City Pop is Spreading Around the World

Display in a record store
A specialist vinyl record store with a number of famous city pop records on display.
(Photograph in collaboration with FACE RECORDS MIYASHITA PARK)

   City pop, a Japanese music genre from the mid-1970s, has recently been drawing attention from around the world. Some music videos have over 50 million views on video-sharing sites, and a song ranked number one on the viral charts of a major music subscription service for more than two weeks. But why is city pop suddenly growing in popularity among music fans around the world?

What is City Pop?

   The genre of city pop is not one with a clear musical definition. Generally, it refers to pop songs with a "big-city feel", which became popular in Japan in the mid-1970s and into the 1980s.
   Major city pop artists include Ohtaki Eiichi, Yamashita Tatsuro, Ohnuki Taeko, Yoshida Minako, Matsutoya Yumi, and Takeuchi Mariya. The common thread linking them is their strong influences from Western music. Popular styles of music in Japan in the mid-1970s included folk songs with a focus on lyrics, and an early type of Japanese pop called Kayokyoku (popular music). However, the city pop artists mentioned above were instead influenced by contemporary rock, pop, and Black music styles from the USA. These artists experimented with using a Western-style sound to create an original Japanese style of pop music.

City pop artist Sugar Babe's only album, SONGS (©THE NIAGARA ENTERPRISES INC.)

   In the 1970s, city pop was not a major genre in the Japanese music industry. However, its refined sound creation, western-style melodies and chord progressions, and a big-city vibe totally different from existing Japanese popular music styles, so it gradually became popular among trendy young people.

   In the 1980s, the rise of the consumer society led to a new affluent lifestyle for the young generation. It was no longer uncommon in cities to see college students wearing branded clothing and picking up their dates in their own cars. In this rapidly changing environment, city pop artists quickly leaped into the mainstream. Singles and albums kept being released, with some tracks being featured in commercials. It was around this time that the name "city pop" started to catch on in the media. In the mid-1980s, Japan was undergoing an unprecedented economic boom. There was a lot of money available for production, and the Japanese music scene thrived.

Ohtaki Eiichi's album "A LONG VACATION" is representative of city pop from the 1980s (©THE NIAGARA ENTERPRISES INC.)

A number of artists released albums with a refined sound. These are still popular even today. (Photograph in collaboration with FACE RECORDS MIYASHITA PARK)

A Crossroads Giving Rise to a New Culture

   City pop had a lively impact on the Japanese music scene in the 1970s and 1980s, but listeners were mostly limited to Japan, and the genre had limited recognition overseas. However, this all changed in the 2010s. Die-hard music fans outside of Japan gradually started to upload city pop songs to video-sharing sites.

   One particularly iconic city pop song that became popular overseas is "Plastic Love" by Takeuchi Mariya (1984). This song was not hugely popular when it was originally released, but its bittersweet melody and excellent arrangement attracted even non-Japanese-speaking listeners. Its popularity continued to spread organically, and it's now considered a city pop anthem.

The record jacket of Takeuchi Mariya's "Plastic Love". Courtesy of Warner Music Japan

   The worldwide comeback of vinyl records starting in the 2010s also helped with the rediscovery of city pop. Modern-day music enthusiasts search for used records, and club DJs add city pop songs to their playlists.

The discovery of city pop by overseas musicians and club DJs has led to a global city pop revival (Photograph in collaboration with FACE RECORDS MIYASHITA PARK)

   Recently, Matsubara Miki's Mayonaka no door (Stay with me) from 1979 has drawn a lot of attention. This song was also uploaded by a die-hard city pop fan to a video sharing website, and went viral. The record label realized this, and began reselling the record and uploading it to music subscription services, where it reached number one on the global viral chart for 18 consecutive days.

Matsubara Miki's Mayonaka no door (Stay with me) was rereleased as a single in 2021. (℗Pony Canyon Inc.)

   More and more young people outside of Japan are not only listening to and enjoying city pop, but also covering city pop songs and creating original city-pop influenced music. A large number of these "neo city pop" songs, which are often interpreted with a different feel to the Japanese originals, are being uploaded to video sharing sites.

   City pop, once a genre unique to Japan, has transformed into a crossroads of different musical cultures in the 21st century.