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If only Britney Spears were a Puffy AmiYumi fan . . . she'd still have her kids. Or, at least, she'd make decent-enough records she wouldn't fuck her dancers, have their babies, and then need to drink and drug her way back in front of the cameras for the kind of attention she'd get if she just made music she was happy with.
See, while we can all agree her Blackout is largely the work of co-writers, vaguely credited support singers and a slew of producers propping her up while the self-hating pop star lunges after relevance and exposure with every slurry tantrum, her Japanese counterparts Puffy AmiYumi relish, even excel in, the role of aging pop icons.
Part of it owes to the culture, sure: Japan loves a good mega-star, especially a pair of them when they're cute and, as on the cover of their new surprisingly rockin', Butch Walker-produced Honeycreeper disc, look like Asian Olsen-twin ragamuffins a pair of Ventis and a joint away from a ménage à trois.
But part of it is that Puffy's Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura have embraced their pop icon-ness, refusing to be pigeonholed or relegated to teenybop purgatory. They've never made any bones about being prefab, but that comes with the territory.
Onuki and Yoshimura were teenagers signed separately to Sony Japan in the late '90s. Andy Sturmer, best known as the drummer/singer for the great psych-pop trio Jellyfish, who became massive pop stars in Japan, put the Osaka/Tokyo pop-punk singers together. Sturmer dubbed them "Puffy" and started producing broad, Beatlesque songs for them that sounded unsurprisingly like Jellyfish with two cute Japanese girls harmonizing the vocals.
Since then, Puffy AmiYumi (they added their names when Sean "P. Diddy" Combs threatened to sue) have become a J-pop phenomenon, turning into a merchandise-maxed pop-culture machine. J-pop, with its steady export of anime and video games, is more familiar to American audiences, yet its music industry has been a lot more willing to embrace the changing technology and the challenge of finding alternate revenue streams. A visit to puffyamiyumi.com reveals a world in which Puffy-branded key fobs cause as much excitement among fans as the music does. And that's exactly the point. Japanese CDs cost almost twice as much in Japan as American imports do; they are also more likely to include more songs and enriched content.
Besides the merch, Puffy's handlers have enriched their content by getting them a variety show in their native Japan, kind of a Donny & Marie meets TRL show, with guest stars such as Beck. Plus, the grrrls have an animated series on Cartoon Network, Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi. MC Hammer's Saturday-morning cartoon was Behind the Music fodder, making the case for overexposure; in the Puffettes' case, it's another chance, as they put it, "to bring our music to more people and younger fans."
And their music? Well, it's not all that bad. Sure, they create some disposable J-pop ditties, such as "Tokyo I'm On My Way" from last year's Splurge. But the new Honeycreeper is a Butch Walker (Avril Lavigne) field day. The first track bites "Helter Skelter"'s splatter-chord noise and runs it up and down the fretboard; elsewhere, the Cartoon Network massive gets treated to Joan Jett, L7 and ELO references. "Ain't Gonna Cut It"'s lyrics are like Leonard Cohen for the Halo generation: "If I was a drug dealer/You'd wear a wire to my house/If I was a computer/You'd hack in and wipe me out."
One thing's for sure: Puffy get away with way more than their American counterparts do. "American pop stars are a lot more worried about cred," says Linus Dotson, whose band Linus of Hollywood opens for Puffy AmiYumi's House of Blues show and who has had one of his songs recorded by them—with new lyrics, of course. "Japanese audiences accept a lot more from their pop stars." Which is why Puffy (as they're still called in Japan) can deliver bubblegum hits, then turn around and work with Walker or Donnas songsmith John Fields and sound like everyone from ELO to the Pooh Sticks, and nobody bats an eyelash.
Kinda makes "I'm a Slave 4 U" sound a little, well, little. Hell, Puffy AmiYumi even worked with the Blues Explosion's Jon Spencer. Can you imagine a Britney joint recorded by Steve Albini? Maybe she should . . .
Puffy AmiYumi perform with Linus of Hollywood at House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; www.hob.com. Sun., 8 p.m. $20-$22.50.