Tyler Smith, Guest Writer
It’s a cold day in October. A college student comes home from a long day of classes. She walks over to her turntable, lifts the needle, and places a record on the platter. The record reads “Plastic Love.” The album, called Variety, topped the 1984 Oricon Music charts in Japan. The year is 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri.
Thirty-five years ago, curating this type of music would be impossible unless you lived in Japan and had access to its many record shops plus the time and money to spend digging for classics. However now, with labels like Light in the Attic plus services like Amazon, Japanese city Pop is only a few clicks away.
Before we go any further, what exactly is City Pop? It is a niche genre in America, even among people who love Japanese pop culture. City Pop is a genre of music originating in mid 1970s Japan. It continued through the 1980s along with Japan’s economic boom. If you’ve never listened to it (and by the time you’re done reading this you should be), you might be surprised to find that it might sound … familiar to you. If you either grew up in the 70’s-80’s or find yourself drawn to that music, you would know that you’ve heard that slap bass, strings and piano before in American R&B, boogie and funk music. That is because City Pop took influences from Western countries.
City pop celebrated economic success. The genre is a reflection of luxury and leisure that Japan could achieve thanks to the money rolling in between WWII and the Cold War. The rise of city pop coincides with many other advances in Japanese pop culture that are well known and celebrated in the U.S. The 1980s saw the beloved NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) released in Japan and later in the U.S. along with the first Mario and Zelda games, two of Nintendo’s most popular characters. People consider this time period to be the Golden Age of anime, and in 1989 Akira, the movie some consider to be one of the greatest animes ever made, hit the scene and announced to the world a new style of art.
So, how did city pop make its way into 2019? Unlike anime and video games, the genre didn’t have the staying power to change and adapt the way other mediums did. The answer: the Youtube algorithm.
For the most part, the Youtube algorithm works tirelessly to tailor itself to the viewer specifically, using the viewers recently watched videos as a template to suggest other ones. Every now and then, however, the algorithm seems to pick something and recommend it to a group of users. It seems to be at random, whether it be a cute animal video or an old one made several years ago (in Youtube time, at least). One day back in 2017, a Youtube channel titled “Plastic Lover” uploaded the song “Plastic Love” by Mariya Takeuchi.
Mariya, now in her sixties, is a famous singer in Japan but virtually unknown in the U.S., until recently, that is. However this one song, “Plastic Love”, started an unexpected and very funky movement. All of a sudden, memes started popping up and making their way around Youtube. Artists started drawing fanart of the cover, which many note for how pretty the photograph is.
Even after the memes and initial hype died down, some people liked the song so much they sought more of it. People created long compilations of various artists and albums and placed the audio over loops and still images of anime, most of which come from the same time period the songs are from. These popped up so much that Light in the Attic, a record label known for reissuing rare music, put out Pacific Breeze, a collection of songs from various artists from the 70s-80s all pressed on brand new vinyl. It’s a great place to start listening if your into retro and vintage music.
That reason right there—a love of vintage things—is probably one of the bigger reasons city pop took off like it did. Nintendo and anime had the advantage of being flexible enough to hold on to whatever trend happened through the years. However, much of the appeal city pop has is because it is a perfect snapshot of a time left behind by history. Love, respect, and maybe even a bit of longing for the past combined with eagerness to learn about it plus the resources (i.e. Youtube and Amazon) to do so is powerful enough to revive a genre in another country. People are discovering a whole new sound thanks to a blip in the Youtube algorithm and a nostalgic, plastic love.