Can’t Sleep, Can’t Eat… The Mysterious Allure of Amuro Namie

Filed in Cult Of Pop 2.0

Amuro Namie started strong last year with two great singles – “Want Me, Want Me” and “Wo Wa” – the latter being my favorite PV of 2005. From these high points, she released “Violet Sauce”, which didn’t quite grab my attention, and the Christmas song “White Light” – which like many Christmas songs, is well-intentioned but ultimately boring.

Now she’s got a double A-side with “Can’t Sleep, Can’t Eat, I’m Sick” and “Ningyo” – a canny move, and an interesting showcase of who Namie is in the here and now.

The pair of songs represent the two sides she’s been presenting in this phase of the career: sexy urban diva and vulnerable sentimental balladeer. Not being partial to ballads, I of course gravitated more to the creatively-titled “Can’t Eat, Can’t Sleep, I’m Sick”.

Unfortunately, the song itself is surprisingly generic. There isn’t the quirk that hooks in the listener with last year’s singles, there’s no sense of adventure or risk. Which isn’t always a bad thing – “Did U” and “Put Em Up” are also pretty generic after all, rote dance song given a clearer identity by Namie’s very presence.

The horn sample throughout the song seems to be the attempt at making the song distinct… but really, horn samples? Why not just sample a snare drum? The MC babble from DJ Squid or whatever he’s called is kept to a minimum and thus isn’t very annoying.

And Amuro is a bit too cool in her singing – she starts off sounding surprised and playful, but from there she goes for an effortlessly effervescent approach. It doesn’t have that frisson of horny desperation that made “Want Me, Want Me” so compelling, or the sangfroid sing-song that helped make “Wo Wa” so strange.

That said, the song does stick with me, I find it a pleasant and fun if not all that substantial… And Namie can get away with such a light touch since her higher registers are practically angelic, while there’s some bite in her vocal delivery outside of the chorus. This song is all about the chorus and the beat, though, so the weightier vocals are something of an afterthought…

If I think of this as the first blast of summertime music, I become more amenable. Light and frothy and lasting through the hot months – refreshing without being very filling. A luscious popsicle of a pop tune.

The video for the song is fun in a similar way, and also tends towards the generic. I know there are people who think this Rent-esque mix of fashionable streetwear and theatrical flash is the epitome of high style. I’m not one of them. It’s certainly appropriate for the song’s feel, but that doesn’t make it compelling necessarily.

Really, it’s like a Heartsdale PV with a real budget and real dancers (instead of partygoers and hangers-on). The car is nice, the skyline looks thoroughly CGI’d, and I keep expecting the wall of lights to spell out ELVIS or SAMMY at some point.

Of course, the saving grace for me is watching Namie do her own variation of the naughty schoolgirl. It looks more American Catholic schoolgirl than Japanese to me, and the cut of her skirt is absolutely drool-inducing.

She doesn’t seem a very convincing schoolgirl, however. As beautiful as she is, and as soft as her features is, she’s way beyond childhood – she’s a full grown woman through and through. If anything, this outfit makes her look like a delinquent college girl trying to scam somebody with an elaborate enjo kosai scheme.

The schoolgirl look doesn’t have the layered semiotic messiness of the rollerskating cheerleaders of “Wo Wa”… which just means all we’ve got is Namie as eyecandy.

But Namie eyecandy is some of the best eyecandy in Jpop.

I repeat: Namie eyecandy is some of the best eyecandy in Jpop.

(In the 18 and over division.)

It should also be noted that the backup dancers – female as well as male – looked good in their own school outfits, as well. But maybe I’m just a sucker for that look, maybe it’s the epitome of the style I like to see in my Jpop. At least, that’s what my fickle wota heart seems to tell me.

Why is Namie so fascinating to watch? Is she that beautiful? Is she that compelling? Is she a Jpop Helen of Troy, able to launch a thousand ships with that gorgeous face?

Frankly… yes. She can give lessons to Koda Kumi on how to be sexy, and show Otsuka Ai a thing or two about balancing quirkiness with smoldering appeal. There’s a reason why she’s such a long-lived idol, and it isn’t just her re-invention as the queen of hip pop.

The dancing in the PV is great, and we can expect no less from Namie.

It’s mostly of the strut-around, strike-a-pose, move smoothly to the side school of dancing… But again, there’s that secret weapon!

Schoolgirl Namie! Christ, I’m disgustingly Pavlovian. But I won’t apologize for it.

If there was a special edition fifty-dollar-retail DVD with an all-schoolgirl-outfit version of this PV, I’d get it in a second. (I’m sure I’m not the only one.) If it includes her pushing that car over a cliff so it explodes in a million pieces, I’d pay double.

What we have here is great, of course. And I’m sure even scratching that car would cost double what filming this PV costs…

Though at times I do want to chant, “Fosse Fosse Fosse” for reasons that elude me…

Namie’s also a helpful reminder to me of how Jpop has a magical way of changing my attitude about something. Dakota Fanning doesn’t get me all steamed up, but Shihono Ryo does. I can’t stand boy bands like – well, whatever boy bands are in America – but I have a deep respect and abiding fondness for SMAP. I often make fun of mimes, but never say anything nasty about Visual Kei.

R&B in America does just about zilch for me. And yet, I worship the Queen of Hip Pop and love her songs. I actually listen to several of her singles on an almost daily basis, including “Alarm” and “Put Em Up”. And I guess I should point out: this isn’t Namie 2.0 to me. As many of you know and I pointed out time and again, I only came into Jpop recently, so to me this Namie is the “right” Namie, not her younger and more popular phase. I’ve seen some people complain that they don’t like her current sound and look, but to me it’s like, “How else could she be?”

While I don’t think my expectations of Namie aren’t out of perspective, what I expect from her – and what she delivers – isn’t what I’m typically looking for in Jpop. Where I’ve made in-roads to bandol-style Jrock and hip hop, this kind of contemporary urban sound – which I block out as white noise when I hear it on the radio – becomes worth my time and attention when Namie’s doing it.

Does that make her superior to the likes of, say, Beyonce or whoever else is popular? I don’t think so. I mean as far as I’m concerned – yeah, sure. But if I had to be objective, I’d say she’s a leading light of urban dance music, but not necessarily its strongest artist. And I’m uninformed enough not to need to know who is…

What Namie does bring, and which I think makes her style and music so enjoyable, is the inflections of Jpop idol theatricality and control of persona which I find so compelling. In other words, the packaging is what sells me the sweet goodness inside.

But again, does that make her any different from the divas in American R&B? They’re also all about a strong performance, putting on a really good shows. And if anything, Amuro is evidently taking cues from American music, the kind I ignore. On some level, it’s like I’m preferring the knock-off to the original. But then, I’ve never been much for the cult of authenticity…

It’s often a critical cop-out to say something or somebody is sui generis – but how else to explain my enjoyment of Amuro Namie? She takes a so-so song and makes it memorable enough that I hum it during the day. She dresses up as a schoolgirl way after her own rorikon sell-by date and makes it work. She does R&B and makes me love her R&B, though I’d be hard-pressed to consider anyone else in the genre I enjoy even a fraction as much.

It could just be that Namie is without peer like that, that she’s got her own style, her own vibe, her own oomph, and that’s enough to knock down any barriers I can set up. It makes me forget the barriers were there in the first place.

Which does sound like a critical cop-out, but I’m going to have to let it stand at that. It isn’t that Namie is so consistently great. But even when she isn’t at the top of her game – and she’s definitely not at the top of the game here – she is a compelling performer and idol.

And yeah, a little bit of the schoolgirl plaid goes a long way with me. But you all already knew that.