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BoA has numerous fans around the world, opportunities to work with top American producers, and a top-notch global promotional team. What does it mean that her first English-language album was only a moderate commercial success in the States?
Two months ago on March 17th, BoA released her debut English album with the aim of gaining access to mainstream American markets. The release of this album is especially pertinent given the release of Utada Hikaru's second album approximately a month later. To give a short introduction on BoA, the singer began a very early career in Korea at the age of 13, releasing her first album in 2000. She would then spread to Japan, releasing a Japanese album the very next year. Some of her major works include "Jewel Song," "Valenti," "No. 1" and "Don't Start Now."
Beginning in November of 2008, BoA's first English single "Eat You Up" appeared on the radio. However, it was not on an obscure Asian American station that BoA appeared on, but rather KIIS-FM, one of the largest radio stations in the Los Angeles area. Her other major hit, "I Did it for Love," played throughout the East on major stations. BoA was also to appear at KIIS-FM's annual Jingle Ball event, as well as in a Times Square performance covered by MTV Iggy and the annual Korean American spectacular Kollaboration. Evidently SM Entertainment has gone to great degrees to promote the album.
America has known few foreign artists outside of Latin America or Britain. Indeed, America has proven itself to be quite resistant to foreign singers, and especially to non-English artists. A few exceptions include Icelandic Bjork and German Rammstein [and let's not forget Romania's O-Zone]. However, both of these artists demonstrate a specialized style, known to but not followed by "mainstream" Americans. BoA has attempted to bridge this gap by singing her American debut album in English. When speaking of foreign music in the United States, it is impossible to ignore that there are those of non-Japanese heritage, and comparatively more of non-Asian heritage, with whom Japanese cultural products, including music, are popular. Although BoA is a native of Korea, given her long career in Japan (iTunes lists the album as J-pop!), BoA would be known by this group as well, providing her with this loyal fan base for her American expansion. If anything, this would be to her advantage, raking in both those enamored with Japanese culture as well as Koreaphiles. However, it is clear that BoA's new album is attempting not to reach exclusively to these groups, many of whom would purchase her Japanese or Korean language works, but instead to appeal to a much broader audience.
In addition to the language, there is definitely a difference between the types of music popular in Asia and those in the United States. In order to garner the support of a general American audience, BoA has chosen to focus her new album on club music, and has worked in collaboration with artists such as Sean Garrett. Of course, in this lies an inherent problem; why would one buy imitations of American-style music when there is no lack of the authentic? Of course had she not done so, appealing to the US market would have been all the more difficult -- a sort of damned if you do damned if you don't situation. Conversely, her fans find themselves conflicted between a disappointment with the stylistic displacement, as many netizens complain for lack of ballads, and their desire to support BoA's arrival. In this, BoA finds herself walking a bit of a tightrope, trying to gain more fans while not alienating her support base.
However, the music industry in the United States (and most of the world) is not only a sale of the music itself, but also of the image of the artist. In order to do this, not only must the music be visible, but so must the artist herself. The other aspect to consider is that image is a reflection of culture; not only would BoA have to sing in English in an Americanized song, but also have to appear more palatable to the American market. In this, BoA does note a significant transformation; while Korea singers are notably more sexualized than a few years ago, they have yet to reach American standards. Although she refuses to call herself sexy [link], the video for "I Did it for Love" tries very hard, but thankfully fails, to live up to American levels of provocation. One would be more than reluctant to suggest that the albums ultimate success depended on BoA's wardrobe, or even the sexuality of the lyrics, yet it does affect the overall marketing scheme. While not necessarily accusing American culture of discrimination, it is important to note the limited number of Asian Americans in the mainstream music industry, for whom neither English nor lack of knowledge of the culture should be a problem.
Of course, it would be fallacy to imply that promotion, music style, and artist image are the only factors which dictate the success of the album; there is always the criteria of whether or not the album is "good," a subjective standard but nevertheless loosely ascertainable. As the music came out, the reception was very divided. Some point to BoA's English as a weakness, some support her abilities, some only give an "A" for effort. Others might complain about the dance beats being too heavy, or that the vocal quality is poor while others simply claim that the album is wonderful; very few people seem to have taken a stance in between. However, one can not only measure success solely by those vocal enough to state their opinion; music is after all a commercial venture. BoA's English debut did obtain some degree of success, attaining a rank of #127 on the Billboard on March 18th. Seemingly a large accomplishment, it must be put into perspective; Utada Hikaru's first English album in 2004 reached position #160, with little promotion and an overall poor reception. On the whole, the album has been but a flash in the pan, and a dim one at that.
The reasons behind the album's ultimate lack of success may be difficult to ascertain; however, it is most likely a combination of many factors. Regarding the publicity, the attention given to the album outside of promotional purposes still seems to remain largely within the jurisdiction of Asian-American and Asian Entertainment Media. MTV Iggy is responsible for world content, and the fact that the album was covered by this group, rather than regular MTV, shows that the album still is categorized as genre music. One would be hard pressed to imagine The Beatles or the Rolling Stones, had they debuted today, on a "world music" outlet. Whether or not BoA's English was an issue, when speaking of the quality of the music, magnanimity aside, the term "generic" comes to mind. All in all, it appears that her initial fan base was also the group responsible for the sales of the album. Granted, the event does ultimately point to the fact that Asian stars are becoming popular enough to hold concerts in the United States and draw such a crowd.
Date Posted: 5/22/2009