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Japanese pop vocalist, born on October 2, 1978. Ayu, as she's known to her fans, writes all of her own lyrics, and recently has begun to also compose her own music under the name CREA. Her lyrics are very personal and introspective, reflecting the emotions that she was feeling as she wrote them. Quoted from her official website (linked below), she says that "If I write when I'm low, it will be a dark song, but I don't care. I want to be honest with myself at all times." She has a very high-pitched and sometimes nasal voice, but sings strongly and with obvious feeling behind the words.

Under the name of simply Ayumi, she released a single titled "Nothing from Nothing" in 1995, followed by a mini-album of the same name a short while later. However, it was not until April 4, 1998, that she debuted as Ayumi Hamasaki with her single "Poker Face." This was the first release of hers to really make an impact on the musical charts. Ayu's first full album was "A Song for XX," released soon after "Poker Face."

Ayumi is an extremely prolific artist. She releases albums and singles at rates of one per month at times. After her album "LOVEppears" came out in 2000, she released four separate remix albums of tracks from that album. It is not uncommon for her albums to spawn four or five maxi singles, each packed with remixes of the song in question.

Her official website, in English, is located at http://www.avexnet.or.jp/english/ayu/. However, it is useful only for the biographical information it provides, as its latest release section is sorely outdated.

"It is necessary that I am viewed as a product. I am a product."

-- Ayumi Hamasaki, quoted in TIME Asia

Ayumi Hamasaki (浜崎あゆみ) is a Japanese phenomenon.

In the last few years, Hamasaki -- universally known just as Ayu -- has become ubiquitous in Japan as pop star, TV star, advertising model... like most tarento or idoru in Japan, who never limit themselves to one forum. A cute little girl with immensely large eyes and an irritatingly nasal voice, I used to sneer and call her the Britney Spears of Japan, a manufactured entertainment product for the masses.

And I was right -- but with a very unexpected twist. Read the quote above carefully: because the only person who manufactures Ayu is Hamasaki herself. Ayumi Hamasaki is not Britney Spears of Japan; but odds are she is well on her way to becoming its Madonna.

新しく 私らしく
あなたらしく 生まれ変わる

Like new, like me,
Like you, I am reborn

"Far away"

Ayu is, at best, a mediocre singer. Prior to some tentative attempts on her last few albums (under the pseudonym CREA), she did not compose by herself. While certainly attractive, her looks and her diminutive frame alone would not be enough to compete in the Japanese market, already full of überbabes like Hitomi, and while she did model as a teen she was canned by her agency at the ripe old age of 16. In fact, it's a small miracle that she became a star at all; she was spotted at a karaoke bar by Avex talent scout Max Matsuura, who wheedled her for several years and even paid for several months of singing lessons in New York before getting her to sign a record contract.

どこにもない場所で
私は私のままで立ってる

In a place that is nowhere
I am standing on my own

"SURREAL"

Instead, she has blazed her trail primarily through sheer originality. Ayu is extremely particular (and, it must be said, at times extremely odd) about what she wears; her wardrobe ranges from combat fatigues to a kimono over jeans, while accessories range from fox tails clipped to a belt to soda can pull tabs as a necklace -- Björk comes to mind, to make yet another poor parallel to the West, except that everything Ayumi wears becomes the height of fashion overnight. (The mindless devotion of most of her fans is, alas, entirely identical if not worse than the Western sort.)

もう何も怖くなんてない
もう一人ぼっちじゃない

I am no longer afraid of anything
I am no longer alone

"AUDIENCE"

Perhaps more importantly from a musical point of view, Ayu writes all her own lyrics, which are often as quirky as their writer. The themes of love and lack thereof do feature heavily, but you won't find a single "Oops, I Did It Again" or "I Am A Slave 4 U" in her output. A love song? Try "Audience", one of her biggest hits, whose refrain extols skipping along hand in hand -- and tells people to liven up their mundane lives by going ahead and screwing up beautifully. A lack-of-love song? Try the balladlike "Scar", telling about her boyfriend crying as he left her.

