Made in USA. Pizzicato Five.
1994, Matador. Producers: Maki Nomiya, Yasuharu Konishi, K-taro Takanami
IN A NUTSHELL – 90s Japanese dance pop that sounds like the soundtrack to an Austin Powers movie if it starred Hello Kitty instead of Mike Myers. But I mean in a really, really good way! It’s fun and energetic and full of happiness. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – I can’t imagine a scenario in which it would be higher than 86, but I do love it!
“Hold on to sixteen as long as you can/ changes come around real soon make us women and men.” – John Cougar (nee Mellencamp)
“Bullshit.” – Me.
At a certain point in life, you have to grow up. That point will be different for everyone. Some folks – the FBLA types, who attend high school wearing business attire – are ready to move to grown-up-hood by the time they’re 14. Others find themselves in their twenties beginning to tire of their mom continually putting their good sweaters in the dryer, and realize that maybe the problem isn’t really with their mother.
But regardless of the actual age it happens, eventually, your best bet is going to be to embrace the reality that a) you’re going to have bills due each month; b) you’re going to have to work a job(s) that pays you enough to cover those expenses; and c) you’re going to enjoy (a) and (b) more if you find a close friend or friends to spend your time with.1
As a forty-seven year old, I am aware of several people around my age who are still desperately clinging to some winnowing thread of adolescence. In men, this usually manifests as a compulsory need to find someone/anyone to go out drinking with, who also has a connection to a coke dealer, and who especially won’t mind if you crash on his TV room floor a couple nights a week. This “adult-escent” is the guy who stopped hanging out with you and your friends twenty years ago – right around the time you all got real jobs and steady partners – but who you still see around town occasionally, when you’re out for a drink with friends, and who invariably wobbles up to you and says “it’s been too long, man!” and asks, “how’s your kid?” – followed by, “oh, you have two now? I just never had time for a wife and kids – too busy,” and then introduces “my buddy, Chase,” who is 20 to 25 years younger than you, and who has been standing there touching his goatee repeatedly, twitchier than a nervous squirrel.
Obviously, such a guy has more issues than simple Peter Pan Syndrome. But any urge to grow up has been blunted, whether by drugs and alcohol, or over-parenting, or simply genetics, and the end result is a character who conjures more of the bad memories of adolescence than the good ones.
In popular American culture, growing up is often seen as a negative. Pop songs have long advised listeners to stay young and die before you get old. To relish one’s youth. Movies, television, advertising, books … all have celebrated the creativity, humor, beauty and innate wisdom of childhood.
Many of these celebrations of youth are an expression that the childlike characteristics of wonder, joy, honesty and friendship should be held onto in one’s adult heart. This idea can be the germ of a really good movie (or a really bad one.) And we all could probably use a little childlike grace in our adult lives.
But such pop culture endeavors miss a huge, important fact about children. You see, children aren’t simply beatific, golden vessels of kindhearted love and altruistic intent. Children are actually selfish, irrational, shortsighted assholes, too.
They are just like every awful boss you’ve ever had – demanding, inflexible, prone to obnoxious outbursts, and masters of manipulation and emotional blackmail.
These negative traits aren’t a result of poor parenting, no. They are wired into every normal human that is born, and the purpose of parenting is to rid the little person of them as thoroughly as possible so that he or she can reasonably function in a society with others who may or may not continue to exhibit these traits as adults. Parents wring these negatives out, they gently wipe the negatives off, they trick them into going away, they hassle them out so they’re not inclined to return. They frighten the negatives into hidden corners and shame them into dark, locked closets. They embrace the negatives until the negatives are no longer fun, they facilitate open dialogues about the negatives until they are too bored to stay. In short, they do everything they can to remove the childish from the child. This is what parents do. They have to do it because if they didn’t, the world would have even more selfish pricks than it already does – truly a shocking thought.
What I’m saying is that children are overrated. Childhood is overrated. Don’t get me wrong, there are some positive things to be said about both, but the Cult of Children sometimes obscures the reality that being a grown up is pretty fuckin’ kickass, too.
Ask any child. Go ahead, ask them what they want to be. They want to be GROWN UPS. They pretend to be grown ups. They try to act like grown ups. They make their Barbies and Lego guys be grown ups. Has anyone ever heard 7 year olds playing with Legos say, “Okay, this green guy is Tommy, and he and Danny are going to have their moms call Dylan’s mom to see about a play-date.” NO! Tommy and Danny and Dylan are always full-grown MEN, working together as full-grown men, doing full-grown manly stuff, like building space stations and surviving slow-motion 1000 mph crashes as their winged motorcycles smash into dinosaurs and Patrick Star, causing a debris field of small animals, bent Yu-Gi-Oh cards and a Spiderman leg.
