J-Month: Welcome to BabyMetal

Welcome to J-Month on 1Up Culture. The month of July is dedicated to Japanese popular culture (with a brief detour for an Ant-Man review). And there was no way I was making it through this month without talking one of the more fascinating pieces of Japanese pop culture that has been breaking into the western market in recent times. While Japanese music had a brief run of popularity before the neighbouring style K-pop took over, we still see some of the more unique sides of Japanese music draw attention out west. Two notable examples is the queen of kawaii Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Hatsune Miku (who I’ve discussed previously, which will be re-uploaded here during J-Month). But this time I’m turning my attention to something a bit more intense. They’re big in Japan, but they’ve won multiple awards from western music magazines, and only growing in worldwide popularity. I’m talking of course, about BabyMetal.

BabyMetal is what you get when you take the typically aggressive and brutal metal music scene and throw in three teenaged girls who have been raised up on the J-pop music scene. The result is the high-pitched melodies of bubble-gum pop against double kicks and chugging bass guitar. It’s weird and jarring. It shouldn’t work, it really shouldn’t. But while you first listen because your curiosity is stronger than your common sense, you eventually discover something: it legitimately works. The style clashes at first, but the concept is interesting beyond the first bout of near morbid fascination.

That’s not to say it is for everyone. The ‘breakthrough’ awards the band has won recently out west has received plenty of criticism from fans of the genre. While it is not unusual for metal fans to decry a band or sub genre as ‘un-metal’ (subgenre battles in the metal scene sometimes resemble religious arguments more than music discussion), it is not all that surprising. BabyMetal is officially recognised as a three piece act: Su-Metal (17), Yuimetal (16) and Moametal (15). They are the three young girls at the forefront of all the promotion. But they don’t perform the music, they simply do the vocals. The music comes from a house band who don’t always play live, instead leaving the three girls to their own devices. This tends to fall against the typical preferences of many metal fans, regardless of subgenre, and irrespective of whether the chirpy vocal work feels like the next ‘evil’ in metal, joining a history of evil like emo metal, nu metal and hair metal (depending on your tastes. You might prefer Viking metal or Mathcore…seriously if you’ve never been ‘into’ metal it is a crazy side of music).

BabyMetal is a product of the environment they grew up in. While western music fans tend to appreciate the ‘authentic’, where a band makes their own way and everything comes from the artists, that is less important in many of the asian markets. Both K and J-Pop are built by companies, more representing a production line than a typical music label. Promising young artists join the rigorous training systems, spend years developing their abilities before being churned out in a group and sold to the waiting audience.

BabyMetal exists in this same system. The three girls weren’t fans of the metal genre initially (Yuimetal has admitted metal scared her at first), but they learned to work within the genre, crafting their style into a mashup of the two distinct genres. There are hearty doses of both metal and pop in everything they do. The music, while predominately metal, isn’t afraid to bounce into lighter tunes to accentuate the vocal work. Meanwhile, while their singing could easily work against the typically electronic backing of the J-pop scene, Su-Metal is capable of showing off a vocal range and tone that is more at home with the weight of the metal scene. Even some of the chants or cheers feel more at home behind the heavier side of music, even if they are still sung with the sugary sweet pitch of the three teenagers.

It makes for a cultural clash as much as a musical one, and so when dealing with BabyMetal they need to be held to a different set of standards to be properly appreciated. They represent a mashup and remixing of genres. It is an experiment, and it is also artistic. Everything is themed. The girls rock out in a variation of the gothic lolita theme, decked out in red and black. The performances are all highly choreographed, again designed to reflect both genres represented. The live band playing with them are all in costume, either as skeletons or white demon-like figures. Audience participation is encouraged: singalongs, chants and movements all designed to build the atmosphere. And given the crowds they perform to, which can stretch to over twenty thousand depending on the location, the live show can be mesmerising to watch. It demonstrates how themes can be used in music to enhance the product you’re marketing. It’s also worth noting, the crowd is definitely metal-based. Massive circle pits are a common occurence as well as general moshing.

This is kawaii metal. It is meant to be theatrical and somewhat ridiculous. But it is proving to be more than just a viral meme that has gotten out of hand. The most popular video on their Youtube page, ‘Gimmie Chocolate’, has over 28 million views, which isn’t surprising for a band that has spread through the internet viral culture. But they have outstayed their welcome for just being a one hit viral wonder. They are converting fans. And while one western metal award might be a publicity stunt, they’re capturing several, and drawing huge attention when they tour internationally, getting the chance to perform alongside big names like Metallica, Slayer and Megadeath. Dragonforce have collaborated with them and invited them to play live with them. Critics are giving their album positive reviews. Yes there are segments who won’t accept BabyMetal, but there are also some key figureheads who are. That alone gives their music credibility as being more than a joke or fad.

What BabyMetal represent is an almost western pop view of how Japan would approach metal. Instead of following the expected formula we see elsewhere in the world (of which there are plenty of Japanese metal acts by the way), we would expect them to take a very ‘masculine’ style of music and throw cuteness all over it. It’d be like watching Hello Kitty roar down the road in a Mustang for a Fast and Furious-esque movie. It’s not the first time we’ve seen genre-mashing. Indeed a whole subgenre exists thank to artists like Girl Talk, who sample different songs from all genre spectrums, collating different parts of songs to create new work (which later influenced collaborations like the Linkin Park/Jay-Z album). BabyMetal is essentially an original and sustained version of this concept. But because it is a clearly Japanese concept, it still manages to seem foreign.

Like many people, I first came across BabyMetal through a friend’s suggestion. Naturally my first instinct was that the concept was so ridiculous that I had to check it out to see just how weird it was. Is it weird, and maybe a little unsettling if you’ve been a fan of some kind of metal before? Yeah, it is. But if you can get over the initial culture shock of the concept, and actually watch it, you might find you appreciate it beyond the ‘weirdness’ of it. It genuinely works as a musical subgenre. And if there is one thing artists out of the K/J-pop systems know how to do, it’s put on a show. The choreography is tight, and there is real talent in the three vocalists. BabyMetal might have initially penetrated the western market as viral gold, but it’s sticking around because it is worth listening to. And given they’ve signed worldwide deals with Sony, their international exposure will only continue to grow.

And if you’ve clicked on this article knowing nothing about them and made it this far, reward yourself by watching one of their videos, and come to your own conclusions.

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