BoA vs. Utada: Graphing the inevitable

This may be the least appropriate way to do this, but it’s also the most satisfying; I could talk for hours about  where  Utada’s (nee Hikaru Utada) second attempt at crossing over failed, but I don’t have much to say about BoA’s  successful English debut. However both deserve to be acknowledged in some capacity: BoA’s, for its simple elegance and Utada’s, for its complete clumsiness.

Cover art: This is kind of a moronic category, but if we still buy into the notion that people judge things by covers (and they do), then Utada’s is likely to turn heads the most, if only because it looks like it was done by a seven year old using an outdated version of Photoshop (don’t forget to bold and italicize the font!). Might as well slap a Bargain Bin sticker on this sleeve already. Utada’s covers have famously hit the snooze on every chance to be  memorable, instead opting for uncomfortably close head shots (see: First Love, Distance, ULTRA BLUE, etc). BoA’s isn’t significantly different; sure, there’s a disembodied hand on the cover with a giant ring in the process of digesting her fingers, but sitting up there next to Utada’s album, it might as well be The Sistine Chapel.

Marketing: I left these both empty, as neither albums received very good marketing, or, I think, any marketing at all. There was a promo video going around for Utada’s album where she talks about being really huge in Japan, but relatively unknown in the U.S. and then she shares a boring anecdote about how someone told her this album was going to be “the one” and she thought it was brilliant that she had already decided on the title of the album as This is the One and how hard she managed to squeeze out a “mainstream sound,” which is ironic only because this is the one that is going to be remembered in Japan as the album that sucked and in America not at all. There’s a similar video where BoA harps on about dreams and learning English and it’s equally lost. The point is: nobody I know who hasn’t been following these two women’s careers already had any idea that these album were going to be released. Which is really sad in BoA’s case, because this album is the one. More on that in a minute.

Mainstream accessibility: For all of Utada’s chatting about managing to write a really mainstream album, its content appeals to zero senses. None of the songs are memorable; I listened to this album once through and had no desire to repeat any of the songs, nor did I understand to which demographic this album was aiming. The attempt to grab everybody’s sensibilities ends in grabbing no body’s sensibilities; this album is neither pop nor rock nor hip hop nor dance. It’s just really dull. BoA’s self-titled album, on the other hand, finds a niche: hip-pop. It sticks to a basic formula of short, quick hits with catchy hooks. This is an album for dancing and there are no ballads, no slow songs, and no attempts to be something it’s not. BoA has always been a product of a recording company and handles management well; Utada seems to have gotten lost in coercions to pen something really MTV-able instead of trusting her high-brow, pop musical instincts that have written such fantastic, friendly singles as Keep Tryin’. Plus BoA dances, speaks a couple of extra languages, and isn’t ashamed of being a creation instead of a creator.

Lyrics: The lyrics on This is the One sound like freshmen college poetry; they’re earnest, but they’re also dense,  prosaic, and in most cases, dubious. In “Apple and Cinnamon,” the song that will be forever remembered for anthropomorphizing spices, she rhymes cinnamon with innocent to describe chemistry in a relationship. Identity becomes confusion in “Come Back to Me,” where she alternately takes on the role of first and third person (“She goes shopping for new clothes / And she buys this / And she buys that”/”I admit I cheated / Don’t know why I did it / But I do regret it”). In “Dirty Desire,” she’s painfully obtuse and even makes lyrics like “Doing my nine to five / I’m thinking six and nine” sound neutered. As in Exodus, she tries to be both intellectual and street smart (“Like Captain Picard / I’m chilling and flossing”), but ends up sounding desperate (“Sexy stiletto boots, tight jeans, no panties on / Oops, did I turn you on?” in “Poppin,'” “I kept on givin’, baby / Because the sex was so good” in “Taking Back My Money”). The lyrics on BoA aren’t any better, but they function in context. The attempt to portray her as an aggressive, liberated 21st century woman usually ends up making her sound like the social networking marketer’s every-girl: she’s confessional (“I Did it for Love”), hyper-sexual (“Eat You Up”/”Touched”), self-involved (“Girls on Top”), and slightly obsessive (“Obsessed”). Oh, and she likes to dance (“Hypnotic Dancefloor”). There’s nothing particularly stimulating or unique about the lyrics, but the sound isn’t built for it; the textbook script works with the textbook plot.

Music: This is the One is an exercise in musical regression. While Utada’s music has successfully obtained art-pop status (quirky, lovable, kinda cute, even kinda serious), This is the One almost triumphantly obliterates her last two Japanese-language releases. “Come Back to Me,” the lead single, is lifeless and its attempt to be heartfelt leaves it as empty as Ghandi’s bar tab. The melodies are simple, resourceful and the instrumentation unnecessarily sparse. On the other hand, BoA’s album is energetic and dynamic. The first single “Eat You Up,” is almost heavy. The choice to include an English version of “Girls on Top,” although not as potent as the original, is still brilliant. The songs are fun and catchy, without taking the conceit too far. The auto-tune could have been used less liberally, but even then, it’s used more for effect than necessity. It is a shame this album hasn’t been promoted properly, as it is the album that would have gone places where Exodus only hypothetically dreamed.

