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Utada Hikaru - J-pop With a New York Twist

Written by Kevin Ma Tell a Friend

Japanese pop has been constantly changing in the last two decades. Once an industry swamped with traditional style music, the Japanese pop market has evolved into a variety of genres mainly influenced by the Western pop scene. One of the innovators in the last decade was Utada Hikaru, an artist with a unique voice that has changed the J-pop scene for years to come.

Musical by Nature

Born on January 19, 1983 in New York City, Hikaru's parents are popular J-pop singer Keiko Fuji and music producer Teruzane Utada. Often tagging along with her parents to the recording studio, Hikaru was exposed to a variety of musical genres at a very young age, making for a melting pot of influence on her music. Even today, her father continues to accompany her to recording sessions as her producer and manager.

In 1990, the Utada family formed U3, a production company that oversaw all musical productions from the family. In 1993, U3 produced and released U3*Star with Hikaru's mother as the main vocalist. The album contained lyrics written by the 10-year-old Hikaru.

Hikaru continued to be featured in both U3's and her mother's music until 1997 when she adopted the stage name Cubic U, distinguishing herself as a solo artist. In January 1998, she released her debut English album Precious under Japan's Toshiba-EMI records. While the album failed to attract much attention commercially, it garnered acclaimed within the music industry. It was just the beginning for the young singer-songwriter.

Japanese R&B? - First Love

Persuaded by the president of Toshiba-EMI, 15-year-old Hikaru made her Japanese debut in December 1998 with the single Automatic. The single - a mid-beat R&B song that included English lyrics - defied the typical J-pop genre at the time and took the entire industry by surprise. People began to talk, spreading the word about the young Japanese-American girl who had come from nowhere. The success of Automatic and her second single Movin' on Without You paved the way for the release of her debut album First Love in March 1999. EMI knew then that they had a star on their hands.

First Love soared to astronomical heights. Following the success of the first two singles, the title single First Love, the theme song to drama Majo no Joken, was also a big hit. Both critics and J-pop fans hailed Hikaru's original blend of Western R&B music with a J-pop sensibility. First Love became the best-selling Japanese album of all-time within two months of release and has sold roughly 10 million copies worldwide to date. The album not only achieved commercial success, but also scored a number of industry awards. Hikaru collected the "Special Award" and the "New Singer Award" at the Nihon Usen Grand Prix, the "Grand Prize in Album Category" and "Honorable Mention" awards for Automatic at the Nippon Record Grand Prix, "Artist of the Year" and "Song of the Year" at the Japan Golden Disc Grand Prix, and, lastly, a World Music Award for "Best-selling Japanese Artist" in 2000 - all before her high school graduation.

Sophomore Slump or Converting to J-pop? - Distance

Eight months after the release of First Love, Hikaru began writing new material for a second album, starting with the release of Addicted to You. The fame brought on by First Love attracted famous American producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to work on the single, and it became the official song for a commercial by electronics giant Sony.

Instead of releasing a quick sophomore album in 2000 to cash in on her newfound popularity, Hikaru went on her first concert tour, the Bohemian Summer tour. Tickets for the nationwide tour were sold out within 2 hours of release. When additional shows were announced, EMI received over 900,000 entries for tickets, which were sold on a lottery basis.

After releasing only 4 singles over the course of two years (a practice typical of many J-pop stars), Hikaru finally released her second album Distance in March 2001. Since many of the tracks had already been released as singles, the album held little surprise for her fans. Despite the lack of groundbreaking new material, Distance was a huge commercial success because of hit singles such as Wait & See ~ Risk and Can You Keep a Secret?. While Distance seemed to have simply rehashed many of the musical formulas from First Love, as evident in tracks such as Eternally and Sunglass, Hikaru tried out new genres with side tracks like Kettobase and collaborated with Kubo Takuro, a member of the band Glay, on Dorama. Hikaru knew that she had to stick to a certain formula to survive in the J-pop market, but she also took advantage of the opportunities for genre crossover that only Japanese pop can afford.

Another evidence of Hikaru's continuing success came that summer when popular music channel MTV Japan invited Hikaru to be the first Japanese artist ever to hold an Unplugged Concert with MTV. In an "unplugged" concert, only non-electronic instruments are used to create a pure musical experience, and Hikaru was definitely up for the challenge. In 2002, Distance also earned Hikaru the "Song of the Year" and "Pop Album of the Year" awards at the Golden Disc Grand Prix.

Moving Beyond J-pop and the Teenage Years - Deep River and Exodus

With phenomenal success in Japan as a Japanese-American artist, it was a matter of time before the American music industry took notice. In February of 2002, Hikaru announced her record deal with American record company Island Def Jam. However, the release date of her American album was not announced, thus leaving fans speculating for over 2 years. Until then, she continued to make music - and headlines - back in Japan.

