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Why we love Japanese City Pop?

In late March 2018 or 2019 I don't recall the exact year, but I remember this night vividly. I was sitting outside on my bicycle, just back from work, the chill of the spring night vying with the sweet taste of melon ice cream from FamilyMart on my tongue. I hadn't yet dismounted, drawn into a moment of serenity, when the first notes of Mariya Takeuchi's "Plastic Love" drifted out from a dormitory window nearby. The song struck a chord, weaving through the cool air, and I was spellbound.

Reference: Image Credit

From that night, Japanese city pop became my refuge and my revelation. Its melodies are steeped in the romantic imagery of Tokyo's luminous nights and stylish past. Each song feels like a memory, tinted with the same nostalgia that grips my heart. City pop conjures a poignant blend of joy and melancholy—its rhythms find me clad in a simple white shirt and blue jeans, imagining soft raindrops and a tender reunion at the day's end.

My obsession makes me wonder about the wider allure of this genre. How has it captured the hearts of listeners around the globe? There's something universally touching in its notes, a shared pulse of nostalgia and deep-seated emotion that connects us all. How did this vibrant slice of Japanese culture resonate so profoundly, far beyond its origins?

Ah an one of my favorite, currently listening in repeat:

What is City Pop?

The resurgence of "City Pop," a music style from Japan's 1970s and 1980s, is capturing international interest, prompting many to revisit what was once considered old Japanese music. What exactly is city pop, and why is it garnering global attention now?

City pop was a prevalent form of pop music in Japan during the late 20th century, characterized by its urban-inspired lyrics and soundscapes. While it encapsulates a distinctly metropolitan vibe, the genre wasn't clearly defined in its heyday. It emerged more as a mood or aesthetic within the music scene, rather than a distinct category, with various labels like "City Pops" or "City Music" starting to appear in record company promotions and magazine articles during the 1980s.

Defining city pop can be elusive because it blends elements from a multitude of genres. Its roots are deeply entwined with American popular music from the same era, incorporating everything from soul and disco to rock and jazz fusion, and even extending to Latin rhythms like samba and bossa nova. This eclectic mix creates a sound that is urban, sophisticated, mellow, and groovy, without conforming to strict musical "rules" for songwriting and composition.

The genre's resurgence and appeal lie in its atmospheric quality, which resonates with a sense of nostalgia and contemporary cool. It’s a genre defined as much by its vibe as by its musicality, leading to lively debates among enthusiasts about what exactly qualifies as city pop. This mysterious and engaging style continues to fascinate new audiences, bridging cultural and temporal gaps through its timeless allure.

Roots of 'New Music'

City pop is also often described as a subgenre of "new music," a term that captures an important evolution in Japan's musical landscape. But what exactly is "new music"?

The concept of new music represents a significant shift in Japan's music scene during the 1970s, with roots extending back to the 1960s when genres like folk and group sounds captivated the youth. The term "new music" often points to pivotal tracks like Takuro Yoshida's "Let's Get Married" (1972) and Shinichi Mori's "Erimo Misaki" (1974) as emblematic of this genre. These songs, among others, symbolize the emergence of a new wave of artists like Yosui Inoue and Yumi Arai. These musicians brought fresh perspectives to the music scene, using folk as a foundation but branching out to create something distinctly different from traditional Japanese pop music forms such as minyo, enka, and anti-war folk songs.

This innovative movement, dubbed "new music," sought to establish a new form of pop that diverged from the conventions of the past. It represented a departure from the established norms, aiming to resonate more deeply with contemporary sensibilities and emerging cultural currents. As these artists gained popularity, their music increasingly became the mainstream of popular music in Japan. Within this broader "new music" scene, city pop emerged as a vibrant subgenre that encapsulated the urban experience through its lyrics and melodies, blending elements from various international influences like jazz fusion, disco, and Latin music. It evoked an urban sophistication that became synonymous with Japan's cosmopolitan allure during the economic boom of the late 20th century.

New Sounds and Lyrics:

As Japan's musical landscape evolved through the 1970s and 80s, sound too changed, incorporating a rich tapestry of sounds that extended beyond its folk music roots to include rock, blues, soul, jazz fusion, and Latin music. The lyrical themes were equally diverse, mirroring the vibrant and varied fabric of contemporary life. This movement paved the way for the emergence of musicians who challenged the traditional confines of Japanese pop music, crafting a fresh, innovative sound that resonated deeply with the urban experience.

