About six months ago someone shared the YouTube clip below on Facebook with some accompanying confession of guilt over how catchy they found it. The thumbnail and description for the embedded video made it pretty obvious that this was a Japanese pop (J-pop) song and having already acquired a taste for J-pop some years ago I decided to check it out. I think it’s fair to say it wasn’t entirely what I was expecting.
When I saw Babymetal for the first time I was struck with sudden shock and amusement. While the vocals and choreography are undeniably lifted straight from the J-pop handbook, it had been married with the somewhat unlikely partner “metal”. What was more unusual was that it worked despite the fact the heavy metal elements being likely to alienate many J-pop fans and vice versa. But as a fan of both genres I felt like I had found a valuable favourite in the vast music landscape. So I immediately sought out more.
The above song is the one that really won me over and it wasn’t until after a few listens that I realized why. I realized that the melody was an appropriation from a piece of traditional Japanese folk music called Sakura that I had actually been introduced to in my very early childhood by an episode of the Australian children’s program Playschool. Suddenly this simple pop-metal mashup struck another unlikely balance between personal nostalgia for a Caucasian Australian and the traditions of Japanese culture. I do not speak Japanese, so the lingual meanings of the song are completely lost on me. But through my own nostalgia and recollection that Sakura is “the cherry blossom song” I do get a strange sense of meaning from the song, although I am aware that this meaning could be largely unique to me.
But Babymetal taught me something else about modern Japanese music and my own hidden assumptions. I realized that up until this point I had viewed J-pop in relation to the American pop I had grown up with, as if J-pop was merely a flavour of something that America had created. I saw Japanese music as “doing what Westerners do, but better” without really considering that Japanese musicians are also drawing from their own culture and creating something of their own.