Surrounded by TV monitors blaring the newest pop music and youth fashions, the multi-colored neon lights seem to radiate information as they blink in sync with the thousands of ants crossing the street. Shibuya Crossing.  

The city of Tokyo is undeniably an international hub for business, culture, music, fashion, etc. etc. information.  The district of Shibuya is particularly a center for youth culture and the latest trends. Usually it is too loud to listen to an iPod as you walk the winding maze of Shibuya’s streets.  Information is raining down from the skies and everywhere you turn you are bombarded with advertisements, sounds, sights and the conglomerate monster of mass media propaganda.

The 1990’s proved to be an exciting time for music in Tokyo.  The term Shibuya-kei, which translates to Shibuya-style, can be used loosely to describe an explosion of underground music that had about a decade of glory in the eye of a pop audience.  Flipper’s Guitar, Buffalo Daughter, Cornelius, Pizzicato Five.  These bands flourished in a culture of Tokyo hipsters who thrived off of the accessibility of international music and styles.  Doing what the Japanese do best, they imported culture from around the world and gave it a personal twist.  

During the formation of what would be considered Shibuya-kei, Japan was undergoing an economic boom and becoming a hyper-consumer based society.  Products as well as information were flooding the market and being consumed at an astonishing rate.  The mass consumerism spawned a sub-culture of elite underground artists that had plenty of money to spend and a dedication to innovative style. 

Comparable to the alternative/grunge movement in the United States, Shibuya-kei marked a time when a more experimental and artistic musical genre found its way out of the underground and into the public eye.  The members of the Shibuya-kei subculture spent their time flipping through dusty old record bins in attempts to find rare musical styles worthy of revival.  The rejection of mass media and mainstream consumerism created an intellectually hip crowd of cultured artists striving for originality. 

Certainly a pastiche art, Shibuya-kei flourished in the reproduction of old Western pop styles, bossa-nova, German krautrock, among other obscure musical styles.  A synthesizer here, electronica motif there, and a rhythmic pace that reflected the modern backbone of Tokyo urban culture. Shibuya-kei was a cut and paste collage art that used the extensive music library of the culturally saturated city.  

Take any and all music from an old record store and cut it up into tiny bits and pieces. Paste the pieces together in a colorful retro-collage that sounds like the future.  Say hello to Shibuya-kei. 

As with most musical movements, fashion also became a defining characteristic of Shibuya-kei.  The music was a retro-revival that dug up old styles, and so followed the fashion.  Used clothing stores became trendy outlets for Tokyo youth to express personal style in the mixing and matching of past fashions.  Used clothing became more desirable than new clothing, just as records became more desirable than CD’s.  It was a rebellion against the cheesy, over dramatized pop culture that drenched the city in a big industry brainwash of pop vomit. 

However, the Shibuya-kei movement caught on and began to grow astronomically.  There were lines outside of hole-in-the-wall record stores and used clothing became more expensive than new clothing.  Everyone was searching for the rare piece of retro style to spice up the future.  As with any underground style that goes mainstream, once Shibuya-kei entered the pop arena, it lost its charm and became commercialized by the mass media industry it tried to avoid.  The underground scene turned into a worldwide commercial commodity, and Shibuya-kei became commercialized into the very pop dribble its founders rejected. The scene imploded and disintegrated.

As Tokyo moved into the new millennium and the Japanese economy experienced a massive recession, Shibuya-kei became a movement of the past. Arguments over true Shibuya-kei artists versus neo Shibuya-kei imposters became the talk of aging Shibuya-kei hipsters and a new underground scene struggled to emerge from the cultural rubble of Shibuya-kei.

Despite a lack of worldwide commercial success, the current Tokyo underground music scene is a thriving culture of artists striving for innovation and originality.  In some ways their rejection of mainstream music industry has been more successful than their Shibuya-kei predecessors, however, their artistic integrity constrains them to living the life of starving musicians.  

The term Shibuya-kei was applied to describe the collection of artists that put the Tokyo music scene on the map in the 1990’s.  However, none of these musicians would label themselves Shibuya-kei and the new generation of Tokyo’s hipsters would dread being called a part of Shibuya-kei.  Western audiences and music critics apply the label in order to group this collection of underground pop stars into an easily classifiable genre. 

Shibuya-kei’s success in reaching audiences worldwide was largely due to Japan’s economic boom.  The world imported a lot of Japanese culture during this time and Shibuya-kei was one of the commodities consumed.  As for the artists in Tokyo’s current underground scene, Shibuya-kei is an almost laughable blast from the past that conjures memories of high school.  However, the retro-futuristic style and cut/paste approach to music still remains a serious influence on current artists.  The used clothing stores still exist, the record stores are still going strong, and the dedication to importing, innovating and modernizing is as strong as it ever was. 

Posted by Lewis Rapkin on 09/09/2008