Babymetal aren’t the latest chapter in the ‘wacky Japan’ story


Special To The Japan Times

The British are mad, aren’t they? That Kate Bush with her crazy gyrating around a cello in the video for “Babushka,” that daft loon Robbie Williams with his funky skeleton costume, those kerrr-azy Tellytubbies with their wacky dance routines — what is it about the British that makes them so totally off-the-wall bonkers?

Not the kind of report you see very often, and one that would probably seem a bit lazy, under-researched and perhaps just a touch racist, but replace the word “British” with “Japanese” and replace Kate, Robbie, Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Lala and Po with the likes of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and current BuzzFeed favorites Babymetal, and . . . well, you know, the Japanese are mad, aren’t they: What more is there to say?

When something seems mad, it may very well be the result of a unique and oddball talent like Bush, but when it seems to be happening institutionally and across the board, it’s more often a rational response to irrational circumstances. To a large degree that’s what’s happening in the idol scene in Japan’s dysfunctional pop industry.

In the 1970s, when mainstream Japanese pop was good, an abundance of ideas (albeit heavily mediated) from songwriters versed in a wide range of musical styles flowed into the mainstream. Those ideas came from the worlds of jazz, classical, psychedelia, folk and the avant-garde. Musicians grounded in these diverse scenes could thus work their voices into the mainstream, whether it was through their own work, as with stars such as Yumi Arai (now Matsutoya), or through writing for others, as with songwriters such as Koichi Morita and Yusuke Hoguchi or lyricist Yu Aku.

It was always a handy advantage for the singers who fronted pop acts to be young, pretty and female, but they still had to win auditions and perform live — talent was of equal or greater importance than looks.

In the ’80s, appearance and marketing really started to take over. Stars were produced and promoted through cross-media marketing, in particular through commercial appearances. Music and talent became secondary. The term to describe this new kind of star was “CM (commercial) idol.”

In the ’90s, J-pop initially acted as a backlash against the CM-idol system, putting more focus on bands and singers with a mature, modern image. However, when album sales started to show a decline in the late ’90s, access to the majors gradually closed to new players. The big labels took fewer chances on new bands, money for songwriters and producers atrophied and marketing reasserted its grasp.

Uber-producer Tetsuya Komuro used to sell as much with his own band, Globe, as his superstar producees (Namie Amuro, Ami Suzuki) did. His modern-day equivalent, Yasutaka Nakata and his group Capsule, barely sells a fraction of what he can get by producing commercially managed, image-oriented acts such as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Perfume.

With these circumstances in mind, the revival of idol pop, first with Morning Musume and then in a big way with AKB48, can in some ways be seen as a subversive element, because it’s the only corner of the mainstream pop industry that offers anything like a meritocracy.

For all its horrors and the undoubted misogyny that underscores everything it does, it’s important to note the effort AKB48 puts into maintaining the illusion of intimacy and contact between its fans and members, even if it’s heavily monetized at every step: There’s the small theater in Akihabara, the handshake greeting events, the localization of its sister groups and the regular “elections” that decide the most popular performer in the group.

Musically, AKB48 is stuck in the homogeneous blob of the mainstream, with the worst kind of bland, crassly produced, thin-sounding, supermarket-ready pop. Elsewhere in the idol scene, though, groups are able to tailor their music to speak to specific audiences and subcultures who have been left out by a mainstream that increasingly avoids saying anything specific to anyone for fear of alienating others (and as a result gradually alienates everyone). To do this, idol music has been far more willing to provide songwriters from the underground music scene with a path to professional participation in the music business.

This is where Babymetal comes in. Many of the trio’s songs are the work of Nobuki Narasaki (usually known by just his surname), the frontman of post-hardcore/shoegaze/metal/screamo band Coaltar of the Deepers — a band with a deep well of underground cred.

Narasaki has past form here, having written songs for idol superstars Momoiro Clover Z along with avant-pop musician and composer Kenichi “Hyadain” Maeyamada. Meanwhile, songwriters such as Etsuko Yakushimaru of new wave band Soutaisei Riron, Yasuharu Konishi of Pizzicato 5 and Nobuya Usui of technopop performance troupe (M) otocompo have also been able to get their music out via various idol groups. Even Yoshiyuki “Jojo” Hiroshige of noise legends Hijokaidan has made a mark on the scene, producing a collaboration album with self-described “anti-idols” BiS.

