Your Complete Guide to City Pop, the Japanese Music Genre

In his third and latest album, ‘Harry’s House’, English singer Harry Styles pays homage to Japanese city pop, a genre once referred to as ‘elevator music’. What is it exactly ? We take a closer look.

True to his generation – that of the millennials – Harry Styles has a weakness for nostalgia. It is therefore not surprising that for his latest album, “Harry’s House”, he was inspired by the 70s and 80s. And more particularly by city pop, a musical genre born in Japan at a particularly prosperous time, and once decried as “elevator music”.

At the time, the West was in the grip of an oil crisis, while the land of the Rising Sun was in the midst of an economic boom. Innovations in the automotive and technology sectors have helped raise the profile of the country’s international reach. Times were good in Tokyo and elsewhere. Japanese city pop draws its energy from this lively and “euphoric” urban activity.

“The public spent lavishly on imported wines and spirits, luxury clothing, art and international travel. The Japanese nightlife, from flashy restaurants and hostess bars to glitzy bars and nightclubs, was second to none. Japan needed a new soundtrack for this new lifestyle, and city pop was born,” said Eli Cohen, who helped put together the “Tokyo Nights” album. Vice.

This musical genre borrows from funk, soul, disco, lounge or even yacht rock. He mixes a number of references and influences, notably Asian and American. Iconic city-pop artists have taken inspiration from the sounds of California bands like Buffalo Springfield and Little Feat. Tatsuro Yamashita even released an album made entirely of Beach Boys covers.

Harry Styles. (Picture: Harry Styles/Facebook)

The lure of nostalgia

Meanwhile, Harry Styles turned to the discography of another master of urban pop, Haruomi Hosono, for “Harry’s House.” The title of his third album is a tribute to the Japanese musician’s first solo album, “Hosono House”. The disc is punctuated with other references, more or less flagrant, to city pop, and more generally to Japan.

An example is “Music for a Sushi Restaurant”. The former One Direction member composed it after hearing another of his songs at a Japanese restaurant. A strange choice of background music, as he explained to American public radio NPR. That’s why he decided to write a piece more suited to this type of establishment. The result: an energetic piece punctuated by brass, bass and hushed vocals.

Harry Styles is not the only one, nor the first, to resurrect Japanese city pop. While this music genre may have lost some of its luster in the early 90s, it’s come back strong 20 years later on Tumblr and YouTube. Iconic tracks like Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love” have tens of millions of views on Google’s video hosting service. The reason? Nostalgia, or rather “falstalgia”, the feeling of missing an era you never knew. It’s a particularly common phenomenon among members of Generation Z, for whom everything old is… new.

harry styles city pop
Harry Styles at the 2021 Grammy Awards. (Photo: Harry Styles/Facebook)

City pop is a perfect example of such a paradox. For journalist Cat Zhang, this musical genre is “familiar enough to be comforting” while “the Japanese lyrics preserve an aura of exoticism and mystery, leaving Western listeners free to project their desires”. Nicolas Faustin can attest to this. The French TikToker, whose posts mix “music, nostalgia and dance”, recently shared its love of city pop with its 300,000 followers. “Listen to the peaceful and crazy atmosphere it gives off, it manages to make me nostalgic for the 80s without having lived there”, he explained in a video presenting the track “Midnight Pretenders” by Tomoko Aran. Harry Styles would surely agree.

Plot? Listen to this city pop playlist now.

This story was published via AFP.

(Main and featured image: Harry Styles/ Instagram)


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