Theoretically Speaking, S4:E7:

What Makes City Pop,City Pop? 

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I didn’t intend to write about city pop.

Heck, I didn’t even know it existed until last week.

I was researching something else, stumbled on city pop, and got interested. If you know more about it than I do, which is definitely possible, please fill me in, down in the comment section.

In the 1920s, American jazz records arrived in Japan.

Musicians there started learning how to play jazz and began performing it in cafes and bars on instruments previously used for classical orchestras and marching bands.

They used brass and woodwinds in new ways, or at least ways they were unfamiliar with.

A little thing called World War II brought a halt to jazz and jazz clubs. The Imperial Army insisted on it. They didn’t like anything American.

Can confirm. An actual WWII Imperial Army mess kit:
Not a Twinkie in sight.

Japan lost the war, of course, and was occupied by the Allies. There were plenty of U.S. soldiers stationed there and the military-run radio stations of the Far East Network played lots of Western music, and not just jazz. They played swing, blues, country, and even Caribbean music.

The stations were meant to entertain the troops but anyone with a radio could listen to them. Many Japanese people developed a taste for western music. They started bands and would perform Western music for the U.S. troops. The occupation officially ended in 1952 but the musical influence of the West didn’t.

Much of this is surprising because Japan had a history of indifference to outside cultural influences.

That might have been because Japan is an island nation, separated from the rest of the world. Maybe having the soldiers living among them made a difference. Knowing people as individuals rather than faceless groups tends to wash away barriers.

Jazz, as almost any musician will tell you, is one of the more difficult genres to play.

Many Japanese musicians turned to covering country songs. They’re easier.

As rock & roll came into being, they covered that, too. This trend was called “cover pop.”

Most of these cover pop songs were sung in English. The musicians did this partially to stay true to the original song, but also because of the difference between English and Japanese. 

In English, a single syllable can be stretched over multiple notes without changing the word’s meaning. Japanese considers a syllable’s length as part of its meaning. The same sound held slightly longer can be another word entirely. The only difference in pronouncing the words “tsuki” and “tsūki” is the length of the U sound.

The first means “moon” and the latter means “airflow.”

We’ll come back to this idea in a minute.

A cover of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” by Kosaka Kazuya And The Wagon Masters was very popular. Some of its lyrics are English and some are Japanese.

Kazuya covered several Elvis songs and was billed as the “Original Japanese Presley.”

He was instrumental in bringing rock & roll to Japan.

But as more people bought radios and, importantly, televisions, cover pop faded because people were more interested in hearing and seeing original artists. It’s possible, however, that cover pop led to karaoke.

Even during the cover pop years, some songwriters and artists tried to mix Eastern and Western music, with varying success.

The best known, here in the States anyway, is 1963’s “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto.

Its original title was “Ue O Muite Aruko” but, as author Tom Breihan explains in a critique, it was renamed by an English record producer who thought a Japanese word English speakers were already familiar with would be more memorable.

Maybe that’s why it hit #1 in the U.S.

Maybe it’s just a great song.

Japan went from the devastating loss of WWII, including two atomic bombs and other horrors, to having one of the best standards of living on the planet, and in only a few decades. We can attribute at least part of this to its demilitarization following the war. Armies are expensive, and without one, Japan put its money into rebuilding and technological R&D.

The technology they created included synthesizers, drum machines, and recording gear that would help not just Japanese music, but genres of all sorts all over the world.

They built and sold cars, appliances, and more. By the mid 70s, the Japanese economy was strong and still growing, and by the end of the 80s, some Americans openly worried that Japan would buy all our real estate.

If the United States was worried about this friendly takeover, it sure didn’t stop us from buying Walkmen.

In August, 1970, a band called Happy End released their first album. All the lyrics were in Japanese and this caused some controversy. Can it be considered rock if it’s not in English? Is rock in Japanese sustainable or is this one album a fluke?

Public debates were held but in the (happy) end, the matter was settled when the band released their second and third albums.

They’re now considered one of the most influential bands in Japanese music.

