[I’ve wanted Thomas Calkins to write something for this blog since well before I served as external adviser to his University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee sociology dissertation on the life and death of urban record stores. While that project currently evolves into academic journals publications, he found the time to share some thoughts on a quite recent phenomenon. -LN]


Algorithms and Aura:
The Curious Case of Mariya Takeuchi’s Plastic Love

Widespread digitization has fundamentally changed the consumption, production, and distribution of music in the 21st century. Now more than ever, consumers are able to span space and time to seek out niche genres and artists. Fan and artist communities form out of specialist microgenres in a matter of weeks or months. The users of YouTube and reddit (among others) are facilitating this globalization of pop culture. In this short piece I discuss the unlikely story of Plastic Love, the obscure single that seemingly came from nowhere and introduced millions to the late-70s Japanese genre City Pop by way of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. This story provides academics of popular music, and sociologists of culture with an example of how quickly the meaning-making process is evolving in the era of globalized digital media. The unlikely resurgence of City Pop in a new time and place also speaks to the power of music to transport artist and fan communities to a distant urban imaginary.

Mariya Takeuchi has had a highly successful career as a Japanese pop star, spanning decades and with multiple #1 albums in her home country. Takeuchi was relatively unknown to Western audiences until a specific upload of her 1984 song Plastic Love started to appear in the suggested videos for millions of users. According to content creators Stevem (2018) and Justin Whang (2019a), who both covered the topic in video essays, it is not entirely clear why the algorithm selected an upload of the song by the similarly named user Plastic Lover. Although statistics for videos are no longer viewable, a look at the number of daily subscribers shows that Plastic Lover’s YouTube channel had a dramatic spike between March 17th, 2018 and April 5th, 2018, suggesting that this may have been the period when the algorithmic magic was at work (Social Blade 2019). Within two years the video had amassed 25 million views, and “became somewhat of a nexus point for the microgenre of music known as City Pop” (Whang 2019a).

City Pop emerged from the late-70s and early-80s technological and economic expansion of Japan, and especially its successes in the areas of music technology (Blistein 2019). Fed by both the anxieties and ecstasies of a rising technological powerhouse, City Pop was a highly polished amalgamation of pop, soft rock, funk, disco, and AOR (among others), but distinctly Japanese. A useful metaphor here might be Yacht Rock, but moored in Tokyo Bay. City Pop served as a kind of contradiction in that it

…reflected a new life of leisure and wealth, [but] it also grappled with that wholly unique form of urban melancholy — the loneliness that grips you in the crowd, the fear of emptiness that sets in when everything you want seems to be sitting right there (Blistein 2019).

City Pop, and the sounds found therein, today serve as the raw materials for the contemporary sample-based genre vaporwave, itself a kind of nostalgic but surreal interpretation of 80s and 90s popular culture. From Plastic Lover’s upload of the song, millions of new English-speaking fans became interested and invested in the genre of City Pop, to some degree by accident.

Many are likely unaware of the bittersweet lyrical content of Plastic Love, but their emotional attachments to the video became quite evident following its removal by YouTube due to a copyright strike. Plastic Lover’s upload of the video included a photo of Mariya Takeuchi that had been taken by L.A.-based photographer Alan Levenson while the album was in production. Alan claims he was never compensated by the label for that photo. After he became aware of the popularity of the video, and by extension his photo, he attempted to contact Plastic Lover, to request proper attribution for his image. Levenson was unsuccessful, and instead filed a copyright strike with YouTube, who removed Plastic Lover’s video (Whang 2019a). Many other clones of this video could easily be found on YouTube and in that regard, the removal was ineffective. But the removal of this specific, highly viewed video inspired hate mail from a community of listeners that had developed around the video, although Levenson was unaware that the video would be removed by YouTube. User Stevem (2018), who covered the story of Plastic Love, attempted to redirect this negative energy into something more constructive, pleading with Plastic Love fans on Twitter to instead appeal to Levenson by describing what the song meant to them. And many did just that.

