City pop is the latest trend to hit Japan’s indie-music scene. Well, not the musical style, just the words.
The term was originally used to describe an offshoot of the emerging Western-influenced “new music” of the 1970s and ’80s. “City pop” referred to the likes of Sugar Babe and Eiichi Ohtaki, artists who scrubbed out the Japanese influences of their predecessors and introduced the sounds of jazz and R&B — genres said to have an “urban” feel — to their music.
Music journalist Yutaka Kimura, who has published a number of books on City Pop and its associated artists, defines the genre as “urban pop music for those with urban lifestyles,” in his book “Disc Collection: Japanese City Pop,” citing the band Happy End as “ground zero” for the movement.
The term has drifted in and out of the musical lexicon ever since. According to a feature that focused on “New City Pop” in the June 2015 issue of Music Magazine, the term was considered outdated after the late ’90s, but then goes on to position Cero as the band who is chiefly responsible for reviving the term (but not the genre) in recent years.
Rental chain Tsutaya published an article in March 2015, highlighting city pop as the “next movement” on its entertainment news site. Its piece only went back as far as the early 2000s, though, and cited artists such as experimental trio Nisennenmondai and singer-songwriter Shugo Tokumaru as the genre’s forerunners, and present-day examples being synth-guitar pop band The Fin., indie rockers Ykiki Beat and electro-pop unit Suiyobi No Campanella. (It’s also worth noting that Tsutaya positions its recently purchased Shibuya-O venues as city pop’s historical focal point.) Music Magazine’s city pop issue focused on pop group Awesome City Club, the jazz and prog-rock collective Yoshida Yohei Group and the bubbly electronic pop of Sugar’s Campaign instead.
With a term as vague and broad as city pop, it’s natural that no one seems to be agreeing on what the label actually means anymore.
“It’s true that the artists who are labeled as ‘city pop’ these days seem to have no common musical backbone,” says Hiroshi Atagi, singer of Awesome City Club. “We’ve come to realize that listeners don’t really care about musical characteristics and don’t really discriminate, much more so than we thought.”
On the other hand, while he may not feel any musical kinship, Atagi says he feels that there is common ground elsewhere.
“I think there’s a commonality in how these artists are projecting their cultural image,” he says. “City pop in the past was mainstream culture; for young people it was ‘cool,’ and the youth-culture part of it has left a mark on today’s city pop. I think that’s why we’re now feeling a shift in the term’s meaning.”
What was originally used to refer to as “urban music made by people in cities” in the pop scene, now seems to be more of a simplified indie buzzword used to induce feelings of sophistication, fashionableness and nostalgia. And while it’s easy to dismiss the term as a generalized, convenient marketing gimmick to sell records and tote bags, it also suggests an outdated inferiority complex toward “true” urban life and to some extent Western music in general, begging the question, “Does it still need to be called ‘city pop?’ “
Yuto Uchino, vocalist of The Fin., says that while he understands the “urban feel” people hear in his music, he also sees a distinctive difference between his band and others who are frequently hit with the tag.
“The people called city pop are really conscious of Japan,” says Uchino, whose group played at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, earlier this year. “To me, city pop has a strong J-pop flavor to it. The context of Japan is really dominant, so it’s easier to aim it toward Japanese people.”
There is definitely a hint of frustration when the topic is brought up. While the idea of a scene may be good for music journalists who need things to write about in order to sell their magazines and brands, they are often the first ones to declare a scene is “over” as well.
“It makes things difficult for us when a bunch of adults, deciding on their own terms, make it look as if the scene is already over,” Uchino says with a laugh. “We can’t do anything about it though.”