Growing up I remember hearing Utada’s songs on television all the time, that was probably my first memory of her. When “First Love” came out I was 5 years old, and the album went on to become a sort of cultural phenomenon.
As I got older and started to actually listen to music, I was really shocked when I learned how young Utada was. She always came across so mature to me, with the way she presented herself and especially her lyrics. I couldn’t believe someone so young produced such work!! She was a prodigy. The song “First Love” in particular was so touching to me, I found myself relating to the lyrics even though I was in elementary school and of course never had a boyfriend before lol.
I began to study in Canada before she made her big comeback in the music scene, so my mind for Japanese music is still kinda trapped in 2015 when she was still in hiatus! It’s a little surreal when I remember that she is back, congratulations on 20 years!
Utada Hikaru is the Japanese artist that I think everyone who’s remotely into J-music will eventually run into at some point. She’s so prominent and game-changing that she’s basically a rite of passage for a lot of people. What makes her unique to me is how pure she’s managed to keep her vision throughout her entire career- and while it’s not been perfect, she’s never really cheapened herself or sold out her artistic integrity.
While my first foray into Japanese music was definitely quite far away from Utada Hikaru’s music, I first heard her voice on Shiina Ringo’s classic covers album ‘Utaite Myouri ~Sono Ichi~’ where she performed a duet with Ringo (for the first time) on an excellent rendition of the Carpenters’ classic ‘I won’t last a day without you’. However, it wasn’t that time where I’d get round to listening to her music properly. That came later when an ex was listening to Exodus- and in particular, the song Exodus ’04. That’s what made me sit up and pay attention.
Cut to a few years later and I had bought everything she had put out to date- and still continue to collect (even if I’m not exactly the greatest fan of her current output). She’s definitely a go-to option when I feel like listening to something inoffensive and relaxing. My favorite album is definitely ‘HEART STATION‘, because it’s just immaculately produced. Her foray into international music was also quite an interesting- if unsuccessful experiment, and those two albums still stand out for both reasons good and bad.
I will leave here with a picture of my vinyl collection, which I’m very glad I got back in the day, looking at those ridiculous asking prices in 2018.
Utada Hikaru is pretty much why I am here. It’s 2003, and I’m bored online. I end up on a pop music forum that I hadn’t been on in months. I stumble across the “Other Music” section, aka the JPop section. I’m not a fan of a lot of what I’m seeing. But there is this one girl, Utada Hikaru. She actually seems interesting. I then remember that I had actually come across her before, years before. That random song with Foxy Brown and The Neptunes. And then on the VMAs in 2001 when they were showing the winners of Video of the Year for random countries.
I can’t pinpoint the exact song at all now, but whatever it or they were, it was enough to keep me going back to that forum, and the 4 or 5 other forums that came after its demise. Over the years, my appreciation of Japanese music grew into what it is now. Utada Hikaru remained the core for a lot of the early years, along with m-flo.
Then comes “EXODUS“, my first big Utada moment, because it’s actually something that I as an American could actually partake in. I remember buying the album at an actual record store. I love the album to this day, and truly do believe it was ahead of its time. I knew the album wouldn’t work here though. It just wasn’t the kind of thing that said “HIT” in the American market. And also “Easy Breezy” was an utter piece of crap that didn’t even deserve to be recorded, let alone used to lead a foreign artist’s debut project.
Around this time was when I was old enough to start going to clubs. One night, at a gay club in New York that has long since closed, I heard something familiar. Something that I heard only heard in the privacy of my own home. It was the Scumfrog remix of “Devil Inside”, the song that should’ve been the real first single off “EXODUS.” I remember feeling this rush of gay joy.
A similar feeling happened when I received the June 2005 issue of Interview Magazine, with Utada on the cover. It was an issue all about Japan, with her as the focal point. I cherished that magazine, and still have it to this day. Little did I know, that this magazine would one day play a role in my life.
The next vivid memory I have of Utada is the lead up to and the release of “HEART STATION.” I remember being amazed by “Kiss & Cry.” And how “Stay Gold” was the soundtrack to a bad romance, leading me to not listen to it to this day. I do love the run of “Kiss & Cry”, “Gentle Beast Interlude”, “Celebrate”, “Prisoner of Love”, and “Take 5” on the album. For me, that is the album. After the run comes the turd about Utada’s gay bear, “Boku wa Kuma.” I always thought of this song being in reference to her, since a lot of haters on the forums I was on talked about her being a fat, lazy lesbian.