The band Sugar Babe (not to be confused with the 90s English girl group, The Sugarbabes) came slightly later and also sang in Japanese. They and Happy End share a soft rock sound with touches of jazz, like a less dark Steely Dan. This early to mid 70s style leads us straight to city pop.

City pop’s tone is glossy and chill.

While Japan exported lots of cool gadgets, they imported musical influences. Disco, funk, new wave, quiet storm, synthpop, jazz, and more were all getting mixed into what came to be known as city pop. Like the smooth jazz of the 80s, it can be background music but is intricate and sophisticated enough to be foreground music.

It’s sleek, refined, futuristic, and urban. Its lyrics talk about living in clean, rich, world class cities. Tokyo itself is a frequent topic.

That makes it perfect music for the late 70s and all of the 80s. Japan’s economy was the envy of the world. And to the average Japanese person, there was no end in sight. The soundtrack for these years was city pop.

Tatsuro Yamashita had been in Sugar Babe and released his fifth solo album in 1980.

He wrote the lead single, “Ride On Time,” for a Maxell cassette tape commercial. It was a huge hit and a sort of template for all the city pop to come.

It’s cleanly recorded soft rock with a four on the floor beat and syncopated horns. It’s the song that made city pop mainstream. No wonder Yamashita has been called the “King Of City Pop.”

Yamashita was the biggest star of city pop, not only as a performer but as a producer and songwriter. He collaborated with many other artists in both Japan and the U.S., including Alan O’Day of Undercover Angel fame, who wrote English lyrics for Yamashita’s music.

His longest running collaboration is with Mariya Takauchi.

She was a successful singer at the end of the 70s and had several hits including “不思議なピーチパイ” (“Mysterious Peach Pie”) which hit #3.

She took a three year break and got married in 1982. To Yamashita.

Naturally, he produced her records when she started writing again, and they’ve continued working together since. Unlike many showbiz marriages, they’re still together.

In 1984, she released a comeback album called “Variety.” It was her first album where she wrote all its songs, and it went to #1. In fact, every studio album she’s released since has hit #1.

One single from “Variety” performed disappointingly. At first.

Her song “Plastic Love” peaked at #86 and was on the chart for only two weeks. It was the least successful of the album’s three singles and the third worst performing of her career to date. 

That is, until the internet went crazy.

In 2017, someone called Plastic Lover uploaded an eight minute unofficial remix of “Plastic Love.” The video is just a still photo of Takauchi from a 1980 photo shoot when she was 25. 

YouTube’s algorithm liked the polished sound and pretty face, and made it into a hit, until it was taken down due to copyright infringement.

Multiple people reuploaded it, but it was always removed.

Some sort of agreement was reached in 2018, and the full remix remains on YouTube. A year later, Takeuchi made an official video of the original album version. She’s not in it, but it’s at 23 million views and climbing. This is the video I’ll include in the Suggesting Listening list below.

“Plastic Love” has breathlessly been called the best pop song ever written. It’s been remixed and sampled many, many times.

That photo of Takeuchi from 1980 is now the icon of city pop.

City pop reflects Japan’s opinion of itself in the 1980s: successful, strong, unstoppable.

The album covers and videos show clean, beautiful cities full of architectural excellence and neon colors. These are the colors you know from anime and early video games. The songs about living in world class cities rosily paint Japan as technologically advanced and an economic superpower. This utopia would last forever.

Of course, it all came crashing down.

The bubble burst in 1990. Japan’s economy went into the “Great Recession” and the 90s are known as the “Lost Decade.” Just like that, city pop was done.

Japan had been city pop’s only market because record labels thought, probably correctly, that Japanese lyrics wouldn’t sell anywhere else.

The recession broke the illusion of perfect cities and unending prosperity. No one in Japan was in the mood for city pop anymore, and the rest of the world didn’t know about it in the first place. City pop was over.

A new subgenre called Shibuya-Kei started.

It’s named after the Shibuya area of Tokyo.

It’s the fashion and nightlife center, and home to the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. 

Shibuya-Kei was electronic and sampled or took cues from city pop, bossa nova, trip hop, the Madchester scene, and more. It was more than a little kitschy and was at once retro and futuristic.

