Can music help explain your PhD thesis?

This week I’ve been thinking about a particular piece of music, and how that music is actually quite a good way of understanding my PhD thesis and the different components of it. Before I get into what that piece is, how I made that realisation and got to this point I feel I need to explain how this came about. As well as identifying why this works for me and how other pieces of media surprisingly don’t work as well.

Recently I received an email from the Graduate school at my University about an exhibition/competition that it is hosting in a couple of months time. Unlike usual public facing events where you might deliver a shorter work in progress paper or put together an academic poster describing your work, this one tasks you with providing two photographs with a small abstract that represents your work.

Ironically for me, who writes about a visual medium, my project doesn’t really lend itself to this. Sure, I can take a photograph of older videogame consoles, but the visual way I’ve found that works well to visualise my project is to create digital collages that merge together different iterations of a videogame series (as seen below).

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Nonetheless, I was disappointed with myself that I couldn’t think something creative enough to provide for this event. But a couple of days after receiving the email I was listening to City Pop extraordinaire Tatsuro Yamashita – who I haven’t listened to for the past couple of months – when his music track “Nostalgia of Island” from the 1978 album he worked on with Haruomi Hosono (of Yellow Magic Orchestra  [YMO] fame) and Shigeru Suzuki titled “Pacific”.

Considering my project is focusing on nostalgia and videogame form, a Japanese music track with nostalgia in the title will seem a bit of an obvious choice, and admittedly the title is what makes it stand out compared to Yamashita’s other work. But, Yamashita has an extensive output of material to choose from, plus there are other (almost) as good City Pop artists that I could have gone with; or other Japanese “pop” music around that time, such as YMO.

Despite the more overt videogame connections found in YMO‘s early work (their first album is considered the first commercial album to sample videogame sounds), it’s the feeling of nostalgia that City Pop (which YMO doesn’t really fit into even if its members were each highly influential in the genre) provides. But what is City Pop? I’ve gone on about it, yet failed to actually say what it is! (good thing this isn’t an actual article…)

In short City Pop is a genre of Japanese music from the late 70s that carried on through the 80s until the Japanese economic bubble burst in the early 90s. This is significant as City Pop flourished because of the sheer amount of wealth available. Artists had access to the finest studios in the world and the best session musicians. Money, of course, doesn’t automatically make the best music (see the top 40 in the West now) but it did mean that when combined with people with actual talent the results would be phenomenal. Yet, when the bubble burst, music that essentially celebrated the high life that existed during that time was, unsurprisingly, no longer relevant.

That’s the background to the genre, but during the past few years, its begun to mean something else, especially outside of its home. City Pop never truly reached the West, in fact, Japanese music, in general, struggled to make the transition, with YMO being one of the exceptions (and member Ryuichi Sakamoto finding success abroad as a solo artist as well). Thanks to the internet though, suddenly people were starting to discover this new type of music, except there was something about it that seemed, almost familair.

Van Paugam is one of the most notable proponents of City Pop on YouTube. Whilst it wasn’t through his videos that I found out about the genre, it was through his videos that I discovered more artists to add to my growing collection. He also has a wonderful way of going about trying to describe what it is about City Pop that makes it stand out.

Accompanying a video titled “Now That’s What I Call シティポップ ! 『The Best City Pop Songs』” in the description box he writes:

“City Pop. The Lost Genre. Music built on the 1980’s promise of a bright future, naive optimism, and glamorous lifestyles that would never last. It’s not so much a genre as an amalgam of many other styles wrapped up in highly stylized commercial packaging of sugary synths, mystical melodies, laser sharp instrumentation, and catchy English chorus sections that both excite and confuse the unassuming listener. Memories flood your mind when you first hear it. Are they your memories? Who’s memories are they? Why does it feel like you’ve heard these songs before? It’s been said that City Pop can evoke ghosts of lives never lived, and pasts waiting to be freed from the spectral chains of obscurity – like the soul of a sound begging to be heard and appreciated as if needing to feel loved once again… That could just be hippie talk though, but maybe there actually is something more to the frequencies, vibrations, and carefully arranged words that the music brings together to cast a spell over the listener’s consciousness and get they’re feet tapping.

Many would ask why. Why is it called City Pop? Why do they sing parts in English? Why does it sound so familiar? The answers are all pretty vague, and those who lived the era in which City Pop flourished aren’t in a rush to tell the whole story. Like much of Japan’s intimate history unknown to outsiders, City Pop also might remain an enigma left in time for someone try to explain, but only ever grasping at silhouettes of ideas, thoughts, and expressions impossible to ever really understand completely. Sometimes music is left forgotten in time, but like sonic necromancy, once reanimated from the tombs of time it can roam the mortal plane of existence once again among the living. Like all things mysterious, City Pop continues to enchant the world with it’s powers of unstoppable rhythms, genre fusions, and unapologetic cosmopolitanism. If nothing, the genre serves as a stark reminder that sometimes things that seem too good to be true, really are too good to be true. – Van Paugam”

There are a couple of sentences in particular that really stand out to me, and it’s why City Pop to me is so important for helping me to determine the importance of nostalgia.

Memories flood your mind when you first hear it. Are they your memories? Who’s memories are they? Why does it feel like you’ve heard these songs before? It’s been said that City Pop can evoke ghosts of lives never lived, and pasts waiting to be freed from the spectral chains of obscurity

Now, I wasn’t alive in the 80s, and am very much a “90s kid”, so why does this music resonate with me so much? Sure, I border on being a “weeb“, meaning I do have a certain affinity for Japan (despite having never visited the country [yet]), but City Pop takes its inspiration from a range of genres, many of them from the West. When thinking about this question though, I realised that looking at where the genre came from is the wrong way of solving this, instead, I need to look at what has come after, or rather, what has City Pop influenced since winding down. Unsurprisingly, for me at least, is the connection to videogames.

