December 18, 2019 Playlist desu!
The BrainThe LeaderThe CenterThe Kid SisterThe LonerThe Zany Redhead
"GOGO DEMPA" by (2016)
At the beginning of this year I featured a series of "weird girls from the Internet" classic albums that were all recorded in the last 5 years and mostly from Japan. Well, here's another to bring this year to a close, with not just one weird girl but six of them. Since there is much to unpack here, I present a list of findings for what is surely the most epic CAOTW essay of all time (and don't call me Shirley).
Idols: is an IDOL ("aidoru") group, which in Japanese pop means a group of singers and dancers (almost always of the same gender) who wear matching outfits and perform tightly-choreographed dance routines while singing their songs. This is a structure for organizing musical performance and doesn't necessarily imply much about the style of music a group performs, and most professional idol groups seem to differentiate themselves based on gimmicks and fashion rather than music (for example, one of the most famous idol groups AKB48 is well-known for having 48 members!) But there are literally thousands of idol bands in Japan today, most of them amateur groups assembled the same way "guys who start a band together" are, and only a lucky few make their way up the showbiz ladder to become professional entertainers. On the top end, the most globally popular Japanese idol band today is of course BABYMETAL, whose musical style is heavy metal - though they are not the most popular idols in Japan. (The secret of BABYMETAL's great success has been not playing by the rules for Japanese idols, which only have a national fanbase compared to the global popularity of metal.) Another key feature of idols is that they exemplify a Japanese cultural trend of "characters as products": a large portion of the appeal of idol groups is the audience's investment in the personalities in the group. On that score, the offbeat charm of the Dempa girls has arguably been the main factor in their revolutionary success and made them into iconic archetypes on the idol scene. Most idol groups have members who seem to have the same interchangeable personality (cute, young and innocent), and many professional idol groups replace their members constantly (AKB48 has had nearly 200 different members pass through their ranks of 48!) is the exception where the band's image is defined by the unique girls in the group, rather than the girls in the group being defined by the image of the band (which the performers probably had nothing to do with creating in the first place). Personality has always been a big part of great pop music: The Beatles would not have been nearly as popular and influential if those four guys didn't have such distinctive and likable personalities.
Otaku Culture: The most important thing about's identity and image is that they are OTAKU: a key term in current Japanese pop culture which could be translated into English as "nerd" or "geek" (it literally means "house", as in a person with no social life who stays at home all the time indulging their geeky hobbies.) Until the 2010's decade, it was strictly a negative term in Japan, with a connotation much like "kids in black trenchcoats" had in America after Columbine. However, in recent years there has been something of an "otaku pride" movement as nerd culture has become more mainstream. The cuddlier slang term WOTA seems to be replacing "otaku" among insiders. The genius of an "idol band for otaku" is that wotas are the most obsessive and loyal fans imaginable: the subculture is literally defined by its members' obsessive devotion to their pop culture hobbies and passtimes. But fandoms like that can't be created through marketing; only a group of wotas who "talk the talk and walk the walk" can generate genuine wota-devotion. Though has been scoring Top 10 hits in Japan several times a year ever since 2013, they seem like the most popular cult band in the country rather than a mainstream group (the most popular idol group in Japan are a perfect example of the "cute, young, innocent" style and are not otaku.)
Denpa Music: One of weirder things to come out of otaku subculture is a style of music called DENPA SONG, music which is deliberately "awkward and strange" in an attempt to catch your ear by any means necessary. (Here's a short documentary on origins of the denpa scene 10 years ago before the arrival of Which is where we finally get to the "psychedelic progressive underground" part: songs tend to be complex multi-sectioned theatrical works with dramatic changes in tempo and dynamics, key modulations, time signature changes, and every section of every song crammed full of as many catchy hooks and earworms as possible. Their version of denpa is basically a maximalist "prog rock" approach to making pop music. The closest Western example I can think of is Frank Zappa's densely layered records that were "basically rock" (and did not lack for pop hooks) but were crammed full of motiffs and ideas from jazz, classical, and every other type of music known on earth. Though you could never mistake for a Western rock band: if there is a signature sound of J-Pop, it is the high-pitched singing voices of Japanese women (and in the denpa style, the more extreme the better: Dempagumi do sound like "chipmunks" sometimes.) Footnote: the group name is spelled "dempa" not "denpa" because their early performances were held in the DEMPA building in Tokyo - thus the name is a pun on their musical style and the location of their origin. In English, the most literal translation of would be something like "radio wave team incorporated."
