There was a time when Ayumi Hamasaki was a trend-setter, a pioneer in music, image, and business. In her long, storied career, she was known for trying new things, even when those things seemed gimmicky or never saw a repeat. For example, in 2009 she bundled limited editions of her album NEXT LEVEL onto a specially designed USB. The following year, a special edition of Love songs was released in deluxe, LP-sized packaging with a USB and micro-SD. In 2012, along with many of her label Avex Trax’s popular artists, her albums were re-released in the comically unnecessary PLAYBUTTON format, a literal button loaded with the album’s contents and a jack for headphones. And now, as Avex tackles the logistics of its own streaming service AWA, Ayumi Hamasaki’s new album M(A)DE IN JAPAN was launched in conjunction, a Beyonce-like drop that caught fans unaware stateside on a Friday morning (or Thursday night, depending on where you call home – it was released Wednesday, May 11 in Japan).
Hamasaki had made hints on her Instagram account (and to that she was a little late, preferring Twitter to the image-only app — she launched the account only recently to promote a concert tour, then reappearing to post behind-the-scenes photos of her recording sessions and stage rehearsals), captioning outtakes from the cover shoot with lyrics from the new songs. Though the release was unexpected, it wasn’t surprising: Hamasaki’s career has relied less and less on the music than on other aspects that keep it rolling along, like personal scandal and gossip, fashion and designer accessories, appearances for launch events, and of late, the massive stage shows that have become more and more technical and vigorous, first with added acrobatic elements and aerial specialists, then with Hamasaki tackling those same acrobatic stunts herself. Despite her overall declining popularity and diminishing sales, each arena show always looks packed, leading fans on the AHS forum to speculate that tickets are sold outside the show for cheap, or given away free to fill seats, all in an attempt to maintain appearances and keep the star blissfully ignorant of her current status. Is it true? One can only guess. Smaller stars with less-fawning entourage are guilty of worse.
Certainly, Hamasaki is no fool, and a case of Sunset Boulevard this is not. The artist might not draw in the same numbers, but her track record is nothing to scoff at: rumors that she refused to release any more singles so as not to taint her record-breaking streak of #1s were balanced by the fact that most stars aren’t releasing singles anymore at all. Not even Namie Amuro can be bothered to release singles regularly, and most of those songs don’t even end up on albums. After a two year hiatus, Hamasaki finally released one, watching her sales numbers almost halve. Anyway, singles are for newcomers and idols, not seasoned professionals. And professional is what Hamasaki is.
J-pop’s reigning queen, a shrewd businesswoman, can play the game better than anyone else (I’ll allow for two exceptions); she didn’t become TIME‘s Empress of Pop by playing it safe or always being nice. Throughout her career, Hamasaki has bent others to her will, championing her own unique style, re-branding her image on personal whims, signing multiple endorsements, and standing back to watch the public buy every single camera, cellphone, and limited edition box of donuts not because of any need, but from an obsessive want to posses, in some way, that same charm and effortless beauty that she radiated. Tapping into that insecure desire, some would say exploiting it, was her specialty. But by some Machiavellian spirit, all was forgiven, because in the end, she always stayed true to an authentic, artistic vision in her music and in her relationship with her fans.
Her singles, and especially albums, were the touchstone. Even if a fan couldn’t afford to attend all four of her sold out Dome Tours, even if they could only buy one copy of the original A BEST, or one edition of a single, and not even the DVD version, but the regular edition that came with the least-pretty cover art, they could always feel like she was right there in the room with them, just by pressing play. It’s been written about many times: the songs and lyrics that comprise Hamasaki’s discography are some of the strongest of any female solo artist, and they have the added dignity of coming from a very personal, very carefully curated place in her life. Part confessional, part biography, part memoir, each song had a distinctive, quantifiable identity of its own, a little world that someone could spend days poring over, seeking all the various interpretations; a universe of possibility, wisdom, and truth. Overarching themes tackled everything from breakups, to unrequited love, to empowerment, to depression, to weakness, vulnerability, and all the myriad permutations of human relationships and the petty sins they could lead to. Getting down to the very thing of life itself was her specialty, and reward and respect is in order to a woman who could successfully balance the forces of hollow commerce with the depths of artistic integrity and insight.
