When Utada Hikaru burst on the scene in the late 1990s, Japanese pop music was a different world.
At the time, there were bands and there were singer/songwriter types. But when it came to mega pop stars? They were slickly produced by overly controlling managers. They were cute, referred to as idols. (See, Morning Musume.)
They were not fiercely independent, and they did not write their own music.
Utada was 16 when her first single hit Japan. It was brash, had attitude and it introduced an R&B sound into Japanese pop music. Her first album, First Love, still holds the record in Japan for highest sales ever.
She not only wrote all her own music, but recorded every vocal on the album, (not the standard practice at the time). She had an unusual sound to her voice, and, importantly, it was clear that she was in charge. At the time, people even said, she’s good, but it’s a shame she’s not pretty.
Utada Hikaru comes from music royalty; her mother was a beloved singer of enka, Japanese traditional music, and her father was a famous music producer. Utada grew up between the US and Japan, drinking in the influence of both musical cultures.
Today, we talk about Korean pop and Korean pop culture as being ascendant in Asia and even reaching American shores. But in the 1990s and early 2000s, Japanese pop culture: music, anime, dramas, was the influential one across Asia. And that meant Utada had a big impact beyond Japan.
She often released beautiful and intricate music videos (i.e. Final Distance, Traveling, Sakura Drops, Colors). But in 2002 her music video for the song Hikari – Light, featured her standing at a sink washing dishes. The camera did not move once. Occasionally she lip-synced along; occasionally she just washed dishes. People still loved her. And she could do that. Because she was that popular.
Over time, Utada’s sound has evolved, she has became more pop, occasionally acoustic, flitted with electronic elements. She has crossed genres, playing around with different styles and sounds. She became her own producer. And each time she released an album, it soared to the top of the Japanese pop charts.
Three of the top 10 best selling albums in Japan are hers.
She did at times try to break into the American scene. In 2004, she did an album that sounded like she was trying to fit some idea of what she should be; it didn’t do that well and didn’t sound like the independent voice that she was in Japan.
In 2009, she released another that did a bit better. She’s had tie-ups wih Ne-Yo and other famous American artists. She is widely known among video game enthusiasts in the US, because the theme songs for two of the Kingdom of Hearts video games are hers.
She also briefly went to Columbia University, before dropping out midway through to get married and focus on her career.
Since Utada, other pop stars have followed her path, embodying aspects of her. Mega popstar Ayumi Hamasaki, who wrote lyrics, managed her fame and career expertly. Misia or Koyanagi Yuki were great R&B style singers. But no one has combined it all to be quite like Utada.
Five years ago, at the age of 28, Utada announced she was going into hiatus for an unspecified period of time. She said she wanted to learn how to be a regular person. Many people referred to it as early retirement. After all, her mother had retired when she was young.
But earlier this year, Utada announced she was stepping back into the music world and releasing two songs in April; they are the theme songs for two television dramas.
Japan still has the second biggest music industry in the world, but it is a shadow of its former self. The industry has tanked because the older men at the top have refused to allow digital sales and people have stopped buying CDs. Enormous pop idol groups promise CD buyers, mostly men, that they can shake the hand of their favorite teenage girl member if they buy a CD. So those are the CDs that have sold.
And the industry still charts its numbers by CD sales.
Streaming services were only introduced to Japan last year.
There are still good musicians, they’re just not rising to prominence as much as they might have in the past.
But regardless, Utada occupies a special place in the Japanese pop culture consciousness. No pop star has hit the Japanese pop world quite like she did. Utada is pretty universally loved by everyone. And to this day, she stands apart.
To listen to more of Utada Hikaru and hear her evolution over time, listen to these songs:
Letters — This is probably my favorite Utada song; It’s from her third album, Deep River
Colors — This is from her Fourth Album: Ultra Blue
Final Distance — This was released after big knife attack at a school in Japan in 2001. It was later put in music textbooks.
Be My Last — This is also the theme song to the movie adaption of the novel Spring Snow, written by world reknowned novelist Yukio Mishima.
Goodbye Happiness — Fun. Riffs on every single music video she’s ever done.
Sakura Nagashi — This is the theme song to the third Evangelion Movie released in 2013. She released this song while on hiatus. (She’s supposedly a big Evangelion fan)
Stay Gold — This is from her fifth album, Heart Station.