Female soloists. For years they were counted among both the most influential and the highest selling artists in the Japanese music scene, yet in more recent times have found their popularity on a significant downturn. Why? This is a question posed by many fans, since it was artists like Ayumi Hamasaki, Utada Hikaru, and Koda Kumi that got more than a few of them interested in Japanese music to begin with. Could it be the oversaturation of the market which occurred a few years ago? Changing taste due to the changing times? The general decline of the Japanese music market, similar to what is happening in the rest of the world? Poor material? Not enough promo?
By examining the past and current statuses of a number of Japanese female soloists, young and old, Ryusenkai and I hope to provide some clarity on this issue. This isn’t to be taken as dogma, but it should serve as something of a guide to answer why this segment of the industry is currently performing the way it is.
This is part 1. Stay tuned for part 2.
Ballada (Debut: #1 /Total copies sold: 431,356)
TSUKI (Debut: #3 / Total copies sold: 67,293 / Digital certification: Platinum = 250,000)
BRIGHTER DAY (Debut: #8 / Total copies sold: 46,522)
Ronald: Let’s start things off with Namie Amuro, who is clearly the biggest female soloist right now. Even though I drag her all the time for her desperate trend-chasing ways and lack of artistic ability, she is on top.
Ryusenkai: Her career is one of the more interesting ones since it’s had so many ups and downs. For me, I think that her overall identity was actually clearest on this year’s “Ballada.”, as several of her key original hits were ballads, not to mention that “Love Story” is her biggest hit post-2010. I also feel as though her career revolves around certain pillars: “CAN YOU CELEBRATE?” is one, “60s70s80s” is another big one, and as already mentioned “Love Story” also holds key importance.
Ronald: Like I said earlier, I’m not a Namie fan but I really did like her recent single “BRIGHTER DAY.” I know you’re not really a fan of hers either but you liked it as well.
Ryusenkai: I like her mid-tempos and ballads, but don’t really like her up-tempos, because I feel that those become a mess of ideas. As a result, I feel like the moments she strikes gold most are when she’s at her simplest. “Brighter Day” is not trying to be something it’s not; it’s a song that I feel achieves what Namie wanted it to be. There’s absolutely something to be said with going in with an intent and sticking to it.
Ronald: When I hear her uptempo songs, it just feels like I’m being bombarded. There’s too much going on. The Namie songs that I do like do tend to be simpler. Now let’s move onto the woman with the best selling female soloist studio album this year.
TRAD (Debut: #1 / Total copies sold: 244,939)
Shizuka na Densetsu (Legend) (Debut: #10 / Total copies sold: 16,919)
Ronald: I know that you’ve been VERY supportive of this album this year.
Ryusenkai: Very much so. Although Mariya might seem to be an odd duck in the scheme of things, her position actually makes worlds of sense. To describe her as someone else I know did, she’s a “class act.” She’s clean, has a distinguished image, and produces adult-contemporary pop. Hell, she’s getting footage of her lives played during The Japan Record Awards. So there’s a certain respect that goes to her that I think a lot of younger soloists lack.
Ronald: How well have her recent works done?
Ryusenkai: Her last studio album prior to “TRAD”, 2007′s “DENIM”, sold 434,746 copies. She also had a best album in 2008, “Expressions”, that managed to notch 818,536 copies. So she’s very much famous in a way that most Western fans probably wouldn’t understand. She’s eschews flash for all substance. Not to mention that she’s the wife of Yamashita Tatsuro, who’s another very famous singer from the same period with a somewhat similar image. I think the odd place that she holds in the industry will become more important in the coming years, and I could very much see Shiina Ringo and JUJU both heading that way over time.
Ronald: Speaking of Ringo, let’s go to her.
Hi Izuru Tokoro (Debut: #3 / Total copies sold: 71,322)
Gyakuyunyuu ~Kouwankyoku~ (Debut: #3 / Total copies sold: 45,699)
NIPPON (Debut: #9 / Total copies sold: 24,946 / Digital certification: Gold = 100,000)
Ronald: When you think of Shiina Ringo currently, what comes to mind?
Ryusenkai: Maturity. I think she understands and accepts that she’s aging. More than that, I think she wants to control how she’s seen as she ages, doing so in a way she can be proud of. If she looks back on this, she wants to say “I did well.”
Ronald: For the past few years, she’s become more and more focused on jazz/big band than the rock that she was originally known for.
Ryusenkai: I think if anything, she’ll delve into that more in the future.