I don’t claim this to be the answer for all of those who have found an affinity for the genre as well in recent years, nor do I think its a strong similarity that exists. But some Japanese videogames carry an underlying sense that almost teases a past that came from that time. One artist that always stands out to me is Masafumi Takada, who has consistently provided excellent soundtracks to a range of videogames (notably working with Suda51 and Grasshopper Manufacture). He lived through the era of City Pop and has mentioned listening to YMO and being influenced by both Haruomi Hosono and Ryuichi Sakamoto. This is significant because – as mentioned earlier – despite YMO not being considered City Pop, Hosono and Sakamoto were both highly influential in the development of City Pop, be it through their own solo work or via producing and/or sessioning with others (both have also worked with Yamashita on multiple occasions). I can’t really identify a single track by Takada that sticks out in particular that demonstrates this more than others, although there will be moments when I’m listening to his music that at that moment seem to exhibit this connection more than the others.

Writing this piece has been more stretched out than I had originally planned. In part because I got wrapped up in writing more about City Pop, which is something I haven’t had the chance to do before, but also because – and really this shouldn’t come as a surprise to me – whilst writing I’ve come across two very interesting pieces that relate to nostalgia and music within an analogue/digital context as well as centring around content that was created in the 90s and is being revived today that retains the imperfections of that time period.

The first is an open access journal article by Jonathan Rozenkrantz titled, “Analogue Video in the Age of Retrospectacle: Aesthetics, Technology, Subculture“. This piece does reference videogames, but it is not the focus, yet an understanding of the significance of that medium underlies the piece, placing it at the same level as others. The main goal of the piece is an exploration of how the artefacts of analogue video have been used by creators in the 21st century in creating work that evokes nostalgia for the 1990s, a time which is very much recent history, almost a starting point for wider living memory. Even for those who were not alive during the 90s will have parents who did, and maybe other family members who would pass on that memory, and perhaps even the technological artefacts from that time?

This leads on nicely to the other piece I have come across, which I will also revisit later in more detail as there is more I want to personally unpack with. For Kotaku, Luke Winkie writes about how the Nintendo 64 has gone on to see people use music, sound effects, and footage from its games and remix it into a hazy dreamwave-esque (dreamwave can also bring up nostalgic connotations) audio-visual experience; an example of which can be watched below. This continues the nostalgia desires identified by Rozenkrantz, but it also highlights a point that I somehow hadn’t paid much attention to, and that is this serves a slightly different set of people to the ones that had previously embraced chiptune music and therefore the soundscape of the 80s videogame scene. There is certainly a different aesthetic at play here, and whilst there is definitely a difference between the two, I don’t see the two as being mutually exclusive though. I certainly fit into the 90s category, even though I had missed the N64 when it was widely available (I obtained one from a friend [for an amazing price that they suggested] a year or so after getting a Nintendo GameCube. Regardless, The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time was an important game for me growing up, even if it was the GameCube specific version that I predominantly played, and of course the fact that this would have been around 2003 and not the late 90s.

I mention this because for me, the actual year something originally takes place doesn’t easily translate into a specific type of nostalgia. My 90s nostalgia is actually early 2000s nostalgia, furthermore, chiptune music is almost as important to me, even though I have never owned an 8-bit home console (and I am terrible at NES games). What I did experience though was the chiptune sounds that came with Nintendo’s 8-bit handheld console, the Game Boy Color. I remember the electronic beeps would drive my gran mad when I would play Pokémon Blue in the car, but to me it music unlike I had ever heard, and at the time I hated music (don’t ask me why, because even I don’t know why?). Of course, this was the late 90s, meaning that music that has been attributed to nostalgia for the 80s has instead been interpreted by me as nostalgia for the 90s.

One user commenting on different a video/track featured in the article wrote:

darkwattie227
The sad part is you can’t experience things the same as an adult. When you were a child things went by so slow and vividly. Lights were brighter, things were better. Like a dream

This is the crux of it, not the exact year something originally took place, but the time when an individual experienced it. This results in a hazy collective nostalgia, different people recognise similar aspects and can share reflections, even though the exact experiences and the year which they took place differ the absolute source (such as Ocarina of Time) is the same.

So, you might ask yourself, how did I get here? This has become a long tale of how a particular City Pop music track to me helps to represent my PhD and in turn how videogames and sound together help contribute to generating nostalgia for people. I am by no means an expert in the study of sound and/or music, but the nostalgia from music in videogames has been one that has intrigued me for a few years now, in part coming out of my fascination with chiptune music. Videogame music has the power to not just take us to another world, it also enables us to relive videogames without actually playing them. Therefore it can also take us back to an earlier time in our lives, that’s why this music can be so powerful. It’s also why City Pop intrigues me so much, as most Western listeners have no personal nostalgia for it, yet a collective nostalgia emanates from it despite no direct lived experiences associated with it. Collective nostalgia can also present itself with videogames and can be linked with videogames that we might not have played. For me, that was the case with many of the games more closely associated with Sony’s consoles, yet because of their significance within the wider videogames consciousness, I had absorbed some familiarity with them almost through a sort of osmosis. That might be the real question of my thesis, how can we understand this collective nostalgia in videogames that operates via osmosis? This affects not just the users but the creators as well. One thing is for sure, music is just one example, and is potentially underexplored.

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