But relying on the goodwill of the past can be a dangerous, feckless thing to attempt. The precedent was set before her: Japanese pop stars will always fade away before they burn out. The relationships that bind long-terms business associations are eternal. Loyalty will always trump a fresh new face. The brick foundations of relationships formed over time — those between artist and fans, producers and protegees, record labels and singers — are more than mere givens: they are long-term business strategies and even longer-term unspoken promises, more like blood, than ephemeral, contractual ties.
And in many ways Avex Trax is like a blood-bound family: famed producer Tetsuya Komuro, despite his own dubious, philandering behavior and illegal dips into money-making disasters, is still tucked under the record labels’ protective wing in deference to his legendary history of hit-making and artist-molding. We can never forget that if the term J-pop was coined by the media, it was Komuro who shaped it, gave it a weight and a wonder that is still being imitated today. Hamasaki garners the same due respect, though her longevity is now a telling sign that yes-men outnumber the taste makers and the common sense of a capricious public; whether or not anyone would approve, cares, or likes what she has to offer is of little concern. In many ways, it’s not just empowering or fearless, it’s flat-out amazing, yet in others, concerning, a ham-fisted, clumsy way of coming to terms with reality, rather than humbly forfeiting a personal vision for one that could bring in a younger, broader audience, or change public perception.
Namie Amuro has been more successful at this. Since she never had a conflicting, self-motivated vision for her image and style, always choosing to opt for professional taste and image makers, ebbing and flowing with the current trends, she’s managed to remain not only popular, but relevant. In many ways, Amuro is doing the same thing she was doing fifteen years ago, but with the added heft of experience and visible maturity, both in the way she has grown as a performer, and in her handling of the public. It might just be an old-fashioned aversion to social media, a language she feels too old to learn, but her lack of any Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram accounts has also served to keep her mysterious and alluring, a femme fatale-superhero who swoops in by night to put on the world’s greatest show as if from nowhere, and exiting the stage as if into thin air. As Hamasaki imprints herself onto the public with bigger and bolder strokes, Amuro is retreating into the shadows, any outward sign of personal identity disappearing with her tattoos, so that what we’re left to identify with is something more elusive, but universal: an enduring spirit and attitude, a don’t-quit, never-say-die-diva who is able to have both the amazing career and the secrets. These aren’t mutually exclusive. In many ways, you can’t be a musician who mines personal experiences to make art without opening yourself to scrutiny and public reaction, both positive and negative.
The difference, and this is only speculation, is that Amuro has changed course when things haven’t worked, experimented with things she may not have always liked, and shifted focus to what worked in the past. This willingness to take in criticism and learn from her mistakes — for example the relationship with her backup dancer and brief career hiatus — has only benefited her. We know she’s a mother to an eighteen year old son, but to all of us, she’s our ageless drag mama, teaching us all how to work a sidewalk like a runway, perennially confident, poised, and graceful. Maybe she’s only these things because it’s what she’s given us to work with, or maybe we just need her to be these things because we can’t always be them ourselves; somebody needs to be the guiding light of inspiration. On the other hand, Hamasaki’s mistakes are never actually lessons in disguise, in fact, they’re worth repeating when things start to get too quiet. Rather than acknowledge any critical commentary, she plows ever-forward, a singular, but self-motivated vision. Exhilarating, but exhausting.