Ronald: I think so as well. I even see her going more into enka in the future. Those songs she made for Sayuri Ishikawa a few months ago… it was like seeing a 50-something Ringo. It was a teaser of things to come like 20 years from now.
Ryusenkai: She knows what she wants and has shown both acceptance and forethought. She planned and is planning ahead. Ayu and Koda… didn’t. They lived in the now and didn’t think of the future.
Ronald: Thoughts on NIPPON? It was her biggest hit in a while but caught some people off guard, seeing as how that’s not her usual style anymore. I know a lot of her fans weren’t really about the song but the public was. Maybe it was her giving people the general idea of Shiina Ringo, the one that they may’ve thought of in the past like 15 years ago or so.
Ryusenkai: It was more rock-ish and more divisive, so to speak, since it seemed out of left field. Maybe it was her trying to own that style one more time, or maybe it’s what she thought she had to do for a cheer song. Since jazz, even big-band style, doesn’t really work for that.
Ronald: You brought up Ayumi Hamasaki and Koda Kumi, so…
Colours (Debut: #5 / Total copies sold: 53,406)
Feel the love / Merry-go-round (Debut: #5 / Total copies sold: 37,366)
Terminal (Debut: #24 / Total copies sold: 4,018)
Zutto… / Last Minute / Walk (Debut: #5 / Total copies sold: 28,446)
Ryusenkai: She’s in a pretty significant downturn at the moment, but not one I think it would be impossible to get out of.
Ronald: Like you said earlier, I don’t really think she planned. I also don’t really see a lot of maturity there. She didn’t grow up with her audience. They grew up, she stayed the same, so they dropped her. I mean she acts like she’s 22 when she’s 36. I’m not shaming her or anything but it needs to be said. This is why she’s in her current state.
Ryusenkai: She’s out of sync with her audience and hasn’t grown up, and she’s not going to get a newer, younger audience because they already have Nishino Kana to fill that place. More than anything else, I think Ayu needs to act her age musically and image-wise.
Ronald: Maybe the brown hair is a sign of more mature things to come? And you’re going to make some Ayu fans mad with Kana comparison because of lot of them hate that comparison but it’s so true. On to Kuu…
Bon Voyage (Debut: #1 / Total copies sold: 59,449)
Koda Kumi Driving Hit’s 6 (Debut: #19 / Total copies sold: 8,543)
HOTEL (Debut: #7 / Total copies sold: 21,915)
Ronald: She’s in the same boat as Ayu but worse off than Ayu, in part because Ayu has a much bigger legacy to fall back on compared to Koda Kumi.
Ryusenkai: I’d agree with that, but add that the image she tries to portray just isn’t in style anymore. And it’s NOT coming back any time soon.
Ronald: She was often linked to the more urban, more sexy side of Japanese music but that scene fell off around the end of last decade and kinda hurt her. I know that people like to bring up the popularity of her ballads as a foil to this but…
Ryusenkai: There hasn’t really been a ballad of her’s that’s done extremely well in some time though. Koda definitely has a voice, but it seems like she’s fallen into a trap of sticking too much with what she was most successful with, and kind of worn that out. Since the style seems… really consistent, to the point that she’s saturated her market. Her songs can just about be grouped into 3 specific types.
Ronald: Pretty much. There’s sexy, urban Kuu, cutesy Kuu, and ballad Kuu. She’s very… expected. There are no surprises with her and that gets dull after a while.
Ryusenkai: I personally think she needs a bigger overhaul than some of the others since she needs to do something that will make people pay attention to her again. Because of how she pigeonholed herself, I expect a lot of people in Japan have written her off, so they won’t give her the time of day anymore. They think they know what to expect. She needs to release something that’s a major right turn.
Ronald: Like what?
Ryusenkai: If anything? I think working with her husband is the best option. Do something more rockish.
Ronald: Let’s move on to the last of the really big female soloists from years ago. The one I refer to as a “floating top.”
Ronald: I know that she hasn’t released anything in years but this discussion would feel really incomplete without talking about her. I know there are rumors of her coming back in some capacity in 2015. I think if she came back fully, she would instantly become the top female soloist, maybe even the top act in Japan again. I do think of her as the top female soloist in Japan currently, it’s just that she hasn’t released anything as of late, ie a “floating top.”
Ryusenkai: “Floating top” is a good way to put it. Utada could potentially break 1 million with a comeback, and probably 500,000+ on following albums. The interesting thing with her is that she’s almost created a cult of personality around her image. She’s very much appeared as an average person for pretty much her entire career, to the point where I’d almost say that she’s the artist version of an idol like AKB48.
