A beginner’s guide to the Utaite cover song phenomenon

Since the topic of VTubers has become a popular subject here at Rice Digital, I found it interesting that the term “Utaite” has not become more widespread.

It’s especially intriguing as a few VTubers you may already be a fan of started out as an Utaite — so here I am to give the term and those involved in it some much needed love and attention! I have previously mentioned Utaite before, but it never hurts to spread the everlasting appeal of Japanese cover singers, so let us start off with a simple and brief bit of background to get the ball rolling.

An introduction

The term “Utaite” is used to label individuals who upload covers of Japanese songs. As with many other distinctly Japanese online video phenomena, it originated on Nico Nico Douga, Japan’s equivalent to YouTube.

The term came from “Utattemita”, a subcategory of the “Yattemita” area of the site, which means “tried to sing”. More often than not the songs covered were Vocaloid tracks, with other popular song choices hailing from anime, video games, J-pop, and even parodies with new, humorous lyrics.

As of 2021, the appeal of Japanese cover singers continues to gain traction, garnering many professional opportunities to those within the field. While originally the best chances of such individuals bringing in money for their vocal talents was through doujin circles and selling CDs at conventions, a significant amount of the most well-known names in anison circles began as an Utaite.

Piko, Eve, 96Neko, Valshe, Reol, and nano may be some of the most familiar names due to their breakthrough hits with their very own original anime tie-ins, and established Vocaloid producers also dipped their toes into the genre by covering their own songs on the platform — great examples of this include DECO*27 and Kenshi Yonezu (known as Hachi at the time).

Possibly the most appealing aspect of Utaite works is the collaboration part, whereby popular names will often work together to sing a song that requires more than one vocalist. Often, these collaborations come about because the Utaites are real-life friends, only further adding to the sense of wholesomeness in the community as a whole.

Collaborations often result in a large viewer counts, an increase in fans, and opportunities for further collaborations — in many cases, it even results in the fandom affectionally giving the collaborators a “ship” name. Fans enjoy this aspect of the fandom so much so that large-scale “choral” versions of songs are often created, bringing many Utaites together by fusing a number of different performances together into a single production. This is often described as a Nico Nico Chorus.

Live performances help to bring an Utaite’s fans together to witness their favourite performer doing what they love live, and to express their adoration for the Utaite while they’re on stage. It also helps prove the performers’ raw and underappreciated talents.

In a YouTube compilation video, we get to see first-hand some of the most impressive vocal feats these amateur performers manage to achieve through hard work and sheer enthusiasm — and it never fails to be an exciting and wholesome watch.

The appeal

vipTenchou utaite performer

So with the basics out of the way, you may be wondering — what’s the appeal? First and foremost, you may very well already know of the widespread success of Vocaloid if you’re here – that being, the singing voice synthesiser that gave birth to many virtual idols, such as Hatsune Miku, Megurine Luka, and Megpoid. Although Vocaloid songs are continually popular, they obviously sound very “artificial” by their very nature in most instances, so covers by “real” people can help add a significant amount of emotion and personal connection to the often already emotional lyrics and storytelling of the songs.

Additionally, there are a lot of different types of singers out there, each with their own unique tone or style of singing. It can be quite daunting to explore this side of the Internet when we consider how many Utaite there have been for almost two decades — and this is not even considering English Utaite!

For example, Ryouseirui represents a person who can sing in both a male and female register; in the context of Utaite, the term “trap” is also sometimes used to describe a singer who sounds like the “opposite” gender to what they actually are — though note that in the broader context of popular culture, the term “trap” is considered offensive by some (particularly in the west), so use with care. Examples of the Ryouseirui phenomenon include female performers such as Ikasan, Valshe and 96Neko, and male performers like Piko, vipTenchou and Kogeinu.

The “boy next door” label is frequently applied to many popular male singers such as clear, Shouta, and tane. And two more obscure categories are Katsuzetsu, meaning a performer who speaks or sings quickly yet with excellent enunciation, and Taseirui, meaning a singer who can sing in more than one register, effectively sounding like multiple different voices.

