Japanese City Pop Returns on Light in the Attic Comp ‘Pacific Breeze’ – Rolling Stone
×
Home Music Music Features

City Pop: Why Does the Soundtrack to Tokyo’s Tech Boom Still Resonate?

A new comp explores the opulent, gently surreal genre that once flooded Japan — and sheds light on modern pop tailor-made for the streaming age

SAN-AI BUILDING (ROUND TOWER), GINZA,TOKYOVARIOUS TOKYO, JAPAN - 1987

Ken Straiton/REX/Shutterstock

Andy Cabic was exploring the stacks in a Tower Records in Japan when he had an epiphany. The musician, who fronts the folk-rock band Vetiver, was on tour with Devendra Banhart in the mid-2000s when he walked into the store and found displays highlighting Japanese artists from the Seventies and Eighties, like Tatsuro Yamashita, Sugar Babe and Happy End. He spent the next few hours tucked in a listening booth, devouring this music that was at once totally new, yet somehow familiar. It sounded like American soft rock, AOR, West Coast pop and boogie from the same era, but there was something uncanny about it.

“The AOR, the West Coast pop, you’ve heard that stuff a gazillion times, your brain starts to sort of shut down or go on automatic when you hear it again,” Cabic says. “But if you hear it in a different way, it awakens something, like, ‘Holy shit!’ … To hear that again from another culture with so many nods to what was happening in America, it’s like getting a fresh listen to the stuff you may have already heard and thought you knew.”

Much of the music Cabic heard that day belonged to a style that was booming in Japan during the late Seventies and early Eighties — City Pop. An opulent amalgamation of pop, disco, funk, R&B, boogie, jazz fusion, Latin, Caribbean and Polynesian music, the genre was inextricably tied to a tech-fueled economic bubble and the wealthy new leisure class it created. Forty years later, City Pop has seen something of a resurgence as pop music adjusts to a new technological paradigm dominated by streaming. And now, the reissue label Light in the Attic is offering up Pacific Breeze: Japanese City Pop, AOR & Boogie 1976–1986, an expansive compilation that offers an idea of what a tech boom can sound like.

Pacific Breeze is the latest installment in Light in the Attic’s ongoing Japan Archival Series. Cabic helped compile the record with Mark “Frosty” McNeill, founder of the online radio station Dublab, and Zach Cowie, a DJ and music supervisor, with assistance from Yosuke Kitazawa, who’s overseeing the Japan Archival Series. Kitazawa cites Masayoshi Takanaka’s 1979 song “Bamboo Vender” and a 1980 track by Minako Yoshida, “Midnight Driver,” as two songs on Pacific Breeze that exemplify City Pop: the former a lush, tropical romp, the latter a thumping rug-cutter befitting its title. Ultimately, City Pop is less a strict genre term than a broad vibe classification.

“There were no restrictions on style or a specific genre that we wanted to convey with these songs,” Kitazawa tells Rolling Stone. “This was music made by city people, for city people.”

The roots of City Pop lie in New Music, a folk-rock hybrid that drew inspiration from the Band, Bob Dylan and the Laurel Canyon set, but crucially featured artists singing in Japanese. Prior to the early Seventies, most Japanese rock acts sang in English (New Music was covered on Light in the Attic’s 2017 compilation Even a Tree Can Shed Tears). Many New Music stars including Haruomi Hosono and Shigeru Suzuki of Happy End — credited as the first rock group to sing in Japanese — went on to make City Pop. Suzuki’s “Lady Pink Panther,” released in 1976, is the oldest track on Pacific Breeze and can be seen as part of the bridge between the two scenes — it has an airy folk-rock core, but it’s filtered through a bossa nova groove touched with strings and a tasteful bit of melodica.

‘Pacific Breeze’ album art by Hiroshi Nagai

“Tasteful” is a word that could be used to describe the core City Pop aesthetic, which will sound familiar to anyone who’s ever dabbled in the Steely Dan or Doobie Brothers catalogs, or spent time with Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me.” City Pop shares a luxe hi-fi palette with so-called yacht rock, and conveys the emotional depth of a backyard swimming pool. These qualities fit the sense of fantasy and escapism that permeates Pacific Breeze down to its cover, designed by City Pop album-art veteran Hiroshi Nagai: a serene pool scene against a tranquil ocean with a slick city skyline in the distance.

“We wanted the listeners to feel like they were going on a sonic vacation to a space that might not be familiar to them, but might have some familiarity baked into it,” McNeill says. “The DNA of these songs might be things anybody who is familiar with American Seventies funk and soul and boogie, and Eighties soft pop and AOR — you hear touches of all that music here, but there’s also something distinctly Japanese.”