Ryusenkai: Let me explain. Utada is at her core, a normal person who dresses normally and just works hard at what she does, but has the musical talent to make her artistry stand apart from her image. Which in turn sets her apart. She just happens to have all this musical talent and never really flaunted it.
Ronald: That comparison makes sense now… Speaking of AKB48, let’s go to a former member…
S×W×A×G (Debut: # 6 / Total copies sold: 26,639)
little (Debut: #3 / Total copies sold: 42,497)
COME PARTY! (Debut: #6 / Total copies sold: 17,531)
Ryusenkai: She appears to be on a very obvious downward curve, and her press really isn’t helping her.
Ronald: Like her dating TAKAHIRO from EXILE?
Ryusenkai: That, the rumors she’s had work done, the kerfuffle with Ayu. I haven’t seen much good press on her since I joined up with Arama really.
Ronald: One thing about her is, after speaking to AKB48 fans about her, is that while she was still in the group, she was trying to cultivate this image that kinda ran against that of AKB48. She was creating an image of a trendy young woman of the times. This isn’t what AKB48 is about and apparently it turned off some of the fans of the group. So maybe this is also why she’s not doing as well. Her music is different too. It’s like she’s trying to be the new generation queen of trash JPop so to speak.
Ryusenkai: With post-group music, it really does depend on who you work with production and composition-wise. After that, the question becomes who the audience she’s actually aiming for is and how best to reach them.
Ronald: Good question. Is it AKB48 fans still? Or is she trying to get the audience that someone like Koda Kumi would’ve got in the past? Let’s now move on to the real new generation JPop queen…
with LOVE (Debut: #1 / Total copies sold: 212,443)
We Don’t Stop (Debut: #2 / Total copies sold: 33,423 / Digital certification: Gold = 100,000)
Darling (Debut: #6 / Total copies sold: 40,402 / Digital certification: Platinum = 250,000)
Suki (Debut: #9 / Total copies sold: 24,803 / Digital certification: Gold = 100,000)
Ryusenkai: Kana is this generation’s “It” girl, but one who I think has pigeonholed herself since people want a very specific type of song from her. And that’s ALL that they want. Rather than her, I think a lot of people tend to like what they see her as.
Ronald: They like that idea of the sweet girl next door who sings cellphone ballads. I mean she did try something different this year with “We Don’t Stop.” It became a hit but it wasn’t immediate as usual. If I remember correctly, I think that song actually broke her Recochoku #1 streak she’s had for quite a while. It kinda threw people for a loop. They did come around though, somewhat. So what should she do?
Ryusenkai: If anything… I think that if she wants to change she actually just needs to bite the bullet and take risks, and over time her audience will change with her.
Ronald: So leave her old fanbase behind?
Ryusenkai: Not really – more of a mix of old and new fans. To use an analogy, she needs to become Shiina Ringo, and stop being Ayu.
Ronald: So she needs to plan for the future. One thing I noticed is that the very top girls don’t really plan for the future. They live in the now, while the ones who aren’t as big plan because they want to stay in the game longer and can’t afford not to. Speaking of someone who may not be in the game for much longer…
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu
Pikapika Fantajin (Debut: #1 / Total copies sold: 72,945)
Yume no Hajima Ring Ring (Debut: #11 / Total copies sold: 17,545)
Family Party (Debut: #2 / 21,493 )
Kira Kira Killer (chart ineligible)
Ronald: It’s funny to think that a few years ago, people really thought that Kyary was a challenge for Kana’s crown. Now look at her.
Ryusenkai: She’s had the fastest rise and fall I’ve seen in a while.
Ronald: What is the reason for her sudden, drastic decline?
Ryusenkai: I feel as though her style is extremely … static, possibly because Nakata’s become bored with the idea of the project. When he started making music for Kyary, it seemed like he wanted to do something unrestrained, and her earlier works certainly sounded fairly distinct. Now though, I have to wonder if he’s fallen into a kind of rut and doesn’t want to do it anymore.
Ronald: So what can Kyary do?
Ryusenkai: Tone it down and pull it back a bit, and work with someone else. Or maybe, rather than tone it back, maybe “shift gears” would be a better word since Japan is clearly getting somewhat tired of her current style of “Kawaii Crazy”.
Ronald: I find it weird how, in light of her decline, she’s still doing things like Kohaku and The Japan Record Awards. “Family Party” is nominated for Song Of The Year. How?
Ryusenkai: I’m convinced that a lot of that song’s press comes from its tie-in with Crayon Shin-chan.
