Japanese Song of the Day – “A Song for XX” by Ayumi Hamasaki

Ayumi Hamasaki is important. She’s very, very important. Both to me and to Japanese popular music. As B’z are my favorite Japanese band, Ayumi Hamasaki is my favorite solo artist. Now getting into “why,” that’s the hard part. With B’z it’s easy – I love how their music sounds, and I find it consistently enjoyable. With Ayu, it’s more what she projects. Which is the point with pop singers – the label is marketing a person, a character, someone audiences can relate to or look up to. It’s not just the artistic part.

Ayumi Hamasaki is the pop singer that I relate to and look up to most, and she has been since I discovered her when I was in high school. Occasionally we find the artist that we feel just “gets” us. Japanese teenagers felt this way about Ayu when she first showed up with her lyrics about feigning strength in the face of sadness, wanting to escape from the pressures other people placed on her, self-esteem issues, friendzoning, and dreaming about the future in both optimistic and pessimistic ways. She had the lyrics that Japanese teenagers related to, she went darker than most pop singers did in the late 90s.

“A Song for XX” was the title track of Hamasaki’s first album. In the song she addresses her mother and the people who she & her mother knew back when Hamasaki was a child. At the time, she and her mother were still reeling from the departure of Hamasaki’s father when she was little more than a toddler. Hamasaki never fully recovered from his sudden exit from her life. The result was difficulty in trusting people, a topic she addresses frequently on her first album.

The video here is a studio recorded version performed with her live band for the ballad best-of collection Hamasaki released in 2003, “A BALLADS.”

Why am I crying?
Why am I hesitating?
Why am I just standing here?
Tell me…
When will I become an adult?
How long is it OK for me to stay a child?
Where did I come running from
And where am I running to?

I had no place where I belonged, I couldn’t find one.
I didn’t know if I could have any hope for the future.

“You’re such a strong child!” they always kept saying.
“It’s so great that you’re not crying!” they would say in praise.
I didn’t want to hear a single word like that,
So I pretended I didn’t understand.

Why are you smiling?
Why are you by my side?
Why are you leaving?
Tell me…
When did I become strong?
When did I start to feel weak?
How long must I wait
For the day to come when we understand each other?

The sun is coming up now. I have to go soon.
I can’t stay in the same place forever.

Believing in someone, being betrayed
and being rejected were all the same thing, I thought.
That sort of strength just wasn’t in me back then.
I’m sure there were various things that I knew too well.

“You’re such a strong child!” you always kept saying.
“It’s so great that you’re not crying!” you would say in praise.
The more everyone around me talked like that,
It became painful even for me to smile.

I was born alone. I’m going to live my life alone.
Surely that kind of life is natural, I thought…

Starting with live performances in 2000, a lyric near the end was changed to reflect her confidence in confronting the person she was addressing (her mother). The lyric there changed from:

The more everyone around me talked like that,
It became painful even for me to smile.

To:

The more you talked like that,
It became painful even for me to smile.

Ayumi Hamasaki, as a lyricist, was quite daring and personal. She’s also extremely prolific, having written the lyrics herself for every one of her over 200 original songs. As a result, this was not the last time she would address the subject of her father. In 2000’s “teddy bear,” she speaks frankly of the heartbreak and disappointment she felt the night he left. In 2003’s “Memorial address,” she speaks to someone who has passed away without giving her any closure regardling whether or not they loved her. This plus the song’s performance immediately after “teddy bear” during Hamasaki’s 2003-2004 tour has left fans with the impression that she learned her father passed away in mid-2003.

I know to an English speaker, speaking of the death of a family member, low self-confidence, betrayal, and disappointment are nothing new. But in the late 90’s in Jpop (and even now, for the most part), that was simply not done. Contemporaries like Ami Suzuki, Utada Hikaru, Namie Amuro, Kaori Mochida from Every Little Thing, Yuri from m.o.v.e, and Keiko from globe were singing about whether or not they were really in love, optimism about the 2000’s, dancing, and puppy love. Profound, life-defining betrayal didn’t come up so much.

Since then, more songwriters have been a bit more daring. Nakashima Mika comes to mind, and Nishino Kana has recently become the girl with the lyrics teens relate to – though they are, in general, considerably more safe than Hamasaki’s lyrics were.

Hamasaki’s sound started affecting J-Pop in 2000, bringing production team HAL to the public eye, making them the go-to team to either hire or emulate in order to make pop music that the kids liked. They’ve since faded out in favor of a more raw, watered-down, unassuming sound that’s permeated the charts in recent years, but for awhile there, J-Pop was AMAZING thanks to the popularity of one singer in particular. I’ll go into HAL another time.

For now, here’s more Ayu. Because…. well, because Ayu.

End of the World (Live)

untitled ~for her~ (Live)

TO BE
This song holds a special place in my heart for various reasons. It was the first Ayu song I ever heard, and it made me a fan immediately.

Recently, Gaijin Kanpai – the podcast I’d been doing for years – ended at epsiode 200. One of the things we did for the episode was tell our stories about what GK meant to us. When GK started I was in a pretty bad place – depressed, useless, broke, fairly certain I had no future to speak of. Then suddenly this guy comes along with a podcast he wants to do, and before I knew it I’d agreed to do it. Suddenly I had validation for my passion, and I had a purpose. So for the background music of my story in GK #200, I chose this as my background music.

Back in high school I had a friend of mine translate the lyrics, which made me realize how interesting her lyrics were – this song in particular is VERY abstract at times and rather hard to translate accurately! So I translated them myself recently, now that my Japanese skill is ten years higher than it was.

Everyone passed by it, not stopping to pay it any mind. Oh well.
Then, you took this junk into your arms as though it was precious.
All around, with confused faces, people looked on from nearby.
But you simply smiled and said “This is treasure!”

Despite obtaining something big, perhaps there’s also something I’ve lost?
I still don’t really know yet.
If I ever were to regain it, I’m sure it’d be slightly different…

If you’re there, I’m always smiling.
If you’re there, I’m always smiling, crying, living.
Without you, I had nothing.

Was it myself? Was it the world around me? Or maybe it was
just my wristwatch?  The thing that seemed like it would fall apart.

Those arms that keep protecting this junk must be getting sore, right?
How much have you sacrificed?
I can never be a perfect human (circle)*, but I shine in my imperfections.

On this road you found that isn’t wide
On this road you found that isn’t wide, and isn’t narrow, somehow
You alone have polished me up.

Because you were there, I was always laughing.
Because you were there, I was always laughing, crying, living.
Without you, I had nothing.

*The kanji here says “ningen (human)” but she sings the word “maru (circle)”

Have a happy day everyone. I’ll be back when I can think of another song or two to feature, haha! 🙂

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