NEW YORK, NY—The name Utada doesn’t ring a bell in the United States, and the Japanese-American singer’s two English-language albums have sold just a few thousand copies each in North America. Yet both albums were big hits in Japan, where Utada is a multi-million selling singer-songwriter, stadium-size star and one of the most recognizable names in J-pop of the last decade.

Utada’s first-ever U.S. tour, “In The Flesh,” was promoting her second American album, This Is The One (Island Def Jam, 2009), an R&B disc geared vaguely toward a general audience. The venues were all modestly sized, and the Fillmore show sold out by word of mouth. Yet it’s doubtful many—if any—of the attendees got hooked on Utada through her English albums. Most were fans of her J-pop first and foremost. They were people like Kristine Sanchez, who first heard Utada‘s songs in the Kingdom Hearts video games and then researched her online. Although she was a fan of her Japanese music first, Sanchez went to the show to support Utada as an American artist.

Though she was born in New York, Utada split her childhood between Japan and America. Her parents were famous musicians, and she soon followed their lead by debuting as an R&B artist in Japan. She released her first single, “Automatic,” in 1998, when she was just 15. Her freshman album, First Love, is the country’s best-selling compact disc. Despite the risk of becoming a short-lived teen wonder, she remained wildly popular and respected because of her willingness to experiment with electronic textures and choice to keep a low-profile image.

“I love her,” says Mayumi Iwao, a New York-based reporter. She’s followed Utada since her debut and admires her sense of language. Although several Japanese fans did travel overseas for “In the Flesh,” Iwao’s friends from Japan couldn’t make it and were jealous that she was seeing Utada in a small venue.

Utada first tried to break the American market with Exodus in 2004, but her English material has been inferior thus far. Her Japanese music sounds lush and poetic by pop standards, but her U.S. albums are under-produced and riddled with embarrassing, posturing lyrics (“I was dancing with a dirty blond Texan/Charming accent but the music’s playing too loud for talking/So I showed him how people in the Far East get down”). Moreover, the little promotion it’s received has been for a mainstream audience, not the people actually buying the CDs.

“I feel insulted that they don’t cater to us—they cater to a general, nameless people,” says Chris Harris, a fan who had waited in line since 2 a.m.

The Fillmore audience’s love was so intense you could feel it in the air, but “In the Flesh” had too many problems to live up to expectations. The concert felt half-baked, lacking even a merchandise table selling CDs. The setlist—which included English songs, Japanese hits and a throwaway cover of Placebo’s “The Bitter End”—lacked cohesion and direction. It was unclear what Utada wanted to accomplish with “In The Flesh.” Build her name as an American singer with mainstream viability? Give stateside fans a jukebox J-pop performance? Ultimately, it didn’t triumph as either.

Utada also seemed unsure how to handle a smaller concert. She retained the animatronic stage presence of her stadium performances, which is passable when it’s buttressed by pop spectacle but came off disconnected in a venue that demanded intimacy. She responded to audience shout-outs nervously, half-jokingly telling a boisterous fan to “stop talking.” During her MCs, she rambled about having nothing to say, expressed surprised at seeing racially diverse audiences on previous tour stops and compared her New York City turnout to a Whole Foods supermarket, sending them into uncomfortable laughter.

Utada has dismissed Exodus as a misstep, so only four songs made it to “In The Flesh.” While most songs were played closely to the album versions, others were revamped. Club tune, “Devil Inside,” began quietly and swelled dramatically.

But the mixes were plain awful. The drums and prerecorded background vocals were too loud, giving the concert a karaoke feel. During “You Make Me Want To Be A Man,” they drowned out the singer herself.

Though Utada has pitch and breathing difficulties, she sounded fairly good on Feb. 8. (The prerecorded vocals probably helped.) She was at her best when she sat at a keyboard and played Japanese songs, taking a singer-songwriter pose that suited her.

Utada seemed liveliest and happiest singing “Automatic” toward the end of the night. Prancing onstage with warmth and a wide smile on her face, she achieved the enthusiasm and emotional connection the concert sorely needed. At that moment, “In The Flesh” became what it should have been all along: a treat for American fans who had been dying to see the J-pop singer live.