That uncanny familiarity is, in part, a product of the immense influence America wielded over Japan during the post-War years. The music obviously gestures toward American sounds, and a song like Yasuko Agawa’s “L.A. Night” is an uncut bump of West Coast fantasy. But City Pop artists weren’t mere mimics.

“I think you can hear the respect that they have for American music,” Kitazawa says. “They can extract what’s important from American music and use that as a jumping-off point.”

This is best exemplified in the streak of easy, breezy tropical tunes peppered throughout Pacific Breeze. The spread of American music in Japan after World War II was aided by the Far East Network, an American military station beamed out of Yokota Air Force Base outside Tokyo. FEN introduced a generation to everything from the boogie-woogie of Benny Goodman to the psych-rock of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. But in the early Fifties, the FEN airwaves were also dominated by artists like Martin Denny, the “father of exotica,” who in 1951 notched an international hit with “Firecracker,” a cringe-worthy composition that contains every possible stereotype of Asian music imaginable. When Haruomi Hosono — the maestro presiding over all late-20th-century Japanese music — and his groundbreaking group Yellow Magic Orchestra premiered in 1978, their debut single was a cover of “Firecracker.”

“The thing was to take these Western ideas of the exotic, but to subvert them,” Hosono told The Guardian in 2013. “With Martin Denny, the exotica is kind of fake. But I am real! I am the target of that Western exotica. So what I wanted to make was exotica from an Oriental perspective.”

As Rob Arcand and Sam Goldner discussed in several pieces for Noisey, Hosono spent much of his career riffing on Westernized exotica in a way that was critical, but also loving (his efforts can be heard on Pacific Breeze tracks “Bride of Mykonos” and “In My Jungle”). Other artists, like Takanaka and Izumi Kobayashi, toyed with these sounds as well, and like Hosono, did so in a way that showed City Pop artists were ultimately in dialogue with their contemporary peers around the world, not just America. Kobayashi’s “Coffee Rumba,” for instance, is a remarkable cover of the Venezuelan classic “Moliendo Café,” sung in Japanese, shot through a techno wormhole and wrung out into a mutant dub.

But even at its most experimental and innovative, City Pop was always commercial music. Artists regularly lent their music to television advertisements, while others, like Kobayashi, wrote TV theme songs and incidental music. Michael K. Bourdaghs, a University of Chicago professor and author of Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop, notes that the stigma of “selling out” is different in Japan, where the ad industry enjoys a higher cultural status than in America. Artists in Japan were far more likely to shun popular music countdown shows than an advertising company or a corporation soliciting a jingle (the retail chain Muji famously commissioned an ambient composition from Hosono to play in their stores; it was recently sampled by Vampire Weekend on their song “2021”).

Bourdaughs says the lack of handwringing over such overt commercialization may have also been a reaction to the overtly political strains of folk and hard rock that were tied to late Sixties and early Seventies radical groups like the Japanese Red Army and the United Red Army. These groups carried out terror attacks and robberies, hijacked planes, took hostages and even hosted self-criticism sessions that ended in colleagues killing each other.

“New Music and City Pop came out of a rejection of that, particularly this sense that politics was being put ahead of aesthetic concerns,” Bourdaughs says. “Musicians in New Music and City Pop were determined to create music that sounded good. They were self-consciously reacting against a generation of musicians that put politics ahead of music.”

This commitment is evident in the sonic palette of City Pop, but that’s not to say the music was devoid of insight or feeling. If modern Japanese enka — a highly sentimental and expressive genre of ballads — was an emotional supernova, City Pop songs like Hosono’s “Sports Men” and Yukihrio Takahashi’s “Drip Dry Eyes” captured the bind of contemporary neurosis and the quieter ways in which longing could flicker like a long dead star. And just as this music reflected a new life of leisure and wealth, it also grappled with that wholly unique form of urban melancholy — the loneliness that grips you in the crowd, the fear of emptiness that sets in when everything you want seems to be sitting right there. Look again at Hiroshi Nagai’s Pacific Breeze cover art: There isn’t a single living creature there to enjoy that beautiful scene.

City Pop is at once a product, a victim and a celebration of modernity. As with so much pop, there are capitalist and colonial forces lurking in this music. But there’s also no better balm for the anxieties those forces create than getting lost in the genre’s ecstatic waves. The best description I’ve read of what it’s like to listen to this music is in McNeill’s Pacific Breeze liner notes: “Giving in to [City Pop’s] pleasures is like huffing new car sheen while cruising through a shimmering night.” An apt metaphor might even be found on the compilation’s second track, Taeko Ohnuki’s “Kusuri Wo Takusan,” the funkiest song you’ll ever hear about neurotic patients and the doctors all too happy to feed their angst with lots and lots of prescription drugs.

