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Rising star set to shine

Iconiq heads for World Stage at MTV Video Music Awards Japan

by Robert Michael Poole

In September 1984 — three years after MTV: Music Television had kicked into life with British electro-pop duo The Buggles’ appropriately titled 1979 classic “Video Killed the Radio Star” — Madonna strode onto a New York stage for the fledgling channel’s first Music Video Awards.

In so doing, she claimed her place as an ’80s icon with a suggestive performance of “Like a Virgin.” Clad in a lace wedding dress, Madonna presented an enduring symbol that many artists have toyed with in the decades since.

But MTV, its audience and the technology available to them have evolved drastically since then, and when the MTV Video Music Awards Japan take place Saturday, May 29, at Tokyo’s Yoyogi National Stadium, it will for the first time be aligned with World Stage — MTV’s latest attempt to draw viewers away from such on-demand Web sites as YouTube by broadcasting the same concerts and events on every MTV channel worldwide.

World Stage has proved timely for MTV Japan, whose market share has been slowly eroded by rivals Music On! TV and Space Shower and whose viewers have been shifting to online media.

In fact the awards show, which has served as the channel’s flagship event since 2002 — attracting stars including Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Green Day and Missy Elliott — was in jeopardy this year as the company went through restructuring.

The Japanese public’s appetite for international music has been declining, with record-label body RIAJ reporting that nondomestic product accounted for just 18 percent of the market in the first quarter of 2010.

Perhaps reflecting this, Saturday’s MTV Video Music Awards Japan has only one certified international star scheduled, in the shape of U.S. chart-topping pop singer Ke$ha.

However, record label Avex Entertainment will use the event to promote, as a special guest, a new pop singer with a massive profile.

“I’ve always been a fan of MTV,” says 25-year-old Iconiq, whose name is spelled in all capital letters on album artwork and promotional material in Japan.

“Living in Korea I watched it every day, and in America I was addicted to ‘America’s Best Dance Crew.’ “

With her trademark baby-short hair and bold lyrical statements about women going through dramatic changes, Iconiq leaped into the public’s consciousness in January this year when she became the face of cosmetic giant Shiseido’s Maquillage range of cosmetics only a month after making her professional debut in Japan.

After that, her strikingly androgynous appearance soon became ubiquitous on both TV and billboards.

“My management told me the exposure was going to be very strong, but I couldn’t really imagine it, so when it suddenly happened I thought (my career) had really begun,” says Iconiq.

Invited to perform at the MTV Video Music Awards Japan shortly after the March release of her debut album, “Change Myself,” Iconiq’s live showcase took place on May 16 at Shibuya AX in Tokyo.

A stark stage design backed with an enormous pulsing video screen saw her deliver a highly polished set of ballads in addition to throbbing electro-pop in chic Cheryl Cole-esque military fashion.

After the show, she thanked the large number of industry and media attendees individually, clearly pleased with her smooth and rapid ascent.

When questions about her sudden rise to fame crop up, Iconiq is happy to talk about her previous music career in South Korea as leader of girl-group Sugar, as well as performing solo under the name Ahyoomee.

Born Ayumi Ito in Tottori Prefecture on Aug. 25, 1985, Iconiq, who is Japanese of Korean ancestry, lived in Japan until she was 15, when she was scouted by two South Korean management company representatives during a visit she made to that country to see the boy-band H.O.T.

Excited at the prospect of a career in entertainment, she convinced them to first wait for her to finish junior high school before she moved to South Korea alone.

“I’d always hoped to become a singer,” she said. “My father played in a small band a long time ago and always loved music. I listened to his favorites — such as Eikichi Yazawa and The Beatles — and then when I heard Hikaru Utada, I knew what I wanted to do. But I had to wait and persuade my father.”

She moved into a dormitory in South Korea and initially struggled with the language. She also underwent a rigorous physical-training program.

“Since I was a rookie, I needed to train before dance school,” she recalls. “I got up at 6 every morning, went running up the mountain and after that I went to school. Then, when I came home from school, I had to go running up the mountain again! As though I was in boot camp. After I’d finished that task, I’d be allowed to go to dance- and voice-training.”

Ito debuted with the four-piece girl-group Sugar in 2002, releasing three albums in South Korea and two in Japan — but they only met with mediocre success. She was also known as Ayumi Lee during her time there.

In December 2006, despite image makeovers, the group was disbanded.

“Being in a group or performing solo both have good and bad aspects,” said Iconiq. “I can’t say which is better, but when I made my debut I was really glad to be in a group and I enjoyed it.”

Two solo singles followed in South Korea, putting Ito center stage for the first time. “I was very uneasy because the people I’d always been with were no longer with me, but I also felt a strong sense of responsibility. I think that’s what made me pull myself together to become Iconiq,” she explained.

Before returning to Japan, Ito briefly moved to Los Angeles of her own accord, enrolling in dance and vocal schools while living in West Hollywood.

“I lived there alone, but I felt free and open,” she recalled. “There was always genuine music around me, and I felt the roots of music. When I saw people and the rhythm of the streets, I was happy that I was able to be there, and it was exciting every day.”

Then, as a recent signing to Avex Entertainment, she returned to Japan in 2009 with a new focus and determination to make her mark. However, to her initial surprise, her management suggested a dramatic image change to accompany her desire for a sense of rebirth.

“I’d never thought I would have my hair cut like this,” she said. “I cut it three days before every event.

“When I was in L.A. and listened to real music, I felt as though I’d been ignorant of it before. I’d been in the music industry quite a while but I was staying in the same place, even though circumstances and music styles were changing. The idea of cutting my hair matched my feelings and gave me a new sense of vision.”

The idea of rebirth runs through all aspects of Iconiq’s plans, which she described as being, in part, “an attempt to love myself more.”

A heavy R&B fan attuned to Corinne Bailey Rae and Alicia Keys, she decided on her debut to experiment with a host of Japan’s top producers, including Uta and m-flo’s Verbal.

“I was kind of too obsessive about R&B, so I stopped sticking to my favorite music genre and tried something new. The most stimulating thing for me was working with (Japanese producers) T. Kura and Michico, because they have a world view that I’ve never experienced before, and we recorded in their house in Atlanta, Georgia. It was so exciting to see their music-centered lifestyle.”

Lyrically too, Iconiq sings of change.

“I thought I should sing out loud to express my feelings as strongly as possible, but I’ve realized I can soften my voice to sing even the most crucial part of the song. In ‘Change Myself’ the phrase ‘I change no into yes’ appears, and those are the words I want to convey most strongly.”

Viewing her own image on billboards that dominated Tokyo’s skyline in March further inspired her.

“I felt a sense of responsibility as I gradually realized what was happening. It was like my images were staring at me and telling me, ‘Do your best!’

“I want to be an icon of the times,” she said. “There’s no magic though,” she adds with a laugh. “My baby-short hair is a great surprise to people, but I’d like to follow my feelings and from now on I’d like to convey my growth with a change in my mental attitude and through my image, songs and music.”

MTV World Stage Video Music Awards Japan 2010 goes out live on Saturday, May 29, from 6 till 8:30 p.m. on MTV. Iconiq’s first tour as part of a-nation begins in Ehime, Shikoku, on Aug. 7 and will reach Tokyo’s Ajinomoto Stadium on Aug. 28 and 29. For more information, visit a-nation.net