24 Responses

  1. Ann

    How come the writer didn’t mention any highlights of the show? What about Passion/Sanctuary mash-up, it should have been at least mentioned. What about Kremlin Dusk, what about On and On which made a great opening of the show (I think of “Opening” as an appetizer because it wasn’t sung live)
    “Utada has dismissed Exodus as a misstep, so only four songs made it to “In The Flesh.” ” <- she sang 8 songs from the new album, two KH songs and Exodus section was great and what I think she wanted american fans to hear since Exodus was released (she didn't tour back then)

    "Though Utada has pitch and breathing difficulties, she sounded fairly good on Feb. 8. (The prerecorded vocals probably helped.)" <- She sounded good, a little nervous and unsure at first but she sounded good (check the recording of the show that can be found online). The whole tour showed that her voice is in better condition that most of fans expected and I didn't get the prerecorded vocals part that sounded almost like an accusation.

    tl; dr
    I don't like the feeling of this review, seems very one-sided.

  2. sky

    Utada’s first album was sold 55,000 copies.
    Please check it out before you write this review!

  3. Johnnie Walker

    You were going to write a bad review for this concert no matter what because you simply didn’t like (or are jealous of) the artist going in.
    Bringing up some obscure lyrics from a song on her Exodus album from 6 years ago that she didn’t even perform which holds no relevance at all to this show just proves my point that you were biased.
    Utada never once said that Exodus was a misstep, this is a flat out LIE and it should be edited out of your review. Cite your sources next time if you plan on making such scandalous claims about an artist and her music in the future.

    As for her “animontronic stage presence”, are you kidding me? I was there and she had great stage presence, everybody was pumped up and she was very lively and energetic throughout. Does every artist nowadays have to be like Lady gaga on stage? you need to do some research because Utada has never been that type of artist and thank goodness for that.
    Utada is all about substance over style and she has actual talent unlike 90% of what we see today in the music industry.

    “Though Utada has pitch and breathing difficulties”
    What the heck are you talking about here? when and where has she ever had these problems?
    I’ve been a fan for 9 years and not once have I ever witnessed this. I’ve watched all her live performances on Japanese TV and her concerts and never once saw her struggle except for the few times that she was sick.

    A lot of what you wrote is BS and conjecture and it’s very obvious to someone like me who has actually followed the artist.
    Also good job interviewing a bunch of kids for you review. There were plenty of adults like myself at the show that could have given you a better account of this artists’ body of work and her background but you overlooked us.
    The mixes you said were awful were actually really great so I don’t know what type of music you are used to listening to but it probably sucks.
    The prerecorded background vocals were too loud on one of her songs and that was it, good job blowing that it out of proportion and making seem like it was a karaoke.
    The Placebo cover wasn’t a throwaway, it’s a good song and her cover of it was excellent.
    Why don’t you do us all a favor and keep your opinions to yourself next time?
    Do you know what it;s like to sing live?, write a song or play instrument? No of course not.
    I hope the Aquarian doesn’t send you out on any more assignments because you have zero musical tastes and have no idea what your talking about.

  4. Shane

    Absolutely atrocious review. I was at the concert and it was spectacular. Utada’s stage presence was amazing, her vocals were great, and the live mixes of every song were, in my opinion, superior to the album mixes.

    By the way, maybe it’s just me but 55,000 copies (while nothing to be impressed about) is way more than a few thousand, no? And that’s just Exodus’s sales.

    Check your facts twice and keep your opinions to a minimum next time you do something like this. Especially when you want to act like your opinion is fact.

  5. sam

    basically, you seriously have no clue , and know nothing about utada, so get dead

  6. Eli

    I don’t want to beat the proverbial dead horse, so I’ll just concur with what everyone else here has been stating. I didn’t attend the NY showing, but I was at her concert in LA; I don’t believe this reviewer is familiar with Utada’s body of work nor her chosen decorum as a performer. She’s always been somewhat understated in her commentary- ever watched any of her interviews? I also find the idea that her albums are “under-produced” laughable. Has this reviewer even listened to “Exodus”?

