25 years of Ayumi Hamasaki fandom: An interview with Delirium Zer0

Logo for Ayumi's 25th anniversary

This week, Ayumi Hamasaki is celebrating 25 years since her major label debut single, “poker face.” In those 25 years, Ayumi has released 18 original studio albums amid a plethora of singles, EPs, and remixes on mini-CD, CD, USB, vinyl record, PLAYBUTTON, and streaming. She has been featured on numerous magazines covers, hosted her own talk show, toured extensively throughout Japan and Asia, released a line of clothing, posed for high-concept photo books, collaborated with Hello Kitty, explored the repercussions of fame and celebrity in several music videos, and even fit in some time to sight-see and meet with fans in far-flung places around the world.

There is no way anyone could do Ayumi’s career justice in the space of one article, but there is one important idea that stuck out to me during this anniversary celebration: without the hard work of passionate fans and enthusiasts who spend countless hours transliterating lyrics, translating interviews, uploading videos, cross-posting news, and sharing trivia, many of us outside of Japan would never have gotten to know and love a phenomenal artist and entertainer like Ayumi Hamasaki. These unsung heroes do what they do out of sheer love and for fellow fans, often for free on their own time, and they deserve all of our gratitude and recognition.

There have been many prominent fans that I can remember during my time as an Ayu fan — everybody from HCE who used to run the Hamasaki Republic web site and forums, to the twitter/tumblr account of ayu-vogue.net who has been hard at work sharing essential updates for as long as I can remember. One of the most important figures that has stood out to me and many of you in the Ayumi Hamasaki fandom community is Delirium Zer0.

I first got to know Zer0 through her thoughtful posts on the Ayumi Hamasaki Sekai forums many, many years ago, as well as through the translations and other articles that she wrote about Ayu on her own web site. She was also co-host, along with Loki, Jaylee, and Erin, of the highly entertaining podcast Gaijin Kanpai, which is where I first got the chance to speak with her about the overseas J-pop community. I contacted Zer0 in the hopes of doing something really special for Ayumi’s 25th anniversary: picking her brain on as much of Ayu’s career that one could possibly squeeze into anything less than book-length (I could have easily asked another thirty — or hundred — questions!), as well as discussing how the Ayu fandom, especially on the Internet, has changed since its inception. From shrines and web rings, to Panasonic commercials, minuscule liner notes of a CD booklet to alternate vocal takes, Zer0 is an absolute expert on everything Ayu, and I was floored with how extremely generous with her time and knowledge she was. We talked about everything from favorite albums and concert tours, to how Tetsuya Komuro has contributed to Ayu’s soundscape, to some of the really cool and rare pieces in her Ayu collection. I hope you all enjoy reading this as much as I did — I promise you will walk away learning something new and really cool here.

This year, let’s celebrate both 25 years of Ayu’s amazing career, as well as the creators and curators, YouTubers and bloggers, forum-lurkers, digital archivists, present and future friends, and everyone in between, who make experiencing our passions together so fun and leave behind valuable artifacts for everyone researching and seeking information to come.

Once again, a big thank you to Zer0 for everything that she has contributed to the fan community over the years and taking the time to share her thoughts on everything Ayu! Without further ado, let’s take a look back at 25 years of music and fandom. (My words appear in bold.)

appears: A lot of readers will recognize you from your work with the podcast Gaijin Kanpai and/or related work covering all manner of J-pop and J-rock history. I certainly remember you first as a presence on the AHS (Ayumi Hamasaki Sekai) Forums from decades ago, as a prolific poster and contributor. I also remember several web sites you created that covered song-by-song lyric translations and analyses of Ayumi’s work. But for those just getting to know you, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself, and when and how you first got into Japanese pop music?

clubayu.comZer0: Well, the name on my birth certificate is “Lauren,” but online I’ve been called “Delirium Zer0” or some variation of it since I was about 15, and it feels more like my actual name! Most folks online call me Zero, but in the Ayu fandom y’all have always latched on to Deli! :D I’ve also done some lengthy question-answering about J-music on Reddit under the username zer0buscus, and occasionally I’ll dip into Quora to answer something about J-pop history or the J-pop industry. I’m active on twitter as @deliriumzer0, where I’ve exchanged messages with J-pop producers and critics with increasing frequency, which is fun!

I first joined the Ayu fandom as a member of the Ayudesign forum because I wanted to help Kurayami, the webmaster, with a new design he was working on for the splash page at the time. I think my next big Ayu web presence then was ClubAYU.com, where I helped Censations with the graphics and later posted news full-time when his own interest waned a bit. My first major project, though, was working on the database at ayu-mi-x.com with Yaten. The scans we did for that site still circulate the web even now, 20 years later, which is wild to me.

My interest in J-music culminated gradually over many, MANY years, probably starting with the music from the first two Sonic the Hedgehog games. My sister and I would harmonize along to Masato Nakamura’s melodies, making up stupid lyrics, not realizing the guy had a whole band on the other side of the planet! The ending theme for Sonic 2 was a particular favorite of mine, so imagine my delight when I learned it was a proper SONG on one of Dreams Come True’s albums! Anyway, between those early 90s gaming days and spring 2000, I’d slowly learned that I really liked non-English music (thank you Anggun and Faye Wong), and that Japanese melodies in particular seemed to hit me with ALL the feels.

How did you get into Ayumi Hamasaki’s music, and how long have you been a fan? Is there something specific about her or her music that drew you in?

TO BEMy sister was on this old website called Scour that did exactly what its name implied, it was a search engine just for binary files that were available on any publicly-accessible http servers. A lot of people in 2000 still just uploaded things to the web, not bothering to create actual sites or pages, just to share and store files, if they had the web space and bandwidth available to do so. This site would let you search the metadata of music and video files really easily. Anyway, she was searching for MP3s by entirely different artists who were a bit obscure and hard to find music by, like Coco Lee and Milla Jovovich (whose debut album is surprisingly wonderful, by the way). She came across something called “track07.mp3” and gave it a download to see what it was, but didn’t recognize it. The id3 tag said it was a song called “TO BE” by Ayumi Hamasaki. We were both completely addicted. The melody was lovely, her voice was so cute, and looking up photos and lyric translations, she pulled me in so much! We found some websites that distributed new J-pop releases and I ended up hearing “vogue,” “Far away,” and some of the remixes on ayu-mi-x II as well as a few more tracks from LOVEppears. It was really the fact that ONE artist did “TO BE,” “Far away,” “monochrome,” and HΛL’s mix of “vogue” that made me go “Okay, this person is versatile as heck and there are NO misses here. I’m officially a fan. This is my life now.”

Do you remember the first song/album that you heard? What about the first CD that you ever purchased?

First song was detailed above. The first CDs I owned were all gifts I got for Christmas in late 2000: AUDIENCE and ayu-mi-x II version Acoustic Orchestra. LOVEppears sadly arrived a bit too late for Christmas morning, but it was in the same order apparently, it was just back-ordered a bit. The particular shine and gloss on the AUDIENCE disc, and the clear silvery-blue feeling of the LOVEppears packaging are things I will not soon forget. (Not to mention, “immature” and “too late” sounded different than I’d remembered because I’d only heard the single versions without realizing it, and they were so much better here!) In spring 2001 I finally bought some Ayu items with my own money, and I don’t remember everything in the order but I do know it included Far away, SEASONS, and the VCD of A Clips. And then Endless sorrow was the first new release I bought as soon as it came out.

What do you feel is your biggest contribution to the fandom, or where can people find the work that you are most proud of?

Honestly I think most of the work that’s still findable right now is some of the ayu-mi-x scans being reposted on the Music Pixels blog, and I also wrote a lot of the text on the VERY out-of-date Ayumi Hamasaki wiki at ayumihamasaki.fandom.com. Luckily I still have a lot of my translations and writing handy, and I’ve been doing a ton of scanning! I’ve been trying to find time to relaunch my own Ayu site, so stay tuned for that — everything I’ve done that I’m proud of, I wanna get it all available there in one place.

Is there any aspect of Ayu’s career that you feel you geek out over the most?

There is not just one thing, I go through phases. Sometimes it’s about the music, and I pick apart the mixing or arrangement choices in her songs. Sometimes I revisit mine and other people’s lyrics translations because I’ll realize I know the PERFECT way to translate something complicated in her lyrics. Sometimes it’s all about her visuals and fonts and cover art, or maybe it’s her costumes and fashion. Other times it’s about her career history and old versions of fan sites, her official site, and the history of her fan club. Sometimes I have moments where I want as much detail about her pre-avex career as possible. Sometimes I obsess over concert merchandise, or extremely limited giveaway items from CM campaigns, or exactly how to obtain rare releases, or what was a TeamAyu bonus… The great thing about Ayu is that there’s so much to her career that when one part of it loses its luster, there’s always something else to care about that you never thought of before!


A lot of Ayumi fans have amazing collections that consist of any and everything from box sets, to vinyl records, to concert goods like T-shirts, key chains, ayupan figurines, etc. What item(s) in your collection do you love the most?

There are so many! For one thing, Ayu simply has some really great merch. Honestly the camo storage box she sold during one of the TROUBLE tours is awesome, for example. As an adult I’ve come to love practical merch like that rather than T-shirts and posters. I don’t have enough wall or drawer space for any more posters and T-shirts, but give me home organizational goods ALL DAY. Storage boxes, cord wraps, phone stands, binders, pencil cases. And I love the hand dust mop with Papiko on it SO MUCH. I do actually use it, which… is not great for preservation, but I took photos so it’s fine. XD

And I really like that she gave us socks! I WANT MORE AYU SOCKS! lol

Some stuff I’m just proud I got a good deal on, like the “poker face” promo flyer I got for $10 when it was going for more than a hundred usually (thanks to the seller for putting a typo in the auction name, lol).

Other stuff was really hard to get at the time, like when I got my A MODEL phone you still couldn’t send batteries from Japan through the mail, so there’s no battery in it. Now, of course, you CAN send a battery, so it’s a bit frustrating to have an A MODEL I can’t turn on, but I was really proud I got it. Also, the person who sold it included a tabletop display for the phone (which typically held a non-functioning mock-up phone), which sometimes pops up on its own for auction, but it’s not usually cheap! So getting it as a freebie was really nice.

One item I just love for my own reasons is the pair of 20th anniversary Converse sneakers. Ayu has yet to release any shoes that I actually think look good (I never got the FTL Vans, and I only minorly regret that), but the Converse ones at least have my beloved leopard print. And they were not easy to find, either!

What item has the most sentimental value for you?

What’s funny is the two most sentimental items for me are both NOT official merch! One is my ARENA TOUR 2009 pink dress ayupan figure. Since it wasn’t genuine, I let my kid play with it when they were little, and one day they were a bit overzealous with it and the head came off. It’s been super glued back on since, and my kid was much gentler with it lol.

The other is a camo T-shirt I bought from an army surplus store and painted a big white “A” logo on it. I wore it to Anime Expo 2002, doing a “UNITE” cosplay. Puffy Amiyumi were at the con and when I met them their handler ID’d the cosplay and looked delighted that I knew who Ayu was (as most Japanese people probably would have in 2002, tbh). Socially awkward wreck that I am, I nervously insisted I loved Puffy too! XD (Fun fact: I sang a Do As Infinity song in the first round of the karaoke contest that year and did not proceed to round 2. The eventual contest winner, who ALSO sang Do As Infinity in round 1, went on to get a contract and was known as HIMEKA. I was bitter for years. XD)

Ayumi Hamasaki's promotional campaign for VISEE makeup.

What item in your collection is the most rare, or that you think most people would be surprised to see or even know exists?

I feel like maybe the most rare thing is probably the Tu-Ka nail set, which there were 500 of. (There’s a phone holster from the same campaign that’s on its way to me as I type this.) It’s packed in an absolutely lovely case that I’ve always found unique.

One thing that might be really rare is the black lanyard with Ayu’s name in pink Helvetica bold font, which I think might be a promo item for the A Song for XX release, but I’m honestly still not sure.

I got a really good deal on a set of Ayu vinyls once, and it included the “WHATEVER -version M-” vinyl, which is a rare one.

And I don’t know how rare the “WHATEVER” single poster is, but I do know posters for Ayu’s 8cm singles tend to go for a LOT of money and not come up very often, so that’s another thing I’m really proud of having.

I think there are a lot of things that fans might not know exist.

What is a “Holy Grail” item missing from your collection that you would love to have? Any that you regret passing up?

In 2002, if you bought STADIUM TOUR 2002 merch from the official avex Rakuten store, you had a chance to win a flag from the STADIUM TOUR stage. Only one person could win it. Someone did win it, and that winner apparently gave it to a friend of theirs, and that friend put it up on Mercari for about $1500 awhile back. I couldn’t afford that so I passed it up, and the listing went away. But then… it came back, the price slightly lowered. And then I saw it go away and come back AGAIN. And I am not even kidding, as I type this, that flag is on Mercari Japan for about a thousand bucks. I am WRESTLING with it. I want it SO BADLY. But I really don’t think I can swing that price! XD

GIRLPOP July 2000Ayumi has graced the cover of dozens upon dozens of magazines. Do you have any magazine covers/photo shoots that are your favorite?

I will say though, the GIRLPOP July 2000 shoot, where she’s wearing the same outfit in two different colors and the ayu in black is holding a book and the ayu in pink looks like she’s in a storybook, and on the cover she’s holding eyeglasses with the wallpaper pattern behind her on the lenses… I adore that shoot. It’s just so symbolic and the storytelling is really good. Photos from that shoot were sort of EVERYWHERE at the time, too, so it’s really iconic and nostalgic for me.

The cover of Ayumi Hamasaki's "I am..." albumAyumi has now released 18 original studio albums next to dozens and dozens of singles, EPs, remix albums, and greatest hits collections. She was recently named the female artist with the most albums in the Top Ten of the Oricon Chart at 54. Which albums, remix albums included, are in your top five?

5. Rock’n’Roll Circus
4. (miss)understood
3. Duty
2. LOVEppears
1. I am…

This was surprisingly easy. Although 3, 2, and 1 do shift around quite a bit, 4 and 5 are pretty steady for me.

I think we can acknowledge that any career as long as Ayu’s will inevitably have setbacks and missteps. Which albums, including remix albums, are in your bottom five, or the ones that you re-listen to/reach for the least, and why?

  • 1. LOVE again. This is a pretty easy least favorite album for me. Primarily because of the ballads. It’s not that I’m anti-ballad, but I am very picky about ballads, and some of the ones here are the most stock, derivative ones in her discography, and I do often confuse a lot of the slow tracks here with others across her discography. Also I’m STILL bitter about how many tracks came over from the LOVE and again singles (which I will always call singles because avex marketing them as mini-albums was a bold-faced lie).
  • 2. TROUBLE. Mostly just because “W” is the only track I’m ever in the mood to return to. “The way I am” is pretty good but tbh the acapella version from LINE LIVE spoiled me, it was really impressive and I almost never listen to the CD version! XD “aeternal” is slowly growing on me but it certainly didn’t wow me, and “We are the QUEENS” is really only good for the novelty value (I cannot separate it from the very fun but very ridiculous Clash of Queens campaign! lol). I know I’ll get things thrown at me for how “WORDS” does nothing for me, but-
  • A scan from Ayumi Hamasaki's Love again album3. LOVE Classics. Oh dear. What a clever concept, but only 2 or 3 of the tracks really felt like good matches with their classical pieces. Honestly just so disappointing after A Classical was kind of weak and I was hoping this would step things up a bit.
  • 4. A Classical. It’s not that this one is bad, far from it, but the track list was the same set of tracks we’d already been getting Acoustic Orchestra and strings-focused live versions of for ages, so it contributed very little. I do have a few tracks I listen to occasionally, but not very many. (As I recall, Ayu used “favorite song” fan votes for the track list for this, but we didn’t realize what we were voting for so I don’t think it was really fair. XD)
  • 5. ayu-mi-x 7 presents ayu-ro mix 4. By ayu-ro mix 3 the SUPER EUROBEAT tracks were starting to lose their teeth (that “Voyage” remix was… inexcusable), so I wasn’t really shocked when this album, outside of 1 or 2 tracks, was a demonstrable weakening of the Eurobeat spirit that made the genre so fun in the early 2000s. It’s like SEB was trying so hard to be inoffensive here, it falls really flat. Not to mention the re-remixing of tracks that already got the Eurobeat treatment. Why is this “Boys & Girls” remix even here??? Why would you revisit a track that was done so much better (TWICE!) 11 years earlier? And there was a one-off “INSPIRE” remix released on a random compilation years earlier that was MUCH better than the one here. And why, on the “Startin'” remix, is there almost NO BASS compared to the rest of the album?!?! (The “Sunrise” remix is pretty great though, honestly, like that’s not a song I’m crazy about but this remix is nice and eurobeaty and I do like it.)

