"A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular": Shibuya-kei as Transnational Soundscape

 

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a new stereophonic sound spectacular shibuya-kei as transnational soundscape martin roberts division of communications hallym university chuncheon south korea mroberts@tokyobossa.com abstract this essay focuses on shibuya-kei a style of independent popular music that emerged in japan in the late 1980s and has been influential in the popularisation of j-pop worldwide although usually treated as a uniquely japanese musical genre shibuya-kei was from from its inception defined by an ostentatious internationalism fusing jazz easy listening and bossa nova with british american and french retro-pop styles tracing the international itineraries of shibuya-kei musicians and the role of western musicians and labels in promoting it outside japan the essay characterises shibuya-kei not as just another j-pop genre but as a transnational soundscape a collaborative project produced by a network of musicians circulating between japan and the u.k the u.s france germany spain and brazil as such the essay suggests it requires us to rethink the place of the national in relation to popular music in the japanese popular music industry where new musical varieties bloom and fade at the speed of a time-lapse movie the style known as shibuya-kei has proved surprisingly durable having originated in the late 1980s as a loose-knit network of independent musicians djs and labels producing popular music different from that distributed by the major labels it today occupies a popular stylistic niche within that mainstream and its founding members are revered and influential figures within the industry at large shibuya-kei was also arguably the first form of japanese pop to gain wide international attention while certain japanese underground music genres and artists have enjoyed a cult following among western avant-garde musicians for decades shibuya-kei artists have played a key role in the developing interest in japanese popular music among youth in the united states and europe in addition to a steady stream of compilations and remix releases the style continues to develop and mutate with more recent ones through the pastiches and stylistic tweakings of a new generation of neo-shibuya artists.

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2 i am interested in shibuya-kei for a number of reasons as a case study first of all in subcultural music scenes and the operations of what i call the subculture industry however mainstream and commercialised it may now have become at its inception at least shibuya-kei can be seen as a subcultural scene in that it defined itself aesthetically against the more mainstream forms of japanese pop music being put out by the major labels secondly as a site for considering in today s globalized world the increasing convergence between the subcultural and the transcultural that is the articulation of oppositional identities at the local level through identification with and the reproduction of symbolic practices and production originating in cultures other than one s own while such transcultural practices can in some cases be considered already subcultural in origin e.g graffiti writing goth music what may be subcultural in one context need not be so in another as the cult fandom among euro-american youth around japanese manga and anime attests similarly while styles of japanese popular music such as shibuya-kei or more recently visual-kei may have developed a cult following among western youth they are much closer to the commercial mainstream within japan itself and their appeal is in part related to their exoticism in relation to mainstream western pop rock or hip-hop thirdly i am interested in how shibuya-kei complicates the place of the national as a referencepoint in relation to popular music although western discourses on shibuya-kei invariably treat it as a japanese genre or scene within japan itself it was most clearly characterized by its ostentatious internationalism defining itself against the musical mainstream of its time in its subcultural connoisseurship for certain genres of western popular music and other media.1 in this essay my project is to dis-locate shibuya-kei from the local frame of reference within which it is usually discussed and in a sense to deterritorialize it rather than a uniquely japanese musical style,

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3 i propose that shibuya-kei is more productively seen as a transnational soundscape an ongoing international co-production involving both japanese and non-japanese musics and musicians 2 while shibuya-kei may have originated in japan as we will see it was from its inception predicated on its eclectic appropriation and transculturation of a variety of western and other popular musics which were already in transnational circulation and has over the past decade emerged as an autonomous hybridized soundscape in its own right to the extent that today it constitutes what in another context josh kun 2005 calls an audiotopia simultaneously everywhere and nowhere in particular in addition to its spatial diffusion the concept of utopia inscribed within the term audiotopia is particularly appropriate to what might be called the affective register of shibuya-kei more generally which i will be returning to later before moving to these broader aspects however let us begin by considering shibuya-kei within the local geographical and historical context from which it bloomed retromania the avant-garde has become an arrière-garde simon reynolds retromania 2011 xx the style of japanese popular music known as shibuya-kei emerged from the rich culture of music collecting and consumption which had established itself in the fashionable shibuya shopping district of south-west tokyo by the late 1980s the opening of the hmv and tower records flagship stores at the beginning of the 1990s in addition to others such as wave and shinseido created what david marx calls an ecosystem of record stores which provided outlets not just for japanese but also imported foreign music.3 as marx recounts 2010 the term shibuya-kei itself began to be applied to a select group of japanese indie bands including flipper s guitar,

