33 1/3 draft introduction for Ayumi’s I am…

The 33 1/3 books, a series based around seminal albums, accepted proposals until the end of April this year, and although I only had two weeks to put one together by the time I heard about it, I thought it would be a fun experience to submit one. I considered Pizzicato Five’s the international playboy & playgirl record, which I thought might stand a better chance, as the band gained a cult following in America during the 90s, and of course, Ayumi Hamasaki, because I can’t stop talking about her. Since I figured neither would be chosen — the books are heavily bent towards the classic Western white rock canon — I took a chance and wrote about Ayumi Hamasaki’s  I am…, the album I think sums up everything Japanese pop was and wasn’t at the turn of the century.

I will not include the chapter summaries, only the first draft for the basic introduction, but I planned the book around each single in chronological order and focused on the one year that made Ayumi Hamasaki one of the most popular female musicians in Japanese pop history. Every piece of that year and those songs reflected a multitude of ideas: the Japanese idol factory, J-pop’s inability to reach a Western audience, musical authenticity, fashion and design, major record companies and artistic control, vocal techniques and musicianship, Japanese advertisements/celebrity endorsements, the global impact of 9/11, fame and its repercussions, and one of my favorite and often-returned to fascinations with the domestic and foreign DJs featured on all of those crazy, wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime maxi-singles and the merging of house, trance, and other electronic styles into the Japanese mainstream. All of that and more from a high school dropout.

This introduction wasn’t meant to be exhaustive or even beyond the basics: in many ways, I wrote it for an audience I was assuming had never heard of Ayumi Hamasaki and was unfamiliar with Japanese pop and pop culture. And once you take all of that into account, it leaves you with little else to do than place footholds that you want to come back to later. Most of you probably won’t learn anything new here, especially if you’ve read the Time interview and explored masa’s translations (where most of the quotes are taken from), but it’s honestly a legend I rarely tire of sharing. I had a lot of fun revisiting and re-contextualizing I am… with everything I have learned and experienced about music since I bought the album when it was released and knew it would be a grower, rather than an instant attraction. I think the introduction, for all its clumsiness, simplicity, and cliches (starting the intro with Hamasaki’s over-quoted “product” speech in Time? That two week deadline never seems more obvious) sums up the rest.

Ayumi Hamasaki’s I am…

A note on capitalization and grammar: The Japanese have a particular and not arbitrary system for using lower-case and capital roman letters in song and album titles. In promotional material or in the liner notes themselves, they are always spelled a particular way: I have chosen to keep the artistic integrity of this practice and stay true to capitalization as it is written on the CD sleeves.

When Ayumi Hamasaki called herself a product in an interview with Time magazine in 2002, that in fact, it was necessary she be viewed as a product, she was summing up not only the state of Japanese idol worship, but her own already fruitful career spanning all of three years. By the age of 23, Hamasaki had already released twenty-six singles, four original studio albums (all Oricon chart number ones), twelve full-length remix albums, and a career-defining greatest hits collection. Though she would later come to regret the declaration, at this peak in her career, Hamasaki was selling out concerts, setting her sights on the rest of the Asian market, and taking unprecedented control of her music, image, and merchandising empire by selling herself as nothing short of a unit to be moved.

Hamasaki was certainly not the first female Japanese superstar: idol Seiko Matsuda, for example, held the record for the most consecutive #1 singles for a female artist for eighteen years, when Hamasaki broke it in 2006. But no other female idol managed to wring as much momentum out of her time at the top until Hamasaki began releasing singles at a bimonthly rate, in addition to limited runs of copies, multiple versions with alternative covers, and special remix albums — in both CD and vinyl format. Even her pop contemporaries, Hikaru Utada and Mai Kuraki, were unable to achieve five entries in the top twenty singles of that year in sheer sales.

