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then Utada’s is likely to turn heads the most, if only because it looks like it was done by a seven year old using an outdated version of Photoshop (don’t forget to bold and italicize the font!).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.