In Ayu’s long career she has cycled through several looks and styles, both in her physical appearance and in her music. What is your favorite Ayu “era” and why?

2001, 2001, 2001. I wasn’t a fan of the A BEST-era hair, admittedly, but being a fan that year was so amazing that I don’t even care. It was the year of Ayu Hype, honestly, probably for all of us:

  • The relaunch of the Ayumi Hamasaki Online Fanclub into “TeamAyu” was officially complete, and we started getting the TA magazine.
  • All Ayu’s awards, whether for fashion or music or being Barbie in human form lol.
  • The I am… singles era felt like it really officially kicked off with the hype for “evolution,” which started when she sang it at CDL and then we endured the long month of waiting for the CD to come out.
  • UNITE!” got announced with a few very different remix names (which seem to have been the remixes’ original names, based on the promo cassette that’s out there), and the remixes all use a different vocal track from the final song, which I STILL find fascinating even now 22 years later. [Editor’s Note: What?? I never noticed know this!]
  • That year the internet reached a point where file sharing was particularly easy so sharing files for hype was more common and much easier than in 1999 or 2000, and there was more international overlap and more industry insiders sharing early MP3s so we were getting more news, info, and early-leaked MP3s than we had in the past. (Anyone remember Audiogalaxy? Or when Myspace was a file storage locker rather than a social media site?? Ah, nostalgia!)
  • VCD-quality MPG files were easier to come across so I was seeing more Ayu videos than I’d ever been able to before (like one fan site just had all of “A Film for XX” up for download. AMAZING).
  • Big name Ayu fans were starting to become a thing thanks to folks sharing files and screenshots and videos and news.
  • ALL THE DOME TOUR HYPE, omg we spent all year waiting for the proper home video release based on the photos and news reports and stuff.
  • I will never forget the sheer NUMBER of New Album rumors that started to appear as early as July.
  • Ayu’s fashion at the time was just accessible enough to be absolutely iconic. Whether it was the leopard stuff still carrying over from Duty, or the camo seen in DOME TOUR, or the nail art in EVERYTHING she was doing, or the clusters of pin-badges on one side of her shirts seen in magazines, she was doing stuff we could copy or be inspired by WAY more easily than a lot of the simpler high-fashion or expensive streetwear she’s been wearing over the last while. (I was able to just BUY the rhinestoned bandanas she wore in the “Dearest” video. They were just there at Hot Topic. Right at the mall. For normal people.)
  • OH and the mock-Vuitton pattern seen on the re-issued singles. So cool, I’m so glad she’s been using it again haha.
  • OH WAIT the re-issue singles! We finally got some of the remixes from the ayu-mi-x box set on CD thanks to those, that was a big deal!
  • Oh and all the CM campaigns! So many of her CM eras were active for all or part of 2001, from Morinaga Hi-Chew to Takanoyuri Beauty Clinic to Tu-Ka to Kose Visee to Kirin Supli, and at the very end of the year we got the beginning of her legendary run with Panasonic.

So yeah this was a big year. Granted, it was my first FULL year as an Ayu fan, so I may be biased. But honestly if I could relive those days, I absolutely would. (If only to save some of the files that were shared since they’re quite possibly lost now, d’oh!)

Ayumi is well-known and rightly acknowledged for the honesty and sincerity of her lyrics. Do you have any favorite Ayu lyrics?

Party QueenSo many. SO, SO MANY. It’s very hard for me to pick, so what I’ll do here is talk about the lyrics on Party Queen.

I’m really, really sad that the album had so many crappy mixing and production choices, and they were bad (and Timmy’s English rap bits in “NaNaNa” are… very not good lyrically, but we’ll brush that aside for now). The stuff wrong with that album really distracted from how amazing Ayu’s lyrics are, and I think the album’s poor reception made Ayu shy away from quite such personal songwriting for a long time afterward. Party Queen felt like one of the most honest albums she’d written in ages, addressing past trauma, isolation, poor self-image, support from friends and a lack thereof, taking on too much herself, and of course divorce and worrying she’d be alone forever. The root cause of a lot of what she wrote about here was her fame, though, and in 2012 I think we weren’t at a place where we wanted to fully humanize famous people yet (there was still a lot of sarcasm about “Oh you’re so famous, your life is so hard, let me play a dirge for you on the world’s tiniest violin” going on). I think the album might have been better received if it were released now, now that literally anyone is able to become publicly known via social media, and Ayu’s statements about separation between the person and the product are a bit more relatable. But even then, the mixing and production REALLY is terrible here (and I’m sad we didn’t get any vocal tracks from this album for #ayumix2020, I’d have looovvved to hear new arrangements for basically the entire album), so even with better release timing and a more understanding culture it probably wouldn’t have ever gone down in history as one of Ayu’s best. But with these lyrics, it deserved so much better than it got.

Let’s talk about some of the more technical aspects of her music. Ayumi has teamed up with a number of producers and writers throughout her career. She has also retained a loyal working relationship with many composers and arrangers, such as Yuta Nakano, Kazuhito Kikuchi, and Dai Nagao (DAI). Do you have any favorites among her team?

Kazuhito Kikuchi and DAI are absolutely my favorites among her composers, but also Ayu herself was a much better composer than she realized. I think she did the sort of rule-breaking as CREA that only songwriting beginners can really do. She felt her way through those, and you can tell, and it WORKED. I’m really sad we didn’t get more from her later.

The members of J-pop group HAL.I will always be obsessed with the arrangements we got from 1999-2003 era HΛL (and the sound Yuta Nakano dabbled in after joining the group, apparently stealing their secrets, and moving on XD). It was really nice to hear that sound come back a bit on “23rd Monster“! You can tell that one was produced by 2 former HΛL members, haha. (It was really nice to hear that return to form too, since their contributions to the TROUBLE EP did very little for me.) It’s funny to think that HΛL’s first work with Ayu was like… almost 100% plagiarized, lol. But hey, whatever gets your foot in the door I guess! 😛

And Shingo Kobayashi was an absolute master of ballad arrangement. “teddy bear” hurts me every time I hear it, and “JEWEL” is unequivocally one of the best love songs I’ve ever heard. Also, he turned the already-great “A Song for XX” into the emotional powerhouse rock ballad we got on A BALLADS. He really knew how to bring out the best in those songs. His passing was an absolutely massive loss.

Ayu has dabbled in dozens of genres throughout her career, from pop to rock, to metal, to R&B. Do you have a favorite? Any that you think suit her best?

Rock-with-synth Ayu will always be what owns my soul the most. I do think that’s what she does best, her vocal style is rock-expressive but with a synth-pop timbre to it, so to me that’s always been her strength. I don’t think she has the vocal chops for a lot of the sweeping pop ballads she’s done, although some of them have surprised me (“The GIFT” in particular). I do think she’s reasonably solid on the dancey stuff, but I definitely prefer her sad bops and the “searching desperately for hope” type uptempo tracks over the happy-scrappy “summertime with friends” stuff that she seems so fond of. I’m probably always gonna enjoy an “is this LOVE?” or “Last minute” more than a “Summer again” or “BLUE BIRD” regardless of the strength or weakness of the composition.

Ayu’s use of R&B was never one of my favorite things given her lack of an R&B voice, but it’s grown on me as I’ve realized how often she specifically employs it for particularly sad songs. It’s just not executed as well as it deserves to be. I’d love to hear a remix of “Secret,” for instance, because its instrumentation is, imo, too slick and shiny for how beautifully raw and tired her voice sounds.

Tetsuya KomuroI was pretty surprised that it took so long for Ayu to work with Tetsuya Komuro, whom she began teaming up with around 2010, and whom she has since stayed with. How do you feel about the way he, as a sort of representative of the avex trax sound, has contributed to Ayu’s soundscape over the last decade? Do you think he’s brought something unique, or new, to her music, or would you have preferred that he hadn’t gotten involved?

Uuuugggghhhhh I was gonna mention him earlier but it didn’t really fit in with any other answers, so I’m glad you asked this question.

First of all, to get it out of the way, I think Tetsuya Komuro is a garbage person and I would never personally work with him. Ayu remaining friends with garbage people is disappointing to me, but I don’t judge Ayu for trying to create the best product she can, blah blah blah okay that’s done. lol

So I actually find TK’s involvement in Ayu’s sound these days very ironic! One of the things that made Ayu stand out was her departure from the TK-inspired standard J-pop sound of the 90s. Her production style, the pitch correction keeping her on key (starting with LOVEppears), the raw and honest lyrics touching on isolation and depression, the more Western influence on the studio technology while maintaining the emotionally resonant Japanese types of melodies… all that stuff really shifted the J-pop industry in the early 2000s (I maintain that Ayu and Utada Hikaru represented a genuine slightly-Western shift in the industry that made J-pop really, REALLY good, but still unique compared to Western pop, for a solid 5 years, until it over-Westernized a bit).

TK being brought in for the Love songs era felt really disappointing at the time because to me the whole point of Ayu was sort of this rebellion against TK’s sound, you know? But! Color me shocked, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the final result… some of the arrangements were messy, and the album took time to grow on me, but the compositions of his songs were legitimately very good and honestly didn’t sound too much like his past work. They felt like a real evolution of his sound while still maintaining some of the character that made 90s J-pop such a huge moneymaker. “Love song” is an absolutely incredible piece of work, sadly it’s probably the best song on the album, but it is truly one of the great ones Ayu has given us.

On the other hand, “You & Me” is hot garbage! My child was able to come up with that melody on a cheap keyboard at age 6 (and no my child is not a musical prodigy at all, they don’t even listen to all that much music really). There is zero sophistication here, which makes the BPM change feel clumsy rather than elegant. (Also, not TK’s fault, but very tacky lyrics, and tasuku’s arrangement strengths are… not this). Among Ayu’s happy-scrappy summer songs that I dislike, I dislike this one the most.

By the time he returned for his contributions to A ONE, we were far enough removed in time for TK and Ayu to be sort of grouped together into the same era, and those of us with nostalgia for TK probably also have nostalgia for Ayu’s peak years, so this time around I feel like we got proper synergy. “NO FUTURE” is one of my favorite TK compositions of all time. It’s ringing in my head as I type this and I have zero complaints. I love the buildup and release of tension all through it, the crescendos and decrescendos are perfectly timed, it is a ROLLERCOASTER. Ayu’s voice really has to reach in this one and she delivers, it’s got almost a showtune-esque theatricality to it, and I like the “Well, eff you then!” sound it ends up having when paired with the lyrics. Which are definitely about Max.

Dreamed a dream” is just so, so good. It was the song I’d been waiting for Ayu to make since M(A)DE IN JAPAN. MIJ really felt like a return to form for her after several albums that just weren’t quite there for me, so TROUBLE was really upsetting tbh. And then TK gives us this GIFT! Honestly I was so happy with it. Being that it was a TK song released after his “retirement” (which lasted all of 5 seconds, a disappointment to me at the time), I really didn’t want to like it. I was so ready to hate it. But dammit, IT IS SO GOOD.

And then “MASK” felt like an old globe song in the best way possible. (Honestly before TK turned out to be a piece of crap I imagined in my head a reformation of “globe” with Ayu on vocals and SKY-HI doing the raps, wouldn’t that have been totally sweet??? *sigh* ah well.) [Editor’s Note: I would love to hear what a collab like this would sound like!]

Long story short, I think he genuinely does contribute a lot – even if I don’t always love it, you can’t deny he’s given Ayu way more hits than misses and the hits are MAJOR. He’s demonstrably helping breathe life back into Ayu’s career in a way that I find very very frustrating given my dislike of him as a person. (A belated congrats to KEIKO on the divorce cuz like seriously fuck that guy lol.)

The single cover for Ayumi Hamasaki's M.For a while, Ayu wrote her own music under the pseudonym CREA. What are your favorite Ayu-composed songs? Do you feel that her taking a step back from writing has had an overall negative, positive, or neutral impact on her continuing career?

M” is, and always will be, one of the best songs in Ayu’s discography. The departure from verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure, the gradual buildup to a climax and then denouement at the end, the powerful melody, Ayu’s ownership of the song’s message, and the overall feeling like she started with lyrics and then built the song she wanted around them all make it such a strong piece of music. Perhaps it was beginner’s luck, perhaps it was the fit of inspiration she sounds like she had, I don’t know. But it is my favorite. [Editor’s Note: I think “M” is a perfect song and I every time I listen to it, I marvel both at how well it has and continues to age, and just how powerful and amazing it is. It defies logical belief that this is the first song Ayu ever wrote.]

Will” with DAI is so freaking good though and I feel like she still had more to offer, but I don’t think she was nearly as confident in her composition skills as she deserved to be. I was looking forward to more. But I think that’s the last CREA composition we’ll ever get, unless she goes back to the CREA demos written in the past. (And we do know at least one does exist, so who knows?)

I think she’s done, since if she were to start composing anew again, she probably wouldn’t be as good anymore, given her lack of formal composition training. Her compositions felt like she was feeling her way through those, and doing that requires listening to, and making, a LOT of music. Pop music is on some levels a language, and like any language, you can definitely learn it through immersion, but when you stop using it before you become fully fluent you lose it over time. I think given her hearing she may not be able to get that immersion as easily anymore (and she’s said she doesn’t listen to much music anymore, which is fair). I do think her music quality has been lower overall since she stopped composing, but I’m not sure if there’s a correlation there really. Too many variables!

Ayumi has teamed up with a couple of surprising one-offs throughout her career, like Noriyuki Makihara. Personally, I would have loved to see her team-up with more women songwriters. What are, or have been, some of your dream collaborations?

MIYUKI NAKAJIMA! *sobs dramatically* Oh my god if Ayu sang something written by Miyuki Nakajima I would LOSE MY MIND it would be SO GOOD AAAAAAHHHH

Also it’s not a composition collaboration but I always thought BT’s style of pop/EDM production during his Movement in Still Life/Emotional Technology era would have been such an amazing fit for Ayu at the time. Hearing him do Ayu remixes would have been incredible.

Ayu’s vocal technique has changed many times over the last 25 years. When did Ayu’s ever-evolving vocals hit your sweet spot?

I feel like Duty is a cop-out answer here because that was the first album where I experienced the full release cycle, but that to me is like… the quintessential Ayu Voice, and I tend to compare the rest of her career to it, so. I’ll go with that. She did sound really good on Colours but I don’t actively enjoy listening to it as much.

Do you have any producers or DJs that have remixed her songs over the last 25 years that stick out to you, or are a personal favorite?

I have a soft spot for Seiki Sato’s “nicely nice” remixes, particularly those for “M” and “Endless sorrow.”

HΛL’s mixes were always consistently awesome. Newer fans will never understand how much the entire Ayu fandom loved when HΛL remixed anything! lol [Editor’s Note: Yes!]

I really enjoy the noisy organized chaos of D-Z mixes. Their remixes of “monochrome” and “SEASONS” were particularly great.

The logo of record label avex traxThe history of Ayu’s discography is also a micro-history of avex trax. Do you think Ayumi stands as a good representation of the record label and its sound, or do you think she’s more of an outlier?

She’s definitely an outlier in a lot of ways, but the parallels are too strong because avex tied their success and failure to her way too tightly.

Ayu was always more into rock, R&B, and acoustic-type music personally, but Max’s love of dance music made dance-pop music the primary focus of the label as a whole, and TK being a major player at avex (with Namie, globe, hitomi, and some other TK family artists) helped drive that. So Ayu ended up becoming really well known for multiple genres of dance music, which I’d imagine she wasn’t entirely happy about at first, but she’s taken it in stride and had fun with it. So there’s that.

But it makes sense that avex would drag Ayu onto the dance train. I mean, the label had a really strong brand in the early 2000s. Like if I tell you to picture the avex blue color in your head, you know what color I mean. That little yellow-haired mascot, and the blue a-nation teddy bear, the old blocky crazy font, all that stuff is really stuck in my mind as part of “avex” back then. The company sort of had this “small business” feeling to it, where they felt accessible. They held auditions that were publicly known, and their website always had a surplus of information about new artists and releases, and when a group or artist caught on they gave the people what they wanted because they didn’t feel as disconnected from the public as they would later. The people liked Ayu, and avex knew it, so if avex was doing a thing, you knew Ayu would be there somewhere, whether it was an issue of Beatfreak magazine, an episode of Channel A, or a summer music festival. avex felt accessible, and she was relatable, and they helped each other in that way.