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4 pizzicato five and love tambourines amongst others which were promoted at the newlyopened hmv store as being more interesting than the familiar japanese-language clones of western pop genres and which derived the bulk of their sales from the record stores in the shibuya district.4 it is no coincidence that two of the figures regarded as most influential in shibuya-kei s emergence konishi yasuharu and oyamada keigo were avid music collectors as marx explains shibuya-kei did not just glorify shopping and products in the lyrics the entire base of the music itself relied on sampling or pastiche of pre-existing media konishi yasuharu of pizzicato five was a record collector first and a musician second like the dj shadow school of hip hop shibuya-kei was about finding and buying the most obscure and therefore best records and reintroducing them to the world beikoku ongaku`s editor-in-chief kawasaki daisuke sees shibuya-kei as just the 90s progression of rich urban youth consumer culture and indeed all our innovators of the scene fit the hosono haruomi upper middle class model oyamada and [kenji ozawa [flipper s guitar s second member went to top-tier private high schools supposedly konishi was supported by his parents until he turned 30 and spent all of their hard earned money on records accordingly shibuya-kei has no explicit political message other than delineating the creator and listener from mainstream culture through product choices and taste shibuya-kei exclaimed you are all consuming the wrong goods and their fans who were also upper middle class educated kids agreed the market responded by providing those more sophisticated goods and incorporating them into the mainstream middle class lifestyle marx 2004 konishi s band pizzicato five fronted by the glamorous nomiya maki was to become perhaps the most iconic example of what shibuya-kei was about yet in a very different way oyamada s band flipper s guitar are also regarded as one of the pioneers of the shibuya-kei sound with oyamada himself subsequently becoming one of its central figures under the moniker cornelius a name inspired in a typical piece of pop-culture eclecticism by the central character of the

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5 1960s american science fiction movie classic planet of the apes both bands were characterized in different ways by an eclectic internationalism while pizzicato five was a postmodern mélange of jazz easy listening motown disco and club music flipper s guitar was heavily indebted to more recent british indie-pop and the neo-psychedelia of the stone roses and the happy mondays the indie labels founded by konishi and oyamada readymade and trattoria along with others such as crue-l and escalator became the distribution platform for the bands and solo artists who were or became part of the shibuya-kei scene including love tambourines kahimi karie takako minegawa yukari fresh bridge and numerous others while shibuyakei was primarily a tokyo-based scene it also had affinities with the kyoto-based acid-jazz scene through djs such as tanaka tomoyuki fantastic plastic machine and kyoto jazz massive if there was one characteristic the diverse group of artists gathered under the shibuya-kei umbrella shared in accordance with larger cultural developments within 1980s japan it was an ostentatious internationalism 5 while japanese bands had been known for their imitation of western bands and popular music genres since at least the 1960s what differentiated the shibuya-kei bands was their references not just to contemporary but retro popular music genres including 1960s french and british pop brazilian bossa nova easy listening and exotica european movie soundtracks motown disco and 80s uk indie-pop a phenomenon which simon reynolds recently dubbed retromania 6 the references in question were not limited to music alone moreover but also extended to the styling of bands and artists in album art promotional media photo-shoots for magazine articles music videos and live performances an early photograph of pizzicato five 1985 poses the band against the background of a movie poster for jacques tati s

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6 film mon oncle 1958 purchased by konishi yasuharu on a recent trip to paris the band s first single produced by hosono haruomi and released the same year bore the english title audrey hepburn complex the french nouvelle vague the italian glamour of fellini s la dolce vita 1960 the swinging london of antonioni s blow-up 1966 or the 1960s french musicals of jacques demy and michel legrand are variously invoked in pizzicato five music videos nomiya maki s reincarnations of 60s fashion icons twiggy and veruschka or kahimi karie s ep giapponese a roma much could be written alone about shibuya-kei s french connection from the ubiquitous french-language samples of shibuya-kei songs to actual collaborations with french artists such as philippe auclair of whom more later raphael sebbag of acid-jazz unit united future organization or producer bertrand burgalat kahimi karie lived in paris for a number of years and self-consciously styled herself after 1960s chanteuses such as france gall or claudine longet the notion of internationalism requires some clarification in this context the shibuya-kei artists were of course not alone in their fascination with easy listening and other retro genres indeed it was in many ways symptomatic of the larger tendencies in euro-american music culture of their time which also involved a postmodern often camp nostalgia for retro genres such as exotica and the pastiches and remixes of these which became known as lounge music from this perspective shibuya-kei s internationalism rather than a direct or vertical reference to euro-american retro genres can also be seen as a japanese response to parallel shifts taking place contemporaneously or horizontally within the postmodern music culture of the 1990s the shibuya-kei sound can thus be seen as tapping into and synthesizing a number of highly cosmopolitan music scenes in cities such as london paris berlin new york or rio in what

