2004-10-20 - "Utada begins her Exodus " - Daily Yomiuri

"Utada begins her Exodus "
By: Rori Caffrey - Special to The Daily Yomiuri
The Daily Yomiuri - Popsetera Section - October 20, 2004

From her first single "Automatic" to her latest "Easy Breezy," Hikaru Utada has made easy work of the Japanese pop charts. But the young singer is now learning that neither title describes her latest venture--breaking into the U.S. market.

Fans of Utada, the name she's being marketed under abroad, were beginning to doubt if the J-pop icon's U.S. debut would ever come. Announced more than two years ago, it was looking as if Axl Rose's Chinese Democracy would surface before Utada CDs were on Best Buy racks. But on Oct. 5, Universal Music released Exodus in the United States. Japan held its breath.

With the all-English Exodus, Utada has made herself Japan's Keanu to the pop music Matrix. She is the One; the brave musical messiah of the Far East. She will do what many have tried before and failed--she will bust J-pop into the impermeable U.S. market, succeed in the world's largest entertainment market and make Japan look way cool.

But unlike Keanu, her success is not paramount to the safety of the universe. Actually, it's no big whoop. If Exodus flops, the millions who pinned their hopes on Utada will shrug and say "Make it in America?! Shucks, who were we kidding?" You see, to say an U.S. artist is "big in Japan" insinuates they're on their way to the bargain bin, but to say a Japanese artist is "big in America" is...well, you can't. Many want to be, yearn to be, dream to be, but none are.

True, there are Japanese jazz players, turntablists, and punk bands who have excelled on foreign soil. Their gains, however, do not match the widely held image of success. It's said that the pot of gold is on the Billboard Top 200, and if we believe what Universal is trumpeting, Utada is sitting pretty at the end of the rainbow. No. 3 on one chart, No. 5 on another, oodles of press coverage, prime TV features--at this rate she'll be doing Gap ads in a few weeks!

While it's true that Exodus has entered the Billboard charts, the numbers being flouted are more glitter than gold. It's her song "Devil Inside," and not Exodus, which hit No. 3 on the Hot Dance Club Play list, not the Top 200. The album did debut at No. 5 on the Heatseeker chart, a ranking for new artists, but just No. 160 overall. Not bad, but many Japanese have fared just as well, if not better.

Still, the numbers show promise. Her coverage in the New York Post, The Washington Post, Jane magazine and Teen People has been good, and both MTV and CNN ran features on her. All have focused, unsurprisingly, on her childhood and CD sales: She composed songs in primary school, recorded an album at 12, broke national sales records while in high school, and has sold 23 million albums in Japan...oh yes, they mention that she is from Japan. That's the country that, despite trying, hasn't spawned an international pop star yet.

But hey, it's 2004! It's all about the global village, yo! Nationality means nothing, right? Wrong. The headline of one clipping reads "Found in Translation." MTV has labeled her "Sarah McLachlan with a dash of Madonna dipped in sake." Dipped in sake?

Taking a cue from Ricky Martin, Utada is running with it. Remember when Ricky had all of the United States "Livin' La Vida Loca," gobbling up his oh-so-slightly exotic pop, dashes of espanol here and there? Fast forward to "Easy Breezy." Utada croons "konnichiwa," then "sayonara," and in that catchy chorus, "I'm Japanese-y." With The United States' recent Nippon fetish, from The Last Samurai to Ichiro to Yu-Gi-Oh!, being Japanese-y may just take Utada to the ichiban position. And with the Asian-American community, the country's fastest-growing major population category, reaching 12 million, it's due time they had one representative on the pop charts.

Producer Timbaland and Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore were hired for the album, lending it both urban and alt rock cred. The "Devil Inside" 12-inch has remixes by Richard Vission (Donna Summer, Crystal Waters) and Scumfrog (the Rolling Stones, David Bowie). Jake Nava, famous for his Beyonce and Usher videos, made "Easy Breezy."

So will Utada make it big in the United States? Will Exodus usher J-pop into the U.S. mainstream? The title of another Utada single is the only answer--"Time Will Tell."

Exodus is now available on Universal Music.

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