Faye Yan Zhang
At the age of thirteen, I went to my first concert. It was performed at the Qwest Center in Omaha, Nebraska by Gwen Stefani—Gwen, the modern blonde bombshell, fashion maven, and self-declared American ambassador of all things Harajuku. The performance was part of her Sweet Escape Tour. She slid up and down the stage, platinum hair set unwavering on top of her head, accompanied by four dollish Asian women who mouthed lyrics, fluttered hands, swayed their asses to the beat of “Wind It Up.” My then-best friend, who had invited me to the concert, waved her renegade camera in the air (no smartphones yet in 2007). To sneak it past security she’d hidden it in an empty tampon box. Her younger brother, forced upon us by her mother, fell asleep in the row in front of us.
For the next few months, I would listen to Gwen’s “Hollaback Girl” on repeat on my MP3 player, lying on top of the cool sheets in my parent’s bedroom. It was July, but their windows faced west, so in the late afternoons the room was always cool and dark, permeated by that kind of woozy clarified shadow which filters through Venetian blinds. Sometimes, my friend and I would sit, bare-kneed on the hot cement in her backyard or mine, and we would look up pictures of how to tease our coarse black hair into perfect ringlets. It was the summer after seventh grade. She was more popular than I was, and she always wanted to make me over by painting my nails, as if a different color were the secret to a second skin.
The highlight of that summer was when she received, as a birthday present, a set of Harajuku Lovers fragrances, including bobble-headed bottles of Love, Angel, Music, Baby, and Gwen herself wearing plastic Marilyn Monroe hair and a so kawaii outfit. For those who don’t know, Love is the pretty one, Angel is the sporty one, Music is the artsy one, and Baby is the cool one. Gwen is the leader of their posse. In commercials and music videos, she stands in front; their images are encompassed by hers. In the bathroom, my friend would choose one of the Girls, perform a temporary decapitation (the spray nozzle was underneath the bobble head), spray her wrist and necks, and set the little bottle on the counter, where it would sit smiling among its sisters. I would imagine that the little perfume figurines had travelled all the way from their native land: Tokyo’s Harajuku fashion district, an expanse spreading from Harajuku Station to Omotesando, where, according to legend, otakus roamed freely in their dark makeup, Lolita dresses, and almost-perfect curls.
And then I would be so bored, in my hot midwestern summer with my nails painted a sparkly pink, quickly chipping as I dragged them back and forth over concrete sidewalks. I wondered how Gwen’s Harajuku Girls got to be so beautiful—and they were beautiful, though always silent. Only Gwen ever sang, or spoke. The Girls only meowed, sometimes, dressed in cat costumes with black whiskers streaked on their porcelain faces, in the music videos or under bright concert lights, their red-red-lips barely moving save to replicate that cattish “O”. A round spot of blush on both cheeks, a cultivated body, a patch of red on the lips—was that really all it took?
As if in answer, an emphatic “No” comes from Harajuku district, in the 2000s dominated by Japanese street fashion. In the first years of the millennium, a movement gains momentum called Decora, which takes accessorizing far beyond even the standard set by Gwen and posse. In Decora, beauty is found in excess. A Google image search produces pictures of Decora girls—and boys—wearing colorful wigs, long socks, a medley of layers, and ring upon necklace upon bracelet upon ring. In a documentary, a Decora girl says she takes two hours to put on her outfit before heading out to walk the streets with a group of similarly-dressed friends. Some cover their mouths with faux medical masks, as if guarding against a disease of plainness, the dull life of a salaryman or woman.
A secret: There is no such thing as a single Harajuku Girl. She is a block of city by the train station, she is fantasy, she is pure Gwen creation. In the Harajuku district, if you take a walk around the block, the women are mostly civilians. The humdrum crowd is occasionally interrupted by a variety of mostly young people, teenagers, pimpled and sweating under a vast array of subculture styles, wearing gothic Lolita dresses, or covered in pastel amulets, or smelling faintly of hairspray. They are not all alike. They are not all beautiful.
I couldn’t quite tell the Girls apart when they were onstage. Their outfits were different, each one embroidered with her name—Love, Angel, Music, Baby—but their makeup was the same. Perhaps they were intentionally cast that way, but I couldn’t tell them apart however I tilted my head. Gwen calls their identity a ping-pong match of culture, America bouncing back the best of couture Japonais. The Girls don’t speak in public, by contract. They hover around Gwen like four silent familiars or human Decora accessories. I wonder if they all use their own perfumes, beheading and recapping their tiny selves each day.
But perhaps Gwen is right, and cultural back-and-forth is an accurate description. A slice from the Japanese side of the table: One of Japan’s most popular pop phenomenons, a girl group called Morning Musume, will turn seventeen this year. Fear not, the group members never become old. Membership is renewed as older performers “graduate” and fresh girls move up the ranks. The group has become a veritable institution, a nation in and of itself, fueled and fed by fans ranging from preteen girls to adult men. This year marks the twelfth generation of performers. The girls grow up together, perform together, and promote themselves together.
