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Thursday, Jan. 1, 2009


J-pop prepares an assault on the West in '09

Staff writer

I wouldn't want to shout about it (since it might upset your New Year's hangover), but 2009 might just be the year that J-pop goes global. Several heavy hitters have set their sights on Western domination this year, and more than ever, their chances seem good.

News photo
Star power: Hikaru Utada will make a second stab at Western success in 2009, 10 years after her groundbreaking debut in Japan aged just 16. © TOSHIBA-EMI LIMITED

Let's start with one of Japan's biggest-selling artists of all time: Hikaru Utada.

Before she actually tried it, foreign industry insiders and artists from Elton John to Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes predicted for some years that if any Japanese artist had a chance at truly cracking the West, it was Utada. It wasn't simply about numbers; although she boasts the No. 1, 4 and 8 biggest-selling albums in Japanese history, with more than 10 million sales of her 1999 debut album, "First Love," what really marked Utada out for international stardom was that she is fully bilingual, a product of her New York upbringing, and has a truly unique voice.

Yet when Utada finally released English-language album "Exodus" in 2004, aimed squarely at American audiences, the pundits seemed to have been proven wrong: It was an unmitigated flop in the U.S., and then again in the U.K. a year later. Almost certainly this was due to its poor promotion — in Britain, the press releases I received described Utada as "the Japanese Britney Spears," a comparison that was neither flattering nor accurate. Also, while the English lyrics were mostly excellent, the chorus to lead single "Easy Breezy" featured possibly the worst couplet of the decade: "You're easy breezy and I'm Japanesey."

In an interview before the album's U.K. release but after its stateside stalling, Utada told me: "Of course that was disappointing. But I didn't expect to be a success overnight. . . . I'll keep releasing music and just see what happens."

And sure enough, in September 2007 Utada announced quietly on her blog that she was gearing up for a second try, saying, "We're not on any sort of schedule, not rushing at all. . . . But the general feeling is good." This time she knows the pitfalls, which can only strengthen her chances, and while the exact release date and title of the album are as yet unknown, radio-listeners in the U.S. will get their first earful of lead single "Come Back to Me" on Feb. 10, according to the Web site of U.S. radio-industry magazine FMBQ.

Although not actually Japanese, BoA is a major part of the J-pop landscape. In 2002, the Korean star was the first non-Japanese Asian singer ever to shift a million units in Japan, and since then she has released an album here at a rate of almost one per year, all sung in Japanese and all charting highly, in tandem with her releases in South Korea.

BoA's label in Japan, Avex, is not involved in her U.S. debut this spring; rather, her Korean management company, SM Entertainment, is setting up a U.S. office. Whether she can assimilate into the United States as effectively as she did into Japan remains to be seen, but her chances look strong. In October 2008, with very little promotion and only a digital release, her debut U.S. single "Eat You Up" entered Billboard's Hot Dance Club Play chart at No. 42, quickly rising to No. 15. The urban-pop track was produced by Bloodshy & Avant, the Swedish production duo best known for Britney Spears' "Toxic," marking a departure from BoA's R&B sound.

Her English-language album, "Look Who's Talking," is due in spring. "The entire album is in English, for the mainstream U.S. market, not Korean- Americans or Asian-Americans," Peter Rho, senior associate at Dreier Stein Kahan Browne Woods George, attorneys representing SM Entertainment, told Variety, adding that a tour is being considered not just in the U.S. but possibly worldwide. We'll have an interview with BoA in the weeks to come, so you can hear it soon from the star herself.

Bonnie Pink may not carry the same weight in the Japanese charts, but her Western connection is plenty strong. For most of her career she has worked with foreign producers, most notably Cardigans cohort Tore Johansson, and has also recently collaborated with Britain's Craig David on a track for her next Japanese album and Sweden's Teddybears on a song that will appear on their next CD. Since Teddybears' album will be released in the U.S. this year, Pink will benefit from a debut by proxy, building on the American profile she created in 2008 with her video-game soundtrack theme "Ring a Bell."

On top of that, Pink's 2007 album "Thinking Out Loud" was released by Warner Music Sweden in 2008 and she has said that her as-yet-unfinished 2009 album, due in "April or May," will likely be released by the label too.

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Go West: Osaka's Oreskaband star in a movie made by the same team as "High School Musical," released in the United States this year. DANIEL ROBSON

"They're expecting to release another record," she told me recently. "So probably in Sweden my next record is gonna be released. I don't have a deal in other countries yet, but I'm hoping that through working with foreign artists, maybe eventually something will happen."

There has of course been a steady stream of smaller Japanese acts heading to the U.S., U.K. and Europe for tours over the years, but one that seemed to particularly capture America's imagination is all-girl Osaka ska outfit Oreskaband. After joining the annual Japan Nite tour in 2007 for three of its dates, including the gluttonous South by Southwest music-industry jamboree, the girls became one of the very few bands to get invited back for a more mainstream event.

And so it was that Oreskaband joined the infamous Warped Tour festival later in 2007 and again in 2008 (the latter for 46 dates). And although this doesn't seem to have led to a record deal over there yet, the girls have gone one better: This year they will appear in their very own Hollywood movie.

Written and produced by, and starring, alumni of the runaway hit "High School Musical" movie series, the appallingly titled "Lock and Roll Forever" sees Oreskaband head from Osaka to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune. The film will reportedly hit theaters in the U.S. this summer.

The band's trombone-player Leader told Anime News Network: "It's not like a documentary. . . . We'll play ourselves of course, but we'll have lines we read and memorize. . . . It's our first time working with a movie, our first time acting. . . . We think it'll be a good introduction to the band."

"This movie's all about rock 'n' roll and all about these girls and the perseverance of their passion for the music," Lucas Grabeel, the "High School Musical" actor who plays Oreskaband's manager in the film, told American movie-news Web site Reelz Channel. "We really connect on a music level, even though we can't communicate through language."

With its rich visual style that takes in live action and animated sequences, a soundtrack of exclusive songs by the girls, and cameos including rock icon Joan Jett, "Oreskaband: the Movie" (as the title appears on the trailer) is bound to get America skanking big-time in 2009.

These four acts are just the tip of the iceberg: There are several others considering jaunts to the U.S., Europe and the U.K. over the next 12 months, most of which it's too soon to reveal (though look out for Visual-kei band Dir En Grey's U.K. tour this month). As interest in Japanese pop culture continues to rise and Western currencies stagger and fall, these countries have never been more alluring to the J-pop set. It's likely to be a vintage year for Japanese music abroad.

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