Band History: Coinciding with the trends above, in 2008 video gamer nerd Mirin Furukawa began to perform denpa songs in a duo called "Denpagumi" at the Dear Stage bar in the Akhibara neighborhood of Tokyo (the center of wota culture). There were a few personnel changes in the early years that we can skip over (the important thing is Risa Aizawa, Nemu Yumemi and Eimi Naruse joined during this period), and a 2011 indie-label debut album that didn't get much notice aside from it's crazy title (in English: Say What? It's Not Sushi That Will Save The Universe...It's!) After struggling in the idol underground, their breakout came in 2012 with the formation of the iconic six-girl line-up that lasted until 2017; the last to join were the blonde Moga Mogami and precocious high schooler Ayane Fujisaki a.k.a. "Pinky!" (discovered from dance videos she uploaded to YouTube; she would have been 15 years old when that linked video was uploaded.) At this time they also signed a major label record deal which brought their music, costumes, staging and image to a whole new level. This classic lineup recorded three classic albums: World Wide Dempa (2013) was a complex, theatrical, hyperkinetic record unlike anything the Japanese pop scene had produced before, and WWDD (2015) was more of the same with even catchier songs. Next up was GOGO DEMPA (2016), which generally received a lukewarm reception from critics because they were seen as straying "too far" from their roots as a wacky denpa band. However, I would argue this makes GOGO their high-water mark to date, as they maintained the distinctive elements of their original style while expanding their range of material in new directions. It's also their most "live" sounding record: they are the only idol group (aside from those other rule-breakers BABYMETAL) that often tours with a live band rather than exclusively dancing to prerecorded tracks. Here's the music video from the album with two songs (both heard on the show this week); the first combines bluegrass(!), jazz and techno music and shows their wacky comedic side, the second is more of a rockin' Broadway showtune. However, this album also marked the end of the group's rise and the years 2017-2019 were a challenging period beginning with the unexpected departure of Moga. This led to a pause of nearly three years before their 5th album Wareware Wa Da (2019) was released: a decidedly transitional record that recapitulated their earlier sounds but was also thematically a feature for departing member Nemu, thus had a more mature and nostalgic tone than previous records. The group recently announced that album #6 is due for release in early 2020, which will be the first featuring the current six-girl lineup. The new recruits in place of Moga and Nemu are Nagi "Nemo" Nemoto and Rin "Perorin" Kaname who both share the wota superpower of illustration (also Nagi is a popular bikini model - depsite being only 4'11" and slightly crosseyed! You can google that one yourself!)
Performance: Don't let my description of the Gumi girls as "geeks" confuse you, they are more graceful and talented than the majority of Japanese idol groups. The importance of dance in J-pop cannot be understated: the best J-pop choreography is really a modern form of KABUKI, with exaggerated gestures and movements that accentuate the meanings of the song lyrics. (Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is another contemporary Japanese weird girl who has made the kabuki connection explicit in her recent work.) Dempa choreography is so dramatic it often feels more like musical theatre than a rock concert and they are the most high-energy and athletic of all the idol groups. Most idols dress very fashionably and wear platform heels for their demure dance steps - Dempagumi's uniform is sneakers and skirts over bike shorts because of all the kicking, twirling and jumping they do (they are the sweatiest band in Japan). The complexity of their dance also reinforces the complexity of their music and vocal arrangements: though Mirin and Risa are "first among equals," all six are lead singers who trade lines at a rapid pace rather than following a "lead and backup" vocalist structure.
Audience Participation: The importance of dance is not limited to the performers on the stage. Wotas have developed their own traditions as this subculture has flowered. The most striking of these is called WOTAGEI ("art of the otaku") which is sort of a dance which looks like doing rhythmic karate poses (though not necessarily skillfully!) and is often performed with glowsticks, and also involves a lot of chanting at concerts (which reminds me of audiences interacting with the screen at The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Behold, the dorkiest mosh pit since the Grateful Dead! But wotagei is mostly for dudes; lady wotas show their appreciation by dressing up as the band (cosplay) and learning their choreography, or if you are a true music nerd you could also try to learn how to play their songs (they're not easy!)
