How Youtube’s Algorithm Turned an Obscure 1980s Japanese Song Into an Enormously Popular Hit: Discover Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love”

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stream Loads of “City Pop,” the Elec­tron­ic-Dis­co-Funk Music That Pro­vid­ed the Sound­track for Japan Dur­ing the Roar­ing 1980s

Every­thing is a Remix: The Full Series, Explor­ing the Sources of Cre­ativ­i­ty, Released in One Pol­ished HD Video on Its 5th Anniver­sary

Rita Hay­worth, 1940s Hol­ly­wood Icon, Dances Dis­co to the Tune of The Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive: A Mashup

Japan­ese Musi­cians Turn Obso­lete Machines Into Musi­cal Instru­ments: Cath­ode Ray Tube TVs, Over­head Pro­jec­tors, Reel-to-Reel Tape Machines & More

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.

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Comments (10)
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  • LaKeisha says:

    Sounds like every oth­er 1980s Japan­ese pop song.

  • random says:

    still not answer­ing this arti­cle head­er tech­ni­cal­ly how the algo­rithm works…
    for myself it’s pret­ty explain­able since i search so much esper mami episode (80’s ani­me) and it’s sound track both on google and youtube…

  • John Blacksad says:

    Watch out, we got an expert over here

    Actu­al­ly this has a boo­gie-meets-technopop feel that sets it apart:
    indeed it’s the oth­er songs who sound like this,
    this set a high stan­dard back in 1985.

  • Brojsest says:

    do you want a truth­ful expla­na­tion?
    is a phe­nom­e­non born on red­dit / 4chan, it is a meme relat­ed to the vapor­wave.
    then what’s behind it is some­thing even deep­er: is the tired­ness towards hip hop and the con­tin­u­ous exal­ta­tion of the cul­ture of the blacks.
    these lis­ten­ers took refuge in the Far East and in the 80s to escape from the bom­bard­ment of the main­stream left­ists.

  • Michael Schmidt says:

    Relat­ed to Vapor­wave, yes. Every­thing else, what even? It’s just chill music that makes you want to take a ride down­town, hence the City­pop name that’s labeled on these songs.

  • Emilia says:

    Well in that case Bro­js­est, peo­ple bet­ter keep look­ing because a pop song steeped in dis­co and jazz is def­i­nite­ly an “exal­ta­tion” of black cul­ture, whether or not peo­ple like you rec­og­nize the ori­gins of these gen­res or not.

  • smartalek says:

    @Brojsest — You need to go fur­ther.
    But how­ev­er far you go, you can’t escape…
    Because we’re right, and you’re wrong.
    About every­thing.

  • bloop says:

    Bro­js­est, you could­n’t sound more moron­ic and igno­rant if you tried. In case your pea-sized brain did­n’t know this type of music is based on jazz, dis­co, funk, and every oth­er BLACK music genre you can think of. But I guess your alter­na­tive facts news source told you oth­er­wise.

  • Banbango says:

    Bro­js­est you’re retard­ed

  • Mark says:

    Song is amaz­ing.

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