Chatting With unchained’s pengie on Music and Context

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In our J-blogging community, I’m willing to bet pengie is better known – and more respected unreservedly – than me. Her blog unchained has long been a consistent and entertaining resource for a wide variety of Japanese music, finding a middle ground so that idol fans and indie fans can enjoy her writing equally. As a blogger, pengie manages to be both impassioned and balanced, always curious about new music and consistent in her critical approach. It’s difficult to imagine a regular reader of unchained not ever finding something exciting and new worth trying out as a result of her efforts. (Including myself: as this week’s feature alludes, it was her write-up on “Teenage Days” that first alerted me to Okamoto Rei’s music career.)

She’s also done more than her share for our community infrastructure, hosting the original wotachat on her own domain before taking it to IRC. It may seem an obvious addition now, but wotachat marked a turning point for the Intl Wota community, providing a hub of communication that’s brought in new recruits and also strengthened bonds in… highly unexpected ways. (Spend a couple hours in wotachat when it’s busy and you’ll see what I mean.) It was those contributions and the overall philosophy that informed it which had me asking pengie – an Intl Wota editor from the very beginning – to take on the responsibilities of an admin. Along with her fellow admins and editors, she’s done such a great job that I’ve been able to step aside for a while and give them free reign.

I guess I should add here that I personally LUV pengie, and always delight in pissing her off. (Yes, it’s that kind of LUV.) Our friendship’s been solidified in recent months by the various workings of Intl Wota and wotachat; there’s a comfort and camaredarie with her that helps make this entire experience worthwhile. This chat was especially rewarding for me because it started out with an artificially imposed topic – pengie pointing me to some new music – and became something much more interesting and organic as we went along. It’s exactly that kind of freewheeling, respectful debate that makes pengie so valuable, and the results below should give any music or idol fan some tasty food for thought.

Session Start: Sun Sep 21 20:42:26 2008

Session Ident: pengie

<AmeWota> We all know that I’m a shallow bastard in what Japanese music I approach.

<pengie> yep.

<AmeWota> Whereas you approach the breadth and depth of Japanese music in a highly admirable fashion.

<AmeWota> I think it’s because I care more about idols than music.

<AmeWota> And the opposite applies in your case.

<pengie> I wouldn’t put it that way.

<AmeWota> No?

<pengie> I approach everything Japanese, whether it’s idol music or not, like “do I like how it sounds?”

<pengie> and then if there’s idols involved, I’ll get into that aspect as well.

<pengie> I do care more about music than idols, though.

<pengie> that’s spot-on.

<AmeWota> Yeah, that’s clear on unchained.

<AmeWota> Let’s say – theoretically – that I want to expand my horizons.

<AmeWota> What new directions would you suggest?

<AmeWota> As far as “pure” listening, that is.

<pengie> I guess that’s a good question for you, I mean, how important is it for you to be able to put a face and a name behind your music?

<AmeWota> honestly? it doesn’t matter with american music.

<AmeWota> i only started caring primarily about looks when i got into idol music.

<AmeWota> before that it was mostly an army of ugly motherfuckers on guitars or mics.

<AmeWota> and the dixie chicks.

<pengie> so if I handed you a Japanese band now, do you think it’d be fairly important to be able to say “this is the guitarist, this is the drummer, this is their names and their hobbies etc etc”?

<AmeWota> no, not at all.

<AmeWota> I figure, “If I want to just listen to music, I’ve already got all these bands I like.”

<AmeWota> And yet, there are times when I do encounter new music that blows me away.

<AmeWota> Like, Tommy February6.

<AmeWota> TOMMY AIRLINE is a revelatory album, all on its own, outside of the visuals.

<pengie> well, that wasn’t new so much as it was an artist… wait, did you listen to the brilliant green before you listened to her?

<AmeWota> Never got into BuriGuri, always meant to.

<AmeWota> How would you describe it, vis-a-vis the schizoid tommy personae?

