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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