There came a moment recently when I realized perhaps I'd gone too deep. I was listening to a song called "RE: It's Good to See You Again!!" by a future funk artist called ΛDRIΛNWΛVE and I immediately identified the sample as a song called "Shyness Boy" by 1980's Japanese pop star Anri from her album "Timely!!". Now, like three months ago, I didn't know who any of these people were or what future funk was or why there were so many exclamation points in all the titles, but now I found myself fully cognizant of and engrossed in the aesthetic, able to effortless make the connections across the decades between seemingly ancient Japanese pop music and the work of vaporwave-inspired funk DJs. How did this happen?
Well, Piper is what happened, and perhaps more broadly, the work of Ship to Shore and Light In the Attic is what happened. I don't even remember the precise details of how - it was a YouTube rabbit hole at like 2 am I think, jumping from album to album letting their blessed, omniscient algorithm take the wheel, and I imagine I started somewhere in the synthwave realm, and eventually the YouTube AI that I praise and honor as my eternal guide steered me to a record called Memories In a Beach House by Seaside Lovers.
Now, this was in the heart of winter - not a particularly oppressive one, precipitation-wise, but a cold Pittsburgh February nevertheless - so as soon as those wonderful, sun-shine-y, oceanside strings and synths kicked in, I perked up at the mere thought of an auditory vacation. In came the flute. In came the smooth, pleasant vocals. In came the sax. What was this? Next up on the algorithm was Piper's "Summer Breeze".
Now this is when it all really clicked. Those metal drums started clanging, that jazz guitar joined in with the piano, and then Keisuke Yamamoto, Takashi Shimamura, and Wataru Ito all joined into the harmony: "Shine on..." This music was beautiful, this music filled me with an overwhelming sense of happiness, even here in the dead of winter at the maw of a global pandemic. Why?
I didn't quite get it that first night, but the further I've dug into the genre and - perhaps more importantly - the further I've dug into vaporwave, I started to understand, and in gaining that understanding it became essential to investigate how musicians experience this music now, in the 2010's. Vapor - though nebulous and with many branches with various aesthetic goals - is largely about irony. When you listen to MacIntosh Plus' "Floral Shoppe" or Luxury Elite's "Late Night Delight" or even Cat System Corp's "Sunday Television" - any of the highest regarded staples of vaporwave - you're most likely approaching the aesthetic for the nostalgia factor, but that's only the outer husk of the vapor avocado - the pit of the matter, inside the outer nostalgic skin and buried in the mish mash of distortion - is irony. Vapor takes music, chiefly associated with an age of rampant American consumerism in the 80's and early 90's, and flips them into surreal nightmares, as though to say the spirit of that music and our understanding of it at the time was wayward, and that the path that our culture was set upon in that era would ultimately lead to surreal, nightmarish depression and destruction. And depending on who you talk to, some might say that's a fair assessment. So that's vapor, but now on the other hand, we have Japanese city pop - music from the same era, but from a different side of the world (that nevertheless, in many cases, invokes visions of Los Angeles and the beaches of Venice and Santa Monica, etc.) But when this music is experienced and re-imagined, (not without exception, of course) it largely transforms into future funk by artists like YUNG BAE, Desired, and Night Tempo. The difference is, this is an un-ironic transformation. While, say, "Late Night Delight" wastes no time informing us that Michael Jackson's "All Night" had an ominous darkness lurking in its depths; on the other hand that song I pegged - "RE: It's Good to See You Again!!" simply updated Anri's original track without altering its soul. Producers and DJs experience and perceive the seaside-inspired Japanese city pop in the modern world just as it was experienced and perceived forty years ago.
And there is an enormous comfort in that, particularly when revisiting the original city pop albums. "Memories In a Beach House". "Summer Breeze". These albums are uncomplicated, their messages and intentions immune to being disfigured. Perhaps that's because the images they present haven't yet had any sort of mask torn off, the way consumerist American mall pop or even New York romanticism has had its mask ripped off since the 80's. Tokyo, Santa Monica, the islands in between - their zeitgeist hasn't taken a particular downturn in 40 years. The genuine songs of seaside romance that Piper sings about in songs like "Starlight Love" and "Angel Smile", these tracks were born out of kindness and optimism and invoke imagery that remains optimistic. Throwing on a Piper record is like sitting a car in New York City traffic, flanked on each side by oppressive canyons of some of the city's cold, brutalist architecture, overwhelmed by the city noise, and looking up lovingly at a postcard you have paper-clipped to the underside of your sun visor, a postcard with a photos of crystal clear water on a palm tree-lined beach somewhere far away. That place still exists. That's a place you can still go to physically, but - and here's the thing - a place you can still go mentally. The optimistic spirit of city pop remains a valid escape, unclouded by irony. Piper's "Gentle Breeze" opens with a bold exclamation of "I've got a feeling, feeling deep inside! I've got a FEELING!" This is a call to action, to remember that you're capable of having positive feelings deep inside, too, without irony, without footnotes, without criticism. That feeling existed back then, and it still exists now.
City pop pioneer Tatsuro Yamashita was eerily prescient when he sang, "I'm all alone, but I'm at home," - a harbinger of quarantines to come - but then followed it up with that swelling chorus of "The Theme From Big Wave": "We've got summer right here in our hearts!"
Because this has been one of the most important months of our lives. It has never been more important to be active, to be engaged, to be interacting with one another and understanding each other and fighting for change. The entire world, indeed, is changing before our eyes and this is not the time to be silent, to sit on the sidelines, or unplug. And I'm not even going to begin to start giving advice on how to take it all in and how to react because for each person that will be different. But if - like me - your mental health has taken a wallop over the past couple weeks, then I simply offer up all of this city pop analysis so that you're aware that it's there if you need it. Not everyone is going to want or need the optimistic nostalgia of a bygone era to help ground them, but it has helped me refocus on things in an almost meditative way. Even having it on in the background when I'm making breakfast in the morning has started my days off on a note of hopefulness, and I've been able to channel that hopefulness into my own well-being. In the face of 2020, humanity's final boss level, it's felt like leveling up my mental armor. This won't be the case for everyone, nor should it, but if you're looking to add some of this music into you rotation, here's where I'd recommend starting:
Night Tempo - Showa Idol's Groove
SAINT PEPSI - Hit Vibes
MACROSS 82-99 - Neo Tokyo
That should get you started!
- Cassie @weirdvinylgirl