Every month, Memories of Shibuya will be taking a look at a different artist or group, with featured songs – one per week – highlighting the peaks (and, occasionally, troughs) of their musical career.
Concluding his series on the artist whose work he is perhaps most well-known for collaborating on, Momus writes here about the end of an acclaimed and productive working relationship, and the 20th century along with it.
“Sublime criticism of soft porn poetics, very political indeed”, someone commented about the Kahimi Karie song we looked at last week, “David Hamilton.” These were the thoughts of an Italian, as it happens; it’s not the kind of comment a Japanese person would ever make, and that in itself is interesting.
The songs I wrote for Kahimi were freighted with things I knew would play well in Japanese culture — the el Records bossa charm, the fake Italian glamour, the tales about ghost cats in Kamakura and so on — but also with things I knew wouldn’t, but felt compelled to put in there anyway. My reasons were mostly to do with post-feminist guilt.
The whole situation of being a male songwriter putting words into the mouth of a female singer was unsettlingly ambivalent for me; both sexy (because who wouldn’t want to be a beautiful girl for a day or two?) and sexist (because KK should speak for herself — and eventually did).
The solution I adopted was what you might call “stylist sneer”. As in just about every Western fashion magazine with self-proclaimed “sassy attitude”, I sketched scenarios in which Kahimi was at once beautiful and defiant, like a cute model wrinkling her nose and giving the photographer some pout, finger and feist. There she is in “Lolitapop Dollhouse” declaring that she’s going to “tear my playhouse down” (a Lolita version of Nora Helmer in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House). There she is running with a suitcase in “Good Morning World,” declaring an independence sweetened by her beauty, or ripping up a book of designer furniture in “One Thousand 20th Century Chairs,” an act of defiance towards her partner, an over-controlling architect.
In the West, this was the era of Corinne Day’s images of “heroin chic”; models not only sneered for stylists, but seemed to be (and in some cases actually were) pushing needles into their arms just off camera. The irony that women were supposed to be declaring their independence while developing a junk habit — the most deadly dependency of all — was apparently overlooked by the Western media, trumped no doubt by the fact that heroin addiction was the perfect metaphor for consumerism.
Japan, on the other hand, had no heroin chic, no stylist sneer, no post-feminist guilt. Eccentric lunatics like Jun Togawa aside (and there is only one Jun Togawa), women mostly continued to be depicted as feminine, cute and wholesome. No Japanese person I’ve ever spoken to has called Kahimi’s songs “sublime criticism of gender roles, very political indeed”. So why did I write so many song-scenarios in which KK’s character is bursting out of some constriction or another?
The answer is that these were transmuted real-life situations both Kahimi and I were going through. Kahimi’s flight to Paris — partly to escape the straightjacket of Japan, partly to defy expectations that she become a conventional wife, and insecurity from a partner who saw her record sales potentially outstripping his — saw her literally “running with a suitcase”, ripping up a relationship with someone who “wouldn’t let her dance to Beck” (or date him, for that matter).
My lyrics for “One Thousand 20th Century Chairs” (the stomping music is by Hirohisa Horie from Neil & Iraiza) also contain an image of me flat-hunting at the end of 1996: separated from my wife, I thought I might live in one of the Olympiade towers in the Vietnamese district of Paris. The person fluttering the ripped pages from the 26th floor is part-Kahimi, part-me.
The lyric that spoke the most to Kahimi — she rang me in tears while recording it — was “Tiny King Kong.” I’m not quite sure why; my scenario reverses the King Kong stereotype of a tiny woman held by a gigantic ape; now it’s a tiny ape, and the woman loves the creature dearly, but crushes their perfect world accidentally by leaning too hard on the microscope. It must have resonated with some recent disaster in her personal life. Or perhaps she really did feel she’d grown too big at that point, some kind of celebrity monster-girl men were afraid to date: Queen Kong, casting her Paris shadow over Shibuya.
3D Corporation flew me (along with Toog) to Tokyo in 1997 to mime the “20th Century Chairs” song alongside Kahimi and Horie on Music Station, a TV show which at the time had a regular audience of ten million. The Kahimi-Momus collaboration was already beginning to wind down, but our artistic high was still ahead of us: the sublime medieval-prog mini-album Journey To The Centre of Me, recorded in London with the Dufay Collective, who usually played at the Shakespeare Globe theatre. We toured Japan, playing to enormous crowds, in 1998. Then there was a fun footnote in the form of an American tour we called Shopping in Amerikka.
After that, the century flipped and it was all over. I moved to New York, and then Tokyo, and then Berlin, and then Osaka. Kahimi continued in Paris, then went back to Tokyo, made increasingly avant-garde records with the likes of Jim O’Rourke and Otomo Yoshihide, then married a famous tap-dancer, had a baby, and moved to New York. The whole thing is twenty years behind us now. Tempus fugit, like a guilty kitten running with a tiny suitcase.