<AmeWota> that is, where does it fit musically?

<pengie> where does buriguri fit musically?

<pengie> it’s hard to say. they’ve kind of got their own thing going, I think.

<pengie> I mean, groups like SweetS you can easily define as (idol) pop…

<pengie> Whiteberry, the junior high school rock chicks…

<pengie> all the other groups at the time of buriguri being active had clearly defined genres, but they just did their own thing.

<AmeWota> I’m actually pretty open to that because of TF6 and TH6…

<pengie> the music is different, though. way different, sometimes.

<pengie> which is why it made sense for her to develop heavenly and february.

<pengie> It’s interesting that it’s Tommy and her works that we’re bringing up here…

<pengie> heavenly and february really ARE the sides of her that are idolesque.

<AmeWota> Right.

<AmeWota> Different kinds of idols, though.

<pengie> while buriguri has always felt like, well, “we’re here, we’re going to play, here’s some music, we’ll take a break and come back in five years and then drive you nuts with our constant limbo.”

<AmeWota> You make it sound like they planned it out.

<pengie> I feel like Tommy did, yes.

<AmeWota> You think she needed the time out?

<AmeWota> Or just needed to experiment?

<pengie> the kind of music she makes under those personas…

<pengie> I think she wanted to BE an idol.

<pengie> so kind of both.

<pengie> I don’t know why I get that feeling. actually, no, I do.

<pengie> her solo PVs and releases were always really showy. I mean, the heavenly6 Halloween one drove me nuts, but it was like something you might see out of an idol collective. just… completely out there stuff.

<AmeWota> Which is funny, because her music transcends the idol aspects

<AmeWota> and her TF6 persona actually is a pretty pungent critique of idols.

<AmeWota> It’s like she wants to be an idol, but still sees it as being kind of ludicrous.

<pengie> I think she was just having a lot of fun, not taking herself seriously.

<AmeWota> and she worked it out of her system?

<pengie> could be.

<AmeWota> well, not enough, it now seems…

<pengie> yeah.

<pengie> and that disappoints me because, frankly, I don’t CARE about that idol side of her.

<pengie> my opinion is still that their work as buriguri is much better than hers as february or heavenly.

<AmeWota> Well, that brings up something for me.

<AmeWota> With TF6, I ultimately didn’t care about the idol aspect.

<AmeWota> I’d just listen to the music and be blown away with it.

<pengie> really…

<AmeWota> And I GUESS I can say that about SweetS and even Perfume…

<AmeWota> except I needed the idol aspect to slowly appreciate how good their music is.

<AmeWota> I mean, there’s a reason why I got into Perfume but not capsule, I guess.

<AmeWota> While TF6 definitely invokes idols, musically it’s just this beautifully weird love letter to 80s New Wave and Pop.

<AmeWota> Which may be why it has an impact on me, given my age.

<pengie> but that’s not something she did while in buriguri.

<pengie> which is why I say “okay, this is different” and even call it idolesque, I guess…

<pengie> it’s more showy. that’s the best word I can come up with.

<AmeWota> yeah. definitely.

<pengie> february6 never caught on with me. not once.

<pengie> well, no. once.

<pengie> she had one single I liked. but the music just… eh.

<pengie> I mean, it was never something I couldn’t turn around and get from another artist or five.

<pengie> and as a longtime fan of her, I was just like “Tommy, what the hell? this is boring.”

<AmeWota> I loved one TH6 song and that’s it. I’m much more of a TF6 fan.

<pengie> heavenly I liked. a lot.

<pengie> the rock persona was awesome.

<AmeWota> to me, TF6 is all about this fucked-up re-imagination of 80s music,

<AmeWota> but with a new vigor to it, an energy that can’t be achieved by just covering 80s songs or assuming their musical tropes.

<AmeWota> like, the opening to “Je T’aime Je T’aime”.

<AmeWota> you hear it, and it’s completely something you’ve heard from lord knows how many eurodisco acts of the 80s.

