Spend time listening to 1980s hits, Japanese pop, or disco classics on Youtube, and you'll almost certainly encounter Mariya Takeuchi's addictive song "Plastic Love." Though first released in 1985 in Japan, it remained almost entirely unknown in the rest of the world until a few years ago, when it all of a sudden attained an enormous popularity. Now, having racked up more than 20 million views, the song has quite a few people — even many of those who have put it into heavy rotation on their personal playlists — asking what it is and where it came from. The video essay above, by explainer of animation and Japanese music Stevem, breaks down the history of "Plastic Love," both as an obscure 80s Japanese pop song and an internet-era phenomenon.
"Plastic Love" has become the best-known example of "city pop," a genre we've previously featured here on Open Culture and one Stevem describes as "a type of music that was reflective of the new, shiny, modern Japan" that emerged as the country's rebuilt economy boomed in the 1970s and 80s. "Considering Japan didn't, nor could they, have a military, some of this money was funneled into new technology: cassettes, Walkmans, VHSs, cars, TVs, video game consoles."
The soundtrack to "the cosmopolitan lifestyle in full swing" took "bits and pieces from New Wave, synth pop, disco, jazz, and whatever else was relevant at the time and shoved them into a blender to make what could be some of the sharpest pop music to come out of the Land of the Rising Sun."
The young Mariya Takeuchi was one of the era's first defining pop idols. Scoring a number-one album in 1980, she lowered her profile over the next few years, marrying the singer-songwriter Tatsuro Yamashita (now recognized as a city pop icon in his own right) and collaborating with him on an album called Variety, with which she re-emerged in 1984, retaking the top spots on the Japanese charts. "Plastic Love" comes as its second track, laying down a "shimmering hypnotic groove, striking you with its beat and never letting go." Not only "a meditation on heartbreak, it really speaks to the hollow, plastic feeling of what people do to fill in the sorrows of their life and loneliness," acts such as "buying commercial goods in the hopes that they will make us feel more and avoid dealing with our own personal anguish."
Whatever the song's musical strengths, it took an algorithm to bring them to worldwide attention. Youtube, which 80s Japanese pop enthusiasts discovered early as a way of sharing their music, has become a veritable "record store in the digital space, affecting how people define their taste in the modern era, mass-producing the feeling of finding these obscure gems on your own in a way that feels natural, doing it so well with the puppet strings that you don't even see them." "Plastic Love," as Vice's Ryan Basil puts it, "is a rare tune that doesn’t exactly need words to expertly describe a specific, defined feeling – one of lust, heartbreak, love, fear, adventure, loss, all caught up in the swirling midst of a night out on the town." Countless music fans here in the 21st century — living in Takeuchi's homeland Japan, elsewhere in Asia as I do, in the West, or anywhere besides — can now make the surprising declaration he does: "It is, at the moment, my favorite pop song in the world."
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.