[LVL To The Road] Cold Chicago Days, Hot Tokyo Nights: The Genesis of City Pop in the Windy City

By: Connor Hayes

We were headed east into the downtown from Schaumburg when the temperature really began to drop. I had flown into O’Hare International from Orlando the night before, and while winter weather in Chicago should have been a shock to the system, the crisp, chill air was just a reminder of a reunion between subject and setting, that had been long overdue. Every time I’ve ventured into the Great Midwest, it’s also been because of music, and this time was no different. Unlike other vacations, a dram of premium sake was awaiting me at an unassuming cafe on Ontario Street.

A month prior, in a conversation about vintage anime art styles, a friend had sent me a Youtube playlist of nothing but “City Pop”. Curious, I took a listen. As the jazz/funk fusion melodies and bright vocals began, I clicked on the Info tab, in order to find out more. Much like American music of the 1980’s, City Pop is reflective of the “Bubble Economy” era of 80’s Japan. All the tracks shared a common thread of being optimistic, whimsical, yet meticulously produced, utilizing both synthesizers and a cadre of live instrumentals, from sensual saxophones to saccharine bass lines. Below the brief history of the genre, there was an event link, for a “City Pop Night”, taking place every third Saturday, at Murasaki’s Sake Lounge, in downtown Chicago. I already had it in my itinerary to see Widespread Panic, a storied jam band from Athens, GA, in Milwaukee the day after, so I made a mental note to attend the inaugural date. City Pop 2It wasn’t until I was through the front door that the full coziness of Murasaki’s ambiance hit me. Over the din of laughter and banter of the patrons, came the soundtrack for the night, provided by the event’s mastermind, Miami emigre Van Paugam. Flanked by felt-cushion booths, monitors streaming Neon Genesis Evangelion, and a few partition walls lined with sake cafe decorum, Paugam was live mixing selections from several period City Pop albums, utilizing nothing but analog material and transitions. Around the turntables had gathered quite a few patrons, and the acoustics were such that throughout the rest of the lounge conversation could be had without drowning out the music, and vice versa. At the bar itself, nestled among neon light accents, were a collection of several-hundred-dollar bottles of sake, and shochu, a mile marker liquor that lies between wine or sake, and whiskey. Prepared from several sources including distilled rice, sweet potatoes, brown sugar, or barley, shochu is exceptionally rare outside of a large metropolis, so its inclusion on the menu was a welcome treat.City Pop 5

As the wee hours of the morning came around, and the crowds thinned, Van kept spinning vinyl, going well past 2 AM. Whereas the set started with more upbeat, dancefloor-ready numbers, Paugam’s late night selections were far more emotionally charged, R&B-style deep cuts. Reflecting his audience’s stamina, the beats became more and more introspective and minimalistic, mimicking the feeling of “3 AM thoughts” after a long night of revelry. Before we left, I thanked Van for a fantastic set (sequencing 5 hours of any music genre is difficult; when its on vinyl, even more so), and was sure to tip the hostess for the incredible sake and service.City Pop 4

Indeed, the whole event left the impression of wandering through Tokyo night clubs in the age of neon, glitz, and music that simply celebrates the high life. Quite simply, City Pop is unabashed, danceable, serotonin inducing fun. Oh Murasaki’s, I’ll be back. In the words of Mariya Takeuchi, “Tanoshimeba sorede iino.” If I’m having fun, thats enough.City Pop 3

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