<pengie> right.

<AmeWota> and yet she makes it seem… um…

<pengie> that’s accurate to a T.

<AmeWota> i guess, “disco melodramatic” is the term I use for it.

<pengie> but there’s why I didn’t like it.

<pengie> I could get that from anywhere else.

<pengie> and it being a favorite singer of mine behind it? didn’t matter much to me.

<pengie> that’s EXACTLY what’s happening to 80_pan now. I loved the HELL out of Harenchi Punch.

<pengie> but them in some eurotrash 80s style new wave group? I hate it.

<pengie> I don’t care that I loved them back when they did their first two albums. I don’t care that I love the girls as people. It’s not unique and really not all that imaginative, to me.

<AmeWota> Well, to me, that whole 80_pan / Shitdisco thing isn’t as good because it’s just retreading in a cynical fashion.

<AmeWota> i don’t get a sense that there’s a creative imagination at work, nor a passion to combine with it.

<AmeWota> it’s lifeless.

<pengie> yeah.

<pengie> they did have one good song on the mini album, really.

<AmeWota> To me, TF6 is more musically impassioned and creative… and even unique.

<pengie> than that? yeah.

<pengie> as a whole in my music collection, no, I don’t agree with that…

<pengie> but I listen to so much stuff.

<AmeWota> I’m curious to hear what else you think sounds like TF6.

<pengie> aha, a challenge!

<AmeWota> Because I wonder if it has to do with what I’m bringing as a listener vs what TF6 accomplishes musically.

<pengie> I associate a lot of her music as february with the other really synthy stuff coming out around the same time. it’s… cuter, definitely, but…

<pengie> I was listening to Aiuchi Rina around the same time, and her stuff is really… electronic.

<AmeWota> Do you mean the Eurobeat stuff that Avex was pushing?

<pengie> hmm, not quite.

<pengie> Aiuchi Rina, Saegusa Yuuka… just women singing along to more electronic stuff with the occasional ballad.

<pengie> but you could dance to all of that.

<pengie> february just… I don’t know. thinking about it now, maybe she confused me.

<pengie> going from the mellow, soul music in buriguri to cutesy pop just threw me off.

<pengie> I guess, looking at it, february6 and me don’t get along…

<pengie> it’s one part being thrown off by the chance…

<pengie> and one part me just not having a place for the music in my … heart? something.

<AmeWota> Interesting, though, that the context of her career is what threw you off.

<AmeWota> Especially since I’d be working backwards.

<AmeWota> Like, it’s me going, “This Wings is great! Was Paul McCartney in anything before this group?”

<pengie> haha, yeah, actually, that’s a good way of looking at it.

<pengie> that’s the situation with people and Tsuchiya Anna, too.

<AmeWota> Spin Aqua, if I recall?

<pengie> “Her solo stuff is nice, was there anything before that?” And then I start ranting and raving and frothing at the mouth.

<pengie> That’s another situation where I’m EXTREMELY loyal to the beginning music, but the solo career falls mostly flat with me.

<pengie> I think I said this to SB the other night…

<pengie> She puts out a single that I like and call the second coming of Spin Aqua…

<pengie> then puts out a single that is SO BAD that I start screaming about her career being over.

<pengie> and it goes like this every six months.

<AmeWota> So you’d want to see Anna back with Spin Aqua, and Tommy back in BuriGuri.

<pengie> if we’re talking about selfish desires, yes.

<AmeWota> Do you think you could appreciate their solo work better if you weren’t aware of the earlier stuff?

<pengie> oh, that’s a tricky question…

<pengie> but I think so, in all honesty.

<pengie> if I didn’t know about Spin Aqua first, absolutely, but she wouldn’t be my favorite singer then, either.

<AmeWota> I think what we’re hitting on here is the importance of context in appreciating music…

<AmeWota> What you know or don’t know will always have some influence…

<AmeWota> It’s just a question of how much.