The Future: One of the iron laws of Japanese idols has been that they must be romantically unattached (at least publicly) because supposedly fans won't follow them if they are "unavailable" (The Beatles followed this exact logic when they first came to American and kept John and Ringo's marriages secret from the public). This rule is also meant to create a perception of reciprocity between performer and audience: the idol doesn't have time for romance because they are too busy working to earn the devotion of their loyal fans (if an idol starts dating they are breaking this covenant with their fans and no longer worthy of their devotion). Over the years there have been several high-profile examples of girls in idol groups being fired after a paparazzi caught them out on a date. Obviously, the longevity of idols is limited for this reason (particularly for women): if you want to start a family, you need to retire from showbiz. Dempagumi blew through that barrier in late 2019 when Mirin announced at one of their concerts that she got married (to another high profile otaku, the author of a popular comic book) - BUT she has no intention of quitting her career as an idol. This was a national news story in Japan, and perhaps just as shocking the news also came out that Mirin is an ancient crone of 33 years' age, which makes her twice the age of typical idols who usually start as teenagers and "retire" before their mid-twenties (so Mirin was 22 when she started the band and already 27 when they had their first hit). Thus the journey of the idol band has entered uncharted territory. Can a 40 year old woman still be an idol? Only if she is a wota, because you'd have to be some kind of nerd to still be doing that in middle age! 
(N) = New Release
Artist Song Album Year Country
The MothersLonesome Electric Turkey / Peaches En Regalia (live)Fillmore East - June 19711971USA
BeBop DeluxeLife In The Air AgeSunburst Finish1976UK
StereolabTicker-tape Of The UnconsciousDots And Loops1997UK/France
Floating Points LesAlpxCrush (N)2019 (Ninja Tune)UK
Guerilla Toss Land Where Money's Nightmare LivesWhat Would The Odd Do? EP (N)2019 (NNA)USA
Neil Young & Crazy Horse She Showed Me LoveColorado (N)2019 (Reprise)Canada/USA
Oceans Of The Moon Baby ChiffonOceans Of The Moon (N)2019 (Castle Face)USA
Prune Deer with Haru Nemuri ReturnInsufficient Postage EP (N)2019 (Street Voice)Taiwan/Japan
Poppy Fill The CrownI Disagree (N - forthcoming album)2019 (Sumerian)USA
Dempagumi.incGOGO DEMPA (instrumental)
   / Ba! To The Future
("Advance! To The Future")
Dempagumi.incSTAR☆Tto Shi Chau Ze Harudashi Ne
I'm Going To STAR(T)" - sic?)
Dempagumi.incFanfare Wa Bokura No Tame Ni
("This Fanfare Is For Us")
2016Japan Ko ♡ Ushi ♡ Tora ♡ U ♡ Tatsu ♡ Mi ♡
single (N)2019 (Meme Tokyo/Toy's Factory)Japan
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu5ive Years Monsternon-album single (KPP Best compilation)2016Japan
Tempura Kidz with Charisma.comMiira Killer
("Mummy Killer")
BABYMETAL BBABMetal Galaxy (N)2019 (Babymetal Records/Toy's Factory)Japan
Boris LOVELOVE & EVOL (N)2019 (Third Man)Japan
La Grande Armée La Tripa IntergalacticaLa Grande Armée (N)2019 (Riot Season)Chile
Swans Sunfuckerleaving meaning. (N)2019 (Young God/Mute)USA
The Babe Rainbow The WedgeToday (N)2019 (Flightless)Australia
Amon Düül IILa KrautomaMade In Germany1975Germany
Cosmic JokersGalactic Joke (part II & III)Cosmic Jokers1974Germany
ClusterIm SüdenCluster II1972Germany
Nina Hagen BandNaturäneNina Hagen Band1978Germany
Hampton Grease BandLawtonMusic To Eat1971USA
  The Idol Band With The Powers of GODZILLA!
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