These labels are often used in conjunction with those who fall in the bracket of Ryouseirui. Otouo no Ane may be the most popular example of a Katsuzetsu due to her cover of one of the fastest Vocaloid songs ever, and Kisuke no Yuujin is one of the best examples of a Taseirui, as she frequently covers chorus songs, resulting in many different voices she sings in which has reportedly been said to be over 20!

Finally, in more familiar territory for western fans, rap performances are quite popular, with great examples including the previously mentioned Takayan as well as nqrse and Kogarashi.

With all the finer details now out of the way, how about some recommendations to get you started? Here are three male and three female Utaite to get you on your way with your very own Utaite journey. And because I like to be different, the majority of these favourites of mine are not the most popular nor well-known — but we will briefly explore the more accessible and popular Utaite in the “further recommendations” segment.

Our favourites

Senka

Senka is one of the most memorable and impressive Utaite out there despite being one of the most inactive within the community at the time of writing. His splendid vocal control alongside his uncommon ability to sing in both “male” and “female” registers easily makes him one of the best vocalists within the Utaite sphere, even upstaging the more popular Piko. So convincing is his female voice that many listeners believe that songs where he sings lyrics from both the male and female points of view are genuine duets.

Not only is his voice one of the most impressive, but he is an extremely emotional singer, effortlessly connecting to the song’s lyrics and storytelling. His genuine and authentic delivery of said tracks only adds to the cover’s payoff, adding another layer of entertainment and emotion to it quite unlike what any Vocaloid could ever achieve. Just give his cover of Pierrot a listen above for enough proof of this; he ends up tearing up to the song so much so that he barely manages to finish it. That’s the sort of passion and commitment we like to hear!

Senka was active for almost an entire decade, but took frequent hiatuses — and is seemingly completely out of the community now after having deleted his Twitter account a few years ago. Thankfully, many of his most most popular covers are still available on YouTube, and more should know of his talent.

If you want to discover more from him, be sure to also check out the other name he goes by, Akira Kusonoki, for glimpses of his newer work.

Rib

Rib is one of the more versatile Utaite out there, managing to cover a wide variety of different songs with great effect. He can hit high notes with little effort, has strong control of his voice for delivering long and powerful notes, and has a distinct, nasal voice that differentiates himself from his fellow Utaite.

Over the course of more than 20 years, Rib has been considerably more active than Senka, having released a number of full-length cover albums, including original albums under the label FlyingDog. His works are much more extensive, and deserve a look into for not only their variety, but simply to appreciate the splendour of Rib’s vocals.

Ryo-kun

Ryo-kun may be one of the most underrated Utaite out there, but it is understandable as to why. His voice is something I will admit is not as special as others, nor is it strong or really unique enough to make him stand out from the crowd. Ryo-kun is simply applaudable for his consistency ever since he first started, with a clear and immediately pleasant voice that has always sounded grounded and well-controlled.

He also happens to be talented in other ways unlike the majority of Utaite; he mixes his own tracks, and he can play the guitar.

Ryo-kun still frequently uploads many new covers to this day on his YouTube account, and is my first choice for any beginner delving into Utaite due to his easy on the ears voice. The accessibility of his discography is a great starting point to find new songs and other Utaites as a great introductory point.

Hanatan

Now for the ladies! My favourite female within the Utaite community is a toss-up between Hanatan and Akiakane, despite the two being complete opposites in vocal delivery.

Hanatan stands out as an Utaite for her beautiful voice which completely outshines even the most complimentary and beloved J-pop singers (yes, even Yanagi Nagi). Hanatan’s gorgeous voice is never hindered when a song requires her to challenge her range and control, making her one of the most impressive and accomplished talents within the Utaite sphere. The amount of emotion she manages to pour into every single song she tackles — as well as hitting all the high notes! — will warm the coldest of hearts, and is deserving of even more acclaim than she has already garnered.