<AmeWota> For me, the TF6 context is the 80s music of my adolescence.

<AmeWota> To you, it’s the weirdo pop project that put BG on hold.

<pengie> yeah!

<pengie> exactly.

<pengie> whereas now… I’m trying to think of a soloist who was in a group beforehand…

<pengie> oh, right. like Furukawa Miki and SUPERCAR.

<pengie> I LOVE her solo album.

<pengie> I kinda shrug at SUPERCAR.

<pengie> and that’s resulted in some weird reactions from people, like “did you try them?”

<pengie> “yeah, but that’s way different from her solo stuff…”

<AmeWota> hm.

<pengie> I grew to love her when she was the weirdo kinda experiemental singer.

<pengie> so that’s what I’m attached to…

<AmeWota> i’m trying to think of examples in the idol world.

<AmeWota> nothing significant comes to mind, mostly because the style doesn’t change, just the number of people standing next to you.

<pengie> Fujimoto Miki in and out of Morning Musume maybe?

<AmeWota> oh!

<AmeWota> that’s a good one.

<pengie> because she went solo, then group, then solo again…

<AmeWota> if i think about it, Mikitty only really took more of a role after W left…

<pengie> I never knew her as a soloist, just as that snide looking bitch who was probably fucking Yossie when Mako wasn’t hanging on her.

<AmeWota> And I like her solo stuff better than that era of Momusu.

<AmeWota> Except for Chokkan 2, which is sheer genius.

<pengie> haha, YES.

<pengie> I was pleasantly surprised to like her as a soloist…

<AmeWota> with that many girls in the mix, it’s harder to note the contribution unless they’re really pushed forward.

<pengie> because within Morning Musume, she just pissed me off.

<AmeWota> yeah, i hated Miki at first.

<AmeWota> then i saw this whole other Miki from her early solo work and fell in love.

<pengie> but that’s a prime example of me actually letting the idol persona influence my enjoyment of the music

<pengie> which I usually try not to do.

<AmeWota> why not?

<pengie> when I was younger, like ten or eleven… I mean, boybands were getting big here.

<pengie> Backstreet Boys, N*Sync, the whole lot.

<pengie> I approached them like “okay, is the music catchy?” and I didn’t really think it was.

<pengie> but I saw my classmates and other girls approaching them like “THEY’RE HOT! THE MUSIC DOESN’T MATTER!”

<AmeWota> right!

<pengie> they were listening to the music and thinking “oh, god, JT is soooo cute!”

<pengie> I’m listening to it and thinking “what fucking garbage, where is my Alanis Morissette cassette?!”

<pengie> so at that time, I was like “fuck it, the people behind the music is NOT GOING TO MATTER TO ME ANY MORE!”

<AmeWota> but can’t that cuteness be a way in?

<AmeWota> that is, isn’t such shallowness a different kind of context to appreciate music?

<pengie> yes.

<pengie> I realize that it is, now.

<AmeWota> it can go too far…

<AmeWota> and i joke about it going too far.

<AmeWota> but limits are reached if you haven’t completely lobotomized yourself.

<pengie> hahaha.

<pengie> yeah.

<AmeWota> no, seriously!

<pengie> I mean, when I first listened to Morning Musume, I was… thirteen? twelve? something like that.

<pengie> so I was still going “I don’t care who sings what, Koi no Dance Site sounds AWESOME.”

<pengie> then I saw Joshi Kashimashi a few years later and was like “oh, shit, they’re cute.”

<AmeWota> at some point a group you’re enamored with will take their stuff too far down a shitty path…

<AmeWota> and then you’re there, breathing it in, and decide enough’s enough.

<pengie> yeah.

<pengie> Like Morning Musume right now.

<AmeWota> You said it, not me.

<AmeWota> But yeah.

<pengie> Well, because I’m feeling it now.

<pengie> You started to say that… when? like, four singles ago?

<AmeWota> Well, whenever I started shifting to Berryz, it was for two reasons.

