and here’s why…
The last decade has been a pretty interesting time for the music industry. First, the twin swords of piracy and Apple exposed just how draconian their business models actually were, and, as if that wasn’t enough, while every label in the world was struggling to adapt, this new format had blown open the doors on marketplace predictability. People were able to access everything. Immediately. And, understandably, that changed the way they consumed everything. Immediately.
In the past, labels could rely on a pretty solid cycle of mass market trends to keep ’em rolling in green. Drag an underground music scene into the spotlight, market the shit out of it until it’s not cool anymore, then find something else and repeat. It might sound cynical, but that’s pretty much how it happened. Nu-Metal, Pop Punk, Hip Hop, Dubstep; all counter-culture movements eventually castrated by the very platform that brought them their popularity. iTunes brought to mass market the idea that everything could be accessible by anyone anywhere and with the blinkers off, audiences saw past what the majors were pushing. Rather than following trends, we started to create them. Better yet, we created them with a tool that even the most pig-headed music executive just couldn’t ignore; our wallets.
I still remember the day Gotye topped the charts here in Ireland with Somebody That I Used to Know. This strange, beautiful little tune, written by one bloke, recorded in said bloke’s living room, released with no fanfare, had beaten out Nicki Minaj, David Guetta, LMFAO and every other big gun the majors had and had done it all over the god damn world. Predictability was officially a thing of the past. The public were aware and hungry and constantly searching for their next fix of counter-culture. Gangnam Style, Harlem Shake, Fun., all achieved popularity beyond their wildest expectations, not because they were part of some grand conspiracy to destroy the music industry, not because they had money pumped into them by wealthy benefactors, but because, to put it simply; the public liked them. For the first time in decades, public opinion was actively controlling the music industry rather than the other way around.
You’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with Babymetal, a 3 piece idol group from Japan who have, in the last few months, pretty much taken over the world. That too is a simple question to answer; they are the most recent example of this public control, but their success means a lot more for the industry and audiences than anything that came before them. I don’t believe it’s exaggeration to say that Babymetal are the most important musical act of our generation and if you’ll bear with me, I believe I can convince you that I’m not crazy for saying that.
Firstly, lets look at what Babymetal are at their most basic, structural level. They are, as mentioned previously, a 3-piece Japanese idol group. There’s certainly nothing revolutionary there, Japan is full of idol groups, so much so that even other Japanese pop stars have taken to quietly complaining about them. It’s a format that has proved wildly successful in Japan but hasn’t really taken off anywhere else. The closest comparison for western audiences would be girl bands like The Saturdays or boy bands like One Direction, but even though there are similarities – both types of group are usually marketed for their attractiveness and sing catchy, occasionally annoying, pop songs – there are fundamental differences in the way idol groups and girl/boy bands operate.
That’s not important right now though, because as idol groups go, structurally Babymetal aren’t really anything special. Their uniqueness lies elsewhere, specifically, in their sound. Babymetal might look like a generic Japanese idol group, but they certainly don’t sound like one. Babymetal rock. They rock hard.
The sight of three adorable Japanese girls dancing around to some, let’s face it, serious god-damn metal, was initially enough to grab people’s attention. It was strange and something that audiences, particularly western audiences, hadn’t seen before. Like Gangnam Style and Harlem Shake before them, Babymetal were initially the subject of jokes; another example of ‘weird Japan’ and their strange ideas. That joke didn’t last very long though. Not only was Babymetal’s debut album genuinely f*cking good, their success has seen them travel the world performing to packed out rooms in the U.K, U.S, Europe and Canada, something few other idol groups have ever managed to do. Oh and they recently finished a stint supporting Lady Gaga on her U.S tour.
The joke is over. Babymetal are serious business.
