“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.
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
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 stop and greet fans at the airport. Fans also suggest this is a reason that Miranda Kerr (who popped up on several billboards throughout my two weeks in Japan) is popular – she always makes time to take a selfie with fans.
Celebs such as Adele – while internationally successful, don’t have anywhere near the mass popularity as Jepsen in Japan for this reason. Japanese record label manager Jonny Thompson believes that while music is the eventual draw, without physically visiting the country and working with local traditional media, you won’t find success. Ie. if you don’t play by Japan’s rules, you’re not going to win.
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.