By Greg Beck (Hiroshima-ken, 2006-11) for JQ magazine. Greg is a writer, producer, home brewer, and Social Coordinator for JETAA Southern California and Arizona. A former news producer for Tokyo Broadcasting System in New York, he currently works freelance in Los Angeles. For more cinema reviews, follow him on Twitter at @CIRBECK #MovieReview.
Written by JET alum Patrick St. Michel (Mie-ken, 2009-11) and released earlier this year, this insightful work of nonfiction is part of a series called 33 1/3 Japan, also related to a larger, global series of short, music-based books sharing the 33 1/3 title. This book specifically goes beyond simple fandom, providing a master class on the early-to-sophomore career of the pop group Perfume, and how their album GAME would become an important influence in popular music on the international level.
To call Perfume’s GAME a “deep dive” is both understatement and compliment. From its first chapter, St. Michel’s decade of experience writing about music shines. That’s an extremely difficult task for the written word, given we perceive music using a different sense entirely. Descriptive prose does an excellent job identifying and elucidating songs and their smaller components. St. Michel starts with a modest introduction of his personal discovery of Perfume and how it helped him connect to his Japanese community, which for any JET alum should feel familiar, if not nostalgic. Next, he tells the story of the members of Perfume and their humble beginnings. Had the rest of the book been solely focused on their music, it would only be worth reading if you were already a diehard fan, but the author does much more.
Turning back the clock to the late 1960s, St. Michel tells the fascinating history of the people and technology that would inspire an international musical movement called “technopop.” He draws a lineage of performers, producers, composers and their disciples who created and furthered the form as art. This connects bands known throughout the world—such as YMO, the Plastics, Kraftwerk and even Daft Punk—to Perfume’s breakout album, GAME, which ultimately revived the then-struggling genre. Beyond simply detailing why Perfume’s album is good music, St. Michel tells the story of their all-important producer Yasutaka Nakata, who took risks and seized opportunities to combine his love for technopop and complex musicality, such as burying polyrhythms and meaningful lyrics into Perfume’s commission for a jingle to a recycling campaign commercial.
The book also provides detailed insight into Japan’s history and culture through the lens of music. Starting with how the first wave of technopop came to dominate the 1970s soundscape, we learn not just where trends migrated from there, but why. It elevates the book from a discussion of “why we should love Perfume’s album” to a broader audience interested to learn “why people who love music should know about Perfume.” This taught me that Japan’s unique culture has its own way of developing musical talent—most notably in how the concept of a Japanese “idol” carries specific meaning in terms of defining an artist’s persona, strategy and relationship to their audience, all of which I was previously oblivious!
This important context sets the stage for understanding how Nakata uses Perfume, a young group of idols struggling to break through, to express his music. In spite of the opposing trends in pop music at that time, the combination of Nakata’s innovative sound with the trio’s skill and training in the mainstream world of idols allowed his counterculture style of music to go further than any of his other side projects.
Like any specialty field, music is a living, evolving and deeply complex quilt. Patrick St. Michel proves himself a specialist with an encyclopedic knowledge of interviews and quotes from sometimes obscure articles and podcasts. He expertly highlights each important thread, supporting his larger argument of how Perfume’s GAME was a vehicle for complex, innovative sounds, expertly produced at a time when the mainstream was lacking and receptive, as well as the historical impact since then. I now feel an understanding and artistic intent within Perfume’s music, and a greater sense of where this album fits, like a patchwork piece, into the larger tapestry of music.
For more on Perfume’s GAME, click here.
For more JQ book reviews, click here.