Morning Musume’s mastermind is a bleached blond man-child who goes by the name “Tsunku.” In photos, his face is surgically smooth, and he’s usually surrounded by his girls, who pout and make victory signs with their hands. Until the early 2000s, Tsunku headed his own band, a Japanese rock group called Sharam Q. Nowadays, he commands the Hello! Project, a vast network of interchangeable girl groups of which Morning Musume is but the flagship. Hello! Project has a performer for every taste. The name of the groups sound like space cadet units in some alternate universe, where fruit and dessert names are bubbled with sexual references: Pocky Girls, Shugo Chara Egg!, Coconuts Musume, etcetera. One popular group, Minimoni, auditions performers with the caveat that their height must be under four feet eleven inches.
Members are moved from group to group as the need arises and as their ages change, but over the entire empire presides the constant and omnipotent Tsunku. No matter the group, Tsunku designs the costumes, writes the songs, determines the makeup, and choreographs the dances. No matter the group, the girls are expected to remain virginal, at least in public. In 2007, the same year as Gwen’s Sweet Escape tour, group member Yaguchi Mari (Morning Musume, founder of Minimoni) was caught in a relationship with a member of a boy band. She was eventually ejected from Hello! Project. Despite their enforced purity, the girls are each expected to publish swimsuit photo books for their fans, the sales of which are so popular that they require their own charts.
Tsunku says his role is benevolent. He has said that his girls are so busy with their performing lives, that they don’t have time to experience the normal emotions of adolescence—so he recreates those emotions for them in the lyrics, the thoughts of a teenage girl written by a middle-aged man. A typical Musume music video involves choreographed group dance with kawaii hand gestures, elaborate baby-doll dresses, simple upbeat lyrics, and plenty of computer-generated sparkles. The singing is nearly purely choral. Everyone opens their mouths at the same time, and even if one voice is singing, it comes as an overlay as the performers strike poses and smile into the camera. Like the performers themselves, the songs resist time. A section of 1997’s “Morning Coffee” could be transplanted into 2014’s “What is Love” with little notice from fans.
Tsunku’s imaginings must strike some marketable chord. Morning Musume has sold about 18 million album copies in Japan alone. The American market, however, has proven harder to crack. Morning Musume’s second ever concert in the States was held at the Best Buy Theater in New York on October 2014—a single 4 p.m. show on a Sunday, it was hardly a knockout event. Perhaps American audiences are uncomfortable with the power dynamics and sexual politics governing the group members. More likely, though, the ultra-cute aesthetic and ultra-synchronization, not even translated from Japanese language, had not quite found their place in the American pop lexicon.
This miscommunication has forced American audiences to depend on the cultural translation of performers such as Gwen Stefani. Like Tsunku, she becomes the intermediary between reality and representation. The lyrics to her song “Harajuku Girls” are easy to understand:
You’re looking so distinctive like D.N.A.,
?Like nothing I’ve ever seen in the U.S.A.?
Your underground culture, visual grammar?
The language of your clothing is something to encounter
A Ping-Pong match between eastern and western
Did you see your inspiration in my latest collection?
Just wait ‘til you get your little hands on L.A.M.B.
’Cause it’s super kawaii, that means super cute in Japanese.?
The streets of Harajuku are your catwalk, bishoujo you’re so vogue.
But what exactly is she translating? Does she draw upon the aesthetics of Morning Musume or the titular Harajuku district? If so, are the girls of the real Harajuku district mimicking a mass produced pop culture, or are they subverting it through excess? Japan is silent on the matter; few people in the country are fans of Gwen. Like Morning Musume’s lackluster appearance in the States, Gwen’s Japanese platform never quite took off.
None of these thoughts came into my mind in the summer of 2007, as I lay on the cool sheets, mouthing the words to “Hollaback Girl.” In the music video, Gwen and the group perform “American High School” the way pop culture imagines it to be. Like Tsunku, Gwen dresses her girls in school uniform, albeit in short cheerleader skirts instead of sailor suits. They prance their way through the traditional high school type spectrum, from punk girls to jocks to band geeks, though, in this high school, everyone is inexpressibly cool. My thirteen-year-old self would have wanted to be a part of her posse, even if I’d have to remain (contractually) silent.
The Harajuku Girls have dispersed now, gone their own ways. Their real names are Maya Chino, Jennifer Kita, Rino Nakasone-Razalan, and Mayuko Kitayama. Maya lives in Los Angeles and teaches at a dance academy, Jennifer performs in hip-hop companies, Rino is now a choreographer, and Mayuko was a backup dancer for Britney Spears’ Onyx Hotel tour—after that her internet trail is lost. In memory, Gwen’s girls are as virginal as Tsunku’s. They never had a life, save that brief one lived as silent priestesses at the altar of pop rock.