What has happened is that by adopting the simplistic but effective marketing model of cute face + whatever = ¥¥¥, the idol scene has opened up a new route for alternative musical ideas to enter the fringes of the mainstream. And by catering to subcultural fan groups, they have, aided by the growth of the Internet, given voice to aspects of culture that the core mainstream’s drive for homogeneity has ignored — building strong, die-hard fanbases in the process.

The idol scene has now grown to such a level that it’s starting to show cracks and is splitting off into different directions. Parts of the indie scene have cottoned onto this and you can see the focus-on-the-girls model of promotion that has always been indie music’s shameful secret moving more out into the open as stores such as Tower Records increasingly start to push musically unrelated acts together as “girls bands,” and subculture events increasingly adopt idol-like presentation and marketing. The rabid misogyny of otaku-focused acts such as AKB48 sits poorly with the more egalitarian indie and subculture fans who have lately colonized the idol world, and they tend to prefer the less overtly sexualized and more musically out-there groups such as Momoiro Clover Z, and now Babymetal.

Increasingly as well, the gullibility of the Western media in its unquestioning acceptance and regurgitation of any “wacky/weird Japan” story has surely occurred to the people behind these newer groups. The long-tail overseas success of not-quite-idol Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has been followed by increasing nudges toward overseas markets, with and Babymetal explicitly presenting themselves in a sort of “From idol . . . to the world!” sort of manner. “What’s going on in Japan?” Babymetal asked in its video, “My First Heavy Metal in Tokyo 2012,” and the act’s career thus far has been in part a carefully crafted answer to that question, made in full awareness of an overseas audience looking in.

While the wackiness of idol acts such as Babymetal is obvious for all to see, it’s also the work of people who know exactly what they are doing, trying to craft fun out of a specific set of economic, creative and marketing circumstances. In that sense, is it really any more absurd than the theatrics that Western metal acts such as Dragonforce and Manowar have been delighting and dismaying fans with for decades?

  • phu

    This is a really interesting perspective on the girl band/idol phenomenon that would have never occurred to me, not having any knowledge of the writers behind some of it. If this is indeed what’s going on, it sounds like a good step in a good direction; hopefully the value introduced here doesn’t get ignored and stamped out by future industry movements.

  • Lorne McDermott

    Great Article!

  • blondein_tokyo

    Are you kidding me? It’s just more exploitation, and this time of even younger girls. Sexist, misogynistic, and yes- abusive. Soon we’ll be seeing meet-and-greets where all the middle aged male fans of this group can line up for their autographs, and then take home their autographed pictures to wank over. Sexualizing young women who aren’t even old enough yet to have sex themselves? Disgusting.

    • Speel

      Not to be an ass, but your an idiot if you think this is sexist, misogynistic or exploration. I don’t even know how you think this is abuse. The fact that these teen girls are doing this is their choice many don’t wear outfits nearly as sexual as western media. To go back to your section on this being sexist, I would like to ask how? And if it is then boy bands in Japan, Korea and even male groups such as the British One Direction and even Justin Beibler are sexist towards men. Anyone who puts themselves in the spotlight know what that entailes and know they will be seen as objects in one way or another, this applies to males and females. To state they are being taken advantage of and sexualized is stupid as they made the choice to be employed in that sector and are compensated better than most regular people.

    • Guest

      This is precisely why I can’t get on board with their schtick. Like, ok, it sounds like a neat idea, fun, really. But then you watch the video and you have these little girls waving their butts around in tiny micro skirts and knee socks. If it had been Kyary-Pamyu-Pamyu, I could deal with it. She’s an adult.

      Ugh. It IS disgusting. And not metal. So not metal. Honestly, the longer I live in Japan, the more and more this aspect of the culture disgusts me. It really just sickens me to my soul, the amount of child exploitation going on here.

