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  • Writer's pictureMaya Kirby

How an Obscure Japanese Pop Song Got a Music Video 40 Years Later

The internet is an incredible resource. It facilitates communication on a truly global scale, and you can find out almost anything with just a quick search. Streaming services allow music fans to discover songs from every era and continent. But it's easy to be drawn in.

Have you ever been down a YouTube rabbit hole? Mysteries, conspiracies, fan theories, one video leading to the next... You can lose days to the algorithm. One such rabbit hole involves an obscure Japanese pop song, a legal battle, and a music video shot 40 years after the song was released.

It all starts in the 1980s. Japan was experiencing an economic boom, fuelled by its developing technology. More people moved from its rural areas to work in the cities. As Japan's culture became more influenced by global trends, a new genre of music emerged. City Pop (シティポップ), known as "shitī poppu", was an expression of the vibrant, high-life city living, and drew on Western influences such as RnB, funk, and soft rock. Some songs incorporated English words to capitalise on the new international culture.

Mariya Takeuchi's 1984 album 'Variety' shot to number one in the Japanese charts. However, 'Plastic Love', the second song on her record, only got to 86th in the singles charts when it was released a year later. People knew of 'Plastic Love', but it wasn't well known in western countries.

However, in 2017, that all changed. A Youtube user called 'Plastic Lover' posted the song, with the iconic black and white photo of a young Mariya Takeuchi. It later went viral with over 60 million views (thanks, algorithm). Yet, to Plastic Lover's dismay, his video got taken down. He suspected Warner Music, who were usually responsible for getting videos deleted through copyright claims. However, it wasn't them.

It was the photograph of Mariya that he'd used. Alan Levenson had captured her enigmatic smile in Hollywood in 1980, when she was 25. But Alan was unaware that the photo had been used on YouTube, and had no idea how successful it was.

In 2019, a documentary of Mariya Takeuchi was in production. Alan was contacted and asked if he'd sell the rights to the photo - but he thought it was worth more than what he was offered. He stumbled upon Plastic Lover's video channel from his research.

Alan reached out to Plastic Lover to get credit for the photo but didn't get a reply. His lawyers suggested reporting the video as copyright. However, he didn't know that YouTube would delete the video... And the floodgates opened.

Even though Alan never intended for the video to be taken down, he received hate mail, threats, and even antisemitic messages from angry YouTube users. Plastic Lover finally reached out to apologise for getting Alan's message late. Thankfully, they resolved everything. The video was reposted, crediting Alan as the photographer - and a note in the description asked listeners to stop sending those hateful messages.

No publicity, it seems, is bad publicity. After the dust settled, Alan Levenson received a lot of exposure as a photographer. With the video reinstated, people were able to post comments again. This emotional story was pinned as the top comment and went viral on Reddit:

With the exposure from YouTube to international audiences (and the documentary about Mariya Takeuchi), Warner Music Japan wanted to capitalise. They made an official music video for 'Plastic Love' and uploaded it to YouTube on the 11th November 2021 - nearly 40 years after the original single was released.

While the single in 1985 only reached 86th in the Japanese charts, the re-release in 2021 shot to number 5! Both the single and the album are available on iTunes and Spotify.

So, how did a song 40 years ago in Japan become so iconic? Why did YouTube's algorithm start recommending this to so many people? Not even YouTube knows. But the legendary Citypop track is certainly worth a listen.

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Sep 12, 2022

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