City Pop’s Online Resurrection

Artwork by Hiroshi Nagai

Artwork by Hiroshi Nagai

by Liam Thomas

On March 9th, 2019, the acclaimed record label Light in the Attic announced the release of Pacific Breeze. The label has stated that this compilation represents one of the first legitimate attempts to expand the fanbase and listenership of the unyieldingly innovative city pop subgenre beyond the borders of Japan, its country of origin. Pacific Breeze serves as an apt name for the breezy, sun-soaked collection of tracks: complete with sugary harmonies, techno-pop experimentation, western jazz influence, and a generally unrelenting tone of carefree leisure. Pacific Breeze is exemplary of both the modern appeal of city pop and indicative of the reasons it went relatively underappreciated at its outset. While a compilation album full of manicured soft jazz-influenced J-pop may seem like an obscure release from such a well-respected record label, city pop has been reconfigured and experimented with over the past few years, and the subgenre is witnessing a resurgence of mainstream appeal amongst modern listeners. Although city pop’s glitzy harmonies and disco-inspired sincerity appear to be relatively out of step with today’s popular music, the history of the subgenre’s gradual resurgence throughout the last few years paints a fascinating picture of how contemporary listeners consume music in the 2010s. The way modern listeners search for a sense of nostalgia through an initial lens of irony, and how cultural happenings must first be ridiculed before they reach mainstream acceptance; each of these phenomena play a key role in the revival of this underappreciated subgenre.

City pop blends the balladry of adult contemporary rock with elements of soft jazz and draws from a laundry list of both Asian and American influences, including funk, soul, disco, and lounge music. There are plenty of cultural parallels to be drawn between the city pop-craze in Japan and the rise and fall of Disco in the United States. The music of both genres possessed an air of unabashed sincerity, a sense of bright-eyed nightlife optimism that glorified a big city lifestyle. It was fun, worry-free music fitting for two nations sharing a period of opulence in booming post-war economies. At the time, Japan’s lucrative success in electronics manufacturing had unquestionably qualified the nation as an economic superpower in the global market, resulting in a decade of what has been deemed “the Japanese Economic miracle.” The thriving Japanese economy led to a revival of interest in an urbanized, high-fashion city-lifestyle, with the City-Pop scene emerging as an inoffensive soundtrack to Japan’s freshly revitalized nightlife. That being said, the youth of late-’70s Japan were as quick to deny the legitimacy of the city pop genre as their young American counterparts across the globe were to dismiss disco.

Both genres were regarded as overly-sanitized and empty-headed by younger listeners; essentially delegated as background music for an emerging class of young urban professionals. The animosity was so strong in Japan that for a time, the city pop was referred to by many young listeners as ‘shitty pop’. However, regarding the subgenre’s clear parallels with American disco music, there was a decided formula and set of genre conventions within Disco that were not mirrored by city pop. City pop borrowed sounds and concepts from every corner of the popular music spectrum, resulting in a period of worldwide musical influence suitable for a nation in the midst of a period of rapid post-war economic globalization.

Referring to city pop as a “subgenre” is, to some capacity, a disservice to a musical movement defined by breaking down genre barriers. The same goes for the bands that inhabited the city pop scene; from the synth-driven electropop of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yellow Magic Orchestra to the upbeat soft-rock of Tatsuro Yamashita, the music of these acts borrows from a wide range of influences. City pop musicians took cues from American and Asian music, both contemporary and antiquated, to create intricately crafted albums that borrow sounds from across the globe while still possessing a sound and tone that is inextricably Japanese. Additionally, the global scale of the music that influences city pop compounds the diversity of the subgenre’s already distinctively varied sound. While it may not particularly sound like it upon first listen, the city pop music movement was a tremendous staging ground for all varieties of musical experimentation. Blending elements of electropop, soft jazz, and rock music, city pop attempted musical synergies that were almost unheard of at the time. However, regarding how boldly and routinely modern artists blur genre barriers through the merging of genre conventions, it begins to become clear why the jazzy soft-rock of late 20th-century Japan is the subject of renewed interest.

It goes without saying that the internet has vastly changed the way we consume music. A global melting pot of ideas, culture, and garbage, the internet has given us access to hours upon hours of music that most likely would have gone otherwise unheard before its inception. The heterogeneous nature of modern music consumption has played a substantial role in ebbing away the restrictive nature of genre conventions. This ethos has made its way into the pantheon of Spotify playlists, which are used to more-or-less organize their playlists by genre. Pollen, a Spotify “playlist beyond genre” with over two hundred thousand followers, feels less like a playlist and more like a company attempting to reverse-engineer an individual’s personality based on their music tastes.