Her talent has at least been recognised in mainstream media, as she has quite frequently had commercial success doing featured work as opening themes and insert songs for mobile games. She has also collaborated with Vocaloid producers and is a part of doujin circles under the name YuRiCa, as well as having provided opening themes to visual novels such as Sukimazakura to Uso no Machi, and D.C III ~Da Capo III~. She continues to upload new music to this day, albeit at a slower rate than others, but we must always appreciate Hanatan no matter how long it might be between new performances!

Akiakane

Akiakane was one of my first discoveries within the Utaite sphere, and she will never stop being the one with the most impact on me other than Senka. Akiakane will not be for everyone, as her voice is notably harsher and far more of an acquired taste, unlike the majority of the singers within the community. Her overall tone is extremely rough and screechy, which explains the affectionate nickname her fans gave her of “Screaming Cinderella”. But her ruthlessness when tackling any song shows the amount of emotion and passion she delivers — even if it may result in one hell of a sore throat after a recording session.

For this reason I cannot blame her for going on hiatus ever since her last album, SQUARE, released back in 2014. She is instead focusing on her career as a film producer and illustrator; she’s always clearly had an interest in the latter, since she designed her own album covers.

Akiakane represents why I adore the Utaite community as a whole due to this level of creativity, distinctiveness and individuality, making each cover of hers a triumph in still showing us exactly who she is and without holding anything back.

Kano

And we’ve now come full circle with Kano, who happens to be a VTuber!

Kano originally began as an Utaite back in 2010, and gained traction for her light, soft and adorable voice, as evident with her first ever upload of the above cover song, Hello/How are you. From there, Kano has not only greatly improved her vocal capabilities, as evident from her latest song uploads, but she seems to have done everything she can to further her career as an Utaite.

To date, she has produced her very own Vocaloid song named Toumei Ningen no Nihilism, edited and encoded PVs for other producers, and even signed a contract with Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, which resulted in her debut single Stella-rium being used as the opening theme to the anime Hokago no Pleiades. She continues to upload new cover songs on her YouTube account as a VSinger.

Other recommendations

As mentioned before, Utaite will often buddy up to deliver a song sung with different points of view. Such is the case with Hanatan and Pokota above, delivering to us an emotional performance of Crybaby Boyfriend.

And speaking of Pokota, there are so many other notable names not yet mentioned here that are widely recognised and favoured, such as Mafumafu, Soraru, Kradness, halyosy, Wotamin and even Choucho, all being even more popular than those I frequently listen to and highlighted. Why? Discover for yourself! We have given you plenty of groundwork to have fun and explore this side of the Internet without spoiling it too much by covering everyone!

A whole new world

Because in the end, you merely need a gentle push as your introduction to the Utaite world. For many, it represents a reminder of our younger years, and the excitement of falling down the endless rabbit hole, discovering new independent creators to passionately follow and support. There’s nothing quite like stumbling onto exciting and promising new talents who are just waiting to be discovered by the masses — and hopefully witnessing them make it big… or simply affectionately regarding them as hidden gems. But sharing is caring, remember!

It also works the other way, whereby looking into a mainstream talent such as Yanagi Nagi and discovering that she was once an Utaite actually unearths a treasure trove of original songs the masses still have yet to hear. Her cover of the Vocaloid song Last Night Good Night shows us just how far she has come from her first steps as a promising and fresh new singer, and search up her earliest original songs under the name CorLeonis for even more pleasant surprises.

And as a final note, if music simply is not your thing, then never forget that the Utaite world and VTubers seem to have crossed over many a time. Neko96, Kano, *namirin, and Amaterasu are just a handful of entertaining and adorable VTubers worth supporting and watching, so by all means, join the fandom today if you think there’s something or someone here that you will enjoy.

Maybe we will dive even deeper into VSingers another time since it appears to be gaining even more traction in the west with the introduction of Hololive’s IRyS.

There’s no better time than now to go digging into Utaites, be it for nostalgia’s sake to rediscover where your old favourites have gotten to in their blossoming careers, or as a whole new perspective on virtual entertainment culture.

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Lilia Hellal
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