<AmeWota> One, I was being more open about my pedo side.

<pengie> DAMNIT!

<pengie> I was going to type that…

<pengie> but you typed it out for me…

<pengie> You pedo-y pedo pedoface.

<AmeWota> Two, Momusu wasn’t worth rooting for as much.

<AmeWota> So I think that was after “Osaka Koi no Uta” or something.

<pengie> well, honestly, now?

<pengie> Pink Lady cover songs?

<pengie> what the fuck.

<AmeWota> Though even then, there were flashes of brilliance.

<AmeWota> Like, I LOVE “Ambitious!”.

<pengie> oh, god!

<pengie> I hate that song!

<pengie> I don’t even know why!

<pengie> I think part of it has to do with it being Mako and Konkon’s sendoff

<pengie> and them getting A line.

<pengie> Like, fuck you, here’s your bit, get out.

<pengie> and Yossie gets a whole stanza in Kanashimi?

<pengie> okay.

<AmeWota> But again! Context!

<AmeWota> You’re judging singles vis-a-vis the line-up and who gets shafted!

<pengie> exactly!

<AmeWota> We’ve mostly been talking about context and music, one way or the other.

<AmeWota> And how there’s a desire to think of music in a “pure” form, aside from anything but itself.

<pengie> yeah.

<AmeWota> Where do you think that comes from?

<AmeWota> Certainly, I felt that way in my younger days.

<AmeWota> Or at least, flattered myself into thinking such.

<AmeWota> But why do you think it’s so important?

<AmeWota> And I’m not being snarky or anything, it’s just…

<pengie> No, I understand.

<AmeWota> It’s something we take for granted culturally, or at least pretend to…

<AmeWota> And my interest in Japanese music idol was my big break from such thinking.

<pengie> some of the groups I listen to now, indie or otherwise, don’t have a public persona to stand on.

<pengie> and I feel like it would be an injustice, on my part, to even consider anything but the time they took to wrote lyrics, or string their bass, or work out the kinks in composition.

<AmeWota> right, right.

<AmeWota> a lot of guitar bands i love were the same way.

<pengie> but there’s another difference between bands and idol groups, I mean…

<pengie> I think they all work equally hard, just on different aspects.

<pengie> Idols spend as much time trying to be presentable as indie rock groups spend trying to get their riffs right.

<pengie> so I can’t appreciate one over the other.

<pengie> but I DO tend to listen to non-idol works more, because there’s far more in the music ITSELF to appreciate.

<AmeWota> right… but a performer who’s about “pure” music is still considered more creative, more authentic…

<pengie> musically, sure, they are. but there’s very little pressure on them to look perfect for cameras.

<AmeWota> Though nowadays, that seems less the case?

<pengie> maybe.

<pengie> I’m thinking about the bands I’m listening to now though. post-rock, math rock, stuff without lyrics.

<pengie> the guys just get on stage and play.

<pengie> nobody gives a shit what they’re wearing.

<AmeWota> You see, the cynic in me wonders…

<AmeWota> if it isn’t caring about what they’re wearing…

<AmeWota> or a distinct pose that is meant to be anti-image…

<AmeWota> but nowadays is an image in itself.

<pengie> ooh.

<AmeWota> like that credit card commercial where the guy dresses up all sloppy for a bar concert or something.

<AmeWota> and it ends with “looking like you belong” or “looking like you just woke up” – “priceless”.

<pengie> the unaffected college student style. haha.

<AmeWota> i wonder if there’s ever any escape from context…

<AmeWota> i mean, i know i blew up the matter to “no image” is an image in itself…

<AmeWota> which is, you know, bad mcluhan…

<AmeWota> but certainly, even though Sonic Youth didn’t look like much…

<AmeWota> the fact that they didn’t look like much was part of their appeal to me, in my twenties.

<pengie> It’s hard to escape the context of what you’re listening to regardless of what you mean by context.