      You know what was metal? That scene in Onmyoji 2 where he literally rocks his way to heaven with the power of ancient Japanese metal. Er, I mean, kabuki. Which, I mean, kabuki is metal as all hell. THAT is metal. This? Never.

    • greenlight

      > Sexualizing young women who aren’t even old enough yet to have sex themselves

      Sounds like you’re pretty naive about the age people have their sexual debut these days. 1/5 14-year-olds have already had sex…

    • 谷口賢也

      What the hell is this “sexualizing” people keep talking about? Straight men can feel attraction to 15 year old girls, its always been that way. Society can really only stop men from acting on those urges.
      You’re clearly confusing your irrational, but common, aversion to seeing older men with younger women. Which is the same thing men do when they call their discomfort with seeing women in revealing clothing “feminist.” Neither of those things can objectively be wrong, unless they involve harm to another human via a non-consensual relationship etc. “Sexual morality” has no business in discussions of human rights.

    • sl

      i think you have issues you’re projecting onto this. babymetal just act cute. it’s not sexual at all. you probably think a little girl wearing a dress showing her legs is being sexualized and advertised for pedophiles by her parents. you should see a therapist.

  • Josh Landquest

    Great article, and totally accurate from what I know and have seen in Japan’s music scene. And yeah, this country is home to some of the most brilliant, calculated, almost deviantly clever marketing I’ve ever seen. Sometimes.

    Like Ian said, it’s not “weird for weird’s sake” by any means. It’s clever and always just ridiculous enough to be effective. There was obviously an untapped metal otaku market, that will also attract metal-curious otaku who are tired of the saccharine sweet keyboard techno pop we’ve had to tolerate until now.

    Yet after seeing a video of DEMPAGUMI,inc. live… If this is a sign of good things to come, pop-wise, things don’t look good to me.

    Seems there will always be more emphasis on theatrics and selling hyper-synthetic, selfsame cliched soundtracks for otaku than on actual musicality (depending on the definition of music)…unless..

    Hopefully Babymetal inspire more unique-ness, some change, and not just a wave of unoriginal Babymetal clones…I predict the latter, but hold out hope that J-pop becomes a battleground for innovation, genre-bending and *maybe* even really well-written songs.

    I like the pastiche of Babymetal just because it’s Japanese pop idols (by which I mean teenage girls) not trying to be typecast girls -they are doing something other than appearing innocent and cute and with a vibe like they were forced to undress for money in front of a camera (like AKB48, et al).

    The best case scenario in a possible battle for monopoly on pockets of taste / untapped markets would be a scenario where in search of the next new sound, a bunch of non-crotchety producers and songwriters to step in and blow the world’s minds… People in touch with the cutting edge of music, someone like Seiho from Osaka, for instance…

  • Niiru Neko

    Great article from someone who knows the history of Idol music.Also good to see Momoclo Z mentioned.I hope to see BABYMETAL perform to the same size audiences as Momoclo’s 100k 2 nighter.Seeing BABYMETAL’s Budokan show at such a young age,and charting overseas shows they are on the right track.

    Do you remember Nocchi,A-chan and Kashiyuka handing out leaflets for concerts at that age.The potential young Su,Yui and Moa is limited only by those who guide them.

    Finally and maybe off topic but one important factor is the release of full official videos on You Tube.They want to reach the outside market and see this as a powerful form of promotion.A nice change from every other JPop act that has only one form of action,delete delete delete!

  • Ian Martin

    OK, a few things here. I didn’t talk in the article about the idol production process, and I think there remain big ethical questions about the way girls are taken often at extremely young ages and fed through these stage school boot camps, basically having a whole formative period of their lives given over to a world that’s far removed from ordinary kids’ experience, and then where the schools themselves package the kids out into groups that are sold to talent agencies and record companies. Babymetal came out of “Sakura Gakuin”, Perfume came from the Hiroshima Actors’ School, and members of Momoiro Clover Z were scouted by Stardust Productions when they were still in primary school. Personally, I find the whole thing a bit icky and cult-like.

