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We Can Cross Our Borders
Utada Hikaru: Exodus
Exodus album cover
overview mp3 (0:49, 850k)
If there's a nearly impossible thing you're relying on your listeners to accept, there's no point in putting off the moment when you admit it. Japanese dance-soul-pop star Utada Hikaru's first US album, Exodus, starts with a brief, swirly, atmosphere- and agenda-setting confession and statement of intent. "I don't want to cross over between this genre, that genre. Between you and I's where I want to cross over."
This is an abject, albeit prompt and unflinching, failure to comprehend context, a plausible desire of a performer who knows herself as a star, but embarrassingly useless pretense to an audience who doesn't. If you don't know what else she's done, you have no reference point from which to assess any kind of movement at all, nor any reason to care. The cover photo barely conveys her ethnicity, much less anything of her performing history, and Island apparently figures that Americans can't even handle Japanese name-order, as she's credited only as Utada (which isn't the shorthand form of her name in Japan, either).
In my own ineptly oversimplified analogical taxonomy of J-Pop stardom, I long ago filed Hikaru and Hamasaki Ayumi as the Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears figures, respectively. This only makes any sense inside of my own head, and isn't particularly nuanced there, either, but the vestigial observation I had in mind was that Ayumi tends more towards sparkly dance-pop whose cardinal virtue is its enthusiasm, while Hikaru seems to have more technical ability and a greater inclination towards soul and r&b. And although I hated both Christina and Britney, I wanted to like Britney. I sometimes liked Ayumi. Hikaru did nothing for me. I was vaguely pleased that some studio was giving some J-Pop star American exposure, but I had a long list of people I'd rather it had been.
Now imagine my fury when, after I've spent thousands of hours and dollars joining the vanishingly small minority of Americans who actually do know something about Japanese pop (and the even smaller superminority who aren't primarily interacting with it via anime), a) this is the second-biggest American J-Pop news after Puffy's show getting on the Cartoon Network, b) I can't make myself personally care, and c) I reconcile myself to not caring without a lot of angst, only to find myself walking up to the counter at the record store in the strip mall down the street from my office to ask what the cool ethno-Madonna thing they are playing is, and discover that it's this. It would only be a little more galling to wake up one morning and find out that everybody else had learned a complete kanji vocabulary from Oprah the day before. What's the point of figuring out how to discriminate in an alien palate if you can't count on a few of your basic discovered truths remaining constant? I'm not even allowed to feel smug if this record is successful. I sold all my Japanese Hikaru CDs. To this same store.
Hikaru was born in the US, and speaks English, so for once the crossover bid doesn't have to begin by trying to fetishize her diction. The obvious marketing shortcut would be to prop her up in front of a name-brand American studio production, but she writes or co-writes all her own songs, and somebody had the rare sense not to mess with this, so other than getting Timbaland to touch up a couple of singles, the Americans appear to have let her do things her way.
But letting her do things her way includes letting her demand the impossible, and she does it repeatedly. In "The Workout" she offers to show a Texan "How people in the Far East get down." "Easy Breezy" has the horrific rhyme "You're easy breezy and I'm Japanesey". "Animato" asks "Why are you trying to classify it? This is music for all humanity from me." "I am a natural entertainer", she points out in "Kremlin Dusk". A responsible editor would probably have tried to talk her out of "Can you and I start mixing gene pools? Eastern, Western people get naughty, multilingual?" even if it weren't in a song that begins with a neighbor dying. It's a small mercy that "About Me" is a relationship warning, not a biopic. The music has assorted literal Eastern tinges, and an elusive overall foreignness that's too pervasive to overlook but not dominant enough to constitute genre exemption. In the end I don't see any viable alternative to taking Hikaru seriously: this is an earnest attempt not to sell us something, but to share her world with us. She is volunteering to meet us somewhere, and inviting us to cross our half of the distance.
Whether your aesthetic system allows for this idea to be anything but preposterous is your business. I believe that it is possible to know that you are good at something, and know that you are known for it within one community and not another, and come to the new community not as a chastened supplicant but as a confidently credentialed ambassador of yourself. This happens in other areas of human endeavor, so it ought to be able to happen in music, and here I believe that it has. For me Exodus is an arriving triumph.
Madonna's Ray of Light is my nearest referent, especially in glassy synth textures and the general interplay between ambience and propulsion, but Ray of Light was about wild splashes turning into glittering ice sculptures, and Exodus is much more fundamentally and unreconstructedly brash. Imagine Jewel's 0304 with less airbrushing, maybe, or Kylie Minogue's Impossible Princess with greater precision. "Devil Inside" keens and clatters, machine-drums pulsing as Hikaru bleats "Maybe there's a jealous angel deep inside me" like that's less a sly threat than a defensive, pleading request for patience. "Exodus '04" is a simmering cross-cultural masterpiece, Eastern violin-whir twining around smoothly pinging piano, calmly humming synth-fills and coolly brittle drum ticks. "Through traffic jams in Tokyo, / New music on the radio, / We'll say goodbye to the world we know. / This is our exodus '04", she chants, and I am far enough into her world to feel her emergence and escape.
The closest Exodus comes to the pastiche it could have been, I think, is "The Workout", where a stray Tutankhamen reference isn't nearly enough to motivate a splatter of random impulses, like a Space Ghost cut-and-paste remake of some minor Destiny's Child strut. But the galumphing "Easy Breezy", which could have been a sing-song disaster, somehow reminds me of a knowingly impish Paula Cole trying on Jewel's 0304 costumes and kind of liking them. "Tippy Toe" sounds like Tinker Bell trussed in Slinkys and trapped in an old Kurzweil, but "Hotel Lobby" blossoms into a fractured synth-pop anthem with elements of Blue Nile diffidence and Eurythmics acuity, and might be one of history's better dance-pop songs on the subject of getting into casual prostitution for a little spending money and discovering that it's somewhat alienating.
"Animato" is a scaled-back romantic calibration ("I take my time and choose someone, / Who tries to be on time." "I hope you like to follow through.") set as a sentimental march for toy soldiers. "Kremlin Dusk" opens as a legato soundtrack elegy on weirdly un-Russian Edgar Allen Poe motifs, and collapses to spindly harpsichord cycles before piling into a battering rock catharsis. The twitchy "You Make Me Want to Be a Man" might be, after all this time, the definitive rejoinder to "Turning Japanese". I usually prefer to skip the squelchy, but the swaggering "Let Me Give You My Love" glides with Ray of Light-ish poise through a spiky groove on the order of Jewel's "Intuition". And the half-acoustic, half-bloopy "About Me", in the spirit of grand summary, invokes at least Jewel's ebullience, Paula Cole's insight, Alanis Morissette's candor, Tori Amos's assurance and Vanessa Carlton's sheen, and then ends with simple, unforced grace.
Calling this music for all humanity is still inane and deluded, of course, but universality is a precious and magnificent delusion, and I'd probably rather hear a hundred albums be wrong like this than hear two be right about anything safer. I have my own reasons to want to feel invited into Japanese music, but the Japaneseness of Exodus is basically ancillary. Arguably the Japaneseness of much of the Japanese music I like is not specifically critical to its nature, but this even more than most. Exodus sounds to me, after all, like exactly the personal crossover it declared, not a slow subversion of industry but a spark of sudden tangible contact. It could as easily have crossed a hallway as an ocean, and sometimes the longest journeys are less about monuments and coasts than what you are in the position to brush past. The greatest challenge of an exodus is understanding how to leave when there's really nowhere else to go. And the hardest language lessons are about remembering how inspiringly and subtly and unmistakably foreign to each other we can be when we are brave enough to stop pretending we are the same.
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