Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe
On Sunday, January 13, a 57-year-old Japanese singer named Anri will play a rare midwestern show for a sold-out crowd at the Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center. In the mid-80s, while Japan was enjoying the final years of its long postwar boom, Anri became one of the crucial voices of "City Pop"—a fizzy, euphoric form of electronic disco, that was imbued with the optimistic spirit of a New Japan and also took cues from American superstars such as Michael Jackson and Donna Summer. It was the aspiration of a nation condensed into sound, and Anri had the perfect persona for it: she was gregarious, sexy, sophisticated, and alluring in her worldliness but always impeccably Japanese. She recorded dozens of hit songs throughout the decade, but in the 90s, as Japan's miraculous economic growth began to slow, so did City Pop. The genre dried up as fast as disco did in this country, and it probably never would've reached American ears if it weren't for Van Paugam, a Chicago-based DJ who's made it his life's work to resurrect City Pop for a new generation of Westerners.
Broadly, Paugam's work belongs in the same category as the YouTube DJs behind the lo-fi hip-hop boom or the simmering synthwave scene. On his channel, you'll find a collection of mixes and a live "radio" feed pumping out a continuous mix of City Pop hits to an avid community of listeners. (The video portion of the broadcast consists of a loop of dashcam footage from Tokyo roadways, in tribute to the music's history as a soundtrack for young, eager, newly rich commuters.) Paugam discovered the genre when he was searching for the sources of the samples used in some of his favorite vaporwave tracks—they'd lifted some of their MIDI horns and chintzy keyboard bass lines from a reservoir of City Pop unexplored by most people outside Japan. He was enchanted by the music's silky, earnest grooves as well as its distinctly Japanese heritage, and made it his mission to assemble the largest collection he could this side of the Pacific.
Many contemporary recordings that plundered old City Pop tracks for samples left their source material a mystery, Paugam explains. "It took some work between myself and a friend of who lives in Japan to find a lot of the music," he says. "We traded records back and forth and worked with record shops online and in person, eventually discovering the roots of this little genre."
A huge chunk of City Pop has never made it to streaming services such as Spotify or Apple Music, so Paugam found many of the rarer records by searching dusty Discogs listings. Sometimes only one or two copies of those pressings remained in good condition. "It's critical to secure those before the value balloons as more people discover the genre," he says. His hard work has paid off in his YouTube metrics: two years ago Paugam had just 80 subscribers. Today he's at more than 88,000, and his most-trafficked mix has earned more than 700,000 views.
"I had no idea people would be as receptive to the genre and style of mixes I put out. I had always dabbled in the more obscure genres, but never really reached a big audience for what I was doing until City Pop resurfaced," says Paugam. "I've never been anything much more than a starving artist experimenting on the fringe sounds of the outer Internet, so I never expected much of a fan base. Now it seems there is an entire community forming around the genre and my channel, which is still both confusing and wonderful at the same time."
The subreddit r/CityPop has jumped from 50 to more than 9,000 subscribers since the beginning of 2016. Paugam has also taken his craft offline, and now routinely hosts City Pop DJ nights around Chicago, including at Murasaki Sake Lounge and Todos Santos. The genre was just featured in a short documentary by Maria Cecilia Pimentel called Hisashiburi CityPop, perhaps the first time its story has been told to a Western audience. Slowly but surely, Paugam's obsession is spreading.
Because City Pop basically went extinct shortly after its apex, it's an exhaustible resource—try as you might, you'll never be able to create more 80s Japanese pop music. That makes it even more uncanny that decades later the music is resonating in the West for the first time, thanks largely to a community of young people who are two generations (and at least one ocean) removed from the scene's origins. This community of fans made it possible to book an artist of Anri's stature for a one-off U.S. show—but it probably still wouldn't have happened without the help of Yasu Hirose, a former club owner who was in the nightlife business in Shibuya during the 80s. Hirose was around when City Pop ruled Tokyo, and he met Paugam by chance at one of his club gigs. The way Paugam remembers it, a breathless Hirose flagged him down after his set to regale him with tales of all the business and social connections he had with original City Pop artists—singers and songwriters that Paugam only knew through record sleeves and grainy YouTube videos. A few phone calls later, Anri had agreed to perform.
Despite the decline of the genre in which she became a star, Anri has continued to thrive in Japan—since 1978, she's averaged roughly an album per year (many City Pop fans consider her best work to be the superbly breezy 1983 release Timely!!, which is like a blueprint for the genre's aesthetic). But while Westerners might have seen her sing the theme for the closing ceremony of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, or noticed her partnership with Grammy-winning American jazz-fusion guitarist Lee Ritenour (which began with her 2002 record Smooth Jam—Quiet Storm), she's hardly well-known outside her homeland. For Anri, this one-off show in Chicago represents a new era in her career.
Paugam thinks Americans' surge of interest in City Pop has arisen in part because constant pop-cultural recycling has rendered them numb to nostalgia for their own pasts. Americans are bombarded with their own memories: every film franchise gets rebooted, every band reunites, and there's always another Terminator around the corner. "We've saturated and commercialized our 70s and 80s so much that younger generations can't even form a cohesive impression of what those times were actually like," Paugam laments. "City Pop has just enough Western influence to sound like untouched, untainted versions of what we once had, but without being hyper-commercialized. I think the music's purity is what draws people in. The fact that they can reminisce about a time and place that aren't their own and still feel nostalgic is something new for a lot of people."
Though it can sometimes feel like nostalgia and irony are always a package deal these days, City Pop seems to purge the cynicism from American listeners. The music will never fully belong here—and there may be something colonialist about repackaging another country's airy, hopeful pop music 30 years later—but Paugam's fandom is so nerdy and earnest that it's difficult to see it as disrespectful. And it's helped Anri find new frontiers 40 years after her debut.
"It's very good, very real music, and it connects with every generation," says Hirose. "History is repeating itself!" v