Hikaru Utada’s “Face My Fears” with Skrillex has become a milestone single for the Japanese pop star, who celebrated her 20th year in music in 2018.
The single is the opening theme for Kingdom Hearts III, the latest installment of the popular video game series, featuring characters from Disney and Square Enix. After its global release Jan. 18, the song resonated with fans of Utada, Skrillex, and the game franchise alike and quickly blasted its way atop the digital song charts in many countries.
“Face My Fears” exceeded 10,000 downloads and 2.5 million streams in its first week and reached No. 1 on iTunes rankings in 24 countries/regions in Asia, Latin America, and Europe.
The single also earned the 36-year-old superstar her first Billboard Hot 100 hit when it landed at No. 98 on the chart dated Feb. 2. Japanese acts are unfortunately still few and far between on the Hot 100, and the last time a Japanese artist hit the tally was in January 2018 when it-girl Alisa Ueno reached No. 81 as a featured artist in Sofi Tukker’s “Best Friend.” Before that, the biggest hit in recent years was comedian Pikotaro’s 45-second viral earworm “PPAP,” which reached No. 77 on the Hot 100 in October 2016.
Meanwhile, “Face My Fears” broke into the top 10 of the Billboard Japan Hot 100 on the chart dated Jan. 28, bowing at No. 6 after hitting No. 3 for downloads, No. 5 for physical sales, and No. 9 for radio airplay. It peaked at No. 3 on the tally the following week, jumping 9-1 for radio airplay, 33-6 for streaming, and rising to No. 2 for downloads.
Let’s look at some of the factors that helped make “Face My Fears” the instant global chart-topper that it became:
Sales for Kingdom Hearts III hit an all-time high
Fans around the world were brimming with anticipation for the latest installment of the popular series to drop, as it was announced that the “Dark Seeker Saga” that had unfolded over multiple platforms for 17 years since Kingdom Hearts first dropped would conclude at last.
The opening movie trailer for the new game has been viewed over 6 million times since its release in early December. Subsequent promotional clips also racked up views at breakneck speed, and fans also uploaded numerous reaction videos that helped build up hype.
Kingdom Hearts III dropped Jan. 25 in Japan (Jan. 29 in other regions), and has sold over 5 million units, combining physical and downloads. It’s become the fastest-selling game of the series.
Utada and Skrillex’s anthem undoubtedly played a major part in the promotion leading up to the game’s release, resulting in its record-breaking sales, while the game’s success also helped launch “Face My Fears” into the Hot 100. This complementary relationship between the game and theme song embodies the connection between the franchise and Hikaru Utada herself, whose voice and musical presence have been an integral part of the series’ lasting popularity since its inception.
A fan of both Utada and the series as collaborator
Skrillex teamed up with Utada for “Face My Fears” and contributed his electronic music savvy to the songwriting. The 31-year-old has been a longtime fan, and later, friend, of the Japanese pop icon, mentioning in a 2011 tweet that he loves her 2006 album, Ultra Blue.
He shared in a previous Billboard interview his initial impression of Utada’s Kingdom Hearts theme, noting that its difference from the electronic music he was listening to at the time captured his attention.
“When I first heard ‘Simple & Clean,’ it was a weirder, poppier thing for me,” he said. “I connected with everything about it immediately. The melody, the lyrics, the fact that it was electronic and dancey but emotional … That was my introduction to her.” The two stars later met for the first time at a metal festival in Germany, and has maintained a friendly connection since.
Skrillex also grew up playing Kingdom Hearts, and noted that he felt “a deep emotional connection” to the iconic music as a fan of the series since 14 years of age. He was confident he could provide the necessary elements to the new theme song because he “knew what the song, the melody, the emotion, the lyrics needed to feel like” to create music that highlights the characters’ stories and resonates with longtime fans of a beloved series.
His genuine love for the franchise shined through in “Face My Fears,” which pushed “emotional buttons the right way” and resulted in its global hit.
Music with universality and modernity
In 2017, Hikaru Utada, Skrillex, and Poo Bear got together in a London studio. According to Skrillex, “Face My Fears” was written in under an hour, after Utada joined the other two, and they decided “to try to write a new song together, just for fun — to see what could happen.”
The melancholy piano enhances Utada’s beautiful voice and graceful flow, while the drop features Skrillex’s signature brostep sound over a surprisingly minimal beat. The abrupt shifts in tempo from slow to fast, reflect the pace of the adventures depicted in the game, expressed through a contemporary style infused with elements of the current post-EDM trend.
“Face My Fears” contains universal qualities of how game music ought to be while also embracing a modern sound and beat design, and hit producer Poo Bear’s prowess presumably contributed to the achievement of this fine balance.
Effects of strategic promotion
A week before Kingdom Hearts III went on sale in Japan, Utada made her highly acclaimed 2018 album, Hatsukoi, available on streaming platforms to coincide with the release of “Face My Fears.” Although her entire catalog from her first single, “Automatic / time will tell,” up to her previous album Fantôme from 2016 had been released for streaming in December 2017, her latest set had only been available on CD and downloads. Fans from all over the world had been waiting for its streaming release, and the impact created hype for the new single as well.
Three days after “Face My Fears” dropped, she launched a special website called “#HikaruUtada #(Songs).” The site aggregates and visualizes streaming figures from YouTube and Spotify, peak Apple Music song rankings, Instagram and Twitter posts and topics related to “Face My Fears,” the accompanying “Chikai / Don’t Think Twice” and “Too Proud featuring XZT, Suboi, EK (L1 Remix),” released in November 2018.
Of course, “Face My Fears” hadn’t reached the Billboard Hot 100 at this point in time, so Utada and her team deserve credit for their capacity to predict the song’s global hit and to draw attention to its accomplishments in a visually stimulating way.