J-pop usually brings to mind images of teenage girls dancing in unison while singing songs about…something resembling love. It’s about as saccharine as you can get without actually pouring a sachet of sugar directly into your ear. But there’s an exception to every rule, and we today we have for you some of the most fascinating pop music–and videos–you’ll likely ever see.
Even if you’re not a J-pop fan, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Sputniko!, the artist name of Hiromi Ozaki, and her delightful take on popular music. One of the recipients of Vogue Japan’s 2013 Women of the Year award, this mathematician-turned-artist is not at all what you would call an idol–in fact she’s almost an anti-idol! Her music, voice, and videos, though, are just as enjoyable as anything you’ll find on the radio and far, far more thoughtful. Oh, and did we mention that she’s a professor at MIT?
British-Japanese Sputniko! didn’t actually start out as a musician. In fact, she first fell in love with math and attended the Imperial College London to study mathematics and information technology, following in the footsteps of her parents (both mathematicians). However, she explained in a talk given at Berlin-based transmediale, that she became ever more interested in art while at the Imperial College and ended up getting her masters from the Design Interactions Programme at the Royal College of Art in London.
Before studying in London, the young Sputniko! was a music lover, though she never made any music of her own. In a 2013 interview, she described her love for bands like Deerhoof, Kraftwerk, and Joy Division as a high school student–influences that you probably can’t quite find in most of her music videos! As she explained at transmediale, after she returned to Japan following her studies in England, Sputniko! decided that she deliberately wanted to create pop music–but not in order to get massive album sales, much to the chagrin of music executives. Instead, her goal was to stimulate public discourse and discussion in a language that would be easily accessible to everyone–high pop culture, as one critic described it. The path has not always been an easy one for the artist, who tries to walk the delicate line between voicing her opinion and being kind-hearted.
Sputniko! saw her first viral hit with her “menstruation machine” in 2010. In case you missed it four years ago, the device attaches to the user’s waist and uses electrodes to stimulate a “dull pain in the abdomen” while also dribbling blood between the legs. The machine, which she developed for her final project at the Royal College of Art, quickly spread around the Internet eliciting confusion–she commented that not only were people unsure of what to make about the machine but some bloggers were also mixed up about her sex as well. “There seems to be some confusion that I’m actually a guy. […] If you could tweet that I’m a female artist, that’d be great!” she once said at a talk.
▼Nope, definitely not a guy.
After building the machine, she wrote and recorded a song about a fictional male character named Takashi who wants to know what it feels like to be a woman. Being a poor student, though, she had little money with which to create a music video–but, it turns out, Sputniko! is as much a social media addict as she’s an artist! Seeking help on Twitter, she put together a team of about 20 people who helped her film the music video “Menstruation Machine” in Tokyo.
But “Menstruation Machine” wasn’t the first music video Sputniko! produced. Here is her “Google Song,” a pining, frustrated love song for the Internet generation that introverts may find all too familiar. Recorded in London, it also perfectly encapsulates the fun, tech-centric music that Sputniko! specializes in.
▼Just one question: How does everyone in the video have Internet access??
Another song demonstrating her take on technology is the “Skype Song,” which features that cute-but-annoying Skype ringtone. The video, a minimalist animation directed by David Wilson which seems to reflect Skype’s peer-to-peer network technology, shows Sputniko! exploring a different side of technology.
▼No, you’re not getting a Skype call–that’s just the music!
Her next project saw the young artist moving away from contemplating interpersonal communication to an altogether stranger question: Can humans communicate with other animals? Obviously, humans can kind of communicate with their pets–anyone whose had a lengthy conversation with their dog will understand. But there’s a difference between talking at your dog and talking with your dog. Feeling a bit exhausted from communicating with people–a bit of Twitter overload apparently–Sputniko! decided to see if she could have a conversation with something from another species. If you know anything about crows, then you already know the answer is yes!
After a bit of research and discussions with researchers in both England and Japan, Sputniko! developed her Crowbot–a simple device that produces crow cries for different phrases. Delightfully, the machine actually worked and she was able to carry out a brief conversation with a crow in a park, which inspired the next song and video, “Crowbot Jenny.” If you’re interested in learning more about Sputniko!’s experiences with crows, watch her talk at transmediale where she explains that crows of different continents actually speak differently.
▼Wait, what’s that about a massive army of crows??
Her most recent video project was partially inspired by the 13-year-old girl in California who launched her Hello Kitty plushie into space. As Sputniko! has pointed out, we’ve gotten to a point in history where anyone can be an amateur scientist and contribute to the advancement of human understanding–even (or, perhaps, especially) high school students! “The Moonwalk Machine – Selena’s Step” sees Sputniko! taking a supporting role in her own video as the superhero Lunar Girl, who inspires the protagonist Selena to build and test her own moon rover. A powerful message for young and old alike!
While Sputniko! has once again departed Japan–this time to be a professor at MIT’s prestigious Media Lab, we can’t wait for her next project. Maybe someone can get her to collaborate with Urbangarde for what would surely be one of the craziest music videos this decade!
Sputniko! hasn’t released an album yet, though there is a sold-out DVD floating around. If you want to hear more from Sputniko!, be sure to follow her on YouTube. To read more about her adventures, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.