Isn't "Utada" Really "Utada Hikaru"?


An interesting quirk happened in an iTunes search today. I have to admit that I religiously check out the iTunes Song/Video of the Week (even on vacation on my slower home DSL connection).

Two Artists, One Person

This week, the video was from singer Utada, a pop singer hoping to break into the English market. The iTunes description noted that she was from Japan, and being a linguist, I HAD to check out the Japanse originals (especially since she sounds just like an American R&B singer).

In iTunes, you can click on the tab of the artist's name (Utada) to see more of her (or his) work. But when I clicked, I only found her English songs. Was iTunes NOT selling her Japanese material?

Actually, they were, but under her full name of Utada Hikaru. So apparently, you need to go to Utada for English and Utada Hikaru for Japanese (aka Hikaru Utada or Hikki). What's happening here?

Without too much investigation, it seems like that the ultimate cause is U.S. vs Japanese marketing. Hikaru does have the major challenge of trying to be the first East Asian star to break out into the U.S. market which thus far has only accepted a few Latino and non-English speaker European stars. I would say that the name Utada was chosen as a way to emphasize her R&B style (as in Rihanna, Beyoncé, Tweet, and others) as well as de-emphasizing her "alien" name. Alas the alternate "Hikki" was not an option in the U.S. market.

So now we have an American vs Japanese name, and a database that doesn't appear to do cross references so well. Hmm.

Database Questions

First, I do have to comment that I wish iTunes had a slightly smarter database. Artists sometimes go through a lot of name changes (Puff Daddy/P. Diddy anyone), and some academics aren't always in tune with the music scene. Even in FileMaker I know of ways of circumventing this issue.

Speaking of cross references, I wouldn't mind if iTunes could connect bands with spin-off solo acts. For instance, I heard Ann & Nancy Wilson stopped recording under Heart and switched to a new name, but the only way to know for sure is to check Wikipedia. I bet they (& Apple) are losing some sales here.

Can't I Find More international Music?

But let's switch back to global culture for a moment. Another quirk of the iTunes database is that the Utada Hikaru songs in Japanese are classified as "J-Pop" (Japanese pop I presume), but other than language, I don't think Utada is actually a different genre from say Rihanna, the Spice Girls or Jazmine Sullivan. All three acts feature strong vocals, well-crafted tracks which vary between ballads and uptempo.

The Japanese tracks are all Western musically (unless I'm missing a spare Japanese instrument). Note that this is somewhat different from Latin American music which often features traditional Latin American musical elements.

So shouldn't Japanese Utada Hikaru be the same genre as American Utada? Apparently iTunes isn't sure we're ready for that yet, and maybe we're not. But since iTunes lets us purchase single songs and experience 30-second previews, I think the opportunity for Americans to learn more about world pop (and traditional world) is there as never before. I just wish it were a little easier to move beyond the categories already established in the U.S. market.

FYI - I applaud iTunes for it's "World" category which is mostly traditional music. But I do also want to know that the world teens are listening to - even if it's U.S. style music with Japanese lyrics. Besides, Utada HIkaru can really, really sing.