With a new slate of singles following the release of Distance, including Traveling , Hikari (the theme song of popular video game Kingdom Hearts), and Sakura Drops, Hikaru again headed in a new direction with her music. Gone was the western-influenced R&B, replaced by songs that attempted to break out of genre borders. The result was a mature work by an experienced artist - Deep River.

Released in June of 2002, Deep River is probably Hikaru's most ambiguous work as an artist. Many of the tracks defied genre formulas, and the music videos for the singles, directed by famed photographer Kazuaki Kiriya, followed suit with striking images and a visual flair rarely seen in Japanese music videos. In September of that year, 3 months after the release of Deep River, Hikaru shocked Japan by announcing her marriage to Kiriya, who is 15 years her senior.

Deep River went on to become the ninth best-selling album of all time on the Oricon charts. It earned Hikaru her second "Artist of the Year" award, along with two more "Song of the Year" awards at the Japan Golden Disc Grand Prix, cementing her status as one of the top artists of the J-pop industry.

In 2004, while Hikaru was busy working on her American debut under the name "Utada," her record company in Japan released her first Singles Collection. It became the best-selling album that year on the Oricon charts, making Hikaru a record four-time winner of the honor. Meanwhile, she also continued to release Japanese singles such as Colors and Darekano Negaiga Kanau Koro, the theme song for her husband's directorial debut film, Casshern.

In October of that year, "Utada" finally unleashed Exodus in the United States and Japan. Touted by Hikaru as "an experiment" and targeted for an American audience, the album was met with poor reception by both her fans and critics who expected "Utada" to deliver music consistent with what Utada Hikaru would deliver in Japan. What the fans got was a continuation of Deep River - mature and ambiguous music that transcended genres - while leaving her relatively clean J-pop image far behind by dealing with themes such as infidelity and sexuality. Exodus topped the charts in Japan, but "Utada" failed to make an impression in the American market. However, the single Devil Inside did become the number one dance song on the weekly Billboard charts, suggesting that the future of "Utada" in English-speaking markets may not be completely over yet.

Not Quite Back to Square One - Ultra Blue

Almost a year after the release of Exodus, Hikaru returned to J-pop with Be My Last - pleasing the fans who much preferred Hikki (her nickname in Japan) to "Utada." The Western rock-inspired arrangements of Be My Last, the theme song for the high-profile film Haru no Yuki, again surprised fans who were expecting the old R&B Hikki to return. It soon became obvious through the subsequent singles that while Hikaru was back in Japan, she was not exactly returning to old roots.

In December 2005, Passion, Hikaru's 4th single since Deep River and the theme song for the game Kingdom Hearts 2, was released. Again defying genre conventions, Passion, Hikaru's attempt to emulate Bjork with a sense of Western spirituality, baffled even the most faithful fans. With its cross-promotion with Kingdom Hearts 2, many within the industry were disappointed when the single debuted to lower-than-expected numbers at number 4 on the Oricon charts. Fortunately, her 5th single Keep Tryin' was released in February 2006 to considerable success. The single debuted at number 2 and remained on the Oricon charts for 11 weeks. Despite lower sales, Hikaru's recent singles actually scored strong sales with download services such as iTunes, prompting Toshiba-EMI's decision to make 6th single This is Love a digital release.

In June, Hikaru finally released her fourth Japanese album Ultra Blue after a four-year wait. Containing the 5 previously released singles, Ultra Blue also presents 5 new tracks (along with Wings, previously featured as the side track on the Keep Tryin' single), offering the most mature Utada Hikaru album to date. The style is again different from her previous albums with a mishmash of various genres that moves Hikaru much closer to the versatility of J-pop and farther away from the Western R&B style she started out with. However, fans should be happy to find that Hikaru does occasionally return to R&B with side tracks such as Nichiyo no Asa and Wings. To promote Ultra Blue, Hikaru is also launching her second nationwide tour in July.

After the phenomenal success of her Japanese albums and the failure of her American debut, how will Japanese fans respond to Ultra Blue? With western-influenced R&B becoming the J-pop norm and new artists, such as Crystal Kay and BoA, beginning to take over the spotlight, Hikaru might have to put in a little extra work to retain her status as one of the queens of J-pop. However, while Hikaru's popularity may have dipped a little over the years, she's not quite out yet - Ultra Blue scored the top position on the Oricon charts for two consecutive weeks, making it the best-selling album in June 2006. On the other hand, sales have declined compared to her previous albums, making her longevity in the industry all the more unclear.

Nevertheless, there's no doubt that Utada Hikaru will forever deserve a spot in the history of Japanese music as not just another pop star who sold a lot of albums, but rather a musical innovator who took J-pop to new heights.

Published July 14, 2006

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