A Whiff of Perfume at The Palladium

To all the longtime Perfume fans around the world: I’m sorry.

When tickets for Perfume’s first U.S. concert  were made available last summer, it was an opportunity to get the see the enigmatic group up close and personal. Only, I haven’t heard much of their music. In fact, I haven’t heard a single track by the group and I had already committed leaving town to see them perform in Hollywood. I only know from Twitter that there are fans who adore them (and for what it’s worth the people I follow probably wouldn’t describe themselves as “music people”), and I these folks deserved to be in my place more than someone who was merely curious, like myself. All I can say to them is that …When your time comes, it will blast your brain out your earholes and slam it to the back of the wall!

Now, I didn’t step into the venue completely unenlightened. I tracked down Perfume’s albums and hoped there would be something I could enjoy. I didn’t know what I was expecting, but hope be gone with me; Perfume’s Game had me hooked! For the record, I enjoy electronic dance music. Hi-NRG and Italian disco, to be precise. Not exactly current trends, and that’s ain’t a bad thing. There are traces of these genres and its ilk in today’s pop music. Add some Japanese pop into the mix and you got a stew goin’. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but when it comes to Perfume, though, it’s taken to whole new level for me. It’s rare that I come across a group that can not only produce these elements, but can do it consistently with an impressive level of production. I can talk with you about my “theories” all day, but forget all that– There’s a Perfume concert we need to be getting to!

I can’t remember exactly when was the last time I was in Hollywood. It was either for a visit at the Griffith Observatory or Universal City Walk. Hollywood is actually a dirty place, so it has to be something balls-to-the-wall amazing to bring me in there. Arriving at the Palladium venue I could already see the line for the concert wrapping around the building. Even my Uber driver seemed to be curious what a large crowd was doing here. I was, too, to be honest. I was expecting a crowd, but not what seemed like an endless stream of people in coats (it was a little chilly).

I stood in line where it looped back towards the opposite direction after already reaching near where the line started, and I already began to notice a few things. First, there were a lot of people speaking Japanese. I mean, not a word of English could be heard among the dozens of people around me. I made me wonder if this is what it would be like to stand in line for one of those live events in Japan. Interesting enough, some of the people speaking Japanese didn’t appear to actually be Japanese, either. Needless to say, many Japanese fans had come out to see Perfume. Being a weeb myself, I picked up on a few bits of conversations, which was neat. I also noticed there were really young kids coming out to the show, too. Toddler aged. I didn’t think that Perfume reached to the family-friendly demographic, but then again, I’ve seen pictures online of parents taking their 5 year old kids to Metallica and death metal bands. It was a bit late in the evening, and a school night on top of that(!), so that caught me off guard

The concert was set to start at 7:00 p.m., but I didn’t actually enter the venue until around 8:20. I spent most of time observing the crowd, particularly the Japanese couple in front of me in line. They either had a bit too much to drink before they arrived or they were aloof as all hell. I’ve heard that jaywalking in Japan is sort of taboo, but the girlfriend ran across the street with the boyfriend hanging back saying “Shitsurei shimasu”「失礼します」 as she went off; I thought was cute and considerate. Finally, inside the venue, it was set up differently that what I’m used to seeing. For one, there were three bars set up just before you enter the concert hall. At each bar there were flatscreen TV overhead advertising the anime short Fastening. Drinking generic $8 beer at a mini bar while watching a multicultural anime was a surreal experience, to say the least. Then I remembered that Perfume provided the ending theme song for it, and that’s when the penny dropped.

I mulled around the venue (as best as I could since the floor was very sticky. Yuck!), until the concert started at 8:36. This wasn’t a seated event, so people were free to move around inside the entire floor. I firmly planted myself in the back and center. A center perspective is better than one that’s close and to the far side, but maybe that’s just me.

Along with the music, the members of Perfume did some banter with the audience. It seems Kashiyuka has the best grasp of English. Not quite the level of a native speaker, but the grammar was sound. It’s always interesting in seeing how people around the world see your home country. The interests they shared with their American fans ranged from different topics; body temperature (Americans have higher tolerance to heat?), Frozen (they sang a verse of Let of Go from Frozen. Never saw the film, but I think that’s what happened), how American needs bigger baths, their cameo in OK Go’s recent music video, and finally …drumroll~ …Cheeseburgers! The group even conducted a small chant, “I say cheese/burger, you say ‘Yay!'” I never quite understood the fascination with cheeseburgers being an American icon. At least they seemed to love In-N-Out as opposed to Mickey Dee’s.

The music was of course pumpin’ and jumpin’. If you’ve heard of Perfume’s music you know what you’re in for, so no real comment or critique here. Although, I had heard beforehand from fans that Perfume didn’t perform too many songs from their earlier repertoire in concerts these days, and that concerned me a bit since I enjoyed the music from the their first album the most. Not only they performed my favorite song (Chocolate Disco), but they also included at least a couple other songs from their album Game. That was the album that swore me into the world of Perfume, so although it wouldn’t have been bad if I were introduced to more recent tracks, I’m glad I got to experience a chunk of my favorite album of their’s live.

