THE CYCLE OF CITY POP
The cinematic Japanese subgenre influencing your favorite American artists
By Anh Nguyen
A January 2020 segment of the Japanese variety show, Nippon! Shisatsudan, focused on used record shops in Shibuya as producers interviewed foreign tourists, looking into the surprising international popularity of city pop. “Is it true this type of music is popular in America?” a reporter asks a young American man. “Yeah! I think it was because of the internet,” the American responds. He continues to go through the records, sharing his likings of artists such as Tatsuro Yamashita and Toshiki Kadomatsu. The camera cuts to the studio where they show shocked reactions of Japanese audiences.
So, what is city pop? And how has something that was once considered “cheesy, mainstream, disposable music,” by many Japanese people who grew up around it, made its way to the American underground music scene?
City pop emerged from a time of economic prosperity for Japan, beginning in the late 1970s, and peaking in the 1980s when Japan was the world’s second largest economy. Japan became known on a global scale for its cutting-edge technology and corporate dominance. The development was due, in part, to independence from foreign exports and moving towards reliance on domestic demands – which included music.
The extravagances and luxury are reflected in city pop – which would serve as a soundtrack to the cosmopolitan lifestyle. The music largely drew inspiration from American genres like disco, funk, boogie, r&b, and lounge music, but what resulted was something as unique and boundless as the country’s economic growth. The glamor of city pop would eventually fall out of fashion in the 1990s when Japan’s economic bubble burst and was plundered into a “lost decade.”
During the height of its popularity, however, the genre wasn’t always known as city pop. “City pop” is a name that has been given with retrospective fascination.
If you are still unfamiliar with what exactly city pop is, you’ve probably come across it in recent music without even realizing. Mac Demarco, a well-known name in the indie genre, covered “one of his biggest musical idols,” city pop pioneer Haroumi Hosono’s “Honeymoon” in 2018 – where he sang the original lyrics in Japanese. Tyler the Creator, a leading name in the alternative music scene, sampled “king of city pop,” Tatsuro Yamashita’s “Fragile” in the track “GONE, GONE / THANK YOU” for his 2019 album, Igor. In 2020, Miki Matsubara’s “Mayonaka no Door (Stay With Me),” became a Tik Tok hit. The videos posted under the sound showed creators jamming out to the song with their moms, with a caption along the lines of “they say Japanese women from the 80’s know this song”. The catchy, upbeat, and poppy tune quickly became not just remembered by past generations, but also trendy among younger generations. It went on to top Spotify’s Global Viral 50 ranking for three weeks.
The allure of Japanese city pop is due in part to the fact that it isn’t widely available yet, with it mostly being on YouTube, where the views speak volumes to its popularity. It wasn’t until 2019 that reissue label, Light in the Attic, was able to release their first compilation, Pacific Breeze: Japanese City Pop, AOR & Boogie 1976–1986, as part of their Japan archival series. And, it wasn’t until the end of last year that cult favorite, “Fragile,” by Tatsuro Yamashita became available on Spotify.
“A lot of the Japanese labels didn’t understand why an indie label from America would want to license this stuff, so it took a lot of convincing,” said Yosuke Kitazawa, one of Pacific Breeze’s three curators. “We didn’t even know that the titles were popular on YouTube—they were curated from records that we all owned.”
Perhaps it’s city pop’s elusiveness that has enticed Western indie and alternative music in recent years. This is one of many testaments to the cyclical nature of pop. “Pop music has a tendency to trickle back down to the underground in one way or another,” said Vice in a 2019 article about city pop.
Our obsession with city pop can be explained by the role nostalgia plays in our music listening habits. It is common to feel nostalgia for an era you didn’t exist in: explaining why we find comfort in listening to music we associate with our parents’ generations. With city pop, there is an added layer of fascination in a sound that is almost familiar to us, but has an element of “foreignness” that feels like discovering new music.
“A cinematic image of nostalgia is a double exposure, or a superimposition of two images—of home and abroad, of past and present, of dream and everyday life,” said cultural theorist and artist Svetlana Boym.
Sonically, we like city pop because the music makes us feel good—it’s escapism. However, our fascination with Japanese culture may be because it contains this “double exposure” of familiarity and foreignness. The fascination translates across various art mediums: being evident in our consumption of anime and manga, and as well as in our praise of Japanese style in high fashion. We repeatedly see references to Japanese culture in the music world, through artists such as Kanye West and Frank Ocean, as explained in a 2018 i-D article.
Rather than being a commentary on Japanese culture, the fascination says more about the West’s view of itself, through the lens of influences in the East. When we listen to city pop, we hear the familiar rings of American jazz, funk, soft rock, and occasional words of English intertwined with singable Japanese lyrics. But we can also hear how popular Japanese figures from this time, most of whom were accomplished composers and producers, created something completely unique.
When city pop was being made, perhaps it wasn’t about appealing to any specific crowd – be it the Japanese cosmopolitan lifestyle or the American underground – but rather about experimenting, breaking boundaries, and creating music that just sounds good.