The problem is, she was lightning in a bottle and that’s hard to pull off twice. In 2001 when the industry was panicking over Ayu dating Tomoya Nagase (“what if she gets married and retires?!”), there was a lot of buzz about avex searching for a “second Ayu” — although they also talked about pivoting more to K-Pop given the success of BoA, S.E.S., and H.O.T. at the time. In the midst of that panic a few artists showed up and were given Ayu-esque styling to try and recapture the magic, like Hiroko Anzai (whose initials probably put dollar signs in their eyes) and HΛLNA (who captured even Ayu fans’ hearts and wallets given the production being HΛL so it actually sounded good), but Ayu didn’t end up getting married and retiring so avex’s panic subsided.

I think this led them into a false sense of security though. They learned not to put ALL their eggs in the Ayu basket, but they hung onto Ayu too long and lost touch with the Japanese public in a pretty major way. Despite Max threatening to leave if avex branched out beyond music too much, avex did indeed branch out (I think avex group has more anime companies than music companies now… including a healthcare one, which… what?), and they went from relevant to irrelevant despite financial growth right alongside Ayu, to be honest.

Even just on the music side of things, Avex would experiment with things like streaming services, weird proprietary digital album formats, etc. and Ayu was often the guinea pig for it all because avex trusted we’d spend the money even if it was a gamble that didn’t pay off for us. (Do anyone’s PLAYBUTTONs work anymore? [Editor’s Note: I only have one of these and never actually opened it.]) Meanwhile, other record labels and services are actually paying attention to consumer demand and giving the public true globally accessible experiences, better services, and music formats people actually want rather than whatever “new” format Max was convinced was “the future,” probably thanks to some really crafty salespeople. So we end up with Ayu having all these releases on very short-lived formats like the SACD CAROLS single and the DVD-Audio of RAINBOW and MY STORY (and the DVD-Audio version of A BEST getting cancelled) and the Blu-spec version of FIVE and the USB version of NEXT LEVEL and the PlugAir single for XOXO and M(A)DE IN JAPAN getting its AWA release first because oh surely AWA will catch on and overtake Spotify, right? (You’re a freaking DANCE MUSIC label. Vinyl is RIGHT THERE. I can have Daichi Miura’s best-of on vinyl but y’all won’t put A COMPLETE on vinyl okay I see how it is this is an attack on me)

Anyway. avex now seem to get the most success from nostalgia, but it’s not enough success because it’s poorly executed. And, unsurprisingly, the same mostly seems to go for Ayu.

Ayumi Hamasaki in the music video for "Nonfiction."

One of my favorite things about Ayu is that she’s always been an original thinker, trendsetter, and icon who always stays true to herself, whether or not someone is along for the ride. One well-known moment was her clipped dismissal of trendy K-pop music at a press conference. Do you think her continued adherence to her mostly signature musical style over the years has hindered or helped her career?

I mean that depends on your definition of career success, doesn’t it? Her style still varies enough that there are a lot of old fans still listening (Hi everyone!), and I know at least I haven’t gotten bored yet (well, some ballads… lol). I think her musical style has very little to do with her financial success these days, so I’m not sure it’s had any effect at all on that measure of success. But being true to herself does seem to have kept her happier. I think dismissing the pressures of the rest of the industry is really risky if you’re trying to be the most popular artist out there, but if you’re just trying to express yourself then it’s probably for the best.

Are there any moments in her discography that you think were judged unfairly, or that you think deserve better recognition/appreciation?

See rant on Party Queen above XD

Ayumi Hamasaki and Timothy Wellard performing on stageAyu is known for surrounding her working life with close friends, particularly for live shows, such as the two back-up singers, PECO Hamada and Yoko “Princess” Yamazaki, as well as Timothy Wellard. Why do you think they have been such polarizing figures in the fandom?

I feel like this is a question that answers itself, lol. When you work with people you know, you’re not necessarily working with the best people for the job. Ayu’s loyalty to her friends is amazing, but let’s face it, PECO’s voice was never a good match for Ayu’s voice, it’s too warm. (Forgive my synesthesia, but PECO’s voice has a matte finish and Ayu’s voice has a glossy finish. That’s the best way I can think to describe it.) I love PECO as a choreographer — her choreography era gave us the “Trauma” dance and the simple-but-notable “too late” dance that we saw again at the 24th Anniversary concert, and then once she was a background singer instead, we got the dramatic flailing era which still. Hasn’t. Ended. — But she wasn’t a good fit for Ayu vocally at all. Because of that, it was easy for me to find everything she did annoying. (Princess is a little bit better of a fit, but not much. But some of the new backup singers are much better!)

Similarly, Timmy was brought on for one thing — his songwriting — and became a concert backup vocalist. And since his style, like PECO’s, was always very big and ostentatious, it felt a bit like he was encroaching on Ayu’s territory as the star of the show (although this is 100% something Ayu enabled for a very long time. If you pause a DVD of almost any of Ayu’s shows from like 2006 to 2018, chances are you’ll see the audience, a wide shot of the stage, or dancers, and Ayu will be out of frame or invisibly tiny. For awhile it really felt like Ayu was trying to make everyone except herself the star of the show, and fans didn’t respond well to that. Timmy was representative of that problem in a big way, I think, and I mean look at the HOTEL Love songs stage setup! Right during Timmy’s era, that was peak “Ayu isn’t the star” time!)

The other thing, too, is that Ayu had a band in the beginning. They were dudes we knew. It was a little family made of Ayu, Enrique, Yo-chan, Shingo Kobayashi, and Nobuo Eguchi and then PECO & Princess had to come along and INVADE our little FAMILY and it was a bit off-putting, lol. And as the dancers became a bigger part of the crew, we got used to them and they became a family too, but then we got different dancers and the lineup changed and that was never easy. Change is always hard. I miss the old lineup sometimes. (Don’t ever leave me, Midoringu! ;_;)

Ayumi Hamasaki and Max MatsuuraHow do you think Ayu’s personal life has affected her image with fans and the public over the years, particularly the media’s portrayal of her marriages, the birth of her children, and the TV drama that portrayed her relationship with producer Max Matsuura?

Well, that Tomoya Nagase related panic in 2001 was quite the mess, wasn’t it? I mean Ayu’s never just been allowed to date, the way normal people can date. That’s the nature of fame as a woman, sadly, and in Japan it was even worse back when she was at her peak. It’s terribly unfair, but they’d always frame her as this walking disaster because of it.

I don’t think she’s necessarily any more of a walking disaster than anyone else. She’s managed to hold on to far more of her humanity than a lot of celebrities do, and tbh I think she deserves some commendation for that, but I think that there are still a lot of people who see her as perhaps flighty or emotionally-driven or weak or easily distracted by men. I think it’s not too hard to connect the dots and realize why she’s done what she’s done or why she’s felt some of the things she’s felt, so I totally understand the urge to gossip and share the mystery-solving you feel like you’ve done, sure. I don’t hold that against the public too badly, I certainly wasn’t immune to it.

I do think, however, that the onus is on us as the public to not base our own identities on the behavior of strangers. Whether you’re a big fan freaking out as soon as Ayu does anything you feel is “inconsistent” with who you thought she was, or if you’re a member of the general public who makes a hobby out of hating on celebrities for their failures. Ayu has done her best to keep Ayu and Ayumi Hamasaki as separate as possible, which wasn’t something she knew how to do early on in her career, but she’s done as much work as can be expected.

The public, to their credit, mostly seems to have chilled out. That’s almost certainly in part because Ayu simply isn’t at anything remotely close to a commercial peak anymore, sure, but it’s also because we’re 20 years older and 20 years wiser. The TV drama and book were definitely just a short “Haha, yeah, I knew it” moment for anyone who followed the tabloids in the early 2000s, and a fun bit of nostalgia for parents like myself who can pass the Legend of Ayu on to their kids. (I mean that’s a half-joke, but my kid enjoyed the drama quite a bit, haha… I gave running commentary about the industry at the time, which was fun.)

The way we treated Ayu when she was dating, married, divorced, dating, married again, divorced again… Every story was framed to put her in the most foolish and tragic light possible, and that wasn’t fair to her at all. But it’s no different than how most celebrity women are treated, is it?

Ayumi Hamasaki performing

Let’s talk about Ayu’s live performances. What is your favorite, overall, concert tour? Which one would you recommend to first-time watchers?

That’s probably a tie between concert tour 2000 Act 2 and ARENA TOUR 2006 ~(miss)understood~.

AT06 is one I recommend often, actually, in part because I recommend (miss)understood as an album to people a lot, and it makes sense to watch that tour afterward. But A museum is a really good first concert as well because a lot of Ayu’s tour traditions and typical costume styles got nailed down around that time, and that “A Song for XX” costume is absolutely ICONIC to me.

Do you have any favorite costumes or looks?

See above, haha 😀 I also love pretty much any time Ayu’s ever worn a leather or moto jacket. She nails the punky rock star look SO well.

Ayumi performing "teddy bear" at ARENA TOUR 2003~2004What are some of your favorite, stand-out performances?

  • “teddy bear/Memorial address” at ARENA TOUR 2003-2004
  • “Because of you” at the 2004 MTV VMAJs
  • A Song for XX” at a-nation ’08
  • “Love song” on Music Station
  • “M” at ~POWER of MUSIC~ 2011
  • “JEWEL” at 15th Anniversary Tour ~A BEST LIVE~
  • And just in general the new version of “ourselves” she started doing in 2017 is very cool.

If you could go back in time and be in the audience of any one concert tour, which would it be and why?

I mean yeah ALL OF THEM to be sure, but probably DOME TOUR 2001, just because it seems like the kind of spectacle that the cameras couldn’t quite capture. (Although I would have loved to sneak a camera into the UC Card Limited Acoustic Live show… lol)

Screenshot of Ayumi's "Don't look back" PV

In regards to story or visuals, which are your favorite music videos?

In chronological order:

  • 1. “WHATEVER.” I love the look of the metallic room Ayu is sitting in, and the story that plays out in the burned ruins is just heartbreaking.
  • Screenshot from Ayumi Hamasaki's "kanariya" music video2. “kanariya.” I feel like what’s going on is up for interpretation but I like the idea that experiments are being done to show how music affects mood, perhaps. I feel like Ayu has a lot of ideas about, well, the power of music, right? 🙂 And maybe this was the first time we saw that in her actual product. Also it’s just a cool looking video, full of Y2K-era video tropes like overlaid geometric/LCD text and TV screens and just generally being cyberpunky, and I get the warm fuzzies when I remember that era stylistically.
  • 3. “vogue/Far away/SEASONS.” Wasn’t it weird that this video happened before 9/11? (Not that it could have possibly happened after). I loved its moodiness, the way they created this huge barren space on such a tiny set with matte paintings and green screens, the abstractness, the symbolism of the drawings going from black & white, to color, to reality, and then drawings of the past coming up at the end. Honestly this video did NOT have to go so hard but it did!
  • 4. “Real me.” GREAT futuristic visuals (again, LOVE the Y2K-ness, haha!), love the holographic cloak thing, love the dance routine, love the not-so-subtle nod to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In fact I used this video in a film class once and made that comparison, haha. (I got a very high A despite my presentation being too long. lol)
  • 5. “ourselves.” Legitimately creepy, great environments and framing, very good editing. The video makes for such a good combination with the lyrics, too, illustrating the full picture of Ayu trying to separate the person from the product. (More fun facts! My sister makes videos and this one is her favorite Ayu video. She used it as inspiration for “No Strings Attached,” the music video she directed & edited for indie rapper Alyssa Marie.)
  • 6. “STEP you.” I’m really into this muted-color art direction, aren’t I? Mostly here it’s the characters showing Ayu’s different sides. I love how well designed they are and how well Ayu acts out their personality. And then they all come together to create one complete Ayu, and I love that more and more every year, as society pressures us to create brands and only show pieces of ourselves to the world.
  • alterna7. “alterna.” Such an EXCELLENT examination of what the pop music industry does to people, and I don’t think its message was fully appreciated, but the execution of the message was top-notch and fans certainly enjoyed that! It’s horrifying visually (the creepy bunny in the puppet show frame, the House of a Thousand Corpses clown styling, the way Machine Ayu is styled and dismembered). The way it’s edited contributes to the terror too; the extended pause as the video prepares to show you Ayu’s fate midway through? MASTERFUL execution of that. Seeing what happened really punches you in the gut. Reminds me of the original version of The Stepford Wives thematically.
  • 8. “Don’t look back.” How many times has Ayu said a video had a twist that wasn’t really much of a twist? But THIS. THIS one was good, and so extremely well done! The editing, the use of the A BEST 2 photo, the metaphor of the rotting fruit, only showing one side of Ayu’s face for ages… honestly every choice was perfect.
  • 9. “Last minute.” The red/black art direction of her dresses, the lamp swinging, the Ayu characters alternating point of view, and Ayu’s frantic emotional thrashing and raw facial expressions make this just a REALLY emotionally effective video. When it came out it had been some time since an Ayu video hit me that hard, and I remember being so blown away by it. I still am.
  • 10. “FLOWER.” Some of my favorite Ayu video things came out here, didn’t they? First of all, single-shot. Something I love in general, honestly, but this is my favorite single-shot Ayu video. Then we get my muted, moody color palette, Ayu emotionally thrashing, and the cutting-hair-because-FEELINGS thing. God, I love this video.

OH MY GOSH I forgot “Ladies’ Night.” I don’t feel like renumbering the list but it’s in there too, lol. Oddly enough, this time I like the creepiness mixed with the sickeningly bright color palette. It works really well for contrast, and I mean that outfit is truly iconic. Look how many cosplays it got! (Although to this day I still wish I could buy a life-size “fascist dictator Ayu” tapestry.)

I really felt like her last album rollout and the anticipation for Remember you was close to the same excitement in the fan community as older albums used to have. Did you feel the same way?

Oh my goodness YES. The fandom excitement reeled me back in SO easily! It felt like a big group party again, for the first time in YEARS. I honestly don’t feel like I’ve been this hyped for an Ayu album before its release since… Love songs, maybe? It’s been wonderful to see how much everyone is enjoying this era of Ayu’s music. (Although all of us do seem to wish we were getting an old-school promotional push, but we’re suffering through that misery together, and that’s what matters! XD)

Some things I really miss from the early days of Internet fandom are the self-made fan sites, forums, and informational web sites, which have since migrated to social media sites like tumblr and Twitter. Is there anything you miss from the early days of Ayu fandom? Do you feel the new tools have made the fandom community stronger, weaker, or notice no real change?

I really miss fan sites in general. I miss when enthusiasts were some of the best sources of information on a topic, and I miss when you could Google a topic and find enthusiasts rather than ads and spam sites that just search-engine-optimized their way to page one. [Editor’s Note: Yes, yes, and YES!]

Ayumi Hamasaki performing in 2000What has been your favorite thing about being an Ayu fan?

My favorite artist has enough material and variety to keep me occupied for the rest of my life, and everyone else’s favorite artist doesn’t! *Nyah nyah nyah*. XD

Aside from that, honestly, the friends I’ve been able to make and keep because of Ayu and J-pop in general (which wouldn’t be anywhere near as big a part of my life without Ayu) have been really important to me. I’m not very good at keeping in contact with people as an adult (it was so easy when I was a teenager with more time and energy!), but I’m trying to get better about it now because my Ayu fan friends are absolute treasures.

What do you think Ayumi, and being an Ayu fan, has contributed to your life, if at all, over the years? What impact as she had?

I’m a creative person (both by profession and in my spare time), and Ayu has been a muse for almost every one of my creative pursuits. I used to design wallpapers and fan sites back in the day and now I’m a UX Designer. I really liked writing and translating, and now I have a linguistics degree. Even now I use Ayu for inspiration for SO many things, from what I do in creative video games like ACNH and House Flipper, to fan fiction I’ve written for a different fandom. I’ve gotten more interested in media preservation too, from art restoration to digital archiving, in part because of my desire to keep artifacts from Ayu’s career alive. And keeping my merch collection clean and in order is one of the reasons I clean my house at all! LOL

What do you hope for Ayu moving forward, either personally, professionally, or musically, in the years to come?