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7 follows i will explain in more detail shibuya-kei s connection to some of these scenes with the goal of disarticulating it from the local context within which it has tended to be discussed london paris mike alway s diary oh it goes to my head mike alway s diary la si do re mi mike alway s diary c est un secret d état mike alway s diary la la kahimi karie mike alway s diary 1992 it wouldn t have lasted three years except that somehow the japanese were listening mike alway on él records svenonius n.d in 1992 japanese indie label crue-l records founded a year previously by dj and producer takimi kenji ln-cc n.d released the first album by a then little-known singer known as kahimi karie hiki mari titled mike alway s diary and produced by karie s boyfriend at the time oyamada keigo the mini-album included a song of the same title which was an homage to the founder of the short-lived 1980s british art-pop indie label él records known for its postmodern pastiches of 1960s british bubblegum pop and neo-baroque stylization of its artists after european nobility louis philippe the king of luxemburg as alway explains in a recent interview the label s primary market was not britain but japan with él artists such as the wouldbe-goods or bad dream fancy dress stylized specifically to appeal to japanese youth the él records story n.d while the british music press remained largely indifferent to él s releases they enjoyed a cult following in japan even meriting a japanese tour by three of the label s artists organized by alway in the late 1980s.7 the song mike alway s diary itself is as alway acknowledges essentially a pastiche of the él records signature sound originating from his ac-

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8 quaintance with the francophile karie and oyamada the song is an indication of the cult status enjoyed by él records and its founder in japanese indie-music culture of the time while it remains unclear whether the u.k label was the inspiration for the similar-sounding crue-l records founded only a few years later both kahimi karie s early work and that of other crue-l artists love tambourines can be attributed to the british label s cult following in japan it was indeed a japanese funding offer which persuaded alway to return to the music industry in 1997 with songs for the jet set 1997-2000 a neo-él compilation series after he had abruptly parted company with the label in 1989 among the innumerable compilations of él records artists to have been released over the past decade one titled simply all about mike alway was released by japanese label rambling records in 2004 french musician arranger producer france football journalist biographer of french football legend eric cantona and diehard arsenal fan philippe auclair a.k.a louis philippe has lived in the uk since the 1980s and along with simon fisher-turner a.k.a the king of luxemburg was one of the mainstays of the él records catalog before a later rift with alway in the 90s after the demise of él records in 1989 he turned to japan and found the support of oyamada keigo who invited him to executive produce one of the earliest releases of oyamada s trattoria label the compilation fab gear 1991 mentioned by british expatriate dandy nick currie a.k.a momus as the founding record some say of shibuya-kei 2008 the compilation includes in addition to a song co-written by auclair four cuts by él-records alumni the monochrome set and currie himself as momus according to the louis philippe website trattoria s major-label parent polystar subsequently became auclair s second home releasing a series of his albums from 1991-98 as well as several compilations and facilitating licensing deals with

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9 labels in france spain the uk and the us trattoria s catalog until cornelius s point 2001 included numerous other western artists apples in stereo le hammond inferno himself based in japan currie was influential in the shibuya-kei scene throughout the 90s writing songs and producing records for kahimi karie and other artists poison girl friend given the close involvement of figures such as alway auclair and currie with the shibuya-kei group more or less from its inception one begins to see the problems involved in treating it as an exclusively japanese phenomenon while japanese indie labels crue-l and trattoria served as a bridge between the él records and shibuya-kei scenes outside japan shibuya-kei artists were distributed across a network of european and us indie labels and producers including paris tricatel london cherry red berlin bungalow new york matador chicago minty fresh and la emperor norton among these matador records merits particular mention playing a key role in popularizing pizzicato five for american audiences as well as germany s bungalow records whose sushi 3003 1996 and sushi 4004 1998 compilations also circulated widely throughout europe and the us in their seemingly endless releases of shibuya-kei labels such as escalator and readymade these labels connect japanese shibuya-kei artists with larger currents in western popular music inspired by a similar nostalgia for 60s retro-pop and exotica including paris s bertrand burgalat la s april march or european djs such as dimitri from paris and señor coconut within this transnational arena the japaneseness of shibuya-kei metamorphoses into a transnational soundscape part of a larger mix that includes many of its own sources including french retro-pop the art-pop of él records the exotica of martin denny and arthur lyman and brazilian bossa nova.