<pengie> Me listening to february6 and disliking it related to that context of her earlier work…

<pengie> And you enjoying a certain idol group’s music after already enjoying their appearances or tv show appearances or whatever…

<pengie> I’m not sure where I’m going with this.

<AmeWota> it’s a tough nut to crack.

<AmeWota> thing is, the more i appreciate idols, the more i find people who claim “music only” or any other purist, anti-image / anti-media attitude as being…

<AmeWota> unrealistic… fatuous, even.

<pengie> Right now there are bands that I can’t find anything about.

<pengie> like, indie rock groups with ONE al–actually, no! Better example.

<pengie> royalcrown and I found this singer with one PV out right now, and we couldn’t even find the proper translation of her NAME.

<pengie> and even though we loved the song, it went beyond that, at least for me.

<pengie> not knowing who she was or where she was from or anything drove me INSANE.

<pengie> and I’m buying her single now in a desperate move to get SOME little bit of info.

<pengie> so regardless of how much I enjoy a song, it’s like I’ve got to know more.

<pengie> I didn’t want it to, a few years ago, but now the person behind it DOES matter to me.

<pengie> and that isn’t a bad thing.

<pengie> it gives me–oh, this damn WORD again–context to appreciate.

<pengie> like “she wrote this song because she experienced this!”

<AmeWota> yeah, context.

<AmeWota> and yet, some people DO content themselves with just hearing it on the radio and humming along with it.

<AmeWota> all the things we’re talking about are concerns unique to people who really care. and that isn’t everyone.

<AmeWota> so, any closing thoughts?

<pengie> Hmmm…

<pengie> There’s not a bad way to approach music.

<pengie> I think that’s what I’ve finally concluded.

<pengie> Idol or indie or mainstream or otherwise. It’s all about enjoying it, you know?

<AmeWota> Does this include enjoying Tanimura’s songs based on her boobs?

<pengie> Sadly, yes.

<pengie> I don’t agree with it, but it’s none of my business. 😛

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3 Responses to “Chatting With unchained’s pengie on Music and Context”
  1. jim says:

    C’mon Ray, you know you want to fuck Jon Spencer. Nice segment. I’m not so into MM doing the Pink Lady thing either. I never said it, but a lot of writing about their music for me is taking is out of the idol context, like, “this isn’t like Pink Lady or something…it’s really good!” PL is like standard ok pop, I mean but that’s all it is. Now they are trying to put themselves in that context because they are taken less seriously by that even. They are really in their own league, or were. I do the opposite with HALCALI, try to put them in the larger context of Hip-hop, at least in the beginning there was an effort in that direction on their part. Sort of. Gets confusing.

    Anti-image is an image, no question. If you don’t want an image, you don’t get on a stage. It might not be that important, but it’s always an element. Like if a band shaves their heads or grows beards it changes how you think about them. As soon as you know a camera is pointed at you, you have to either change or make a decision not to change. Nobody can block that out.

  2. Ray Mescallado says:

    Jon Spencer? No. But Neil Hagerty…? Maybe. Post-PG I was into Royal Trux a lot more than the Blues Explosion.

  3. Gag Halfrunt says:

    While TF6 definitely invokes idols, musically it’s just this beautifully weird love letter to 80s New Wave and Pop.

    Which may be why it has an impact on me, given my age.

    I’ve been getting into Tommy february6 recently, precisely because it reminds me of the 80s pop I grew up with – and is in fact a pastiche of it. For instance, the percussion on Everyday at the Bus Stop has the particular sound of 80s drum machines (is it the famous TR-808?). And I came across a video up on YouTube of Tommy singing Kylie’s I Should Be So Lucky, and it fits perfectly with her sound.

    As for Tommy february6’s persona, it strikes me as an over-the-top version of an all-American bubblegum pop star. She’s surrounded by cheerleaders and other bits and pieces of American pop culture, and the fact that she’s a twentysomething-to-thirtysomething Japanese woman impersonating an American teenager is all part of the joke.