Barry Hess :: Blog

City Pop

It's not often that you get to read about how someone feels at the beginning of a love affair, just as the love affair is starting. Consider yourself lucky as I'm going to share with you how I'm falling for City Pop. It's like those historical love letters from the Civil War front, when the young gentleman is professing his love to his lady friend back home. Imagine a dry, emotionless voice reading these words over still shots of party people in 1980's Japan fashionable styles Ken-Burnsing across your television set.

A year or two ago I made my first discovery of shiti poppu via YouTube. The algorithm presented a playlist to me and I clicked dutifully. Immediately I liked the genre. I'm a big fan of crunchy eighties pop music, and City Pop has this in spades. Further, good music largely lacking English words is great for me as background music for working, thinking, and programming. When you get to your forties, it's always delightful to make a new discovery. Yay!

Over the next year or two I'd occasionally bring up a City Pop playlist to accompany my work, but I didn't dig much further. It turns out the algorithm found me because there was a big thing happening to cause a whole City Pop revival. In the 2010s young people in Japan started rediscovering the genre, which reflected an infectious wave of happiness in the eighties as Japan became an economic powerhouse on the world stage. Nostalgia crosses cultures it seems, and perhaps the newer generations wanted to recapture that (generally) happy feeling city pop carries.

Eventually this resurfacing crossed borders via the Internet, which led to YouTube suggesting a whole world of new music to me. Perhaps the most striking example of the new appreciation of City Pop is the song Plastic Love by Mariya Takeuchi. Released as a single in 1985, it sold a modest 10,000 units in Japan, the second largest music market in the world. In the late 2010s Plastic Love was posted to YouTube, and over a few iterations the song has garnered 63 million streams as of May, 2021. Certainly it is over 100 million by mid-2023.

This resurgence led to glowing articles about the song. Many young Japanese artists covered the song in YouTube videos, providing their interpretation of a classic. Finally in 2019 Warner Music Japan released the first ever music video for Plastic Love. I agree – in my opinion the song is outstanding.

When I visited Japan in July, I made my way to a record store in Kyoto. I was fascinated in what, to my American eyes, looked like a time capsule. There were things in common with the record stores that are reviving in the States: New LPs, used LPs, etc. Yet this store felt like it hadn't "resurged", but had been there for decades, and indeed I believe record stores never stopped being a thing in Japan. What caught my eye was the listening stations. Remember those?! I could put on headphones at a station, select between five albums, and then cue through them to give the CDs a sample listen.

Eventually I found a station with what looked like Japanese pop or rock music, rather than the jazz listening stations in the rest of the store. I thought, well this is a perfect souvenir opportunity. It's hard and expensive to import CDs from Japan, so I'll take a listen to these albums and pick one that sounds pretty good to my ears. The album that did it for me was Ride on Time by Tatsuro Yamashita. I didn't know when it came out, but the thing clearly slapped in an eighties pop sort of way.

I went to check out and considered asking the clerk if they had another album that I'd be likely to like if I liked Ride on Time. I'm not sure whether I was tired or what, but I decided not to attempt the broken-English, gesture conversation, I bought my CD, and walked out. I'm thankful I didn't try to have this conversation because it turns out that Tatsuro Yamashita is "sometimes referenced as the 'king' of city pop." Relatively speaking, I was about to ask the clerk, "This Michael Jackson guy is great. Do you have anything else I'd like if I like Michael Jackson?" Embarrassing!

Oh, and it turns out Yamashita's wife is Mariya Takeuchi. Yamashita produced, arranged, and played guitar on Plastic Love. Yamashita's albums were all over this record store, not only because he is Japan's king of pop, but also because he is re-releasing all of his albums week-by-week throughout the summer.

If you want to give Yamashita's music a try, don't bother with streaming services as he is adamantly against them. I recommend looking up YouTube for the albums Ride on Time and For You. I won't bother linking because he has the YouTube videos taken down constantly. I will suggest if either of these albums catch your ear, give the CDs an order via CDJapan, which appears to ship worldwide.

For myself, I'll be trying to deep dive from this "king of city pop" perch into the sea of other artists of the genre. I suspect my CD budget will be blown in the coming months. Join me if you dare!