Two years after the concert, my friend is working at a local ice cream store, when she swears Gwen Stefani walks in the door and orders a chocolate sundae. She wore sunglasses and sweats, but she had her trademark hair and signed her name on the receipt “G. Stef.” I don’t believe her, because of the unlikelihood of Gwen Stefani visiting a Coldstone Creamery in a Nebraskan strip mall, but it’s a pleasant fantasy.
There is an antiquated philosophical concept that regards the movement of the celestial bodies—planets, sun, and moon—as the movement of glass spheres. When ancient astronomers looked to the arc of these bodies across the sky, it must indeed have seemed like they were attached to invisible surfaces in the sky. The concept explains that as these glass spheres move, they rub against each other and emit harmonics: musica universalis, the music of the spheres. This music is imperceptible to human ears, but it resonates under all of nature. For the Pythagoreans, followers of Pythagoras in the 5th century B.C, mathematical patterns governed the music of the spheres and, in turn, mortal harmonics and rhythms.
The 2014 Morning Musume song “Beyond Space and Time” takes a very literal interpretation of this astronomical concept. The music video begins with the girls, dressed in gauzy blue dresses, pretending to play invisible instruments. It pans out to reveal a galactic background, filled with floating chrome spheres and a rotating vortex of stars. The girls dance with mathematical precision. They form a line and arc their arms in perfect succession. The lyrics go:
By the time we are united
Beyond the time and space
I wonder if this planet?
Will be purified.
Gwen never released any outer-space-themed songs. That mantle was taken up by another bleach blonde and fellow Japanophile by the name of Lady Gaga, whose given first name, coincidentally, is Stefani (the two could be twins) and who became the next big thing with the release of her 2008 album The Fame. By that time, I had graduated from my first concert to awkward eighth grades dances, almost always tuned to the beat of “Poker Face” and “Just Dance.” In the big gym decorated with fairy lights, my classmates and I would sway in circles facing each other, staring from face to sweaty face, uncertain in our femininity, if that was even the right word. Eventually, the more bold among us would pair up and drift into the interior circle (where the chaperones couldn’t do a thing), enacting a carnal ritual which Morning Musume’s cheery choreography never reveals, though it pulses under the surface.
Five years later, Lady Gaga released her third studio album, Artpops. The cover, designed by artist Jeff Koons of balloon animal fame, features Gaga with a shiny blue sphere wedged between her legs, surrounded by fragments of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Gaga promoted the album as a cross between pop culture and high culture, an elevation of her music and a catapulting of her body into the realm of art.
By comparative metrics, Artpops flopped, with first week sales at less than a third of Born This Way’s. Critical opinion on the album is divided; some call it over-the-top and euphoric, while others find it relentless and exhausting.
While Artpops’ sales chart followed a downward trend, Gwen Stefani updated her Harajuku Lovers fragrance collection, giving it a new look and a new name: Pop Electric. The perfume bottles are the same bobble-headed figures of Love, Angel, Music, and Baby, but with what she calls a modernized design. In a 2014 interview with the Home Shopping Network, Gwen officially lexiconized “artpop” by using the word to describe her collection. This prompted an ecstatic tweet from Gaga: “I love you even more Gwen Stefani. Thank you for using ARTPOP as an adjective. It made me smile #ARTPOP.” The collection’s sales description reads, “Harajuku Lovers Pop Electric are inspired by modern street murals and sculpture, looking like they were formed in simple vinyl, dipped in molten, lustrous color scheme, then frozen in time as the metal drips over the doll’s body.” A full set sells for $200, retail. The scent of each perfume is still tailored to each Harajuku Girl, as if a perfume could capture the essence of a person.
But maybe all this is crying wolf. It’s been a decade, and Gwen regrets nothing about the Harajuku Girls. Maybe the Girls don’t have any regrets, either. For all I know, they could be making a killing on their former names; Gwen’s clothing line, L.A.M.B (Love, Angel, Music, Baby) can still be found on the occasional preteen at the shopping mall. And Lady Gaga, unlike Gwen, has succeeded in becoming popular in Japan. In 2013, wearing anime eye makeup and a bow bigger than her head, she participated in and won a kawaii-contest on Japanese television—defeating Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Japan’s current Decora queen bee. Maybe cultural translation has become easier since Gwen’s heyday in the summer of 2007. Maybe they’re doing the world a service. How many, like me, have listened to their music in the late afternoon, watching dust motes dancing in the light, imagining planets singing in their perpetual motion?
As for the immortal Tsunku: On April 4, 2015, he was invited onstage for the entrance ceremony at Kinki University, his alma mater. The new students were expecting him to sing some hit songs from Sharam Q. Instead he stood there for nearly a minute, saying not a word. Then a big monitor displayed a message: “I’ve chosen to live by throwing away my voice, the thing I had treasured most,” it read, “Regret would have no meaning. I will go forward from now on.” Tsunku’s vocal cords had been removed due to laryngeal cancer. While the audience looked on, he blinked under the blue stage lights, a tear shed or two, shy, smiling, silent.
Despite this setback, Kinki University was treated to a performance after all. When the message ended, Tsunku strummed a guitar, and his girls sang for him.