You can’t take YouTube videos home with you, can’t open the gatefold cover up, smell the dust, or ceremoniously drop the needle on the opening track. You don’t view them in a gallery from beyond a crimson-colored rope barrier (generally). But for some consumers, culture in this medium is still charged with intense meaning, as evidenced by both the hate and love surrounding the removal of the video. I contend that the reason why some listeners had such a powerful reaction to the removal of Plastic Lover’s video is because it has an aura, a kind of cultural rarity, even though it is a copy. Benjamin (2006) uses the term “aura” to describe the “mystical value attached to [art] through its association to tradition and ritual” (Brooker 2003:14). For Benjamin, auratic objects are unique, and created in a single time and space which is at a distance from the viewer. Because of this, there is a fundamental difference between the actual painting of Mona Lisa, and coffee mugs emblazoned with her likeness (available for purchase in the nearby gift store). For Benjamin (2006), copies cannot have an aura.

But for Bartmanski and Woodward (2015), copies can indeed have an aura, and they use the example of vinyl records to demonstrate just this. In studying the continued popularity of vinyl records, Bartmanski and Woodward (2015) note that for the consumers in their study, records hold special meanings for some consumers. This meaning arises from the aura that copies possess in contrast to CD and digital forms. The revival of physical formats in an age of digital reproduction suggests that “…technological reproducibility does not rid cultural objects of aura” (Bartmanski and Woodward 2015: 32; see also Maalsen 2013; Marshall 2014; Harvey 2015). In order to shift aura from a normative to an analytical concept, Bartmanski and Woodward propose that Benjamin’s (2006) absolute “uniqueness” be replaced with “relative rarity” as a qualifier for aura. They further state that thinking of “…aura as relational and multidimensional…helps grasp the iconic status of ‘mechanically reproduced’ objects that Benjamin deemed improbable” (Bartmanski and Woodward 2013: 17). Vinyl’s meanings have shifted in the changing landscape of music distribution. Researchers note that for vinyl consumers, these items have an aura that digital formats do not have (Maalsen 2013; Marshall 2014; Bartmanski and Woodward 2015; Harvey 2015).

But the case of Plastic Lover’s video, its incredible growth, and community outcry after its removal, suggests that something else might be taking place here. Users could’ve moved on to any number of clones of the video, or the myriad remixes and copies. This is perfectly captured by the user @CVerse_ who states:

For some listeners, that digital copy had specific meanings that others did not. What I contend is that while others have argued that physical formats like vinyl carry specific meanings that digital media lack, at least for some consumers, we are beginning to see signs that this may not be particularly true, and that the idea of aura may be applied to cases such as this.

This is only one case, and a special one at that, but I think it is useful for illustrating that ideas about permanence and the internet are changing. As BBC journalist Dowling (2019) has noted, not everything on the internet is forever, and much of its early history has been lost. Once immensely popular platforms or websites can whiter away or become obsolete over time, with little-to-no archiving. The removal of Plastic Lover’s video is evidence that users are well aware that the nature of the internet, and the media within, are not permanent. Users may giveth, but platforms can taketh away. Along with the sense of preservation, at least part of the uproar over the video’s removal is entangled with the perception that an individual, working through YouTube, could have something removed that held such powerful meaning for listeners. In responding to Stevem’s plea for civility, some acknowledged that the marriage of the song and photograph was particularly meaningful for them, and also recognized that photographer Alan Levenson did have a right to demand proper attribution for his photograph. Both the ugly and sentimental reactions to the removal of the video suggests that that digital copies, in certain circumstances can be heavily charged with meaning and aura. In times previous, possessing and knowing a particular record, or set of records, served as an entry point to a particular subculture. When discussing record-buying musical subcultures, Bartmanski and Woodward (2013) note that these imagined communities “become conscious of [themselves] only by settling upon external objects” (Durkheim 2012, as quoted in Bartmanski and Woodward 2013: 5). That seems to still be true today, but the digitization of music now means that sound is no longer bound to physical formats. Plastic Lover’s upload, while a copy that exists on the servers at YouTube, also serves as this external object for these listeners. Both Plastic Love and the genre City Pop serve as examples of how music can emerge from the historical ether, rife with old meanings, but with the potential for new interpretations by new audiences.

During my dissertation research on record stores, I came into contact with Bartmanski and Woodward’s (2015) work on vinyl. Their findings echo my own personal feelings with regards to the medium. I don’t have the same kinds of attachments to digital forms, but maybe someday I might. Certainly, I’ve heard something on YouTube, and then went into a record store looking for a vinyl copy. Those records, which I can name off the top of my head, are very meaningful to me. But I’m also struck by what YouTube content creator Stevem states in his video essay on Plastic Love:

YouTube seems to be cultivating this record store in the digital space, affecting how people define their taste in the modern era, mass producing the feeling of finding these obscure gems on your own in a way that feels natural, doing it so well with the puppet strings that you don’t even see them.

