In Japan there is an artist who goes by the name of Crystal Kay. Some of you J-Pop aficionados may have heard of her. Signed to Sony at the tender age of 13 and still releasing music now.
Crystal Kay shares the same linguistic trait as Hikaru Utada in that she speaks fluent English and Japanese. But unfortunately Crystal has not reached anything even remotely close to the meteoric levels of success that Hikaru has enjoyed, despite being active for the same amount of time, embarking on more tours, starring in a J-drama and releasing more material. Fans have spent many years speculating as to why Crystal's success has not been bigger than it probably should be. But after 12 years, a label change and an amazing album which fell to the bottom of the charts quicker than a cinder block in the Yokohama bay we need to address the elephant in the room and ask the question: Is Crystal Kay's lack of success in Japan down to her ethnicity?
It's unfortunate that not every artist who puts out consistently solid music (I will cross Spin the music off the discography) gets the recognition and sales that their fans feel they deserve. I'll give you a Western example of a non-seller I love. Brandy. I love her. But she's constantly been a commercial flop for 7 years straight despite releasing stellar albums and showing a clear form of evolution between each release. All the while lesser talented chicks like Rihanna manage to be one trick ponies, exhibit lesser musical talent and yet get hit singles, hit albums and enjoy global stardom in a third of the time. The examples are interchangeable. But everybody in music knows that talent does not equate to success. There are many other factors which fall into the equation of an artists success. But in this case, you cannot help but wonder if Crystal Kay's lack of success is down to the colour of her skin, seeing as she's not faltered with her image and music in the time she's been active.
We all know that image is a large part of music. For an industry where it's about what the ears see, a huge emphasis is placed on image. After all, it's the album covers, the magazines and the music videos that the eyes see before the ears hear the music. Japan is not as heterogeneous a society as the West, despite their musical range disclaiming as such. Crystal Kay is labelled as Japanese, but looks black. Her mother is Korean, her father is a black American. To Japan and as her ancestry would have it, Crystal is not Japanese at all, regardless of her being born in the country, speaking the language and having a Japanese passport. Being 'Japanese' is a huge part of the Japanese music business; whether it's an ideal or a representation of a sub-culture. The country is proud of its heritage and in most cases would always support 'their own' in favour of whomever they'd deem an 'outsider'. And it's unfortunate that it may just be the case that Japan sees Crystal this way; regardless of her proficiency of all things Japanese and the country having always been her home. Hikaru Utada has always openly stated she feels like an alien because of her life being evenly divided between New York and Tokyo. But when Japan sees Hikaru Utada, they see a Japanese girl. When Japan sees Crystal, they don't.
Artists such as Ayumi Hamasaki has not helped matters for Crystal, oft seen as being the Japanese ideal of beauty. A round head, large child like eyes, pert lips and smooth hair. A look which Pamyu Pamyu has taken to bolder extremes and a template which Kumi Koda has famously followed to a tee to secure her own successes. Even Hikaru Utada fits into this bracket. Naturally conforming to this ideal, as opposed to actively chasing it and adhering to it as her peers had done. Big dark brown eyes, smooth hair and a round face - something her album covers have always highlighted. Your cute Japanese girl next door. Identifiable to the masses. Crystal on the other hand looks foreign. Crystal's skin is darker, her face is not round, her eyes are smaller, her hair is of a different texture. And despite speaking perfect Japanese and being Japanese by birth rite, to the nation's eye she isn't. Whether it had been a subconscious effort or not, a couple of Crystal's album covers had gone to lengths to downplay her ethnicity. Color change! had her look essentially white. As did her Best album, alongside a lightened hair colour popular amongst Japanese girls at the time. A stark contrast from Call me miss... and All yours which had Crystal looking much more au natural and playing up her ethnicity if anything.
