Analysis of Ayumi Hamasaki's "Rock'n'Roll Circus" PVs, Part Two: "Microphone"/"Sexy little things"

"Traditional, ethnic, European... With all these various sounds put together, it's rather 'circus-like'... The new album's title, 'Rock'n'Roll Circus', has alot of funny, frightening, sad, and strange subtext, but to me that's just what 'rock & roll' is."
--Bea's UP, May 2010

The album's title, "Rock'n'Roll Circus," is one of the few Hamasaki Ayumi album titles that doesn't correspond to a track on the album. The two sounds - "Rock & Roll" and "Circus" - are best assigned to two of the buzz tracks, "Microphone" and "Sexy little things," respectively.

The two videos for these songs are meant to go together, as characters & sets from each video are shown in the other. These videos show three different Hamasaki Ayumi characters, each one a dimension of the three-dimensional Hamasaki Ayumi product. These are the Hamasaki Ayumis responsible for her career, rather than her social or personal life. I've nicknamed them the Performer, the Watcher, and the Controller.


The Performer is the star of "Microphone" and the end of "Sexy little things." She is showy, a very large presence in an already elaborate set, rather like the Hamasaki Ayumi concert personas. Her job is to speak to the audience, to be their fantasy, and to appear strong. The Performer's punky hair is vaguely reminiscent of the prostitute character's hair in Hamasaki's "Because of you" PV (2003).

She is depicted as the powerful, angry, dissatisfied character, much like that "Because of you" character (and in fact may be the same character, years later after personal evolution). The black color of the dress has immediate connotations of death, mystery, anger, darkness... while the dress's actual shape is obviously a fluffy, princess-style one. The dissonance between the color and shape of the dress makes it even easier to see this character as a very multifaceted one, which does echo the real Hamasaki Ayumi's constantly changing image. It seems as though she is mourning the loss of her true self within the showy, fashionable, "princess" image (further illustrated by the act of sinking into the dress at the end of the "Microphone" PV).

The Watcher is clothed in red & black. Her job is to oversee her career, make sure the Performer and Controller are doing their jobs. She is in tune with the world around her, very aware (and controls a mechanical eye that watches everything for her), but she has a mischief to her, a certain cynicism and sass. Half her face is always covered - fans are aware that Ayu knows what people think of her, but we don't ever really see the extent of her presence within the Hamasaki Ayumi product. Even when we think we see the other side of her face, we don't. It's just a mirror image of what we've already seen. The Watcher is the one who logs into TeamAyu to check messages from fans, the one now using Twitter, the one who realized she had fans outside of Japan. What the Controller does depends on her.

If the Performer is the face, and the Watcher is the eye, then the Controller is the mind. The Controller is in black and white - everything is either action or inaction to her. She weighs the pros & cons of situations and has to deal with the consequences of anything the Performer does or shows, because it's up to the Controller to begin with. She is clumsy, sometimes making the wrong decisions - when she tries to take a big step, she stumbles. But she is the productive one, and in comparison to her omniscient counterpart, she is much happier being less aware but more enterprising.

Of the two videos, "Microphone" was by far the more difficult to make. The actions taken by Hamasaki, director Masashi Muto, and the crew had to be much more deliberate, more actors had to be taken care of, more locations had to be scouted. It's safe to say that there was very little in this video that was accidental. You don't see anything that wasn't carefully planned. One big case is the constant backward motion of the camera. Given the lipsync timing and how short a walkway Hamasaki had to work with, just the planning for these shots was very involved. This backward pull was necessary to get the point of the video across, which is to say confrontation and retreat. Ayu confronts the camera, trying to get it to understand, but inadvertently pushing it away. The other characters in the video are doing the same thing, trying to put their real selves out there, but we, the audience, don't want it. We want the illusion.

We want Ayu's family to be happy and playing cards, but as the swinging interrogation-room lightbulb would imply, they've got something to hide, and the clown (Ayu has used clowns as a metaphor for the music industry higher-ups multiple times) mounted on the wall on the right side of the room seems to be watching them to make sure nothing is revealed. We want the military girl to keep saluting and behaving, but all she wants is to strip down to her bare self. We back away as the janitor expresses himself with dance. We back away as the blond girl with the megaphone yells at us. Just as the half-smiling, half-frowning goth clown begins to rush at the camera, we cut away in avoidance.

Hamasaki Ayumi is here confronting us with a question - do we want to see the real Ayu, or do we only think we do? Would honesty on her part really only push us away? If we knew the whole story, would we still love her? And Hamasaki teases us. She makes it look like she's tearing apart images and showing us her real self this time, but usually Hamasaki Ayumi just tears away the image to show us... Hamasaki Ayumi, just more of the same product we've always been shown. When things get real and the family playing cards starts yelling at each other, Hamasaki Ayumi is quick to tear the scene away and bring you back to the illusion.

