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The post header image, featuring the text ‘?J Pop Album Review’ and a shot of a vinyl of Mariya Takeuchi’s ‘Variety’.

Variety is probably one of Mariya Takeuchi’s most well known albums, because it features the viral sensation that is “Plastic Love”. But this song wasn’t much of a hit when it was first released in 1985. So, whilst today this song is what the album is known for, there are older generations of music listeners and Mariya fans for whom this album represents something entirely different. And whilst I was one of the many late adopters to “Plastic Love”, which was my entry point into Variety, it now represents something entirely different to me too.

As perfect as “Plastic Love” is, it’s not even my favourite song on Variety. Nor do I think it’s the album’s best song. And it also isn’t a reflection of Variety as a whole. And that’s a pretty amazing thing, given that “Plastic Love” has not only now become Mariya Takeuchi’s definitive song, but for many, it also defines the entire genre of city pop. It truly is a behemoth of a song. And yet on Variety, it doesn’t stand out as this tentpole song on the album. Even on the 30th anniversary edition, which features an additional 3 versions of the song. This is not a slight on “Plastic Love”. It’s an acknowledgment of just how good some of the other songs on Variety are. And that Mariya and this album are more than just this one song.

Variety is produced by Mariya’s husband Tatsuro Yamashita, who is regarded as the King of city pop. And whilst “Plastic Love” was later regarded as a city pop classic, Mariya and Tatsuro’s music goes beyond city pop. Variety is categorised as a city pop album, but it isn’t a city pop album at all. And whilst there are city pop songs on the album, this isn’t the overarching theme of it all. The overarching theme of Variety is Americana, and all of the music which falls under it. And this makes Variety so much more interesting; because it speaks to Mariya and Tatsuro’s approaches to music and the intersections of their tastes separately and collectively.

A Japanese artist releasing an album in the theme of Americana is as weird and as amazing as it sounds. And it provides an insight into how Mariya sees herself, and the breadth of Tatsuro’s musical influences – neither of which are confined by being Japanese in music. This may seem like a strange statement. But walk with me for a second.

Japanese music in the 80s was a trip, because whilst there was a great deal of influence from music in the US, idol pop was starting to be a big thing; something which would largely go on to define J-pop for a good while. And because of TV, J-pop also had a look attached to it, which would also define J-pop visually. As a result of this, I imagine that there was always an expectation that Japanese audiences had of homegrown artists. That they’d sing in Japanese. That they’d have a certain sound. That they’d have a certain look. That if they were women, they probably wouldn’t write any of their own music. But Mariya having come up long before all of this, held steady and never wavered nor caved to any of these things. She sang regularly in English. And whilst her sound sat nicely alongside some of her city pop contemporaries, her music was never ‘Japanese’ per se in sound. It was always pretty westernised. But this wasn’t because Mariya was shunning the Japanese market trends in protest or trying to emulate an American it. It was just a byproduct of her experiences and life as an artist. Up until Variety, Mariya had worked with a range of American songwriters and musicians, and had always dabbled in sounds which were tied to the US. And then there is Tatsuro Yamashita, who has long had an obsession with doo-wop, soul and R&B. All things he channels into his productions on Variety.

The opening song on the album “Mou Ichido” is actually a great representation of Variety as a whole; sounding very much like a Tatsuro Yamashita production (his vocals are also the first you hear). Featuring lyrics in both Japanese and English, and having a very Beach Boys-esque sound about it; which pops up again in the album on songs like “Honki de Only You (Let’s Get Married)”. Variety released the same year as Tatsuro Yamashita’s Big Wave album, and both were probably being worked on at the same time; so it’s no wonder that these styles of songs made their way onto Variety. And it makes sense given the Americana of it all.

The Americana angle of Variety makes more sense than not, between Mariya and also what was happening in music in Japan at the time. The 80s saw Japan taking a really keen interest in the music scene in the US, which was not only booming, but broad. Rock, R&B, soul, jazz and some remnants of disco all enjoyed a level of popularity and fought it out on the charts. But there were also many American songwriters and musicians working in Japan at the time. Look through the liner notes of albums released in Japan during the 70s and 80s, and there’s a likelihood that you’ll find English names in the liner notes. Watch live tours of Japanese acts from the 80s, and you’ll probably spot a gaijin in the band. So as a result, Variety was not just a reflection of Mariya and Tatsuro’s musical interests, but also a reflection of music in Japan and the world at the time. And because of this, Variety doesn’t feel contrived or as though it is TRYING to be this shot at being a US pop album in Japanese. A stark contrast to Japanese music from the mid 90s, where Japanese songwriters and producers became more prolific and celebrities in their own right (i.e Tetsuya Komuro). And despite less reliance on collaborations with American music talent, a fair amount of the music these Japanese producers created was very Americanised.

But for all of this overthinking and insight, Variety is a very simple and straightforward album. And the Americana angle to it adds a real sense of charm. But it also creates a really cool narrative, that two Japanese artists could come together and feel that they could just give their own takes and spins on a genre of music which is so distinctly not Japanese on the surface. But it also begs the question; why couldn’t it be? And is it not? The songs being sung in Japanese makes the songs Japanese by proxy. Something being reframed can really transform not just your perceptions of something, but the ways in which you connect with it; something which can also be messy (i.e R&B and Hip-Hop being consumed far differently when white and South Korean acts do it, versus when a Black acts do). And it’s always a good time when a non-white person dips into a genre which is widely seen as white. It’s like a dash of seasoning.

