this post is full of neon
September 22, 2019 9:28 AM   Subscribe

How Youtube’s Algorithm Turned an Obscure 1980s Japanese Song Into an Enormously Popular Hit Building on the video essay by Stevem ("What Is Plastic Love?"; 10m SLYT), a short explainer on the song that was probably cropping up in your Youtube recommendations for most of 2018. But an unusual copyright claim took it off the internet (10:40m SLYT), further amplifying its Streisand Effect popularity, though an amicable agreement was soon reached (6:39m SLYT), restoring the song that's now become the face of the City Pop genre.

But what is City Pop, and why is it so catchy? Could it be also to our familiarity with Japanese anime and video games? (20:47m SLYT). It was the sound of a generation, the Japanese bubble economy era of the 1980s, that lifted influences from funk, jazz, and the technological innovations of the era, and credited with inspiring chillwave and vaporwave.

You can get into it and listen to the classics thanks to this listening guide, but fact is, "Plastic Love" has inspired a revival (12:01m SLYT), with straight K-pop analogues appearing in singers Yubin ("City Woman") or Yukika ("Neon"), even if Japanese musicians back home feel more ambivalent about it, or bemused, in the case of Mariya Takeuchi herself.

So, for a genre that could trace its roots in Black American music and found a new lease of life through memes, it's only appropriate that I can draw a full circle with Lil Nas X's latest mv, Panini.
posted by cendawanita (19 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for this post! I’ve been wanting to learn more about City Pop!
posted by Sangermaine at 10:46 AM on September 22, 2019

Thanks for the post, cendawanita!

The listening guide is pretty good already, but I'll use this opportunity to highlight two City Pop favorites of mine:
If you love "Plastic Love", make sure to also check out Taeko Ohnuki's "4:00 AM" [YT] and Tatsuro Yamashita's "Sparkle" [YT].
posted by bigendian at 12:10 PM on September 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

That is a really good song.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 12:24 PM on September 22, 2019

That IS a really good song, and relevant to my interests (finding good Japanese songs that aren't too hard to learn and sing at karaoke). Subject matter might be a little dark though.
posted by ctmf at 12:39 PM on September 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

None of these is a link to the actual song? Is that covered in one of the video essays?
posted by rhizome at 2:48 PM on September 22, 2019 [3 favorites]

Living in Japan in the 90s I thought Jpop was entirely crap, even though I watched TBS’s CDTV (“countdown tv”)late Saturday night show religiously for some reason.

“City pop” was 10 years before my time, but I was exposed to Yamashita’s best piece via the seasonal JR ads that ran.

It was only in the 2000s that I realized that Dreams Come True, Judy and Mary, Every Little Thing, and a few other groups had had some great songs in their 90s catalogue that hadn’t come across that well in CDTV’s 5 second snip of the sabi format...

B’z, however, was still crap in my book.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 2:54 PM on September 22, 2019

None of these is a link to the actual song? Is that covered in one of the video essays?

It's in the first link, rhizome. Just scroll down to the second video embedded in it.
posted by cendawanita at 5:42 PM on September 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

I finally had time to read the "ambivalent" link, and it's interesting because it's not about the current burst of City Pop popularity in the US and Korea like the other links in this post. It's from 2015 when apparently the hot new indie trend in Japanese music was "city pop", except according to the critic writing the piece the term as used at that time was a meaningless catch-all term for a bunch of bands making music largely unrelated to each other or to the original 70s-80s "city pop". The 2015 bands were just all making music that kind of captured that old-school aesthetic and so were all given the "city pop" label.

Also interesting is that the critic seems to view the term "city pop", original or current, in kind of a negative light, suggesting a negative obsession with, and inferiority complex towards, Western music in Japan:
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?’ “
Meanwhile, the singer of one of the bands in the 2015 Japanese "city pop" trend seems to view it exactly opposite, as distinctly music with a distinctly Japanese identity:
“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.”
I wonder if the critic writing the piece is older, maybe from the previous generation? "City pop" for an older generation might carry connotations that younger people don't have. I think young Americans discovering "Plastic Love" in 2018 certainly view it as strongly Japanese in spirit whereas an American hearing it in 1984 might have been more dismissive.
posted by Sangermaine at 5:59 PM on September 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have a 104 “video” length playlist of almost entirely city pop on YouTube.
posted by gucci mane at 6:07 PM on September 22, 2019 [5 favorites]

(And I could have sworn Plastic Love was on it but I guess not. Added now.)
posted by gucci mane at 6:10 PM on September 22, 2019

> cendawanita:""None of these is a link to the actual song? Is that covered in one of the video essays?"

