The Heart and the Gimmick: Kyary Pamyu Pamyu live at O2 Academy, Angel Islington

2013-02-13 17.43.13My wife does this sort of shuffle in her slippers from the kitchen to the living room, lifting her right leg and left arm up in dramatic pose, pausing and then darting forward before coming to a halt and repeating the process once more until her destination is reached.

She calls it the ‘Meow Walk’.

Caroline Charonplop Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s live set is something like witnessing the Meow Walk on a much broader scale; a system of personal significance all wrapped up in something fluffy and endearing yet inherently – though charmingly – odd.

Staged within the O2 Academy in Angel Islington, the enthusiasm for Kyary was evident, if not slightly more subdued than the queues present for prior J-rock concerts held at the venue. Yet despite this, it was impressive to see so much support for an artist on their first gig in the UK.

Brushing shoulders with assorted Pokémon, maids and even tokusatsu hero, Kamen Rider, it is easy to see how the vast milieu of the last decade of Japanese pop culture has been distilled into one homogeneous sea of people pushed up against the barriers and shivering the chill winter wind.

So prevalent were those in costume that the issue itself was mentioned by Kyary between songs, a mild note of surprise evident in her voice.

Angel is no Harajuku.

Of the concert itself, the stage was sparsely decorated with polka-dot banners and a projection screen, her dancers pared down to four – two men, two women – and no opening act.

BDF_G28CMAADNqpBeginning with legitimate contender for the anthem of a generation, PONPONPON, it was clear from the start that both the focus and the onus of the show was solely upon Kyary herself with little other distraction.

The trouble with this was that from her performance alone, there was a sense that Kyary was not yet confident enough to carry such attention.

It is possible to attribute any number of reasons for this; nervousness regarding her first performance in London, anxiety about how a new audience would react to her material, the constraints of the O2 Academy as a venue, tiredness, jetlag, concerns about the budget of this small yet weighty sounding title of ‘WORLD TOUR’ – the list of excuses goes on.

The truth of the matter however is that there was very much a feeling that for the most part, Kyary was holding back.

Whilst I in no way wish to suggest that Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is a poor performer, or that the concert was anything less than a good gig which will no doubt have delighted many of her fans, there was still the sense that Kyary had a lot of growing to do before her live shows rivalled the imagination and colour of her videos.

It occurred to me as I stood in the audience that perhaps this was the distance between an idol and a pop star – the degree by which the artist is forced to play both their heart and gimmick in order to win support from the fanbase.

With a pop star like Kyary, her domestic cult status preceding her, there is no reason for her to put her heart on the line, regardless of personal feeling. This is not an artist fighting their cause, but an artist who was has struck gold but does not yet know how to spend such wealth.

Yet please don’t think that I went away from the concert with a feeling of discontent. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu did everything that was expected of her and midway through the show, it felt as if she genuinely began to enjoy the performance and was able to relax enough to simply allow herself the chance to be as much a part of the event as the audience.

However it came as a surprise to discover that the arrangement of the concert was very tailored towards ‘introducing’ Kyary to her audience – even going so far as to include a brief ‘history’ displayed on the screen above the stage during a costume change.

To have been aware of how quickly the venue sold out and yet to still be surprised by the fervour and awareness of the audience strikes me as either incredibly humble or absurdly short sighted.

But of course you don’t read reviews such as these to hear speculation on record industry agenda, what you want to know – especially if you’re looking forward to her forthcoming American tour dates – is what songs were played.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (2)Rest assured that all bases were covered; the aforementioned PONPONPON, Candy, Candy, the particularly memorable Fashion Monster, Tsukematsukeru (as part of the encore), recent single Furisodeshon and forthcoming single Ninjari Bang Bang, as well as fan favourite Minna no Uta, all were accounted for.

You get what you pay for.

As a live performer, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is not yet the star she will eventually become.

Despite the weight of her cult status, despite the eager response of the audience, her live show requires attention and/or a larger budget to truly showcase her imagination. Both of these elements seemed to be sadly lacking, although I must again reiterate that the concert was not a bad one – it was simply not an event to be recorded for posterity; a humble beginning, despite the Zeitgeist.

Whilst many different layers of criticism can be heaped upon management and record company executives, there is however no doubting Kyary’s personal involvement and unique style in the colour of her shows.

It is this fact that keeps me eager to support her, to wait a year and see how momentum builds and skill develops.

Whilst a criticism regarding idol groups as “karaoke bands” has been levelled by some in the organisation and cultivation of the UK’s Japanese pop culture derived scene, it is precisely the rawness and enthusiasm of idol shows before their prime that needs to be harnessed here.

The heart and the gimmick.

One significant issue not engendered by the management or production of the concert that had a negative impact sadly was the same audience that demonstrated such passion in the opening songs also falling too readily into the habit of filming/photographing the majority of proceedings.

Like lighters during a Bon Jovi ballad, I lost track of how many iPhones were being held above heads – although I am sure YouTube will attest that it was a great number. I myself ended up watching entire chunks of the concert through the screen of the phone belonging to the gentleman in front of me, such was his enthusiasm for preserving the moment for all to see.SC20130213-015432

It is not a bad thing in theory, this eagerness to document experience. As someone who, since the introduction of smart phones, likes to photograph everything as it happens, I cannot truly blame anyone for wanting to record the fact that they were witness to Kyary’s first English concert.

However, a little moderation would not have gone amiss.

So, to address the question that if you’re reading this, you already have an answer too: is it worth seeing Kyary Pamyu Pamyu live on this tour?

The answer is an obvious yes.

Aside from the fact that it is an opportunity to see an important artist in a relatively small venue, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is a significant figure of the past year or so and one who has made an indelible mark upon pop culture and the import of Japanese music into the UK as a whole, despite the unwillingness of her record company and management to capitalise on this.

She is an important figure with a catalogue of endearing songs fashioned by skilled and notable producer, Yasutaka Nakata. Of course it is worth seeing her live.

As to what to expect however, that is more a matter in which to show restraint.

A unique and talented artist and a concert sadly marred by a lack of vision, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s live act is a lot of fun but still requires work.

As to the events following the concert and the few messages received from a friend sitting in a Turkish restaurant in North London on the table opposite both her and her managers, that is a story best left for another time.

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