At the end of August 2016, PIKOTARO uploaded a video called “PPAP (Pen-Pinapple-Apple-Pen)” on YouTube, which instantly went viral thanks in part to Justin Bieber tweeting that it was his “favorite video on the internet.” In October, “PPAP” reached the Billboard Hot 100 (dated October 29), making him the first Japanese artist in 26 years to do so — also setting the record for shortest song to ever land on the chart.
Billboard Japan spoke with PIKOTARO, talking about his current state of mind and about how “his producer” Daimaou Kosaka feels about “their” sudden rise to fame.
Billboard Japan: Not only was your official “PPAP” video viewed many times, but people all over the world also uploaded their own versions on YouTube, which had a ripple effect that led to the song becoming an even bigger hit. The way your song spread is a contemporary phenomenon, but were you conscious of that kind of “imitability” when you made that video?
PIKOTARO: Mr. Kosaka (the comedian Daimao Kosaka, who produces PIKOTARO) said that he was aware of the “concept of comedy” when he and I made this video.
Could you elaborate?
You can’t laugh at something that’s hard to hear, you know? For example, if I were to sing while playing guitar with massive distortion effects, it would look cool but if my words were lost it wouldn’t be funny. So keeping the sound simple with minimal reverb to make the voice stand out is most important in comedy. We also consciously aimed for a sound that was simple yet made you “sway for some reason.” So we put some thought into what it means for something to be “danceable and funny.” We didn’t exactly aim for imitability, but as we sought to come up with something catchy, the result became something that was easy to imitate. You can’t imitate complicated rap, right?
In particular, people nowadays watch videos online on tablets and smartphones, so we made sure the words could be clearly heard from small speakers. And analyzing as PIKOTARO from this point, I don’t think I’m cute in a general sense. I’m a 53-year-old guy with a mustache, after all. And my song isn’t about “love” or “crushes.” So I think one of the reasons why the song became popular is that people felt a sense of incongruity when they saw cute girls imitating something that’s not cute at all.
So people enjoyed the gap. Even outside Japan, many people imitated your video and it created a huge sensation. By using English, did you expect it to go viral internationally?
If I’d been able to predict such a thing, I don’t think it would have taken me so long to make it big! [Laughs] I don’t think anybody in the world expected this to happen. Mr. Daimaou Kosaka was also surprised and my pet cat was so surprised that she started barking lately. But when I first performed it live in Japan, the audience seemed to really like it, so Mr. Kosaka kept saying [to me], “There’s a possibility this could be the next big thing in Japan, so let’s make a video. We’ll get started on it from the beginning of this year .”
True, I don’t think anybody expected your video to keep the No. 1 spot on the YouTube Music Charts 3 weeks in a row.
When I was told that it was the most-viewed YouTube video in the world, I looked at the other artists on the list and saw The Chainsmokers at No. 2 and Major Lazer at No. 3. I love Major Lazer so I was dumbfounded and couldn’t stop trembling. In fact, I trembled so much that my hands looked like they were moving in slow motion.
After your song reached No. 77 on the Billboard Hot 100 this October, making you the first Japanese artist in 26 years to do so, it came back in at No. 82 on the week of November 26. (It returned again for the third time at No. 93 on the week of December 3.)
What? I got goosebumps just now. That makes me very happy, but it still doesn’t seem real. I mean, when I came in at No. 77, Lady Gaga was at No. 76.
When it came back the second time, the artist above you at No. 81 was Pentatonix.
“PPAP” got off to a really good start during the first two weeks after its release, so when Billboard, which I know is a chart that ranks songs according to comprehensive data, recognizes me like this, it might sound presumptuous but I think it’s accurate. It’s a chart that reflects how much a song is widespread. People have seen my result and are giving a lot of thought to charts and expressing various opinions. It’s great that so many people are watching me and know about me, so I’d like to stay on this chart for as long as I can.
We calculate sales, downloads, streaming and video view counts and other data to compile the Billboard Japan charts. On the chart dated November 21, “PPAP” ranked No. 1 by far on the view count ranking, No. 6 on Twitter, and No. 20 on downloads, which placed it at No. 4 overall. Do you usually look at charts?
No, I don’t. I don’t think I would have made “PPAP” if I’d wanted to make the charts. (Laughs) So I never dreamed this song would make it. Billboard, are you sure the numbers add up?
Yes, we’re quite sure.