Maybe people tend to discount the joys of adulthood because childhood dreams – like crashing winged bikes into dinosaurs, or running a clothing shop/veterinary clinic for pop stars and their pet bunnies – rarely come true. This may cause a young adult to feel lied to. But when you get past the fact that most kids have an impractical (to say the least) comprehension of what adult life is like (which, by the way, is another negative about kids – a warped view of life), and really think about life as an adult, you realize that it’s actually usually a pretty fun time.
Pizzicato Five’s Made in USA is on my list of Favorite 100 albums because – as goofy and lighthearted and carefree as the music may sound – it reminds me of being an adult. More precisely, it reminds me of coming to the realization that I AM an adult. I listened to this record a lot at a time in my life when it struck me: “This Is It. I am a grown up. This right here is my dinosaur wing-bike crash.”
In January 1995, a few weeks before the 49ers beat the Chargers in Superbowl XXIX my girlfriend, Julia, and I moved in together in a cool 2 bedroom apartment in a house in the Bernal Heights section of San Francisco.
I had been living on my own for several years, in various places, with roommates and without roommates, so it wasn’t simply being away from my parents that caused the Grown Up feelings. I think it was a sense of permanence, that I had met a person with whom I’d probably spend many years, and that together we’d decided to merge our lives.
There was a large kitchen/dining room area in the very center of the apartment, and it was the perfect place to put our stereo and collection of vinyl albums and CDs. Anything playing on the stereo was easily heard throughout our home.
Now, Julia likes music and knows what she does and doesn’t like, however she’s not what one would call a “music enthusiast.” She likes funky soul and punky rock, and though she isn’t one to go out and buy herself music or follow bands, if she was, the act that I think would best describe the type of artist she’d follow would be Fishbone. Fun, melodic, energetic music. That’s what she likes. She’s a big fan of most anything by Prince, whose music usually falls into this category.
Some of the music that I liked to play wasn’t especially appealing to Julia, so I started widening my sphere of record-buying to include music I though she’d like to hear, too. Our good friend Ximena, who somehow always knew about new music first (and was particularly savvy about cool female Japanese acts, for some reason) told me about Pizzicato Five, and I went and bought Made in USA on her recommendation. I liked it a lot, and Julia did too. That CD spent a lot of time in our player while we went about the ordinary tasks, and spent extraordinary times, being grown-ups together.
It turns out that Made in USA breaks one of the rules I established for my Favorite Albums list: it is a compilation album. However, I didn’t know that until I started writing this post and reading up on the album! According to the extensive research I did, Pizzicato Five was a popular Japanese band who were part of a new wave of Japanese music called Shibuya-kei, which ”is known for eclectic and energetic compositions that often pay homage to late 1960s English-language Pop Music.” The American label, Matador, took some songs from each of their earlier Japanese records, put them together and called it Made in USA, a reference to the Japanese town of Usa, which was rumored in the 1960s to have been renamed so that cheap items for export to America could carry the meant-to-confuse label of “Made in USA Japan.”
Because I didn’t know the album was a compilation album until earlier this month, I have asked the judges to allow it into the list despite it being against the rules. After careful consideration they have agreed by a vote of 1 to 0. I’m glad they did, although this is the type of record that demonstrates perfectly why I would make a lousy music critic (and, in fact, why I think music critics – maybe all criticism? – is 99% horse shit). I can’t listen to the record “objectively,” whatever that means, as it is so wrapped up in so many memories from my life. I think it’s a great record – but if you’re not me, you won’t like it for the same reasons I do.
San Francisco in the 1990s was very exciting, and the neighborhood Julia and I lived in was particularly so. We were there as the World Wide Web grew from a opalescent puddle in Silicon Valley into a gigantic bubble surrounding the globe, and many of our neighbors were the people doing the huffing and puffing to keep the thing inflated and growing. We left just before it burst, kicking ourselves over not buying that $165,000 modest home near 22nd St. in 1994 (which didn’t have parking!), the one that would have been worth about $1,000,000 by 2000, when we left.
But while we were there, we had a blast together, and with our friends. That’s what Made in USA reminds me of – having a blast with Julia and our friends, and it made the list because of the great memories it conjures.
The first song on the album is “I”.
