Let's Play On 1-2-3: A "POP SONG" For a World That's Lost It
Kenshi Yonezu's new POP SONG, written as a song for a PlayStation commercial, became available for streaming on February 7th.
Following Pale Blue, the theme song for TBS drama Rikokatsu, POP SONG marks his first new song in nearly 8 months. When a commercial starring Yonezu was published to PlayStation systems on January 23rd, his impactful visuals, the grand scale, and the unique sound made a big splash.
Sections that have a foreign feel akin to Romani music, kitschy layered sound effects - POP SONG proved a tricky thing to put together. We discussed the background on how this new song was made, the visual concept of the music video and associated commercial, and thoughts on game culture.
Q. This is our first interview since your last album Pale Blue. Just to ask, what kind of year was 2021 for you?
A. Hmm, I don't really remember. I think last year was, out of the last ten years, the year where I did the least as a musician. I did release one single, but I didn't even do any tours, and that's really all I did as a maker of music. Entering my 30s, perhaps I reached a turning point - at the least, maybe it was a year to settle down for a bit. Not that I intentionally did that so much as it just happened that way.
Q. Did you have a lot of personal time to yourself?
A. Right. Lots of time just idly spent at home, and I watched a ton of movies. Digging through old movies as if I were following a trail of YouTube recommendations, rewatching ones I'd seen long ago but couldn't really remember; at the peak, I imagine I watched as many as 50 a month. I feel like I watched lots of movies with the thought of trying to direct things from non-musical places into music.
Q. What sorts of movies did you watch?
A. I watched all kinds, but there was a period where I watched a bunch of films with villains committing crimes not out of selfish desire, but with the aim of actualizing their ideals or beliefs in the world. I feel my experiences from that period had a big influence on making POP SONG. Patlabor: The Movie, Se7en, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure - I felt a response to works like that, and wondered if I could do that in music.
Q. What specifically did you feel a response to?
A. It's not exactly a recent thing, but say you look at social media - there's always disputes going on. There's these big trends headed in a single direction that you would sum up as "righteous indignation." But when I take a look inside, I notice some incredibly vile language, and it makes me think "everybody's lost it, huh." I feel like nobody can see straight, and that maybe all people living in the world are somehow deranged. But the longer I focus on that stuff, the more my vision narrows, and I come to think that I'm the one who's lost it for saying "you've lost it" out of the blue. I live a very unique life from the average person's perspective, and I feel like extremely few people are in a position like mine. Even so, I often find myself feeling like "am I the only sane one in the world?", so POP SONG was an expression of that sensation in an contrary form.
Q. So it's an inversion of values, then. Those movies you listed do have similar motifs, and when I finished listening to POP SONG, what left the biggest impression was the phrase "everything's nonsense." That felt like part of the common motif of "inverted values."
A. "Nonsense" is an extremely negative word by its definition, but to me, it's not only negative. Danshi Tatekawa said that "life is killing time until you die"; I feel there's a seed of salvation in those words. If people living stiff-shouldered start to think "life is just a series of time-wasters 'til you die anyhow," they can start to loosen up. In that way, I think it's a good word too. Everyone's so frantic about living, they distance themselves from the nonsense fun on the opposite side from that. But the more you try to distance yourself, the more that, on reflection, you lose any idea of what the point of living is. I sometimes wonder just how many people are living with an awareness of that.
Q. The lyrics contain the phrase "sing a song that's just for you." I felt like that and "it's all nonsense" were at odds.
A. The same way "everything's nonsense" has both a negative and a positive side, I wanted the song itself to have a duality of meaning. I like things with double meanings, and find there's a charm to contradictory things. "Sing a song that's just for you" isn't a line I'd really want to use, wouldn't want to sing, if not for the tone of this song. Does there really exist something in the world that's yours and yours alone? I think not. What a single person can do is limited, and the things that can come of one life don't amount to much. I think that about myself, and about any person. So if I was to include these words in a song, it had to be in a form like this. I don't think I could've done so without phrasing it as "and guess what, that's nonsense too."
