Singer Utada Hikaru Back in the Charts After Extended Hiatus


Each Album Release Is a Happening

Utada Hikaru’s new album Fantôme, the singer’s first in close to a decade, has hovered near the top of the Japanese music charts since its release in September 2016. CD and digital sales of the album have topped one million, a mark it reached in January. Many in the industry consider this accomplishment par for the course for Utada, who set the sales record in Japan with her 1999 debut album First Love. However, considering eight and a half years have passed since Utada’s previous album Heart Station and the overall shrinkage of the CD market, it is quite remarkable that a record aimed at the Japanese market has matched the success of earlier releases and enjoyed such a run of robust sales.

The American-born Utada holds a unique position within the Japanese music scene. Unlike established artists who rely on a core of dedicated fans, centering on fan club members and regular concert-goers, she has no such official club and rarely goes on the road—she has done just two Japanese tours in her entire 18-year career. While she has proved she can sell records, sales have tended to run hot and cold, particularly for her singles. Lacking a clear fan base, each release has posed a new set of challenges for the singer.

Albums Ahead of Their Time

If Utada had an organized base of diehard fans, her 2004 album Exodus and 2009 album This Is the One, released worldwide under the stage name “Utada,” might have sold better in Japan. Sound production for the albums was geared to the overseas market, particularly the United States, and the lyrics were also in English. Although they are very ambitious works, both musically and lyrically, neither album has drawn much notice in Japan due in large part to their meager global showing. This Is the One only climbed as high as 69th place on the Billboard charts, while Exodus fared even worse, ending its run in the 160th slot. Despite the fanfare preceding her overseas debut, a sense of disappointment spread among her Japanese fans when sales failed to live up to expectations.

I analyzed the reasons for the so-called failure of these two albums in my book 1998 no Utada Hikaru (Utada Hikaru in 1998), and simply put the key factor was that the musical content did not fall into any clear genre. The albums’ collaborators included Timbaland, a well-known producer of several hit R&B albums, and members of the alternative rock band The Mars Volta, who appeared on some tracks. This eclectic mix must have perplexed American radio DJs when trying to figure out where these early albums fit within the country’s highly segmented music market.

The boundaries between R&B and hip hop and alternative rock, indies, and electronic music began to break down in the 2010s. (Or, more precisely, R&B and hip hop went completely mainstream by combining elements of these other genres.) It is now natural for rock artists to collaborate on the albums of hit R&B female vocalists like Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Solange. In this retrospect, Exodus and This Is the One can be viewed as albums ahead of their time.

Media Fuss over iTunes Store Ranking

Following its release, Fantôme unexpectedly rocketed to the number-three spot on the iTunes Store album charts, a development that even had Utada tweeting her surprise. Then in January of this year “Ray of Hope MIX,” a reboot of her 2004 classic “Simple and Clean” from the video game series Kingdom Hearts climbed to number two on the US iTunes Store singles chart. Fantôme and “Ray of Hope MIX” reached number one in several Asian, European, and Middle Eastern countries, leading many in the Japanese media to declare Utada should take a second shot at marketing herself globally.

There is an important point to bear in mind first, though. There are generally three options for making a purchase: download a digital copy when the album is released, listen to it on a streaming service, or buy a physical copy (CD or analog record). Utada, however, did not make Fantôme and “Ray of Hope MIX” available on streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify, so eager fans overseas raced to download the works. The iTunes Store chart, however, can be misleading. It is updated every hour, which opened the way for Utada’s music to shoot momentarily as high as second- or third-place on the US charts. It was this hour-by-hour ranking that large swaths of the Japanese media pounced on as proof of Utada’s chart success.

Video Games and Anime Attract New Utada Fans

At the same time, though, the overseas reaction to Fantôme and “Ray of Hope MIX” proves that Utada enjoys a sizeable global fan base. When she released This Is The One, Utada made a concerted effort to promote the album overseas (perhaps drawing on the lessons from the poor sales of Exodus), including playing shows in major US cities and in London—a fact seriously underreported in the Japanese media. Utada’s music has steadily gained a listening audience overseas in ways that Japanese people have not realized, such as through globally marketed contents including Kingdom Hearts and the movie series Rebuild of Evangelion, along with unofficial content released on YouTube.

Nonetheless, one can’t help wondering what the future will hold for Utada abroad. The singer finished her contract with Universal Music Group following the label releasing, without her consent, the compilation Utada the Best globally in 2010. Following her hiatus, she signed with Sony Music Japan in March of this year. Despite having the resources of a major record label with a worldwide network at her disposal, the singer seems intent on cutting loose her previous “Utada” persona and marketing herself under a single name. She appears to have opted for a seamless approach, with no lines separating her domestic and overseas activities, even when works are released with an eye to the global market.

Building an Overseas Audience on Her Own Terms

Similar to Utada, Japanese artists looking to break through overseas face the decision to either customize their songs to suit the US and other markets, or simply release their work overseas as is.

Groups such as One OK Rock, Man with a Mission, and Sekai No Owari have tried the former approach, while idol groups Babymetal and Perfume have found success with the latter. Over her more than 18-year career, though, Utada has forged a unique path that ignores either of these approaches. Similarly, she has managed to carve out a distinct niche within the Japanese music scene.

My hunch is that Utada’s next breakthrough will come from featuring as a guest on a song by a famous recording artist. Many performers have been able to break onto the world stage in this way, and I think the opportunity will arise not because of Utada’s popularity in Japan or the influence of her label, but through an active, creative collaboration between her and the other artist. Utada Hikaru has opened a new page in her musical career with her album Fantôme, creating music that crosses over the language barrier to reach listeners around the globe.

(Originally published in Japanese on March 10, 2017.)

music J-pop Utada Hikaru