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TikTok has a way of turning obscure songs into sudden hits. In December, users of the platform resurrected Miki Matsubara’s 1979 debut, “Mayonaka no Door: Stay With Me.”

The song itself, which made Matsubara a star in Japan, unfolds at an understated pace loaded with disco elements before exploding in a heartfelt chorus with the plea, “Stay with meeeee!” It’s catchy, joyous and the perfect soundtrack to TikTok videos in which creators bond with their Japanese moms.

I made the TikTok when my mom was doing stuff around the house,” a user who asks to be referred to as Ronnie C. says over email. Her clip has attracted more than 1.5 million likes at the time of writing. “I started playing the song and recording before I came in her room so I could get her reaction.”

In addition to the quality family time, uploads like Ronnie’s helped “Mayonaka no Door” achieve an unexpected feat: topping Spotify’s Global Viral 50 ranking for three weeks. Unfortunately, Matsubara passed away in 2004 and is not able to enjoy the renaissance. However, the song’s composer, 71-year-old Tetsuji Hayashi, tells The Japan Times that this new success “feels very strange … it was so long ago.”

Is it that strange, though? After all, a good tune will always be a good tune. What may be unfamiliar to Hayashi is the way the song has returned. In large part, the Japanese music industry still feels like it’s operating as if it were 1979 — focusing on physical releases and trying to keep music offline to maintain control. Matsubara’s label, Pony Canyon, isn’t slouching, however. In response to this newfound interest in “Mayonaka no Door,” it released a lyric video on YouTube and reached out to music journalists to help with access to those involved in the original track’s creation (a promotional path seldom taken in Japan).

The label also enlisted Jung Kyung-ho, aka Night Tempo, to create a modern-day remix. “I didn’t want to change a lot,” he says. “I wanted to keep the atmosphere and keep it similar to the original.”

At this point, the days of “Mayonaka no Door” being a TikTok staple have passed, but its unexpected rise shows how the interaction between Japanese artists and overseas listeners has changed in the past four decades. It also allows a new generation to fall in love with an artist who may have been overlooked before due to her nationality.

Music maker: Songwriter Tetsuji Hayashi says that new technologies are rewriting the rules of how a song becomes a hit, 'it could be from another country or another generation.'
Music maker: Songwriter Tetsuji Hayashi says that new technologies are rewriting the rules of how a song becomes a hit, ‘it could be from another country or another generation.’

New girl to the city

Matsubara was born in Osaka in 1959. She grew up in a musical household, performing in bands as a teenager, and at 17 she moved to Tokyo on her own.

The timing of her move was key. The 1970s saw the emergence of “new music” in Japan, a term that refers to artists who merged elements of folk, pop and jazz. The architects of this scene — Haruomi Hosono, Eiichi Ohtaki, Tatsuro Yamashita, Taeko Onuki and Yumi Matsutoya — have become some of the most celebrated Japanese musicians of all time, but during the ’70s their sound never achieved huge commercial success, blocked out by harder rock and the blossoming idol-pop scene.

As a songwriter, Hayashi helped shape the sound of new music. He grew up listening to American Top 40 on the radio, and so these influences merged with what he was hearing in Japan.

“Naturally, I started composing music that sounded like it was from the West,” he says. Hayashi released two solo albums that captured this burgeoning sound — “Bruges” (1973) and “Back Mirror” (1977) — and worked with emerging singer-songwriters like Junko Ohashi. Opportunities were rare, though, as there wasn’t much of a market for the Western-influenced sound that he and his peers were pushing.

“I didn’t have many artists I could offer music to at the time, because the (new music) sound wasn’t in the mainstream,” he recalls. “I did more arranging rather than composing.”

Meanwhile, Matsubara was gaining attention by singing at clubs across Tokyo, including the Roppongi jazz haven Birdland. Hayashi says these places “requested a Western sound, but not one that was trendy domestically at the time.” This meant writing lyrics in both Japanese and English, and drawing inspiration from American pop. When it came time for Matsubara to debut, Hayashi was set up to be the natural choice to write for her. In fact, “Mayonaka no Door” features melodic elements that are similar to those in American singer Carole Bayer Sager’s 1978 hit “It’s the Falling in Love,” which appeared as a track on Michael Jackson’s 1979 album “Off the Wall.”

Hayashi says that the big challenge from the Matsubara gig was that he had never met or heard the singer prior to working on her song, which made him anxious about including so much English in the lyrics.

“When I met her for the first time, she was 19 and looked like an idol,” he says, using the Japanese term for a pop star. “She was very cute. I didn’t expect her to have a very mature voice, much more than her actual age, but it was jazzy … even sexy.”

Jung says he was also surprised by Matsubara’s vocals the first time he heard them.

