The Culture Crush

The Weekly

THE WEEKLY

EXOTICA

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For our first Weekly back from summer break, we wanted to start things off with a pop; city pop to be exact. But don’t worry, we didn’t know what that was either, despite the fact that some city pop videos have more than 18 million views on YouTube.

So why would obscure ’80’s Japanese pop music suddenly have this kind of cultural relevance again? What could possibly resonate with the digital creatives of today? It’s a cultural game of Clue that weaves back and forth from America to Japan and back again a few times, including recording sessions with Beach Boy’s producer Van Dyke Parks, Soul Train performances, and a finale tied to the unfortunate modern day ubiquity of the aesthetics of technology.

Our new column by Spencer Leary, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon, is a fascinating deep dive into the mixed up evolution of post war Japanese musical genres, tracing the game of cultural tag that Asian artists were forced to play with the west due to imperialism, occupation, miscommunication, and a level of cultural appropriation and re-appropriation that’s frankly head spinning. 

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This tale follows Japanese artist Haruomi Hosono on his long and winding path through various projects, bands and solo albums on his search for a what a truly modern authentic Japanese music should or could be. It echoed the changing cultural climate his art was responding to, both at home and abroad.

But that’s the thing about art, and especially music, we tend to hear it through different ears, depending on the social, political, and economic conditions it amplifies. So as Japan’s new identity was struggling to emerge, its imperial American overlords were busy commercializing it’s clichés, and in the 1970’s, a new trend in grooviness was born; exotica. From tiki bars to Mai Tais, kitschy elements of South Pacific aesthetics came into vogue.

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Just like the old travelogues that once described the “mystical orient” for Victorian audiences, American musicians like Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman presented a wholly commercialized aural landscape of the Pacific Islands. Their version of exotica was all wind chimes, bird calls, and soft flutes; a land of mystery and sensuous delights totally divorced from the reality of Asian society.

Not surprising when you consider that this new style of music was written and performed by mostly white men.That phenomenon isn’t anything new, but it is interesting to look at the continuum of this type of back and forth, and watch it create a completely new trend entirely, as in the curious case of Haruomi Hosono.

After decades of trying to make an authentic Japanese pop in the shadow of the giants, it was in his reinterpretation of exotica, a form full of stolen identities, that he found original bliss. By taking the aural clichés and stripping them of their exploitative ornamentation while adding modern western clichés back in, like the electronic drumbeat. He conjured his own original sound which contextually coincided with the onset of Japan’s economic and cultural reemergence, and eventual dominance, in the 1980’s.

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And that’s exactly what happened with the creation of city pop. Hosono combined exotica with modern sounds, mixing in some surfy, care-free, dreamy vibes, to create a new music trend that would eventually become city pop. “It was at once futuristic and antiquated, western and eastern, a combination of all the sounds that had been kicking around Hosono’s head, a respected piece of authentically Japanese music, and the final component to the city-pop formula.” So how can these songs be resonating so hard with new emerging subcultures? If you look back at the specific aesthetics of 1980’s Japan, they were tied to all sorts of electric dreams. Taste was defined by technology, by graphics, games and the digital artifice that city pop expressed all too well.

And here we are again. The digital worlds we now inhabit would naturally want to tap back into this circuit based origin story. Creatives have rediscovered this seemingly naive and superficial expression of Japanese society at a time when it had just rediscovered itself. 

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So as one decade’s original sound is just another one’s sample, contemporary digital designers have gone back to their natural source. It’s their version of exotica, bird calls and all. What we creatives crave is a little magic, and often find it in a starry eyed mysticism, whether its the lonely genius tinkering in his studio, or a pop master looking for the next big hit, they are both searching for the right sound, the right vibe, the true expression of the society from which it emanates. The very definition of culture. 

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When pondering the idea of exotica, you might not think immediately of The Beach Boys, yet they created one of the most complex, exotica-esque albums of our time. We know that’s hard to believe. Nothing sounds more simply American than “Good Vibrations” or “Surfin’ U.S.A.” We all wish we could be California Girls.

But the lonely genius behind these songs, Brian Wilson, created a concept album in 1966 that went on to influence not just far-off artists like Haruomi Hosono, but also giants like The Beatles. Pet Sounds changed the landscape of pop music forever with songs so harmoniously unusual that they felt exotic. But the music is beyond pop; there's jazz, folk, classical, experimental noise, and of course, what came to be known as exotica. Wilson created his own musical structure for the songs and experimented with sound to create something unlike anything else.

The making of the album wasn’t all sunshine and butterflies, though. After experiencing a panic attack on a plane, Wilson insisted that the band tour without him and to leave him to create his masterpiece on his own in the studio. This caused a strain on the group that was arguably becoming just a brand, a face for Wilson’s manic, genius work. 

Wilson mixed conventional instruments with highly unusual instruments like glockenspiels, ukulele, Electro-Theremin, bongos, and harpsichords. They even added in avant-garde sounds like dog whistles, bells, and plastic bottle noise concoctions. Pet Sounds' impact was almost immediate. After its release, Paul McCartney and John Lennon knew they needed to create something big, and as a result Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was born. McCartney said it wouldn’t have happened without Pet Sounds upping the art-creating ante.

Many of the album’s singles are considered classics nowadays, otherwise, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” wouldn’t be on maybe every wedding playlist ever. But the album, all together, unwinds in ways unlike so many other records of its time. It’s a whole thing, a whole story. It showed what a record can and should do thematically and sonically. 

If you listen to Pet Sounds, you’ll soon learn that the best part of the Beach Boys has nothing to do with the beach. It has everything to do with the genius concepts and conceptions that Wilson created. The band’s true legacy lies in this first ever concept album, and although it nearly broke Brian Wilson, we hope he’s no longer lying in bed like he once did.

debra scherer