Is Babymetal Metal?

In a genre that polices its borders so vigorously, why does metal produce so many punchlines and gimmicks?

- May 12, 2015

Based on postering and magazine covers alone, Babymetal seems to be one of the top three acts hovering around Japan. Their reach has spread from Japan to the internet to Toronto, where the viral sensation plays the Danforth Music Hall tonight.

J-pop dominated Japan has its fondness of gimmicks, the most obvious of which is AKB48, a clown car troupe touting a whopping 48 members all singing happy dance tunes in unison. Babymetal, made up of a more modest three members, is almost as its name suggests. You’ve got the “metal,” but you’ve got the infantile. While their music seems to be a turf war between the two elements, their fanbase really makes you wonder.

Before hearing them, my gut assumption was that the trio - teenagers Su-metal, Yuimetal, Moametal - sang hoppy covers of metal tracks (I don’t know, Maiden, Sabbath, Pentagram, I’m an idiot). Then I caught an hour-long TV special in my Ryogoku hostel’s common room, which revealed the reverse.

For the first few bars, most songs don’t sound like anything that hasn’t passed through metal’s gates before: angry senseless riffs, machine gun drumming, nothing that’s impressively heavy but nothing you’d play at a family BBQ either. Then the three girls begin to sing, and usher a shock to your system. The guitars soften, like taking a knee, while the double pedals keep their strength.

The vocals, their vocals, the chattery colourful sunshine tunes that could be found in any other J-Pop song, cheered over instrument parts that feel ripped from a band opening for Slipknot. Su-metal, Yuimetal, Moametal, all dressed in frilled leather dark dresses. Also garbed for a Day of the Dead party are their band, usually in masks or full-body costumes. Their most popular song is "Gimme Chocolate," and while I don’t know much Japanese I feel like I can guess what it’s about. It’s all a strange brew.

The music, however, wasn’t the most stunning part of the TV special but the leadup, or literally the line. Filmed during a UK tour, you could see them hugging the block. Long hair, denim jackets, Metallica shirts. These were your basic metalheads, cut with hungover dark ravers and otaku, sure, but metal’s face came out for a J-pop show. The televised special circled this. It wanted you to know, this was its façade. Babymetal is a ‘metal’ band, that’s their thing. And therefore comes that incredibly stupid question: Is Babymetal metal?

Metal is a genre that self-produces punchlines as a seemingly instinctual reflex, a survival mechanism. Because how in the world could it take itself seriously for every agonizing minute?

The “metal or not metal” question is an openly ridiculed and forever dumbo inquiry. Dan Meth’s cartoon about two pundits debating if Rush is heavy metal is a great riff on this terrible controversy, which ends with the claim that Ray Charles is the most heavy metal musician of all time.

No matter how bad certain rap or punk acts can get, no genre seems to attract more semantics than metal, partly because no genre attracts as many detractors. From The Darkness to the VH1 list that gives AC/DC a better spot than Pantera, metal feels like a kingdom under a constant assault of outsider cruelty and insider mockery. But that still doesn’t paint the full picture, because, let’s be honest, it’s not like metal isn’t completely accommodating to gimmicks and dweebs.

Give an off look to the person who will champion Metalocalypse and DragonForce but thumb away Tenacious D, the person who rejects one variation of the same concept for being less obvious than the others. From Ghost, who at times sound like Squeeze but wear corpse paint, to GWAR, who are GWAR, and most recently Mac Sabbath, a fast food themed cover band, silliness has always been a welcome component in metal’s black kingdom. Maybe not always the heaviest or swallowed by the entire crew, but undeniably in its midst.

Metal is a genre that self-produces punchlines as a seemingly instinctual reflex, a survival mechanism. Because how in the world could it take itself seriously for every agonizing minute? So, in that flexible map of gags and goofs, does Japan’s answer to The Darkness have a home?

BABYMETAL - メギツネ - MEGITSUNE (Full ver.)

Let’s be clear. For my reputation, let me be clear. Babymetal does not sound like metal. They sound like J-pop sung over top of metal until it works, like a drunk guy in a bar wailing the wrong Oasis song. Over the weekend a Japanophile told me that their backup band doesn’t play their instruments live either, which felt like a real ‘whatever’ revelation given the pageantry of everything else. But if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, dresses like a duck, and calls itself a duck, but just doesn’t sound like a duck, do we have a duck?

I don’t think Babymetal will ever be invited to Maryland Deathfest, though that’s never been the measurement system for the genre as a whole. As they currently tour North America, they’ll open the doors to Bolt Thrower t-shirts and Naruto t-shirts alike. During guitar solos, they’ll do choreographed dance routines, the space most metal bands reserve for ominous hand gestures, serving beer from a chalice to the front row, or just vanishing into a fog machine. You don’t have to think Babymetal is metal, this is not an objective question, but before settling that discussion consider what’s passed before them.

Look in the mirror, metal, what do you see? A slobbering ghoul constructed of shadows and rituals, or a 15-year old Japanese girl who hops in step and sings about candy? Think carefully.

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