I hope she stays true to her expectation that she’ll never fully quit or retire music, but I also hope she keeps working at whatever pace feels right for her at any stage of her life. And I hope she takes better care of her health going forward. She has an example to set for two little boys now, after all. I hope they learn it’s okay to set boundaries and take care of oneself first, and I hope they learn that because Ayu is doing those things for herself. And I hope those boys give her the unconditional love she always thought she didn’t deserve. And I definitely hope we get a lot of songs about it. 🙂

Ayu’s history and career can be overwhelming for those just starting out and discovering her. What advice or guidance would you offer to those just getting into Ayu’s music and the fandom?

Send me a twitter DM with artists you like and why, I’ll make you a playlist and we’ll go from there. XD It sounds like a joke but honestly, Ayu’s discography covers so many sounds and genres and vocal styles, I feel like the right entry point for Person A won’t be the same as the one for Person B! She has something for everyone.

What other fandom communities are you a part of today, and where can people find you?

I don’t really have anywhere else I can be found consistently just yet, however! I’m mostly active @deliriumzer0 on Twitter (for however long that lasts) and in the AHS discord server. Like I mentioned earlier though, I AM working on finally getting a proper complete Ayu website put together so people will be able to find me and my work there. You’ll be able to get to it from deliriumzer0.com, but no word on the actual final URL yet.

I mostly watch fandom from afar these days rather than truly participating, but I am definitely aware of the goings-on in a couple of major fandoms that I won’t disclose here because yes, I have some degree of shame. XD

I do play World of Warcraft again, I stopped around Ayu’s Secret era but I started up again during Colours lol. If anyone else is out there, I play on Uldum-NA, my toon’s name is Papino. I created her when Pino was still alive, and Papiko & Pino were a set with that name. I name all my WoW characters after Ayu’s dogs, when possible. On my original account I had multiple characters named Marron. 😀

25 years is a long time, and I’m sure that I missed some important things! Is there anything essential that I didn’t cover or anything you wanted to add?

One thing that comes to mind is how in the early days, the English-speaking fandom relied a LOT on the Chinese-speaking fandom. A lot of people in places like Hong Kong and Singapore were bilingual, so we got English translations of articles based on their Chinese language versions. Sites based in places like Hong Kong gave us a lot of otherwise rare and valuable photos and leaked MP3s. There were also a lot more bootlegs from Southeast Asia that made their way into anime shops in the USA, both online and offline. There were also a lot more pirated goods like wall scrolls and laminated posters thanks to those industries where copyright was less tightly enforced. The Ayunite forum was a huge source of info. Ayuchina gave us a ton of scans. Queen’s site (Who Ayu, ayu_everfree, whatever you want to call it) was a HUGE source of new photos during Ayu’s peak.

It’s funny that that’s shifted SO much over the years, as China holds more control over the Chinese-speaking world than it ever has, so laws are getting tighter, and trade with China, HK, and TW has definitely had some… shall we say, political issues. All the while, it’s only getting easier to shop from Japanese sites thanks to more and better middleman services. And VPNs and auto-translations directly in your browser are making it easier than ever to use Japanese sites, and TeamAyu allows foreign membership now. We used to rely so much on Chinese-language resources, but that’s really shifted a lot and we’re getting more info and merchandise directly from the source now. I remember when immel bought all that ARENA TOUR 2006 merch it was this big huge deal because no one else had really been able to get that much of a haul directly from the tour itself, but now a lot of us get batches of our favorite tour merch as soon as it goes live. A lot of scans I did for ayu-mi-x were of Taiwan or Hong Kong releases of Ayu’s CDs because that was what was affordable from YesAsia, and now I have PILES of original Japanese pressings because buying them used via Tenso & Buyee got so easy to do.

Very crazy how that’s changed so drastically. The distance between the English-speaking world and Japan is definitely closing, and watching that shift happen in real time over the last couple decades has really been something. [Editor’s Note: This is such an excellent and important point. I still own several “overseas” copies of Ayu’s CDs but only out of nostalgia, as I have been able to quickly and very cheaply replace them with original pressings over the years. This also has a lot to do with the decline of the prestige a CD used to hold in general, as CDs as a format have gone out of fashion. But the huge, and swift, changes in technology and communication that has made buying and getting goods and information directly from across the world is just amazing to consider).]

I just want to personally thank you for your work providing so many resources and points of knowledge for both myself and other fans in the Ayu fandom over the years. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer all of these questions and spend time reminiscing over Ayu’s incredible 25-year career in music. It’s always a special treat to talk about Ayumi with fans, enthusiasts, and experts like you!

The people-pleaser in me wants to apologize for not being more consistent about my contributions over the years, so this genuinely means so much to me! I never really set out to be a major figure in the Ayu fandom (and I’d argue it shows, lol), so when people compliment me or tell me something I wrote about Ayu affected them or even when they just yell “OMG DELI IS HERE” when I appear on the discord once a year, honestly it makes me feel… like I’ve found my ibasho, really. I neglected it for awhile, but I think I’m properly back now.

Thank you, Anna, and thank you to everyone in the Ayu fandom who’s made me feel welcome, whether 23 years ago or today. I will love this fandom until the day I die, I’m sure of it. ❤

Ayumi Hamasaki in 1998/1999

[ Image sources are from personal scans, Discogs, Jame-World, PNGItem, @chiiwayu, AramaJapan, @ayuarchive (twice), @2030_TeamAyu, ayu-vogue, jpopcdcovers, HABR Fanblog, TeamAyu, CDJapan (twice), mu-mo, Random J Pop, and ZyreX. There are also some images used that I had saved on an old hard drive for so long time that I no longer remember where they came from. If you see any scans that belong to you, please let me know and I will credit you!   ]


An appears 2022 tumblr year-end round-up

In case any of you don’t follow the appears tumblr, I continue to sporadically post longer written pieces that feel a bit too informal to post here, especially anniversary celebrations. Here is a summary of the ones that I posted throughout 2022, including the full week of birthday celebrations for Ayumi Hamasaki, in chronological order:

Shoujo Kakumei Utena OST, Zettai Shinka Kakumei Zenya: 25th anniversary
Ayumi Hamasaki birthday week: GREEN/Days
Ayumi Hamasaki birthday week: NEXT LEVEL
Ayumi Hamasaki birthday week: Moments
Ayumi Hamasaki birthday week: AUDIENCE
Ayumi Hamasaki birthday week: WHATEVER
Ayumi Hamasaki birthday week: L
Ayumi Hamasaki birthday week: M(A)DE IN JAPAN
J-pop history lesson: globe extreme and X Japan’s Trance X: 20th anniversary
move’s super tune ~BEST SELECTIONS~: 20th anniversary
capsule’s FLASH BACK: 15th anniversary
MEG’s BEAM: 15th anniversary

Bold & ambitious: Innovation in Ayumi Hamasaki’s (miss)understood

On January 1, Ayumi Hamasaki marked the 15th anniversary of her seventh studio album (miss)understood, which seems as good a time as any to celebrate one of her last truly great, ground-breaking, and all-around amazing albums.

It’s amazing how observing wild animals in their natural habitat can help lend clarity to human behavior. In his New York Times-Notable Book of the Year, Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace, Carl Safina observes sperm whales, scarlet macaws, and chimpanzees, drawing fascinating parallels between their world and that of humans. Here’s one line of thought that I kept circling back to in the course of reading: is it inevitable that cultural innovators will become conformists over the course of time? It started with Safina’s rumination on “culture”:

One definition of culture that is pretty good is: “the way we do things.” Behavior is what we do; how we do it–is culture. […] But one big thing is missing from that definition: to have culture, someone must do something that is NOT the way we do things. We live in an automobile culture, but only because an innovator invented an automobile. We listen to rock music, but one person electrified the age-old guitar. Ironically, culture–a process of learning and conformity–depends on individuals who don’t entirely conform to the way we do things. Culture depends both on doing what you’ve seen done–AND on someone, at some point, doing what no one has ever seen done.” (47)

Not only in terms of sheer numbers, but in reach and depth, it is inarguable that Ayumi Hamasaki was one of the great innovators of J-pop culture in the early 00s, and I would argue that (miss)understood was one of the last times she released an album unlike anything else in the genre, and unlike anything she herself had ever done. It was one of the last times her music, and not just her fashion or personal life, made an impact on the industry, changing the way record labels approached the creation and packaging of solo artist/performers, due to both circumstance (the resurgence of idols and idol groups like AKB48, who were just about to release their debut single “Sakura no Hanabiratachi,” and decline of female solo artist/performers as we knew it, notably marked by Hikaru Utada’s hiatus two years later) and the beginning of her focus on other aspects of her career at the expense of the music, which she no longer had a hand in composing by her sixth album MY STORY (though she continued to write lyrics). (miss)understood, was, in many ways, the last time Ayumi Hamasaki seems to have effectively (hang on, Colours-fans) created an album with a risky, over tried-and-true, approach, taking a chance on a style she had till then never explored. It is an album that demonstrates exactly how Ayumi was the massive star she was, and why she deserved the recognition and status as a massive force and principal creator — that fabled “innovator” Safina is referring to — in Japanese pop culture for nearly a decade.

This is not to say that Ayumi stopped releasing great albums or songs, but rather that she found a musical space within which comfortable and safe slowly started to take precedent over experimentation. The difference between all four of her first albums, from A Song for XX to I am…, all sound vastly different from the one next to it, while the sound and production of Secret and GUILTY sound very similar, as does nearly everything from Love songs to M(A)DE IN JAPAN. A couple of albums (and singles) stick out in terms of quality, with a few going the extra mile in terms of concept, like NEXT LEVEL or Party Queen, but nearly all carry the distinctive hallmarks springing from the foundation she laid down in the early 00s. In 2002, everyone wanted to be and sound like Ayumi, but by 2012, the musical and cultural landscape had changed so wholly, from Yasutaka Nakata and the emergence of electronic music, to the influence of K-pop, that Ayumi was now a stark alternative rather than a driver of any one of these trends. To her admirable credit, with only a few exceptions, she rarely jumped onto any bandwagon, choosing instead to forge her own path, for better or worse; as she famously quipped in response to a press inquiry about K-pop: “I don’t really care if it’s trendy or not. I (stick) to my own style.”

While I never stopped being a fan, (miss)understood did mark a line for me, one from where I could never cross back. The moment “Startin’” and its music video were released, was one in which the rose-colored glasses of naive, uncompromising fandom could never overshadow the critical antennae necessary for deep analysis. It would take a few years before I learned that a critical eye doesn’t spell doom for our most treasured past times and pop stars, that instead, it does the important work of allowing one to question and examine closely with intelligence and detail, and that it can deepen empathy and a better understanding of people, and celebrities in particular, in all of their flawed and very real humanity. It is, in fact, programmed to reveal complexity and heighten appreciation. But in between that time, both history and I had changed.

Which is all to say: it wasn’t really Ayumi’s fault. Any analysis of album sales and popularity will show a natural decline in sales and quality across almost all recording artists. Human beings are designed to seek out novelty and many a star’s continued success has depended on trust and loyalty, two hard-won virtues that can only be gained by a sincere devotion to craft, a strong work ethic, and frequent, heartfelt gratitude to the fans who continue to make their object of devotion relevant. Ayumi Hamasaki is 3/3. So while I spent 2006 and 2007 going through major changes in the way I approached listening to and writing about music, it was inevitable that the simple and natural act of growing up would be doing most of the subconscious work for me, silently hacking away at the kind of unquestionable idol worship every kid is free to indulge in before they reach adulthood and come face to face with the stuff beyond the theater of life’s surface.

This is a birthday, not a funeral

With the release of the 20th anniversary edition of her sophomore album, LOVEppears, in 2019, Ayumi Hamasaki has firmly settled into legacy mode. While this status update might have once elicited a gasp of horror, it brings a kind of relief now. As I’m sure many artists who have found themselves in this privileged sphere have come to realize, it’s like falling into the perfect bathwater at the end of a really long, really hard day, one that offers time to reflect on amazing accomplishments while resting weary old joints. So let’s reflect and pour some love all over it: (miss)understood, one of the best albums Ayumi Hamasaki ever released, one that distinguished her as what Safina would label an “original innovator.”

The singles

There were four major singles released in the run-up to the album’s release: STEP YOU/is this LOVE?, fairyland, HEAVEN, and Bold & Delicious/Pride. At this point, Ayumi was well past her remix-phase, having stopped the practice of album-length maxi-singles in 2002 with Daybreak. What followed was a series of conservative or triple A-sides, with the gradual integration of a standard A-side/B-side duo beginning with INSPIRE.

Physically, STEP you/is this LOVE? is notable for being the last single to feature the same cover art on both its CD and CD+DVD versions (actually, this happened only twice, with this one and 2004’s CAROLS — why offer one or the other when you can sell both?). Musically, it’s a doozy – the A-side features one of the most propulsive pop songs in Ayumi’s catalogue, while the B-side boasts one of her finest hard rock tracks. This tight duo is a nearly perfect combination of a sound that was unlike almost anything else in J-pop at the time. The music video for “is this LOVE?” utilizes some of the coolest effects she would ever feature in a PV, because let’s face it, slow motion makes everything cooler, especially when it’s exploding. The DVD also features the music video for “my name’s WOMEN,” a track off of her previous album, MY STORY. It’s one of the few music videos Ayumi has ever shot to feature a back story before the music kicks in. It’s not my favorite track or song, and the delivery of its message is a little confused, but it’s fun and gives her the obligatory showgirl moment that every diva is obligated to have at some point in their career.

fairyland, released four months later, is one of many summer-themed singles, notable for its music video, which was the most expensive at the time. Shot on location in Hawaii, it features gorgeous panoramic shots of the islands’ colorful flora and fauna, as well as an entire building that catches fire and burns to the ground (also in slo-mo, naturally). Its B-side was the wholly A-side deserving track “alterna,” one of many songs Ayumi used to portray her career-long struggle with fame and celebrity. It draws from her ongoing inspiration, Madonna, and contains one of her most literal experiences of the entertainment industry, with plastic Ayu-dolls being assembled in a factory, the suits and media portrayed as clowns, who raise her up only to throw her in the garbage dump later, and the whole thing wrapped up in surreal, storybook portrait frames. It’s Ayumi as Aesop, a moral she had to learn the hard way. (One of my favorite shots is the newspaper headline that reads “Almost Human!!,” a succinct phrase to describe the way women have been treated in the media, especially in the mid-00s). It’s basically brilliant and I still marvel at how she managed to get away with it; nobody was this candid about the industry in Japan without some fallout, yet it only boosted respect for her willingness to be forthright and transparent.

HEAVEN” was the last really great winter-ballad we got until 2009’s You were…/BALLAD combo. The quiet, gently-paced intro makes way for a breathtaking deluge of instrumentals and breathy vocals, sweeping the listener up in the expansive space created by longtime collaborator Kazuhito Kikuchi. One thing worth highlighting is her vocal performance: in 2005, whether it showed all the time or not, it was obvious Ayumi wasn’t settling for good enough, and still doing the regular work involved in being both a good singer and a good vocalist. Whoever coached this vocal performance out of her, in particular, did an incredible job of toning down some of the harsher aspects of her delivery that came out occasionally and is now done with frequency. The B-side, “Will,” was a very new kind of ballad for her, proving just how experimental she was still willing, and could afford, to be.

It also shows a confidence and trust in her audience, one manifested in somewhat riskier moves, like the 360° of the final single “Bold & Delicious,” which utilizes a full choir for the backdrop to it funk-based rhythm. We’ll get to Sweetbox, the composer of this track, later on, but what’s notable here is the production Ayumi and her team brought to the song, which far exceeds the original (later released on Sweetbox’s album Addicted, which also featured the original versions of B-side “Pride” and album track “Ladies Night“). The videos for this single were shot in New York City, a sort of homecoming for Ayumi, who first featured the city’s iconic skyline as a prominent character in the video for “appears” (Note: Behind-the-scenes photos for a feature in Ayumi’s exclusive Deji Deji Diary series for ViVi has photos of more sight-seeing that never made it to the video, particularly the iconic locales of several scenes from Sex and the City, which was still hugely popular in Japan at the time, including the Magnolia Bakery, and home of Carrie Bradshaw, a brownstone located between Park and Madison. It’s a very, very of-its-time, photograhic capsule of the period). The kind of risk-taking we hear on “Bold & Delicious” is euphoric, and needless to say, we never got another out-of-left-field song as wild ever again.