Among these pioneering artists was Haruomi Hosono, Shigeru Suzuki, Tatsuo Hayashi, and more. Hosono and Suzuki, veterans of the influential band 'Happy End' along with Eiichi Otaki and Takashi Matsumoto, played a significant role in the early development of what would later be recognized as City Pop. Their collaborative works, blending a variety of musical influences, were instrumental in setting the stage for this new genre.

Furthermore, artists like Yoshitaka Minami and Minako Yoshida, also became central figures in the City Pop movement. These musicians are now celebrated as iconic contributors to City Pop.

What are the musical characteristics of city pop?

City Pop, as a distinctive subset of Japan's "new music," showcases a fascinating blend of musical styles and influences, creating a sound that is uniquely its own. At the heart of City Pop are the musical characteristics that reflect an urban and cosmopolitan vibe, drawing heavily from American music influences.

  1. Musical Influences: Many City Pop tracks incorporate elements of American rock and blues. This genre also heavily leans on the rhythmic beats of soul and disco, often incorporating the complex arrangements and improvisational elements of jazz fusion.

  2. AOR and Adult Contemporary: City Pop often parallels the smooth, polished sounds of Adult-Oriented Rock (AOR) and adult contemporary music. In Japan, AOR was a term that came into use in the 1980s, although its definition can be somewhat vague. Musicians like Bobby Caldwell and Boz Scaggs exemplify the AOR sound. Similarly, the adult contemporary category, represented by artists like Billy Joel and Neil Diamond, shares a similar aesthetic, characterized by its broad appeal and smooth sound.

  3. Diverse Contributions: Beyond the contributions of key figures like Tatsuro Yamashita, Mariya Takeuchi, Toshio Kadomatsu, Taeko Onuki, Minako Yoshida, and Eiichi Otaki, City Pop also includes a diverse array of works from idol singers, actors, and soundtracks from movies and anime. This inclusivity adds to the genre's rich tapestry, making it a dynamic and ever-evolving form of music.

Why was it re-evaluated now?

The resurgence and re-evaluation of City Pop can be traced back to several key cultural and musical shifts that began in the early 1990s and continued into the 2000s. Here's why City Pop has regained its spotlight:

  1. Japanese DJ Culture: In the 1990s, the rise of DJ culture in Japan played a pivotal role in rediscovering City Pop. DJs delved into the genre as part of the Rare Groove movement, where they unearthed and celebrated lesser-known, underappreciated music from past decades. City Pop was identified as “cool dance music” by these DJs, who appreciated its unique blend of styles and rhythms.

  2. Shibuya-kei Movement: Around the same time, the Shibuya-kei movement, which emerged from the Shibuya district of Tokyo, also embraced elements of City Pop. This genre was known for its eclectic mix of pop, jazz, and electronic music influences, and City Pop tracks fit well within its aesthetic, further boosting its appeal and recognition.

  3. Re-evaluation as Japanese AOR: Moving into the 2000s, another wave of appreciation came under the banner of “Japanese AOR”. Music enthusiasts and critics started to re-assess City Pop not just as a passing trend but as a significant part of Japan's musical heritage. This led to the publication of guidebooks and detailed analyses of the genre, highlighting its quality and uniqueness.

  4. Market Impact: The renewed interest in City Pop also impacted the collectibles market, with prices for vinyl records of popular City Pop works soaring. Collectors and new fans alike sought out original vinyl releases, driven by both the music's quality and its growing mythos as a key part of Japan's cultural cool.

City Pop has surged in global popularity due to its incorporation into newer music genres like Vaporwave and Future Funk, which emerged prominently in the early 2010s. These genres, which creatively sample and remix 1980s music, find a rich source in City Pop's distinctive, retro style.

Key Highlights:

- Vaporwave: This genre transforms 1980s music samples into surreal, nostalgic soundscapes, with City Pop tracks often featured due to their smooth and retro feel.

- Future Funk: An upbeat, dance-oriented genre that energizes City Pop's vintage vibes with modern beats, making it appealing to younger audiences.

Cultural Impact:

- Mariya Takeuchi’s "Plastic Love" went viral, amassing millions of YouTube views after being sampled by Future Funk artist Night Tempo.

- Miki Matsubara's "Midnight Door" became popular on TikTok in Southeast Asia and gained further attention through a viral cover by Indonesian artist Rainych on YouTube.

These digital platforms have played a crucial role in reintroducing City Pop to a global audience, blending nostalgic elements with contemporary music trends to create a new wave of interest in the genre.

References:

Diamond Online: https://diamond.jp/articles/-/307796

Arban Magazine: https://www.arban-mag.com/article/43877

Nikkei Business Publications: https://business.nikkei.com/atcl/gen/19/00290/111200027/

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#japanese#city pop#plastic love#mariya takeuchi
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