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Utada, Hikaru

Hikaru Utada

Singer, songwriter

Hikaru Utada was still a teenager when she became the newest superstar of Japanese pop music, or J-pop. Her 1999 release First Love delivered an R & B-influenced string of hits and went on to become the top-selling Japanese release of all time. Her sixth studio album, Ultra Blue, was one of the top-selling releases of 2006 for her label's parent company, EMI. In between those two efforts, Utada attempted to conquer the North American market with the 2004 English-language album Exodus, but was usually tagged as the "Japanese Britney Spears." Benjamin Secher, writing in London's Daily Telegraph, explained for readers just how big a star Utada was in Japan, where "her slick R&B-tinged electro pop dominates the airwaves and her pretty, feline face is plastered on metropolitan billboards ten storeys high. In the Far East she is, in short, a megastar."

Versions of Utada's name vary. Her 2004 North American debut billed her as simply "Utada," but she is often referred to "Utada Hikaru," which is the correct form of her name in Japanese and other Asian languages in which one's family name is listed first; in most Western-media sources, however, she is called "Hikaru Utada." She was born in New York City in 1983 to parents both deeply involved in the music business. Her father, Teruzane Utada, was a record producer, and her mother, Junko Utada, rose to stardom in Japan in the late 1960s and 1970s as an enka singer, a term which refers to a genre of melodramatic pop ballads similar to country-western tunes. Even Utada's maternal grandmother was a noted figure in traditional Japanese music in the 1950s as a visually impaired virtuoso on the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument.

Utada spent much of her early years traveling between Japan and the United States, and grew up fluent in both languages. Her first recordings were done around the age of six, but more formally began at the age of 12 when she went into the recording studio with her mother and cut some tracks that were released under the name "U3," or "Utada 3." In 1996 Utada released her first solo single, "I'll Be Stronger," which she had written herself, using the name "Cubic U," a reference to the mathematical notation denoting a number raised to the third power—in this case, a way of paying homage to her lineage. In early 1997 "Close to You"—a cover of a 1970 hit for the American sibling duo The Carpenters—was released on Toshiba/EMI, and then included on an English-language debut, Precious, issued in January of 1998. It went on to sell 700,000 copies and spent 17 weeks on the Japanese album charts, peaking at number four. Almost overnight, Utada became a huge pop star and teen idol in Japan, but this would be the last work released under the Cubic U name.

Utada was still in high school at an international school in Tokyo when her next effort, First Love, was released on LP in March of 1999. It shattered several music industry records in Japan, becoming the fastest-selling release ever and, over time, reaching sales figures of ten million, which made it the best selling album in Japan, ever. It also marked her return, for a time, to writing and performing in Japanese. As J-pop's newest star, Utada was followed everywhere by legions of young fans, and for a time she was unable to leave the house at all except to go to school, an effort that required a security team. Being anywhere on the streets of downtown Tokyo was out of the question. "For two years I would wake up every day thinking, ‘I want this to end,’" she confessed to Secher. A respite became possible in 2000, when she moved to New York City to enroll at Columbia University. Though there were some rumors that the Japanese equivalent of Britney Spears would be coming to campus, Utada was unrecognized and unbothered as a Manhattan college student. "When I can just take a walk and go grocery shopping in New York, it takes a huge load off my back and I feel great," she told Time International journalist Christopher John Farley. "I feel human again, almost."

Utada's next record was Distance, released in March of 2001. A a manufactured "feud" between Utada and another J-pop diva, Ayumi Hamasaki, raged in the media prior to its release, when Hamasaki's best-of compilation was issued on the same day. Utada's collection of new songs, however, immediately vaulted her into the number one spot, and the record sold 3 million copies in its first week alone, which broke another record in Japanese music sales history. Later that year she released a new single, "Blow My Whistle," that paired her with rapper Foxy Brown and made it onto the Rush Hour 2 soundtrack. Utada's next studio effort, Deep River, again debuted in the number one spot on Japan's album charts in June of 2002, posting a new first-day sales record of 1.6 million copies. This fourth LP from Utada sold so well during its first weeks that it actually boosted the stock performance and earnings forecasts of Toshiba/EMI's parent company, the worldwide EMI Group.

