Powered by her surreal music videos and fashion sense, her first album debuted at the No. 2 spot on Japan's Oricon Charts, and her face has become inescapable (one could walk into a convenience store in May and see her on five magazine covers). She's also selling in America, recently topping the iTunes electronic charts, and her videos have gone viral abroad, sparking comment sections across the web loaded with one-liners like "who needs acid when we have this" and "Japan is weird."
Her American success stems in part from the West's ongoing fascination with "weird Japan." For more than two decades, Western media has highlighted and laughed at Japanese "strange" phenomena, from Gothic Lolita fashion and pre-Tupac hologram pop stars to more deviant subjects like used-panty vending machines and body pillows with anime girls on them (30 Rock poked fun at this one). It's an easy go-to story: Look at what bizarre stuff Japan is up to today—even if the subject is an extreme niche interest most ordinary Japanese people aren't even familiar with, or, alternatively, something that's culturally commonplace in Japan. Now, artists like Kyary are cashing in on this brand of foreigner curiosity.
YouTube commenter pantoteiconoclasm sums up the consensus: "this is what you see if you could take the entire country of Japan and grind it into a fine powder, and snort it all in one go." The "PonPonPon" video, though, isn't the result of any bad trip. It's a tribute to the Harajuku fashion scene that Kyary blogged about and modeled in before her pop debut. The seemingly random assortment of junk in the background reflects the fashion's guiding principle of being unafraid to mismatch items. Masuda Sebastian, a designer with prominent Harajuku brand 6%DOKIDOKI, designed the set, while her clothes bear the logos of other famous brands in the area.
Even the hovering bread is just a pun: "Pon" is the word used to describe the sound of clapping, and it sounds a lot like "pan," which means bread. Harajuku fashion isn't common clothing across Japan, but most people know about it, meaning they would get what's going on. The West sees something bizarre and exotic in this, though—something American pop stars Gwen Stefani and Nicki Minaj (the self-proclaimed "Harajuku Barbie") have exploited as well.
Melissa Johnson on her blog The Mind Reels writes that nearly all of the images in "Candy Candy" are anime tropes, especially of a genre from the early '90s known as "girl's genre" (Sailor Moon being a good example).
Where foreigners see "weird Japan," the Japanese see things that make them nostalgic. Kyary isn't the only contemporary J-Pop act using nostalgia to win over audiences at home while having the same images get reblogged overseas. Momoiro Clover was originally a typical pop group, featuring six color-coded teenage girls. After one member left, they slapped a "Z" on the end of their name and rebranded themselves as super sentai—better known in America as the Power Rangers.
Super sentai, though, has been on TV in various incarnations since the mid '70s in Japan. The video for "Legend of Z," where Momoiro Clover Z reintroduce themselves as super-power-blessed do-gooders, was again branded weird by foreign audiences, but Patrick Macias, editor-in-chief of Otaku U.S.A. magazine, writes that the clip features all sorts of callbacks to super sentai along with other subsets of Japanese culture.
Considering "Infinite Love" serves as the theme song for a Japanese cartoon called "Bodacious Space Pirates," this imagery starts making more sense...but most YouTube viewers see "space pirates" and have defaulted into "Japan! Crazy!" mode. It's Kyary, though, who has managed success beyond landing on blogs. "PonPonPon" reached the top spot on the Finnish and Belgian iTunes electronica charts, while Pamyu Pamyu Revolution debuted at No. 1 on the US iTunes electronic chart.
These aren't huge accomplishments by themselves—those charts change day to day—but it is impressive given how she didn't even try to promote it internationally. The history of Japanese pop music is littered with acts that hoped for success in the West, groups that did all they could to fit in with the Western pop world, only to end up selling dismally. Kyary ignores appealing directly to the overseas audiences, does nothing in tune with foreign pop trends, and yet manages to go viral and earn decent online sales from an album entirely in Japanese. She, intentionally or not, gave Western consumers what they wanted—something that made them think Japan really is weird.
Her Laforet concert ended with a scene that would similarly baffle most Western concert-goers: After performing, she judged a costume contest between several fans dressed as Kyary. It's the stuff of message-board jokes in America, but in Harajuku the scene turned touching. The contestants, as young as five and creeping into their late 20s, got visibly nervous around Kyary. Some went silent, while the winner cried. Kyary might be a meme in the West, but here she is a pop star.