The album

One of the most interesting and frustrating things about Ayumi’s albums at this time for those who prefer a cohesive, consistent sound, was the sheer variety of musical styles that it offered. This workedboth  for and against the album: on one hand, it offered a something-for-everyone approach, reflecting both Ayumi’s diverse personality and maximalist approach to style, and causing a sort of disjointed listening experience, one that started with one of the most joyous songs she has ever done, “Bold & Delicious,” to hard rock, to gothic balladry (“Pride”), all the way to eager, sunshine-filled larks (“Beautiful Day”), followed by gloomy poems (“rainy day“). This style of sequencing began back on I am… (when a traditional rock song like “I am…” was followed by an upbeat interlude, which was followed by a straight-up trance song, which was followed by more rock), but is also something of a given, as singles in Japan are often composed and released independently over the course of a year until the rest of the album tracks are arranged, seemingly in a final, tight series of recording sessions. This means that many of the singles can seem to stick out among tracks that have a bit more of a cohesive feel to them.

Of course, the other particular reason for this new sound was Ayumi’s decision to work with Geo of Sweetbox for the album’s non-single tracks. Sweetbox were a fledgling German pop group/project formed in the 90s, who composed the tracks “Bold & Delicious,” “Ladies Night,” “In The Corner,” “Pride,” “Beautiful Day,” and “rainy day.” In fact, the only non-singles composed by someone other than Sweetbox were the title track (a rock song penned by Tetsuya Yukumi, a longtime collaborator who worked on six tracks for MY STORY), and “criminal,” by Kazuhiro Hara (who seemed to have been inspired by the big sound of “Bold & Delicious” and whom we’d see more of the following year on “Startin'” and “Born to Be…“), and the interludes.

The interludes on (miss)understood are another puzzle, one belonging to a whole other discussion: do interludes belong on pop albums? What role do interludes play on an album that feels wholly disassociated with them, as many do here? While the interludes on many of Ayumi’s albums began to feel pro forma by this point — a nod to the CD as a medium, and the freebies-feel of filling out the extra space of an 80-minute run time just because you could — it’s luck that many of the interludes on (miss)understood are…fine. Many funtion as mood-breaks, like short, moving sidewalks that carry and deposit the listener to the next section of the album, from part one’s mammoth hits, to the weightier second part mostly filled with ballads and heavier cerebral pieces, to the somewhat indecisive, mixed-bag that makes up the final trio. For Ayumi, that makes a conservative two, none of which are bad at all, but also none so great that they would invite extended mixes like “opening Run” (“JK’s extended mix” on the Daybreak single), or “Mirror” on GUILTY (which became the single “Mirrorcle world“).

Despite the wide array of musical styles, it is the lyrics that bring it all together. Though Ayumi mostly stopped composing her own music after RAINBOW, she never stopped writing her own lyrics. Her earlier work focused inwardly, using her own personal experiences and perspective as a sort of filter through which stories of pain and catharsis emerged, but her later work began taking on the more difficult task of turning outward. Despite the change, they have always remained true to her unique world view, the thread and stamp connecting and identifying any seemingly random music choice. As she said in an interview in the January 2006 issue of CD Data,

“I had a hard time trying to decide the sequence of the songs. (laugh) But, if I looked at the lyrics booklet while listening to the songs, I could hear them being sung by a cute girl, a girl who is worrying over love. Thus I was able to listen to them with a lighter heart, sort of like listening to background music flowing softly out of a room. Whenever I am thinking of many different things, or when I am looking to find myself, just looking at my lyrics booklet while listening to the songs really helps me to see the other side of things.”

The themes are consistent, with some of Ayumi’s favorites cropping up like perennials, among them the sublime awe and horror of mega-celebrity and the possessive, all-consuming, but also fickle, allure of fame, which she’s grappled with since A Song for XX through to promo campaigns for A BEST, and songs and videos like “ourselves,” “Because of You,” and “Don’t look back,” to the present. On (miss)understood, the title track and the video for “alterna” perform the heavy lifting, as does the title and overall concept of the album itself, as represented by the stiff, disingenous grin on the CD-version jacket, and the deliberately covered one on the CD+DVD version. Again, from CD Data, is Ayumi talking about the ephemeral quality of fads re: a popular television commercial, and a not-so-subtle dig at the industry and those quick to abandon when the next best thing comes along:

“But it’ll probably be forgotten soon with amazing speed, like all things. Just as if nothing had happened, and everything will settle down quietly again. Everything’s like this nowadays. When you fall in love with something, from the time you start liking it, you’ll spend all your time and energy pursuing it with all your spirit, concentrating on it totally. And when its time is over, you’ll withdraw from it, or discard it completely. That’s actually very scary when you think about it.”

That terror manifests through the loss, anger, confusion, and uncertain future present on the album. Even the moments of joy stem from fear, as in “Ladies Night,” when Ayumi takes a friend out to distract her from boyfriend troubles after the friend calls her up in tears. She ultimately pins the blame on her friend who refuses to see reality and have the strength to walk away from a bad relationship: “This so-called fight with your boyfriend / Is truly a fight with your inner self.” A night out with the girls ends in “laughing like we’re crying” and “singing like we’re screaming.” In “is this LOVE?” she berates herself for a love that doesn’t work out, “Why isn’t it me? I won’t ask / Such a ridiculous and trivial question.”

The looming threat of emptiness also pervades the album, as on “Pride,” where she recognizes the futility and somewhat pathetic effort of moving forward when others would have given up long ago. “Even if others laugh and call it pointless / Let’s go together, because there is / Nothing more frightening than giving up.” Sure, there’s bravery in moving forward into the unknown, but it offers no guarantee, something others might see as naive or even perhaps a bit stupid. It’s an admirable tenacity that speaks volumes about Ayumi’s determination and relentless perseverance. “You already know / That being beautiful doesn’t mean you will attain beautiful things,” she says in “Beautiful Day.” She doesn’t care: she feels the fear, ignores the doubters, and does it anyway. Beautiful days don’t just happen, she makes them happen.

The photo books

Ayumi’s career has been synonymous with travel since she moved to New York in the late 90s to undergo vocal training before her debut. For the album, she set out to New York again, notably to film the music videos for “Bold & Delicious” and “Pride,” as well as the photo for the jacket cover. However, it is her time in Hawaii, where she shot the video for “fairyland,” that makes up the content of the two special photo books, on my way and off my day, included with first-press editions of the album.

Photo books have cropped up serially throughout Ayumi’s career, from fashion books like A BOOK and uraayu, to the commemorative 15th anniversary book Tell All. We can gain some insight into the purpose of on my way and off my day from Tell All, as the latter was essentially a recreation of the former (of Tell All, said Ayu,”I want to create a booklet like the one we did for (miss)understood“.) Copies of the 70-page on my way were included with the first press editions of the CD+DVD versions, and showed “private,” behind-the-scenes photos. While it’s obvious all of these were purposely staged, they still offer insight into the type of image Ayumi wanted to project, riffing off of some of the popular “Stars! They’re just like us!” pages of tabloid magazines, with trips to the grocery store (in full hair and makeup), seeing the local sights, dinner with friends, and so on. off my day features behind-the-scenes photos of Ayumi working on the album.

Ultimately, there’s nothing as genuine and real here as Ayumi’s lyrics. Seeking to understand anything through what are essentially promotional vacation slides is a fool’s task, a red-herring dropped in Ayumi’s repeated quest to be heard, but also provide the fantasy the public came to expect, cornering her in an unavoidable trap. They’re nice photos, but they are, essentially, the “Hamasaki Ayumi” she referred to, as opposed to “the real ayu” (S Cawaii! April 2012), the “miss” before the “understood” (draw your own conclusions in connection to Tell All, and an album titled (miss)understood by someone who has stated “I’ve never wished for others to understand me. I aim to get through to others, to make them believe in me, but everyone is free to feel whatever they want.”).

The legacy

It’s easy to break down an album into its disparate parts and then reassemble it using hindsight, context, and the cooled-off distance that only time can lend, but harder in the moment, when the promo campaign is intent on exposure by any means possible: numerous magazine features, third-party commercial tie-ins, television appearances, photo shoots, and giant Shibuya billboards, all designed to drum up enough passion, hype, and excitement to get you to buy the album in the first couple weeks of its release for the bragging rights of units moved and numbers charted. It worked, I guess: (miss)understood debuted at #1 on the Oricon chart and stayed in the Top 10 for four weeks, the top 50 for eleven, and ended as the eighth highest-selling album of the year in Japan. Commercially, it was not her most successful album, falling just behind the sales of MY STORY, and the fourth album in a row to sell less than the previous one, a trend that would continue nearly indefinitely to today (in 2015 A ONE sold more albums than the previous year’s Colours). I, too, as a fan, reveled in the excitement and immediately purchased a copy when it was released, proceeding to listen to it not in fits and bursts, but almost non-stop for the first two months that it was out.

Because I was rooted in various fan communities and forums like LiveJournal blogs and the Ayumi Hamasaki Sekai forum, I understood that not all fans enjoyed the entire album from start to finish. This made sense considering the album’s departure from the sound that gained her popularity on LOVEppears and I am… To this day, Ayumi’s music has divided fans, causing not a few rifts and bemused debates on the freedom and duty an artist has to their fans. On the 15th anniversary of her debut in the industry, just seven years removed from (miss)understood, the author of the album’s photo books, Takako Tsuriya, marveled in Tell All at how much Ayumi had changed as a person, artist, and performer.

“It’s been 7 years since then… The [A]yu who spoke in stunted English had now become someone who could converse with the foreign staff in fluent English, without the help of an interpretor, and that was only one of the changes she had undergone. However, as I looked through the 2 previous booklets, the words I had written 7 years ago are still relevant to the person [a]yu is now. In a good way, it shows that her true self had withstood the test of time.”

Another seven years later, and we’re looking at an even bigger growth spurt: in addition to the events that prompted Ayumi to remark that she could never go back to the person she was before (twelve more singles; six more albums; twelve more concert tours; a Vegas marriage; a divorce; presumably friends, fans, and co-workers that came and went), she has released another four albums, embarked on nearly another dozen concert tours, married again, divorced again, had a child and conceived a second child — neither decision for which she felt the need to explain or defend — and saw the literal end of another era, as Heisei made way for Reiwa. At the end of it all, one presumes what she said in Tell All has held fast.

“I don’t need to be perfect, nor to protect myself anymore. I’m really afraid of nothing now. In the past, I created an iron wall with things such as hair and make-up, and felt safe when enclosed inside. Now, whenever I make myself up to be perfect, it just feels different and sort of lonely. Being perfect now feels incomplete.”

To be fair, (miss)understood, is not perfect, though it’s clear that was the ballpark for which Ayumi was aiming. It was astoundingly close. Today, the production still sounds as massive as any major release from one of the world’s biggest pop stars is meant to sound, but more importantly, it still sounds exciting. The songs sound fresh and promising, evoking joy and pathos. Most importantly, it comes from a place of honesty, that wish to communicate on a genuine level that marks all great works of art. At times assertive, vulnerable, insecure, headstrong, smug, self-satisfied, brave, and moved to grief, it highlights the myriad emotions and personalities that made up the woman behind a revolving door of expectations and personae crafted to entertain and satisfy. It would take several more years for Ayumi to stop striving for that perfection, to be comfortable in the mistakes and open wounds she shared with a public not always ready to forgive or treat with empathy, but (miss)understood is the sound of that beginning. The end of Ayu-chan, squeaky with high-pitched, awkward coquetry, to Ayumi Hamasaki, assertive, grown-up and at ease. Chasing after understanding and approval is the fruitless task of the young, something Ayumi has moved far past in life and in her career — it is the self-acceptance she feels closer to obtaining that resonates now.

“Either way, no matter how I am, it’s more important that everyone is enjoying themselves. It doesn’t matter if that means that I’ll be exhausted, and have to travel a long way, because that’s important to me. This thing, which seems so natural, is what I have chosen. When I realized that, I really became fearless.”

That fearlessness seems to have manifested not only in her personal life, but in the approach she takes to the once-crushing sense of obligation to fans and the public, for whom her current music and life choices never seem to be good enough. However, while the open sense of fresh novelty has long since worn off, with albums following this one ranging the gamut from solid, to surprisingly good, to disappointing, none have offered something as innovative, fresh and also successfully executed since (miss)understood. Put it plainly: we never heard from Sweetbox, or a  Sweetbox-equivalent, again.

In many ways, conforming to her own standards is a natural endgame of  anyone around long enough to no longer be chased by the necessity of capturing attention. Conformity, as Carl Safina points out, observing the behavior of chimpanzees within their social groups, provides refuge and safety. He tells the story of a line of wildebeests going to water who follow a straight line, one behind the other, without so much as deviating around a tree. Why? By the animal’s continued existence, that path was proven to be safe for the guy ahead of him. What happens to the free-spirited springbok who decides to take a risky sip in the middle of the night, on his own? He’s spotted by a lion and promptly eaten (257). However these two things have to co-exist.

“CULTURE is mainly about conformity, consistency, and tradition. Fact is: culture requires BOTH innovators, who create some new thing never before learned (and are often ignored and resisted), and adopters, who, by learning, narrow themselves and conform. […] Being conservative is safer than thinking freely. Safer than experimenting and innovating.” (260)

In this case, “safe” meant albums (as great as they were) like GUILTY and Secret. Like LOVE again and M(A)DE IN JAPAN.

I don’t know if conformity or caution is inevitable, a kind of by-product of growing older, the instinct or learned behavior to keep doing what works because it’s proven effective and not gotten you eaten by hungry mountain lions or offended music critics, but I can understand where it comes from. It’s all the more reason to remember and celebrate all those with the courage to take a chance on something fresh and unusual, even when it doesn’t always work or takes a few listens to appreciate (full disclosure: I didn’t like “Bold & Delicious” when I first heard it). After all, if Ayumi is conforming to any sound, it’s her own, one she created and perfected at the peak of her abilities.

Again, “[w]ithout some original innovator […] there is NO knowledge, skill, or tradition that can get shared; there is no culture to copy and conform to. Innovation is to culture what mutation is to genes; it’s the only way to make any progress, the root of all change” (47), so it’s worth underscoring: if anyone was out there setting standards in music and fashion in the early 00s, it was Ayumi Hamasaki. A lack of innovation after (miss)understood simply hit the brakes on the musical evolution, not necessarily quality or consistency. Ten years ago, it was kind of depressing. Today, considering what a gigantic back catalog she’s given us to listen to, and think and write about, and argue over, and love and hate in equal, sometimes maddening, measure, I’ll take a fulfilled, confident, well-adjusted, and happy Ayumi enjoying her well-deserved success, over chasing popularity and culture-resetting pop songs. She gave us LOVEppears, and Duty, and I am…, and Memorial address, and (miss)understood, and that’s not even the half of it. After all of that, and seven years removed from that previous statement where she placed the happiness of others over her own health, I hope she’s found found the confidence to switch the importance of “everyone” enjoying themselves, to Ayumi enjoying herself first. I’d like to think she has.

[ All images original scans by author, except for magazine scans by iloveayu.com and AyuAlanis@NihonWa, which were posted to the AHS Forum a lifetime ago, and this gallery of scans. Special thanks to Misa-chan’s J-pop Blog for all of the amazing translated interviews and lyrics that provided so much insight. I understand that some of my parallels to the animal world stretch the imagination, but all of those far reaches are my own fault (even when I’m reading about the cultural differences between bonobos and chimpanzees, I’m thinking about music, and I think I’ve proven more than once on this blog that I can relate just about anything to Ayumi Hamasaki), not Carl Safina’s, whose book, Becoming Wild, is fascinating. I encourage everyone to read it and think deeply about its content (the section on whales and their songs is particularly good). ]

July 2020: Highlights

I guess this is the accidental no-boys-allowed edition which is a good time to ask where all the great K-pop boy bands went. With any luck, YG’s new group set to debut in August will be neither male equivalent-BLANKPINKs, nor the type of clones who take all their inspiration from BTS like most of the recent crop of boy bands (though with a title like THE FIRST STEP : CHAPTER ONE, it’s not looking good). I have listened to every major boy band release this year, from SF9 to to 1THE9 to AB6IX to ATEEZ and everything in between and can’t help wondering — when is SHINee coming back?

