A Unified Theory of SweetS: Introduction

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

Love oftens stands as a monumental emotion in one’s life, a towering edifice which we build everything else around. But that doesn’t mean love is itself monolithic: if anything, it is nuanced and complex, sensitive to the slightest of differences, as sharp in its rebukes as it is omnivorous in its desires. Different kinds of love can be evoked by different experiences – and different kinds of music can evoke different kinds of love.

In my younger days, I often claimed that the electric version of Yo La Tengo’s “Barnaby, Hardly Working” felt like being in love: by that I meant there was a sense of drowning in the feedback wail, sustained over time, providing a foundation on which everything else is built upon. Another masterwork of feedback is My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, perhaps the most perfect pop album ever created: this love was complex, demanding, at times obscure, yet always awash in beauty and ego and ineffable sadness. The Replacements’ “Valentine” is yet another sense of love: cocky and drunken on the outside, but poetic and wistful on the inside… if you pay close enough attention and get past all the beer-goggling.

For me, SweetS is the first Jpop group which not only feels like being in love, but a love of epic proportions, a consuming passion that shapes one’s life in unexpected ways. Part of it, of course, is that the affection I feel can be extended beyond the music and directed to the people presenting the music. Given my predilections, any one of the girls in SweetS is more desirable, than Ira Kaplan, Kevin Shields, and Paul Westerberg combined.

I’m not going to lie and pretend that SweetS would be as important to me if they were male, or if they weren’t Japanese, or if they weren’t so young. I’ve been writing this blog too long to be afraid of sounding perverse (unfortunately), but it’s obvious that one of SweetS’ greatest assets is that they are Japanese girls barely in their teens singing songs about budding sexuality. They were the epitome of rorikon in Jpop, proof positive for all those nasty suspicions that Japanese pop music caters to dirty old men like myself.

But consider this: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is thought by many to be one of the greatest love stories ever written. For those who study and appreciate Lolita, it’s one of the great achievements of world literature, something for the ages. And yet the lyricism and beauty of the prose, the allusive and labyrinthine plot, the mastery of Americana in the mid-twentieth century, all of it serves a lurid tale of a man seducing his pre-teen stepdaughter. The novel makes us want to fall in love, yet to fall in love is to condone nymphophilia – or, if you’re not of narrator Humbert Humbert’s mind, simple pedophilia. Part of us wants to embrace Dolores Haze the way Humbert desires, another part wants to throw the sick fuck in jail no matter how dashing and lovesick he presents himself.

It’s a playful trap laid out by VN, a rather twisted joke in a novel quite notorious for its twisted jokes. (My favorite, for the curious among you, is the notice about Mrs. Schillinger in the novel’s introductory letter.) And while I can write even more about the glory of this book – please, read it if you ever get the chance – there’s a basic truism we can carry from Lolita the novel back to rorikon and Jpop.

That truism is: the human heart cannot be controlled, and this weakness is the comedy of life.

For me, that is the seduction of SweetS. It isn’t about falling in love with the girls in the group, but forbidden love as a concept. It’s an intellectual exercise designed to expose the weakness of heart and groin, and an exposure of the blind spots that keep us feeling safe and secure in our society. As I’ve argued before, it’s possible to keep your wits about you and still enjoy Jpop for all its guilty pleasures. It’s possible to dream of Haruna the Jpop persona and still know that Haruna the flesh-and-blood girl is nothing like that in reality.

And like Lolita the novel, SweetS also dares you to consider the flip side: that the girls like being glamorous and sexy, that what wary adults see as dangerous actions and exploitations is, for the girls, the everyday business of growing up and being more like the world they want to be a part of.

In that way (and probably that way alone), SweetS are the ne plus ultra of Jpop girl groups, the very extreme by which one can seriously (even self-reflexively) explore the desires stirred by Japan’s entertainment machinery without giving in completely to the disturbing aspects of such desire. For a brief time, SweetS walked the fine line between being about rorikon and actually indulging in rorikon with its audience. Take a step back, and you had the safer Hello! Project and its stable of pop idol singers; take a step forward, and you have preteen girls as simple sex objects, seen in the U-15 materials that Irie Saaya’s career detoured through.