And who does the "we" turn out to be? Who is the real audience to this video, watching and changing what she sees? The Watcher from "Sexy little things." Here, Ayu is taking some degree of responsibility for what she is and isn't willing to acknowledge about herself and what fans want from Hamasaki Ayumi.

"Sexy little things" was the much more symbolic video, and much easier to make on-set, but I would venture a guess that coming up with the symbols to use in the video was extremely difficult. The most obvious theme in the video is voyeurism. Eyes opening and closing, lights revealing and obscuring, transparency, backs being turned. The entire video is about what you can and can't see. Hands move away from eyes, lights turn on and off. It's likely a comment on how much of what we see in Hamasaki Ayumi is the real Ayu, as that would tie it in to the stories of "Microphone" and "Don't look back." The song itself deals with women in general, but perhaps the video makes the song a comment about female pop idols specifically. How personal can a pop lyricist get without it being risky to her sense of self?

In a particularly poignant part of the video, a model with fake eyes drawn on her hands moves her hands to reveal her real eyes... or does she? More fake eyes are drawn on her eyelids this time, and her real eyes are only truly revealed when she lifts her eyelids. Even then, we don't get the full picture of that model until the camera pulls back. This one moment encapsulates very efficiently how a pop star, a woman, a human being is never completely open or honest about their entire true selves. Hamasaki has tackled the subject before with videos and songs like "ourselves" and obviously "Don't look back," which was covered yesterday.

The outlet screams and bleeds when the Watcher's electrical (but veiny and seemingly organic) eyeball is plugged in, and all through the video the lights pulsate. Science has shown that the human brain is nothing but electrical impulses. If that's the case, then is anything that runs on electricity alive? Is the mythological Hamasaki Ayumi, the product, the person seen in videos, a creature that has taken on a life of her own? Hamasaki Ayumi is not a complete person, consisting only of the pieces of Ayu that we are allowed to see. To some degree, the "blank spaces" in her existence have to be filled in. One way or another, Hamasaki Ayumi is a complete person to each individual audience member, and has a life of her own in the videos we watch and songs we hear.

A pop star has a sense of duty to her audience, a sense of what she should or shouldn't do. A certain amount of decorum must be maintained. No matter how much Ayu may want to bust out of the Hamasaki Ayumi shell, she needs to remain in character. This has gotten very difficult over the last decade, and Ayu is showing herself more and more. This is where the guardsmen come into play. After awhile, the urge to dance overtakes them and they can't help but break formation. Perhaps the girl busting through the back wall is symbolic of the same desire to break free of the rules of idolhood.

After the culmination of the Watcher and Controller's efforts to oversee and coordinate, the Performer comes back into play. The guardsmen are behind her, idols that have come before her and paved the way, and allowed her to come to the forefront. She has their support, or feels that she does. In the meantime, she's carefully carved out her image, polished it to her satisfaction, and is now allowing herse

lf to be whored out. It may seem as though she's an unwilling participant in a machine that puts girls on television for money in an activity akin to prostitution, but as Hamasaki states in the song's lyrics, it's a mistake to think that she's helpless. The profession might drive her crazy, but she's chosen to stick with it, and her reasons are her own.

So then we reach the glaring question. Lady Gaga. Ripoff? Homage? Inspiration? It makes sense in the "Sexy little things" video for Hamasaki to allow herself to resemble the typical Western pop star. Her looks are reminiscent of Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Gwen Stefani, all pop divas here in the west who have been marketed a certain way. They are presented as strong, individualistic women with sex appeal and power. The comparisons to Lady Gaga were inevitable when Ayu decided on English avant garde fashion, but plenty of other female singers and stars have worn freaky avant garde fashion before. Does no one ever think of the likes of Bjork, Faye Wong, Grace Jones, or Lee Jung Hyun anymore? Lady Gaga is certainly not the first singer to dress the way she does, and it's insulting to strong, singular, powerful female singers who have come before Gaga to ignore them so entirely. Ayu does her own thing, but she's always adapted other artists' looks (most notably Madonna's) for her own purposes. This video is not notable in this respect at all. Arguably Hamasaki's movements are rather awkwardly Lady Gaga-ish, but it's possible that Ayu picked up some movements subconsciously after watching a few too many Lady Gaga videos - entirely possible given how pervasive she is right now.

That said, the flat, amateurish lighting in the video and the gathering around the couch do look like they're trying and failing to mimic the look of Gaga's "Bad Romance" video, don't they?

Look, you can read into the Ayu-Gaga thing as much as you personally want to, but this podcaster doesn't think that any of it matters. "Sexy little things" does most of what it does more or less correctly, and none of the video's meaning or significance hinges on anything ripped off of Lady Gaga.

Well, that's my analysis, kids! Hope you enjoyed, and do comment if you have opinions you'd like to share.