Utada stunned fans later in 2002 when, at the age of just 19, she married music video director Kiriya Kazuaki, who was 15 years her senior. She had left college by then, unable to balance the travel distances required between classes in New York and stardom in Asia, but she moved to crack the U.S. market finally when she signed with Island/Def Jam Records, a subsidiary of the Universal Music Group. The plan was to record and release an English-language album for the U.S. market, a notoriously difficult feat for any Japanese artist, even a bilingual one. Delayed nearly two years, Exodus finally appeared in October of 2004, and earned some tentative critical praise for the tracks that were produced by renowned studio wizard Timbaland, which were "Exodus '04," "Wonder 'Bout," and "Let Me Give You." The strong lyrics caused somewhat of a stir among her fans back home, however, and Utada admitted that Exodus was definitely a break from her wholesome image there. "People are like, ‘Oh my God, what's happened to her," she told a writer for the New York Post. "In Japan, people don't really sing about sexual content … [but] it doesn't have to be sleazy." She chalked up those differences to distinctly different cultural attitudes in the two countries. "As a girl in Japan, if you want to be accepted, it's better to show some weakness, to have a goofy side," she explained to Secher. "But over here people seem to respond well to strong women."

Utada's sixth studio effort, Ultra Blue, was released in June of 2006, and spent two weeks in the number one spot on the Japanese album charts. Like that of her American counterpart Spears, Utada's early marriage ended in divorce, an outcome she announced on her bilingual "Hikki Texts" blog in March of 2007. A more likely parallel for her, however, is the career of her mother, who used the stage name "Keiko Fuji" and whose decision to retire left her legions of fans devastated. Utada has said that she plans to give up her music career before she turns 30, and imagines that she will return to school and pursue a science degree. As she mused to Farley, "I kind of see myself in a white coat in a lab, working till late evening in front of test tubes."

For the Record …

Born on January 19, 1983, in New York, NY; daughter of Teruzane (a music producer) and Junko (a singer) Utada; married Kiriya Kazuaki (a music producer), 2002 (divorced, March 2007). Education: Attended Columbia University, 2000-01.

Recorded "U3" (or Utada 3) with her mother, c. 1995; released first single, "I'll be Stronger," under name Cubic U, 1996; signed with Toshiba/EMI; released English-language LP Precious, 1998; released Japanese-language LP First Love, 1999; signed with Island Def Jam Records, 2002.

Addresses: Record company—Island Def Jam Records, Island Records, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019.

Selected discography

Singles

(As Cubic U) "I'll Be Stronger," Toshiba/EMI, 1997.

(As Cubic U) "Close to You," Toshiba/EMI, 1997.

"Automatic/Time Will Tell," Toshiba/EMI, 1998.

"First Love," Toshiba/EMI, 1999.

"Addicted to You," Toshiba/EMI, 1999.

"Wait & See (Risaka)" Toshiba/EMI, 2000.

"For You/Time Limit," Toshiba/EMI, 2000.

"Can You Keep a Secret?," Toshiba/EMI, 2001.

"Final Distance," Toshiba/EMI, 2001.

"Hikari," Toshiba/EMI, 2002.

"Colors," Toshiba/EMI, 2003.

"Dareka no Negai ga Kanau Koro," Toshiba/EMI, 2004.

"Be My Last," Toshiba/EMI, 2005.

"Keep Tryin'," Toshiba/EMI, 2006.

"This Is Love," Toshiba/EMI, 2006.

"Boku wa Kuma," Toshiba/EMI, 2006.

"Flavor Of Life," Toshiba/EMI, 2007.

"Beautiful World/Kiss & Cry," Toshiba/EMI, 2007.

Albums

(As Cubic U) Precious, EMI, 1998.

First Love, Toshiba/EMI, 1999.

Distance, Toshiba/EMI, 2001.

(Contributor) Rush Hour 2 (soundtrack), Def Jam, 2001.

Deep River, Toshiba/EMI, 2002.

(As Utada) Exodus, Island Def Jam, 2004.

Utada Hikaru Single Collection Vol. 1, Toshiba/EMI, 2004.

Ultra Blue, Toshiba/EMI, 2006.

Sources

Periodicals

Daily Telegraph (London, England), October 27, 2005.

Financial Times, July 2, 2002, p. 48.

International Herald Tribune, April 7, 2004, p. 10.

New York Post, September 19, 2004, p. 94.

Seattle Times, March 21, 2005, p. E5.

Time International, December 17, 2001, p. 40.

WWD, September 2, 2004, p. 22B.

—Carol Brennan

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