she played us like an instrument, moving over and under the beat, as if she were rolling it around on her experienced tongue. Rappers exhort while DJs move the crowd’s feet, but Azealia knew exactly where we lived and spat her lascivious lyrics right through our front doors.
The indie acts at SS tend to be the main draws for me, especially if they’ve never been to Japan before. If anything, I like to watch the interaction between artist and audience, since many of the former often develop certain ideas about what the latter are going to be like, and though they all express pleasant surprise at the reaction, I think the reaction is sincere, mainly because I think Japanese concertgoers are sincere, or, at least, more so than Americans, who respond as much to the fact that they’re at a concert as they do to the artist. When a musician tells me that he appreciates how quiet and respectful Japanese audiences can be, I think to myself: It’s probably because they’re bored. Festivals bring out this honesty more starkly, because people are free to come and go. (The exception at SS is the Marine Stage, whose crowd control exigencies are so Draconian one has to make an effort to actually get up and leave, especially if you’re down on the field.)
But I found it difficult to assess the crowd’s response to Grimes, the Canadian electro-pop unit that is essentially a young woman named Claire Boucher and a panda-hatted assistant playing samplers and synths. Though there weren’t many Kyary clones in the audience, Boucher might have appealed to them if only for her outward vibe: she’s small and cute with long hair topped by cat ears, and speaks in a chirpy tone. In an interview she did with Tokyo Time Out she even voiced her admiration for Kyary. She was obviously thrilled to be playing her first-ever date in Japan and dedicated it to the women of the punk band Pussy Riot, who had just been sentenced to prison in Russia. “I’m happy to play music and not go to jail,” she said. Though not as relentlessly upbeat as Kyary’s songs, Boucher’s tunes have distinct melody lines that break through the thick, dark textures, and if anyone was confused by this seemingly contrary juxtaposition, she sang like a pop maven, shimmying provocatively behind her equipment, holding her mike in one hand and twirling knobs with the other. If she hired a third person to do the knob thing and spent all her time at the front of the stage, she’d probably be a superstar. As it was, people seemed more fascinated than stimulated, but by the end of the set they adored her, as much as for what she is as for what she played. I’m still trying to figure out the difference.
A more conventional electro-pop indie figure, Gotye–real name Walter De Backer–was even more engaged in creating a rapport specific to his local fans. He spoke Japanese, and very well, too. Though his songs are lighter than Grimes’, they’re also a bit more complex, and it took several to win the crowd’s affections, but toward the middle of the set I noticed a fair number of people making for the exits. Obviously they had come to check out the buzz and hadn’t been sufficiently won over. I understood the feeling. Though Gotye’s recordings demonstrate uncommon thoughtfulness in creating something fresh, on stage the songs lacked a kinetic element that would have made them as infectious as De Backer thought they were. Which isn’t to say you have to give the people something to dance to; only that music is organic in the way it affects the listener. The next day, at the same Sonic Stage, I saw the American group Other Lives, whose diffuse, mostly acoustic songs built on a few chords and some slight melodies–not to mention their hippie-like appearance–at first made me think they might be from Denmark or Iceland. It wasn’t dance music at all, but it swept the room up in its emotional urgency because somehow the people who stayed for the whole set were open to it, and the band’s presentation was nothing if not fully integrated toward that effect. The night before I had caught a half hour of Sigur Ros–who are from Iceland–at the Mountain Stage, and while I’ve always found their brand of climax-fixated postrock limiting, you couldn’t mistake the mood of utter bliss in the huge room. When you do that kind of rhythmless thing right, you can beat the shit out of disco.
So I was more than perplexed by the reaction to St. Vincent, known to her friends and family as Annie Clark. (What is it with solo indie artists and the need to hide behind band names?) Though Azealia was, minute-for-minute, the best thing I saw all weekend, Clark was the act that pushed my buttons most memorably. Though much of it had to do with her slithery, funky compositions, it was mainly her angular, spiky guitar style. Later, I realized how little actually compelling rock music I heard all weekend. Bands like Tribes or Death Cab for Cutie or even Garbage were no longer able to secure a purchase on my full attention. It might have been different if it was rock music by bands I grew up with since in those cases the songs are hot-wired into my nervous system, but the oldest groups at SS–New Order and Tears for Fears–emerged during a rare dry spell in my annals of music obsession. And to me Saturday headliner Green Day was already pretender punk before they became the biggest power trio on earth. Perhaps as I advance further into middle age I’m actually receding into a more adolescent acceptance of the primacy of pure pop, but in any case the 4/4 ain’t doin’ it for me any more. Annie did, because in her hot pants and suggestive lyrics and weird time signatures and jerky stage moves (“She’s the only person I know who’s a better dancer than me,” the guy who runs the record company that releases her stuff in Japan told me approvingly) she made me want to understand her less-than-conventional rock songs and conventional-to-the-point-of-brilliant guitar playing. People left in droves, but I’d like to think that those who stayed learned something new about life.