‘Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything’ - George Bernard Shaw
Perhaps a lofty notion with which to begin an article on such a topic, but please indulge me. Picture it, we’ve all been there; the rock show who your friend who is in a band/is a promoter/is a die-hard metalhead (delete as applicable) recommended to you. You know the pitch. ‘Oh yeah it’s gonna be amazing, we’ve got Psychomatic Souleater, Chainsaw Surgery and Aborted DonkeyFoetus ONTHE SAME BILL! Dude it’s gonna rawwwwwwwk’ etc etc. Cue an evening of blast beats, palm-muting heavy dirges filled with growled and screeched lyrics detailing topics taking in genocide, mass murder, torture and all sorts of other-not-suitable-for your-granny delights described in the goriest of gory detail. The merch stand stacked high with t-shirts emblazoned with a near illegible thicket-esque logo of the bands in situ, sat proudly atop various hand-drawn images of corpses in various stages of dismemberment, decay and mutilation. Kids going wild in a fantasy land of imaginary bloodlust and killing frenzies, rocking out and jumping around, minds probably filled of their cantankerous boss or wayward ex-girlfriend being the unfortunate victim of whatever manner of torture and sadism the latest ditty happens to be detailing.
Now far be it from me to suggest that such events don’t still have a place in modern music, but consider the above ask yourself, doesn’t it all feel a bit… stale?
Japan has a rich and successful culture of musical exports to the West. From early traditional folk music to post-war Japanese jazz of June and Sadao Watanabe, right through to the Hyde (sadly deceased in circumstances that can only be described as still disputed) era of X-Japan, the country has often found success with international audiences. However, in a country oft-described as almost totally homogenous, the international recognition of its musical and cultural exports is nearly universally regarded with a sense of total surprise and generally deemed as a one-off.
It is in this context that the roaring success of Babymetal in the west and across the world should be recognised as a perfect example of how an almost exclusively westernised concept can be taken, analysed for it’s technical and compositional points, assimilated and subsequently combined with an exclusively Japanese musical formula to go on to create the most exciting and original sub genre of music since the Nu-Metal revolution of the early 2000’s, when bands such as Korn, Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit tore up the rule book, gave a mighty middle finger to the purists and struck out alone to invent a whole new genre on their own, to widespread international acclaim. The fusion of the predominantly death-metal based style with it’s blast beats, palm muting and epic solos rammed together with the sugary J-Pop choruses and highly stylised choreography has won applause from many well-respected metal journalists and critics, and the band became an internet sensation more or less overnight thanks to the viral success of the video for the song ‘Gimme Chocolate’, which was the springboard for their penetration into the lucrative western market.
But what of perception? In a genre that it could be perhaps implied relies heavily on style over substance, and regarding a band that flies in the face of every convention previously set, how is this extremely divisive act going over with the musical masses? Well, fan reaction can be at best described as mixed, with many old skool metal fans and long-time extreme metallers no doubt throwing themselves from the nearest tall structure like so many butthurt, corpse-painted lemmings. BUT, there are many quarters of both the music press and indeed inside these more traditional cliques that have not only accepted Babymetal, but actually welcomed them with open arms as the breath of fresh air they so clearly are. In a sub culture famed for its strict formula following, an act has broken through that has done away with convention and rewritten the script. It takes no more than a cursory scan at a Babymetal Youtube post or a Metal Hammer (longtime and ardent supporters) article concerning BM to see that the detractors need little excuse to vent their choler in the most colourful and descriptive terms against the band and the emerging genre, not to mention the followers themselves.
But is the invective born of anger? Or fear?
Fear that a treasured institution previously considered sacrosanct and impermeable due to it’s inherent inaccessibility is being dismantled and turned into something new? And moreover, not by some corporate juggernaught or powerful new act that roar, rage and roll over every perhaps weaker band and leave them floundering in its wake, but by three smiling Japanese teenagers singing cheerfully about chocolate and bullying? The fury of the puritans is only exacerbated by the seemingly industry-wide endorsement of what the Babymetal team are doing from established metal personalities ranging from Anthrax to Metallica, Corey Taylor to Marty Friedmann, the project has been backed and supported by some quarters who some metal fans will have been aghast to see doing anything but slamming it as faddy, flash-in-the-pan stuff and nonsense.
What can be considered perhaps more remarkable is how much of a gateway to Japanese culture in it’s wider sense Babymetal has become for many wide-eyed, previously non aware westerners. The ‘WTF Japan’ aspect of western society has long been established, with many western news agencies, websites and television programmes for years making light work of lampooning of the more obviously bizarre cultural oddities. Serving as an unashamed icon of the famously perceived more ‘quirky’ aspects of Japanese pop-culture, many newly converted western Babymetal fans have gone on to take in more and more of Japanese music, both modern and traditional, and indeed made such a pursuit into an actual lifestyle, right here in the west.
Love them or hate them, indifferent or ardent die hard supporter, Babymetal have generated a discussion, a debate that rages in the previously fading heart of what is regarded as an extremely traditional and dogmatic genre that could have been described as screaming out for an injection of something new to get people both excited and engaged, and boy did everybody get that. Babymetal have breathed new life into an aging beast formerly in danger of falling foul of even marginal notoriety and being consigned to forever the preserve of those dedicated enough to still pursue it. It is pushing bands to create ideas, to work harder to entertain their audiences by using new ideas and creating new fusions and hybrid styles to ensure supporters remain engaged and ultimately ‘keeping the scene alive’, the universal tagline of more or less any up and coming metal band that ever dreamed of one day making it big. Vive le Kawaii Revolution!
Scary metal? It’s just too damned mainstream…..