Ayumi Hamasaki: OHIA no Ki // Dreamed a Dream
(2020.07.04) // (2020.07.31)

Despite cancelling her remaining tour dates, Ayumi Hamasaki has been working as always in 2020. In July, the singer released her first two digital singles of the year, the first an ode to her infant son whose existence she revealed in a surprise post on the first day of the New Year (sadly, my response was eerily prescient). “OHIA no Ki” debuted on the finale of the height-of-soap drama based loosely on her early career, Ai Subeki Hito ga Ite, starring Kalen Anzai and Shohei Miura. The song is typical of many Ayu ballads, and should come as no stylistic surprise with long-time producer Kazuhito Kikuchi at the helm. Kikuchi, who worked on past singles like “appears” and “HEAVEN,” hits all of his signature beats: soft pianos and swelling strings playing tag amidst a playground of leisurely vocals and an ascending major key chorus. It’s very pretty, but too similar to previous ballads to be anything more than another extremely competent, but rote, single. Its sweetest spot is the story, Ayu’s lyrics expressing the type of sentiments able to melt the freeze off the iciest cynic, sharing slices of the joy, fear, and relief that mark the firsts every parent experiences with a child. You really have to be a toad not to appreciate its charm, at least a bit. The second single, “Dreamed a Dream,” is the Tetsuya Komuro-penned comeback that fans have been waiting for. Komuro, busy spending the last few years lapping up nostalgia projects and taking liberties with words like “retirement,” took the time to produce this new single, which luckily has more teeth than his first contribution to the 46/48 franchise, a late-stage trf outtake, presumably. This is a very comfortable space for Ayumi, and like “OHIA no Ki,” it doesn’t add anything novel to the canon with its frenzied pace, thin guitar solo, and piano exit, but it’s nice to see jacket art that isn’t B&W or sepia-toned, and this year we really have to take any positives we can get.

Red Velvet-IRENE & SEULGI: Monster

While track records are never 100%, there are some labels you intrinsically expect to deliver great hits. SM Entertainment is up there in the Top 5 (or 3, as it were…): there are few records labels, let alone Korean ones, that have released more enjoyable groups and hit songs than this monolith, and when word started going round about a favorite group’s new sub-unit, I couldn’t help but prepare myself for new favorite songs. But, alas, never 100%. So where does Monster go wrong? This EP feels half-baked, a collection of B-sides and filler album tracks, like Red Velvet’s Velvet side without any of the mystery or understated cool. Its inability to be more like Red Velvet shouldn’t work against it, yet “Jelly,” the EP’s most RV-esque track, is its strongest and least mid-tier. This is the kind of disappointment that hits on two levels – dashed expectations, and abuse of an otherwise high-quality production. The lazy name of this sub-unit should have tipped me off, but old loyalties die hard.

Katy Perry: “Smile”

A new album from Katy Perry was obvious considering how many singles she’s released since Witness. The real kicker here is that “Smile” is 100% okay. The mellow vibes of neither “Harleys in Hawaii” nor “Never Really Over” provided any clues as to where the Katy of Teenager Dream was hanging out these days, but at least they weren’t as insufferable as “Never Worn White,” with its very Beyonce-at-the VMAs reveal (that’s two pop titans taking cues from Queen Bey in the same column!) or as boring as “Daisies.” My expectations for Smile were immediately relegated somewhere to the basement, next to that new Hitomi Arai single, but this lead-single is decent enough to have piqued a very, very mild interest. The album cover had me hoping for a concept a little more along the lines of Chaplin’s “Smile” (I am going to be disappointed if it’s not sampled anywhere on the album) but the performance video is more of an undeveloped alternate-universe Joker, one where Arthur Fleck’s mental health is quite stable, actually, and his passion and talent for bringing laughter and joy to the world was acknowledged and rewarded accordingly, leading to a happy and fulfilling career and personal life. So, very mindful, enlightened, centered, me-time Katy Perry, ca. 2020! I’m not sure the world is ready to receive a record as earnest as this right now, nor does it seem to promise any retribution for the tiresome C-level hits we’ve been getting since, oh, “Wide Awake.” I’m happy for Katy, but I’m not exactly sure this hyper-positive me-time is meeting the moment.

YUKIKA: Soul Yeoja

Consistency is still a problem in K-pop. Look, of course it makes sense, from a money-making standpoint, to put all your resources into creating one hit single and culling the budget for album tracks that often exist for purposes of extra “content” rather than artistic continuity, but it’s harder to reconcile with the genre bait-and-switch that promises listeners something truly innovative, only to be a one-off. As far as I know, one of the few to really commit the whole way though was Wonder Girls. So YUKIKA’s Japanese city-pop angle is a revelation, a chance to truly give the industry something that’s maybe no longer fresh (not after almost a decade of Bandcamp tributes), but certainly different. Too bad it falls just short of committing all the way. Soul Yeoja leads with its jazzy, laid-back singles like “SOUL LADY” and the glimmering “NEON 1989,” the album giving every indication of a proto-Korean Dance for Philosophy before devolving into standard K-pop. Take “Yesterday” or “Day for Love,” which go for the bare minimum in vintage before “pit-a-pet,” an adorable homage to puppy love, boasts all the familiar tropes found on a standard GFRIEND or OH MY GIRL album. The songs themselves deserve little of the blame, for what is proving to be a lack of commitment on the production side. An album like Feel, that takes the less-traveled road of bravely ignoring the pressure to drop a traditional K-pop ballad, deserves every morsel of praise in its critical arsenal, but it’s hard to throw kudos to an album that chooses to play it safe when it’s clearly capable of taking it all the way. I like this album, and certainly appreciate what it’s doing the majority of the time, but I want to love it, and all I can do, now that YUKIKA is a full-length album in, is imagine the potential.

Kylie Minogue: “Say Something”

Anything longer than 24 months is too long without a Kylie Minogue album, especially when that last album was Golden. While it’s nice to see artists try something new, it’s always disappointing when those visions don’t quite work the way they might have been pictured in pre-production. So it was good news when late last year Kylie spoke to The Guardian about working on new music that would get her “back on the dancefloor,” hinting at “grown-up disco,” and dropping the tantalizing adjective “shimmery.” This month, we finally get a taste of what she was talking about when Minogue announced her new album, Spartanely, but hopefully not too tastefully, titled Disco. The album cover is a thousand word, 12-pt font, double-spaced essay to describe that genre’s campiness, but the lead single “Say Something,” is mostly silent on the subject. The short pop song is less Golden Age-Donna Summers and more Sally Shapiro minus inspiration. There’s still plenty of unheard content on the album to look forward to, but if it’s just more of this, it’d do better to drop the “grown-up” tag and commit to youthful hedonism. It’s greedy to expect two world-class revival records in the same year when we already got Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?, especially when no one was expecting Minogue’s so soon, but you can’t dangle an album cover like that with Kylie Minogue’s name on it and not deliver 100% of the fun and cheese it implies.

Taylor Swift: folklore

Who knew that seven years after Queen Bey dropped Beyonce to an unsuspecting nation always hungry for “content,” that surprise album-drops would be one of the defining moves of her legacy? While she may not have been the first to do so, “a release of this nature was unheard of from someone of Beyoncé’s magnitude,” and since then, pop stars from Ayumi Hamasaki to Ariana Grande have labored in secret, only to parachute in from seemingly nowhere with full-length albums. But in fact, at this time last year, when Swift was spending months hyping her newest album Lover, it was still one of the few things she hadn’t done. The element of surprise and capture just doesn’t fit Swift, who’s prone to elaborate teasers, extended to heighten anticipation with her audience. Incorporating hidden images, weaving clues in visuals, and even working seemingly innocent hints into interviews is how she operates. This kind of fan interaction takes lots of time and forethought, none of which were given in Swift’s first official out-of-nowhere album drop folklore, announced less than 24 hours before it hit streaming platforms (and a record sixteen different physical versions). The confirmed album artwork down through the list of producers and co-writers were maximized to prepare listeners for an understated album of slower, more acoustic numbers, an album very different from the niji-iro Lover (though it’s a shame that Swift is making the rookie mistake of equating black & white photography and lowercase lettering with maturity, and sophistication). Slower, more acoustic numbers were never my favorite Swift tracks, so I went in with low expectations and suffered no disappointment. It’s a fairly satisfying album to listen to, and gives fans some primo content to chew, but it’s re-play value is nearly non-existent for me. I’m on the cynical side of the fence here with Andrew Unterbreger, who points out that “[b]y releasing it overnight with what for her is an unprecedentedly minimal amount of build-up, she frees Folklore from all of these questions and expectations [that “would have marked something of a risk if rolled out like one of her previous albums.”] If fans love it and consume it like crazy, then great. If it gets a lukewarm response critically and/or commercially, then she can underplay it as a quarantine-released personal project, not subjected to the same standards as one of her ‘official’ albums — like a mixtape, basically.” Very, very smart move though Swift is still too big to fail completely, and the sound here isn’t radical enough from songs here and there to divide fans as, say, Gaga’s Joanne did. If anything, it’s a return to Swift’s story-telling and songwriting roots with all the maturity and technical experience that she has acquired over years of honing a skill that is as second nature to her as posting cat pictures. Many songs have the usual stylistic notes and flourishes of a Taylor Swift chorus, citing note changes and key shifts present throughout her previous albums that identify her as succinctly as a sticky thumbprint. I’m not completely immune to its rustic-chic charm, but I’m no fan of the National or Bon Iver sound, so my curiosity tapers here. That’s the drawback to surprise-albums: the anticipation is always, if not more than, half the fun, so as quickly as it arrives it can be forgotten, like the last twenty tumblr posts you just scrolled through, and the twenty after that.

Top ten remastered/reissued albums of 2019

Every year, it seems more albums are released and made available for streaming than the previous year. Having so much music at a moment’s notice is thrilling, especially as more and more overseas artists get on board. It is nearly impossible to ignore the lure of shiny new album covers, the promise of a new favorite song, the inane attempt to make a small dent in the pile, and the nagging duty to move the music everyone is talking about to the top of the pile to remain a part of the ongoing, unceasing pop culture narratives that define our lives. This can make re-listening and taking deep dives into albums that actually punch you in the gut seem like a distant dream, a selfish indulgence to be tickled only sparingly as time rushes past.

But every year, a handful of albums get remastered or reissued as if to gently tap you on the shoulder and remind you of albums you’ve loved and lost in the Spotify rabbit-hole, of the gems that lie in the archives waiting to be re-discovered or re-visited, of the fulfilling experience it is to spend quality time with music that was meant to last longer than the one-week release cycle. Here are ten of those, because what’s a better reminder of an artist’s enduring legacy than an album that sounds as good today as it did twenty years ago? From the ubiquitous vinyl reissues being churned out like chocolates in Lucy’s factory, to giant, commemorative anniversary editions, to the reissues that put an exclamation point on an artist’s career, to not one, but two of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time, let’s first take a moment in our celebration of the year in music to step back in time and enjoy some old favorites.

James Horner: The Mask of Zorro [Vinyl] // Florence and the Machine: Lungs (10th Anniversary Box Set)

Ayumi Hamasaki: LOVEppears / appears -20th Anniversary Edition- // Yasunori Mitsuda: Chrono Cross Original Soundtrack Revival Disc

Whitesnake: Slip of the Tongue (30th Anniversary Remaster) // The Beatles: Abbey Road (50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition)

Nobuo Uematsu: Final Fantasy VIII Original Soundtrack Revival Disc // Negicco: Melody Palette [Vinyl]

LUNA SEA: SHINE [Vinyl] // New Kids on the Block: Hangin’ Tough (30th Anniversary Edition)

LOVEppears: A (personal) history

There are many albums I have listened to over the course of my life that have gradually peeled back the layers of my passion for music, revealing, with each successive tier, a broader, wider, and deeper appreciation and curiosity. This happened over the course of so many years, that it’s difficult to pinpoint when any one album spun me off into a whole new direction. These special albums are rare, but I can think of a few of them, the ones that have actually changed my life, stretching all the way back to a vinyl record of ABBA’s Super Trouper, a cassette tape of Natalia Kukulska’s Natalia, and Ace of Base’s The Sign. Certainly the Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon Sailor Stars Best Song Collection CD set me permanently on the road I would travel for the rest of my life. And definitely X Japan’s Silent Jealousy, which I came across in the dusky bowels of a now-deceased (duh) brick-and-mortar music shop (I think it’s used for university housing now). And Ayumi Hamasaki’s LOVEppears. Now that’s special.

I remember surfing the Internet in the early 00s, desperate to find any information I could on Japanese pop music, and to get my ears on any RealAudio snippet I could find before committing to a $35 album from a little shop called YesAsia that I learned about from flipping through Animerica. This was before we all got used to typing credit card numbers into any box that told us to, and any way, there was no way my parents were going to let me use theirs, so after having my interest piqued when coming across numerous pretty single covers and spending an hour waiting for “SURREAL” to finish downloading, I remember painstakingly printing out an order form, filling it out, walking to the bank for a money order, stuffing it all in an envelope, and patiently waiting by the door for the next eight weeks until my big gamble arrived: a copy of a maxi-single called Far away, and a full-length album called LOVEppears, by Ayumi Hamasaki.

By this point, I had already bought the evolution single, my very first Ayu purchase, from the import section of Virgin Records Megastore on Michigan Avenue, but that didn’t alleviate any of the apprehension: “evolution” didn’t sound like any of the other Ayu material I was hearing. But when you’re a pre-teen, you don’t have the intelligence to abstain from pinning all your hopes on something as inconsequential as a compact disc. Till then, I had enjoyed music from T.M.Revolution, and lots of other opening and closing anime themes, plus some visual-kei and J-rock like X Japan and hide. But pure, non-sieyuu J-pop was still uncharted territory. Admittedly, my memory is fuzzy on the timeline, but I know that I was at a turning point where Japanese music was still just an option, rather than the norm. Ayumi Hamasaki helped change all of that, and if it wasn’t already for evolution and a dozen dance remixes, than it was for one of her most beloved studio albums: LOVEppears.

LOVEppears capped off a whirlwind year for Hamasaki, which began back in February 1999, when she released the first single from the album, WHATEVER. While the production of “WHATEVER” is stylistically similar to the songs off of her debut album A Song for XX (many songs from that album were also written by Kazuhito Kikuchi), there was one very big exception: it was her first song to incorporate techno elements. No doubt an extension of her record label, Avex Trax’s, raison d’etre, this signaled a new sound that Hamasaki would explore throughout her career. Of course, Avex Trax had been pumping out dance music since the label’s inception, but this was new territory for an idol initially marketed as a sort of peer to label-mate Ami Suzuki, a sort-of anti-Hikaru Utada, whose background in American R&B and singer-songwriters was changing the mainstream landscape of J-pop. Avex wasn’t entirely convinced, hanging on to its bread-and-butter while letting the Western influences melt down into an artist like Namie Amuro, who was at one of the lowest points of her career. Instead, they began packing all their punches into two of their smartest potentials: Every Little Thing and Ayumi Hamasaki, both of whom received the star-studded Avex treatment replete with the best songwriters and marketing gurus, and an abundance of dance compilations with local and foreign DJs to give them a bit of global exposure. All of this would reveal itself in time, but for now, Hamasaki was at step one: “WHATEVER,” a modest bop promoted with two versions: a standard J-pop number, and the other, the delectably cold electronic version, as if cautiously gauging the audience’s reception. The waters proved warm, and her team got to work.

In the mean time Hamasaki got busy releasing a couple of safe winter ballads. The first was “LOVE~Destiny,” a song in collaboration with mega-producer Tsunku, who was hot off the success of his new girl group Morning Musume. The song’s music video is notable for depicting the first of many times Hamasaki would illustrate the loneliness of celebrity, featuring herself alone in several vast interiors, including a particularly chilly dressing room.

