Big In Japan

“I hear she does car commercials in Japan” whispers a fellow classmate of Regina George, in the 2004 movie Mean Girls. Regina George is the coolest girl in school, and the line in the movie was representative of a time of burgeoning globalisation and celebrity culture occurring in the mid 2000s. The new celebrity was exploding – for their talents in music, acting or sometimes for not much reason at all. The increasing availability of the internet meant that people could watch Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson’s ill-fated Superbowl nip slip on repeat, and fans around the world could speculate about Britney Spears’ mental state.

From the mid 2000s onward, having celebrity status in Japan has long been a signal that someone has cemented their fame. Only someone with transcendent cultural impact would be able to make it as a big deal overseas – Britney Spears, Johnny Depp and even Australia’s own Miranda Kerr are all very big in Japan.

But on my recent trip to Japan, I was surprised to find who was in fact their hottest import – Carly Rae Jepsen.

Remember her maybe?

Yes. That Carly Rae Jepsen. Everywhere we went from restaurants to stores to theme parks, from Osaka to Tokyo, the faint sounds of Carly Rae wanting to “cut to the feeling” permeated my soul and haunted me to the core. She’s so big that her song Cut to the Feeling was used in a commercial for Biore makeup remover – one of the top selling cosmetic brands in the country. In all fairness, the song was catchy, but her popularity surprised me for a few reasons.

First of all, when we consider global celebrity successes, they are usually ubiquitously popular. An obvious example are the Kardashians, who are a household name no matter the language – I mean, Kim is googled more than Jesus himself. The affordances of social media have enabled grander levels of celebrity than we’ve ever seen before, including the new kind of niche – where you don’t necessarily have to be popular in your own country to become an international sensation.

Miranda Kerr – Queen of bizarre celebrity endorsements

Media Professor Russell Meeuf describes this phenomenon as Transnational Stardom, where a celebrity has qualities that resonate “across geographical boundaries”. Pitchfork summarised Carly Rae’s style of music as vanilla and lacking individuality – “you can listen to Carly Rae Jepsen for days and still have no idea who she is”. But perhaps this type of mass appeal is what allows her to transcend borders. Hell – the Medical University of Vienna even conducted a study about it – simplicity sells, and the more formulaic an album is, the better the sales – language of origin aside.

Carly Rae, while well-known from her debut single Call Me Maybe, has not achieved much commercial success since, with only a few singles charting and none in the top ten. Her lack of success led to those in the Reddit “Popheads” community affectionately nicknaming her latest album, E•MO•TION, as E•FLOP•TION, due to its limited popularity. Carly had her 15 minutes of fame, yet despite solid praise from critics and undying love from fans, has effectively become yesterday’s trending topic.


Carly Rae Jepsen fans do not mess around.

Success in the Land of the Rising Sun

However, this wasn’t the case in Japan. Carly must really, really, really like Japan, because EMOTION was released in Japan a full two months ahead of the US, complete with Japan-exclusive music videos. If the Biore commercial wasn’t enough, Carly has done a shampoo commercial – and has even had a spot on morning television program Mezamshi TV demonstrating how to make avocado toast. Carly Rae regularly visits to perform and work with Japan’s still thriving traditional media – giving love to her fans and receiving love (and personalised chopsticks) in return.

As I looked into my now very deep obsession with Carly Rae’s interesting journey to localised fame, I realised that she’s not the first pop songstress to find more success in Japan than on her home turf.

Yep – Avril Lavigne, aka my 8 year old self’s fashion inspiration, wristbands and all. Lavigne, now forgotten by the Western market, is still releasing albums and touring – just not for us. You may be familiar with controversy surrounding one of her more recent releases, Hello Kitty, for supposed cultural appropriation, despite Japanese fans saying they found no issue with Avril’s tribute to her favourite country. Carly Rae has delivered a similar, yet less controversial, love letter to Japan with Emotion Side B – six new songs exclusively for Japan.

carly rae jepsen’s EMOTION gets the kawaii treatment

This was a smart move from Carly Rae – as while America and Australia prefer streaming, Japan still very much is attached to physical media – studies have reported that 85% of all music sales in Japan are made up of physical CD purchases. There is also a deep desire to possess some physical part of the star – with some buying just for “jake-gai”, or the aesthetic quality of the cover art and packaging.

The Secret to Being Sugoi

There are no sure factors to success, but for those artists who find it in Japan, entertainment industry veteran Archie Meguro suggests all they need to do is make an effort to make a connection. This means not just liking instagram comments, but putting in the hours by doing in-person promotion. Jepsen does this – not only sharing her love for Japan on her social media, but taking time to take a selfie. This kind of one-on-one interaction is a huge part of Japanese idol culture, a simultaneously endearing and concerning subset of music culture, where young girls perform (for a deep-dive, check out Tokyo Idols on Netflix). Idols often hold handshake meet and greets, which Anthropology Professor Patrick Galbraith describes as an opportunity for fans to experience relative intimacy with their favourite starlet in exchange for purchasing a copy of their album. While Carly Rae hasn’t held any handshake events herself, her efforts to make herself available and relatable go a long way to connecting with fans.

A typical idol hand-shake event.

And let’s not forget that Carly Rae has the “kawaii” factor – again, a trait necessary to being a j-pop idol. Human Development Professor Yuya Kiuchi suggests that in order for idols to be successful, they “must be pure but sexy, docile yet energetic, reserved but always cheerful for photos”. While these demands are considered outdated and serving a male fantasy, Carly Rae tends to fit most of the criteria. Stopping to greet fans at the airport after a long-haul flight and rarely being connected to a male love interest (update: as I was editing I discovered she has a boyfriend now), Carly is able to serve the illusion of being the readily available girl-next-door.

In order to become big in Japan, you don’t need to be Regina George or a Kardashian – just show a country some love and you may find that they’ll really, really, really like you.

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