Shibuya-kei (Japanese: , lit. "Shibuya style") is a microgenre of pop music or a general aesthetic that flourished in the mid to late 1990s. Emerging as Japanese retail music from the Shibuya district of Tokyo, artists purveyed a cut-and-paste style that was inspired by previous genres based on kitsch, fusion, and artifice. Shibuya-kei inherited musical characteristics from earlier 1980s Japanese city pop, while incorporating strong influences from 1960s culture and Western pop music, especially the orchestral domains occupied by producers Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, and singer Serge Gainsbourg.
Unlike other Japanese music scenes, Western audiences did not necessarily cross over into anime fandoms, but rather indie pop enthusiasts. This was partly because many of its bands were distributed in the United States through major indie labels like Matador and Grand Royal.Flipper's Guitar, a duo led by Kenji Ozawa and Keigo Oyamada (Cornelius), formed the bedrock of the genre and influenced all of its groups, but the most prominent Shibuya-kei band was Pizzicato Five, who fused mainstream J-pop with a mix of jazz, soul, and lounge influences. Shibuya-kei peaked in the late 1990s and declined after its principal players began moving into other music styles.
The term "Shibuya-kei" comes from Shibuya (), one of the 23 special wards of Tokyo known for its concentration of stylish restaurants, bars, buildings, record shops, and bookshops. In the late 1980s, the term "J-pop" was formulated by FM radio station J-Wave as a way to distinguish Western-sounding Japanese music (a central characteristic of Shibuya-kei) from exclusively Euro-American music. In 1991, HMV Shibuya opened a J-pop corner which showcased displays and leaflets that highlighted indie records. It was one of those displays that coined "Shibuya-kei".
At the time, Shibuya was an epicenter for Tokyo fashion, nightlife, and youth culture with a cluster of record shops like Tower Records and HMV, which housed a selection of imports, as well as fashionable record boutiques. British independent record labels such as él Records and the Compact Organization had been influences on the various Japanese indie distributors, and thanks to the late 1980s economic boom in Japan, Shibuya music shops could afford to stock a wider selection of genres.
Musicologist Mori Yoshitaka writes that popular groups from the area responded with their "eclectically fashionable hybrid music influenced by different musical resources from around the world in a way that might be identified as postmodernist ... they were able to listen to, quote, sample, mix, and dub this music, and eventually create a new hybrid music. In other words, Shibuya-kei was a byproduct of consumerism". Journalist W. David Marx notes that the musicians were less interested in having an original sound than they were about having a sound that reflected their personal tastes, that the music "was literally built out of this collection process. The 'creative content' is almost all curation, since they basically reproduced their favourite songs, changing the melody a bit but keeping all parts of the production intact."
Specific touchstones include the French yé-yé music of Serge Gainsbourg,[nb 1] the orchestral pop of Van Dyke Parks and the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, the lounge pop of Burt Bacharach, and the sunshine pop of Roger Nichols and the Small Circle of Friends. Wilson was romanticized a mad genius experimenting in the recording studio, and Phil Spector's Wall of Sound was emulated not for its denseness, but for its elaborate quality. From él Records, Louis Philippe was heralded as the "godfather" of the Shibuya sound around the time he released the Japan-only albums Jean Renoir (1992) and Rainfall (1993). Reynolds adds that Postcard Records and "the tradition of Scottish indie pop it spawned was hugely admired, and there was a penchant for what the Japanese dubbed 'funk-a-latina': Haircut 100 ..., Blue Rondo à la Turk, Matt Bianco. The composite of all these innocuous and already distinctly ersatz sources was a cosmopolitan hybrid that didn't draw on any indigenous Japanese influences."
Flipper's Guitar, a duo led by Kenji Ozawa and Keigo Oyamada (also known as Cornelius), formed the bedrock of Shibuya-kei and influenced all of its groups. However, the term was not coined until after the fact, and its exact definition would not be crystallized until 1993. Many of these artists indulged in a cut-and-paste style that was inspired by previous genres based on kitsch, fusion, and artifice. In the West, the development of chamber pop and a renewed interest in cocktail music was a remote parallel.[nb 2] According to Reynolds: "What was really international was the underlying sensibility. ... The Shibuya-kei approach was common to an emerging class of rootless cosmopolitans with outposts in most major cities of the world ... known pejoratively as hipsters." Eventually, the music of Shibuya-kei groups and their derivatives could be heard in virtually every cafe and boutique in Japan. Reynolds references this as an issue with its "model of elevated consumerism and curation-as-creation ... Once music is a reflection of esoteric knowledge rather than expressive urgency, its value is easily voided."
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After Oyamada went solo, he became one of the biggest Shibuya-kei successes. Although his debut "The Sun Is My Enemy" only peaked at No. 15 on Japanese singles charts, writer Ian Martin calls it a "key track" that helped define Shibuya-kei. His 1997 album Fantasma is also considered one of the greatest achievements of the genre. Oyamada landed praise from American music critics, who called him a "modern day Brian Wilson" or the "Japanese Beck". Marx described the album as "an important textbook for an alternative musical history where Bach, Bacharach, and the Beach Boys stands as the great triumvirate."
The most prominent Shibuya-kei band was Pizzicato Five, who fused mainstream J-pop with a mix of jazz, soul, and lounge influences, reaching a commercial peak with Made in USA (1994). As the style's popularity increased at end of the 90s, the term began to be applied to many bands whose musical stylings reflected a more mainstream sensibility. Although some artists rejected or resisted being categorized as "Shibuya-kei," the name ultimately stuck, as the style was favoured by local businesses, including Shibuya Center Street's HMV Shibuya, which sold Shibuya-kei records in its traditional Japanese music section. Increasingly, musicians outside Japan, such as Britain's Momus, France's Dimitri from Paris, and the US artists Natural Calamity and Phofo are labelled Shibuya-kei.
According to Momus, although Shibuya-kei continues to influence many musicians, the genre remains "dead" as of 2015, explaining that the subculture had a lot to do with the area itself; "Shibuya today is just an overblown shopping district, summed up for me by the disappointing Shibuya Hikarie center".