This swingin’ accordion-driven number (and you’ll hear that “swingin” and “accordion-driven” turn out NOT to be mutually exclusive) sets the tone for the record. If you, the listener, can get into the charm of Maki Nomiya’s sweet voice, and ignore the fact that the words are in a foreign language; if you can appreciate the light jazz-combo, 60’s bounce of the song, and don’t find it too cutesy; if you can appreciate an accordion, and not immediately discount it … if you can do all these things you’ll likely appreciate the record. If you can’t, there might not be much for you here.
The feeling of dressing up, going out and enjoying a meal with someone you love is definitely a grown-up feeling. Contrast that with the nasty food kids enjoy, like Kraft mac n cheese, frozen pizzas and a squirt of ketchup on warmed, breaded nuggets of “chicken.” One point for adult-hood.
Next up on the album is a number that continues to make its way onto any playlist I create that requires an invitation to dancing: “Sweet Soul Revue.”
It’s got a funky Motown-sounding bass line, and nifty TSOP-sounding horns and violins, and a backbeat that doesn’t quit. The melody is catchy, but – as with most of the songs on the album – it’s difficult for me to sing along to. But Nomiya does throw a hearty “Bay-bee!!” into the chorus a few times, allowing non-Japanese speakers such as myself to shout along a little bit.
This song reminds me of throwing parties at our house, and trying out recipes for cocktails, main dishes, desserts, at a time when we still had time and money to subscribe to – AND READ – Bon Appetit, Saveur and Cook’s Illustrated.
We’d have friends to the house and talk and laugh and eat and drink, then clean it all up and plan the next one. Parties like that are a reminder that kids have to go to bed way too early, and if they don’t they turn into insufferable whiners. Staying up til 3 am, and remaining well-mannered and fun (except for the occasional over-indulgence, which in itself is an adult thing) is very grown-up.
Another great dance song on the album the oddly-yet-perfectly named, “Twiggy Twiggy/Twiggy vs. James Bond.” Listen, and you’ll see what I mean:
It’s the sound of 60s supermodel sensation Twiggy leaving a Carnaby St. boutique to meet Sean Connery’s tuxedoed 007 at a Soho club for drinks. Right? But if they spoke Japanese? And did the Watusi to sample-filled 90s dance music? Well, anyway, that’s how it sounds to me. It has violin samples and rolling tympanis – a lively dance song that’s fun and adventurous. It’s a movie song, and Julia and I saw a lot of movies back in the day.
Artsy-fartsy movies, like Jeffrey, Suture and Secrets and Lies. Funny movies, like Flirting With Disaster Grosse Pointe Blank and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Or dramas, like Elizabeth, Boogie Nights or Shine.
Basically, the kinds of movies children don’t like. And that’s another thing about kids – all the lousy movies. For each gem, like The Lego Movie, there are fifteen turds, like Planes. (Actually, that’s probably a better ratio than you get with grown-up movies, but most grown ups are smart enough to know that NOT EVERY movie will be good. Kids think they’ll all be awesome.)
Pizzicato Five doesn’t just do catchy, funky dance numbers, it can also throw in a slow love song, as well. Take, for example, “Baby Love Child.”
Even a slow groove is made interesting by this group. They include samples of horns and voices, some turntable scratches, and keep the drums and bass as funky as ever. And as always, Nomiya’s vocals and interesting vocal style draw the listener in. She may be too cutesy for some, but I find the cutesiness fits with the style of the songs. The lyrics on this song (in English!) are unusual. Instead of the typical love song pronouncements of “I love you, I want you,” the subject and object are reversed, becoming “You love me, you want me.” It’s either an interesting lyrical device, or a result of poor translation. (Probably the former.)
The song conjures memories of just spending time with J. Our neighborhood, Bernal Heights, had a beautiful path up the side of the hill, with stairs built in, and also slides, to make the trip back down faster! We would hike up to the top of the hill and walk around the top – a bit of open space in the middle of the city (or, “The City,” as SF is known by locals.) This was a favorite activity of ours. We would also go to farmers’ markets on weekends, or spend a morning reading the paper at one of The City’s seemingly thousands of pre-Starbucks independent cafes. (Muddy’s, Muddy Waters, Common Ground, Java Source, Martha and Bros. …) We would visit cool SF places, like the Musee Mecanique, and Camera Obscura or go to Fort Funston to watch the hang gliders or to The Golden Gate Bridge to walk and enjoy the sunshine (although it is MUCH LONGER than I ever imagined, so I never walked across the entire span. Plus the cars go really fast and are really close to the walkers. And on the opposite side of the speeding traffic is a 220 foot drop.)