BoA Official Site
Hikaru Utada Official Site

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22 thoughts on “BoA vs. Utada: Graphing the inevitable

  1. noahfurlani March 21, 2009 / 6:04 pm

    Happy to see someone has opinions as aggressive as mine about This Is The One! Loved this article, as much as the others~

  2. JJ March 21, 2009 / 7:17 pm

    I agree that BoA’s album is very accessible. Energetic is seriously a really great song, but I think you we’re a little harsh on Hikki’s English 2nd. Though it may seem that This Is The One is misguided, I think it’s targeted to heavy R&B lovers, mostly because the music is heavily R&B influenced. Lots of Ne-Yo, Brandy and even Lopez bits here and there. I for one really like it.

    And please take a second listen to This One (Crying Like A Child).

    THOUGH I AGREE WITH THE MARKETING. MARKETING FOR BOTH ALBUMS ARE SO GARBAGE RIGHT NOW.

    I wish them both well… Hikki more though.

    Lastly -huff-… UPDATE MORE, because I continually come back for your articles. 🙂

  3. Anna March 22, 2009 / 10:51 am

    noahfurlani: Thanks for reading, I appreciate it!

    JJ: I’ll be sure to listen to Utada’s album at least one more time, but I think I need some distance from it right now; the fact that the two albums were released so close to each other renders BoA’s album a complete shadow over Utada’s. And thanks for reading my stuff, I really appreciate it. I’m trying my hardest to update regularly again.

  4. Selryam March 24, 2009 / 4:25 am

    Really, when you think about it, both albums are as bad as each other… No question about it, “BoA” trumps “This Is The One”, OHKO style. But really, they’re both as misguidedly produced and overly one-track-minded as each other, to the point where they both get a bit dull.

    Of course, with BoA and its dance nature, that’s natural. Which is why it’s so much worse for This Is The One, and the fact that Utada did some work on it herself makes it even worse…

    Well, I bet none of that made sense. And I need to learn to stop ranting in comments. Great article~

  5. WW =D March 24, 2009 / 4:50 am

    I disagree. I’ve purchased both albums and I enjoy “This Is the One” more than “BoA” =). I looked forward to both, because I’m a huge fan from both artists, but the only tracks on BoA’s album I really like are the first (I did It For Love), the second (Energetic) and the fifth (Eat You Up). I didn’t like the other songs so much. Maybe they are easier to sing along with, but I like Utada’s songs more. Especially the second (Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – FYI), third (Apple and Cinnamon), fifth (This One – Crying Like a Child -) and ninth (Come Back to Me) track =D. I personally believe this is a great start for her, because her other English albums felt a little off. This one is really great. This doesn’t mean I don’t like BoA’s album though. But I don’t think it stands out as much as Utada’s album.

  6. hanachan01 March 24, 2009 / 8:17 am

    I haven’t heard either album yet (I’m picking both up today), but I agree with your assessment about the marketing and singles. Last month, I saw BoA’s “Eat You Up” video on Fuse on Demand and watched it a few times. I also saw a commercial for “Eat You Up” on MTV Hits. However, I never saw the video played on those channels itself. As for Hikki, nothing at all has happened with her. I’m going to a Hikki listening party tomorrow, but I assume that all the people who are going to show up are fans already, not curious new people. It’s really disappointing, as Hikki is one of my top five favorite artists, and I think BoA has a lot of potential to do well here.

  7. siggyx4scythe March 24, 2009 / 9:53 am

    this article makes me want to go hear those albums
    but i cringe in fear, im still not over Exodus…

  8. happyproject March 25, 2009 / 1:51 am

    Forever 21 featured BoA on their site like 2 weeks ago :O Playing “did it for love” and featuring links for her main page and youtube.

    BoA also has had her single “Eat You Up” played at stores (I’ve heard it at 2 different stores now) and on several different television channels :O

    I think marketing has DEF been better than Utada’s, where I have yet to hear a song anywhere or see ANY promotion for at all…

  9. sljinu March 25, 2009 / 7:43 am

    Pretty much spot on there, regarding This Is The One. Even though I am a die-hard fan of Utada Hikaru, I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t say that her album was a complete failure. I actually didn’t like BoA’s album either because it was just too damn repetitive so I’m not entirely sure which one is better anymore…
    Just one thing…This One (Crying Like a Child) DOES actually work and is pretty much the only highlight (if you can call it that) of the album. It’s mediocre but compared to everything else on the album, it’s fantastic.