Before Ayumi Hamasaki was a household name, she was a high school dropout and struggling model cum actress pounding the pavement of Tokyo, shilling for banking companies and starring in low-budget films before trying her luck at the idol market — presumably, something to fund all those shopping trips to 109. Culminating in a failed recording contract with Nippon Columbia, the project has never been considered a part of the official Ayumi Hamasaki canon. The single, “NOTHING FROM NOTHING,” is an uber-nasal experiment in hip-hop that failed to illustrate any personality, its mere existence the base her label used to drop her. Where Nippon Columbia failed to put the time and effort into creating potential out of deeply concealed promise, Avex Trax producer Max Matsuura discovered her at a night of karaoke and proceeded to pursue her until she began taking vocal lessons. When she began cutting class, Matsuura sent her on a field trip to New York, where he finally succeeded in capturing her attention, as well as convincing her to write her own lyrics. Inspired by the challenge, Hamasaki released her first single with Avex, “poker face,” debuting in 1998 at #20 on the charts.

By the following year she was beginning her streak of #1s and amassing a teenage legion of imitators. While still not possessing the penchant for reinvention or the commanding stage presence that would take years to hone, her first two albums, A Song for XX and LOVEppears, nonetheless were quintessential pop success stories, notable for capturing the late 90s, early 00s Japanese pop zeitgeist with harmless 4/4 structures and riffs right out of the Johnny’s playbook. Unlike other idols, Hamasaki had neither dance ability, nor a predilection for vocal gymnastics: in this, she was both unlike and very much a clone of her Japanese contemporaries, where musical authenticity still meant so little as to be entirely inconsequential. In 1999, the most remarkable thing about Hamasaki’s persona was her changing hair color, but her most triumphant was her lyrics.

During an early All Night Nippon radio program hosted by the budding icon in 1998, Hamasaki related her fairytale without a hint of shyness: her earliest memory was of her father packing up and leaving in the guise of a business trip from which he never returned, and she credits her independence and acknowledged selfishness with her own mother’s subsequent inability to be very maternal. Notably, Hamasaki insists this was not something she noticed or even concerned herself with: “I’ve always accepted it as quite ordinary and not particular that I have no father and my parents were divorced.” However, her neighbors didn’t take so kindly: childishly referring to herself in the third person, Hamasaki reveals that she was often avoided by children her age. Her intimation of her first real friend at the age of 20 is somewhat sad, but only because there is nothing about Hamasaki that sounds out of the ordinary; though dropping out of school in a such an education-oriented society could make her somewhat of a social pariah, she did find enough kids to spend her nights clubbing and frittering away cash with at trendy nightclubs.

After her father, the one man who seems to have made the biggest and most lasting impression on her life was Avex Trax producer and now-CEO Max Matsuura. After catching her at karaoke and noting what a terrible singer she was, he sent her to vocal lessons and refused to give up until she finally succeeded in New York: fate would suggest he saw something Nippon Columbia bitterly regrets in their once-over. Again, in the third person, “Ayumi had always been told “Hamasaki can’t do anything” […] But then the man, Max Matsuura, said to Ayu, “You can.” […] It was the first time for Ayu to meet such a person. I was never told such a thing even by my parent. I met a person who expected [something of] Ayu for the first time and I was shocked very much. And I thought I would do my best.” It is worth noting that though these two stories are told in succession, it is related without a hint of allusion to the father-figure role he might have fulfilled for Hamasaki. He also prompted her to begin composing lyrics, what has since become Hamasaki’s trademark.

“Ayu doesn’t write on a paper basically. I’m always thinking in my mind. I feel scents of a city, people’s movements, the air, for example, in my own way.” Confessional and deeply sympathetic, Hamasaki’s lyrics often explore concrete experiences, straying far from ambiguity: in the specific, there was universality. Her most autobiographical song, “A Song for XX” sums up the quintessential qualities of Hamasaki’s lyrics, a sort of thought-process-in-song, not without its immaturities and sometimes-clichés. Though they are often simple enough to be taught at an elementary level, her lyrics are the place most go to argue and make claims of the personal and private variety, sometimes involving elaborately projected fantasies and absurd speculation. But as a self-proclaimed product, Hamasaki herself claimed both her words and her voice: “[M]y songs are my own. No one can take my songs away from me.” Rarely problematic, they do, however, require an open mind and the possibility of misinterpretation. Regardless, they are what fans most often point to as testament to her honesty and capability.

