They say that if you raise a conch shell to your ear, you’ll hear the ocean. Coincidentally, if you raise a comically oversized lollipop to your ear, you’ll hear Kero Kero Bonito, rolling out the Casio keyboard to soundtrack a cascade of ganbare! These are the rules of Bonito Generation, a 12-page – I mean track – children’s book of gel pens, neon hiragana and neo-pop sensibility.
Bonito Generation, at first glance, is the PC Music reply to Katy Perry’s “Firework”
It prides itself in a positive message, stocking a lake of exaggerated pop tones with inspirational one-liners and life advice that would be just as at home on both kitten posters and in post-graduate journals.
Case in point: “Trampoline,” the chipper centerpiece and climax to this synthesizer-coated candy pop. The refrain matches the childhood joy of – you guessed it! – trampolines with your everyday get-knocked-down-get-back-up-again-isms. “First you fall down,” singer Sarah Midori Perry starts. “Then you jump back up again!” It’s the kind of universal message that marks much of Kero Kero Bonito’s pop stylings: be yourself and everything will be alright in the end.
An album this optimistic would be refreshing. Bonito Generation one-ups “Firework” with childlike stupor and wild, J-pop inflected maximalism, throwing all the sounds of a children’s picture book into an 808 and cranking everything to eleven.
But Bonito Generation delivers all of its optimism with a knowing smile stemming from its PC Music roots (Gus Lobban, one of KKB’s producers, is probably better known as the comic sans irony-weaver Kane West). Perry delivers her lyrics with plain-clothed readings seemingly meant to parody an overblown “poptimism” while mocking its listeners with elementary school music class lyrics. Sometimes this façade falls apart and bleeds into something more literal; “Graduation,” a club heavy banger, is spliced with a damning of education at large (“I didn’t learn a thing anyway!”) while laughingly digging at post-grad promises (“You can do anything with a degree!”).
Bonitio Generation was, at first, a refreshing pill, colorful and sweet with a blast of danceable innocence and universalist observation that made it downright delightful. Closer inspection dissolves this into a muddled trickle of post-pop irony that seems more bent on chiding the listener for enjoying childlike, London-ized J-pop. Whether or not it succeeds as a cultural criticism, I’m not sure. As a listening experience, though, this comically oversized lollipop leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
I need to talk about bis because there are so few opportunities to do so.
Back in the 90s, the internet was new. It was exciting. The main reason it was exciting was because you could download terrible anime rips and not have to rely on bootleg VHS copies of Bubblegum Crisis for your japanimation fix.
This lead to the great Weeabooining, which led to body pillows both good and bad. But at the time, it must have been the coolest thing in the world to explore this vast culture that was suddenly freely available. And bis, I think, grew out of that coolness.
bis were a Scottish band, but they so dearly wanted to be Japanese. Their albums and singles had mangafied versions of the band members on the front. Their music appeared on the soundtrack for Jet Set Radio Future. These guys were dorks but they were lovable dorks. They made music that was vaguely Japanese-ish because they thought Japanese stuff was cool. Call it cultural adoration.
Kero Kero Bonito are a band who are kind of like bis, except that they are worse.
This is because they are millennials. As a millennial myself, I feel safe pointing this fact out. What this boils down to is that, like all millenials, they are so sure they get it, and because of that they actually don’t.
KKB also differ from bis (I love this comparison and I’m going to keep it going) in that they focus on modern J-pop instead of then-modern alt-rock for their musical base. Therein lies the problem: they are looking inwards on something that is joyous and part of a musical culture and creating a sterilized impersonation that, at best, comes across as a parody. It can’t help but feel that way because it amplifies the obvious ideas that J-pop presents while dismissing everything else involved. Kero Kero Bonito are like a high-pass filter for ideas.
The thing that worries me is that this seems to be the intent. Their roster includes PC Music alum Kane West, who helped create one of the most disgustingly over-lauded musical trends in recent memory. See, PC Music made pop music that was even morer. They made pop music that was more pop music than pop music, and in doing so completely missed the point of pop music. You can’t just make pop music more interesting by pushing everything to 11 because the whole point of modern pop music is that everything is already pushed to 11. So when each new PC Music song came out and it was obnoxious and sterile and weird, well, so was half of the stuff they play on the radio at Target. As a think piece I gave the whole thing zero credence, and as music I gave it less than that.
But that’s basically what KKB is, except with J-pop. But J-pop is like the PC Music version of western pop music already, except mostly good. So where does that leave me, the listener?
Overwhelmed, mostly. But not with positive feelings. With stimuli, certainly. Every single second of Bonito Generation is stuffed with factory-formulated sounds that trigger pleasure centers in the brain because they sound like things that have done so in the past. It’s not really nostalgia so much as it is pavlovian synths and pavlovian drums and pavlovian shoegaze guitars.
In that sense, maybe they accomplished their mission. After all, this music does exactly what it sets out to do, which is to make dumb pop music that you can tell is made by smart people. You can tell they’re smart because every line is sold with a wink. Every dumb pop moment is paired with an elbow nudge and a raised eyebrow. This is music about happiness, not music from happiness. Happiness grown in a lab. You could argue that that’s what all pop music is. And I would disagree with you.