In the run-up to Fuji Rock Festival, the event’s digital team will post video messages on YouTube from performers that are slated to play at the three-day gathering in the mountains of Niigata Prefecture. They tend to get, on average, around 1,000 views. This fact has held true for this year’s batch of clips, which find domestic staples such as Denki Groove (1,923 views) and non-Japanese headliners such as Sigur Ros (548 views) wishing the festival all the best on its 20th anniversary.
One brief message, however, has racked up just over 27,100 views since going up two months ago. Babymetal’s video for Fuji Rock — which finds the three teenage members of the group talking about how much it rains at the event and the quality of food — easily eclipsed any other artist video, and acquired more clicks than the much-anticipated first lineup announcement video from this spring (21,730 views).
It’s fitting for a trio that has spent 2016 establishing itself as the most globally successful J-pop group of the past decade. Babymetal took a pop-meets-metal formula built for ephemeral “Weird Japan” novelty and parlayed it into appearances on American late-night TV and sold-out shows at venues such as London’s Wembley Arena.
The big news, however, was when this year’s “Metal Resistance” recorded the highest-ever position by a Japanese album on the British music charts and the U.S. Billboard Top 200, moving a respectable (for these days anyway) 12,914 units in its first week. At home, “Metal Resistance” sold 132,881 units and debuted on the Oricon album chart at No. 2, beaten only by J Soul Brothers latest album (the highest-selling of the year so far), and moving more units than several prominent boy bands.
“I was very happy when our fans raised up many different countries’ flags while we sang ‘The One’ at Wembley Arena,” Yui Mizuno, 17 years old and better known as Yuimetal, tells The Japan Times. Yuimetal, along with Suzuka Nakamoto (Su-Metal, 18) and Moa Kikuchi (Moametal, 17), are busy with schoolwork and prepping for the second half of their American tour, which runs until the Monday before their Sunday set on Fuji Rock’s White Stage. It’s the last major summer festival in Japan the trio have yet to play.
“I’ve heard Fuji Rock is a festival where you can enjoy music in nature, so I can’t wait to see that environment,” Su-Metal says.
All of this success is impressive given Babymetal started as a group targeting a niche fan base. The three members originally performed in the more traditional (think school uniforms and chirpy pop songs) idol outfit Sakura Gakuin, with Babymetal forming as a spinoff project in 2010. That was a year when idol-pop groups were pulling in big sales, led by AKB48 and Momoiro Clover Z. A rush of new projects looking to cash in on the trend emerged, many zeroing in on small, subculture audiences.
Yet YouTube guaranteed that Babymetal’s mix of peppy hooks and power chords would reach a much wider audience. Early videos shot by the trio gained a lot of attention, especially from non-Japanese viewers who are always eager for something crazy from Japan. That prompted a slight reverse-import effect, leading to larger crowds at Babymetal gigs and festival sets … which, in turn, made them look all the more impressive to non-Japanese fans: “Holy crap, there’s a lot of people there,” yelped Ian Hecox of YouTube comedy duo Smosh while watching Babymetal’s breakout video “Gimme Chocolate!!” during a clip titled “YouTubers React To Babymetal.”
Online attention is easy to come by, but can be fleeting. Babymetal, however, manages to stay in the digital spotlight, whether by posing with famous metal musicians at the heavier music events they play internationally (highlights include members of Metallica, Anthrax and a very tired-looking Fred Durst) or simply by being a vessel for online debate.
The members of Babymetal are normal teenagers (when asked about highlights from recent international tours outside of shows, Moametal lists “eating delicious foods from different countries,” with German sausage and potatoes being a highlight), but the proposition of metal meeting at-times cutesy pop melodies has terrified a certain kind of hard-core headbanger — it’s the stuff of comments-section flame wars. When Babymetal was announced for Fuji Rock, some netizens were deeply turned off by the addition.
However, being a successful music act in 2016 requires haters, both to attract media attention (conflict equals clicks) but also to help rally the fan base. Babymetal’s fans are even more vocal about how much they like the group, and it’s possible that the pushback from certain listeners and media outlets only prompt those who already like the group to support them more. Despite all the weird glances, Babymetal has established a solid fan base eager to see it succeed … which in turns keeps them on the radar of English-language outlets.
One thing that’s almost guaranteed at the Fuji Rock set, though, is a memorable performance. Babymetal live — particularly at festivals — puts on a spectacle of a show, full of over-the-top visuals and mosh pits. It’s top-notch escapism, featuring a backing band of seasoned metal session players who add a touch of authenticity to the proceedings.
“One of our world tour themes is that people become one through our songs, regardless of age, gender or nationality,” Su-Metal says. “We focus on performances that can get our fans excited.”
Babymetal plays the White Stage at Fuji Rock Festival at 6:10 p.m. on July 24. The festival takes place at Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture on July 22, 23 and 24. For more information, visit www.fujirockfestival.com.