The Boundless Optimism of Japan’s “City Pop”

The music of artists like Toshiki Kadomatsu sounds utterly disposable but I can’t get enough of it these days.

Following the devastation of World War II, Japan experienced a massive economic revival that, by the time the ​‘80s rolled around, had transformed the nation into one of the world’s most powerful economies. One of the many side effects of this increased prosperity was the rise of ​“city pop,” a slick, ultra-polished blend of Western jazz, pop, soul, and funk that directly tapped into, and promoted, a more urban, upscale, cosmopolitan, and optimistic view of modern Japanese life. As Elias Blondeau puts it:

City pop… represented a sort of new start in the Japanese music industry. It deliberately implemented a more Western sound in terms of instrumentation and tempo. Slick and production [sic], complicated beat patterns, elaborate synthesizer and saxophone riffs. At the time, there was a futuristic sound to it that was unique — a soundtrack to Japan’s economic miracle and global reputation as a futuristic, technological wonderland.

Later, he writes:

In crafting a deliberately new sound, producers and musicians alike were hoping to capture a futuristic feeling that could be sold to and consumed by the masses. It was, in theory, to provide a soundtrack to Japan’s newfound reputation among Western countries as a futuristic wonderland. Long nights in neon cities and perpetual sunsets in beachy countrysides, instilled with a celebration of wealth and capitalism — these were the images conjured up and pressed to vinyl, to be taken in by listeners caught in the allure of this promising future.

For all of its populist, mainstream sound, though, ​“city pop” remained a pretty niche genre of music even in Japan, where many of the genre’s artists have been derided or simply faded away into obscurity. But thanks to the Internet, and YouTube specifically, ​“city pop” has become my latest musical obsession. Starfunkel’s mix (embedded above) is an excellent place to start, and features a number of ​“city pop” luminaries including Junko Yagami and Toshiki Kadomatsu. But if you’ve listened to any vaporwave or future funk, then you’ve probably heard some ​“city pop” already; the genre has been sampled by the likes of Saint Pepsi, Iacon, Luxury Elite, and Macross 82 – 99, to name a few.

Upon first listen, it’s easy to dismiss ​“city pop” as inconsequential sonic pablum. It’s incredibly light, frothy, and bubbly, and its produced-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life sound lends it a certain shallowness and plastic-ness. Essentially, it sounds like it’s been specifically engineered to be as inoffensive and unchallenging as possible. It’s everything that lovers of ​“real” music are supposed to hate. And yet, the more I listen to ​“city pop,” the more I recognize parallels with another oft-maligned genre of music that has enjoyed something of a redemption/​reevaluation in recent years: ​“yacht rock.”

Just as ​“yacht rock“‘s smooth sounds conjure up images of well-coiffed yuppies sailing their fancy yachts in pristine seas, ​“city pop“‘s slick fusion of Western music imagines well-to-do Japanese zipping around Tokyo in their Datsuns and Toyotas while enjoying newfound wealth and prosperity. But these fantasies overlook the fact that, at their heart, both genres contain incredibly well-written and well-arranged songs that frequently possess undeniable groove. (Think about it this way: If Daft Punk can win multiple Grammys for the similarly slick-sounding AOR of Random Access Memories, then maybe ​“city pop” deserves a bit more respect, as well.)

I mentioned him earlier, but Toshiki Kadomatsu (who’s still going strong) is a prime example of much of what I love about ​“city pop.” Indeed, the first time I heard ​“Space Scraper” (from 1982’s Weekend Fly to the Sun), I immediately fell in love with the punchy horn arrangements, swooning backup vocals, and funky bassline. And ​“If You…” (from 1984’s After 5 Clash) never fails to put a smile on my face with its Daft Punk-y refrain (“If you wanna dance tonight/​If you wanna do it baby, love me tonight”), trilling flute melody, and yet another monster bassline (courtesy of frequent Kadomatsu collaborator Tomohito Aoki).

Speaking of After 5 Clash, I can’t get enough of this epic performance of ​“After 5 Crash” from a 2003 concert. Kadomatsu’s silky-smooth guitar licks, that fiery sax solo, Aoki’s bassline… everything in this song flows like a well-oiled machine. Kadomatsu looks to be the consummate entertainer, and as you can see from 6:47 to the end of the song, dude can shred. And the lyrics, with their nostalgic visions of all-night drinking parties, unrequited love, and late city nights, certainly play into the ​“city pop” fantasy of a cosmopolitan paradise.

Following Japan’s economic collapse in the ​‘90s, ​“city pop” would eventually be subsumed by ​“Shibuya-kei” artists like Pizzicato Five, Cibo Matto, and Fantastic Plastic Machine — artists that also drew influence from Western music but put a decidedly more kitschy and ironic spin on things. Which just highlights what I ultimately love so much about ​“city pop,” that it seems to contain absolutely zero trace of irony and cynicism.

Granted, the language barrier plays a role in this. For all I know, Kadomatsu’s ​“If You…” is actually a dark, gloomy, angst-ridden ballad that just happens to be wrapped up in a pristine funk/​pop arrangement. But what I do know is that this light, frothy, seemingly disposable music radiates a boundless sense of joy and optimism. And maybe it’s just all of the horrible things that fill the headlines right now — shootings, families being torn apart, deceptive and divisive politics — but I welcome any and all joy and optimism I can find these days.