Teenage rebellion never dies; songs capturing adolescent angst will always be a staple of youth. It’s still rare that those defiant little bops become mainstream hits, though.
The debut track from teenage singer Ado, “Usseewa” managed to do just that, and has emerged as the biggest Japanese hit of the year so far. Delivered in snarls and screams, it’s a broadside against modern corporate culture: daily commutes, soulless corporate jobs and even the rules of drinking with co-workers. This is music that was made to make your parents worry, magnified on a national scale.
“I reminisced on the times I had the same kind of anger conveyed in ‘Usseewa,’” Ado tells The Japan Times over Zoom. “I tried to think of times when I was pressured by my family and other people I know. But I also drew from the anger I have toward myself. That’s what I thought of when singing the song.”
Since coming out in October 2020, “Usseewa,” written and produced by electronic artist syudou, has been viewed more than 145 million times on YouTube, and has topped the Billboard Japan Hot 100, Oricon Digital Singles Chart and Spotify’s Viral 50 chart, among others.
More tellingly, “Usseewa” has become a pop culture phenomenon. TV programs have explored its popularity and notoriety, as a growing number of parents and schools reportedly raised concerns about the song, which features a hook that translates in English as “shut up, shut up” (the official translation ratchets this up to “shut the f— up”).
What’s more interesting is that the track has inspired a wave of thinkpieces, ranging from critical takes to defenses framed as “what those over 30 get wrong about ‘Usseewa.’” The title of one recent English-language YouTube deep dive into the song sums it up nicely: “Why Japan Hates This Song” (except for the millions who don’t).
“Since I’ve become more famous than before, my words reach many, many more people than before,” Ado says. “I have to choose what I say carefully, because I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
If I had to describe Ado in one word, it would be “cautious.” She hides her face and takes her time answering my questions, avoiding any direct statements on the so-called controversy of the song and only making the odd reference to her words being misunderstood. Her wariness is warranted, though. She’s a recent high-school graduate who has been elevated to national levels of celebrity in a short period of time. “Usseewa” served as her first release from major label Universal Music Japan, but nobody expected it to become a TikTok meme, chart hit and bringer of moral panic all at once.
“When I was at karaoke recently, I went out to get drinks… and ‘Usseewa’ was playing while I was picking them up. It was weird hearing it,” she says with a laugh.
The sudden appearance of fame in a person’s life is an experience that few have had but many of us have seen played out in film and the tabloids. Ado and a new generation of digitally savvy teenagers are painfully aware that celebrity is fleeting, circumstances can change in a snap and privacy is paramount. This is especially true for female artists, who can face particularly harsh criticism from anonymous users — one artist with a similar background to Ado, Yama, received unwarranted and nasty reviews online after appearing on a TV program and not conveying the correct amount of gratitude, a charge rarely leveled against men.
While she doesn’t offer up too many specifics about her childhood, Ado is happy to talk about her exposure to music, which, as a child, came in the form of her father’s love of the rock group Queen and her own love of Disney soundtracks, particularly “Cinderella.” When she was only 6, a cousin introduced her to Vocaloid, the singing-synthesizer software most famously associated with the avatar Hatsune Miku.
“When I first heard it, it was something I had never heard before — the voices, the lyrics, the world,” Ado says, having referenced in past interviews track’s like wowaka’s “World End Dance Hall,” with its nonhuman vocal delivery and pitch, as being why she loves the style.
Ado grew up during Vocaloid’s early years, when creators made bedroom-produced pop anchored around synthesized vocals conveying feelings they themselves couldn’t sing. These songs were then uploaded to sites such as Nico Nico Douga, creating an alternate pop landscape with its own signature sounds, stars and customs.
Another Vocaloid convention that stuck with Ado was anonymity. She keeps her identity a secret, won’t reveal her real name and uses an anime-style avatar to represent herself.
“Back then, I had even less confidence in myself. I was very shy, dark, and had a lot of personal complexes,” she says of her early teens. She discovered “utaite” (meaning, “sing”) artists, human singers who cover Vocaloid tracks. “They all hid their appearance and name. They just showed their appeal through singing. I thought, I could do that.”
So Ado went down that path, recording in her closet using a basic setup, before eventually connecting with Vocaloid producers such as Kujira and jon-Yakitory to create original tunes in 2019, both of which enjoyed some viral success.
Ado has benefited a lot from a digital shift in Japanese music, powered forward by the same Vocaloid world she came up in. Scene staples such as Kenshi Yonezu and the utaite artist Reol became pop stars in real life. Breakthrough projects such as Yorushika, Zutto Mayonaka de Ii no Ni and Yoasobi featured members who made their name as Vocaloid artists. All these acts carry the ethos of the community’s early days with them into the 2020s: obscured identities, animated music videos, and lyrics that describe a more downcast view on modern life — with mostly all of it taking place on the internet.
In Ado’s case, she remembers opening Twitter one day after school and finding a direct message from a person at Universal Music. She signed with them, was paired with syudou, and “Usseewa” was born.
“The songs he makes are just straight anger,” Ado says of her producer. The track’s structure — lurching into a scream five seconds in — makes it perfect for the fickle tastes of subscription streaming users and TikTokers. Ado’s singing is also dynamic enough to fuel reaction videos, while inspiring covers and parodies galore. “Usseewa” is only available digitally — another noticeable shift in a country still seen as clinging to physical formats. It confirms what last year’s big Vocaloid-powered hit, Yoasobi’s “Yoru ni Kakeru,” hinted at — that a new generation of artists raised online are moving into the spotlight, and pushing the Japanese music industry to work in the digital sphere they’re familiar with.
Ado herself says she’s happy to see the Vocaloid community enjoying newfound popularity, even if the small details of the popstar life still catch her off guard: She collaborated with dessert chain Sweets Paradise on a line of specialty items — including “Usseewa Black Curry” — and when asked about the seemingly un-Ado-like partnership, she laughs, hinting at the underlying absurdity of it, before delivering a diplomatic line about enjoying the store herself.
Not bad for an artist who just told the country to “shut up.”
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