On the other hand, the past decade has witnessed artists spit in the face of genre traditionalism. Lil Peep blended elements of emo, punk, and trap to worldwide recognition before his untimely death. Iglooghost makes music untethered to any single definition of what electronic music can sound like, incorporating elements of trap, wonky, house, and dubstep. Quite recently, former tweetdecker Lil Nas X broke into the Billboard Hot 100 with his country-trap fusion ballad Old Town Road, which was groundbreaking enough for Billboard to question its validity as an “actual” country song. The level of experimentation that informed the compositions of the city pop subgenre, the act of cherry-picking differing cohesive elements from entirely separate genres, is almost commonplace for artists today. The act of recycling sounds; of reusing, repurposing, reimagining, and remixing them, is another hallmark of music production in the 2010s. But there is another, arguably more important trademark of 2010’s music culture and consumption that helped transform city pop from an oft-forgotten national pop craze into a globally-accessible historic musical movement: the tendency to view a burgeoning social phenomenon initially through a lens of irony before it can be fully and widely appreciated.

The general tone of city pop is one of undeniable, almost unbelievable sincerity, that was a fitting soundtrack for Japan’s bubbly nightlife scene in the early ’80s. At times, it comes across as overly polished, factory-line soft pop; sharing as equal a kinship with elevator muzak as it does with a laundry list of other genres that inspire its amalgamous sound. One would think that the somewhat corporate sense of sincerity that exists within city pop would come as relatively off-putting to the modern listener, but throughout the early 2010s, it became clear that the groundwork laid through the experimentations of city pop artists would serve as a launchpad for one of the most inherently cynical genres in recent memory. By sampling elements of city pop that emphasized its corporatism and inoffensiveness, altering the speed and pitch to an almost unrecognizable degree, and presenting the finished product with an art style that blends imagery of antiquated art with the glitchy iconography of the early internet, artists like James Ferraro, Macintosh Plus, and Blank Banshee pioneered the similarly short-lived subgenre of vaporwave.

Vaporwave essentially functions as the logical antithesis to city pop. Even though vaporwave samples heavily from the Japanese subgenre, the tonal sincerity evident in the sugary harmonies and manicured presentation of city pop is entirely inverted through the vaporwave format. City pop as a genre was forward-thinking, optimistic music that mirrored Japan’s burgeoning economic opulence; it was music unconcerned with the past. Vaporwave, which was something of an offshoot of the nostalgia-heavy chillwave genre, was founded in a deep sense of anti-corporate cynicism that drew from a variety of influences both familiar and inaccessible. There is a sense of preemptive nostalgia present in vaporwave. This sense of familiarity, a feeling of longing for a place which one has ever really been, is especially apt within a genre that lived its entire life, from creation to obscurity, on the internet. Vaporwave artists borrowed heavily from the sounds of city pop, but they repurposed the tone from one of postwar optimism to one of tongue-in-cheek cynicisms.

At its core, the rise and fall of vaporwave as the genre relates to city pop is somewhat microcosmic of the way modern listeners consume music. The revival of contemporary interest in the city pop subgenre followed directly after the sound was revitalized in the public consciousness through a lens of obviously insincere irony. This is a phenomenon that extends far beyond simply these two musical movements. With music in the 2010s, emerging acts that bring something new to the table typically must first be the object of ridicule or admonishment before the general public accepts said act as “the next big thing.” Think back to the stacked 2016 XXL Freshman cipher that featured such future global superstars as Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, Denzel Curry, and 21 Savage. Upon the release of the cipher, the internet was sent into a collective panic as the video was mocked, parodied, and memed into oblivion, with many citing the cipher as some sort of death of “real hip hop.” Flash forward to 2019: Lil Uzi Vert is one of the biggest artists in the world, and his decision to (briefly) retire from music was treated as an unexpected tragedy by fans. Videos of the cypher circulate on Twitter every few months or so; “2016 was the last good XXL freshman class. Don’t @ me,” or something to that effect. In the contemporary music landscape, it seems to be the case that if an artist or act makes their way through the gauntlet of collective ridicule unscathed, they are then cleared to assume their position at the forefront of popular music.

While the vaporwave genre may have more-or-less run its course by this point, the resurgence in interest in city pop comes as the next logical step for a music consumption culture that precedes every shot of popular culture with a swig of irony. A musical movement of the past that is as unconcerned with genre conventions as artists today, city pop is an undeniably influential and regrettably short-lived subgenre that somehow manages to simultaneously pull off a sense of nostalgia and a sense of sincerity. Dredged from out of obscurity by the disillusioned electronic-muzak soundscapes of vaporwave, city pop is a synthesized combination of rock, jazz, and electronic music that has given music fans a perfectly laid out chronology of 2010’s music consumption: city pop had to first be viewed through a collective lens of irony before it could be appreciated with the amount of sincerity present in the general tone of the sub-genre. With the release of Pacific Breeze, fans old and new of this amalgamous subgenre can finally give it the appreciation it deserves.

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