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  11. Melodie March 29, 2009 / 4:11 pm

    I did feel the lyrics of Come back to me were a bit strange…I haven’t listened to BoA yet, but after reading this article I really want to. ^__^

  12. BiGbOs$ April 1, 2009 / 9:18 pm

    And this is why you are only able to get your feelings out on wordpress, and also why your not a reporter. your annalist is completely biased, Utada’s album has received almost mainstream status in the US with many of the most listened to stations playing her single and unlike BOA hiki’s album is actually selling….ALOT its not the same as our American pop but its close and unless she starts busting out a rap or a good country song its impossible to hit it in the US, now i understand u think there’s no marketing be that as it may but having a hit song in the US and many actual sales is extremely rare when it comes to foreign music English or not yet i never heard of this BOA until today when my GF showed me how much you people are dissing utada. I never heard of Utada until i heard it on radio, im not biggest fan but i like her work. her album short as hell and thats the only problem. and this is from a guy who mostly listens to ICP

  13. renaye May 17, 2009 / 7:20 am

    i hav heard both of the albums and i felt that hikki’s english album could be better. the lyrics was not that great, in fact i found it quite repetitive in the chorus part. it’s just too mainstream… she should just stick to her own style of writing other than writing another heartbreak regretful song. even if she wants to write a heartbreakng song for her english debut she could have use the style she has for first love single.

    it’s like watching project runway: the designers have to design pieces according to the demand of some challenges but at the same time, they have to stick to their own principles.

  14. xheartstation May 23, 2009 / 1:04 am

    Utada debuts on Billboard 200 at #69<=== Winner!

    BoA debuts at #127

    =] =]

  15. JYN May 24, 2009 / 9:20 am

    your analysis is completely biased, BoA’s voice in the album was so robotic, i would be better off listening to an android. and who goes around saying ‘i wanna eat you up so yumyum’?
    the reason why BoA seems ‘prominent’ there in the US is cos she has the backing of her rich company who spend loads of money on her promotion. Not that the stores love her so much they play her song *rolls eyes*
    I’ve listened to a few of Utada’s songs on her new album and i was rather impressed. Her command of english is way better than BoA’s, and the quality of her songs just beat BoA’s cyborg rendition of her own songs way down.

  16. shibooya July 1, 2009 / 7:23 am

    Ok, maybe I’m the odd one out, but I haven’t heard either of their albums yet but also had no idea that they’re making their second cross over attempts.

    I’ll admit, I’m a fan of Hikki and not BoA but I think Americans just suck at accepting different kinds of music. I mean, you really expect them to enjoy either of their brands when they’re worshiping Katy Perry, Britney and Beyonce? Ugh.

    I dunno, but I think Hikki and BoA are a more sophisticated type of pop, if there ever is such a thing.

  17. shibooya July 1, 2009 / 7:25 am

    P.S. BiGbOs$ and JYN, are being a little harsh but I can see their point.

    But I’m also bias because I like Hikki way more – but I think her lyrics have more substance than BoA and I think she was moderately successful with her first english album than BoA

  18. SonicForge July 5, 2009 / 4:32 am

    Nice to see how this article has absolutely no logic to it. Don’t get me wrong as i like Boa but she has done everything wrong. The biggest mistake Boa has made is putting to much trust in people which don’t have her interests at heart. SM has done literally nothing in getting her name out and while her debut album isn’t bad. It isn’t anything new necessarily either which is even more important for a crossover artist then a new one. n terms of talent both are equally on par with both strengths and weaknesses. Utada English ability not doubt is a benefit in addition to her strong Vocal, writing and arrangement skills. On the flip side Boa is better showman, Dancer & Performer but English is still not where it should be. In addition to her not be independent enough to make her own decision outside of SM’s council. As well as her not having much writing ability although that is improving.

    In terms of who is ahead I would say Utada has a bit of an edge at the moment. She has done a better job marketing as is evident as both Best Buy and FYE are playing her Music. In addition to all the TV, Radio & Magazine appearances she has been doing. The album is actually doing quite well considering and she has the added benefit of being the only Japanese Artist to break the Itunes top 20 which is certainly a plus. Boa I have yet to hear or even have been able to get her album anywhere without special order. Not to mention it has had somewhat mixed reviews as where Utada has been strong overall. Once I hear Boa on my radio then I will change that tune but until then Utada definitely has the upper hand. I want to see Boa succeed and frankly I wish she would have included some stronger tracks from her Best & USA Album release. It was a mistake not including any Ballard as that is Boa strong point and showcases her true ability and talent. I wish both of them the best but this article is a bit bios more the truth

  19. Deltek August 31, 2009 / 7:43 am

    All the check marks should be on Utada’s side, this is the most biased review I’ve ever read. Utada’s vocals are light years better then BOA’s robotic autotuned voice, there is no debate here. As for lyrics, Utada wins on both fronts here also. First she has better much more original lyrics and second she wrote all her songs unlike BOA.
    I wont even bother going any further because it’s obvious that the person who wrote this review is obviously a huge BOA fan who can’t see past their bias.

  20. Kent September 27, 2009 / 2:09 am

    ^ To the above

    But then that would mean you are biased too because all your check marks are reversed >.>. Oh brother, the poster has their own opinion. I believe they were both good albums, although I like BoA more Utada sold more but only released one single, BoA sold less but released 3 all with music videos. However only her 1st and 2nd got anywhere on dance charts, and ONLY dance charts. Utada got on mainstream charts for a bit and some radio spins but doesn’t really go anywhere since she hasn’t released a single since Come back to me. It is a flop for both of them since there really was no “REAL” success. You don’t hear people talking about either of them.

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