“Live” is also a funny thing with Perfume. It seems they lip-sync a fair amount at their shows. I enjoy both studio music and live music for completely different reasons, so this was quite a predicament for an act like Perfume. There is a distinction in what makes a live act great. Seeing a street performer play the guitar, bass, drums, symbols, accordion and kazoo simultaneously is an impressive sight. Would I want to run home and buy an album of a one-man-band playing the Eagle’s Hotel California, though?  On the flip-side, as much I adore Mike Mareen’s brilliant synth work, I don’t think I can stomach seeing an old German dude flop about in an over-sized zoot suit hat that makes him look like Darkwing Duck and don sunglasses that cover 3/4 of his head. People make the effort to go see their idols live regardless of any of these concerns, but if you’re mainly interested in the actual music, then what?

These thoughts really pecked at the back of my head, mainly because I thought I had already figured it out, but Perfume challenged my perceptions a bit. Lip-syncing? Ashlee Simpson, Milli Vanilli? Alright, these are extreme examples, but there clearly is some reservations for the practice. Personally, I’d rather hear the artist sing slightly less than what was captured on record than have the actual record be played while they’re on stage, as long as they’re genuinely putting in the effort. To me, it shows sincerity to not only the fans but to their craftsmanship as well. I mean, take a look atセイントフォー(Saint Four). They do jump-kicks, back-flips and cartwheels across the stage, and they do all while singing!

They’re the exception, I get that. They were pretty much riding on popularity of Flashdance and made it into a gimmick– That’s not to say they don’t deserve some nods. Certainly, if they can do it then what’s holding Perfume back? I was about to throw my hands up at the whole thing, but then I came across Nia’s Worderland blog. She explains as a performer singing and dancing can get you pretty damn tired. I can imagine! But as fans we kind of miss a few factors that make up a good show when we start eyeballing practices like lip-syncing.  As Nia puts it:

To someone in the audience, a good concert probably looks like it has a lot of stuff going on but to the artists performing on stage it feels like even more and it’s incredibly exhausting to execute a “good” performanceSo it doesn’t surprise me that Perfume, a group that has live concerts filled with all sorts of different effects, dances, and eye-catching things, would decide to lip-sync for a majority of their performances. And honestly? I’d rather watch an artist who lip-syncs pull of an amazing and entrancing concert than pay to see another artist who does sing live just stand in front of a microphone. … What Perfume may lack in live vocals they make up for in complex, intricate dancing, stunning visual effects, strong personalities projecting from each of the girls, and simply such an amazing stage presence that watching one of their lives on a computer screen makes me feel like I’m actually at one of their concerts.

Certainly, if not singing live is Perfume’s weak-point, it’s the only one. Looking at the concert I attended broadly, they played everything else they had to offer to their strengths. From the choreography to the outfits, from the laser lights to the video playing the background; it all made it a lush experience that Perfume are known for, and if that isn’t enough to put on a damn good show, well, then there is always open mic night at the karaoke club. Bring your own fog machine and glow sticks, then go nuts!

Music blog One Week One Band saw Perfume in 2011 at a festival in Japan, and had similar observations that mirror my own. They came to the conclusion that I think is the only one that matters:

A Perfume concert challenges your views about authenticity in music like few other live shows can.  The group barely hides the fact they are lip syncing, the music pumping out of the speakers sounding exactly like what appears on their albums except louder.

It was a very fake performance….and I loved every second of it, as did the capacity crowd around me.

If on record they often sound like just another electronic flourish, live the three women making up the public face of Perfume charm like politicians.  The singing might be pre-recorded, but it was tough to get hung up on that when dancing along to your favorite Perfume songs surrounded by other fans just as caught up in the experience as you are.

It was one of the least “authentic” live music events I’ve ever seen, but also one of the most energetic, joyful and communal.

If you’re the type that seeks out concerts to hear all the clinks and clanks because that’s what making a trip to the city worth it, I get you. The hissing feedback from the amp, the effect pedals that just stop working, the singer going in and out of key, the accidental bumps to the mics; plenty of things I’ve seen go wrong at concerts, and I love it. Now, I’m not saying I want to pay to see a complete disaster (or maybe I do, just once!). These imperfections don’t make music sound good, but it feels human. Really, these are moments I appreciate. Grass growing true sidewalks, scrapes on sneakers, a dimple on a cheek, rust on steel; I like seeing these things for some reason. Authentic? Genuine? Raw? I’m not sure there’s a word for it, but I strongly associate it to music.

However, I let my appreciation for the imperfect blind me from what makes me fee l good. Punk fans used to get hung up on bands that dared to use more than three chords to create something of a melody. And don’t get me started on classical music. I’ve been classically trained for four consecutive years and I still have no idea what they’re listening for. Plainly put, don’t get hung up on what music should be and just let it be (good!).