Or we’d ride our bikes across The City to Golden Gate Park, and then on to Ocean Beach, on a circuitous path called “The Wiggle,”designed to miss the 43 or so hills in San Francisco. Or we’d just go to Noe Valley or Hayes Valley or Market St. or North Beach or The Haight or The Mission, or any other neighborhood in The City, shopping, planning, spending time.
Another mellow song is the swirling, vaguely Middle Eastern sounding “Magic Carpet Ride.”
Despite the mishmash of sounds on Made in USA, the band definitely has a way with a dance beat and song structure. The build into the “Magic Carpet Ride” chorus swells in a satisfying way. This song is one of the few sung in English, and the lyrics have a typical “we’re in love, life’s a magic ride, let’s take it together” sensibility. But honestly, you don’t listen to Japanese pop music for the lyrics. You listen for the spirit of the music, because it’s joyful and fun, and it might remind you of all the time you spent with a loved one in the great outdoors, visiting exciting areas around the Bay Area. Muir Woods, Point Reyes National Seashore, Mt. Tamalpais, Big Sur, Lake Tahoe, the Pacific Coast Highway, Half Moon Bay, the Berkeley Hills, Napa Valley, Sonoma County, the Sierra Nevada … San Francisco is a place where you could wake up and go to the beach, then drive an hour for a hike in the woods, then drive two more hours and go downhill skiing. Opportunities for outdoor activities abound, and Julia and I enjoyed spending it outdoors as much as we could.
We had time to spend, if not much money to spend, and it was wonderful to spend it together. It was the kind of time that kids HATE. Which is one more thing that The Cult of Children forgets: kids are always BORED. “I’m bored! This is boring!” Few kids appreciate the value of time well-spent with a friend, or friends. And NONE appreciate spending it with someone of the opposite gender! Kids are so weird. Who wants to return to that lifestyle?
San Francisco had an exciting nightlife, as well, and we’d spend evenings out on the town. The Mission District alone had so many fun, cool bars that we didn’t even have to drive to spend a fun night out. Blondie’s, The Lone Palm, Bruno’s, Dalva, the Albion, Casanova Lounge, Radio Valencia, the Latin American Club, the 500 Club, the 3300 Club, the Elbo Room, the Make Out Room, and the bar where Julia and I first hung out together, the El Rio. It’s the kind of nightlife that one might be reminded of when hearing a song like “Go Go Dancer,” a raucous, goofy mix of sounds with a heavy dance beat.
It’s worth pointing out here that kids can’t legally drink alcohol – another strike against them. How “wonderful” could childhood really be if no booze is allowed? Ever been invited to a friend’s wedding, then find out the reception will be dry? That quickly waning smile on your face – corners of your mouth receding to form a tight little line between your lips – as you consider the prospect of three people on the dance floor doing the Electric Slide, while everyone else shovels food as quickly as they can so they can leave and hit a bar somewhere – it’s the same fading smile you get when you stop to consider whether childhood was really as great as everyone makes it out to be.
Of course, adulthood isn’t all wonderful. There is the drudgery of going to work every day, the anxiety of having to get something repaired but not being able to just have your parents do it, the pressure of having to prepare food EVERY SINGLE DAY. Similarly, Made in USA isn’t entirely wonderful. Pizzicato Five seems to have a childish streak of their own that keeps them from knowing when enough is enough. The songs “This Year’s Girl #2” and “Catchy” start fun, but both seem interminable by the end – repetitive silliness reminiscent of some kid telling you the “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?” knock-knock joke over and over. It’s cute at first, but wears thin real damn quick.
But the record closes with a joyous song that ties up everything nicely. In the same way “I” set the table for the album, “Peace Music” provides the perfect close:
It’s a catchy, happy 60s pop song with 90s samples that makes me wish I knew Japanese so I could sing along. There’s also a slight wistfulness in the melody – the sound of something good coming to an end.
Obviously, I find myself doing some heavy cataloging of memories when I listen to Made in USA. And the memories are all golden, perfect. The music sounds like nothing had ever gone wrong. But of course, that’s just a trick of memory – one of the downsides of adulthood. So I’ll say one final good thing about kids and childhood: at least kids are too young to have any memories older than, say, four years. So they can’t look back at the past and distort it in their minds. They are capable only of living in the present – the place we should all try to stay. Listening to Made in USA makes living in the moment difficult for me. But that’s what makes it so great.
Sweet Soul Revue
Magic Carpet Ride
Baby Love Child
Twiggy Twiggy / Twiggy vs. James Bond
This Year’s Girl #2
I Wanna Be Like You
Go Go Dancer