“I can only make a song when there’s something I really need to write about,” Hikaru Utada confesses to Zane Lowe in their Apple Music interview discussing Utada’s newest album BAD MODE. Utada has experienced a rebirth of self over the past few years, experiencing the intensity of isolation on a public stage. BAD MODE is the diary behind the scenes of their journey to deeper self-discovery, tapping into the core of what it means to be human through their signature J-pop sonic lens. This album, their eighth, carries a complex significance. BAD MODE is not only Hikaru Utada’s first bilingual album release but the first album following their history-making Instagram Live of 2021, where they came out as non-binary.
This record feels like therapy; conveyed through their lyrics, Hikaru Utada is ready to do the work as an artist and person. In coming forward as non-binary, they felt “a sense of responsibility,” advocating for visibility in gender diversity. The journey of how this J-Pop superstar started to recognize their preferred identity is one that is played out similarly to what Britney Spears experienced under her conservatorship. Utada details that prior to their coming out, they felt they were trapped in a “machine,” and were afraid to challenge their public identity. While living in Japan, they were under strict control, sharing that they’d never opened their own bank account, gotten their own mobile phone contract, or rented an apartment on their own, as their management team handled every aspect of their lives. Once they relocated to the United States, they began to get to know themselves, shaping their identity only to discover that their gender was a fluidly changing part of who they are.
The songs on BAD MODE are a story about the healing process that leads to transformative self-love, which branches into all aspects of life. Romance, grief, passion, friendship, pleasure, pain, and confidence are the key themes Hikaru Utada explores, allowing the freedom of two languages to help them paint a more vivid self-portrait through their music. Their bilingualism is reflected everywhere, down to the album’s title. Hikaru Utada explains to NPR that BAD MODE is a Japanese iteration of American slang. “I find it fascinating how language evolves and influences each other, and Japanese is very creative. Well, any language is creative, but I enjoy the particularities of Japanese,” she comments. “It’s a very playful language and [Japanese youth], they’ve taken the word “bad” and used it like a noun. Bad-o, [which means] negative, bad vibes.”
Every track brings a consistently striking depth of feeling that tinges every breathy intonation and passionate, soaring crescendo. Utada’s voice feels cozy and warm; their emotive tone makes each note luminescent with the glow of a fond memory. They strike balance between their many parts of who they are, cutting dance-pop and disco records amidst an intimate, R&B-influenced sound. The songs in the latter camp are what Lowe called “bangers you can cry to” in the aforementioned interview—songs like the A.G. Cook-produced “君に夢中” (which roughly translates to “I’m Crazy About You”) or “誰にも言わない” bring emotional banger divas Toni Braxton and Janet Jackson to mind. Floating Points steps in on the album’s closing track, an 11-minute psychedelic Mariah-Carey-in-Cannes fantasy that summarizes the ultimately hopeful message of BAD MODE. A love letter to the self, the album ends on an upbeat, experimental note, serving as a reminder of Utada’s ever-evolving yet eternally powerful legacy around the world.