A collage of images of Mariya Takeuchi, from the album shoot for Variety.
Mariya Takeuchi – Variety | Warner Music Japan

Variety is well produced, well written and polished from top to bottom. But what really makes this album work is that every song is so full of heart and earnestness. And this manages to make even the weaker moments on the album work. “Amphitheater no Yoru” is a song I usually skip. Honky-tonk style music isn’t really my bag. But there are also some moments when I don’t mind fucking with it. Depending on my mood, I’m partial to just rolling with the fun and the campness of it. For Mariya to have put this song out in 1984, and then fellow Japanese singer / songwriter Rina Sawayama to release “This Hell” almost 40 years later, it truly feels like a full circle moment – further speaking to this connection that Japan has to Americana.

As great as the production on Variety is, it’s Mariya’s vocals which really carry the songs. And not just the technicalities of her voice, but the way she conveys the feelings of the songs when she sings them. There is a real sincerity to Mariya’s voice which doesn’t come through on “Plastic Love” at all. In fact, the performance Mariya gives on “Plastic Love” feels like an outlier on this album, as it’s the one song where her performance feels very straight and direct. Although it is also the one performance on Variety where Mariya sounds the youngest. It was a bit of a surprise to hear the album for the first time, and to hear how much lower Mariya’s voice is, and how grown she sounds comparatively.

Listening to Variety is like listening to somebody recount how it feels to fall in love. Each song feels like a memory which Mariya is walking us through. The experience of listening to Variety is almost cinematic. Or like a musical. Each song paints such a vivid picture of a super specific feeling and moment in time. Even the song titles alone paint a picture and seem more like chapter titles. And this feeling, matched with the overarching musical theme of Americana, and the inspiration Tatsuro draws from the Beach Boys, draw comparisons to things like Grease or old Warner Bros. musicals. And in a slightly meta moment, “Mersey Beat de Utawasete” itself references a moment of listening to a song and not fully understanding it, but still relating to the sentiment of it.

Mariya has this really great quality to her voice where she manages to feel super relatable. But she genuinely does have a really nice singing voice, and there is a noticeable difference between how she sings in Japanese versus how she sings in English. It’s not huge. But the way Mariya hangs on notes and ends them is far more free and playful when she sings in English.

There is also a great level of clarity in the way Mariya sings. You can hear every word she is singing. Even if you don’t understand Japanese, you can recite what she’s singing, because you can hear every single word. *Looks over at Ariana Grande first three albums*.

A collage of images of Mariya Takeuchi, from the album shoot for Variety.
Mariya Takeuchi – Variety | Warner Music Japan

As a result of the point in time at which Variety was created, the sounds, and the production talents of Tatsuro Yamashita, it has managed to really hold up and stand the test of time – as evidenced by the later success of “Plastic Love”. Some could even argue that Variety created a precedent and a template for many women and non-binaries in Japanese music who would hit the scene far further down the line. Not just in terms of the sonics and the global appeal of the sound of Variety, but Mariya being a songwriter on every single song; taking greater agency in the creation of her own music – something you can see with the likes of Ayumi Hamasaki, Hikaru Utada and Ringo Sheena.

Mariya Takeuchi isn’t credited enough for her songwriting, much like Mariah Carey (similarities in first names being a complete coincidence). People acknowledge the hits and the impact of Mariya’s music, but rarely acknowledge that Mariya was the songwriter of some of her most well known songs. Yes, Tatsuto Yamashita produced “Plastic Love”, but Mariya Takeuchi was the one that wrote it. And Variety is a well written album. Great hooks. Great structures. Yet, with every song feeling completely relatable, which makes it so much easier to lean into each of them, even if the genre isn’t completely your jam. I think this may subconsciously be a part of why “Plastic Love” has caught on in the way that it is, because we’ve all identified with the feeling of kidding ourselves in certain relationships, out of a desire to want to love and be loved. And many of us have struggled to move on from somebody. “Mou Ichido” strikes a chord with me, because I’ve been in relationships where we’ve both taken the relationship for granted and been so complacent, all the while not realising that we’ve drifted apart and we’re simply just being alone together. And even on the songs that you may not identify with, Mariya’s earnestness makes you want to be in the moments of which she is singing about. “Honki de Only You (Let’s Get Married)” actually makes me think ‘Damn. A wedding could be fun?!’. “Going Steady” makes me think for 3 minutes and 27 seconds that dating is not the ghetto.

Variety does a great job of creating these vignettes, which ties in with the album. Because the variety isn’t just in the variety of sounds on the album, but the variable that is love itself. It’s not just one thing and one emotion. Love can be beautiful, but it can also be frustrating. It can also be extremely painful, even when it’s going right. And this is what makes Variety so relatable. The subject matters and the familiarity of the sounds come together to make something which is easy to latch onto.

Listening to “Plastic Love” you probably have an expectation of what the album it’s from sounds like. I certainly did. So when I listened to Variety for the first time, I was not only surprised by the sounds it touched on, but the genuine variety on the album. How fun it was. How sexy it was. How touching it was. And how much range Mariya had beyond that one viral song, and that she was more than that, and more than just city pop.

Side note: If you do check out this album, go for the 30th anniversary edition which features the song “Aka no Enameru”. Especially if you are a big fan of “Plastic Love” and would like something else that’s in a similar vein.

Verdict: Recyclable Love

▪ Mou Ichido 🏆
▪ Plastic Love 🔥
▪ Honki de Only You (Let’s Get Married)
▪ Broken Heart
▪ Todokanu Omoi
▪ Mersey Beat de Utawasete
▪ Mizu to Anata to Taiyō to
▪ Aka no Enameru 🔥

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Album Review: Mariya Takeuchi – Variety