While most idols had very little involvement with the songs that would eventually come to define their avatars, Hamasaki began writing lyrics at the outset of her career, an area where she excelled among fans and critics alike, and a sort of escalating trajectory through immaturity, understanding, enlightenment, and the responsibilities of craft that go beyond mere self-reflection. To wit, by I am… she was already reaping the benefits of working through issues that plagued her first three albums: loneliness, broken promises, roads not taken. As her music warped from sugar rushed adrenaline kicks and melancholy R&B ballads into hard rock with screeching guitars and rapid-fire drum machines, so, too, did her vocals lose their polished sheen of do-re-mi vocal lessons to become strained, broken, and full of vibrato. I am…, her first true rock album and composed almost entirely under the pseudonym CREA (named after one of her beloved pet dogs), was probably the closest representation of the sound Hamasaki was truly looking for all along, and with album sales in the millions, she was finally given the freedom to pursue her new found artistic impulses. Her trademark openings that crawled like lullabies would make way for an onslaught of noise and wailing guitars, crashing so resolutely they threatened to physically erupt from speakers.

For someone with the knowledge of the limited shelf-life of an idol, Hamasaki was already putting a lot of effort into a long-term sustainable career, most likely boosted by her record company Avex’s insistence of releasing a greatest hits collection: a signal Hamasaki took as the end of her career. While she openly grappled with her anger and vulnerability at the hands of Avex, expressed in songs like “Endless sorrow” and her decision to appear in tears on said collection, she also began understanding the true meaning of a timeless superstar.

After the September 11 attacks, Hamasaki changed the entire concept of her album, beginning with the cover art: “I had a completely different idea for the cover at first. We’d already reserved the space, decided the hair and makeup and everything. But after the incident, as is typical of me, I suddenly changed my mind. I knew it wasn’t the time for gaudiness, for elaborate sets and costumes.” Thanks to a last minute change of heart, we now have the iconic image of Ayumi Hamasaki, boldly confronting the world head-on as a symbol of peace and innocence, a statement of the strength in vulnerability, made all the more verbose by the perching of a white dove on her left shoulder. Despite her collaboration with singer keiko of pop group globe on a song meant to be dedicated to relief efforts and this seemingly new found dedication to social issues, the irony of the album’s title never belies how self-involved the album remains. As a summing up of an era, it is even better than Duty as accepting the totality of a life of servitude to fame and fans, and as a memoir, better than MY STORY, the ellipses separating it from a declaration, to an ongoing debate.

Despite such an initial nuanced grasp of her own evanescence, Hamasaki clearly began exacting more and more precise control over her image and business. Rejecting the flighty, mawkish pop songs of her peers, she began composing her own songs with what the West would arguably call a more “authentic” rock sound, even while treating her singles like commodities to be packaged and sold at highest volume. The maxi-single format of her singles beginning with Boys & Girls marketed her directly to the house and club scene, while also giving her a unique edge against other artists who would never dream of including so many cuts for the same price of what had up until then been the popular 3″ format. Her ties with both domestic and foreign DJs gave her the opportunity to work with dozens of producers, some of whom like trance act Above & Beyond would be given their first gigs or launch ever-more successful careers given the privilege of remixing her vocals. Her involvement in the club scene culminated in a collaboration with Ferry Corsten, the godfather of trance, on “connected,” an I am… cut that would eventually boost her popularity in the dance-heavy European market.

This proved that Hamasaki could be all things to all people, or at least most things to most people: whether it was a hard rock ballad, a rhythmic punk manifesto, a techno-ethnic drum n’ bass dirge, or a standard pop jingle tailor-made for selling cosmetics and flavored beverages, Hamasaki reflected exactly what the Japanese wanted from a pop star: not only a bag of options, but total and complete devotion to satisfying their need for more. Even after ten more studio albums and another twenty-five singles, after taking in 42.6% of Avex’s total revenues at her peak, after a failed Hollywood-like marriage to an Austrian model, and the loss of hearing in her left ear, I am… is perhaps not the greatest Japanese pop album of all time, but it is certainly the era’s greatest Japanese pop star’s greatest album: its most definitive, and its most revealing.


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