Then comes “This Is The One.” This was not the one. It was trying too much to fit into that boring world of Ne-Yo R&B that has hot at the time and that I loathed (funny enough, she would end up working with him on a version of his song “Do You“). Again, horrible first single choice, “Come Back to Me.” The album did have some good songs, like “Apple and Cinnamon.” But then it also had Utada singing about oral sex on “Dirty Desire“, which was just utter cringe. The lack of success of this album convinced me that an Asian popstar was just not going to happen here.
I remember going to a Sephora in New York for a talk session with Utada that a radio station was holding. First of all, why was she on a Sephora tour? WTF? How random! I remember the chatter on the line being about whose new English album was better, hers or BoA’s, since both were released within days of each other. It was a mixed decision, but I personally liked BoA’s more. During the talk, I remember the host bringing up Ayumi Hamasaki, and comparing it to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Utada clarified it was a bunch of nothing.
At the end of the talk, the attendees were handed autographed photos of Utada. I met a friend who worked at her label after the talk. He told me that she didn’t really sign them, but some interns had earlier that day. I figured though. He then gave me some Utada promo CDs he got from his job.
Then the dream came true: Utada touring the US. I saw her in New York. I remembering getting to Irving Plaza and being amazed that the line was down the block and around the corner. I loved the concert, but I now had actual confirmation: she’s not a good live singer.
A few months later, the hiatus was announced. And honestly, this is where I feel like the international Japanese music fandom as we knew it died. Utada was the one act, above everyone else, that was the unifier. She was the common thread that people who listened to Japanese music internationally could talk about, regardless of what genre they mainly listened to. And she was gone. As we know, a lot of people didn’t stick around. Some went to KPop, while some just moved on completely.
A few years later, “Sakura Nagashi” came out. I liked it, but I didn’t feel the same. I don’t know what it was. The song took on a depressing aspect for me because not too soon after it came out, a friend of mine died unexpectedly. She was always having man drama and was going on about her biological clock ticking. The line “Everybody finds love in the end” stuck with me in regards to her, because it didn’t happen for her, and that was just a shame.
A few years later, I was looking through my magazine collection and found the June 2005 issue of Interview Magazine with her on the cover. It was on my desk for the next few weeks, and then served as a source of inspiration. I had been offered a chance to write for The Japan Times, but I needed to pitch an idea to my perspective editor. I pitched the premise of me doing a remake of that magazine, but 10 years later, looking to see who were the rising names on the scene in 2015. I selected Kawatani Enon of Gesu no Kiwami Otome. & indigo la End, cero, and KOHH. I got the job. Being a fan of Utada basically resulted in me being a published writer. That was never part of the plan!
But it happened. And it also led to the day I had to turn my back on her. “Fantôme.” We all know the story by now. I’m not a fan of this album, except for the songs featuring Shiina Ringo, KOHH, and Nariaki Obukuro. This led to an outcry, and claims that I was sexist and homophobic, among other things. There were calls for me to resign from writing on this site. It was all a bit too much.
Utada just doesn’t have the spark that endeared her to me now. She’s grown, and I have too. We’ve grown apart. I went to Japan for the first time this year to see Shiina Ringo and Sakanaction, and completely forgot that she was even on tour at the same time. That’s how much we’ve grown apart.
On the last night of my trip, I went to a gay bar in Shinjuku. I recognized the song being played, Akina Nakamori’s “Second Love“, and the bartender and patrons were amazed that this foreigner knew what they were listening. I then told them that I had come to Japan to see Shiina Ringo and Sakanaction, and the one guy in the bar that spoke English, who also happened to be the most handsome one, requested that the bartender play some of their songs. After about an hour of that, I heard another familiar song, my favorite Utada song, “traveling.” An amazing moment. Then came another favorite, “Prisoner of Love.” I noted how I liked the begging and the pleading at the end. It was handsome guy’s favorite part too, leading to a duet as the bar closed.
When I got back to the US, I saw a bootleg of Utada’s current tour. The new songs did nothing for me, but the old songs had that spark still. The same one they had years ago, the same spark I felt on my final night in Tokyo. And I’m ok with that.