Turning (Japanese) Point  


Starting innocently with a piano lullaby, Ayumi Hamasaki’s “evolution”—one of the most deliciously extreme chart-toppers ever, anywhere in the world—soon piles a truckload of insane Metallica-meets-Van Halen guitars atop a live drummer smashing out speedy breakbeats. Singing in Japanese about the pain and happiness of millennial life, Hamasaki spits twisty syllables as if warbling in Hindi. For the chorus, she flips into a double-time assault of verbiage faster than your average hardcore punk anthem, then unleashes the most sublime “whoa-yeah”s since, oh, the Beatles. Guitars drop out, return, drop out, and return to wail feedback as microseconds of silence are cut into the mix, then they scream and wank themselves into a fit. Keys shift upward every few bars during the bridge; a hushed extra measure is thrown in for dramatic effect, and whoosh! goes another key change. Miss Motormouth blasts away one last time until the track sputters to a close, and someone flips its lingering buzz off.

Japan’s bizarrely ubiquitous Hamasaki is radicalizing her nation’s pop. If she had come along 10 years ago, this doe-eyed waif would’ve sung a few factory-crafted easy-listening ballads, appeared on the cover of every teen magazine, and vanished within months. But she hit the charts first in 1998, and she’s still topping them with what is already her 15th album if you include last year’s hits collection and her remix sets. Hamasaki is without question the most remixed human being in history, particularly since her 34 maxi-singles often include nine or 10 mixes, most of which aren’t duplicated on albums. She released two concert DVDs last year, two the year before, and nearly everything she puts out ends up in TV commercials. She’s always written her own lyrics, and since “M,” her final 2000 single, she’s written plenty of her music. Released on New Year’s Day, I am . . . includes her last seven No. 1s, including “A Song Is Born,” the only 9-11-associated tune that doesn’t induce gagging. On the album cover she gazes upward from a desert mountain that suggests Afghanistan, her near-naked torso wrapped in ivy, a white dove on her shoulder. So Hamasaki, or Ayu as her fans know her, is no ordinary J-pop icon; she’s clearly a god.

Although January 1999’s cautious A Song for XX gave no indication of what was to come, ayu-mi-x, which followed two months later, started pulling her unassuming pop-rock into house, trance, reggae, and grand symphonic orchestration. The subsequent singles took her further into clubland, and by the end of that same year, she appeared on the front of her single called “appears,” wearing makeup a few shades darker than Janet Jackson and not much else. On Tokyo billboards last year, her skin had lightened somewhat, but her nails had lengthened into rainbow-hued claws that held mobile phones, cosmetics, iced tea, and other Japanese teen can’t-live-withouts found in every shop window. The Shibuya girls who weren’t looking like psychedelic punk grandmas or goth nurses were dressed in head-to-toe Ayu.

Translations on the Web suggest Hamasaki’s lyrics pack unlikely insights: In “M,” she prays to Mary Magdalene for courage, and concludes that beginnings come at random but endings happen for a reason. This is pretty amazing stuff for someone who represents Japan the way Britney sums up America. But it’s how she compacts metal, trance, punk, prog, disco, opera, singer-songwriter tears, and girl-pop melodrama into a torrent of plastic urgency that utterly flabbergasts me. How can Japan’s most packaged, marketed star since Pikachu supply exactly what all the popular culture I’ve digested over the decades has led me to desire? When Hamasaki conjures her digitized metropolis of crisscrossing stylistic avenues, all of them leading to simple, unmitigated joy, she’s a testimony to why, despite everything, we’re lucky to be alive in the 21st century.

I am . . . is available through

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