There is a tragically narrow vision of what contemporary East Asian music should sound like. Often lumped into vague, generalized categories such as ‘J-Pop’ or ‘K-Pop,’ Western critics have a tendency to consider the ethnic groupings of Asian musical production first and foremost, often obscuring the lyrical and technical aspects that make up the specificities of genre. Thankfully, Chai has emerged, the self-proclaimed “new-exciting onna band,” also known as “new exciting women band” or NEO, for short. Chai has taken it upon themselves to helm a new style dubbed ‘neo-kawaii’ that boldly proclaims that everything and everybody can be cute. On Chai’s second album, the wonderfully joyous PUNK, the band proudly embraces Japanese music, and the album’s musical diversity and merit resist tokenization by Western audiences and critics.
PUNK stands apart from this year’s releases, largely due to its blending of diverse inspirations into a brand new concoction. Chai’s sound borrows from British electronica, Japanese pop, and American rap, making for a unique hybrid that results in an energized, retro-futurist aesthetic best heard on the album’s opener “CHOOSE GO!” Lyrics, written in both Japanese and English, are punctuated with exclamation points, and sound as though they were written in all-caps, creating a singular listening experience.
These bubble-gum sweet affirmations of self-worth match Chai’s eclectic musical sensibilities and proudly redefine normative conceptions of Japanese kawaii culture and femininity.
“Curly Adventure” humorously addresses Japanese beauty standards, and features twin sisters and lead vocalists Mana and Kana embracing their frizzy hair and proclaiming “CURLY HAIR / It is GREAT.” By rejecting the expectations propagated by a massively influential national beauty industry, Chai boldly reassures listeners that no matter how they choose to present, there is room for them in neo-kawaii culture. Chai just wants to dance with their friends, have fun, and tell each other that they look cute. Is that too much to ask?
“We have dreams! / We have a lot of friends!” the four-piece band chants on “Future,” which, given a less enthusiastic delivery, could easily sound insincere, but Chai’s relentless positivity cracks even the most reluctant of smiles. Perhaps PUNK is exactly what pop music needs right now: Pure, unashamed enthusiasm and positivity.