Pop Music Review: Ginger Root’s “Nisemono” and the Virtues of Creative Recycling

By Jeremy Ray Jewell

The music of Cameron Lew, in the persona of Ginger Root, makes us confront a fundamental truth: the familiar, after the passage of time, becomes the exotic

Cameron Lew is from Huntington Beach, California. He is a self-fashioned “jack of all trades, master of none”: musician, graphic designer, and filmmaker. In 2017 he began a YouTube series of cover songs recorded inside his Honda. Since then, Lew has been recording under the name Ginger Root, a project he once defined as an exercise in “aggressive elevator soul.” The sound could best be described as a nostalgic reimagining of early J-pop,  “city pop” (シティ・ポップ).

“City pop” denotes a broad swathe of commercial Japanese music from the ’70s through the ’80s that took its inspiration from American soft rock and Japan’s own burgeoning urban technological prosperity. “City pop” eventually become ubiquitous, informing musical genres such as shibuya-kei (渋谷系) and jazz fusion. Because it left its mark on videogame and anime soundtracks, the genre also became familiar abroad. Although it became derided as cheap and disposable music in Japan during the mid-’80s, “city pop” was revived and revered in the 2010s by digital music enthusiasts who enthusiastically rediscovered their roots. For those interested in digital nostalgia, styles such as vaporwave, chiptune, future funk, and glitch propelled acts like Mariya Takeuchi back into the cultural spotlight.

Ginger Root’s latest EP is called Nisemono, meaning “counterfeit/fake.” Reinforced by its accompanying videos, the recording is a smooth and funky synth-filled exploration of the paradoxes of authenticity and reproduction — the imposter syndrome. The album also delves into what it means to inherit aesthetics across spans of time and space. Beginning with the video for “Loneliness”, we are transported back to 1983, where we see Lew in the role of the writer/producer for a fictional J-pop idol named Kimiko Takeguchi. Forced at the last minute to take the idol’s place on a late-night show, Lew’s well received performance catapults him into unintentional stardom. The set-up reverses the narrative in the viral video for “Loretta” that accompanied Lew’s 2021 City Slicker EP. In it, we see Lew confidently pull off a TV performance.

The next video, “Holy Hell”, extends performance into marketing. Here Lew advertises sodas, shampoos, disposable cameras, and golf balls – his Devo shirt, with its mutated portrait of Chi Chi Rodriguez, suggests the artistic intent below the surface artifice. In “Over the Hill”, Lew has gone missing, evidently fleeing from the stresses of his newly-found fame. His manager searches for him, following clues in the form of mahjong symbols the musician leaves behind (the video also features a visual homage to Masayoshi Takanaka). In the end, he is found playing mahjong (a nod, perhaps, to Lew’s 2018 album Mahjong Room).

Lew has come a long way since the days when he covered Kaoru Akimoto’s 1986 “city pop” classic “Dress Down” in the back of his Honda. He has found the kind of success that, because it owes so much to the past, suggests that his career is about posing as an imposter. A great part of his music’s appeal is not just the undeniable novelty of its sound — as retro as it is — but the intimacy of its lyrics given his set of peculiar inspirations. The ironic/attractive contrast between the old and new catches the listeners us off guard. Few musicians have made us as aware of music as a meditation on the passage of time and its challenges to identity. For example, “Loneliness” tells us how “the time gets quicker,” asking how we can “stand the wait to stop and change your pace.” In contrast, comfort sets in in “Over the Hill”: “Why can’t I feel like there’s something wrong? Tell me, why can’t I feel like there’s something gone?” The title track, “Nisemono,” mixes English with Japanese. At one point, Lew sings: “Take one step back and change your mind, all the fake and fraud inside. Know where you’ve been, and what’s been right.”

Just before Nisemono’s release, Ginger Root released a single in collaboration with Japanese musician YeYe entitled “水面に、アイス”. The Kyoto-based YeYe has, in a string of other singles released this year, decisively turned toward retro “city pop” sounds herself. Ginger Root and like-minded artists are building a space where J-pop can creatively re-encounter its runaway past successes — become conscious of its past. In this celebration of memory, pop music’s pursuit of novelty and profit takes a backseat to thoughtful consideration of its profound cultural impact. It is also a place where the curators of pop history can stand up, outside of their Hondas, and sing without feeling like imposters. By tapping into the glories of DIY, Nisemono has much to say about the refreshment that comes with repeating the past.

It is a common critical complaint these days that art has become more about recycling than originality. The term “the nostalgia generation” is double edged: for some, artists should be credited with attempting to redeem the past; for others, the strategy is nothing more than cold, calculated, and lucrative “rebooting” with a veneer of the new. Both perspectives may be true. We exoticize past culture when we don’t ignore it. But, as the slick, technological style of “city pop” reminds us, we also exoticize the future. Both are foreign countries.

This dynamic is encapsulated in Yellow Magic Orchestra’s 1978 cover of “Firecracker” by Martin Denny, the so-called “father of exotica.” This Japanese synthpop version of the pseudo-Oriental American tune serves up a self-consciously “technopolitan” vision of Japan. It is both an expression of the “Asian economic miracle” and a satire of the bubble that would burst with the 1997 Asian financial crisis. As Lew recently said in an NPR interview: “I’m basically just making my own interpretation of a remix of Japanese music that was interpreting American music from the ’70s. So absolutely, it comes full cycle. But I think, with that, it kind of makes something both familiar and something brand-new.”

In that sense, Lew makes us confront a fundamental truth: the familiar, after the passage of time, becomes the exotic. We inevitably re-invent the cultural past whenever we recycle it. By drawing on American sources and plugging them into an idealized vision of Japanese society, “city pop” fudges the lines between commercial myths and economic realities while it smears the lines between “us” and “them.” This blurring of East and West, past and present, has always offered opportunities for creative and psychological rejuvenation. Nisemono’s final track, “Everything’s Alright (Meet You in the Galaxy Ending Theme)” makes that point: “You pick it up again, build it back but never cross the line. […] Some newfound confidence taken back from what’s now deep inside.”

Jeremy Ray Jewell hails from Jacksonville, FL. He has an MA in history of ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a BA in philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. His website is www.jeremyrayjewell.com.


  1. Steve Erickson on November 23, 2022 at 11:29 pm

    What an interesting project (although I think I prefer the videos to the music)! I’d never heard of Ginger Root before reading this.

  2. Jose on November 24, 2022 at 9:47 pm

    This sound is considered old.?. It sounds so modern to me. Never heard of him the music is chill….very inspiration. Starting off play from your car keeping that consistency and most of doing what you love. “Ginger Root and like-minded artists are building a space where J-pop can creatively re-encounter its runaway past successes — become conscious of its past

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