About this time last year, I discovered “city pop,” an ultra-slick and highly polished form of pop music that emerged from Japan in the early ‘80s, and served as a celebration of the upscale, urban living brought on by the country’s economic success. There’s a lot of great music to be found in the genre — a YouTube search for “city pop” will return any number of mixes — but for my money, one of the definitive city pop songs is Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love.”
Originally released on Takeuchi’s 1984 album, Variety, “Plastic Love” feels like the platonic ideal of city pop thanks to its breezy horn and string arrangements, some tasteful guitar licks, and funky rhythms — and all of it wrapped up in production that’s been polished to within an inch of its life.
And then, of course, there’s Takeuchi’s lovely voice, which walks a fine line between coy, plaintive, and heartbroken, which makes sense given that “Plastic Love” is about a woman coping with heartache by indulging in shallow, empty behavior. (The song ends with the following refrain, sung in English: “I’m just playing games/I know that’s plastic love/Dance to the plastic beat/Another morning comes.”)
Despite being 35 years old, the song has taken on a life of its own in recent years, with adoring fans gushing about the song and the nostalgic urban fantasies that it inspires in YouTube comment sections. And I’m no different; every time I listen to the song, I feel like I’m opening a time capsule into another era. And yet, given city pop’s prevalence in the vaporwave and future funk genres, it feels surprisingly contemporary, and maybe even a wee bit futuristic.
And so I recently found myself going down a “Plastic Love”-inspired rabbit hole on YouTube. Here are some of the more interesting videos that I found.
Like many others, I discovered “Plastic Love” through this extremely popular 8-minute remix uploaded by YouTube user Plastic Lover. (It was briefly removed due to copyright issues surrounding the YouTube thumbnail artwork but is back and nearing 25 million views.) Despite being a remix, I consider this the definitive version; “Plastic Love” is one of those songs that’s so graceful and effortless, you don’t really want it to end (although 10 hours of “Plastic Love” might be a bit much).
I suppose it was only a matter of time before “Plastic Love,” with its sudden cultural cachet in certain YouTube circles, would become the target of mash-up artists. But this particular mash-up, which blends “Plastic Love” with Paramore’s “Ain’t It Fun,” Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain,” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” is so darn good that I’m not even mad. (Unfortunately, due to copyright issues, non-American viewers may have to “settle” for this alternate-yet-still-very-good version that replaces Adele with Lana del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness.”)
In my earlier post about “Plastic Love,” I wrote that the song’s elements “wouldn’t sound out of place on a Daft Punk album.” So it’s only fitting that somebody mashed up “Plastic Love” with “Something About Us,” one of Daft Punk’s most soulful slow jams. The mash up isn’t quite as seamless as the one above, but it’s pretty slick in its own way — and it’s heart is certainly in the right place.
This mash-up with Smash Mouth’s “All Star” is approximately 3,475 times better than it has any right to be. And that’s not just the Mystery Men nostalgia talking, either.
Sadly, I couldn’t find a full live Takeuchi performance of “Plastic Love” on YouTube; the closest is this promo video, which features a bit of “Plastic Love” at the 2:24 mark. However, you can listen to that performance in its entirety. This live version is a bit slower than the original album version with a slightly different arrangement (check out that sax!), and Takeuchi’s voice has aged and grown more soulful in the 16 years since Variety’s release (this performance is from a 2000 concert). As an added bonus, Takeuchi’s husband Tatsurō Yamashita — who produced Variety and is a major city pop figure himself — provides some nice backing vocals.
Although there are no full live Takeuchi performances of “Plastic Love” on YouTube, you can find plenty of cover versions. One of my favorite covers is by Taiwanese R&B/soul singer 9m88 and her band. 9m88 certainly has the vocal pipes for the song, and her band takes “Plastic Love” in an even funkier direction thanks to some wah guitar and a bass solo.
Finally, YouTube user Stevem posted a short “Plastic Love” documentary last year that covers Mariya Takeuchi’s career and city pop in general as well as the effect that YouTube and meme culture have had on discovering and sharing music.