Shibuya-kei; what is it, and why preserve it?

Pizzicato Five

(Image from Flickr)

Although largely faded into tragic obscurity by now, the Shibuya-kei (渋谷系, literally “Shibuya style”) boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s was, in its time, a joyful explosion of all that was good in the world. The jet-setting young socialites at the forefront of the movement had weathered the collapse of Japan’s economic bubble with their spirits unbowed, making music (and art, and fashion, and basically anything else they could think of) that brought together the best parts of international pop culture history for a unique, retro-futuristic take on world music. The kitchen-sink approach to blending musical styles makes it hard to pin down exactly what Shibuya-kei sounds like on an objective level, but if the aesthetic could be boiled down to a single, incredibly reductive term, that term would be kitsch. While far more fixated on symbols of 1960s Europe than the post-war era favoured by ’90s hipsters in America (think Twin Peaks), Shibuya-kei definitely traded in the same sort of disregard for the mainstream and contemporary, while lacking any of the anti-authoritarian, anarchistic spirit of other counter-cultural movements. Shibuya-kei was a rejection of the typical, yes, but based on no particular ideology and devoid of any obvious political agenda – yes, some of the associated fashion designers were known to put images of Karl Marx on shirts and jackets, but to attempt to read any kind of appeal to Marxist sensibilities into a genre almost wholly devoted recapturing the high life of 1960s Europe would be a doomed effort from the start. The father of communism is just a symbol, less akin to the already-questionable revolutionary statement of the Che Guevara T-shirt than Singaporean clothing store Giordano’s “Mini-Che” cartoon; a symbol reclaimed so far from its original intent that it takes on a deliriously silly life of its own.

As W. David Marx of Neojaponisme already did a fantastic job in writing a primer to Shibuya-kei, I won’t do his words a disservice by paraphrasing. You can read his excellent write-up here, as well as many other good pieces on that blog tagged with “Shibuya-kei” – unlike myself, Marx had the good fortune of actually living in Tokyo during the boom, and his perspective is blessed to have been informed by personal interactions with the movers and shakers of Shibuya-kei. If my writing seems at all jealous, know that it is. Completely.

While Shibuya-kei, as a term, is generally used to refer to about a decade’s worth of foreign-inspired Japanese music from 1989 to 1999 (vaguely), even in those Japanese artists’ heyday, foreign collaborators were always a fixture. Scottish singer-songwriter Momus found an unlikely career renaissance as lyricist and composer for Shibuya-kei singer Kahimi Karie, loungecore DJ Dimitri From Paris found his “Shibuya Connection”, Apples in Stereo contributed a song to Cornelius’s Fantasma, and many other notable collaborations rendered distinctions between East and West incredibly arbitrary – just one of the many things that makes Shibuya-kei so appealing. Unencumbered by silly, reductive notions of nationalism, Shibuya-kei was an international sound bigger than any place or time. So when I seek to preserve Shibuya-kei – in covering music that has traditionally been labeled “Shibuya-kei”, the music that inspired it, and releases that fit with the aesthetic – I seek to allow for at least a temporary return to the glorious time-out-of-time that was Shibuya-kei’s world. Some could argue that such escapist entertainment is bad to indulge in, but perhaps it’s the guilt that makes the pleasure that much sweeter.


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