The Breathless Bliss of City Pop
“Summer Soul”. “Forget Me Not”. “Pacific Ocean”. “Bay City”. These are not tracks from a long-lost Beach Boys album, but rather hits from a little-known Japanese sound called city pop. With funky jazz flutes and slickly produced, sun-tinged beats, city pop brings to life the easy, breezy, top-down lifestyle of 1980s Japan. But after reaching an apex in the late ‘80s, the glitzy sound faded into obscurity almost as quickly as it rose, becoming virtually unknown outside of Japan. Thanks to the internet, though, city pop is making a comeback into the libraries of listeners eager for a new sound- and reviving an entire subculture in the process.
Defining city pop is an art in itself. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion, with articles and endless online forums attempting to demystify a genre that’s become as obscure as its brightly-colored LPs. According to the Japan Times, city pop “blends soul music, fusion and adult-oriented rock with lyrics that center on city life as it often was experienced during the country’s bubble economy.” Metropolis Japan defines it as music that celebrates “living the high life in the city.” A popular Reddit thread just calls it “1980s urban driving music,” though to do so would be to downplay the delightful blend of Japanese and Western influences at play here. Overall, city pop is universally recognized as a smooth and vaguely futuristic (for its time) ‘80s boogie sound. The term was originally coined to define an offshoot of the emerging Western-influenced “new music” that flooded the airwaves during the 1970s and 1980s. Inspired by everything from disco to Western jazz, city pop merged smooth beats into a hodgepodge of funk, lounge tunes, elevator music, and springy bass with a kick of boogie. Bands like Yellow Magic Orchestra crafted synth beats, while solo artists like Tatsuro Yamashita penned lyrics about going to the beach or driving into the sunset. They became memorable, if short-lived, icons for the beachy lifestyle, providing the soundtrack for everything from weekend road trips to car commercials.
The rise of these artists signaled the beginning of a new chapter in Japan. With electronics manufacturing fueling the post-war “miracle economy”, the 1980s transformed Japan into a veritable economic superpower. With new cash to spend, the country began to carve out a modern identity in the rapidly growing Western global stage. Some signs of the times are immortalized in classic films like Akira and early episodes of Sailor Moon: fast cars, broad-shouldered blazers, futurism, and the constant, looming presence of pleasant elevator music. These symbols of easy living culture also populate the ambient jacket art of city pop records, which feature cheerful themes like red convertibles, extravagant private jets, tuxedo-clad crooners, and glittering cityscapes. America, with its sun-drenched pop and relentless optimism, was a goldmine of inspiration.
Coming out of this time period, city pop offered a distinct link in the cultural echo chamber that existed between Japan and the United States at the time. Along with the growing popularity of punk and metal, city pop’s dent in Japanese music history paints a picture of a country experimenting with a Western trend and remaking it in its own image. Its distinct take on American R&B and jazz fusion shows the power of influence and imitation in music, even as Japan itself held no tangible cultural connection to the United States. The inspiration is undeniable, but the outcome is still undeniably Japanese.
There's an interesting paradox at play here: for all its accessible pop veneer, city pop is at its core an immaculately produced sound, with top-notch musicians experimenting with their personal takes on American pop culture. As a result, contrasting themes coexist within each record, harmoniously linked together by the creative skill of their artists. City pop could be upbeat and mellow, fashionable and outdated, sophisticated and casual, hip and cheesy; it’s easy listening that mashes together a dozen separate musical influences at once. You may hear, in the span of one record, instances of jazz fusion, lounge, exotica, disco, pop, and soul, all in the span of four to six minutes. In the end, city pop fools you into thinking it’s nothing more than guilty pleasure listening, while actually giving you a complex, multi-layered sound that goes further than any one of its many musical inspirations. The result is smooth, deliriously danceable music you’d just as likely bob your head to on a night drive as you would waiting in line at Uniqlo.
With the rise of J-Pop in the 1990s, city pop quietly faded away into obscurity. For years the genre was virtually unknown outside of Japan, one of the few relics of the past that, like Tamagotchi and sushi belts before them, retained a few select devotees even as their best days fell behind them. Still, everything old gains prestige with the shiny patina of time, and city pop is no exception. Today the genre is gaining traction once again, with bands like Awesome City Club and Lucky Tapes reviving the sounds of ‘80s nostalgia with their jazzy funk and breezy lyrics. Stateside, Philadelphia-based Nippon Leagues releases mixtapes and spins hits from Toshiki Kadomatsu and Hiroshi Sato in their roving East Coast party series. There’s no shortage of fanaticism, either- city pop vinyl is notoriously difficult to track down outside of Japan, and the limited availability has spanned an ardent collector base eager for rare releases. Last year, a collector was even robbed and assaulted in South London while carrying a limited-edition Hiroshi Sato record.
Itching for a listen? We’ve compiled a primer playlist to get you started, with a little help from Nippon Leagues. If effortless background-noise listening is more of your thing, you can find their first mixtape, Volume 1, here.
Junko Yagami- Bay City
Tatsuro Yamashita - Love Talkin' (Honey It's You)
Toshiki Kadomatsu - Space Scraper
Taeko Onuki - 都会
Yurie Kokubu - Just a Joke
Makoto Matsushita - First Light
Mariya Takeuchi - Plastic Love
Ayumi Ishida & Tin Pan Alley Family - 私自身
Hiroshi Sato - Say Goodbye
WORDS BY MAGALI ROMAN