Utada’s 33rd birthday may have already passed, but I think it’s only fitting that I write a tribute to her about my love for her music that started in my latter days of elementary school and continues to this day.
I’ve always had an exquisite taste in music since I was very young. I did listen to pop songs by Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and *NSYNC like everyone else in the late 90s, but my mother gave me a wonderful opportunity to hear pop music from the greatest (and often controversial) musicians of her time–Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, the Eagles, UB40 (the band most people confuse with Bob Marley because their voices sound the same), Sade, Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, and even Alejandro Fernandez. English and Spanish were my primary languages in regards to music, as I’m of Spanish descent from my mother’s side of the family. At the age of 11, I would discover Japanese music in the form of none other than Utada Hikaru.
At the start of 5th Grade, my after-care counselor introduced to a new girl named Rebecca, who transferred to my school after moving to South Florida from New York. Rebecca had a lot in common with me–we both played Sonic video games frequently, loved to read, and watched the most complex cartoon shows at that time. One day, some time before my father died of liver cancer, Rebecca popped her headphones onto my ears and played something peculiar on her CD player. The singer’s voice was angelic, but the language she was singing in was too foreign for my tongue to decipher, yet the background music sounded familiar.
“Rebecca, what song was that, and what language is it in?” I asked after the song was over.
“It’s the Japanese version of ‘Simple and Clean’ from Kingdom Hearts,” Rebecca said matter-of-factly.
In that instant, my mind flashed back to watching the TV ads for both Kingdom Hearts and its Game Boy Advanced sequel Chain of Memories with the English version of the same song playing for 30 seconds. I didn’t know the name of the artist at the time Rebecca introduced me to her. It was only weeks, months even, before I set foot in middle school that I would find her name on Barnes & Noble’s music search network in its music department: Utada Hikaru (or Hikaru Utada per the Japanese naming custom).
I discovered her English album Exodus at the Virgin Megastore in Downtown Disney (now Disney Springs with the Virgin Megastore replaced by a bowling alley) and I begged my parents to get it for me. They did, on the condition that we all listen to it in the car on the way back to the Ramada Hotel. I loved it, but my mom expressed some concern about the content contained in all the lyrics of the Exodus album despite that there was no PARENTAL ADVISORY disclaimer on the cover. Sure, Utada wrote some pretty suggestive stuff, but I only cared about the beats in the songs, not very much for the lyrics–such is the innocence of childhood. My mom even went so far as to read some of the lyrics to our friends to get their opinion and, on the second day of 6th Grade, impound the CD from me. I was six months shy of 13, yet I got really upset about the fact that my parents decided right off the bat that Utada’s music isn’t appropriate for a 12-year-old girl. Ironically, a lot of kids my age were listening to raunchy rap music on the radio.
What my family didn’t know, Utada lent her musical talents by recording a new theme song for the North American release of Kingdom Hearts II called “Sanctuary” (“Passion” in the prior Japanese release). Kingdom Hearts II was released for the PlayStation 2, as was the first game [that I never played], in March 2006, but I was one of those gamers who acquired the game on Christmas. “Sanctuary” fit so beautifully with the opening sequence for KHII, for every word in that song described Sora’s goal to achieve peace, harmony and justice for his friends. If the fact that Utada sang for the Kingdom Hearts series didn’t convince my mother to accept my interest in her music, I don’t know what did.
During my teenage years, as I was listening to songs from her old and recent albums on YouTube, such as Distance (2001) and Ultra Blue (2006), Utada released a lot of interesting new music. In 2007, in addition to providing the ending song Beautiful World for the 2007 anime film Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone, she sang a cover of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon (In Other Words)”, lengthening the song by one minute by adding an extra verse of her own at the beginning. I appreciate the original song my mother introduced me to, but Utada’s version was even better. The next year, she released Heart Station with three out of six popular singles that I loved: “Heart Station”, “Beautiful World”, and “Kiss & Cry”. As much as I liked hearing Japanese music, I wondered when Utada would make another English-language album. The answer came one lazy January day in my 8th Grade Language Arts class.
My teacher allowed us to use the school’s laptops to goof off for some reason, so on a whim I logged on to the website for Island Def Jam Records, the record label Exodus was released under. I typed Utada’s name in the search box and, sure enough, there was a new English single called “Come Back to Me” for a new album in the works. I plugged in my earphones to take a listen and, oh, my God, “Come Back to Me” was the best song since Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River”! The way she played the piano from a decrescendo to a crescendo in the beginning was genius! I mentally thanked my Language Arts teacher for giving me the rare opportunity to discover Utada’s new English song during class. The physical copy of This Is The One was released May 12, 2009, and though I would’ve loved to go out with my mom to buy it, I figured I wouldn’t find it at any music store in South Florida, so I couldn’t. Thank God LimeWire still existed long enough for me to download at least a few songs from the album that I liked (I’m not telling which ones they are).
My sophomore year of high school came with the announcement that Utada Hikaru will be taking an indefinite hiatus from music. It was shocking, considering how popular her music was with the anime community. Fortunately, Utada was nice enough to release four new singles that would be featured on her second compilation album Utada Hikaru Single Collection Vol. 2: “Goodbye Happiness”, which also came with a YouTube-esque music video where she sang to the webcam, danced like a goofball and played with puppets, “Can’t Wait ‘Til Christmas”, “Show Me Love (Not a Dream)”, and “Hymne à l’amour (Ai no Anthem)”. All of them were epic as always, except the full version of her cover of the Édith Piaf original didn’t show up anywhere on YouTube no matter how hard I tried to look for it.
I was sad to see Utada move on to other things for the duration of her hiatus, but I understood why. Life as a musician can be tedious, especially when your career begins at the tender age of 13, singing with your parents under the band name U3.
In my Chorus class, my Japanese singing practice would pay off when I decided to sing “Passion” at the year-end cabaret show. Two months before, an earthquake and tsunami hit the northeastern coast of Japan, knocking down the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and releasing radioactive chemicals into the air and the water in the process. I thought it was appropriate to dedicate the song to the people of Japan who were still recovering from the disaster and needed their spirits lifted. On the day of the show, there weren’t a lot of people in the audience, so I was a little bit discouraged. And even though no one understood a word I was saying–Japanese was not in my high school’s curriculum, such is the Latino-dominant South Florida–I still enjoyed myself onstage. I made Utada and the tragedy-stricken Japan proud. Most of all, I was proud of myself for being able to sing a popular Japanese song to the entire school (even if it was just my Chorus classmates) without fail.
Utada has experience a tidal wave of events during her hiatus. She quietly released the song “Sakura Nagashi” for the final Evangelion movie in 2012; her mother committed suicide by jumping 13 stories from her condo in Shinjuku in 2013; she married an Italian bartender in 2014; and just six months ago she gave birth to a healthy baby boy whose name she hasn’t revealed to her fans. In spite of everything, Utada has still managed to keep her honest personality intact. I can’t wait for her musical return in Kingdom Hearts III, if she decides to write a song for the highly anticipated game.