Crystal Kay's media promotion has always been minimal in comparison to her peers. Where her contemporaries appear regularly on TV shows, variety shows, enjoy a slew of endorsement deals and have morning news segments dedicated purely to 30 seconds of their latest music video, Crystal is lucky to get a spot on a music show where she can just perform her shit. Her biggest endorsement deal is a brand of coffee which nobody in Japan drinks and wouldn't even bother to pick up if it were on a timed sale for 5 yen. Meanwhile Namie Amuro is the face of cosmetics, Ayumi Hamasaki is the face of Panasonic cameras and every other act is endorsing a beverage from Suntory, a car or Nintendo. Crystal may just be too dark, too different and too 'gaijin' to be the face of a brand which is catered to the Japanese. A country which buys into what it can identify with. It speaks a lot about Crystal Kay's method of promotion too. Being pushed extensively through radio, despite radio airplay meaning nothing in Japan on the whole. The one form of media engagement where appearance means nothing. A conspiracy? Far from it.
To chalk ones lack of success down to race is a card oft avoided because it is a touchy subject and very much a grey area. But in Crystal Kay's case, we can no longer deny it plays a part into why she's continued to struggle her ascent to higher levels of success than the continual flat-line she's been on for years. Crystal always seems to have to fight that extra bit harder in her career purely because the nation refuses to just accept what she does based on the fact that she doesn't look like them. For all of the Japanese Crystal can speak and the 26 years she's lived in the country, this means nothing. As she will always be seen as non-Japanese. Not one of them.
Many thought Crystal's defection from Sony would fix everything and give her career the boost it needed, as we all thought Sony were the ones holding Crystal back from national success. But at Universal the same thing is happening. Granted, many more doors are opening for Crystal now and she's more active than she's ever been, but Crystal's success is still stifled. Which tells us outright that Crystal's lack of career upswing is bigger than Sony.
You would think after 14 years things would change. They are changing slowly, as more black / mixed race artists make their way onto the ORICON charts and established Japanese artist feature non Japanese talent in their music videos and live performances. Crystal Kay has paved the way for artists such as Emi Maria and Thelma Aoyama and is a beacon of hope that you can be mixed raced and be a pop star in Japan. It's just a shame that Crystal Kay's sales and mainstream media attach rate isn't backed by big numbers to really drive this message home and show younger mixed race boys and girls in Japan that there is racial equality in the industry. As the current conviction is that you can have a career, but you won't ever be as big as somebody who were pure Japanese or Korean and doing the same, despite being less talented.
So how can Crystal fix this? One would be to try and seek other markets. The UK would be a viable place to start. It's a smaller market, but a versatile one in which anybody can have a hit single or album if the song is right. Crystal performing at the Londo Distant worlds event was a foot in the door and she's sure to get some European exposure as a result - much in the way that Europe woke up to Hikaru Utada as a result of her being tied to the theme song to Kingdom Hearts. Another may be to not conform to the Japanese ideals, but go against it. Play up the fact that she is by all Japanese accounts 'Western'. Release a cover album as lesser hoes such as Beni and Thelma Aoyama are doing and sing the shit out of Western classics. If Japan won't take note of you singing in their language, hit them with amazing renditions of songs in your second tongue! Embrace the digital market. If your physical release in Japan is going to get thrown straight into bargain bins. Ease up on it. Go digital. Release your singles via iTunes worldwide. Go one better and record each of these singles in English and Japanese. Put yourself up for the themes of video games. Play up to the fact that you are bilingual. Hit up Square Enix to sing the theme of the next Final Fantasy game for the Japanese and NTSC and PAL releases. Ayu, Kumi and Sayuri Sugawara could NEVER! Do select small venue gigs outside of Japan. Announce an intimate venue tour of Europe, or select dates in the US. Leave your footprint on the world, not just in Japan. Seek other audiences you feel will be into you, instead of focusing energies into one which couldn't care less and hope this has a halo effect. Seek endorsement deals with global brands who aren't so fussed about skin colour. Coca cola. Nintendo. H&M.
Crystal may not want to admit that Japan seems to be ignoring her due to the colour of her skin. But it's time to address this now, as process of elimination by the way of losing Sony is revealing this could very much be the case. And going down this same road and releasing amazing albums on their own is not going to fix things. Crystal still has options, but she and her team need to make the call whether they are willing to call the shots on them and look further than Japan for the sake of bigger success.
source: Random J Pop
Opinions? Agree? Disagree? I always thought it was a mixture of promotion, image and style of music. I think she did accomplish a lot.
Also for curious people, her best selling single is Koi ni Ochitara (2005.05.18) with 295,456 copies. The song was the theme for the drama of the same name that starred SMAP's Kusanagi.