The second was Hamasaki’s last single to be released in the 3″ mini-CD format, “TO BE,” and written by D-A-I, whom Hamasaki would go on to work with for many years until 2002, when his appearances on albums became nearly scarce (as of this writing, the last song he wrote that appeared on an album was “Sweet Scar” on 2013’s Love again). Like all of Hamasaki’s singles, this one is particularly personal, with later speculation nearly confirming that the song was written for her then-producer Max Matsuura with whom she was rumored to have had a nearly life-long love affair (this is neither the space, nor time, to discuss her romantic life, but it also feels dishonest to leave it out completely, when it effects so much of her songwriting, especially in these early years when Matsuura had such a profound influence on her development as an artist. We’ll get back to him later). Musically, both of these ballads were typical of their time, and though I’ve never been a huge fan of “LOVE~Destiny~,” “TO BE” grew on me over the years. It has a quietly stunning production, with a richness to it that subsequent re-recordings have always failed to recapture, since it doesn’t play to Hamasaki’s increasingly strained vocals since it was recorded, particularly in the chorus, which highlights her worst vocal sin of camouflaging high notes outside of her reach in an ascending ladder of  exhaustive nasal gasps. For example, compare the calm and ease of hitting those notes in the original to her 10th anniversary re-recording on the Days/GREEN single, and you get a sense of this strange in-between period of Hamasaki’s vocal performance: still keen on improving with formal lessons, but navigating techniques that would help her stand out a little bit, for better or worse. That unique, and almost defiant, approach made its true mark on her third album Duty (“End of the World,” and “teddy bear” especially), and finally gave free reign on I am… But not yet.

Finally, it was time to roll out the album’s banner singles in the summer, beginning with “Boys & Girls,” Hamasaki’s first album-length maxi-single, and the only one to receive the dubious extinction of being released in an ultra-slim case without an OBI. It not only featured one of the most iconic singles of her career, but eight remixes, including two of her previous ballads. It was here that the blueprint for subsequent maxi-singles was laid, a model that would continue until her last maxi-single, Daybreak, in 2002. While none of the remixes are real standouts on here, except for that by the inimitable HAL, it was a bold move, one that no other mainstream J-pop artist was making. Stylistically, this single connected directly to her following single, A, by the threads that appear on the cover art (and eventually found their way into the booklet of LOVEppears).

A was released less than one month later, and made an even bigger statement as a quadruple-A side, along with remixes. It also used the first of many marketing gimmicks to cash in on and manipulate fan-devotion, by releasing one standard edition, and four limited-edition versions with varying colored discs and OBIs, and track lists. After the single sold 1 million, and then 1.5 million copies, additional gold versions were released in commemoration. Finally, the album featured the first incarnation of Hamasaki’s “A” brand logo, which here looked a little bit like an asymmetrical pi sign. Again, we have an artist still figuring out her place in the pop pantheon, working out an iconic symbol that could both identify and evoke feelings without a single sound or accompanying image. Like the fabled bowl of porridge, this one was either too hot or too cold, but the next one would be just right. More importantly, the songs on this single are more self-assured than ever: there’s “too late,” and “Trauma,” two more iconic singles that ended up becoming concert staples, the slower-paced and underrated “End roll,” and the abrasive “monochrome.”

All of these singles were accompanied by numerous promotional appearances on legendary music shows like Pop Jam,  Music Station, and Hey! Hey! Hey! Music Champ, on magazine covers like CD Data, GIRLPOP and SCawaii!, and a plethora of commercial tie-ins for consumer goods like makeup, scooters, chocolates, and flavored water. It was now becoming impossible to ignore Ayumi Hamasaki which meant only one thing: it was time to put an exclamation point on this era of her career with an album.

Capping off a successful year with an album sounds counter-intuitive to Western audiences, who in a reverse process, use albums to kick off blitzes of subsequent singles, appearances, and tours. But at this point in time, albums in the Japanese market tended to bring eras to a kind of close; aside from concert tours which followed album releases, all major promotions and singles connected with the album were brought to an end. This could sometimes leave albums feeling a bit anticlimactic, as anywhere up to half or more of the album could have already been previewed, leaving a mere handful of new tracks to await. By the time November 10 rolled around, LOVEppears would really only have five new full-length songs (plus a hidden bonus track) and two short interludes. But Avex had one last twist up its sleeve, and that was to turn what could have been an epilogue into an extended prologue.

On the same day that the album LOVEppears was released, Avex released the limited-edition maxi-single appears, another 12-track juggernaut packed with remixes. This was followed by the limited-edition maxi-single kanariya, which capitalized on the album’s hidden track to release yet more remixes, in addition to a vocal track to encourage fan remixes. A final victory lap, just bragging at this point, was the release of the limited-edition maxi-single Fly high in 2000, another album track that was given the promotional video and remix treatment. If any of this just seems like a moment to indulge in a drawn-out Wikipedia-like set of facts, it’s important to remember how unprecedented this was in the history of J-pop: virtually no major artist was releasing singles off of already-released albums. There was simply no point. The most important moment of an album’s release was the first few weeks, when it could make its biggest impact on the Oricon charts. By then, all the hard work and budget releasing and promoting singles had been put in and used up. Using data from the performance of singles and gauging public reaction to appearances was enough to predict an album’s performance.

There are a couple of interconnected conjectures that can be made as to why this strategy was employed, namely, that Avex Trax always did things a little differently. They may be an independent record label, but they are one of the most successful independent record labels of all time, and in many respects, remain “indie” by name only. Avex Trax was established on the bedrock of dance music, and their connection with the dance-music world of producers and DJs not only gave their music a distinctive edge, but influenced major business and creative decisions, including their compilations series like the SUPER EUROBEAT and cyber trance lines, not to mention finding work for many budding producers by commissioning remixes that would appear on various singles. Hamasaki’s singles took this fellowship to its ultimate and most capital conclusion: by using their extended personal network to create what were essentially promotional albums for DJs, but in disguise of one of Japan’s most successful brands. This was mutually beneficial: Hamasaki kept her name at the forefront of a continuous cycle of promotions, essentially selling fans the same product over and over and over again, but tweaked just a bit to give identity to underground artists who were grateful for the opportunity. In fact, only a handful of these artists became mainstream, popular names in their respective fields (namely Ferry Corsten, and later, Above & Beyond and Armin van Buuren). Later maxi-singles improved upon the quality of artists, but very few went on to have long-lasting, lucrative careers. In fact, none of these artists could have benefited monetarily from these maxi-singles, which were album-length and usually 10+ tracks, but still cost the same as any standard single at ¥1,260 (roughly, $10-12 at the time). What an extremely creative and cheap way to scratch multiple backs! Loyalty to your roots, helping your friends, and keeping the artist you’re pinning all your shares on in the local, and potentially, global public eye. Indeed, many of these producers were European and American, who were guaranteed to spin their remixes in their own sets overseas.

All this makes the whole thing seem cynical, and I hesitate to leave it this way. Peeking behind the curtain of the music business is not unlike spending an afternoon flipping through back issues of Billboard: you get up feeling a bit jaded, a bit letdown by the whole pursuit of artistic integrity. But in truth, no thorough assessment of the purpose of these maxi-singles and subsequent remix compilations can erase the fact that they were one of my favorite things about Ayumi’s early career, and without them, it might very well have taken me longer to come around. As I stated previously, evolution was the first Ayu single I ever purchased, followed by Far away, SEASONS, LOVEppears, and then back to the ayu-mi-x II series. I grew up on dance music and part of the appeal was the endless and diverse versions of club tracks to sample, and so importantly, at a price that was far more affordable than a $35 album in namely one unpredictable style that may or may not have ended up being good. My taste in grade school was unsophisticated and still developing, and having a hook to make the introduction was effective. That is to say, the process worked. Actually, the process worked like gangbusters.

By the time the year 2000 rolled around, just two years after her debut, when Hamasaki was preparing for her first major concert tour, she was a star. LOVEppears made that happen. Avex Trax made that happen. But, and this is important, Ayumi Hamasaki also made that happen.

Hamasaki spent months training in New York under the encouragement of her producer Max Matsuura, who pushed her to write her own lyrics, and it was this that endeared fans to her. Unpolished and at times awkward, Hamasaki’s lyrics were personal, and real; they are what today’s brand gurus would call “authentic” and “relatable” “content.” Before social media, they were the best way Hamasaki had to communicate with her audience. And just like her sartorial choices (endearingly cataloged in her 1999 fashion-book A BOOK), vocal style, and stage performances, her lyrics only matured and grew in time. If Hamasaki at all felt boxed in by the business or musical decisions being made around her, she always felt that her lyrics were hers, and she used to them express everything from her joys and victories, to her anxiety and frustrations. LOVEppears is not only the first glimpse we get of Hamasaki’s brush with the darker and lonelier side of fame, but the complex tender and forgiving experience of first love had and lost. Her whole approach to the album was a compelling mix of complete vulnerability and hidden depth: her famous commentary on the title track was that things are never as they seem, and what to outsiders might seem like happy moments, could in reality be painful, or harrowing ordeals. This is as succinct as any observation on fame, relationships, and life I can think of.

By the time the last maxi-single was released, the only true remaining album-only exclusives were the short interludes, the tremendous ballad “Who…”  which Hamasaki would belt out in tears to close out every concert tour, save one, for the next four years, and a curiously harsh sequel to “POWDER SNOW” entitled “P.SII” (not counting the slightly alternate take on “LOVE~Destiny,” titled “LOVE~refrain~,” which is nearly identical) The album also included a second disc, featuring promotional mixes from her first ayu-mi-x album and her upcoming SUPER EUROBEAT remix compilation. And in a very of-its-time move, the disc contained CD-ROM content that included a discography, commercial spots, behind-the-scenes photos, and random sound bites of Hamasaki speaking (you can view all this original content as it appeared at this official 20th anniversary site, minus the constant background hum of the GROOVE THAT SOUL MIX of “Trust”).

When you take into account the singer’s prolific career since this album’s release, it’s astounding to think that a mere fifteen months later Hamasaki was under the very scary, and sincere belief that her career was over. Yet what she has accomplished in the last twenty years is astounding: with her relentless work ethic, commitment to perfection, eye for detail, ear for striking melodies, and increasing control over her image and body of work, Hamasaki has done what few J-pop idols before her could: she became an artist and a legend. LOVEppears may be the most obvious album to commemorate, but it laid the foundation for the rest of her career, marking a beginning, an end, and a turning point, all at the same time. Neither artist nor fan could imagine the journey about to unfold, the musical gifts unleashed in increasing frequency throughout 2000 and beyond, the singular voice growing louder, more confident, and more bold than any surface-level nude album cover could express, and the trail blazed forth for the numerous female artists who followed. And for one kid about to be released into the horrors of junior high, a whole new world of music as exciting, and intriguing, and different, as anything she had experienced up to that point. Happy 20th Anniversary to this astounding, life-changing album, and thank you.

2016 mid-year report


The first half of 2016 hasn’t been anywhere as interesting as 2015’s, but we’ve gotten some great new tracks and albums from producers as varied as Tatsuro Yamashita and Max Martin, as well as some up-and-coming producers from all over the world. I’ve chosen to focus on East Asian pop in this post, and have spent the last couple of weeks frantically catching up on everything I might have overlooked; still, I’m sure I missed a few things that will hopefully make its way to my ears by the end of the year. Until then, I hope you’ll find one or two things you might have missed here as we take the time to reflect on the last six months in music. As always, you can follow the notable releases tag over at the tumblr to keep up in real-time.

K-pop: The Gold, and the Silver


Is there such a thing as a Silver Age? If so, K-pop might be in it. You might be disheartened enough to argue that we’re actually in a Bronze Age but it hasn’t come to that yet; let me make a case.

There have been signs of K-pop’s demise for a couple of years now, signaled by what Jin Min-Ji calls a “generation shift” caused by the expiration of the contracts many idols signed at the era’s beginning. “A multitude [of] second generation members’ contracts, which usually last seven years, have either terminated or are close to termination. An So-hee from Wonder Girls, for example, left the group in 2013 after her contract expired with JYP Entertainment. Other singers that left their groups are Jia from Miss A last month and Sulli from f(x) in August 2015.” In addition, members who have stuck around long enough to find out that the entertainment world isn’t all glitz and glam, are burning out and leaving to find other lucrative work that’s less stressful, demanding, and sometimes, the equivalent of unpaid labor.

Jessica’s departure from SNSD has turned out to be something of a game-changer: since then, we’ve seen Golden Age groups 2NE1, BEAST, and 4minute split, as members have departed on somewhat shaky terms. This leaves room for a new crop of K-pop groups, many which are attempting to imitate the sounds of their forerunners. For example, OH MY GIRL, Lovelyz, and G-Friend, all of which released solid EPs this year, are really just attempting to recreate the magic of the early years of a group like Girls’ Generation, while TWICE is exploring an edgier side in the style of 2NE1. Their efforts are rather admirable, particularly A New Trilogy and Snowflake, but it remains to be seen if a new crop of producers and songwriters will emerge parallel to this “second” generation to carry on the torch of a Teddy Park, E-Tribe, or Shinsadong Tiger; in fact, it seems K-pop is tending to outsource a lot more of its songwriting now, which is not a criticism, but an observation that it might be harder to find writers of hits as prolific as there once were. In addition, now that record companies and agencies finally have some working statistics for modern K-pop, many glitches and experiments can be ironed out, or expanded upon, even pushed to its very limit. This all has the potential to change the look and sound of K-pop as it moves forward.

Because a lot of groups that have managed to stay together are losing popularity, or simply, running out of ideas (BIGBANG comes to mind) there has also been a clear shift this year to giving surviving members solo opportunities. This is notable, since K-pop’s modus operandi is single-sex boy and girl groups, rather than solo artists. This year, we got additional solo work from AMBER (f(x)), Tiffany (SNSD), JONGHYUN (SHINee), Taemin (also SHINee), Luna (f(x)), Jun Hyo Seong (Secret), and an uncomplicated bit of J-pop from former KARA member NICOLE’s Japanese debut album bliss. Tiffany’s and Taemin’s stand out in particular, as SM Entertainment rarely disappoints (SNSD’s Taeyon’s solo effort notwithstanding, aside from last year’s lead single “I” — her next solo effort comes out in a few days as of this writing). “I Just Wanna Dance,” received mild reviews, but I find the song, and its sister follow-up “Heartbreak Hotel,” a slice of ethereal pop. It can easily be too slow for some listeners, and too fast for the others, but its mid-tempo essence is refreshing, and the fact that they held back on letting Tiffany go too crazy with the vocals is a sign of a wise restraint.

Taemin’s “Press Your Number,” on the other hand, channels his group SHINee’s endless, and welcome, repetition of Michael Jackson’s greatest hits. I gushed a bit about the music video earlier, and the dance version of the PV is worth taking a second or third look, just to admire the grace and power Taemin brings to every step of the choreography. The album, too, is full of smooth R&B hooks, and stiller moments, like the lovely little balled “Soldier.” In other words, it’s nice to see that Jo Kwon’s solo album I’m Da One was good for something, even if it was just setting the precedent for seriously fun male solo albums.

Finally, I just really like Luna’s Free Somebody. The title track, which was penned by “The Family,” a songwriting trio from the land of the universe’s reigning country of pop production, and also, surprisingly, JoJo (yes that JoJo) is a tribute to Europe’s easy way of slipping electro-house and nu disco into the mainstream. I could easily see this song fitting onto a Kitsune Maison compilation with no problem, and that fact tickles me.

Even though the continued demise of K-pop’s Golden Age is disappointing, it’s also bringing forth a new crop of groups, mostly-successful solo work, and interesting outside collaborations (it’s less surprising that Skrillex worked with 4minute this year, than that the group is breaking up immediately following it). Hopefully, these new shifts will eventually be brought into the fold, making way for positive developments. It’s jarring not to have a seemingly endless procession of amazing song after incredible rookie group debut after excellent song like we did in 2011 or 2012, but none of this is alarming enough to signal the end. Not yet. In fact, the only true disappointment is that in a year ripe with them, CL has yet to release her promised solo debut.

J-pop (Idols and otherwise)


If you had told me as early as last year that my favorite song of 2016 would probably be by boy-band Arashi, I would have scoffed and continued finding the band as joyless and mediocre as ever. And yet, here we are, halfway through the year, and nothing has come close to “Fukkatsu LOVE” and its B-side “Ai no COLLECTION.” Sure, there have been songs that have been more upbeat, more powerful, and more fun (if you’re short of time, Namie Amuro’s “Mint” covers all of those bases), but none have rivaled “Fukkatsu” for atmosphere and production. The song, which was penned by legendary City Pop producer Tatsuro Yamashita, is similar to the general patterns of any Arashi song, and yet, completely different. For Yamashita, “smooth,” and “cool,” are less adjectives than steadfast principles to his success. The song, with which its throwback sounds to the early 80s could have been something of a risk for a group that has done phenomenal with its Johnny’s formula, adapts to the group’s somewhat elder statesmen status (the group debuted in 1999 — for all you collectors out there, it means their first single was issued on 3″ mini-CD, rather than the standard 5″ maxi). It’s a mature, relaxed look and sound for the group, with its subdued coloring and formal wear. Finally being allowed to act their age (the oldest member is 35) and associate itself closer to SMAP is doing this idol group a service, leaving the more strenuous tasks to juniors like Hey! Say! JUMP and A.B.C.-Z. Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for that Yuma Nakayama follow-up (one year since Tokoton and not a word).