Top of the pops: Miki Matsubara's catchy 1979 debut, 'Mayonaka no Door: Stay With Me,' became a viral hit on TikTok and topped Spotify's Global Viral 50 ranking in December.
Top of the pops: Miki Matsubara’s catchy 1979 debut, ‘Mayonaka no Door: Stay With Me,’ became a viral hit on TikTok and topped Spotify’s Global Viral 50 ranking in December.

“I was able to listen to her voice without edits, her real voice,” he recalls when hearing the stems of the track as he set out on the remix. “Her voice … it’s husky without any effects, and I could feel soul from her. She just sings so freely.”

“The result was different than what I expected,” Hayashi says. “I make melodies where I tend to direct the way the song comes out, but in the end the singer puts their stamp on it. They finalize it.” Working on “Mayonaka no Door,” he adds, “I learned the importance of letting the signer handle it.”

While Hayashi initially thought the track had no chance at commercial success, it arrived just as mainstream tastes shifted toward new music. The song’s popularity boosted Matsubara into stardom, turning the once-overlooked Hayashi into one of the hottest composers in Japan. (Hayashi also worked on Mariya Takeuchi’s funk-indebted “September” the same year.)

Matsubara went on to release nine original albums, becoming a songwriter and composer in her own right. However, her debut would remain her defining number and it experienced a small resurgence upon her death from complications of uterine cervix cancer in October 2004.

“I didn’t have the chance to work with her in the 1990s because, by that point, she was composing her own music,” Hayashi says. “Maybe because I couldn’t go to her funeral, I’ve never felt like she passed away. I always feel like she’s still alive, somewhere.”

The new path to pop stardom

The glimmering sound and Western influences in “Mayonaka no Door” have turned it into a celebrated “city pop” anthem, a genre term used for the music that came out of Japan’s glitzy bubble era and is influenced by jazz, fusion and funk. Music journalist Toshikazu Kanazawa argues in Record Collectors magazine that the song is the exact moment city pop arrived.

Hayashi says while “Mayonaka no Door” doesn’t sound quite like the city pop that soundtracked the 1980s, he thinks it still reflects a moment when younger Japanese listeners started moving away from what their parents were listening to.

That hasn’t stopped the track from benefiting from widespread interest in city pop on YouTube, though. Similar to the success of Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love,” fan uploads of “Mayonaka no Door” helped pull in millions of views, planting it firmly into the algorithms of Japanese music fans. However, while the interest in “Plastic Love” may have been fortunate happenstance, the resurgence of “Mayonaka no Door” presents Japan’s music industry with an actual lesson about the power of digital strategy. Matsubara’s song really started gaining momentum after Pony Canyon made it and the rest of her catalog available on subscription streaming services in the spring of 2020. “Mayonaka no Door” became a hit in Asia soon after, entering Top 10 charts on Spotify and Apple Music, and was boosted further after YouTubers such as Indonesia’s Rainych Ran put out their own versions of the track.

And then, the path led to TikTok.

Ronnie can recall her mother singing “Mayonaka no Door” when she was younger, which could be how she recognized it when it started trending back in December.

“I thought it was the perfect trend for me to take part in, so I tried it,” she says. “(My mother) doesn’t remember exactly when she first encountered the song, she just remembers that it was very popular when she was younger.”

“I saw a video of somebody else doing it on my ‘For You’ page and just randomly played the song to see if my mom would know it,” says Cassidy Margetts, referring to TikTok’s recommendation feature. “She thought it was weird that I knew the song!

“I don’t understand why people liked my video so much,” she adds. “Many people said that they could see (my mother’s) youth as she sang, as if she went back in time.”

The internet being what it is, not all of the TikToks focused on nostalgia. Some used the trend to attack celebrities, while one video touched on Japanese war atrocities. For the most part, though, nostalgia remained the driving force behind this new popularity.

“I feel like this generation is really going back and reminiscing about the past and glorifying it as the ‘good days,’” Margetts says.

Hayashi has some theories as to why. “Because of the bubble, the budget for music was so much higher. We had more time to work on a single song, or we could use studios much longer. Everything was impacted by that.

“It’s so different than being able to do it all on your computer. Maybe that’s why people have a fantasy for that time, because there was a real shine to the music.”

Whatever angle you take, the key idea is that it’s your interpretation — a digital-age premise that gave the control-obsessed Japanese music industry a lot of sleepless nights. By simply making music available to people, though, anything is possible.

“You can never anticipate where a hit song comes from. It could be from another country or another generation,” Hayashi says. “Everyone has a chance to make a hit song, everyone has a chance to be big.”

The composer also notes a more poignant element to this new interest in “Mayonaka no Door.” Many of the backing musicians on the track have since passed away, including saxophonist Jake Concepcion, a regular player during city pop’s heyday. “But music never dies,” Hayashi says, adding that he’s thrilled the sound they all helped create will continue to be enjoyed after they’re all gone.

“I’m very happy about the fact that this song made people happy, especially during the COVID-19 era,” Hayashi says. “Maybe that would be the happiest thing for Matsubara, too. That her music is still being heard.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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