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Korea Blog: Listen to the Seoul of the 1980s, Real or Imagined, with Streaming Mixes of Korean “City Pop”

Japanese names like Katomatsu Toshiki, Ohnuki Taeko, Yamashita Tatsuro, or Takeuchi Mariya may or may not mean anything to you. Rest assured, however, that there are Korean record collectors to whom they mean a great deal indeed. I see more than a few of them in person whenever Gimbab Records, a shop not far from where I live in western Seoul, puts on one of their sales of Japanese “city pop” records. These hotly anticipated events have usually involved an especially well-stocked collector parking a van on the store’s narrow street — almost an alley, really — and dealing the sacred pieces of vinyl straight out of the back. The sacredness comes through in the prices they pay, which surely exceed even what they cost new back at the height of Japan’s economic bubble in the 1980s. I’ve never brought along the kind of cash I would need to buy even half of what I might want, and deliberately so.

Like most city pop fans around the world, I just listen to the stuff on YouTube — and in fact discovered it on YouTube in the first place. If you’ve never heard city pop for yourself, you’ll better understand it not through a description of its sound but through a Youtube trip of your own. A YouTuber who calls himself Stevem has put together a video essay, “What Is Plastic Love?,” that explains just how a Japanese pop single from 1984, obscure even in its own country, racked up millions of views seemingly overnight after someone made it available in streaming-video form. That song, Takeuchi Mariya’s “Plastic Love,” has for the better part of a decade acted as the most effective gateway drug for the potential city pop enthusiast. All that time, the digitization and uploading of this “strain of lite, easy-listening J-pop that drew on a variety of American and Asian influences including funk, soul, disco, lounge, and even yacht rock,” as Rob Arcand and Sam Goldner put it in their Vice guide, has continued apace.

City pop’s 21st-century fan base knows no nationality, and its members have mixed, matched, and even remixed its-ever growing selection of acknowledged tracks into a great many themed streaming mixes, often visually accompanied by clips of vintage Japanese television and animation. For my money, the  Chicago-based Van Paugam (whose work includes a brief history of city pop) has long made the best city pop mixes on YouTube, but earlier this year the Japanese recording industry — an aggressive entity, even by recording-industry standards — had his channel taken down, forcing him to start over again. You can still hear all of his mixes on Mixcloud, though, and not every city pop-minded YouTuber has suffered the same fate. Some have avoided it by diversifying their musical selections, even to the point of looking, or rather listening, outside Japan entirely: take, for instance, the recent appearance of city pop mixes from Korea.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.