The Rebirth Of City Pop and the Importance Of Searching

Have you ever heard of Mariya Takeuchi?

If you’re American, there’s virtually a 0% chance that you had before 2017. But in 2019, there’s an actual possibility—given that in its various versions on YouTube, her 1984 song “Plastic Love” has a combined 41 Million views, most of which come from the U.S. (this can be determined via a number of factors, including language of upload title, uploader country, and the comments section).

On the surface, this is incredibly strange. Why is a mid-80s Japanese pop ballad suddenly so popular halfway around the world 3+ decades later? The gut reaction is to pin this on the notorious YouTube algorithm, which tends to lend a snowball effect to random videos that get popular. ‘Someone watched this, let’s recommend it to X. X watched it, let’s recommend it to Y Z and A’, etc. It’s a fluke, an accident of coding…right?

But “Plastic Love” isn’t alone. Far from it. In fact, there are many songs from 70s and 80s Japan with English upload titles and millions of views:

Ok. Huh. Weird, right? Well let’s take a look at one of these other ones. I mean, there’s gotta be some explanation for this:


Damn that’s catchy. And if you go and listen to those other songs they’re catchy too; easy listening songs with funky grooves and memorable English choruses.

What you’ve just heard is City Pop, a subgenre of Japanese New Music which was popular in Japan in the 70s and 80s. It has become popular in the West decades later, mostly thanks to YouTube, as many of these songs aren’t available on any of the major streaming services (Spotify, Apple Music, etc.)

There are folks who have done deep dives into what City Pop is, but I’ll try to provide the sparknotes version. Essentially, Japan had an economic boom in the late 70s and 80s, thanks in large part to U.S. investment in Japanese technology businesses. Indeed, much of the Japanese economy soon became reliant on the U..S., both for capital investment and as their largest consumer market. It was during this time when companies like Toyota and Sony took off, and soon Japan was a global economic superpower.

While a number of people (read: businessmen) in Japan saw this as a good thing, others understood it as a nation which had traditionally been fiercely independent acquiescing to the culture of the day, in some cases willingly, in others due to colonialist forces. It was an extension of some of the themes that Yasujirō Ozu explored in his films from the 40s and 50s.

City Pop was born in this booming economic environment, when seemingly everything was becoming mechanized and artificial. It’s difficult to pin down any musical or lyrical specifics that allow something to be classified as City Pop. Certainly an embrace of American musical stylings (pop, jazz fusion, and/or R&B) is an element. But it’s more of a ‘know-it-when-you-year-it’ sort of thing than a by-the-book genre. Japan Archival Series supervisor Yosuke Kitazawa sums it up well, saying that there “were no restrictions on style or a specific genre that we wanted to convey with these songs” but that it “was music made by city people, for city people.”

It’s both an acceptance and repurposing of American musical style, while simultaneously conveying a sense of unwanted shallowness and melancholy, which comes through in the undeniably catchy popiness undercut by ponderous, sometimes dark lyrics.

These lyrics often had refrains in English, attempting to mimic American popular music so as to become popular both in Japan and abroad. It’s how you get lyric sheets that look like this:

Or this:

And it worked, though perhaps 30-40 years later than the artists and producers would have hoped. City Pop has become fairly popular in the U.S., long after the point when any rational person would have guessed it would.

But intuitively, it still seems odd that older music from any foreign nation would become this popular in 2019. Catchy as it is, if you aren’t familiar with the genre, it probably still seems weird that so many Americans have fallen in love with it.

So why has it finally caught on? Jon Bilstein did a write up of City Pop in Rolling Stone back in May that posits the same question, and he came up with a few explanations (which I agree with).

First, Bilstein argues that city pop was ahead of its time, and that it fits neatly into the current popularity of breezy background music to work/study/relax to. He notes that:

“the bounty of ‘chill’ music offered up by streaming services is reminiscent of City Pop’s own furniture music… No one listens to “chill” Spotify playlists or popular YouTube channels like “chill lo-fi hip-hop beats to study/relax to” to go anywhere. It’s literally music to make sitting where you are, doing what you’re doing, less awful.”

Further, many of the English lyrics that make up the refrains of City Pop songs have been sampled in remixes, particularly by Vaporwave artists [author’s note: if I also try to explain what vaporwave is we’ll be here for hours, so here’s its Wikipedia page if you’d like to do your own research]

Bilstein explains:

“City Pop has become popular among Vaporwave artists like Yung Bae, Saint Pepsi and Luxury Elite, who spin City Pop and its American analogs into songs that seem to flatten the space between past and future, nostalgic dreamscapes and glitched-out, late capitalist nightmares (there’s an equally active Vaporwave scene in Japan that pulls from the same reference points).”