    Also rather conveniently abandoned by the article are some of Utada’s most beloved features as an artist; say, the fact that she writes ALL of her own music and lyrics, often assisting (and in the case of “Exodus” even taking over) in production and mixing. The fact is that Utada’s work has always been about a certain kind of subtlety that she brings with her, whether in the studio or on a live stage- I can’t speak personally for her performance in NY, but I know that except for this review every piece of information I’ve received about it was glowing, which would be in absolute cohesion with my experience at the LA venue.

  7. Brandon Dominguez

    Really? You obviously don’t know Utada or just went to this concert for nothing. You’re such an idiot. Hikki is awesome. She writes ALL her lyrics, and produces her own music [with the exception of TITO where she had help]. She is a legend, and you obviously don’t appreciate that. YOu have no business writing a review when it is all lies. Everyone has waited for a LONG time to see Hikki in America live. THat is good enough for everyone.

  8. Zoe

    I’m confused, how can someone have been ‘animatronic’ on stage and yet have presented themselves in such a way as to be perceived to have been ‘[rambling] nervously’? I would prefer an artist to speak from what they are feeling than the prescripted ‘gosh its so great to be in [insert city here], i really love [insert cliche here]’. To some extent your review seems to be working off simplified and objectional expectations of a promotional concert, which is not necessarily the case here.

    also ‘only four songs’ from Exodus made it on?? Considering the set was made up of 16 songs, thats a QUARTER of the set list! I also fail to see the relevance of critiquing ‘Workout’ when it wasnt included in the concert.

    well my rant’s over…

  9. Formless

    Opinions are of the devil. You’re not allowed to have a negative one. One of us.. One of us.. One of us..

    Utada’s American releases do, in fact, pale in comparison to her Japanese releases. Some of us Utada fans DO think so. To think a musician is infallible is a silly, childish thing to do. At least the review was honest, even if you don’t agree.

  10. autumnmycat

    You obviously weren’t at the same concert we were at, Ms. Victoria, because Utada was absolutely phenomenal. Period. Sorry it wasn’t to your standard, but to the sold old crowd she was playing to, you’re dead wrong.

    Leave your bias somewhere else, please.

  11. David

    I will agree that the concerts could have been better, but I believe there were much more positives than negatives. This series of concerts were relatively unpromoted, leaving us to assume that in a way this was a sort of “thank you” reward for Utada’s fans. I think if you ask anyone who went, 99% of them will say the experience was worthwhile and they would do it all over again. You are entitled to your opinion, I just think your opinion is bogus.

  12. Alex

    Am sorry but please do more research Hikki is way more than what you percieved please go learn more about Utada and how she is more than the typical pop star that you thought.

  13. tc

    Oh my freaking God.


    Now please excuse me while I lick Utada’s Godly feet.

  14. Shane

    i went to her January 19th Show which was UTADA’s Birthday!!!! and went to Las Vegas to see her on January 30th! Both Shows were amazing!!! UTADA is Amazing herself! though i was only disappointed in them not having a merch booth! whats up with that. were they that afraid of her Merch not selling? did she think she didnt have any fans here in America? well now she knows She is LOVED!! perhaps she will think about coming back again! for another TOUR! in 2-3 Years? but i think she will retire before then.. she said in an earlier review she would like to retire by 28-29 years old to accomplish more with her life! We Love you UTADA!

  15. Kristine Sanchez

    Ms. Goldenberg:

    I was one of the fans you interviewed for this article and I really feel like you twisted my words to frame your negative review for Utada’s show.

    Yes, I said that I was there to support her American career.

    Yes, I love her Japanese work and that is how I got into her music but that is mainly because that was the first of her work I got to listen to.

    That doesn’t mean that I FAVOR her Japanese music more than her English music! I’m sure I am speaking for MANY fans of hers. I really enjoy her overall as a true singer/songwriter because she is extremely unique. If I listened to her English work first, I would STILL be a fan of hers.

    And truly, I want Utada to break big in the United States through her English music and not lean on her Japanese work.

    I think Island Def Jam markets her TERRIBLY in all honesty because if she had better support, there is no reason why she couldn’t cross channels similarly to what Shakira did in the early 2000s. So unfortunately, yes, some of her concert catered to the fans who found her through her Japanese music first. However, it doesn’t mean that her English music sucks and her Japanese music is holding up her career here.


