Occasionally, a video showing how “cuckoo” the Japanese are goes viral, for the world to laugh at and ridicule, yet fully embrace at the same time. That is, until the next video rolls around. Back in 2011, KyaryPamyuPamyu’s music video for PONPONPON was that viral video, taking the world by storm to the point of even being referenced in an episode of The Simpsons.
It’s nice to see the world, and especially the traditionally rather musically xenophobic USA, embrace Asian media without (too much) bias for language or style, however, every time an Asian song makes it big internationally, the assumption seems to be that everything can be taken at face value and a deeper analysis would be useless – because it’s just “crazy without meaning”, isn’t it? We’ve seen it happen with Gangnam Style, the satire and criticism of consumerist behaviour of which was entirely ignored by most people because they didn’t bother looking up any information on it and just assumed it was a mindless party track, and we’ve seen it happen with PONPONPON, an exploration of escapism as way of dealing with fears of growing up and having to face the real world. Neither of these songs are lyrical masterpieces or deeply intricate, but I’d like to take some time to look a bit deeper into PONPONPON and uncover some of the – actually rather clever – thought that has been put into it.
Analyzing the Lyrics
What if everyone skipped at that intersection,
And we held hands and looked up at the sky in the center of that city?
If you want to seize a chance somewhere in that city,
It’s too early to cry yet, right? We just have to step forward.
The very first thing you’ll notice when reading the lyrics is the emphasis on hope and the way it is contrasted with the civilized, adult world. There’s an upwards move, generally signifying a movement from bad to good, from the intersection in the city to the sky, from the symbol of change and the modern to the symbol of constant, never-changing hope and nature. And how is it all possible? By believing in yourself and working together. It’s a naive verse, but it nicely sums up the entire premise of the song.
Pon Pon, like this you just have to put it all out
Not doing it at all, isn’t it dull?
Putting headphones on, along with the rhythm
Way Way, let me make my way
“Pon Pon”(ぽんぽん) is both the sound of clapping in Japanese as well as meaning “to advance quickly” and “not holding back”, as such, it applies both on a lyrical level and on a musical level to the song. It’s an appeal to break out of your position and achieve what you want to achieve. The bit about the headphones can be understood as a reference to the “power of music” as giving self-confidence and strength – the very purpose of this song.
Pon Pon, like this a various things are making progress
Your feelings, they are surging and surging?
Poi Poi, who’s the one throwing it away like this?
Yeah Yeah, you good boy, ah
You make me happy
There’s little of particular significance in the second half of the chorus. She’s just pointing out that staying in one place is uninteresting again, emphasizing the need for change.
Every time is Pon
I wanna ride a merry go round
everytime is Pon
Maybe that wouldn’t be enough
This is where the actual escapism comes into play. The merry go round is a common symbol of both childhood and of staying in one place, going round and round without ever arriving anywhere new. Worry, a sense of angst is expressed through this part. The singer wants to progress, but is scared at the same time, realizing that it is more comfortable to just remain where you are.
These same sections are repeated throughout the song, emphasizing the content of the lyrics as an endless circle and ending on the uncertain “Maybe that wouldn’t be enough”. It’s all very simple, but ultimately expresses the idea well.
Making sense of the Video
Now, the music video is a lot less straight-forward, filled to the brim with seemingly unconnected elements. While I do believe that many of the aspects of the music video were mere design choices and are not meant to carry any form of deeper meaning, let’s look at some of the more direct symbols and metaphors.
The video opens on a shot of Kyary in a messy room filled with toys and sweets – essentially filled with unadulterated childhood, as she starts performing the song and acting all kinds of crazy. This room can be interpreted as her safe space, there’s no danger inside, everything is fluffy, pink, sugary and – most importantly – familiar. Note that she’s acting theatrically, being imaginative. I believe the window in the background is of particular importance, emphasized by its placement directly in the sectio divina, the golden ratio. A window is traditionally symbolic of both the desire to cross a threshold and the inability of achieving it. Have you ever seen a movie in which the main character was contemplating what to do with his life next to a window or while staring out of a window? You may not consciously realize, but we have been so trained to recognize common symbols that such a placement of the character emphasizes the inner struggle.
Over the course of the song, a variety of things appear behind the window. What they all have in common is their tendency of reminding of the “real” world, the “adult” world. They’re symbols of war and modern life, establishing that the thing Kyary can’t seem to do in the lyrics is, quite simply, to grow up! There’s a second Kyary, one with pink skin and symbols of vanity(commonly associated with adults) in her hair, shown outside of the window as well, who may represent a repressed version of the character.
The video turns the crazy factor up to eleven once the negative symbols from outside the window start entering the room. Signalling the inevitability of growing up and just how scary it can be, eyes start to circle Kyary, staring at her. It’s her fears, now all around her – the fear of judgement, the fear of having to uphold standard and fill preconceived notions, the fear of losing childlike innocence. However, Kyary confidently continues performing in what may just be the most important one element of the video: where the lyrics are ambivalent and seem to stay in one place, the video ends up embracing change, dropping the fears in favour of self-improvement.
The video is absolutely packed with other, ridiculous things, but I think I got the gist of it. Much of the rest seems to be weird for the sake of being weird. There’s some shout-outs to parts of Japanese popular culture which mainly seem to underline the attempt at staying a child. There’s also a dancing overweight woman without a face, make of that what you will.
Musically, PONPONPON is a guilty pleasure. An all-out explosion of sugar-coated J-Pop cuteness, high-pitched vocals and a dose of the crazies, however, the lyrics and the symbolism in the music video suggest a deeper, not-so-hidden but easy to overlook meaning and at the same time come to question the very value of the song. Featuring a narrative voice that outgrows the need to shut to shut the adult world out, yet packaged as sing-along-friendly, stupid pop tune.
Nobody involved in the production of either the song or the video went out to create an artistic masterpiece, and the result clearly isn’t a masterpiece. It doesn’t pretend to be. PONPONPON is an escapist song…about escapism. It’s Escapeception! And that is pretty cool.
I’d go as far as to say that the over-the-top, stylized Escapism of the video is an extension of a long, long line of Japanese Escapism that can be traced back hundreds of years into Kabuki theatre and even earlier art forms – which probably helped it find the success it did. But that’s a topic for another post.
The English lyrics have been sourced from JPopAsia, all screenshots are taken from the official music video.
Did you enjoy the first analysis on the blog or was I stupid for even attempting to make sense out of KyaryPamyuPamyu? Leave your thoughts (or topic requests) below!