Other male groups that have stood out to me have been Da-iCE, which has been a sort of slow burn. It’s not surprising that some of the most interesting music is coming from the groups that are competing with their Korean peers overseas: there’s big bucks and, seemingly, bigger respect from groups who can bring something other than the standard “idol sound” to the charts. Your preference is a matter of opinion: there’s interesting things on both sides of the divide, and generally, even an EVERY SEASON has its pitfalls (imagine, for a moment, a man like Daichi Miura getting his hands on a song like “Got Your Back” and how much it would have made a good song incredible). As a counterweight, there’s NEWS’ QUARTETTO, which I find a perfect blend of the two.

One of the most interesting developments of the year to watch has been Avex Trax’s entrance into the idol world. Japan’s biggest independent label is on record as one of my favorite labels of all time, if not number one. They’ve made inroads beginning a couple of years back, choosing, wisely to develop and sustain their roster of dance-pop oriented groups like FEMM, Fairies, and FAKY, but groups like X21 have done better than a few of those. Without a signature sound, the only way I can describe it is idol-pop with a sheer of professional polish all over it. Wa-suta’s The World Standard and Cheeky Parade’s second album are the highlights, bringing to the endless churn of singles put out by groups like AKB48 (whose year-defining senbatsu single “Tsubasa wa Iranai” didn’t come close to last year’s “Bokutachi wa Tatakawanai“) a bit more gravitas. The attention to detail is surprising for songs that don’t sound much different than their more experienced contemporaries over at places like King Record. Still, iDOL Street, the name of Avex’s subdivision dedicated to idols, is a growing and interesting venture for them. SUPER☆GiRLS , the first group signed, has been something of a mixed bag, but it’s worth looking out for Wa-suta, and in the coming months, BiSH, who were signed earlier this year.

In addition, Avex has their hands full with dance groups like GEM, whose debut album Girls Entertainment Mixture, following a number of singles since 2013, has been one of my most-played of the year. Even though they’re under the same umbrella as CP and S☆G, they’re still a basic Avex dance-group like Fairies. The biggest criticism at this point is that Avex seems to be scrambling to debut and develop as many groups as possible, in the hopes that one or two will make an impression long enough to stick around. In other words, hopefully FEMM won’t be tossed aside for a group like FAKY, which hasn’t fulfilled any of its promise (perhaps one or two of the members will get solo opportunities? They’re too talented to throw away), and will start work on their follow-up album (as of this writing, a new single has been announced, but not released). You can always tell when a group has made it by the imitators that follow; if they all sound like Faint Star’s “Never Ever,” I won’t complain.

That leaves me wondering where groups like Prizmmy☆, Dorothy Little Happy, X21, or TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE will fit into the coming year. The latter, in particular, is now at something of a deadlock. They were Avex’s first and most successful idol group in a long time, with amazing New Jack Swing albums to back them up, but with the official departure of member Ayano Konishi, they’re unsure which direction to take them now that they’ve declared themselves artists, rather than idols. So far, they’ve been spending most of 2016 performing overseas, pushing a dead album onto the masses. It’s been six months since REFLECTION and there’s been no sign of a new single in the works; the style and tone of it will be telling of the group’s future.

Other groups that have failed to release follow-up albums, have been PASSPO☆, who so impressed me last year, callme, E-girls (just a greatest hits here), and palet, though I’m eagerly looking forward to any upcoming singles or projects that might still make it before the year is up. In the end, it’s been BABYMETAL’s continued success story overseas that has been J-pop’s crowning achievement of 2016 so far; the fact that METAL RESISTANCE is so great only makes it sweeter.

Going Solo

Here were the big solo releases of the year: Namie Amuro’s “Mint,” a grand pop gesture if there ever was one (hopefully, a new album follows her soon-to-be-released summer single), Ayumi Hamasaki’s M(A)DE IN JAPAN, which I’ve already discussed here (worth noting, though, is the constant cropping up of the term “renaissance” to describe this phase of her career, to which: maybe? Things like that usually only become clear after the fact, so I’ll sit tight for now), and the wild card, Mamoru Miyano’s “SHOUT!” He’s no Luna Haruna, but the anime-pop solo work of this voice actor has been a refreshing change from your everyday Nana Mizuki. Someone has to fill in for Yuma Nakayama.

Odds and Ends

One of the biggest stories in J-pop this year was the affair between Gesu no Kiwame Otome.’s Enon Kawatani and Becky, a talento. Unfortunately, the news overshadowed the release of the group’s album, Ryouseibai, a solid bit of J-rock, that runs just a bit too long to be truly outstanding. The J-rock album to beat this year has been uchuu,’s +1, a solid debut full-length from the indie group that graced us with HELLO, HELLO, HELLO, last year. I’ll be keeping my eyes on them.

But what is it good for?


Which leads us to the biggest disappointments of the year. Of note, there have only been two: Perfume’s COSMIC EXPLORER and Negicco’s Tea for Three. Perfume’s is the least surprising, with the quality of Yasutaka’s Nakata’s compositions on a decline for the past few years; still COSMIC EXPLORER, unlike LEVEL3, left so little room for surprises, such as a “PARTY MAKER” or “Clockwork,” that its two interesting songs “Miracle Worker” and “FLASH” pale in comparison. Negicco, who showed such promise after years of toiling in obscure ridicule, set such a high bar with Rice & Snow that Tea for Three is less a disappointment, than a given. It’s an okay album for a group that released okay singles leading up to it, with a few stand-outs, like “Kounan Yoi Uta.” I’ll take it, but I’m not happy about it.


Top ten albums of 2015, #9: Ayumi Hamasaki’s A ONE


Ayumi Hamasaki: A ONE

“I felt the past me was “already gone”, but now I feel ‘She’s still here. For good or bad, I’m still the way I was.’ […] I feel this album taught me that I haven’t changed much since I created A Song for XX. My surroundings may have changed, but there’s still a part deep inside of me that thinks ‘People are born alone and will die alone.’ The people who related to songs like A Song for XX have changed as well over the years, that’s what I thought. But with this album, I feel like we can say ‘In the end, we’re still the same’ to each other.” Ayumi Hamasaki, 109 News

ayuaoneapp2It has been more than ten years since one of Ayumi Hamasaki’s albums has landed in my best of the year list. Despite being one of my favorite recording artists of all time (maybe THE defining influence on my appreciation for Japanese pop music), her albums haven’t resonated with me since, truthfully, (miss)understood. But she’s remained a fascinating figure to watch develop, both personally and musically. Since her skyrocket to celebrity, she’s experimented with a wide palette of genres, even when those explorations haven’t proved successful (NEXT LEVEL, Colours) or noteworthy (Rock n’ Roll Circus, LOVE again). Love songs is the only recent album that sparked a bit of joy into her discography, thanks in large part to Tetsuya Komuro — to see these two perfectionists finally in the studio together is a Holy Grail moment in J-pop — even when her career tanked further during her Vegas-wedding and divorce. That’s when everything burst into flames: the poorly-received, scraped-together confessional, an ill-conceived rebound album (and boyfriend…which…), and the stretch for brand-name producers with capital EDM beats in a bid to remain relevant. Of this time in her life, Hamasaki recalls, “I feel like I was trying to run away from the biggest slipup [sic] in my life. ‘I’ve done something horrible’ — I couldn’t shake that feeling. And when I felt it would continue to shadow me my entire life, I just felt so pathethic [sic]. I felt ‘nothing makes sense no matter what I sing’ when making music.” It all but effectively burned her brand to the ground. Until atonement. Until A ONE.

Let’s assume for a moment that it’s not an L missing from that title, but a T. It’s penance, a musical redemption fit for a queen; royalty kneeling before us with all her weakness and vulnerability. The album’s track listing is stately, the songs almost all expansive ballads or power anthems, songs that fill first rooms, then stadiums, then quiet corners. Komuro and Hamasaki have managed to pull off an unlikely coupling of humility and bravado where once all we had was elaborate window-dressing: the pomp and flash of big hooks and bigger, more universal (read: generic) sentiments. There are still moments of intimate intensity, like fan favorite “The Show Must Go On,” but it’s not attention-seeking; it’s the honest statement of someone’s not always-pleasant reality. It’s the subtle ways we communicate the unspeakable truths of our every day. It’s the occasional detail that relieves us of shame, but with the grace that keeps our dignity intact. It’s the universal created by just the right personal reveals, a return to one’s “true core.” It’s the Ayumi I’ve known and loved, the album I’ve been waiting for over a decade to hear, a road map to the things she’s always been capable of if she could only remember what she’s fought to embrace – that everything she’s done was already enough.

An appears tumblr year-end round-up


Though this, the appears music blog, features all of my long-form writing and reviews, I have written some longer, interesting things over at tumblr, including my most popular post of the year. Please let me know if you’d prefer all the writing to stay over here or if you like having some “exclusive” content in the form of retrospectives and thought-pieces at the tumblr.

Here are some highlights of the year (and don’t forget you can browse the Notable Releases tag for new and upcoming releases):

Arrest of former AKB48 manager reveals illicit footage of members: A take on one of the most messed up stories in J-pop this year.

Ai Otsuka retweeted my review of LOVE TRiCKY!: Still as fabulous as the day it happened.

Dil Dhadakne Do: What looked good and bad about the title song.

It doesn’t belong in a song: Amit Trivedi’s Shaandaar: Amit Trivedi’s first genuine flop as a music composer.

T.M.Revolution’s “HEART OF SWORD ~Yoake Mae~”: A retrospective.

Hikaru Utada’s “Movin’ on without you”: A retrospective.

Ayumi Hamasaki’s “evolution”: A retrospective.

Why the world needs a new “Feel the love” PV


Although Ayumi Hamasaki’s 15th studio album, currently untitled as of this date, won’t be released until July, several previews have already been released, including the digital single “Hello new me,” the dub version of “Terminal” (produced by mega-trance mastermind Armin van Buuren), “Angel,” “What is forever love,” “NOW & 4EVA,” and “Lelio.” Based on the list of producers alone, including RedOne and Fedde Le Grand, the album is touting itself under the massive umbrella term “EDM,” perhaps in a bid to update Hamasaki’s typical sound, and step as far away from her last three albums as possible. This isn’t entirely new musical ground for Hamasaki, at least in terms of original material; remixes aside, 2009’s NEXT LEVEL was heavily influenced by electronic dance music and back in 2002, she collaborated with famed trance producer Ferry Corsten on “connected.”

What remains to be seen is just how much of this album is really a “new me” and how much of it is the same Hamasaki cocktail we’ve come to know and occasionally crave. What you’ve expected for the last ten years: pop/rock songs, heavy on the guitars, poppy ballads, drama, tragedy, grand-scales, heavy-handed declarations, specific references to who-knows-what events, personal revelations — but only behind an I know something you don’t know smile — and a handful of extraordinary risk takers, the few songs penned by new or unknowns that leave us wondering why someone didn’t push Hamasaki further into that vast territory of the au courant. Here are the missing variables: Is Hamasaki sabotaging herself by insisting on more of the same? Has she lost her touch for recognizing moving and exciting material? Is she resting on her “brand”? Does she seriously think “Hello new me” is anything new at all? Are the intriguing songs like “Lelio” just luring us into believing there is something of relevance here, or are they just echoes of a trendy genre, desperate to sit at the cool table? Maybe more than correcting the musical missteps of the recent past, there’s clearly a desire to correct the mistakes of the present.

The music video goes like this: A blonde, overweight girl with big glasses sits in her bedroom, taping a picture of herself onto another picture with a good-looking, fit, muscular man she has a crush on. She leaps up with determination, goes outside, and starts running. This profile shot of the girl running extends almost throughout the rest of the video, interspersed with an animated version of the girl swimming and/or doing anything else they didn’t have the budget to accomplish with live action. The girl stays the same size throughout her many days and nights of running, only stopping towards the end to get a haircut and go shopping for dresses (there is a scene where she dances a little, and another where she’s gnawing a chicken leg while running because overweight people just can’t stop, can they?). She runs into a park and sees the man from the photo, but he ignores her. She trips, and when she gets up, she’s Ayumi Hamasaki wearing a short, revealing pink dress. The guys sees her and immediately takes notice, amazed at her beauty. Ayumi makes girlish hand gestures, touches her face, winks, saunters over, and they walk off into the sunset together happily ever after. This is not irony, or satire. This is the actual music video for “Feel the love,” the Tetsuya Komuro-penned single released late last year.

In short, the video encourages changing the most fundamental things about yourself to be noticed by a man, the idea that a man will only accept you if you are thin and beautiful enough, a preoccupation with unnatural or unrealistic standards of beauty, and the willful acceptance that you are inferior and unworthy as you are.

A few weeks later, the “full version” of this promotional video was released. Hamasaki herself addressed fans’ concerns over the video by tweeting: “Of course I will listen all my loBely’s [sic] opinions anytime. But thing is that you all haven’t seen the real ending yet. Don’t worry ;)”. The “real ending” consisted of a four second epilogue where Hamasaki turns back into the overweight blonde girl mid-hug while the guy looks at her in disbelief, confusion, and possibly horror. Now, this obviously does not change or make any apologies for the rest of the video, including the part where the girl tries to run on a treadmill and falls on her face — presumably, because fat people are just really funny when they try to exercise. Even the most apologetic fans have to see this as mean-spirited, particularly after a video like “how beautiful you are” where people of all races, ages, genders, sizes, and sexual orientations are portrayed positively. Not every pop song or music video has to be a Statement piece, but when you are making one, your statement probably shouldn’t be: lose weight and all your dreams will come true. There is a way to promote health and fitness without using shame, portraying overweight women as caricatures, or using the attention of men as an incentive for weight loss. From Brown University’s Health Education web site:

“Then there’s the issue of romance. Media messages, particularly those from advertising, strongly emphasize the role of appearance in romantic success. “Getting” the guy or the girl is reduced to possessing a stereotypical set of physical attributes, with no appreciation for personality, background, values, or beliefs.”

In The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance is Hurting Women, Men-And Our Economy, Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett emphasize that “[t]he message to women and girls in all media is that their appearance should be, above all, tailored to the “the male gaze.” You exist at all times in a world where men are looking at you, and you must please them” (140).

Needless to say, the promotional video garnered a lot of mixed to negative reactions from fans after its release. Here are some reactions from fans on the Ayumi Hamasaki Sekai forum who weren’t really feeling the love:

“Dont know if it was funny or absolutely cheap and ridiculous” (Mirrocle Monster)

“Am I the only one who didn’t get the ending? When it finally seemed to me the girl accepted her body-shape…? What was that, if you run a lot and cur [sic] your hair you turn Japanese?” (Gustavopc)

“The main message is: Unless you change your body (and maybe your race), you’re a crap and the boy will run away from you” (Elednist)

“In my opinion, encouraging someone to change their appearance for someone they like under the guise of “working hard for something” is unhealthy and wrong.” (Becky)

“I don’t think they wanted the PV to look offensive but it can totally be seen as such.” (Maemi)

These comments were accompanied by several positive responses arguing that the music video is merely an encouragement to stay focused and work hard towards a goal. Working hard at what you want is a good principle to follow, but again, equating weight loss with success at anything other than weight loss, is a dangerous precedent. Reflecting on all her years of trying to lose weight, comedian and activist Margaret Cho remarked, “There were whole years that I missed. Those were the loneliest times of my life when I had the least amount of love. I just thought if I could get to a certain weight, then I could be alive. But that is a counterproductive idea. Like why can’t you just be alive now? … It took almost half my life to get there.”

Perhaps reacting to the negativity around the video, especially from girls who see her as a role model, Hamasaki is creating brand-new music videos for both “Feel the love” and “Merry-go-round” (why both is a bit of a mystery — the latter’s most egregious sin was being boring). Whether or not the damage can be repaired, it’s obvious Hamasaki is gauging feedback and using it to tailor an album that’s more satisfying for both its viewers and listeners, though perhaps at the expense of genuine creativity, change, or even insight.