I have a confession to make: I’m stupid for this lady. I can’t call it an obsession, because truth be told, I don’t know that much about her. I can say that I have a two and a half hour .mp3 of her best hits that I listen to all the way through any time it comes up on the old iPod shuffle. Also, as I type this I’m about to pay $20 shipping to have three 12” singles shipped to me from Japan, so I suppose we can call it a casual dedication.
I’m not sure what it is about her that I like so much. It could be that “Private Surfer” was the first non-anime, Japanese song I became infatuated with in high school (more on that later), but as someone attracted to the unconventional, UA represents an alternative to the ultra-produced, idol pop that Japan does so well. Whereas some Jpop singers get plucked from middle school, thrown into a music biz finishing school, and eventually presented to 13-19 year olds as the HOT NEW THING, UA feels more organic than that. Her albums resonate more than typical pop albums cooked up in a studio by super-producers executing on an idea that was conceived in a record label marketing meeting. Despite her strangeness, she seems more “real” than any of the polished-to-flawlessness singer/model/actress that get radio play year after year.
I mean, if we’re being real, UA doesn’t fit the idol role because she looks kinda funny. Also because she sounds kinda funny, especially in English. Her voice lacks many of the traditional characteristics associated with Jpop; specifically, her wider range and deeper voice. There are times – lots of times – where she sounds like there’s a cotton ball in her mouth that she’s trying to sing over. No matter what way you spin it, her voice is unorthodox. Watch any five of her music videos and you’ll see that her visual aesthetic is also anything but mainstream, however it’s precisely because of all these things she’s not that she’s everything she is [(c) Kanye West]. Each album cover is a celebration of her strangeness , depicting her in a series of bizarre portraits from posing in fur to having a fruit head.
My first contact with UA happened years ago. My new pal Amuro Akatsuka had picked up on my then-obsession (now-tempered curiosity) with Japanese culture and helped me out of a period in my life where Japan = JRPGs, anime bootlegged from Blockbuster/aired on Cartoon Network, and the theme songs of said anime memorized through sheer repetition; a dark time to be sure, dear reader. Amuro could have left me to flounder in this sordid life, but instead he let me borrow some CDs, if only to demonstrate that Japanese music was more than zankoku na tenshi no youni, shounen wo shinwa ni nare. UA’s turbo was one of those CDs, and when I listened to the opening track “Private Surfer” it was clear that I was not only missing out on great Japanese music, but a great singer. It would be years of searching before I rediscovered UA, and when I did it was in the form on her compilation double album Illuminate: The Very Best Songs. (pictured above)
Whenever I end up listening to Illuminate, I’m reminded that EVERY SINGLE SONG IS GOOD, and while picking a favorite is like trying to choose between gold and more gold, one song has always stuck out.
閃光 (“Senkou” which translates as “flash” or “glint”) was released as a single in 2002 and closes the first disc of the Illuminate compilation. This version, which was arranged by Rei Harakami, is an electronica take of a song that was later featured – plus weird jungle rhythms – on 2005’s 泥棒 (Dorobo). Long story short, I really, really, really love this song. From the quiet beginning, through the gradual buildup, into the triumphant climax, and the almost-acapella finale, UA exercises her voice in a way most J-pop singers do not; easily navigating her impressive register from deep breathiness to lilting aria, a talent likely imported from her roots as a jazz singer. By the time we get to the end, UA is belting out the lyrics with an intensity and conviction that sets her apart from her Jpop contemporaries. All this loftiness is, of course, just my opinion; my girlfriend thinks UA sounds like she’s constipated, and I can what she means.
But being as UA was my first step on the path of Japanese music not associated with anime or videogames – a path that eventually led to my current interest in J-music and this blog – I do hold a special (read: biased?) place in my heart for her.
BONUS ROUND: The video for “Senkou” was available in the limited edition of the CD single, and through the magic of Youtube is now available to the UNWASHED MASSES:
I hesitate to call it a good video, though it is strange and intriguing in the same way that UA is strange and intriguing, so I suppose it is consistent with her image; notice how the final shot is reminiscent of the album covers pictured above. I will leave you to decipher what is actually going on with the praying mantis and doll-puppet, and even if you’re not feeling the visuals stick with the song, because dang me to heck if the last 30 seconds of the song don’t get me every time.