Trying to Make Sense of British J-Pop Fans
Going to see Kyary Pamyu Pamyu was like a Boobar gangbang at Creamfields.
All photos by Jake Lewis
Sub-cultures used to be really easy to find: emo kids in Say Anything t-shirts loitered on unattended canal locks and disused bus stops, hard-boys in Ecko tracksuits with drawstring JD Sports bags ran provincial shopping malls in the hours between the shops closing and the cinema showing its final film, and indie children littered war-memorial parks with liquorice papered roll-ups and acoustic guitars stolen from school. Everyone had their own world.
These days, we’re no longer defined by our interests because our interests are scattered all over the place. We’ve all read at least one Upworthy listicle and Lipstick Traces. Sentient Ken dolls from Chelsea wear skinny jeans and listen to Kendrick Lamar. The line between urban and dance music is so blurred that we can do whatever we want.
Small pockets of sub-culture still exist though, but without any sense of permanence. They venture far away from your local Nandos, only appearing in real life when an appropriate event takes place: like a pystrance rave in a forest or a Don’t Flop event in Leeds. Even if it’s only for a couple of hours—a small pocket of time in between eating a microwave dinner and going back to work—people devote themselves to a fashion statement and way of life.
Kawaii—which can literally be translated to “cute” “loveable” and “adorable”—is a Japanese sub-culture that, fuelled by the internet, has traveled from Tokyo to the home counties. You’ll find it in things like Rilakkuma, Sailor Moon, and some J-Pop - non-threatening entertainment that has a loveable aesthetic.
Yet, while Kawaii’s spread across the world cannot be denied, it seems to exist mostly outside of the glare of public spaces. Beyond that Avril Lavigne video, Babymetal, and a couple of weird things on YouTube, J-pop has struggled for press attention in the UK. Yet 2000 people, mostly British teens, turned up at a sold-out Shepherds Bush Empire to see Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, a Japanese pop-star who regularly clocks up YouTube plays in the realm of 60 million ; triple what, say, Drake's last single, “Worst Behaviour”, received.
I walked around outside the venue for a little while, trying to figure out what Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has got that I need. But basically every answer I got sat somewhere between (A) the music is so cute and cuddly and (B) it’s really happy and I really like it. I asked one girl, who was holding a stuffed lamb toy and wearing a harajuku dress, if you can compare Kyary to any UK pop star. “Lily Allen”, she replied. So I should be expecting jokes about celebrities and references to daytime TV shows then?
Not quite. Kyary is on stage early - 8:30pm. The show - which includes the contents of a toybox, back-up dancers, and people in bear costumes - is like a Boobar gangbang at Creamfields, but even scarier than that sounds.
I suppose it's symbolic of reckless abandon and a want to be transported away from reality, or even melody. It's a place full of teddy bears, merry-go-rounds, and every pink emoji on the iPhone keyboard. It’s not that the music is bad; it just sounds like a trip to Peppa Pig World if I had ADHD and ate 10 bags of Buzz Sweets.
Kyary, who exclaims like someone that’s just baked the best fairy cake in the entire world talks, for the most-part, in Japanese. I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess that not every 17-year-old who traveled up here from the burbs in a Totoro onesie is a fluent Japanese speaker, yet they all seem to understand exactly what's going on, cheering and even laughing in the right places. I guess this is what it's like to see Adele in Buenos Aries or Kanye in Paris, you learn the cues of a rant or a gag or a request to make some noise. Kyary is the crowd’s Queen. They respond when she addresses them, punching the air when instructed and clapping in unison like they’re at a political rally. But when she doesn’t, we’re stood stock still; there are no mosh pits, no pushing and shoving, and no call-back of lyrics.
The crowd is very eager to have their picture taken. Unlike, say, a rap show, where someone will neglect to be in a photo because it will ruin their street-cred (whatever that means), Kyary’s fans love it. Tonight is the ultimate amalgamation of show-off, performance and escape; a chance to emulate a Harajaku lifestyle which, in their daily life of working in a supermarket, trying to complete A-Levels, and scrolling through Facebook, would be impossible.
Here’s a bunch more people that were really happy to pose for both our camera.
Her fans don’t just wear Lolita costumes and clap when asked, they also pay with notes for posters and marinate around the stage-door, waiting to catch a glimpse of their heroine. I understand that this happens with bands like One Direction but Kyary is different. She isn’t played on daytime radio or featured on MTV. She’s never been on the X Factor. Your Mum doesn’t know who she is.
We may not have a visible subculture in Britain but, behind closed doors, a Kawaii contingent exists. They’re passionate and supportive - travelling hours to catch an artist that holds the same importance as Pete Wentz did to the Myspace generation, or Pete Townshend to the Mods. We may be past the point of people visiting the beach to throw chairs at each other, or chavs setting someone alight because they like My Chemical Romance, but small subcultures still exist and British Kawaii fans are one of the most loyal.
The costumes are still mad as fuck, though.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanBassil