It’s a late night, rain is beating on the window – sleep isn’t coming easy. Cigarette ash in a mug; a dearth of feeling; hours passing in contemplative, languishing inertia. YouTube recommended videos: slide, slide, slide, slide. Then, as if the algorithm Gods are in attendance, a tune appears: “Plastic Love” (listen above), by the Japanese pop star Mariya Takeuchi – an immaculate 80s disco number constructed in such a way that it stokes the brain's synapses.
It’s the kind of song that, when you first hear it – as I did, a few months ago – it seems like it’s always been there, marinating somewhere in the cerebral cortex or as a memory from the womb. This tune is your life, and you are in the tune – in this case, sitting in Tokyo’s Kabukicho district, desolated and desperately heartbroken, but also lubricated with a passionate sense for adventure, thirsting for stimulation and Asahi. As one YouTube comment reads, “this [song] gives me feels of something which never happened”, as though “Plastic Love” is the lingering remnants of a diary entry from a past life.
There’s an enchanting quality to songs that act as poignant reminders, taking the listener to a place they remember or have never even visited. eg: The New York Dolls’ “Personality Crisis” (a screaming, amphetamine-addled window into the fumes of 1970s New York); Floorplan’s “We Magnify His Name” (an ascending elevator toward the Lord’s table and heaven’s premier nightclub); or Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” (wearing short-shorts in the golden-hour sunshine). Here though, with Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love”, we are wounded, a shadow figure among skyscrapers:
“With a sudden kiss or a fiery stare”
“Don't mess up my programs of love”
“I've input hellos and goodbyes so neatly”
“Everything comes to an end in due time”
These are the translated lyrics to the first verse of the song, which are raw yet lush with the imagery of lust and the conflicting memory of previous heartbreak. “Don’t worry!” Takeuchi sings, as she speaks about “living a vampire life while dancing life away at trendy discos”. But as poetic as the lyrics are – “even if I drop a glass and suddenly fill my eyes with tears” is a particular stand-out – there’s no need to translate the words in order to understand the core feeling that murmurs throughout. Make no mistake, “Plastic Love” is an ode to a specific breed of loneliness: of being broken yet surrounded, lost to the night in fancy shoes and dresses; seeking out love beneath glowing lights while tip-toeing around the fear of commitment.
Language, of course, possesses an immeasurable value. Words allow us to do important things with ease, like ordering an ostentatious coffee or telling someone to fuck off, you fucking wanker. But words can also be entirely useless, unnecessary; or, when it comes to music, a kind of shield in which an otherwise empty song is rendered meaningful for detailing an emotion, even if it does so with all the depth of an Instagram caption. So, with a song like “Plastic Love” where linguistics are initially thrown out the window for non-Japanese speakers, the feeling – or moment, or situation – that inspired the music is pushed to the forefront, and the intended meaning left to breathe purely through tone and sound – to be alive.
Since ambient or electronic songs often don’t include words, they often convey emotion with sound alone (see Aphex Twin’s delicate “Rhubarb” or anything by William Basinski). Pop music, however, is different; the lyrics take centre-stage and inform the feeling behind the song (The Beatles famously re-recorded their biggest hits in German). There are exceptions to the rule – even if she were singing in a different language, I’m sure the lean into Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” chorus would adequately detail the slow blooming of a crush into a widescreen romance. But, still: Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love” 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.
It is, at the moment, my favourite pop song in the world. The sparse opening chords speak to a pensive solitude. Then there’s a pause – the promising twinkle of the night, addressed with light piano – before the arrival of the bass and its catalytic push toward being set adrift into the emotionally polluted night air. At points, Takeuchi’s voice is the lover twirling in the corner, sneaking glances behind their shoulder; at others it’s the moment those eyes move away, smiling a smile that says “I’m sorry”. It is romance without any of the candles, focusing, instead, on all of the nameless, unexplored faces of the twilight zone, splattered in desire – a requiem for all of the people and their undiscovered sonder.
Given that Takeuchi is from Japan, and “Plastic Love” is in Japanese, I can’t help thinking about being in Japan when listening to it. But in reality, I could be anywhere; and in fact, I’m alone in my room in the dead of the night, rain beating on the window, cigarette ash in a mug, YouTube videos open: slide, slide, slide, slide. Then Takeuchi comes on again: “Dance to the plastic beat, another morning comes”.
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