As any Shibuya-kei history inevitably points out, the HMV store in Shibuya was often considered the epicenter of the movement; hallowed ground where its staff recommendations formed the basis of a bold new sound that pushed aside the stagnant dregs of post-kayokyoku idol music and reinvented J-pop as the cultured realm of jet-setting musical pioneers who broke down boundaries and made defiantly new music by reappropriating the old. Whether this was in any way true is completely unknown, but when the former HMV closed down and was replaced by “fast fashion” retail giant Forever 21 in 2010, it inevitably seemed like the end of an era, the true death of Shibuya-kei.
While it is indeed true that the Shibuya-kei sounds of Flipper’s Guitar and Maki Nomiya-era Pizzicato Five (Adam and Eve, essentially) had fallen somewhat out of favour in recent years, HMV Shibuya’s former rival has been making a concentrated effort to bring sexy back, so to speak – if the first wave was HMV’s to claim responsiblity for, the new Shibuya-kei revival can call Tower Records in Shibuya its home base.
A cursory glance at the constant stream of updates from Tower Shibuya’s Twitter feed shows all the usual suspects – trendy K-pop groups, Snoopy character goods, and underaged idol groups are prominently featured – but buried within the constant stream of white-noise pop culture, one can find mention of “Music Nyt” (“nyt” being Finnish for “now” – explanation for “why Finnish?” pending), Tower Records Shibuya’s in-house music show that’s essentially Ground Zero for the store’s Shibuya-kei revival. See, Music Nyt’s main MC Tooru Hidaka is accompanied on Tuesdays by Tower employee Saku (star of the live clip above), who could easily be a one-woman Shibuya-kei revival all by herself. Making no effort to conceal the fact that she works a relatively unglamorous day job, Saku brilliantly combines the most shameless of product placement in the history of Shibuya-kei with a sound that’s as inviting and comfortably familiar as your favourite meal from childhood. With a list of influences that range from old Shibuya-kei stalwarts like Flipper’s Guitar (“1st Q&A“) to slightly newer Shibuya-kei stalwarts like capsule (see video below), Saku’s music pays tribute to the ’90s Shibuya-kei sound every bit as reverently as the musicians she so lovingly copies from paid tribute to the world music of the ’60s before her.
Although Saku’s overflowing adoration for the Shibuya-kei of yore could have just as easily been seen as an anomaly, just one girl’s bizarre fixation on music made when she was barely out of infancy, Tower Records has a much larger scheme for bringing back the Shibuya-ku special ward’s cultural relevance. Through the company’s own T-Palette Records label (which, it should be noted, Saku isn’t signed to), Tower has been working to bring about a sort of neo-Shibuya-kei idol group sound; simultaneously bringing back the old kayokyoku style of idol performances (think Pink Lady) and pushing the music forward with an infusion of Shibuya-kei flavour; a stark contrast to the Occidental EDM sound that more mainstream idol groups have been favouring as of late. The T-Palette roster suggests an alternate universe where Japanese idol music followed the trajectory of Shibuya-kei rather than the horrifically bland Onyanko Club sound it temporarily replaced; and although outside of the T-Palette umbrella, Pizzicato Five’s Yasuharu Konishi has embraced this dynamic as well – his latest musical venture is the idol duo Nananon, whose music recalls his former band even with the shift to an idol-group format. The Shibuya-kei connection goes deeper than just the general sound though; T-Palette group Negicco, for example, features guitar playing from former Pizzicato Five vocalist and Original Love member Takao Tajima on their latest single.
While it would probably seem blasphemous to associate the Shibuya-kei sound with “idol groups”, those most hated of manufactured Japanese pop acts, it’s only natural that musicians have to adapt to a changing cultural environment or die (metaphorically speaking, of course). Acts like T-Palette’s Vanilla Beans (video above) may not write their own songs or play their own music, but it’s worth nothing that, for the most part, neither did Shibuya-kei legends like Kahimi Karie. Yes, when Konishi and Tajima were in Pizzicato Five in the ’80s it must have been unthinkable that either of them would end up doing something as goauche as making music for a pre-fabricated idol group, but the old rock star ideals don’t work anymore – it’s not “selling out” when the alternative is re-entering the work force past middle age. The new Shibuya-kei might not look much like the old, but its new-school visuals are accompanied by a lovely throwback sound; instead of dying along with the Shibuya HMV, the genre evolved.