These artists scour old music looking for things to sample, take clips they think they can use, and then repurpose them to fit their own art. City Pop has become so popular that even non-vaporwave DJs have begun to remix it:

Eventually, fans of these DJs go looking for the sources of these distinctive sound bites, and stumble upon City Pop. Intense digging and repurposing by Vaporwave artists, and light digging by their fans, allows for a forgotten subgenre to flourish again.

Another aspect of City Pop’s appeal in North America is that it’s a Japanese interpretation of American culture.

Via colonialism and millions of advertising dollars, American popular culture is the dominant culture worldwide. We are used to seeing the stuff we make, and other countries are used to seeing the stuff we make too. The percentage of people in Hong Kong who have seen a Hollywood film this year is astronomically higher than the percentage of Americans who’ve seen a Hong Kong film.

As Americans, we usually don’t get to see and/or hear how other countries see and/or hear us.

City Pop is one of the rare times when another culture reflecting on an American example has pierced our consciousness. When you listen to City Pop, you hear what Japanese people heard when they listened to American pop music. It helps that the music is well-made, but some of the appeal comes from the deconstruction of these layers; like looking into a funhouse mirror and realizing that’s how someone else sees you all the time.

In this regard it’s similar to Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen. Why has it remained relevant? Mainly because the music is fundamentally, and I’ll use the technical term here, damn fucking good.

BUT, good music does not necessarily mean longevity in the popular imagination. Carmen has retained it’s fascinating nature to this day in part because it is a Frenchman’s take on what Spanish culture looks like, and what Spaniards act like. One of Carmen’s most celebrated aspects is, as Bizet biographer Winton Dean puts it, “vivid expression of the torments inflicted by sexual passions and jealousy”. Would a Spanish writer have portrayed their countrymen as sexualized and overly emotional? Would a Spanish writer have created a story heavily featuring a bullfighter? Sounds a bit like a caricature, no? [for further information on Carmen‘s portrayal of Spain and how Bizet exoticizes the country, check out José Colmeiro’s paper on the subject. It’s a great read].

Decoding that caricature is part of the fun—looking at how one culture is seen by another is a compelling exercise, giving insights into the attitude of the voyeuristic nation.

The use of English in City Pop is an easily identifiable example. Just look at the lyric sheets I put up earlier. They are NOT subtle, expressing Big Ideas™ in bold, plain language that nobody in the U.S. would use, neither in conversation nor pop music. It’s fun to hear folks from another culture try to replicate our culture, as they often bring something new to the table.

So that’s in large part what has driven City Pop’s resurgence. But, even after all that, there’s still one thing about city pop’s appeal which stands out to me, and has gone largely undiscussed. If you scroll down into the dreaded comments section on any relatively high-viewcount city pop song, you’re certain to stumble upon a comment like this:

These types of comments are ubiquitous on these videos—people opining about, um, “nostalgia”(?) for a time and place that they never personally experienced, often in exquisite detail.

What the hell is going on here? How can you be nostalgic for something you were never actually there for? Something that until a few months ago, you never even knew existed?

In But What If We’re Wrong, Chuck Klosterman discusses how we—i.e. society as a whole—are totally off base when we predict what the future will look like. We are utterly inept at predicting which works of art (films, books, music, etc.) will live on, and which are forgotten. In my favorite chapter, he discusses books, and tries to determine which authors and works from the 21st century will live on.

During this chapter Klosterman makes the seemingly paradoxical argument that adherence to the historical specifics of a time is vitally important in generating timelessness, stating that “it’s impossible to generate deep verisimilitude without specificity” (pg. 44). Attempts to make a work timeless by omitting the specifics of an era actually calls attention to the fact that this is a work of art, and breaks down the sense of immersion and relatability that a work can create.

If, for example, a character enters a bar and orders “a beer”, it’s an immediate reminder that ‘oh yeah, I’m reading a book’. Whereas if they order a Heineken or Budweiser, it feels more natural to a contemporary audience. Even if neither of those brands exist in 2175, the context clues would allow a futuristic reader to discern what was meant, without shattering the fourth wall. Details like these make it more real.

Klosterman cites Moby-Dick in this chapter, and I think it’s a great example. What does anyone in 2019 know about whaling? Jack shit. But that’s not the point. Author Herman Melville allows Ishmael to naturally weave in technical explanations by masquerading them as descriptions of the day-to-day life of whaling. And often, these descriptions of activities that a 2019 reader would never conceive of are where Melville allows Ishmael to reflect on life.

