Essay – Shibuya-Kei: The Swinging 60s in 90s Tokyo

In the 90s and early 00s the Shibuya district of Tokyo saw an indie pop music explosion. This area of Tokyo, renowned as a centre of ‘hipsterdom’, exposed the city’s youth to an eclectic range of esoteric international pop culture through its vast array of independent record shops, trendy cafes, and open-minded book stores. As such, it became a repository for much of the material that went on to inspire a generation of aspiring artists and musicians, influenced by the increasingly cosmopolitan consumer culture that thrived following Japan’s economic boom of the 80s.

The term ‘Shibuya-Kei’, meaning ‘Shibuya style’, was coined by the Japanese media to describe the hodgepodge of young musicians who actively distanced themselves from the more mainstream genre of J-Pop. Sonically, the artists did not share a specific style, but more of a guiding philosophy; that of deconstructing, sampling and reworking musical styles born in the West, often mixing in a generous dose of irony. Pop music from the 1960s, ranging from Chamber pop to lounge music, French Ye-Ye, Jazz and Bossa Nova woven together with Chicago house and East Coast hip-hop sampling were the styles that informed bands such as Pizzicato Five and Fantastic Plastic Machine, always with an internationalist and retro-futurist slant.

Music creation had gone from being “pure song writing” to something based in consumption, collection, and, arguably most importantly, curation. The ability to curate and reappropriate an eclectic mixture of international cultural artefacts was part of the genre’s huge appeal, as it allowed for it’s fans to demonstrate a more ‘refined’ and ‘cultured’ taste, distinguishing themselves from the perceived homogeny of Japan’s mainstream culture.

Throughout the rest of the world the 90s saw a rise of sampling culture, and foreigners could not help but notice that the Shibuya-Kei crew was on the leading edge. What made the artists of Shibuya-Kei distinctive was their employment of the concept of mukokuseki, meaning to be ‘state-less’ or international. Shibuya-Kei, by its very design eschews any characteristics of its ‘Easterness’ and is deliberately ‘un-Oriental’. One could read into this as an example of the youth culture of 90s urban Japan, strongly influenced by the effects of globalisation, engaging in a type of cultural Eurocentrism. The genre and the sub-culture it gave rise to could easily be viewed through the lens of arguments made by academics such as Shu-mei Shih. That in response to the effects of globalisation, media produced within the West is perceived to have more value and is thus privileged over media produced outside of the West. Subsequently, within the global “literary market” – or in this case the global “media market” – Anglophone and Western media remain dominant and are perceived to be the ‘gold standard’ to which all other non-Western media should aspire.

However, the arguments of Shih don’t necessarily telegraph directly onto the genre and its reception without any issues. That the styles of music that the genre pulls from are decidedly ‘un-modern’ subverts the notion that non-dominant, or peripheral, cultures are expected to adhere to standards of modernity established by the core cultural epicentres of the West. In this sense, one could come to the conclusion that there is an element of satire to the genre. That this subversion of the typical dynamic of cultural transmission between the East and West is an intentional disruption, a subtle jab at the West and its perceived demands that all should aim towards their conception of contemporary.

Shibuya-Kei was not only a success inside of Japan, but also with the countries that gave birth to the genre’s stylistic origins. By the late ’90s, foreign labels from Los Angeles to Berlin were snapping up Japanese artists for worldwide release. The genre’s mukokuseki quality helped it garner a massive following amongst city dwellers all over the globe who prided themselves on their cosmopolitan sensibility. The lack of any political commentary or factors that could locate the music as a product of a specific nation, as well as the accessibility of the music’s nostalgia for Western 60s kitsch was a major asset in allowing bands to break into the American and European market like no other Japanese acts had done before. Pizzicato Five and Cornelius each sold more than 100,000 records on Matador in the U.S. and opened the floodgate of Japanese acts into America after a long dry spell. Rather ironically, in spite of artists striving for a ‘state-less’ sound, the sound and aesthetic of Shibuya-Kei became known as distinctly “Japanese,” and Shibuya-Kei contributed to the worldwide image of Japan. 

In retrospect, some have noted that Shibuya-Kei artists often walked the thin line between “influence” and outright thievery, and like many other genre’s which rely heavily on sampling blurs the lines between what counts as a legitimate creative endeavour and what is merely plagiarism. Pastiche — the act of creating a new work using someone else’s idiosyncratic conventions — is a well-accepted art form, and certainly parody has been an effective creative tool throughout the years. With that said, many Shibuya-Kei artists took it one step further by stealing the melodies as well as the production techniques. Flipper’s Guitar’s “The Quizmaster” does not just have the same instrumentation and tempo as Primal Scream’s “Loaded”. Another example that feels particularly egregious is Pizzicato Five’s ‘Baby Portable Rock’, which when played back to back with Gary Lewis & the Playboys’s “Green Grass” sounds nearly identical. Whatever one’s opinions are on the issue of artists “ripping off” other artists, whether they share a cultural identity or not, Shibuya-Kei provides an especially intriguing example of how the dynamics of globalisation and cosmopolitanism play out practically in the production of culture. In some respects, the success of this genre demonstrates the dominance of Anglophone or Western cultural forms within the ‘World System’ and a perfect example of how Eurocentrism and a tendency to over-privilege Western media proliferates through globalization. In addition, that the genre’s success was mirrored back in the West could be viewed as a product of a ‘post-modern Orientalism’, defined by a charming familiarity rather than exoticism and otherness, as Western audiences delight in seeing a nostalgic pastiche of themselves performed on the other side of the globe. However, it would be reductive to only view the music of Shibuya-Kei in terms of a push and pull relationship of dominance and subjugation between the East and West considering how much of the music is created with a definite streak of irony. Furthermore, it would be a disservice to the imagination and ingenuity with which the artists found new ways of interpreting the music and culture of the past. At its heart, Shibuya-Kei is a celebration of being a serious music fan, while knowing not to take it all too seriously.

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