Sound Decision
Ayumi Hamasaki

by Jonathan Mays,
To be honest, I feel sorry for Ayumi Hamasaki. Most pop singers are fairly normal people who just happen to have very public careers, and they chuckle at exaggerated stories of overcoming obstacles to reach stardom. But Hamasaki is different. She had a rough childhood; you might even say she never was a child. Hamasaki's father abandoned her and her mother when she was only a toddler. She began modeling at the age of seven in order to earn money for the family. Eventually, the modeling world kicked her to the curb, and she dropped out of school in 10th grade. These aren't the kinds of wounds that fame and fortune heal.

And now, she's at the twilight of her center-stage career. The industry current is beginning to turn against the 26-year-old Hamasaki. Exhibit A: cosmetic giant Kose, the company for which Hamasaki has been the main poster girl for years, recently dumped her for eighteen-year-old (and fellow Avex artist) Beni Arashiro. Factor in that Hamasaki's success owes more to her status than her music, and losing Kose becomes a very ominious sign.

Fortunately, Hamasaki still has her gift, a gift she discovered half a world away from home in 1995. Because she struggled to voice her thoughts, her producer asked her to write letters from New York. Her notes were short but poignant, with the imagery and emotional charge that echoed of lyrics. By April of 1999, she had polished her talent, and Ayumi Hamasaki was #1 in Japan.

It's her lyrics that stand out most in "My Story," Hamasaki's latest, longest, and possibly best album. Especially in songs like GAME and CAROLS, you get the sense that the elusive soul she sings to is her own reflection. Hamasaki is a marketing maven, successfully guiding every detail of her career right down to the fonts on her tour posters and precise shades of her makeup. But she doesn't deceive herself:

"I'm lost in a maze with no exit/The sense of reality urges me suddenly to find the way out"

"I've always walked in such a manner/But I can't control this game as I wish"

GAME has the makings of a classic: unforgettable melody, surprising turns, and exceptional attention to detail. Those oft-neglected bridges from verse to chorus emerge as brilliant showcases for the guitar and drums. Hamasaki handles rock like an edgier, less innocent version of Puffy AmiYumi, draining as much sugary cuteness as she can without sacrificing her image completely. It's her own way of rebelling, and it makes for great music.

The other showcase piece, CAROLS, is much less aggressive, inviting the kind of holiday-season meditation that's only natural with a release date ten days before Christmas. Light piano chords echo Hamasaki's sorrowful submission:

"Tears welled up in my eyes/When I thought it would be nice/That I could forgive my past some day"

But before she drowns in self-pity, Hamasaki draws on the calming thoughts that have guided her this far:

"The days we couldn't understand each other and parted/The days of tears the days of smiling faces/Whatever may happen and whatever mood you may be in/I'll always accept you"

These are the two high points of "My Story," which may be discouraging if you already own both singles. But you'll appreciate both much more in the context of the other fifteen tracks, as "My Story" opens with anger and closes with contentment. No song builds the tension between Hamasaki's two moods better than HOPE or PAIN, and none releases it better than the lyric-less Kaleidoscope. The album is beautifully constructed.

"My Story," Ayumi Hamasaki's story, makes for a good legend but not such a good life. When she was seventeen, Hamasaki frittered away her days shopping at trendy Shibuya boutiques and her nights dancing in Roppongi. She had no power but all the choices in the world. Now, as an icon, she has traded her freedom for fame. "It's necessary that I am viewed as a product," she said recently. "I am a product." All the power—and no choices at all.

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