City Pop in Taiwan: old mainstreams becoming new indies

Written by Yan-Shouh Chen.

Image Credit: Yan-Shouh Chen.

The retro breeze of City Pop is coming back in Taiwan.

Using retro, groovy and chill as keywords, you may find numerous music discussions concerning the Taiwanese music scene in recent days both online and offline. Surprisingly, it’s largely connected to a Japanese 80’s music style called City Pop.

The term “City Pop” was coined in the year 2000, and is broadly defined as a cluster of music that relates to AOR or Fusion Jazz that was released in the Japanese mainstream during the 80’s bubble economy period. The blurry definition of City Pop allows the genre to embrace various musical elements and serves as an umbrella term that covers 80’s Japanese mainstream music that was considered the soundtrack for luxurious city nightlife and bright summer beach holidays. Sometimes the term may be referred to as Japanese AOR or light mellow. Regardless, with its steady disco beat and catchy rhythm, City Pop has somewhat become a global trend on YouTube for people who enjoy easy listening music but want something different from the daily US pop charts.

In Jean Hogarty’s Popular Music and Retro Culture in the Digital Era, she points out that now is the age of retro culture. Generation Z heads into 80s music with a borrowed nostalgia for unlived eras. In the 80s the synthesiser was just invented, and the music back then sounded more futuristic yet authentic. Her research was based on an investigation of Irish music listeners. However, the same situation happened in Far East Asia, as teenagers who never lived through the 80s started to bond with old tunes and become familiar with big names like Yamashita Tatsuro, Takeuchi Mariya and Aran Tomoko because streaming platform playlists introduced them to their works.

As for the physical format—with the help of the exotic sentiments and Vaporwave trending a couple of years ago—City Pop, alongside other genres like Japanese Mellow, are being rediscovered by vinyl diggers and record labels such as Light in the Attic, in the US. They viewed these productions as rare grooves, and a series of reissues and compilations were put out. The selling figures of these types of vinyl in Taiwan are small but enough to heat up the ongoing trend. On the other hand, since the indie music scene aficionados (or active music users) can probably find most of the music on a streaming platform, getting a guidebook seems to be more important than buying CD or pricey vinyl. M@M Records, which is a 20-year old record shop in Taipei, re-opened in 2019 after several years of hiatus. The City Pop encyclopedia in Japanese became their top seller last year.

As City Pop become more known to Taiwanese indie music lovers, unveiling J-pop history might not be enough. Some fans turned their eyes toward Taiwanese artists that are good at creating groovy melodies. These artists might consider themselves as R&B and Hip Hop rather than City Pop, but the boom did them a favour, and now the spotlight is on them. Sunset Rollercoaster, which is one of the Taiwanese leading indie bands that seem to tour around the world perpetually, released Jinji Kikko ep in 2016. The music on this album was very different from their previous work and is considered a break from the sound that exemplifies the band’s now successful career. Also, we have the band Freckles, which pays tribute to the City Pop legend Niagara Triangle, with one of their photos during their promotion of Imperfect Lover. The City Pop boom in Taiwan peaked around 2018 as artist 9m88 did a cover of Takeuchi Mariya’s Plastic Love: the iconic City Pop tune that has received over 20 million views on YouTube. With her neo-soul vocal and afro style hairdo, 9m88 makes it easy to relate her image to retro culture.

The retro music trend also hit South East Asia. The Philippine band Mellow Fellow and Thai artist Phum Viphurit, are just to name a few. And all received positive feedback in the Taiwanese music scene. Meanwhile, some new Japanese bands are influenced by City Pop, and their style is categorised as Neo City Pop (or Nu City Pop) such as Yogee New Waves, Tempalay and Lucky Tapes. Taipei-Tokyo based label Big Romantic Records is a key-player in the stronger than ever Taiwan-Japan indie music interaction in recent years. They host DJ events and promote Japanese music acts in Taiwan. Among the artists that they have brought to Taiwan, some of them will be marked as Neo City Pop.

As rock music ceases to dominate the mainstream music chart, music listeners are now more receptive to Hip Hop and R&B. In the Taiwanese indie scene, which is different from the Post-Rock, Brit-Pop indie bands frenzy during the first decade after 2000, or the time when indie music was tightly connected with the social movements around 2014, the younger generations embraced groovier sounds. It doesn’t bother them whether City Pop music may sound a bit cliché, as what streaming platforms offer them are diverse playlists, which is a more dynamic way to listen to music rather than following the linear history of 20th popular music. City Pop to these listeners is something as new as Trap Music. Those involved in the scene tend to use the word “chill” to describe all the music mentioned above, ranging from City Pop to Taiwanese City Pop-ish bands. For music reviewers, they coined the term Taiwanese New Romantic Wave to describe the phenomenon and especially for emerging acts that have similar music texture.

The reason behind this City Pop boom phenomenon cannot be simplified and untied easily as its history is complex. However, there is one thing for sure: Taiwanese people over 30 grew up under the influence of Japanese entertainment: J-pop, Japanese drama. For the younger generation, their mainstream is K-pop so listening to Japanese music is something a bit minor and cool: the old mainstream becomes the new indie.

 Yan-Shouh Chen graduated from University of Liverpool, Master of Music Industry Studies. His interests are the revival of psychedelic music, psychedelic festival and the interaction between Taiwanese and Japanese indie music acts.This article is part of the special issue on Made in Taiwan: Studies in Popular Music. 

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