— by Alyssa Rashbaum
An old cliché says that it's easy for American artists to be "big in Japan." So can the opposite hold true for an attractive young Japanese pop star trying to infiltrate the U.S. music scene?
Dance-pop singer Utada Hikaru (who goes by the name Utada) has sold more than 23 million albums in Japan and is hoping that her success will carry over to the U.S. when she releases her album Exodus Tuesday (October 5).
Utada, 21, is confident that her album's polished pop sound — not to mention the fact that Timbaland produced three tracks — will appeal to American audiences. But the singer is concerned that her looks may hamper her chances of achieving pop stardom in the U.S.
"People do ask me if I think I can make it in the States," Utada said. "I don't think it's the music that I'm concerned about. It's obviously that I look really different and there really aren't any completely Asian people [who are popular singers in the U.S.] right now."
Exodus shows a wide range of influences in its fusion of fast-tempo, glossy pop beats and Asian pop, which Utada says comes from listening to Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Nine Inch Nails, Dr. Dre, Elvis Presley and Prince, among others. Her voice, with its frequently alternating highs and lows, combines Madonna's deeper tones with the consciously drawn-out notes of Tori Amos, peppered with the sugary, playful intonations of Björk.
Her lyrics alternate between pure-pop lyrics like, "You're easy breezy and I'm Japanese-y" ("Easy Breezy") and more introspective material, as in "Exodus '04": "Daddy don't be mad that I'm leaving/ Please let me worry about me/ Mama don't you worry about me/ This is my story."
Utada's upbringing is as divergent as her music. Born in New York but raised in both the Big Apple and Tokyo, Utada was brought up in a musical household: her father is a musician/producer and her mother sings traditional Japanese music. Observing their careers at first led Utada to have disdain for the music industry.
"I grew up watching these two really fruity musicians and thinking, 'Oh my God, they are crazy,' " she said. "They would sell their car to make money for the studio, and I'd be worrying, like, 'the income is so unstable' — and I was in first grade."
Still, at age 12, Utada began recording her debut album, an English-language LP that was completed but never released. It did, however, catch the attention of a Japanese record executive who approached Utada about recording a Japanese-language album. The resulting LP "sold like crazy," according to the singer, who was in high school at the time.
"I didn't do [much] promotional work," she said, "and that kind of added to the crazy hype about it, like 'Oh, what's she like? It's so mysterious.' "
That air of mystery helped Utada move 9 million copies of First Love, which she followed with two more multiplatinum albums in 2001, making her one of the most successful musicians in Asia.
Word of her success didn't take long to reach the U.S., and Utada was approached by a number of labels to do an English-language album, including Island Def Jam, whose former CEO Lyor Cohen asked the singer to record a song for a soundtrack to see how she fared in English.
She recorded "Blow My Whistle" for the "Rush Hour 2" soundtrack (with Pharrell and Foxy Brown rapping on the track), which, she says, led her to decide that the label was a good fit for her sound and creative vision.
A remix of the first single from Exodus, "Devil Inside," debuted at #8 on the Billboard dance singles chart. The lyrics illustrate her current position: having reached the pinnacle of success in Japan while facing an uphill battle in the U.S.
"You don't know, 'cause you're too busy reading labels," she sings. "You're missing all the action underneath my table/ They don't know how I burn/ Just waiting for my turn."
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