Q. POP SONG was written after PlayStation asked you to make a song for a commercial. About when did you start on it?
A. I embarked on it around autumn last year. I've played PlayStation since I was in grade school, and it's a part of my life, so I almost couldn't ask for a better offer - I got the impression I could do something fun with it. And the time I started writing it overlapped with the time I was watching a whole bunch of movies. That's why I feel like those experiences had a big influence on making POP SONG.
Q. This felt like a song that incorporated some tastes you've never had before, like Romani music. How did you picture the tone and the sound?
A. I considered what this song should be based around the premise of it being a song for a PlayStation commercial. A PlayStation is just what the name implies - a thing you play. So I felt like I should be playing a bunch in the song. Actually, it mostly came from my idea for the music video. I had this thought of "I want to transform" in the video, so "transformation" became one of the keywords.
Q. In the commercial and music video, a soldier transforms into you - did you suggest that idea, Yonezu-san?
A. I'm the one who guided them. The concrete details and technical aspects, of course, were thought up by director (Yuichi) Kodama, but my appearance and the overall concept were my ideas.
Q. How did you arrive at this song's sound from that concept?
A. Basically, "I want to transform" was there at the start, and it expanded from there by association. From "transformation," I thought of "(Pretty Guardian) Sailor Moon," and the idea came about to insert transformation sequence sound effects in the song. Unsure how to handle that audio, I asked the company that's done sound work for Sailor Moon for generations to recreate new sounds for one of those transformation sequences, and used those. In addition, I wanted it to feel cheap in a good way, so I also had them make these sound effects like cheers, heartbeats, and cuckoo clocks, ones like YouTubers might use in their videos, and inserted those. As for how it would pan out dropping things like that into the song, I worked out the balance with (Yuta) Bandoh-kun (a musician who's worked with Yonezu on arrangement since Ghost of the Sea), which is how it ultimately arrived at its final form.
Q. Why did you "want to transform" in the first place?
A. I wanted to be defiant. ..."Defiant" may not be the right word, but in the sense that if I'm wearing a costume I designed myself, you could say I just used my own body as a canvas. I've drawn pictures on paper or on computers since I was a kid, so I've always had that circuit. The circuit just wasn't suited for my body before. But turning 30, thanks to a kind of defiant attitude, that kind of thing became possible. 5 or 10 years ago, it wouldn't have been a proper fit for my sense of physicality, and I'm sure I would have never done it. Having done it now, I feel like it wasn't that big a deal.
Q. Is this form of Yonezu-san a persona distinct from your usual self?
A. I wonder. I don't have any sense of it being some kind of persona of mine. Perhaps it's close to how I am when I'm totally wasted. I think maybe it's just something I didn't show to the public, but that I've always had, and the circuit to take to express it has become clearer with age.
Q. Was this transformation one that felt good to do? Was it comfortable?
A. Rather than "feeling good," I'd just say it didn't feel unfitting. It was my first time trying it, so I wasn't sure how it'd go, but it was lots of fun.
Q. What sort of reaction did the people responsible for the commercial have to your ideas?
A. There was no specification of "please give us something like this"; it was a welcome environment that was easy to work in, where they let me be free to create. I came away with the feeling that what suits me best is doing the things I find fun in whatever my current mode is.
Q. The impactful music video, with a horde of soldiers and you doing wild moves you can't do in the real world, felt like going into the world of a game. I imagine shooting was rather difficult?
A. We filmed over about three days, the most time I've spent filming any music video so far.
Q. Did you discuss with the director and team to decide the behaviors and expressions you do in the video?
A. There were things I distinctly wanted to do there, so I didn't discuss it much with the team. If I had to say, I was taught things by my usual dance instructor (Tomohiko) Tsujimoto-san, but I fundamentally tried to just go off what I was thinking of doing myself. And there was a lot I learned in doing that.
Q. What did you learn?
A. I wore a one-piece, color tights, and heels, and Tsujimoto-san taught me that when you wear something like that, your physical expressions naturally become smooth as well. At first I wanted to act a little more forcefully, but once I was actually moving around, it became clear that when dancing, there were certain gestures and beautiful-looking lines that would suit such an outfit. By the way, during filming, I got a three-stitch injury.
