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.