Plastic Love

Plastic Love is a love song without an endgame.

The song originally appeared on Mariya Takeuchi’s comeback album Variety, which was one of her most successful albums, reaching #1 on the 1984 Oricon LP Chart in Japan. The extended club mix of "Plastic Love" that was later released as a single, however, only reached #85 on Oricon. Variety, as the name suggests, is a collection of songs with different styles that are categorized as “city pop.” City pop loosely describes an offshoot of Japanese music from the 1970s and 1980s that was heavily influenced by the West, with artists turning away from the traditional influences of their predecessors to introduce a sound with more of an “urban” feel. This music appealed to those who benefited from the postwar Japanese economic miracle, and who lived against the backdrop of a significant American presence in Japan after World War II to slow the expansion of the communist bloc in the Asia-Pacific region.

In that period, energy consumption rose at a much faster rate in Japan than in any other part of the world, with extreme dependence on foreign sources of raw materials. After overcoming two oil crises in 1973 and 1979, Japanese government policy advocated a shift to manufacture products that were more environmentally friendly and required less oil consumption, and thus managed to shift to a technology-oriented mode of production. By blending synth boogie, disco, pop, jazz, soul, yacht rock, and funk, city pop created a lush, complex, and pristine style of music to reflect the burgeoning economic and technological prosperity of that time period. By the 1990s, however, Japan was experiencing a recession, in part due to the imposition of economic protection policies set by the U.S. to oppress Japanese production and force the appreciation of the Japanese yen, which eventually led to the burst of Japan’s asset bubble. City pop has since drifted in and out of the musical lexicon with the “lost decade,” as a style of music that no longer reflects economic realities.

I’ve input hellos and goodbyes so neatly.
Everything comes to an end in due time. Don't hurry!

Three decades later, “Plastic Love” has become a popular sample source for future funk, a subgenre of vaporwave that emerged in 2012 and only exists in cyberspace. Vaporwave has often been described as a satire of consumerist culture and capitalism, specifically as a critique of mainstream electronic dance music. The virtual sonic experience of future funk and its obsession with Japanese culture make the listening experience appear to be immersed in a place of fantastical otherness. The domain of cyberspace that hosts the fantastical other place hence functions as a space of techno-Orientalism. The adoption of city pop allows one to live with anxieties about the impotence of contemporary culture while exposing precisely the lost potential of this so-called digital counterculture.

Future funk typically speeds up city pop songs, as though one has to accelerate to catch up with lost futures as they were imagined in the 1980s. The nostalgic mood is symptomatic of dyschronia, which signifies the condition of “time out of joint.” It is no longer possible to have a linear notion of cultural time, since popular cultural time has collapsed in on itself. Tendencies towards retrospection and pastiche have now been naturalized, even in cyberEDM, through which we move in and out of a loop without actually participating in any temporal processes. It is no longer current nor outdated; cultural time is canceled outright.

The 21st century is obstructed by the relics of the 20th, as Mark Fisher says. The comeback of “Plastic Love” magnifies a yearning for an eternal 1980s, and a Japanified future when Japanese trademarks would dominate the world. Without them, the world could not possibly function, it seemed — just like how we may think of American brands now. The revitalization of city pop exemplifies a digital counterculture that recycles 1980s popular culture, which was never going to deliver a forward-moving culture nor a sense of futurity in the first place. Even “Plastic Love” itself was produced during times when the crisis of cultural temporality could be first felt, hence the blending of different musical styles of city pop. The sense of futurity has been lost in more than just musical styles or forward-moving cultural forms; the whole mode of social imagination has been deteriorating. We are haunted by the past, as we are no longer trying to anticipate the future. Rather, we yearn to relive our anticipation by going back to the past.

Three beats into the song, you are in a euphoric mood. Pristine sounds, disco tempo, the prolonged intro strings along with love and disappointment, “I’m sorry!” Because from here on out, aesthetics get mixed up, distanced by strings, held by trumpets, colliding on keyboards! The beat lets you go, but the song goes on. Another three beats in, “Don’t worry!”

I’m just playing games; I know it’s plastic love.
Dance to the plastic beats, another morning comes.

The more “Plastic Love” circulates, the more affective it becomes and the more it appears to contain affect. Take this sampling of comments from the kids on YouTube:  “Man I miss that time when I was sipping ice-cold whiskey in a small city pop bar in Tokyo 40 years ago in the 1980s except that never happened”; “I remember driving through Shibuya and Shinjuku with this song playing in the car. Lighting a cigarette, watching the lights from the neon signs everywhere fill my car, and just letting the night take me wherever... But that never happened.” Just like the lover’s promise that never happened.

The 20th-century love songs are something to be possessed. Through its beats and words, the hollow and frustrated hedonism of “Plastic Love” channels feelings of alienation—the estrangement from oneself, others, and one’s own subjectivity—that are mechanisms deployed by the affective regime of late capitalism. The song depicts a woman falling deeply in love with a man who means everything to her, and she means everything to him, or so it seems. Then he betrays her and leaves. Devastated, the woman realizes that true love does not exist. If she falls in love again, the same thing will just happen again. So she learns her tricks and plays her games. She can never fully commit herself, and only pretends to be in love. She plans her hellos and her goodbyes, knowing nothing will last forever.

Takeuchi has said that “Plastic Love” is about the inability to find love because we are in a world where more value is placed on monetary exchange. And the line “dance to the plastic beat” means the music of that decade hypnotizes and numbs listeners to the harsh reality that you are alone within it. The introspective turn of love songs is not a turn towards affect, but rather a shift from collectively experienced affect to privatized emotion. Popular culture has long lost its potential to act as a form of consciousness-raising, and you are alone within it. Reality is plastic, nothing is fixed, everything is mutable, and it seems like that we just have to adjust ourselves to it.

I’m sorry!

Joni Zhu is a curatorial researcher and practitioner who works at the intersection of contemporary art, critical theory, and popular cultural analysis. Her postdoc researches art in the age of digital and networked surveillance in the department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Mariya Takeuchi, Variety Album Cover, 1984

Mariya Takeuchi, “Plastic Love” Single Cover, 1985

YouTube user Plastic Lover uploaded a seven-minute version of “Plastic Love” in 2017, featuring a picture of Takeuchi from her "Sweetest Music / Morning Glory" single cover

The image featured for Future funk artist Night Tempo’s remix of “Plastic Love”, uploaded on Youtube by Artzie Music

Published: 2021.04.29