I’ve been sitting in the library, late into the evening, far too frequently over the last few months. Thankfully, YouTube – and one particular genre of music – has often been my only solace.
City pop is a curious melange of electric, jazz-infused funk and soft-rock sung for the most part in Japanese. It hails from a particular corner of the internet – sharing roots with vaporwave and future funk, both internet music genres distinguished by their appropriation of ‘80s music styles and aesthetics, and which have become prolific online in recent years.
However, the original city pop was the musical mainstream in Japan during the late ‘70s and the ‘80s. There are immediate and discernible influences of the West Coast – think Hawaiian palms and sunny California: The Beach Boys, Steely Dan or Hall & Oates – when listening to artists like Tatsuro Yamashita who melds English lyrics so effortlessly with a more traditional Japanese ambiance.
It is easy to disparage such music as easy-listening, lounge-type, ‘adult-orientated’ soft-rock. But city pop should be defined by its essential eclecticism which was equivalent to the wider Japanese cultural experience of the mid-to-latter twentieth century. It typified the rising urbanisation of the nation’s middle class such that the original genre became, in the words of Japanese music critic Yutaka Kimura, ‘urban pop music for those with urban lifestyles.’
The ubiquitous American cultural crossover of fast-food, fashion, baseball and other staples also applied to the music industry. And by the late ‘70s, the standard soul, jazz and disco were increasingly accompanied by an emerging electronic genre. Combined with Japan’s technological ascendancy – the country gave the world Nintendo in 1974 and the Sony Walkman in 1979 – city pop had a youthful cool, almost video-arcade feel. Strong elements of pop art accompany the futuristic sound, with the visual artistry on the record albums produced by illustrators such as Eizin Suzuki or Hiroshi Nagai.
The combined effect in the music is what Eli Cohen, a New York-based electronic music producer, has referred to as the luscious detail of ‘complex, melodic jubilation’ that appeals to a feeling that summer is only around the corner. Indeed, an intoxicating sense of possibility was the defining feature of Japan’s ‘bubble era’ and the economic success that came crashing to an end by 1990.
However, city pop is not only a nostalgic soundtrack for Japan’s lost progress. It has been revived through the fascination of Western ‘underground laptop artists’ and the fragmentation in modern electronic music styles, where retro and increasingly foreign tracks are cut and sampled into music that exists purely in the digital realm.
Such was the case with Plastic Love, a 1984 hit by J-pop icon Mariya Takeuchi, that burst out of obscurity in late 2017 on YouTube before the video was pulled for copyright reasons. It had, though, sufficiently permeated into Western music consciousness, garnering over 22 million views and the plaudits of Vice Media which described it as the ‘best pop song in the world.’
Ryan Bassil’s article effusively homes in on the ‘enchanting quality’ of a song which can take the listener ‘to a place they remember or have never even visited.’ Heartbreak, love and loneliness populate pop music the world over but there is something electric about connecting with such emotions because, not despite, the presence of another language in the music.
It is important to query why I am convincing you to give this a listen. As with Plastic Love, these songs were crafted back in the ‘80s as a response to Japan’s rising place in the world and the country’s orientation to what the West then represented. However, it is fitting that those very same influences should – with a Japanese character – be reflected back from where they originated whether in Britain or North America.
City pop forms part of a rising global music scene where Korean artists like BTS have gained a huge following across America, and it doesn’t put a premium on any one genre as defined by linguistic or cultural barriers.
For me, the genre simply conjures an aura about a country with which I’m lucky to have a personal connection. It creates a sort of magic and sense of possibility – contained in any pop music – but elevated especially when words dance in a foreign tongue about themes so familiar – music that transcends the very dull reality of dissertation writing at 3 o’clock in the morning.