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Mar 29

Utada Hikaru and the American Dream: Utada at Sephora New York 3/25

It has become an increasingly common sight in New York City: hundreds of J-music fans lined up on the street for the chance to see their idols in the flesh. On this warm March day, the occasion for the commotion is Japanese pop sensation Utada Hikaru’s appearance at a Manhattan Sephora to promote her new stateside release, This Is The One.

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Sephora has billed the event as a “listening party,” where attendees will be able to listen to tracks off the album and get the “behind the scenes scoop” on the music from the artist herself. In Utada’s own words, intimate, fan-oriented events such as this are a rare thing for her, and the fans seem to know full well that this opportunity – to listen to her speak in person, ask her their own questions, and perhaps even get an autograph – may never come their way again. The line to get into the event wraps around the block. Some fans have travelled many hours for the occasion. Some of them have been sitting on the sidewalk outside Sephora since five in the morning.

This event is part of a long line of appearances the pop powerhouse has lined up in the U.S.: radio interviews, listening parties, morning show performances. These events are clearly targeted at new listeners rather than the sizable chunk of fans Utada already has here; they serve as promotional introductions more than anything, focused on presenting Utada and her music to a wide market of listeners.

This intention is made clear as the event in New York gets underway. Before Utada even appears, 7 out of 10 tracks from This Is The One are played, both in the store and out on the street, broadcast for the throngs of fans that couldn’t fit inside. Many of the songs are catchy and danceable, and while the crowd seems to enjoy the opportunity to hear the music, it isn’t anything they haven’t heard before. In fact, most of them already know all the words, singing along enthusiastically to every verse, hook, and chorus. These people don’t need to be marketed to, but the host of the event – Carolina from New York radio station Z100 – plugs the album at every chance she gets anyway. Utada seems to be the only one who understands that the only people in the room who don’t already own This Is The One are the event staff themselves.

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The short interview is pleasant but lacks depth, and spare some interesting questions from the fans offers no new insight into Utada or her album. There is a certain disconnect between Utada and the host, as she is asked – once again – about her childhood, her musical background, and her entry into the pop scene in Japan. Although American interviewers should not be expected to be well-informed about the Japanese pop scene, there’s something strange about hearing Utada Hikaru explain who Hamasaki Ayumi is.

Utada has stated that she sees This Is The One as her second debut, and her American record label, Island Def Jam, seems to be promoting it as such: the U.S. debut of a Japanese superstar. But while This Is The One is miles ahead of her previous English-language album, Exodus, in terms of marketability, the hope inherent in these frantic promotional activities still seems false. There’s a strange dynamic brewing when an artist replays her life story to every interviewer she meets and then flies across the country in her own private jet; when her music video is the free video of the week on iTunes, but is downloaded by people who then travel through multiple states to get the chance to see her in person.

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As much as Utada would like This Is The One to be a debut album, events such as the Sephora listening party in Manhattan showcase her already extensive popularity, and prove that this release is not a debut in the true sense of the word. Utada is an established figure with an established fan base and an established musical style. No matter how much or how little her marketing team tries to downplay her superstardom in Japan, in the United States it will always precede her; it will always be the subject of interviews and the headline of articles. And as a result, despite Utada’s American citizenship and English fluency, to the American public the U.S. will always be her second stop. On a person-to-person level, in front of her fans, Utada’s demeanor speaks humility, sincerity, and honesty. She seems a normal American woman, and her stated motives in tackling the U.S. market – to challenge herself – ring true. But her honesty cannot erase the title of ‘Japanese superstar,’ or the messages about her intentions that are hidden in that label.

Photos by Kathy Chee

1 comment

  1. boo

    I like Utada Hikaru first as a person, sometimes as a Japanese artist and every so often as an English language recording artist. It’s cool that fans got to meet her, but sounds like they need some real outside the core audience marketing if she ever hopes to make a quarter of the impact here as she has in Japan.

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