I’ve always liked “music with a sense of incongruity.” Not today’s mainstream pop music, but sounds created with a bit of technology and resourcefulness, with some novelty thrown in. Mr. Kosaka is often told that his comedy skits are funny 5 years after he made them, and people seem to consider that “cool” for some reason. But I think that’s 5 years too late.
What do you mean?
Being ahead of your time isn’t really a good thing. If you’re too far ahead, it’s the same as being too late. If you’re only a bit ahead it’s OK, but something that’s 100 years ahead of its time is not considered relevant.
I loved the skits that Mr. Kosaka used to perform as the comedy duo “Sokonuke Air-Line.” They had a certain addictive quality which made you want to see them over again. Do you think that addictiveness and that “sense of incongruity” of “PPAP” have something in common?
Mr. Kosaka likes comedy that leaves you hanging. You know, like in some movies where the perpetrator is never made clear and the story ends with the suspect grinning knowingly? He likes those kinds of things. He likes to hook the audience and then run away. So that’s why PIKOTARO ends his videos after 45 seconds, making viewers think, “Huh?”
I see. The video leaves you hanging so it makes you want to see it again, which is how it became the most-viewed YouTube video in the world.
Right. It suddenly ends and leaves you hanging, so after you see it you become curious and wonder, “What was that?” and makes you want to see it again. So the reason why Mr. Kosaka’s comedy skits don’t make much sense if you only see it once is because it’s intentional.
Creating a short song also earned you a place in the Guinness World Records as the shortest song to reach the Billboard Hot 100.
That surprised me in another sense, actually. “PPAP” is 45 seconds, but there are shorter works out there, like in classical music. So I was surprised that such works had never made it to the Hot 100 chart before.
It’s short because of what I said about leaving people hanging, but also because I can’t seem to make anything longer than a minute.
I get bored. I think a song is most interesting when the chorus comes in at around 40 seconds. will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas said in an interview a few years back that songs will probably become simpler, with less range, and about a minute long. I share the same sentiment, so it made me very happy that people enjoyed such a short song. A song needs to be at least 5 minutes for it to be inspirational, but I think in my case, having one high point is probably about right.
You said earlier that you don’t look at charts, but what kind of music do you listen to these days?
I like Kraftwerk, M.I.A., Diplo, and Stevie Wonder. Lately I’ve also been into the South African rap group Die Antwoord.
What Japanese artists do you like?
I like lots of artists, but I especially like Yoshie Kashiwabara’s “Haru nanoni (Though it’s spring).” I also like LiSA and watch her DVDs a lot. Besides them… Kyoko Koizumi. I love her song “Natsu no time machine (Time machine of summer)” and made “KASHITE KUDASAIYO (Please lend me)” because I wanted to make a song like it.
Your new album will finally be released on December 7.
Mr. Kosaka handled the songwriting, arranging and recording, and video editing for this album. I handled the mixing and putting captions and subtitles on the videos. The deadline was the day before we had to go to Taiwan (November 11, 2016) and I thought I was going to die.
The CD has 20 songs, 5 karaoke versions, and all the music videos in it. Even if you listen to the whole thing it’s only about 40 minutes, so it’ll be over before you know it. It includes lots of songs that haven’t been uploaded to YouTube or never been performed live.
The CD includes a bonus track of a live recording called “Jitaku de one man de (One-man at home).” What is it?
I thought that a one-man show should fundamentally be done by one person, so I did a 30-minute live show where I performed the songs, recorded them, and cheered myself on all alone without an audience.
For 30 minutes?
I messed up here and there during the performance so I think it really captures the live atmosphere well. Some might wonder what I’ll do next after releasing 20 songs like this, but not to worry. I’ve still got about the same number of songs standing by.
I’d always uploaded songs on YouTube whenever I felt like it. If I came up with something that I thought was funny, I’d upload it before the day was over. So I’d like to maintain that stance of promptly expressing whatever I think is interesting at the moment.
What are your future goals?
My theme is world peace and love for family, cousins and second cousins. Based on this concept, I’d like to stick pens in apples together with everyone. I know that peace is very difficult. But whether it lasts for 5 years or 2 seconds, peace is still peace. I can make peace so long as it’s only for a minute.
I know that my current situation is a party. I know it’s a party, but I’d like to do my very best to keep the party going for a long time. I have no intention of representing all Japanese culture, but do hope to continue presenting a taste of it.