    When you have kids that young separated out from society to varying degrees and trained for the specific purpose of being idols, I think there’s inevitably some exploitation involved. Within that world, there are also clearly differences from one company to another in how they treat the girls under their care. Also in terms of sexual exploitation, I agree there’s sometimes a thin line between something like Babymetal or Momoiro Clover Z where the selling point is innocent youthful exuberance and AKB48 where it really goes all out to push these sexual buttons. Pretty much all idol groups encourage a sort of paternalistic relationship between fans and group members who “serve” them, which can have problematic implications especially when the girls are so young.

    However, I’ve touched on some of these points in previous columns and this wasn’t what I wanted to get into here. I don’t think it does us any good to blankly dismiss idol music as a whole because it obviously provides something both for people working in or aiming to work in music, as well as for audiences to whom mainstream J-Pop doesn’t speak. There’s perhaps an interesting article to be written on whether a different marketing culture might be able to find a way to use these songwriting and production talents to connect with these underserved audience sectors without having to resort to the “pretty-faces and dance routines” model to front up the songs, but I don’t really know enough about marketing at this point.

  • Steve Summers

    Fantastic article. I’ve written a few very similar pieces recently, though not as directly related to the recent Babymetal fad. A great read all-around, you know your stuff.

  • Nic Woodward

    First of all most you are just flat out wrong second anyone NOT from Japan has no business even judging or criticizing simply because you lack basic understanding of a culture thats not your own (Yeah you two Otaku in the back sit down to)
    Second us in the US have our own idols and young dance groups that do the same thing just not on a grand scale…What you silly Americans put on your horse blinders again…Jr High and High School Cheerleaders and dance troupes? These ring any bells? and if you don’t think those are catering to a certain demographic your being an idiot. And thats just two example’s
    Not only do Japans idols know what there doing when they take the stage and start dancing cos its the same thing our cheer squads are doing.
    These girls are not blind they are not stupid they know exactly what there doing and why there doing it.
    So relax destick your selfs enjoy the music or clear the arena
    Because being judgmental is not helping. Your just being baka

  • blondein_tokyo

    What I’m “standing in the way of” is child exploitation. These young girls are being sexually exploited under the *guise* of making music more diverse. This is a band created for the sole purpose of making a buck off the sexual appeal of little girls in short skirts. If these girls were 18 years old, writing their own music and formed the band on their own, I would be behind it 150% because I LOVE it when women make music. I just want them to do it for *themselves*, in their *own style*, and not for some perverted producer whose only motivation is to make a buck off the naivete of young girls.

    Gwar is entertaining. BabyMetal is not. RIP Oderus Urungus!

  • Serenyty

    This is the big reason why I have stuck with being an idol music fan, despite everything. There’s a lot of musical talent in these groups and the music picked for them. By basically having guaranteed sales from fans (hardcore Momoiro Clover Z fans are going to buy everything that group does), idol music can get creative. I’m personally a big Maeyamada Kenichi fan, and his connections to the idol world have allowed him to write extremely varied music for all sorts of artists (he wrote AKB’s saccharine Tonari no Banana AND the Koda Kumi x Misono hit It’s All Love pretty early in his career).

    The thing that I think is kind of amazing is that idol fans aren’t all ignorant of the music and the musicians behind these songs; speak to any MomoClo fan or Babymetal fan and they’ll know who Narasaki is. Hyadain has gotten remarkably popular as well as a composer, and Takoyaki Rainbow really advertised that he wrote their second single.

    AKB.. I still like AKB, and there was a point when they were more of an edgy group with things to say. Keibetsu Shiteita Aijou is the easiest to name, but for good reason; the music video directly addresses teenage suicide. I feel like AKB (and their sister groups) has one interesting or quality single every year and the rest are just filler. But it’s at the point where no AKB fan is an AKB fan for the music, while there are plenty of those fans for Dempagumi, Babymetal and MomoClo.

  • Zeto

    Some people complains about idols being too young. What’s the problem? Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson has his first number one at 13. Alanis Morrisette shoot her first videoclip at 14. Billie Piper has her first number 1 at 15. Britney Spears signed with her company at 15. And the list goes on and on.

  • Damn-Deal-Done

    Fusion is rock and Jazz, That is a specific genre. Learn about music. This is Metal with a sprinkling of J-pop vocals and melody over the top.