Utada Hikaru: Queen of J-Pop

Utada Hikaru: Queen of J-Pop

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.

Disney Movies Made Me a Hopeless Romantic

At the end of every fairy tale, we hear these three words: “…happily ever after.” But why does it seem like happily ever after isn’t lasting as long as we believe it should, especially in the 21st century? That’s what I’m trying to figure out myself now that I’m in my twelfth month as a lonely woman.

My very first Disney movie was, if my memory serves correctly because I was extremely young, Sleeping Beauty. Princess Aurora is spirited away to a cottage in the forest by the Three Good Fairies after Maleficent casts a spell on her as a baby. She’s given a new identity, Briar Rose, and for sixteen years she lives her life happily with absolutely no knowledge that she’s a princess. On her sixteenth birthday, in an ironic turn of events, Aurora (a.k.a. Briar Rose) meets Prince Phillip, whom she is betrothed to by her parents, King Stefan and Queen Leah, for the purpose of uniting their two kingdoms, and they click right away. Rose is heartbroken to hear from the fairies that she cannot meet Prince Phillip again once the truth about her royal heritage came out. Meanwhile, the prince retreats to King Stefan’s castle to tell his father, King Hubert, about his encounter with Aurora (without revealing her name because she hesitated to even say it in the first place). The Good Fairies bring Aurora back to her castle, where Maleficent lures Aurora to her sleeping death by making her touch the spindle. The Fairies then find Prince Phillip to break the spell by kissing her back to life. Once Aurora is awoken by her very first kiss, she dances with the same prince she met back in the forest in front of the entire kingdom.

Sleeping Beauty introduced me to the concept of true love, which I interpreted as: If I happen to like a certain guy, he’s my true love. Unfortunately, the guys I was interested in when I was very young didn’t think the same way about me–or other girls, for that matter. When I was 12, I had a crush on this boy Trent (not his real name), who was three years my junior and the little brother of one of my brother’s best friends. Trent and I attended the same elementary school together, and almost every day until I entered 6th Grade I would go over to his house and play Sonic Riders with him–mostly because he needed my help with beating certain levels. The funny thing was, I didn’t even develop a crush on Trent until I was vacationing in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I conjured up a drawing of me and Trent standing next to each other, and wrote a letter saying I missed him. Trent was un-phased by it. Five months later, I decided to write a love letter to him in the form of a card. I was very nervous to give the card to Trent in person, so I told Trent’s brother to give him the card for me. Trent’s reaction when he received it? Minimal conversation with me to none at all. I was stunned, but thank God I didn’t go psycho over it.

Enter the spring semester of my freshman year of high school, and I meet Jack (not his real name), the son of my middle school counselor who’s married to my high school counselor. When I discovered that Jack was as big a Sonic fan as I was, we immediately clicked. We were friends first due to our ages at the time: 16 and 21. I had to wait till I turned 18 to date Jack, but he was infatuated with me regardless. On November 9th, 2012, our third date–the first two dates were chaperoned at a pizzeria and at Halloween party in South Beach, respectively–after we saw Wreck-It Ralph, Jack gave me my first kiss and said, “I love you.” My stomach was filled with butterflies, but Jack admitting his feelings towards me made me feel so happy.
I finally found my Prince Charming!
Jack and I did everything together–attend anime conventions (at least one), cosplay our favorite video game characters, hang out at Barnes and Noble, talk about social problems, even ice skating on my prom night. I believed that our romance would last forever.
On May 20th last year, five days before my flight to California, the moment I thought would never hit me happened. At a local Chili’s, Jack said, somberly, that he felt like an older brother to me and that he had absolutely no idea who he was anymore. We went back to being “just friends,” but we no longer see each other. Now we just text and tweet to each other. (Just recently, we started playing Dungeon Fighter Online–just in our own homes since it’s an MMO.)

Jack leaving me shattered the “true love” mentality drilled into me by the Disney movies I watched as a kid (and still do today, on occasion). It made me feel like everything Disney taught me about love and relationships…is wrong. But then again, the time period in which the animated films took place ranges from the Middle Ages (or earlier, since Mulan took place in the Han dynasty) to the 20th century, so the status quo on love and relationships may have changed in that long stretch of time. Still, Jack breaking up with me got me into an emotional (not to mention mental) tailspin, ruminating over why he had to leave me, what I did wrong in our relationship, and how I could get him back, if at all. At the same time, even now as I’m writing this, I’m trying to learn to push these Disney fairy tale notions of love out of my mind and let Jack go. Maybe he will come back to me, maybe he won’t.
In the meantime, I hope that any guy who comes my way will have the same love, compassion, and understanding as Jack expressed toward me.

College: My Experience So Far

I’m currently in my fourth semester of college, and it’s been quite a roller coaster ride in terms of my academic and social lives.

Let me start with the academic side of college life. When I first entered community college, I went with the intention of majoring in Mass Communications. I was originally going to major in English–most of the authors I read have graduated from university with English degrees (Bachelors or Masters)–but some idiot at my vocational rehab center HIGHLY recommended that I go into the Mass Communications program because I would be better off with that degree financially. Because I want to be novelist, I thought that I was going to take at least ONE math class, which would’ve given me some relief if not for one problem: the Gordon Rule. According to the Gordon Rule, college students must take at least TWO mathematics courses in order to obtain an Associate of Arts (AA) degree. Future novelists like myself are no exception, so I had to take College Algebra the first semester and Statistics the second. The first portion of Algebra was hell because of my learning preference: taking notes in class before opening up the textbook and working from there. Some of my classmates suggested I look into the textbook before the lecture, but I was too stubborn to listen, and that resulted in a “D” on the first test. After that failure, I finally took on that advice to review the textbook before each lecture–along with tutoring sessions at my local library–and my test grades improved.
In Statistics the next semester it was the same thing, only I had a permanent substitute professor after the first test. After all the hard work of trying to complete my only two math credits, I managed to pass both of those classes with a “B.”

Socially, it’s been a big mess on my brain. I’m good friends with my mom and two girls who are daughters of my mom’s friend, but my love life? I haven’t had one for nearly a year now.
Five days before my flight to California last May, my boyfriend–let’s call him Jack–broke up with me because he said he was going through some sort of an identity crisis (at least from what I understood when he said, “I just don’t know who I am anymore.”).
Jack has Asperger’s syndrome, like me, and is one freakin’ genius–encyclopedic knowledge on video games, a penchant for computer repair, and an avid cosplayer. However, he was going through a lot of emotional trouble because his employment training program was coming to end, and he didn’t know how that was going to affect his job at the hotel he was working at. Luckily, Jack kept his job, but I haven’t seen him at all since that night. Although we still kept in touch with each other through text messaging and Twitter, my life was never the same without him.
Within months after the breakup, I went from happily-in-love Céline Dion to love-lost Toni Braxton. I felt like my brain was losing some of the greatest gifts Asperger’s gave me–photographic memory, quick reaction time, etc. I even flunked my learner’s permit exam thrice because all I was thinking about was how to get Jack back into my life. He always made me feel confident in all my pursuits, so I felt that if Jack didn’t break up with me and further distance himself from me I would be driving right now in lieu of being stuck in my own home.

Well, I would love to talk more about my college life, but I’m just gonna leave it here. I feel like I have explained enough.