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Battle of the pop divas

by Steve McClure

Please sit down. There, are you comfortable? Perhaps you’d like a drink to calm your nerves, because what I’m about to say may come as somewhat of a shock.

Ayumi Hamasaki (top) and Hikaru Utada: Japanese pop divas that you can actually listen to

You see, I have an awful confession to make . . . I like Ayumi Hamasaki.

There. I said it. I feel better. You look shocked. Are you OK? Now, don’t get the wrong idea — I harbor no lustful thoughts for said chanteuse. It’s her music I’m talking about.

Despite a keenly developed sense of critical awareness, honed to a fine degree through many years of dedicated service in the front lines of music journalism, I find myself humming along to Hamasaki’s music when I plunk her discs in the CD player.

I can see you’re still shocked. OK. Perhaps I went too far when I said I like Hamasaki’s music. Maybe “not actively dislike” would be closer to the mark. Faint praise, I know, but still surprising, given my longtime disdain for the idol genre.

I reached this rather staggering conclusion after deciding that the next installment of J-popsicle would be a comparison between Hamasaki and Hikaru Utada. The two divas are at the top of the J-pop heap right now, with their latest albums (“A Best” and “Distance,” respectively, both released on March 28) selling like proverbial hotcakes. As of this writing, “A Best” had sold 3.6 million copies, while 3.8 million copies of “Distance” have been snapped up by Utada’s fans.

I fully expected to prefer “Distance” to “A Best.” One reason was that Utada’s debut album, “First Love,” was so totally brilliant: great songs, soulful vocals and superb production. Another reason was that I’d always been irritated by Hamasaki’s rather nasal voice.

Then there was the question of image. While Utada has always come across as a fairly unpretentious, down-to-earth kind of person, Hamasaki looks like she stepped out of some “ladies’ comic,” what with those impossibly big, vacant-looking eyes, perfectly sculpted face and bleached-blonde hair. She looks more like a mannequin than a human being, which makes it very appropriate that she was recently given the “Barbie Award 2001″ for being the Japanese woman best matching the doll’s image (although with a figure of 80-53-82, Hamasaki could stand to fill out a wee bit).

And of course Hamasaki has the singularly annoying habit of referring to herself in the third person. If I never hear her say “Ayu wa . . .” again, it’ll be too soon!

For her part, Utada has recently tried to project a more glamorous image, complete with heavy makeup, but I don’t think that really suits her.

Back to the music. When I listened to “Distance” for the first time, none of the tunes really grabbed me the way the songs on “First Love” did. Of course I’d already heard singles included in the album such as “Can You Keep a Secret?” and “Wait and See?” I thought these were OK but not up to the high standard Utada had set for herself on tracks such as “Automatic” and “Movin’ on Without You,” which were included in the “First Love” set.

But maybe, I thought, they’d have more impact in the context of the album. Despite repeated listenings, however, I found that “Distance” just doesn’t pack the same kind of wallop that her debut did.

Like most cliches, music-biz superstitions about “that difficult second album” are based on a simple truth. Artists spend years working on their oeuvre before making their debut. But if it’s successful (and with sales of some 8.5 million units, “First Love” is definitely that), they’re under tremendous pressure from their record label to come up with more “product” ASAP.

On the other hand, as I listened to the tracks on Hamasaki’s “A Best,” I began to get past my reservations about her voice and appreciate songs like “Seasons” for the well-crafted pop tunes that they are. Lightweight, sure, but full of pleasant melodic hooks and an interesting melancholic sensibility that belies Hamasaki’s airhead image. Another positive thing about Hamasaki’s stuff is her introspective, intelligent lyrics (which she writes herself).

I think Utada (who also writes her own music) stands a better chance than Hamasaki of being successful over the long term, if only because Utada and her handlers have wisely opted to limit the number of her releases. Hamasaki, in contrast, has released a staggering amount (including a never-ending series of remixes) since her debut three years ago. Are we talking limited shelf life or what? Too bad, since if Hamasaki ditched the Barbie image and got a little more “real,” she could expand her fan base beyond the steadily shrinking teenage demographic.

Ayu, Hikaru, you know I’m only saying all this because I care.