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10 new york tokyo shibuya-kei is dead declared nick currie with characteristic archness in a 1998 column for the glasgow herald currie s tongue might have seemed to be planted firmly in his cheek had he not of all people recently played a key role in the popularization of shibuya-kei in the west as the producer of paris-based kahimi karie s first non-japanese ep 1995 had he not also recently collaborated with her in a series of performances in new york called portable shibuya yet currie s title was also in a sense correct his article provided one of the first englishlanguage introductions to a musical subculture which had been percolating for much of the past decade but which within japan itself was already considered to have passed its peak by the time currie introduced it to his western readers thanks in part to currie s promotion of it over the subsequent decade shibuya-kei developed a cult following among american and european youth pizzicato five were the first to arrive performing for three years at the new york new music seminar 1992-94 in his new persona as cornelius oyamada débuted his first domestic us album release fantasma 1998 at the southby-southwest festival in 1998 as part of his first world tour distributed by matador records in the us each artist has reportedly sold over 100,000 records for the label cited in marx 2004 part 5 pizzicato five s happy sad ep was featured in robert altman s documentary about isaac mizrahi unzipped 1995 and from the mid-90s onwards their songs became increasingly popular sources for remixes by club djs in europe and the united states other than portable shibuya shibuya-kei s main new york connection was via expatriate japanese-korean dj towa tei formerly of the early 1990s band deee-lite whose acid-jazz dé-

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11 but future listening 1994 exhibited the shibuya-kei staples of ironic references to 1960s easy listening starting with its title sample-heavy dance mixes and bossa nova featuring pizzicato five vocalist nomiya maki as well as contributions by arto lindsay and the then rising diva of brazilian lounge music bebel gilberto towa tei s extensive remix credits include a number of pizzicato five songs while the addition of french or french-accented vocalists to his subsequent albums enhances their overlap with shibuya-kei s pop-cosmopolitanism 8 also in new york cibo matto comprising expatriate japanese musicians yuka honda and miho hatori have often been associated with shibuya-kei although they did not to my knowledge collaborate with shibuya-kei musicians and their 1995 album viva la woman reportedly sold only 20,000 copies in japan compared with 74,000 in the us bell 1999 over the past decade the emergence of the web as a mass medium has played a key role in the internationalization of shibuya-kei by the late 1990s a network of pizzicato five websites produced by north american and european fans had already begun to appear and a shibuya-kei yahoo group was launched in 2000 although blogs and social networks have since become the preferred sites for fan activity today music by shibuya-kei artists is readily available via youtube cd mail-order companies digital download services and torrent sites global shibuya-kei by 2004 shibuya-kei fatigue was setting in among some of its western fans with david marx publishing a series of online articles declaring that shibuya-kei had run its course marx 2004 and looking to emerging genres such as the electronics-heavy akiba-kei or the younger generation exemplified by tokumaru shugo as new sources of subcultural capital in spite of vanguard-

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12 ist proclamations of its demise however shibuya-kei has stubbornly refused to go away either in japan or worldwide in recent years flipper s guitar tributes and shibuya-kei remixes and retrospectives have begun to appear with increasing regularity while konishi s latest protégée nomoto karia or girl-duo vanilla beans exemplify the style in its more commercial form a new generation of neo-shibuya-kei bands qypthone capsule dahlia elektel aprils continues to produce music inspired by the shibuya-kei sound as i indicated earlier the shibuya-kei artists were certainly not alone in their fascination with 1960s easy listening and other retro-pop and exotic genres but symptomatic of a larger postmodern tendency within popular music that produced similarly retro-inspired bands often identifiable by their use of the mantra-word of 1960s musical consumption stereo stereolab stereo total apples in stereo humming urban stereo what the shibuya-kei artists did was to put their own specifically japanese take on these retro-pop genres which in turn has now become a distinctive style in its own right the past decade has seen a growing number of shibuyainspired projects and artists outside japan including the uk s gentle people france s dimitri from paris and nouvelle vague or in the us the flaming lips or la retro-pop duo the bird and the bee the shibuya-kei yahoo group lists in addition to japanese artists several dozen like-minded acts from france the us and uk spain sweden and the netherlands shibuya itself has been eulogized in songs such as momus s anthem of shibuya 1997 or glaswegian indie band the pearlfishers exquisitely-titled the umbrellas of shibuya 2007 and there is even a uk indie band called shibuya crossings in the us retro-pop duo the bird and the bee s song love letter to japan 2009 is an homage to j-pop more generally south korean bands clazziquai project casker and humming urban stereo are often seen as representing a