Ironically – and it’s a very deep irony – American entertainment doesn’t know how to draw this fine line, at least in not such a public fashion. For America, the choices are starker and more polarized: kiddie porn or Nickelodeon. This is fitting, as Americans couldn’t handle Lolita when it was first published, and an obscenity trial was held. Simiarly, America as a culture can’t handle (or fully understand) SweetS for a very similar reason: not only is the desire suppressed, but the elaborate joke is lost on them.

I doubt creating such Nabokovan complexity was the intention of the people behind SweetS… but I’d argue that, for at least the first phase of the group’s history, that complexity was the end result.

A lot of it had to do with the music – or rather, the people behind the music. Bounceback was the production team that handled most songs on the first mini-album, including the first three singles. If anything, Bounceback is as responsible for the love I feel towards SweetS as the girls themselves. This duo not only defined the quintet’s sound, but through the songs the initial attitude. Even more important, the music they created was perfect for the girls of SweetS – you couldn’t have given these songs to any other girl group at the time and had the same impact, the same jarring temptations. Bounceback created the slap and tickle of some infectious pop songs, but needed the hands of nymphets to make the songs convincing.

Aided and abetted by the clothing line Penty, the choreography of SAM (a.k.a. the former Mr Amuro Namie), and the make-up and hair folks, SweetS not only sounded sophisticated but looked and move the part. With the package so complete, the girls weren’t about rorikon, but about giving Dolores Haze a run for her money. That distinction is subtle and speaks volumes for what the group can still achieve.

If all of this makes the girls sound like puppets manipulated by ironically-minded (or just plain cynical) adults… Well, Jpop is all about manufactured personas and marketed images, so that shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s part of Jpop and not something to be held against the singers who represent the sum efforts of whole companies of support staff.

But this does not mean the girls of SweetS are ciphers given identity solely by outside forces. The five girls of SweetS are distinct: it’s difficult to mistake Haruna for Aya, or Miori for Mai, or any of these four for Aki. They each play a role within the group dynamic and understand this to be the case. While SweetS could have been formed with other girls, these are the girls that did indeed define what the group is, as well as what we can expect of them.

Even if the membership changes (which it looks like it will, if only temporarily), these five will be the SweetS that fans will most love and treasure.

There are two completed phases for SweetS, each covering three singles collected in a mini-album. The first phase covers “Lolita Strawberry in Summer,” “Love Raspberry Juice,” and “Love Like Candy Floss” – all collected in the first, eponymous mini-album – and can be dubbed the rorikon or Bounceback phase of SweetS. The second phase covers “Grow Into Shinin’ Stars,” “Sky,” and “Countdown” – all collected on the mini-album Keep On Movin’ – can be dubbed the schoolgirl phase of SweetS. It seems that “Mienai Tsubasa” and “Earthship” (which was released today) marks a third phase and there may be further changes in store when Aya and Aki take a six month hiatus from the group to prepare for high school entrance exams.

In future entries, I’ll be giving each PV a very thorough analysis: I may be crazy, but I know there are patterns there, meanings that can be dug up and sorted through and understood better. Again, this may not have been the intent of SweetS or their handlers – but it’s there, begging to be excavated and examined. And that’s what we’ll be considering.

Obviously, I think there’s meaning to be mined out of the first phase of SweetS, but the second phase is interesting because it seems a counter-intuitive step backwards (stylistically and musically), a reaction to what came before and a struggle to find a strong post-rorikon identity. By the third phase, it looks like they’ve succeeded in this quest – but that also is worth examining, especially as a case study of a Jpop girl group that’s managed to not only survive, but to have a long, bright future ahead of them.

The future does look bright for SweetS, and now is as good a time as any to look back on what they’ve already achieved. You may be surprised at what they’ve been capable of, and what we can get from it.