Pop, Metal, Japan and Me

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.

5 comments

  1. Thank you for the introduction to babymetal! What do you think are the politics of this genre given your reading? Is it purely commercial or is there something more political to this mashup performance?

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    1. I get the impression it was a commercial decision. As far as I know the girls were already conventional J-pop stars in their own right and had no prior knowledge of metal as a genre before the new group was formed. That said I wouldn’t have picked it as a commercial decision in that it doesn’t seem like a safe, money-making venture from a marketing and business standpoint. But perhaps that’s reflective of Japanese culture and my own assumptions in a different sense?

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  2. I have to admit that I didn’t actually mind listening to Babymetal, considering I’m neither a metal or j-pop fan. Kudos for picking up on the melody appropriation though, I would not of gotten that. It’s interesting how you pointed out that you assumed it was a byproduct of America, I think we need to start moving away from that orientalist point of view we are so accustomed to adopting, to really appreciate Asian media.

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  3. So I just posted my blog post for this week and thought I’d scroll through the other posts, good choice on Babymetal because I chose the same thing!

    From my own research on Babymetal it’s definitely seems to have been a commercial decision. The members of Babymetal were signed to a talent agency and their producer who was the one who decided to combine the genres of J-pop and metal. The girls apparently had never heard metal before being a part of the group.

    And although it was definitely a risky business move to combine these two genres it was successful in the end because Babymetal was the opening act for some of the tour dates on Lady GaGa’s recent tour in the US. Which is pretty impressive to have a Japanese act opening for such a huge performer on her US dates not just ones in Japan.

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  4. After listening to Kawaii all week, it seems as if Babymetal isn’t much of a leap stylistically, rather blatantly highlighting grotesque themes prevalent throughout J-Pop. I was very interested to read in her interview with Dazed Digital about Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s obsession with horror films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and finding the sound of high school girls laughing terrifying, because they’re out of their minds.

    J-Pop seems to present a very interesting narrative in a self-reflexive highlighting of the intense commercialisation of these “products”. Presenting the idea that the wheels are bound to fall off if you push something that hard, poison is going to infect the perfect process. The paradox is presented really well in this video I think https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzC4hFK5P3g#t=97 especially in the silence at the beginning.

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