Q. Huh? Did you really?
A. In the last shot of the video, the scene where the soldiers are cheering and leaving to the world outside. The people playing the soldiers had been wearing heavy armor and holding swords, so toward the end of shooting, they were all exhausted. I figured I needed to take charge and rally everyone somehow, so I let out a shout and raised my arms up, but my hand banged into a crane camera. Everyone was roused, so I thought we'd carry that energy right into the next take, but then a staff member came running out and I realized I was bleeding. So they ended up having to give me about three stitches.
Q. I feel POP SONG has, in both the expression of the music, and the visuals and behaviors in the video, a kind of trickster energy that throws pre-existing common sense into disarray. Does that tie into the "fun" you talked about earlier?
A. I believe there's nothing as radical as a pop song. It's difficult to phrase, but it's like you don't have to put yourself forth for a pop song. Of course, all the songs I've made come from my mind and my technical ability, so there's a sense of them being born of everything I've cultivated over my life, but at the same time, they feel like they aren't mine. I think that's a merit of pop songs... which is also why I'm not one for being too regional.
Q. Too regional?
A. Stuff that's local, like your hometown. You might call it having a sense of belonging. I don't feel that much; there's a major part of me that doesn't want to belong to anywhere. A pop song makes that possible. However far you go, you can conceal yourself, so I feel some comfort in that.
Q. I think "poppy" things have a strength that lets them touch universal truths, unbound by the local rules or customs of one place. Is that feeling the reason for the name "POP SONG"?
A. Right. I think I have an aptitude for making things like that, but I also feel that there's an extremely complex process I have to go through. The way you arrive at "pop" differs depending on the era, and it isn't something I have total control over. So there's nothing more radical than making that attempt, and it's highly worth doing. That might be the biggest reason I love pop.
Q. This song is also for a PlayStation commercial, so tell me about your relation to games as well. I imagine you had a strong familiarity with games from a young age; what have you gotten from game culture?
A. If you were to crudely divide humans into delinquents and nerds, I would be in the "nerd" category; I feel like that's the shape my soul has had since birth. I think a big reason for me being like that is the way I would imagine things. I was always picturing worlds far away from the reality I'm living in now, where fantastic things you could never make happen here unfolded. While fantasy exists in books, comics, and movies too, games were the first to teach me that sort of thing. Things you can't see, things that don't exist in this world, things people think don't exist but actually might... By feeling things like that, it's like reality can expand. Through the experience of immersing yourself in the world of a game through a controller, I think you can get a real feeling that a world like this might actually exist somewhere. For instance, say you immerse yourself in the fantasy world of an RPG by moving around the characters. After returning from that world, the resolution with which you live in reality increases; you can think that some unremarkable path might lead to such a world, and get the feeling you're able to see some portion of it. That's increasing the resolution at which you perceive the world, and I feel that's incredibly important in life. That's the kind of thing games have taught me.
Q. There are games in many genres, so what genres do you like?
A. Generally, RPGs. I like games I can play deliberately by myself and get immersed in the story.
Q. You've been on a Natalie.mu interview for Shadow of the Colossus, where you said you played it as a teen, but what are some other titles you like?
A. I've played Final Fantasy since grade school and always liked it. I also got into the Shin Megami Tensei and Arc the Lad series. UNDERTALE's one I like as well.
Q. If you were a game creator, what kind of game would you want to try making?
A. I'd like to make something ensemble-esque. I think it's great when something like the SaGa series presents a story through the viewpoint of a variety of characters. Octopath Traveler is a game where all eight characters are protagonists, each of them having their own independent story; they're loosely connected, but ultimately arrive at a single conclusion. I think that sort of thing is interesting.
Q. Understood. Well, lastly, let me ask a straightforward question. What kinds of things do you want to do in 2022?
A. Hmm, I wonder. I think I'd like to continue living life enjoyably. My balance of things I want to do is gradually changing, and I feel like it's no good to just do the same things again. If I have to name something, I want to change up how I sing. Truthfully, I've already been slowly changing how I sing for the past 5 or so years. The voice is an instrument, but I only have one, so it inevitably gets boring. I want to switch out my voice like you'd switch to a new guitar. I've been thinking a lot lately how it'd be nice to do vocals that are a little different in my thirties.