The passage when Ishmael and Queequeg are weaving a ‘sword-mat’ is the perfect example:

“As I kept passing and reloading the filling or woof of marline between the long yarns of the warps, using my own hand for the shuttle, and as Queequeg, standing sideways, ever and anon slid his heavy oaken sword between the threads, and idly looking off upon the water, carelessly and unthinkingly drove home every yarn: I say so strange a dreaminess did there then reign all over the ship and all over the sea, only broken by the intermitting dull sound of the sword, that it seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates. There lay the fixed threads of the warp subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration, and that vibration merely enough to admit of the crosswise interblending of other threads with its own. This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads. Meantime, Queequeg’s impulsive, indifferent sword, sometimes hitting the woof slantingly, or crookedly, or strongly, or weakly, as the case might be; and by this difference in the concluding blow producing a corresponding contrast in the final aspect of the completed fabric; this savage’s sword, thought I, which thus finally shapes and fashions both warp and woof; this easy, indifferent sword must be chance—aye, chance, free will, and necessity—nowise incompatible—all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course—its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions directed by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events.”

Moby-Dick Chapter 47, “The Mat-Maker”

There’s so much to unpack in that passage (e.g. Melville’s meta-pun of using weaving as a way to weave in some philosophical conjecture), but for our purposes the main takeaway is this:

Ishmael turns a seemingly dull and very 1851 task into a stunningly gorgeous reflection on the nature of Fate, a timeless subject if ever there was one.

That is how you achieve timelessness through adherence to era-specific details.

Ok, so what in God’s name did any of that have to do with City Pop? Well, I think those YouTube comments from earlier are a shining example of what it means to experience “verisimilitude through specificity”.

The best City Pop conveys a sense of isolation and ennui, no surprise given the socioeconomic climate it was born out of. Many Japanese people in the 70s and 80s felt like they were shedding their millennia-old traditions and culture for a new, artificial and shiny culture that could compete with the global superpowers of the day. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing—many Japanese people viewed this development positively and built a tremendous amount of wealth—but it undeniably influenced the sound of the music that was born out of it.

Happy on the surface, with a dark underbelly.

Remember that super happy and catchy telephone number song from earlier? The one with the AWOOOO? Here’s the first verse translated:

“Don’t forget my telephone number

I want you to dial it anytime you’re worried

Yes, every night you continue to drink

I’ve noticed it, ah…your loneliness, ah…”

Artificiality, a sense of loneliness in cities of millions, surface level relationships, these experiences are already quotidian in 2019, and are on the rise. Art that can express our reactions to these things has tremendous power, and speaks to deep-seated thoughts and emotions that we didn’t know we had. The reason why “Plastic Love” resonates is because it so perfectly utilized its music and lyrics to tap into a universally relatable aspect of the human experience— surface level love affairs and the “games” that people play with each other. It’s what allows music that is very much ‘of a time’ to feel timeless.

People from all over the world understand these emotions decades later, and it allows them to feel an intense empathy with a person from an era they never experienced. They feel like they were there, that they know the specifics of the time period, because they can tap into the parts that are timeless.

‘I know what that emotion feels like. I know what this person felt like while driving their toyota in Tokyo in 1983, because I felt something similar in 2019.’ After all, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

It’s the same reason why if Moby-Dick were a YouTube video, people would probably comment “oh this reminds me of the time I spent on a whaler except I never did lol”.

City Pop’s resurgence occurred because the music was able to express something that modern audiences can relate to, years and years after the fact. But, I think it’s important to recognize that the only reason why people were able to experience this intense empathy with decades-old music is because it was ‘discovered’ by others. Without the remix subculture, vinyl collector/sampling culture, and people dedicated to finding new and interesting things, millions of people would have never known about City Pop, and would have missed out on an art that speaks to them.

I think the reason why But What If We’re Wrong fascinates me is because it’s so satisfying to think about what will live on, what’s important in the long term. So satisfying to imagine discovering something new, and hailing it as having a deep connection to timeless aspects of the human spirit; heralding it as a work that will live on as something worth remembering centuries from now.

Chasing that satisfaction is why people continue to collect obscure recordings and dig for art yet undiscovered. It’s why some people listen to SoundClouds with no followers or watch YouTube videos with minimal views. However infinitesimally small the chances are, they may just stumble upon the next Moby-Dick. The internet provides us with an unprecedented ability to dig for things that speak to the human condition, to find the works of art that mean something. City Pop’s resurgence is merely one example of how just a little bit of initiative and digging can provide joy, catharsis, an experience, to so many.

So fall down the rabbit holes, click the links on page 22 of google results, and search high and low. The golden works of our time are hiding in plain sites.

Thanks for reading. If you want to go searching for undiscovered stuff but don’t know where to go start, Jon Bois has a really cool suggestion here (at 19:50) which I highly recommend.