author: matt thompson | contributor
Music is borderless. / Pixabay
The sounds so slick, oil will need to reevaluate it’s existent
Music and the internet go together like peanut butter and jelly, or the current White House administration and controversy. From exposing the world to the works and talents of countless indie artists, inspiring new genre’s like Vaporwave, shoving dozens of super pop-star hacks down our throats, or infecting the mainstream ethos with a plague of Soundcloud rappers, it’s hard to deny that cyber-space hasn’t had a profound impact on the industry. The audible ocean stretching across the interwebs, like the Pacific, is massive, intimidating, and choked with a helluva lot of garbage. However, you’re willing to do a bit of digging, you might just find some gold hidden amongst the trash.
About a year ago, the wonderful world of YouTube exposed me to what might be the dopest genre I’ve come across in my short life, City pop. Now, if you’re not from Japan and under the age of forty, chances are you probably didn’t know about City pop before recently. City pop refers to Japanese pop music from the late ‘70s to the mid-to-late ‘80s, much of which hasn’t had much exposure outside of its home country. Secondly, if Google can be trusted, the term city pop originated as a nickname for the music commuters would listen to on their way to work after radios became standard for Japanese vehicles in the mid-‘70s.
So, what the hell does City pop sound like? The short-short version, city pop is largely a mix of synth-centric beats supported by jazzy guitar and bass lines usually coupled with soft drums and a counter beat consisting of a softer synth melody and/or brass instruments such as horns or saxophones. Together, these sounds create a very soft, stimulating listening experience, conjuring up images of smoke-filled lounge bars or quiet walks in the warm rain. This jazzy soundscape also carries strong undercurrents of ‘70s era funk, particularly in the more well-known examples such as Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love” or Takako Mamiya’s “Midnight Jokes”, particularly noticeable in the bass lines and drums.
African-American soul music, in particular that from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with its strong edge of Blues, was possibly the heaviest influence on city pop, especially regarding vocals. Most vocal performances fall into two categories, soft and smooth, such as Tomoko Aran’s “Midnight Pretenders”, or punchy and high energy, like the majority of Tatsuro Yamashita’s vocal performances. In both of these categories, African-American influences, like the Isley Brothers and Marvin Gaye or mix of Aretha Franklin, Martha Reeves, and a hint of Curtis Mayfield respectively, are clear as day. Elements of late Disco, early European synth pop, and mid-‘70s American soft rock also added to this mix as well.
What makes city pop, particularly regarding vocals, truly unique, however, is the mix of English and Japanese lyrics. For a non-English genre from a non-English speaking country, City pop contains a hell of a lot of English lyrics. Typically, most songs consist of a pattern where three or four verses sung entirely in Japanese are broken up by a chorus which is either a mix of English and Japanese lyrics, or in some cases entirely English. There are even quite a few songs that are composed entirely of English lyrics, such as Soichi Noriki’s “Do What You Do,” or Yamashita’s “Mermaid.” To put it in perspective, that would be like every song you heard on the radio consisted of someone singing in English before suddenly switching to Latin or German.
Even after a good bit of research, the reason for this trend, much like the Toronto Raptor’s post-season performance or the gormless stare plastered on my face in every photo of me ever, remains a mystery to me. Whether it was a side effect of heavy American influence in post-war Japan or if it was simply a common artistic choice, the result is the same. For Western listeners at least, the mixed lyrics and synth-based Soul/Jazz instrumentation result in a unique sound that is both new and foreign while at the same approachable and somewhat familiar. Through the brief English interludes and the often-incredible vocal performances, the music is able to break the language/cultural barrier and deliver a clear message to the listener and provoke an emotional response.
The Soul/Blues influences are also deeply ingrained within the genre’s common themes as well. Most of the softer tracks deal with heartbreak, loneliness, or a failure to find love against the backdrop of modernity and consumerism in Japan. The greatest example of this Takeuchi’s previously mentioned “Plastic Love,” a song which the story of a woman’s recent breakup and how she tries to mask and avoid her pain by buying material goods like shoes or dresses, which only contributes greater to her loneliness and are meaningless when compared to the happiness provided by a loved one.
The song does an extremely effective job of portraying the aftermath of heartbreak while critiquing the widespread trend of Retail Therapy in modern neo-liberal consumerism. Many a professional music critic have echoed these words as well, some of whom have even suggested that Plastic Love might be the best pop-song of all time. This near post-modern take on the love and consumerism spans across much of city pop, which I would suggest to be one of the reasons why the genre still resonates with many Japanese and Western listeners alike today.
City pop came and went after Japanese pop music began gravitating towards more band/group-based EDM beginning in the early ‘90s. However, with the magic of the internet, a small trickle Westerners started to come across the genre beginning in the late Aughts (2007-2009). In the early 2010s, a genre near and dear to my sad-boi heart, Vaporwave (which itself is another article entirely), formed on Soundcloud, and many of its more prominent artists began to sample heavily from city pop. This, along with the advent of Future Funk in 2013 (which is the musical equivalent of a Japanese Disco on the freaking moon), planted the seeds for greater exposure which began to germinate in late 2016. As Lo-Fi Hip-Hop exploded in popularity on YouTube, uploads of old City pop songs increasingly popped up in many users’ video suggestions, and thus a new wave of curious listeners were exposed to the genre’s wonders. Some tracks, like “Plastic Love,” became incredibly popular, gaining over 20 million views in less than a year before a copyright strike took the original video down.
For now, at least, city pop has a relatively large and active community both on YouTube and Soundcloud. YouTube channels such as Van Paugam, who’s fairly popular stream titled City pop Radio has been going almost uninterrupted for almost a year and a half now, and Artzie Music continue to upload playlists at a consistent basis as more and more people come across this music. The genre has even seen a small resurgence in Japan itself, with many modern artists covering its biggest hits.
There’s a mountain of stuff I still have left to cover, but my editor will probably get a headache if I go over the word limit again, so I’ll have end it here. For those of you looking for some new sounds to bop to, excellent ambience, or even just good music in general, do yourself and Japan a favor and go listen to a city pop playlist or two!