Recorded in 1984, “Plastic Love” is the song that continues to make comeback after comeback. This month, well over three decades after its original release, the song’s full-length official video was finally uploaded to YouTube. According to Warner Music Japan, its re-issued 12-inch single also broke the country’s top ten sales chart for the first time.
Written and sung by Mariya Takeuchi, “Plastic Love” is pure “city pop,” a loosely-defined, breezy genre that has been described as “music made by city people, for city people.” Few things evoke the heady 1980s bubble era Japan more than city pop tunes. “I was pregnant with a child at the time, so it wasn’t like I was really able to indulge in the bubble-era excess in the same way as others could,” Takeuchi told The Japan Times. “I was writing songs at the time because it was fun for me.” (Full disclosure: I am a columnist at The Japan Times.)
“I wanted to write a rock song, a folk song, a country song,” she added. “I also wanted to write something danceable, something with a city pop sound. I wanted to write something that had 16 beats and lyrics capturing what life in a city was like.” According to Takeuchi, the lyrics are about a woman who lost her true love. “No matter how many other guys would pursue her, she couldn’t shake the feelings of loneliness that the loss created.”
But when a 12-inch single was released in Japan in March 1985, it only reached #86 on the Japanese music charts; however, the album on which it appeared, Variety, was a number one smash hit.
The song’s comeback this November isn’t the first revival for “Plastic Love.” Decades after its original release, seemingly out of nowhere, an extended version of the song went viral on YouTube in 2017. As Pitchfork notes, the unofficial upload, posted to a channel called Plastic Lover, racked up over 24 million views. That is, until a copyright strike over the thumbnail photo caused the track to vanish. The now iconic portrait, which was originally for another Takeuchi single, was taken by American photographer Alan Levenson.
The combination of the now iconic photo, the instantly catchy vibes, and the earworm appeal of Takeuchi’s performance continued to propel the viral hit.
“YouTube is like a thumbnail operation,” Levenson told Pitchfork. “Everybody questions the algorithm, but my feeling is that people looked at the photo and saw something about it. I think it’s a great photo, and I don’t say that about all my photos.”
It was a great photo that was being used without permission. Levenson’s lawyer advised him to strike the YouTube video to see if folks cared. Months after the original strike request, it finally went through. “I clicked on the link, and it came up with a big page that says ‘struck by Alan Levenson,’” said the photographer, who was immediately flooded with nasty hate mail.
YouTube user Plastic Lover—an anonymous student—and Levenson were in contact via other people over the photo’s use. “I found out that Plastic Lover was not making any money, and people were upset,” Levenson said. “Eventually I said, ‘What the heck. I don’t care. Just put my name on it and I will take off the strike.’ We were happy to see it reinstated exactly with all of the comments intact.”
Levenson’s photo has become so closely associated with the song that Warner Music used it for the 12-inch re-issue it released this month. The recording company also (finally!) release the full version of the song’s music video on YouTube. In 2019, a short version had been released on YouTube, illustrating once again how record companies in Japan have been slow to fully embrace the power of the video channel.
The newly uploaded music video, which doesn’t feature Takeuchi, is thick with city pop vibes.
“It never occurred to me to try to [release] work in the West,” Takeuchi told The Japan Times, looking back to when “Plastic Love” originally debuted. “Considering that it was mostly performed in Japanese, we figured it would be impossible to go abroad. However, looking at YouTube’s comments section for Plastic Love’ now, many viewers don’t really seem to care what language it’s in.”
A new generation of music fans—at home in Japan and abroad—continue to discover the song. Young Japanese groups like Chai and Eill are also recording covers of the track. It’s taken over thirty years, but “Plastic Love” is finally getting the love it truly deserves.