The Plastic Lover’s upload of the video is back up on YouTube at the time of writing, following coaxing, negotiating, and proper crediting to photographer Alan Levenson (Whang 2019b). It is only one story among others which illustrates how the relationships around cultural production and consumption are quickly shifting.

Academic research certainly demonstrates that for some consumers, physical media contains meanings that digital music lacks. But the case I highlight here suggests that the attachments that consumers form with a particular copy of an LP (or cassette, etc.) can also occur for a particular upload of a song and image. As others have noted elsewhere, objects can have an aura whether they are originals or copies, in part based upon their relative rarity. What is posted or hosted on the internet can be lost, to copyright claim, software changes, or financial constraints alike.  What the Plastic Love phenomenon suggests is that through this threat of loss, even digital copies can have a kind of aura for music listeners. It also suggests that as pop culture becomes increasingly globalized and participatory, genres can emerge from the past to take on new meanings for listeners, allowing them to imagine a foreign cityscape that is long past.


Thomas Calkins recently earned his doctorate in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (2018). His dissertation “Grooves in the Landscape: Vanished and Persistent Record Stores in the Postindustrial City” examines record store failure, founding, and persistence in the context of urban inequality and music industry change. One manuscript from this research which uses GIS mapping and regression analysis is forthcoming in the journal City & Community, and shows that the 1980s — during the transition to CD — were particularly challenging for record stores in non-white neighborhoods.



Bartmanski, Dominik and Ian Woodward. 2013. “The Vinyl: the Analogue Medium in the Age of Digital Reproduction.” Journal of Consumer Culture 0(0):1-25. doi: 10.1177/1469540513488403.

Bartmanski, Dominik and Ian Woodward. 2015. Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age. New York: Bloomsbury.

Benjamin, Walter. 2006. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Pp.18-40 in Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks, edited by M.G. Durham and D.M. Kellner. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Blistein, Jon. 2019. “City Pop: Why Does the Soundtrack to Tokyo’s Tech Boom Still Resonate?” Rolling Stone (website). Retrieved May 30th, 2019. (https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/japanese-city-pop-returns-light-in-the-attic-compilation-pacific-breeze-822663/)

Brooker, Peter. 2003. A Glossary of Cultural Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dowling, Stephen. 2019. “Why There is So Little Left of the Early Internet.” BBC Website. Retrieved May 23rd, 2019 (http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190401-why-theres-so-little-left-of-the-early-internet)

Durkheim, Emile. 2012. The Elementary Forms of The Religious Life. Mineola, NY: Courier Dover Publications.

Harvey, Eric. 2015. “Siding with Vinyl: Record Store Day and the Branding of Independent Music.” International Journal of Cultural Studies. Retrieved June 5th, 2015. doi: 10.1177/1367877915582105

Maalsen, Sophia. 2013. The Life History of Sound. PhD dissertation, The University of Sydney. Retrieved from Sydney eScholarship Repository (http://hdl.handle.net/2123/10588)

Marshall, Lee. 2014. “W(h)ither Now? Music Collecting in the Age of the Cloud.” Pp. 61-73 in Popular Music Matters: Essays in Honour of Simon Frith, edited by. L. Marshall and D. Laing. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Social Blade. 2019. “YouTube Statistical History for Plastic Lover.” Social Blade Website, Raleigh, NC. Retrieved May 30th, 2019 (https://socialblade.com/youtube/channel/UCTtfW4inXXgXRipflH656eg/monthly)

Stevem. 2018. “What Is Plastic Love?” YouTube Website. Retrieved May 26th, 2019 (https://youtu.be/PlPTXR7e6As)

Whang, Justin. 2019a. “What Happened to Plastic Love?” YouTube Website. Retrieved March 28th, 2019 (https://youtu.be/J9NdTD5ciVs)

Whang, Justin. 2019b. “Plastic Love is Back!” YouTube Website. Retrieved May 21st, 2019 (https://youtu.be/nNOKZba6UtI).