Ronald: Do you think she should just give up on music and just go back to modelling?
Ryusenkai: I’m not sure honestly, but it might be a consideration if she keeps going this way – ultimately, that’s her choice though. Let’s switch gears and go towards someone older.
POP CLASSICO (Debut: #2 / Total copies sold: 114,631)
Ryusenkai: I’d actually group Yumi as somewhere between Ringo and Mariya.
Ronald: How? She’s the second selling best female in Japanese music, behind Ayu.
Ryusenkai: I’m not speaking in terms of success. I’m speaking in terms of her approach to her music and aging, which very much parallel Ringo’s, even though her music is probably closer to Mariya’s in sound.
Ronald: Do you think her best album in 2012 helped her?
Ryusenkai: “Nihon no Koi to, Yuming to. The Best Of Yumi Matsutoya 40th Anniversary” helped her a lot. Her follow up album “POP CLASSICO” held up pretty well considering, and managed to actually sell 114,631 copies. I think she knows what she wants to do, and that that might involve her becoming a very albums-focused artist now.
Ronald: Let’s go to someone a bit younger now…
FLY (Debut: #2 / Total copies sold: 67,190)
Daredemo Lonely (Debut: #15 / Total copies sold: 10,882)
Ryusenkai: YUKI is kind of like Ringo in a way, but took a different path musically and delved into more disco and pop.
Ronald: I can see that. What I like about YUKI is that she’s not afraid to experiment with her sound. It’s refreshing. She’s in her 40s now so she easily could just keep doing the same thing over and over again. But she’s not. I love that about her. Another thing about YUKI, is that you can really tell that she loves doing this. She easily could’ve just retired after JUDY AND MARY disbanded since they were one of the biggest rock bands of the 90s. But she felt her works wasn’t done. Her solo career is kinda like icing on the cake that is JUDY AND MARY.
Ryusenkai: She’s doing this because she wants to, not necessarily because she needs to, and as such she seems willing to take risks. This might result in her having less pressure than most other artists. Of note, she’s also very much paying attention to what’s new in the music scene, which isn’t something you see a lot of pop artists doing. She’s making an effort getting out there and actually seeing what the hell is going on, and I think her time in a band like JUDY AND MARY is integral to that.
Ronald: Yeah, coming from a background like hers, you’re going to have an expansive taste and be willing to shake things up. What I like though is that she feels young but not in a way where it’s like an embarrassing mom trying to be cool. Like Madonna.
Ryusenkai: YUKI has a broad taste, yet simultaneously manages to also act her age in spite of this, which is something that isn’t seen nearly often enough.
Ronald: As we’ve stated above with some of the other ladies. Let’s now go to a younger lady, who I think could be part of this more mature line…
LOVELAND (Debut: #3 / Total copies sold: 50,938)
THE BEST (best album with Shota Shimizu) (Debut: #4 / Total copies sold: 51,172)
MUSE (Debut: #9 / Total copies sold: 29,344)
Love/Affection / Kamisama (Debut: #23 / Total copies sold: 3,033)
Fighter / Gift (with Mika Nakashima) (Debut: #13 / Total copies sold: 10,158)
YOU… feat. Nakasone Izumi (HY) (Debut: #31 / Total copies sold: 3,468)
Ronald: Miliyah is someone who I’ve followed from pretty much the beginning of her career and she probably has the biggest change, music-wise and image-wise, that I’ve ever seen.
Ryusenkai: She really seems to do what she wants, and in a lot of ways, Miliyah did what I said Kana should do if she wants to grow and change. Miliyah bit the bullet and she seems perfectly okay with the results of that.
Ronald: It’s funny that you bring up Kana. People often ask me as a Miliyah fan, if I think Kana kinda stole her fans. Around the turn of the decade, Miliyah had a number of cellphone ballad hits. As Miliyah moved more away from that style, Kana took over that realm.
Ryusenkai: And now Kana’s stuck there, unable to change for fear of losing her fans.
Ronald: True. Miliyah’s come quite far from where she started. She would not be around now if she was still doing the R&B she was doing a decade ago. She would not be around now if she was still walking around with a VERY deep tan, door knocker earrings, and a Baby Phat velour suit. She had to change. I think she would have more success if she stuck to cellphone ballads but why stay in the same spot? I see change as a good thing. Because what if people get tired of those cellphone ballads eventually? Then what?
Ryusenkai: She wants to keep playing, so she really has to evolve and change.
Ronald: Speaking of that evolution, I remember her saying in an interview a while ago, that she looks up to Shiina Ringo as an influence. This is very exciting.