Let’s pause for a moment and bring the discussion back to the industry. Rock music, in all its forms, has long since been regarded as the antidote to the conveyor-belt pop that people were force-fed in the 90s, and even though most forms of rock music have themselves been hugely (and successfully) commercialized, most metal/alternative bands (and fans) still see themselves as part of a genuine counter-culture. I’m generalizing, obviously, but metal fans are usually very quick to decry any musician or artist who may appear disengenuous or fraudulent – the accusations of manufacturing leveled at Linkin Park are a prime example of this. This attitude is understandable given how difficult it is to compose, record, produce and perform most forms of contemporary metal; why should anyone be allowed to lip sync when these guys are busting their asses every night? It’s a reasonable argument, really.
Babymetal, an idol group (I can’t stress that point enough), who have little to no influence on the music they perform, have been embraced by metal fans the world over. Readers of Metal Hammer magazine even voted them the winners of this years Metal World Cup. Given how critical metal audiences usually are of artists who don’t actually create their art, just how the hell has this happened? Is it because the performance is the art? Is it because the music behind this pantomime is more in line with what these audiences usually like? Is it because Babymetal are the cutest thing to happen to metal since…well, ever?
Realistically, it’s probably all three, but I’m hedging my bets on the second one. I mentioned earlier that Babymetal’s self titled debut album was, in addition to being the weirdest thing you’ll probably hear all summer, pretty damn good. It hops between metal sub-genres with reckless abandon but, mostly because the whole thing is so weird anyway, never loses its sense of coherency. Nu-Metal, Trash Metal, Metalcore, Hair Metal, Death Metal, Trance Metal all make brief appearances in different ways and are all produced with a sincerity that belies the idol-group nature of the project. It’s not genuine. It can’t possibly be genuine. But it’s good. It’s really, really good. And in the face of something so enjoyable, even the steel hearts of metal audiences all over the globe can’t help but ignore that disconnect. Babymetal have effectively destroyed the notion that music should be disregarded purely for being disingenuous.
But metal isn’t the only sound present on their eponymous debut and that’s a pretty important talking point too. I ranted for three paragraphs about how the concept of trends is a thing of the past and how labels are struggling to adapt to audiences that, increasingly, want everything all at once. I’ll concede that trends haven’t completely gone away, we were definitely in a dubstep trend for a while and more recently folk music enjoyed a stint in the light of public favor, but these were hugely transitive and didn’t stick around as long as or have the kind of influence that the movements of the 90s and early 00s did. Musicians have adapted to this change in demand by mostly refusing to sit still; more than ever we’re seeing artists who previously would never have looked twice at each other on the street work together to try do something mad. Collaboration is now a vital part of the creative process for most musicians, not because they enjoy it, but because nobody knows what the hell anyone wants anymore so your best bet is to try your hand at as much as you can and see what works.
For Babymetal, this means reaching past the myriad of metal sub-genres into styles that are both closely related and not even in the same postcode. There are flirtations with dubstep to be heard throughout the album and, in addition to the innumerable blatant pop hooks that sit over all that angsty guitar stuff like stubborn candy-floss on a barbed wire fence, there are also moments of complete insanity. One song has a hip hop break. Another has a reggae break. I promise neither of those sentences are lies.
Babymetal are an idol group. They don’t write their music. They dance around onstage and sing along to music written by others, less inclined towards the limelight, and yet, this fact is going wholly ignored by the very people who’ve previously made it their job to point it out to the rest of us. They’re the latest in a series of artists to disregard the supposed confines of their genre, although probably the most aggressively flagrant about it. They’ve taken the machismo out of modern metal, replaced it with a hefty helping of Kawaii-culture and have convinced hoards of western music fans, who’ve never really embraced the Kawaii thing before anyway, to accept it and to love it. On top of all of this, they’re the first idol group to actually, genuinely break territories outside Japan, an impressive feat in and of itself.
Their sound is alternative but they definitely aren’t. They’re a paradox within which the values of the metal counter-culture are ignored, but the musicality is not. They have definitively proved that you really can sell anything to anyone and, more importantly, that no one has any idea what’s going on anymore.
Now, isn’t that exciting?