These distinctly modern tensions found in City Pop extend from the style’s relationship to the era’s tech boom and economic bubble. That boom is where much of that new money and leisure in Japan came from, and subsequently the melancholy and the loneliness. It’s also where the Walkman came from; the new cars with the cassette decks and FM stereos; it’s where the Casio CZ-101 originated, the Yamaha CS-80, the Roland TR-808 and so many other instruments and gadgets that allowed musicians to actualize the sounds in their heads. This was a time when, despite huge corporate influence, artists, especially female artists like Kobayashi, Yoshida and Ohnuki, were able to exert more creative control over their careers. And it was a time when music was ultimately becoming more accessible. Cassette decks allowed fans to dub copies of albums that, as Bourdaughs notes, were often so expensive in Japan that listeners often borrowed from rental shops instead of buying.

City Pop arrived as postwar Japan was cementing its place as an economic powerhouse, and though many musicians dreamed of having the kind of global reach their music embodied, most knew it would never happen. But in recent years, the internet has allowed this music to finally find a worldwide audience. It’s 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).

Vaporwave artists also have a tendency to incorporate anime and Japanese text into their visuals, ultimately creating a dizzying hall of mirrors — Americans reflecting Japanese music that was reflecting American music, some of which (i.e. Martin Denny) was a myopic imitation of Japanese music. Last year, the all-powerful YouTube recommendations algorithm passed through this prism of sound and offered up “Plastic Love,” a 1984 song by Mariya Takeuchi that came out of nowhere to garner millions of views. In a Reddit post trying to parse this phenomenon, one user quipped, “citypop is also known as youtuberecommendationcore.”

City Pop does seem predisposed to thrive in the contemporary streaming environment. You can hear some similarities between the atmospheric, immersive sounds of City Pop and “Spotify-core,” a term coined by the New York Times music team for that particular brand of post–Lana Del Rey electro-pop that seems tailor-made — because it often is — for streaming (Nanako Sato’s signature breathy vocals would not sound out of place on a Spotify-core track). More so, the bounty of “chill” music offered up by streaming services is reminiscent of City Pop’s own furniture music. Pacific Breeze pulls two cuts (“Bride of Mykonos” and “Sun Bathing”) from CBS’ Sound Image Series, a collection of albums designed to capture the “vibes” of certain places like New York or the Aegean Sea. But the overall purpose of the Sound Image Series was to take listeners somewhere. 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.

For all its complexities, City Pop was ultimately optimistic music, utopian even in the way it reflected Japan’s booming economy and the drive at the time to build better machines, better lives and a better country. (Unsurprisingly, when the bubble burst at the end of the Eighties, City Pop fell off the charts and into the bargain bins.) And while this idealism continues to permeate the tech world, the music of our current tech boom seems to embody other qualities instead. Much has been written about how streaming, and the chill, vibe-y, inoffensive sounds its recommendation algorithms adore, encourages a kind of passive listening that keeps the playlists, and the advertisements, rolling. Passive listening also turns music into a tool, not one you use, but one that’s used on you — to enhance your productivity, mediate your moods, fill the spaces in your day so each moment is optimized.

Where City Pop sounds like it was made to be cranked from a car stereo driving straight into some glorious unknown, the music of the streaming age increasingly sounds like it’s being made, whether subconsciously or consciously, to reflect distinctly American obsessions with purpose and efficiency. That’s not to say this music doesn’t have feeling — it can do sorrow well, it can do anxiety, loneliness, melancholy and tedium well, and it can also dilute each of those emotions into a soft tug, a familiar melody drifting around a data center. But rarely does it do what City Pop does best of all: joy. At best, it’s just content.

In that same 2013 interview with The Guardian, Haruomi Hosono’s Yellow Magic Orchestra bandmate Ryuichi Sakatmo noted the way early Japanese techno and synth innovators differed from their counterparts in Germany and Detroit: “Japan used to be an animistic society before Shinto imperialism was established,” he said. “But most of us still have an animistic sense. And you can see it in the way in which we use tools. For us, those tools are not just objects. Japanese people can feel some attachment in what they are making, whether it is a car or a TV or a computer.” You can hear this too in the sounds of City Pop on Pacific Breeze — a spirit that beats for no other purpose but its own ecstasy.

Newswire

Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.