Just two years ago, the expansive, wonderful world of East Asian pop was mostly a mystery to me (that’s including bands readily available in Western music stores). I liked the cheesy period pop in Jia Zhang-ke’s films, I knew of Dance Dance Revolution from my younger siblings, and I’m pretty sure that, at one point or another, I’d owned a Boredoms record. But, I’m embarrassed to admit, that’s about as far as my knowledge base went. I didn’t know Ayumi Hamasaki from Hitomi Shimatani.
That all changed when I met my wife, a woman whose appetite for J-Pop (and “C-Pop” and “K-Pop”) is voracious enough that, as I type this, she’s inspired me to haplessly attempt to sing along in Korean to a breakneck-paced dance track titled “Dal Ah Dal Ah” by Lee Jung Hyun. In fact, she even resurrected a column called “J-Pop Will Itself” for a now-defunct webzine. Despite my best efforts, I haven’t managed to make Teresa a country music fan, but she has successfully broadened my horizons. Where my concept of “world music” once meant Fela Kuti, Youssou N’ Dour, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, that classification now includes names like Koda Kumi, Shiina Ringo, and Namie Amuro.
So there I was, almost as psyched as she was to see Japanese pop-punk sensation Puffy AmiYumi in Vancouver. Granted, I’m not sure either of us were quite as excited as the rest of the crowd, which seemed about 95 percent Japanese-Canadian and in the thrall of some modern reincarnation of Beatlemania. One young man, who appeared to be using a pogo stick but, in fact, wasn’t, must’ve jumped up and down around 400 times during the course of the group’s roughly 90-minute set. When Yumi hopped up on an amp case to the left of the stage (and right in front of us), she was lucky to have escaped with her baggy men’s khakis and Converse All-Stars intact.
People love Puffy AmiYumi. And they should! With post-riot grrl stalwarts Sleater-Kinney calling it quits last year, this eccentric, eclectic Cartoon Network-anointed vocal-duo-plus-dynamite-backing-band might well be the best still-standing pop-laden punk group on either side of the Pacific—give or take the increasingly mellow Yeah Yeah Yeahs. When they rocketed through a faithful cover of Green Day’s “Basket Case”, it served as a useful reminder of how much we need this sort of oddball energy—and how we’re not getting it from the sources we’ve come to expect it from. You can keep your “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, thank you very much. I’ll take Puffy’s “Tokyo, I’m on My Way”—an under-three-minute gem that’s a lot closer in spirit to the Ramones than Tokyo is to Queens.
Puffy AmiYumi rendered this comparison concrete by opening their encore with an inspired take on “Do You Remember Rock n’ Roll Radio?” Ami was sporting a vintage Ozzy Osbourne concert tee, Yumi an oversized shirt reading “CANDY STRIPPER DEEP UNDER GROUND” that looked borrowed from Pusha-T or Malice’s closet. Together, as they sang “it’s the end, the end of the Seventies / it’s the end, the end of the Century,” I could faintly sense Joey, Dee Dee, and perhaps even curmudgeonly Johnny nodding along in approval.
Or, you know, maybe it was just the overpriced Coors Light talking. Either way, the Vancouver audience was rapt from start to finish, and the group seemed entirely in its element as it kicked off its North American mini-tour.