In recent years, a genre of retro J-pop commonly known as “city pop” has been enjoying a surge in interest from outside Japan, with music by renowned Japanese artists such as Tatsuro Yamashita, Mariya Takeuchi, Taeko Onuki, and Toshiki Kadomatsu gaining popularity in Asia, Europe, and the U.S.
City pop is a genre of Japanese popular music created by a generation of artists who sought inspiration from outside Japan in the 1970s and ’80s that resonated with the way of life and interests of the youth of the day longing for a cosmopolitan lifestyle. The sophisticated and danceable tracks that could be characterized as “Western music hailing from Japan” has become a common language spoken by music fans around the world.
Among the myriad stellar tracks that fall into this genre, a song from 1979 called “Mayonaka no Door – Stay With Me” by a singer named Miki Matsubara suddenly emerged from relative obscurity in the fall to become a widely played streaming favorite. The song appeared on various global streaming rankings such as Apple Music’s J-pop list in 98 countries and Spotify’s global viral chart (No. 1 for a week, Dec. 10-16, 2020), plus the local viral charts in 42 countries including Indonesia, the U.K. and U.S.
Yohei Hasegawa, a producer and musician who travels back and forth from Japan to South Korea and spins city pop music from both countries as a club DJ, describes the popularity of “Stay With Me” as being ubiquitous in Asian club circles. “Whenever I play ‘Stay With Me’ in Seoul and Singapore — Malaysia too — the crowd cheers the moment they hear the intro,” he shares. “Nobody asks me what the name of the song is anymore. That’s how much everyone knows it. It’s a ‘killer tune’ that has settled into the club scene.”
“Mayonaka no Door – Stay With Me” was released in November 1979 as Matsubara’s debut single, shortly before she turned 20 years old. The lyrics were written by Tokuko Miura and the music was composed and arranged by Tetsuji Hayashi. A young but skilled vocalist with experience singing in jazz bars, Matsubara debuted as a next-gen singer not categorized under the “idol” genre of solo female J-pop artists.
“Stay With Me” peaked at No. 28 on the music chart at the time of release. While Matsubara’s catalog includes other hit tracks such as “Neat na Gogo 3 ji” (1981), her fifth single featured as beauty giant Shiseido’s spring campaign song, and “THE WINNER” (1991), the opener of the anime series Mobile Suit Gundam 0083 Stardust Memory, “Stay With Me” remains a favorite among club DJs as a so-called “wamono” [“Japanese-style”] standard that has far outlasted the memory of its popularity at the time.
The resurgent hit of “Stay With Me” 40 years after its release owes a big part of its recent breakout global popularity to an Indonesian YouTuber named Rainych. The sweet-voiced Muslim singer posts videos of herself covering various Western hits and J-pop songs, and her channel currently boasts nearly 1.3 million subscribers. Rainych uploaded a cover of “Stay With Me” in fluent Japanese around the end of October, which resulted in the original version being rediscovered first in Indonesia, then gradually spreading to viewers in other parts of the world, and this process appears to be directly linked to the sudden uptick in Apple Music and Spotify streams.
Hasegawa describes the way “Stay With Me” gained popularity among Asian DJs and clubgoers that led to YouTuber Rainych choosing to cover it as being like “a boxer who knocked out his opponent by throwing jabs in succession.” Comparing the gradual rise of “Stay With Me” to Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love” (1984), another resurgent city pop hit that has exploded in popularity outside of Japan in recent years, he notes that the former is like the moon as opposed to the latter’s position as the sun.
While “Plastic Love” was what could be called an “invisible hit song” that was unavailable on streaming platforms until November 2020 (it was released on Dec. 11), the seeds of “Stay With Me” gaining traction outside of its home country were planted by various playlist curators based in North America who included the song in their lists, which then blossomed after Rainych’s cover, turning the song into a “visible hit” on numerous streaming rankings.
Besides the undeniable 1970s Western musical influences in “Stay With Me,” Hasegawa points out another important aspect of the song that captures the hearts of listeners outside of Japan. “The English phrase ‘stay with me’ drops in the chorus,” he notes. “To grab the interest of non-Japanese listeners, it’s still necessary to have a direct English phrase in a place where you want people to focus on a track. That plus the song’s underlying homage to Western music starts connecting like a puzzle and there’s a kind of vast drama there that uplifts people everywhere, even if they doesn’t understand the meaning of the Japanese lyrics.”
It’s now becoming the norm for singers from outside Japan to cover city pop and other J-pop songs in their original Japanese. The way words fit into the melody and rhythm is part of the appeal of a song in any language, and if those words are foreign to you, going one step further to learn about what they mean is another way to deepen your appreciation of a song you like. The phenomenon of “Stay With Me” is another solid proof that good music never ages and has no borders.
Sadly, Matsubara didn’t live to see her song become a resurgent international hit, as she passed away in 2004 at the age of 44 following a battle with cancer. Were she still with us today, she would probably join us in hoping that the day will come soon when clubbing is allowed again after the global pandemic passes, and “Stay With Me” is played by DJs on the dance floor to the joy of fans everywhere.
— Written by Ryohei Matsunaga