While her songs are musically run-of-the-mill J-pop, she has cleverly extended her appeal by becoming, literally, the most remixed artist in the world. All her albums are released in multiple "ayu-mi-x" versions, usually one "Non-Stop Mega Mix" featuring techno/trance remixes, another "Acoustic Orchestra" with classical reworkings of her songs, and more of than not eurobeat and trance versions as well. The list of her remixers is a who's who of the dance scene: Ferry Corsten, Junior Vasquez, System F, The Orb... Unlike most Japanese singles, which are usually 3-inch mini-CDs, Ayu's singles are full-sized CDs containing up to 10(!) remixes of the same track.

To date, Ayu has sold over 30 million records in Japan alone, half of them singles and the other half albums. 12 of her singles and all of her full albums (plus one of the remix albums) have reached #1 on the Japanese charts. These have been flooded out at such a speed that she at one point had four albums in the top 10! Unfortunately, Ayu's output is (song titles excluded) entirely in Japanese, which severely limits her potential overseas. But thanks to extensive exposure on MTV Asia, she has become a fashion icon in much of the rest of Asia, and I was not a little surprised to find life-sized cardboard cutouts amd hear her songs playing in the crowded corridors of the Sungei Wang mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

思い出すの地にも海が広がり
どこかで出会ってつながって流れてる
きっと同じ景色見てる

In that memory, and others since, the sea grows wider
Somewhere meeting, connecting, flowing
And surely we see the same scenery

"Far away"

Personally, my musical tastes coincide with hers poorly enough that the only Ayu-products I really appreciate are the techno/trance a-yu-mixes; mix III, in particular, has some truly excellent tracks. But I have a lot of respect for her as an artist, and her music is so omnipresent in Japan that I can't help getting all goosubumpy and natsukashii when I hear some of her songs.

Trivia

Born: October 2, 1978 in Fukuoka, Kyushu, Japan
Height: 156 cm
Weight: 46 kg
Size: 80-53-82
Blood type: A
Marital status: Engaged to childhood friend and pop star Tomoya Nagase of boy band TOKIO

References

http://www.avexnet.or.jp/ayu/ (official homepage, Japanese)
http://www4.ocn.ne.jp/~ayuready/ayuuta1.htm (lyrics, Japanese)
http://www.time.com/time/asia/features/ayumi_hamasaki/ (interview, English)
http://www.v-stuff.net/japan/jpop/ayumi_hamasaki/biography.htm (bio, French)
http://home.no.net/ayumi (fansite, English)
Translations by yours truly

Conceive of me as a fatted shadow
pranced on piebald puppet-screens
not.

Better an anti-shadow: I am the doppelganger
of nothing. I haunt it
as time haunts a pocket-watch. A mirror looks at me
and clouds.
I do not age
as you age.
I counter-recede into
the uneventuated horizon.
In me a thousand sepia suns never set
And in me the tip of the subconscious iceberg
protrudes from an in-ground pool.

Boys and girls are the snakeskins
of my fashion whims
the attention of imitation stokes my chameleon womb
and it opens like a nacreous nightflower
like a dryad nested in the bark of sleep
like the lunar echo of an x-rayed skull
I cry only opals.

You who watch the waver of a marionette string
with such detachment - I watch you turn
a blind eye to the shared source
of that suspicious umbilicus.

You circling sharks around my diving cage of
dreamless hopeless unsleep
I play your Panoptic prisoner:
your shark-eyed cameras' Argus eyes
set to soft-focus.

It is necessary
that I am viewed as a product.
So that you will not see
That I have produced you too.
Our shared complicity
you
Ayu
I.
You.
Mix.

Keep one eye on the split seams
That I show you
As I spill my clockwork guts
and cover the floor with a bed of roses
With the other eye watch my face
of star-fired porcelain and
watch my mouth:
the
spot-lit skull-slit
speaker sputters
a song
for

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