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Utada and the Bie Lie of Selling Abroad


So, “Utada” aka Utada Hikaru is about to release her English-language record EXODUS in America, which is obnoxiously being referred to as a “debut album.” The single “Easy Breezy” is definitely the most irritating song I’ve heard in ages, and its main refrain alone — “You’re easy breezy/ and I’m Japaneezy” — has set back Japanese-American relations by twenty to thirty years. (The next single will feature something like a pun on “cool” and “coolie.”) Her makeup in the video is some kind of mock-Asian-American fashion, totally alien to Japan — like an Iranian putting a red dot on her forehead to appeal to the “South Asian” market.

Everyone in Japan is on the edge of their seats: Will she do it? Will she actually become a star in America??!? Can she finally beat Sakamoto Kyu’s record with “Sukiyaki”?

Well, of course not.

Every couple of years, someone like Matsuda Seiko feigns like they are “trying” for stardom in the United States, and the Japanese collectively hold their breath until the lackluster results trickle in.

All of these musicians have one thing in common: They are at the end of their careers in Japan and have nothing better to do than go abroad and pretend to “conquer” the barbarians. They didn’t send Puffy to America in 1997 or 1998 at the height of their popularity: They sent them in 2001, when the dream for Ami and Yumi was already over. Their new single this year barely charted in Japan, and now, they play the highly-glamorous anime convention circuit in the States.

The latest video for the kings of Avex hack-rock do as infinity features their magnificent exploits during a show in New York City. Some nice camera trickery hides the fact basically the entire audience is Japanese.

(The big question mark is, how did a washed-up Pink Lady get a television show in America??? I can’t prove it, but you’d think the Japanese dished out a lot of cash behind closed doors. )

These VIP tours of the US clearly cost more money than they can bring in, but they are not the miscalculated failures that they appear to be. They are best seen as a marketing scam perpetuated on the Japanese public. Sending any band to America or the U.K. takes that band out of its normally socially-understood position (as “washed-up,” for example) and places them in the context of the age old battle between East vs. the West. The consumers then get behind the artist in some kind of hope that finally, Americans will love and recognize the value of J-Pop and Japan. This plays into a domestic media frenzy and a heightened goodwill to these new Japanese ambassadors of culture. Did The Tigers’ visit to the U.K. in the late ’60s sell any records in the West? No. Did it help sell records in Japan? Probably.

Cornelius and Pizzicato Five sold enough records to justify their visits abroad, but only because an American label (Matador) wanted to release them and market them, opposed to a Japanese label forcing their American sister company to perpetuate this weird intercontinental hoax.

So, Utada, good luck with your American debut. That is to say, good luck with your Japanese sales.

September 29, 2004

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