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In the waning weeks of 2020, a Japanese pop tune from 1979 shot to No. 1 on Spotify’s viral charts. Titled “Mayonaka no Door / Stay With Me” and performed by a then-19-year-old Miki Matsubara, the song is as breezy as a convertible ride at twilight, with Matsubara’s wistful vocals floating over a funky bassline, jaunty horns, and twinkling production touches. Switching between Japanese and English, she pleads for a lover-turned-cold to stay in the relationship, haunted by the memory of him from the night before. The song first appeared in anime and Japanese culture TikToks last October, but the official peak of “Mayonaka no Door / Stay With Me” on the app came six weeks later, in early December. TikTok creators of Japanese descent filmed themselves playing it for their mothers, who’d light up upon recognizing the hit from their youth. It is almost too cute to bear. The moms close their eyes in bliss, belting and dancing like they’re at karaoke.
The viral success of “Mayonaka no Door / Stay With Me” has brought yet another surge of international interest to city pop, a loosely defined Japanese genre with R&B and jazz influences, dating to the late 1970s and 1980s. At the time, Japan was the world’s second-largest economy, threatening to overtake the West with its corporate dominance and cutting-edge machines. Upwardly-mobile Japanese citizens indulged in luxury clothes, imported wine, and international travel, enjoying unprecedented freedoms. The advent of the Sony Walkman and more sophisticated car stereos allowed them to customize their on-the-go listening; suddenly, casual strolls through the city and weekend joy rides assumed a romantic, movie-like sheen. City pop emerged as the soundtrack to this cosmopolitan lifestyle. The music is often exuberant and glitzy, drawing inspiration from American styles like funk, yacht rock, boogie, and lounge music. Emulating the easy vibes of California, the music’s sense of escapism is often embodied by the sun-soaked cover art of Hiroshi Nagai, one of city pop’s iconic designers: Sparkling blue water, slick cars, and pastel buildings evoke fantasies of a weekend vacation at sea. But the splendor and ease embodied by city pop soon fell out of fashion: in the 1990s, Japan’s economic bubble burst, plunging the country into its “lost decade.”
Recent man-on-the-street interviews reveal that the term “city pop” doesn’t even register with ordinary Japanese citizens, even if they recognize artists popularly associated with the genre. “My wife was the target audience, and I had to explain it to her,” says Jayson Chun, a University of Hawaii-West O‘ahu professor who lectures on Japanese pop music and anime. “Back then, people just called it music.” But in the past few years, what we know as city pop has been undergoing a revival in the West. A January 2020 segment of the Japanese variety show Nippon! Shisatsudan investigates the trend of foreign tourists scouring for city pop records in the Shibuya district of Tokyo. “Is it true this type of music is popular in America?” the reporter asks a lanky white guy in glasses. “Yeah,” the guy replies, citing the role of the internet and YouTube in particular. Later, when he picks up a 1985 record by Japanese singer Toshiki Kadomatsu, the cameras immediately cut to the shocked reactions of a Japanese audience.
Essentially, city pop is Western music that’s been adapted by the Japanese, now coming back to us as a retrospective source of fascination. The head of the internet music label Business Casual once said that listening to city pop was like “seeing old commercials from another world, selling the same brands and consumer products but in a different way than I remember.” It is familiar enough to be comforting, but implicitly exists at a slight remove; the Japanese lyrics preserve an aura of exoticism and mystery, giving Western listeners room to freely project their desires. On YouTube, where city pop flourishes, listeners dwell fondly on artificial memories of Japan: “I remember back in the day when I’d drive through the Tokyo streets at night with the window rolled down, neon lights on buildings, everyone having a good time, the ’80s were great,” wrote one commenter to the popular mix “warm nights in tokyo [ city pop/ シティポップ], before the illusion dissolves: “Wait a minute, I’m 18 and live in America.” Every city pop upload is filled with similar comments.
Typically, when people in the West talk about city pop, “we’re really talking about ourselves, and how we view Asia,” says Chun. A deeper examination reveals even more layers: Western mythologies of Japan as our techno-capitalist future, the internet’s acceleration of global exchange, and the uncanny role of recommendations algorithms in fostering nostalgia for an artificial past.