Depending on how often you use the site, and what your browser history is like, you may recently have seen this two-tone haired character staring out at you from somewhere in your Youtube recommendations.
That’s how I first learned of Zutomayo, at least. The rock group’s full name (Zutto Mayonaka de Iinoni) means something like “I wish it was midnight all the time” (or more liberally and poetically; “Midnight Forever”), a phrase that gives some indication all on its own where the group are coming from. If you want the traditional rock critic-delivered backstory spiel, there isn’t much of one for Zutomayo. The group consists of the pseudonymous ACA-Ne and a cadre of other musicians, and are only a few years old. (Their debut single “Bite The Second Hand” dropped in 2018.) Despite all this; the group are no cult act, at least not domestically, with their two EPs ranking high both on Billboard of Japan’s Hot 100 and the pickier Oricon album charts.
But I’m not that interested in explaining why Zutomayo are popular. I think that’s pretty obvious; they’re a really good band with impressive chops that also tend to put their songs behind compelling and creative animated music videos. That they are well-liked makes perfect sense.
I am interested on a more personal level, here. It’s not much an exaggeration to say that Zutomayo are the most I’ve cared about what could probably be defined as an actual rock band since I was a teenager, being someone who mostly grew up on top 40 and later hip-hop as my preferred music formats of choice.
I first became aware of the “Study Me” video not long after it went live. The first time I listened to it, I “only” liked it. I saved it to a youtube playlist I keep good pop songs in, but I didn’t have an immediate strong reaction to it. How doing that tends to work for me is that I play something a few times, eventually get sick of it, and remove it from said playlist. (Very sophisticated, I know. This is why I’m not a music critic in any serious sense.)
The second time I heard it, something….clicked. I don’t know if it’s that I was also watching the music video with full attention this time, or if it was just something in the way ACA-Ne yells “FUN-KY!” during the chorus, but I was completely blown away. I listened to it back to back several times in a row (something I almost never do) and immediately started seeking out other songs by the band. I’ve developed my favorites over the relatively short time I’ve known of Zutomayo, but it took until I stumbled upon a video by Youtuber Steve M. (I don’t normally like that kind of thing, but Steve’s video is one of the few solid sources of English-language information on Zutomayo and I think it’s quite good) for me to start really considering why this group’s music was resonating with me so much.
“Study Me” is a very defiant song. I’d argue you don’t need to understand a single syllable of the lyrics to get that; the music video’s background-character-gone-rogue plot makes it pretty clear. But Zutomayo’s songs, from the admittedly imperfect information I can gather via translated lyrics, often seem to traffic in two broad themes. One is alienation; from society as in “Study Me” or from other people via failed romantic or familial relationships, as in say “HAM” or indeed the aforementioned “Bite The Second Hand”. The other is defiant, sometimes radical self-reinvention, as in (again) “Study Me” or even “MILABO” which kind of appears to wed the two themes.
I’ve seen the popular theory floated that every one of Zutomayo’s two-tone-haired MV protagonists are actually the same character, either in alternate versions or at different stages of life. This is perhaps a little too heavy on capital-L Lore for most “serious” music consumers, but I think the idea is at least thematically sound. I won’t claim that I can “prove” that all of Zutomayo’s songs are autobiographical excerpts from ACA-Ne’s life, but she’s a good enough songwriter that whether or not they’re grounded in concrete reality doesn’t really matter. (And, this must be tempered with the claim I’ve seen from more than one song translator that Zutomayo’s lyrics tend to be….poetically circumspect, which can make concrete readings difficult even in the native language, but that’s not anything that’ll be news to say, fans of American indie rock. Plus, I’d argue that all truly great art is open to a plurality of interpretations.)
Since properly “getting into” the group–that is to say, not long after watching that video– I sought out a fan community who have been nothing but pleasant to me (hello Zutomayo Zone!), which brings us to the present, and my own ruminations.
Alienation, failed relationships, distance from society, the pinpricks of light that constitute occasional and sometimes radical self-reinvention….it clicked for me sometime yesterday. I have no idea if ACA-Ne is part of the LGBTQ community (it’s not like anybody right now has any lack of reason to feel like it’s them against the world), but these are themes and ideas that tend to resonate with that community, which I am part of. Once I realized that, everything fell into place.
Anecdotally, a good chunk of English-speaking Zutomayo fans I’ve met are queer or otherwise marginalized, and I would not be even remotely surprised if that holds true for much of the Anglophone fanbase in general. It is totally possible to read “Study Me” in particular as a defiant demand for understanding an acceptance–the song’s not called “Please Study Me”–and even if that’s a million miles away from its original intent, I’d argue it’s as valid a reading as any.
I have not made any secret of the fact that I’ve been in a rough mental spot recently due to recent events. Perhaps Zutomayo is just the music I needed for the moment. If that’s true, I wouldn’t quite say that Zutomayo saved my life, but it’s the closest any band has ever come. (An honorable mention should go to The Ataris, who got me out of a similar rut several years ago, but I never felt the same immediate connection to their music.) Given the specifics of my life and hell, just the world right now, I can completely understand, say, wanting to break out of the depressing shell you find yourself in and becoming a cute space idol instead.
This, of course, is not accounting for the more immediate appeal of Zutomayo’s music. I’ve often noticed that in particular I cannot quite tell if certain things in a given Zutomayo song are being played on “actual instruments” or if it’s actually very convincing programmed production. It usually at least sounds live, but it can be surprisingly hard to tell! Either way; the band’s timbrel palette is one of my favorites I’ve heard in years, especially the downright fatal bass on some of their funkier songs (“Study Me” once again and the slightly more recent “JK Bomber” come to mind here). This is without even mentioning ACA-Ne’s sharp, clear voice, which has a wonderful bright quality to it that I just don’t hear that often on either side of the Pacific.
I’ve since learned that Zutomayo are not completely without peers. One of the greatest music-related shocks of my life thusfar was learning that there’s an entire world of Japanese rock and pop that just kinda sounds like this–a non-Zutomayo track I’ve been greatly vibing with lately is Yorushika’s heart-rendingly depressing “That’s Why I Gave Up On Music“.
But there’s just something that, even after writing all of this, is unquantifiably special to me about Zutomayo. Maybe some of us just gravitate toward the nighttime, and maybe Zutomayo make music for those people. For those times when morning seems more like a curse than a blessing, I can think of no better act in music right now.
CORRECTION: This article previously stated the entire group was anonymous. This is only the case with lead singer ACA-Ne, who is only known by her pseudonym.
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