Dirt: Harry Styles listens to City Pop
Japan x UK influence.
Kyle Chayka on bouncing between ‘80s Japan and ‘20s YouTube algorithm.
The title of Harry Styles’s new album “Harry’s House” is vague enough that it could mean anything. On its cover, he appears on the ceiling of an upside-down, generically mid-century interior. Is the pop star inviting us into his home, an intimate glimpse at the human behind the celebrity? Nah; the lyrics are totally opaque, as Lindsay Zoladz writes in her NYT review. “Harry’s House” is actually a reference to another album, “Hosono House,” by the legendary Japanese musician Haruomi Hosono, who was in bands like Yellow Magic Orchestra as well as a solo artist. Styles has admitted to the influence in various interviews, but it’s also easy to spot Hosono’s impact on the music itself, and its connection to the wider genre of ‘70s-80s Japanese pop now known as City Pop.
These days, City Pop is something of an algorithmic genre. A handful of tracks from the era were heavily promoted by the YouTube recommendation algorithm over the past few years, including Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love” and Haruomi Hosono’s transcendental “Sports Men.” Generally, it takes the vocabulary of more traditional R&B and replicates it with a palette of only synthesizers, like a live nightclub band of robots. It’s not a flawed copy of American pop; it’s a style all its own.
Though “City Pop” is barely recognized under that name in Japan, it has become a subject of fascination abroad. As one YouTube comment on “Plastic Love” says, “This song makes me feel nostalgic for my childhood in Japan in the 80s even though I was born in Ireland in 1999.” (You can’t do better than Cat Zhang’s 2021 Pitchfork essay for observing City Pop’s path to ubiquity.) As documented Hito Steyerl’s essay “In Defense of the Poor Image,” digital mass distribution always entails a degree of degradation. City Pop is now popular, but it has lost something of its original identity and its connection to its sources. Harry Styles (lol @ the name, in this context) adopts it as an aesthetic, just another possibility from the archive of 20th-century sounds, the way Taylor Swift picked up lo-fi folk in the pandemic.
Styles’s new song “Music for a Sushi Restaurant,” as he told NPR, was inspired by being in a sushi restaurant and hearing his own music on the stereo, which seemed like an odd match to him. So he set out to write something more fitting. True or not, the story seems like another wink at City Pop, gesturing toward the Western vision of boom-time Japan: sushi conveyor belts, shiny mass-production lines, the Sony Walkman.
The introductory guitar loop and the repeating synth-horn chorus starting 1:00 into “Music for a Sushi Restaurant” comes straight from Hiroshi Sato, the Japanese keyboardist whose album “Awakening” is an underrecognized work of absolute pop genius. Listen to Sato’s lesser-known “Sweet Inspiration” for an incredibly similar vibe. Styles could just cover it. “Music for a Sushi Restaurant” also treats the English language as a kind of found object, the way English phrases sometimes appear haphazardly in City Pop songs — Tatsuro Yamashita’s “Love Talkin' (Honey It's You),” for example. Styles compacts the phrase “music for a sushi restaurant” into pure rhythm and follows it with straight-up scat.
Another track from Harry’s House, Late Night Talking, might well be a Yamashita reference, with the ebullient synth horns underneath the classic simple chorus and rhythmic monotone lyrics. The song starts and ends in 2:57; this is not Frank Ocean’s vision of meandering, ambiguous, dissembling, self-referential songwriting. In art and culture, appropriation is a never-ending circle: These aesthetics bounced back and forth between the United States, Japan, and the rest of the world. One artist, movement, or nation can’t claim total originality; the syncretism is the point. It’s exciting to hear the aesthetic enter a new phase and be reinterpreted once more. Though personally I’d prefer if Styles went even more City Pop. — Kyle Chayka
The Dirt: Harry Styles speeding in a pixelated red Honda over nighttime neon highways.
PS: Check out this compilation of folk-y tracks from Haruomi Hosono’s first band, Happy End. You might recognize the third song “Kaze wo atsumete” from a little film called Lost in Translation, ever heard of it?