Hamasaki would benefit from listening to honest judgment concerning her recent career choices, not because they necessarily need to change altogether, or cater exclusively to long-time fans (a demographic I will forever pledge allegiance to) or the whims of youthful trends as many artists past their prime do, but because it allows one to not just work harder (Hamasaki is already a notorious workaholic), but to grow and develop harder, rather than grasp at straws. These straws are how I view albums like Love again and COLOURS. In many ways, as much as A ONE was a wonderful album, the first Hamasaki album that’s felt like a Hamasaki album in as much as eight years, it is how I now view M(A)DE IN JAPAN, a competent album, a very Ayumi-album, with its hard rock, edgy guitars, and emphatic verbiage, its anger, pain, and domineering presence, but yet another companion to the aforementioned A ONE and sixxxxxx. Like sixxxxxx, it’s a collection of standards, not hits. It’s temping to be content with the humble offering (and it is very humble, at a restrained 10-tracks), especially when there’s so little to find fault with. The album’s biggest misstep seems to be the final original track, “Summer of Love,” which is actually a really great song, but for some other really great album, lacking the sound and feel of the other tracks. I can take or leave “Many Classic Moments,” which begs the question of whether or not dancey cover songs are the way Hamasaki will be ending all of her albums from now (is two a pattern, or do we have to wait for three?).
Furthermore, we can add M(A)DE IN JAPAN to the country’s other great national-pride-inspired albums which began cropping up in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake, from Kumi Koda’s JAPONESQUE, to Perfume’s JPN, to Arashi’s Japonism. Hamasaki’s album, too, boasts the traditional subtleties, with a very faint presence of Japanese instrumentation punctuating the modern sounds of pop and rock — a very apt metaphor for the country’s popular culture today, with its blend of old and new. And the songs are every bit as dramatic as we expect her songs to be, with a minimally fresh take on the standard formula that keeps the album interesting, moving from tear-jerkers to fist-pumpers, rather than the awkward bid for trendy relevancy that COLOURS sought (innovation only works when it’s done successfully).
Yet what is most significant, and infuriating and sad, is that M(A)DE IN JAPAN is the definitive end of an era, probably a personal one, but one that any long-time fan can identify with: the Ayumi-album-as-event that marked a generation of J-pop fans’ yearly calendars. Released as quietly as it was, with no promotional tie-ins, no crazy-huge posters in Shibuya, no cover art blazoned on trucks passing by, you could almost miss it, as I did last week, stuck at work all night and just catching the headline the following morning. The album might be released as a physical CD at the end of June, but the moment has already come and gone.
In many ways now, as for many seasoned artists, new work is immaterial, an insignificant blip that merely provides the excuse for a little bit of income and extended touring. It makes one wonder if Hamasaki has found a new, more immediate outlet for expressing herself, through the heady theatrics of her live shows that now stretch upwards of three hours long. The wild artifice and spectacle of her stage shows, even in an era of increasingly amazing pyrotechnics and computer effects, is still dazzling to see. In this environment, Hamasaki gets immediate attention and first-hand affection from fans in a reality-defying wave of all-consuming love. The costumes, the sets, the lights, and the song selection, a hyper-hardcore update of shows past, are just some ways that the bridge between audience and artist is crossed and re-crossed, destroyed and re-built, in the course of an evening. It is Hamasaki attempting to express her truth in ways we’ve only seen lately through her songs and lyrics, and sometimes, barrage of cryptic Tweets. Despite the number of things that could go wrong — especially now that pulleys and ropes and rings and precarious rigging of giant vats of water have been introduced — or maybe because of them, Hamasaki thrives on stage, commanding and in charge, forever demanding “Motto, motto!” from her audience.
While all signs point to the end of a musical era, it’s impossible to predict what the future holds for Hamasaki’s career as a whole, let alone the choices she might make. Marriage hasn’t slowed her down, nor has age or any other factor insignificant in the face of a persevering, born celebrity, beholden only to her fans, and is an unlikely predictor of any directions she might take; and yet, it’s unlikely that such a steep dip in sales and popularity can be ignored completely. Only time will tell when one of the most glorious artists and entertainers Japan has ever seen will break all our hearts and take her final bow. The show must go on, but it can’t go on forever.