  16. Patrick Slevin

    Okay Utada forum readers. We get it. You don’t like the review. But if you’re going to comment, keep it clean. Thanks.

  17. Dex

    You guys never bothered to review any of her her albums or feature her in any interview but you go to her concert and rip it to shreds not knowing anything about her.

    And then you wonder why her fans are so upset?
    You should be happy someone is at least visiting your crappy website.

  18. Pancetta Croccante

    It’s refreshing to know that I’m not the only one who feels this way about the extremely esteemed Utada Hikaru. Honestly, I was a fan of hers once, a long time a go when she was something of a true pop star whereby she produced quality songs and had a presence in the Japanese mainstream public via media outside her music alone. In terms of being a pop star, I believe that title certainly doesn’t befit Ms. Utada, considering she doesn’t seem to enjoy doing live shows/performances (when was the last time she was on MUSIC STATION, etc.?), magazine interviews (when was the last time she shot a cover for any magazine?), etc. Pop stars encompass that overarching star quality, and to say that Hikaru lacks that would be a gross understatement. She’s an artist, and she’s got a creative mind, I’ll give her that, but I think your review of her performance was spot on and is highly reflective of her attitude as an artist both in the U.S. and Japanese markets. I appreciate that you addressed her voice, since I’ve found that she is incapable of performing setlists longer than four before her vocal “prowess” starts to wane (pick a tour, you name it, she was pitchy, to put it nicely, by the tenth song). As for her lack of commitment to the audience during the performance…well, I think that speaks to her work ethic reflected in her latest releases. ULTRA BLUE and HEART STATION, while entirely produced by her, sounded as if they had been finalized in Garageband. While she may still hold the record for the best-selling Japanese record of all time, it’s a shame to see that her once-appropriate title of Japanese pop sensation has gone to waste. Honestly, we all know that a million people would go out to buy a record of hers that was entitled “UTADA HIKARU,” had twelve tracks comprised of silence, with a white, textless packaging frame to boot. Such a shame.

  19. Liz

    “Though Utada has pitch and breathing difficulties”

    I agree. I went to the concert expecting pitch and breathing problems. This is her main problem and has been since she started. I don’t know why people are too delusional into believing she is a great singer or that she never struggled hitting notes. As a singer myself and a fan, it pains me that she hasn’t fixed her pitch and breathing when she has the finances to. She has a beautiful, natural tone to her voice that she should learn how to use properly.

    “But the mixes were plain awful. The drums and prerecorded background vocals were too loud, giving the concert a karaoke feel. During “You Make Me Want To Be A Man,” they drowned out the singer herself.”

    I agree with this.

    I don’t know, the concert itself was okay for my first time.

  20. Daniel

    “She retained the animatronic stage presence of her stadium performances, which is passable when it’s buttressed by pop spectacle” – What are you talking about? In all of her concerts, the main focus is just her and her music. Her ballads usually create the intimacy you think is lacking and she’s really energetic during her more upbeat songs. Her stage presence has always been great and like people already said, she’s not your normal type of popstar. That’s what makes her unique in a good way of course.

    “Though Utada has pitch and breathing difficulties” – Since when does she have this? I admit that during Utada United in the few last songs her voice sounded quite tired/ a little raw but that concert had a huge setlist. And most people still enjoyed those songs, I don’t know about you though…. In all other concerts she always sounded great.

    The remixes sound great in this concert. She never got to do a concert for exodus, so she did them here. Isn’t it normal to choose a few songs of your previous albums? I don’t see how wrong that is. After all it said “in the flesh”, that’s Utada in the flesh with all her music, what more do you need?

    This review seems very biased. So on a song the background voices where a little too loud, does it instantly makes it karaoke? And how about reviewing the great parts of the concert? Seems like you skipped on everything positive and just noted everything you SAW as negative.

    And the review about the Workout was totally out of place. She didn’t even perform the song.

    The fact that her concert tickets sold out in just a few hours and seeing the crowd’s reaction during the concert should tell you enough.


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