It morphed into the vaporwave and future-funk genres of today. Their popularity may have something to do with the revival of not just “Plastic Love,” but city pop in general. Vaporwave and future funk came before the reboot of “Plastic Love,” but people are now discovering all three genres for the first time through “Plastic Love.”

This time around, the interest in city pop seems to be mostly outside of Japan.

Artists like the South Korean-based Night Tempo, the American DJ Yung Bae, and Macross 82-99 from Mexico are taking the smooth grooves of city pop and retrofitting them for the early 2020s. 

City pop is brand new to most of us.

For us foreigners, it’s soft rock we haven’t heard before, smooth jazz with a little more verve, and disco without the “disco sucks” baggage.

With YouTube and other resources, we can listen to new artists reinterpreting city pop, or we can go back 40 years and discover it as new music. 

We may or may not think of our cities to be great. But we can have nostalgia for a time when they were – without ever having been there.

Turn on the neon lights.

And let’s dance on the sidewalks in the rain.


Suggested Listening – Full YouTube Playlist

Tokyo Boogie-Woogie
Shizuko Kasagi
1948

Tennessee Waltz
Eri Chiemi

1951

Mambo de la fête
Misora Hibari
1951

Heartbreak Hotel
Kosaka Kazuya and the Wagon Masters
1956

Ue O Muite Aruko (Sukiyaki)
Kyu Sakamoto
1963

風来坊 (Furaibo)
Happy End
1970

Ride On Time
Tatsuro Yamashita
1980

Ruby no Yubiwa
Akira Terao
1981

I Love You So
Junko Osashi
1983

Plastic Love
Mariya Takeuchi
1984 (video 2019)

After 5 Clash
Toshiki Kadomatsu

1984

There Must Be An Angel
Fantastic Plastic Machine
1999

Sailor Babe
Yung Bae

2014

Jupiter Funk
Macross 82-99
2022


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Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/138BvuV84ZH7ugcwR1HVtH6HmOHiZIDAGMIegPPAXc-I/edit#gid=0

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LinkCrawford
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May 26, 2023 10:38 am

There’s plenty of Japanese lyric-ed songs that get played in the Crawford household. Mostly my youngest…he is 20 and loves anime associated music, and has branched out into general Japanese pop music. I’m not sure it’s really J-pop, since it isn’t the kind of stuff meant for American consumption. He likes power pop with tempos that seem slightly too fast, and music that is a seems over-caffeinated. Still, you could do way worse, and I find that some of it I actually like.

This City pop stuff sounds interesting. Reminds me of what might be called ‘sophisti-pop’, which I generally like.

Do you ever feel disappointment when you learn of a new genre, but you know you’re probably not going to be able to do it justice by really digging in and investigating it? Some of these make me feel this way.

Nice review of something that you probably had no knowledge of!

LinkCrawford
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May 26, 2023 11:36 am
Reply to  Virgindog

No, I didn’t mean that you obviously were barely knowledgeable…I’m just assuming that pretty much nobody knows much about this genre, you and me included. 🙂

LinkCrawford
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May 26, 2023 12:00 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

I am predictable, and I am ok with that!

Phylum of Alexandria
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May 26, 2023 12:13 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Unlike K-Pop, J-Pop generally isn’t made with anyone else in mind except for Japanese audiences. The island mentality continues on, in its way…

cappiethedog
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May 26, 2023 3:51 pm

Yes. I can confirm this coming in from a different angle. Korean films w/no American distribution, in most cases, will have English subtitles. This doesn’t hold true for one. The Amazon descriptions mock me. The subtext is all in my imagination.

You suck at foreign languages.

I once accidentally bought an un-subtitled Battle Royale. It must’ve had a provincial life before it hit the film festival circuit.

cappiethedog
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May 26, 2023 3:51 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

*for Japanese ones.

Pauly Steyreen
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May 26, 2023 3:42 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

My son has these surprising songs on his playlist… some I know the provenance of (the Eurobeat of Initial-D), but others seems to be totally out of nowhere. City Pop… or at least City Pop adjacent. Not sure how he finds it (possibly anime, like your son Link), but I think it’s cool!

dutchg8r
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May 26, 2023 11:27 am

So what were you originally looking into before stumbling onto City Pop, Bill?