It's in the first link, rhizome. Just scroll down to the second video embedded in it."

It's also worth noting, as that article explains for context, that the extremely popular version of the song on Youtube is an unofficial extended mix of the original.
posted by flatluigi at 6:26 PM on September 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

Am I missing something? I couldn't find a link to the actual song itself in this post.
posted by eye of newt at 8:07 PM on September 22, 2019

Lol yea, I got interested in making a post about it since last year actually, being one of those folks whose algorithms did show the song up. And then when I was trading songs to my bestie who said she hasn't been listening to anything new other than what's on the radio, she's somehow managed to have listened to this too.

I'll make a note to make the link to the song extremely clear next time in a similar post. I really thought that main first link was clear and self-evident enough, and also I wanted to show more of the genre.
posted by cendawanita at 8:30 PM on September 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also interesting is that the critic seems to view the term "city pop", original or current, in kind of a negative light, suggesting a negative obsession with, and inferiority complex towards, Western music in Japan

One of the more noticeable things about post-ww2 Japan has always been this relationship with their consumption of specifically American pop culture, which in the 1980s entered another phase when Japan could influence as much as being influenced, and I think you'll find that same debate of authenticity in say, current K-pop.
posted by cendawanita at 8:45 PM on September 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's funny how original city pop has a fairly consistent and recognizable sound to it for the most part, but the many artists and bands that are occasionally identified as city pop revivalists often don't. To make this a little more fair, let's stick to the 2015 timeframe from that Japan Times article and only pull songs from around that year; in reality the bands mentioned have diverged further since then. From the Tsutaya list, we have CERO, Suiyoubi no Campanella (nowadays more commonly stylized as Wednesday Campanella), and the fin. From the Music Magazine list, here's Awesome City Club, Yoshida Yohei Group and Sugar's Campaign. Besides a vaguely laid-back feeling to some of the songs, and a sense that all these bands sit slightly outside the mainstream (which I don't think is even true for half the bands listed anymore), I struggle to find common ground. It feels like "city pop revival" is only slightly more descriptive than "alternative rock" from 90s western music or "indie rock" from the 2000s.

And like those terms, I suspect city pop will never really go away, even as bands studiously avoid the label as much as possible. I definitely don't know enough about Japanese culture to guess what exactly city pop means as a cultural signifier in 2019, but it does feel like it's intended to hint at a worldview that is itself ambivalent about the origins of city pop (both musical and socioeconomic), rather than any particular sound. Maybe it's a bit like how people might appreciate yacht rock in 2019: ironic appreciation of a ridiculous materialistic culture that seems worlds away now (even as aspects echo today), bound to a childhood nostalgia and a vaguely utopian outlook that was easy to maintain as a kid encountering this stuff for the first time, and impossible to maintain as an adult in the 21st century.
posted by chrominance at 10:19 PM on September 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

Oh, also, fun fact about Yubin: the single posted above was originally supposed to have a second A-side, but it got pulled by the record company on the eve of its release. Though nothing has ever been conclusively proved, Korean producer Night Tempo suggests that Yubin's label tried to work with him on some future funk-inspired tracks that ultimately fell through, only to later discover Yubin's second A-side sounded a whole lot like his completely unofficial remix of... Mariya Takeuchi's "Plastic Love." All that remains of that song, "City Love," is a bootleg copy of a 15-second teaser for a song that never saw the light of day.
posted by chrominance at 10:27 PM on September 22, 2019 [3 favorites]

Plastic Love randomly popped up in my side-bar back in 2017, and it became one of my favorite songs. I always wondered why the F I was targeted by that particular algorithm/algorythm – so thank you!

Light in the Attic released a great compilation of city pop earlier this year titled Pacific Breeze.

It includes Haruomi Hosono's fantastic "Sports Men," among other sparkly jamz.
posted by nikoniko at 10:54 AM on September 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

This reminds me very strongly of RAH Band (80s music video warning).
posted by books for weapons at 5:47 PM on September 23, 2019

City Pop could be simply described as Japanese Yacht Rock. Including the way that the descriptor for the genre (Yacht Rock / City Rock) was invented decades after the genre died and as a result interest revived.
posted by Enkidude at 11:47 PM on September 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

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