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Utada, Boa set sights on America with dueling English-language discs

March 19, 2009 | 11:22 am
Utada500

Big in Japan just isn’t big enough for at least two Asian singers in 2009. Hikaru Utada (pictured) and Boa, two of Tokyo’s top-selling artists, are releasing English language CDs this month in an attempt to win over American pop and R&B fans. 

For decades, Japanese music managers and American record labels have tried to crack the lucrative stateside market with top-selling artists, including Seiko Matsuda in the 1980s and Toshi Kubota in the 1990s. Each time, the endeavor invariably fails; last year, Universal didn’t even bother releasing an English-language record from one if its rising R&B stars, Ai, despite the fact that the singer was born in L.A., is fluent in English and can belt like Beyoncé.

While Boa and Utada are certainly not the first artists to dream of “making it” in the West, Utada’s “This Is the One” and Boa’s self-titled “The First Album” represent a potential watershed moment for Asian pop stars in America: Both offerings arguably surpass previous crossover attempts from the land of the rising sun. 

Los Angeles-based record producer Joey Carbone, who has worked in Japan with singers such as Yuki Koyanagi and Crystal Kay, stated in an e-mail that "both records are good...Boa is a great dancer and a good singer. Utada is a very good singer and a great songwriter."

Kun Gao, CEO of San Francisco-based anime-centric website Crunchyroll.com, agrees that both are a cut above the usual Japanese exports.

“Both Boa and Utada are very popular, not only with world-wide audiences but also have extremely loyal and rapidly growing U.S. fans,” he said.

But the performers have their work cut out for them. “When Japanese and Korean singers have tried to have a hit in the U.S.," Carbone said, "they have changed their look and sound to try to appeal to the U.S. market, and it hasn't come across as real."

Boa and Utata are stars in Japan and beyond -- Boa is actually Korean and maintains a good-sized fan base in her native country, although her career is more prosperous in Tokyo, where she currently lives. Utada has sold more than 50 million records in Japan, and it looks as if “This Is the One” is yet another hit; she currently has the second top-selling download in Japan, according to iTunes, for her the first single, "Come Back to Me," off her all-English disc, which debuts here digitally March 24 (and physically May 12).

But winning over hearts in the Heartland won’t be easy for Utada; mainstream U.S. pop fans who listen to Top 40 radio stations such as KIIS-FM (102.7) are typically reluctant to embrace foreign stars they aren't used to seeing on Perezhilton.com or in the pages of Us Weekly, with notable English and Canadian exceptions.

However, Utada sees herself as more American than Japanese.

“I grew up in New York,” she said from Island Records’ Manhattan office earlier this week. “In Japan, I’m seen as a bit of a foreigner, but in America, I get comments like ‘Your English is so good.’ So in both places I’m a bit of an outsider, but I think that comes out in my music, and everyone feels like an outsider on some level. If people can connect with me there, that would be great.”

Although Utada’s been down this road before with another English language release aimed at U.S. listeners (2004’s “Exodus,” which sold fewer than 60,000 copies, according to Soundscan), this time the bilingual multi-instrumentalist seems to have found her true voice with a more focused effort.

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Tracks such as “Merry Christmas Mister Lawrence (FYI)” overflow with confidence, hooks and hip-hop-inspired beats. The first single off the 10-song set, the piano-driven, vaguely Alicia Keys-esque “Come Back to Me,” only hints at the riches buried throughout the offering, which Tricky and the sought-after production duo Stargate produced. “Apple and Cinnamon” sounds like a cross between Kate Bush and a Prince outtake from “Around the World in a Day." And “Dirty Desire” might sound good in a club played between Lady Gaga and an old Vanity 6 tune. Almost the entire record is highly listenable, with risky but rewarding twists.

But, alas, Utada has a weak spot, and it might be her lyrics. Take, for example, “Dirty Desire.” While Utada claims the verses are tongue-in-cheek, it’s not clear that lyrics such as “And in my fantasies/I love you long time/Doing my nine to five/I'm thinking six and nine/I gotta make you mine” are ironic. 

“My lyrics have a distinct feel and I don’t take myself too seriously,” she said. And what about her evoking perhaps the most odious sexual stereotype of Asian women, the “love you long time” phrase that crept into the urban vernacular after 2 Live Crew sampled a memorable scene from Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”?

“I’m not easily offended, because I find humor in everything,” she said. “It’s not that different from a rapper saying, ‘Love you long time.’ I just happen to be an Asian girl. I can’t be afraid of what people think when I write.”

Utada has little to fear from her female fans, who may actually appreciate the racy content and the more thoughtful lyrics sprinkled throughout “This Is the One.”  She's also won over at least one important male fan in the U.S., a potential advocate who could prove crucial to her success at radio.

“I was pleasantly surprised with Utada,” KBKS-FM music director Eric Tyler said from Seattle on Wednesday after hosting her in-studio. " 'Come Back to Me' makes me raise an eyebrow."

In contrast to Utada’s radio blitz spearheaded by Island Records (apparently, L.A. Reid is a fan and wants to break Utada urgently this year), Boa is taking her music directly to the streets and clubs of America.  The South Korea-born singer, who released her debut English disc Tuesday, is hitting Los Angeles and Las Vegas hard in support of “First.”

“In America, Asian society is really big," the heavily accented singer said earlier this month at her L.A. showcase. "They have supported me a lot.” The trilingual singer may not have the backing of a major U.S. label, but she may end up the bigger star in the long run, thanks to infectious dance floor stompers such as “Eat You Up” that should make Britney Spears jealous. The tune was, in fact, cooked up in Copenhagen by Danish songwriters Remee and Thomas Troelsen and fine-tuned at Bloodshy & Avant's studio in Stockholm, where Spears’ vocals have flowed through monitors many a time.

But Boa will need more than Britney-style beats and Asian American fans if she hopes to ever break outside of Asia. At her showcase, a representative from Snoop Dogg’s team was talking with Boa’s representatives, apparently interested in a collaboration (nothing has been confirmed yet, both camps say). Boa will certainly need a high-profile collaboration to make a splash in the States, despite a stellar record full of potential hit songs, including a duet with Sean Garrett, "I Did It for Love".

But even with Garrett, Snoop Dogg, Justin Timberlake or some other champion on her side, Boa may go only so far. “I believe that Boa has a better chance of selling in the U.S. [long term], but I do not think she will ultimately be very successful," Carbone said. "The field of female solo artists doing that exact same type of track is so saturated, there's no room for someone like Boa, a virtual unknown in the U.S. It's just too difficult for her to distinguish herself against everyone else that do similar tracks.”

Regardless, count on Boa and Utada to keep trying well into the next decade. The U.S. just might be big enough to find room for both in its collective pop-music heart.

-- Charlie Amter

Boa will play a short set at Universal City Walk at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.  She also will put in an appearance (not a full concert) at Tao Beach in Las Vegas on Friday.

*Utada will perform on KTLA's morning news on Tuesday (an earlier version of this post said she would appear on KTTV's "Good Day L.A.")

Utada photo (top) by Y. Kikuma/Island Records

Boa photo (bottom) courtesy of S.M. Entertainment USA

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