Thanks for bringing these songs to our attention, they’re terrific. It truly is Yacht Rock crossed with early 80s r&B with Chic funk – to these ears, it’s glorious. I love it, totally hits a sweet spot for me.

That ‘Plastic Love’ song is terrific, she’s got a gorgeous tone to her voice.

Just further proof that music is a universal language. Great column today VDog, thanks for the education. 😀

dutchg8r
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May 26, 2023 11:52 am
Reply to  Virgindog

[Pouts]

I mean, i have a pretty good guess, but, still….

[Pouts]

Last edited 3 months ago by dutchg8r
Phylum of Alexandria
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May 26, 2023 12:19 pm
Reply to  dutchg8r

I am absolutely positive it will be about…Mozart.

dutchg8r
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May 26, 2023 12:43 pm

Harp Pop! 😁

Aaron3000
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May 27, 2023 11:30 pm
Reply to  Virgindog
Phylum of Alexandria
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May 26, 2023 12:18 pm

Interesting. I’ve never heard of City Pop before. A lot of these songs I would have assumed were classified as “enka,” but it’s true that enka retains more traditional Japanese melodies. But it’s like a matter of degree, with City Pop skewing a bit closer to Western pop, and enka skewing a bit closer to Eastern folk.

Thanks for the learnin!

JJ Live At Leeds
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May 26, 2023 1:25 pm

Soon as I saw today’s title I thought I know exactly…….nothing about this. And now I know at least a little bit.

Plastic Love reeks of smooth 80s pop. I had no idea anything like this existed in Japan.

I do like the possibility for lyrical mangling provided by elongating a letter, turning Under The Moon Of Love into Under The Airflow Of Love. Not quite such romantic imagery.

Phylum of Alexandria
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May 26, 2023 3:05 pm

It’s true that Japanese is more sensitive to vowel length and tone that English, but it’s not as sensitive as Mandarin.

To my ears, the words as stressed by the singers to fit to the song tempo and rhythm can sound a little funny compared to normal speech, in a similar way that Eddie Vedder or Perry Farrell can sometimes sound in their songs. But context usually prevents real confusion with a similar sounding word.

Actually the fact that so many words sound somewhat similar but for small differences makes the language quite rich territory for bad puns!

blu_cheez
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May 26, 2023 6:33 pm

Another great write-up – the only artist I recognized here was Happy End, and that was because of the soundtrack to “Lost In Translation”

Awesome song:
https://youtu.be/0b6inZfiGrw

cappiethedog
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May 26, 2023 7:28 pm

V-Dog(Mr. Bois), this is amazing stuff. I’ve glimpsed American music in vintage Japanese movies from filmmakers inspired by noir. But I had zero idea that there was a formal genre, let alone, a name for it. Kosaka Kazuya and The Wagon Masters’ “Heartbreak Hotel” comes closest to the “city pop” that I’ve seen on video.

“Much of this is surprising because Japan had a history of indifference to outside cultural influences.”

The only nod to the west in the entire Yasujiro Ozu oeuvre I can think of is the television that a father won’t buy for his two young boys in Good Morning(Ohayo).Ozu’s world is very insulated. Good or bad, it is what it is.

The crossover of K-Pop to Japan is equally amazing.

Phylum of Alexandria
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May 26, 2023 7:40 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

Well, Ozu likes trains, but I guess it depends on how far you want to go back for your Western influences.

R.S.Wonham
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June 15, 2023 11:40 pm

Stellar write-up! I only became aware of City Pop a few years back when I scored a compilation from Light In The Attic Records, which has an extensive catalog of Japanese reissues + other goodies. There are three volumes of LITA City Pop comps. These songs are nice to hear, but I would not say that there are any I would seek out (i.e., add to my Desert Island Playlist). More of a pleasant listening vibe to compliment an activity.
For an even more chill/new agey vibe, check out LITA’s Kankyo Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990
Thanks for the intro to Happy End and Mariya Takekuchi. Discovery awaits.

https://lightintheattic.net/releases/4714-pacific-breeze-japanese-city-pop-aor-boogie-1976-1986

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