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13 korean neo-shibuya-kei movement.9 spanish indie band la casa azul and argentina s modular have both produced neo-shibuya-kei albums while la casa azul s first japanese release a compilation called cerca de shibuya 2011 offers japanese record collectors the interesting experience of acquiring a spanish shibuya-kei cd at tower records shibuya itself rather than imitations of or references to shibuya-kei this growing catalog of examples can be seen more as contributions to the continuing development of shibuya-kei as transnational audiotopia moreover japanese shibuya-kei artists are still actively involved in collaborative projects with nonjapanese musicians around the globe ensuring that the style continues to follow new and intriguing itineraries in the present belo horizonte tokyo along with french and british pop bossa nova is one of the signature styles of the shibuya-kei sound originating in rio in the late 1950s and early 1960s after initial success in the united states it quickly globalized and bands such as sergio mendes s brazil 66 became staples of easy-listening music around the globe inspiring numerous european and other imitators 10 bossa nova has long held a special place in japan in part because of the historical links between brazil and japan through migration de carvalho 2002 masterson 2003 maeda 2007 brazilian musicians such as nara leão cabral 2009 enjoy a cult following there bossa nova bars with names like barquinho abound and as the recent documentary bossa nova sol nascente 2010 attests a substantial body of bossa nova music has been produced by japanese-brazilian as well as japanese musicians see also tartan 2006 it was perhaps inevitable then that bossa nova would be part of the shibuya-kei repertoire as well as that shibuya-kei would find a receptive audience in

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14 brazil particularly among producers of the increasingly ubiquitous compilations of bossa-based club music such as bossacucanova one of the more interesting encounters is the recent collaboration between nomiya maki formerly of pizzicato five and fernanda takai a brazilian of japanese descent and lead singer of indie band pato fu although takai s grandmother is japanese she reportedly only began studying japanese as an adult mikevis 2008 but she clearly has a longer familiarity with shibuyakei pato fu s 1999 ep isopor includes a shibuya-kei pastiche titled made in japan 11 and the band s 2010 album música de brinquedo even includes a cover of the pizzicato five song twiggy twiggy performed in japanese by takai the maki-takai collaboration began with a joint performance of some pizzicato five songs in belo horizonte brazil and during pato fu s subsequent japanese tour in 2008 this was followed by the neo-shibuya-kei ep maki-takai no jetlag 2009 with each singer performing both in japanese and portuguese and including a shibuya-esque cover of roberto menescal s bossa nova standard o barquinho sung in japanese.12 the duo have since performed together again at a series of 2011 concerts at the festival de cinema japonês in são paolo 13 i mention this encounter not because it is particularly unusual on the contrary such encounters between like-minded musicians are an everyday occurrence in today s global music industry but because it exemplifies both the transnational reach of shibuya-kei today as well as how it continues to develop as it always has done as an ongoing transcultural dialog with other musicians and musics around the globe if shibuya-kei emerged as a distinctively japanese dialog with a variety of international popular music genres given its own globalization over the past decade the question remains as to whether it can now be

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15 considered as a style of world music albeit one different from what is usually understood by that term saudade do futuro mono no aware the sadness of things mono no aware the temptation to see the world as it ought to be mono no aware the sadness of things blinded with tears i can still see my insignificance in an indifferent universe momus the sadness of things 1995 i will conclude with some thoughts about affect not because it is currently the cultural-studies paradigm du jour but because it is one of the most distinctive aspects of shibuya-kei and offers a way of talking about it other than those focused on music-industry economics or transnational flows in contrast to the darkness alienation and rage that characterize much contemporary popular music shibuya-kei music is mostly of a more sunny disposition in this respect it resembles some of its sources most notably the perennially cheerful indie-pop of él records it comes as little surprise that louis philippe s website is named sunshine it has been suggested that the sunniness of shibuya-kei reflects the economic optimism of the late 80s and early 1990s before the end of the bubble economy when consumer spending was still high especially among japanese youth shibuya-kei songs reflect the affluent cosmopolitan lifestyles of the artists who produced them focusing on leisure and play rather than the world of work shopping nightlife watching movies fashion favourite sports players hanging out with friends in coffee-

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