Life is about synchronicity. Yesterday I stumbled upon Babymetal online – for no apparent reason. Immediately intrigued, I thought immediately about how I needed to write about the Babymetal phenomenon (and the like) for a wider audience in the English-speaking world. This morning I was showing people Babymetal clips and talking about them. Moments later I opened the The Age’s Good Weekend magazine and found – lo and behold – a two page spread all about Babymetal – the biggest new thing in metal music in the world as we speak. How did the general public miss all this? And what does Babymetal mean for us in the Anglobubble? And for Japanese language teachers?
But first things first, who are Babymetal? They are 3 teenage girls immaculately dressed and choreographed with cutesy voices who sing catchy lyrics to heavy metal music. Only the ever-innovative Japanese could come up with something as original – turning heavy metal music on its head in a carefully designed and managed industrial project (yep – it’s completely manufactured – Simon Cowell eat your heart out). As a result, Japan has changed metal music for ever: it is now for everyone including female tweenies. People often have the idea that where the Anglobubble goes, the rest of the world follows. But, as I have pointed out before, we’re barely aware of how often it’s precisely the other way around, i.e. they lead, and we here in the Anglobubble follow – if we are given the chance to notice at all.
Before I say any more, why all the fuss about Babymetal? Well, it’s worth looking at the song that’s got them the biggest attention so far outside Japan: “Gimme chocolate”. Running over the banging drums, the driving beat and heavy metal chords, are the ever so sweet vocals and lyrics mostly in Japanese by Su-metal, Yuimetal and Moametal (yep they have metal names!). They have a distinct black/red aesthetic and well-honed dance moves that appear in all their clips. Anglo-metal has never seen anything like this before.
You might not have been a metal fan before, but Babymetal and the so-called Kawaii Metal (Cute Metal) phenomenon – an industrially manufactured blend of metal and pop – are genuinely fascinating and high quality to boot. With over 50 million online views and rising just for ‘Gimme Chocolate’, Babymetal has certainly grabbed the world’s attention. And there is also an unexpected twist in ‘Gimme chocolate’: as the English translation of the lyrics make clear, the song is all about a young girl’s desire for chocolate but who is worried about her weight at the same time, all set to heavy metal thrash.
While their first album, Babymetal, released in 2014 got some genuine global interest (including topping iTunes metal charts everywhere), it’s their second album, Metal Resistance, released in March 2016, that has really smashed barriers – with top 10 placings in the UK and Australia charts, as well as topping the US Hard Rock and World Music charts. The clip for the latest single, Karate, has the same catchy lyrics and heavy metal sound but this time coupled with samurai and martial moves that teens like. But it’s important also to point out Babymetal has worked hard to convince European and North American audiences since 2014 – playing concerts, opening for Lady Gaga on tour and appearing on TV – in order to generate international interest.
And all that effort has now paid off. Apart from record sales, you know an act has really made it in the Anglobubble when talented English-speaking singers start doing cover versions…. A current favourite is the acoustic version of ‘Karate’ by Amy B from the UK (but there are many other versions online of this and other Babymetal songs. Who knew? I didn’t…).
Of course language skills are also critical to Babymetal’s global success. Being able to communicate directly to your market is a powerful tool in any language – even when you are singing in Japanese (with English fragments thrown in). The band knows how to work the English-speaking market – members are bilingual. Here they are answering questions in English in an interview:
And in the clip below they give their insights – in Japanese – about American food and fashion. It’s not earth-shattering but fans love it.
So what is Babymetal really all about? In the case of Kawaii Metal, Japan has taken heavy metal from the Anglobubble, worked it over to refresh it with a snappy pop twist and is now selling it back to us in the form of Babymetal and the ilk. The irony….
Japan, like South Korea, has a strong music manufacturing base – that operates on an massive industrial scale we can’t really imagine but which we really should be paying attention to. It’s worth billions to the economies of both countries and the exported pop culture (that cuts across music production, tours, videos, merchandising, film and tv) functions as incredibly effective soft power across Asia and now increasingly further afield.
Australia would do well to study how the Japanese and Koreans do it, and learn how to imitate it – in order to create so-called ‘idol bands’ (manufactured groups) that can sing in Japanese and Korean – so that we in turn can sell music back to them (our pollies are always banging on about the need for new export industries, well here’s one). There is no doubt it would sell – the curiosity value (as we see in the case of Babymetal) is immense. Babymetal has played at Wembley Stadium in London to sell-out crowds and even smashed merchandizing sales records there. They’ve also sung on American late night shows, and broken into top ten album charts everywhere. The Babymetal brand – with an ingenious invented back-story – is undoubtedly heading for even bigger global success.
And whatever Babymetal is doing is really working (they’ve certainly won me over). Two days ago they won the British Kerrang! 2016 rock award for best live band. Now that’s a real Anglobubble accolade. It doesn’t come any better than that. Hard work and an inspired product sell, whatever the language. Don’t say you weren’t told….
Listen also to what British heavy metal aficionados have to say after seeing the trio perform live at the age of fourteen (yes 14!) at Sonisphere, Britain’s biggest heavy metal festival in 2014:
Now finally, what’s in it for Japanese language teachers in our schools? Japanese popular culture – in all its forms – is an incredibly powerful tool for promoting Japanese language and culture not just to students, but also to the wider school community, and, even better, to the general public. If I were a Japanese language teacher, I’d be making sure – with the help of some careful planning – that everyone knew about Babymetal, the story of Kawaii Metal, and the rest of Japan’s amazing music industry. Creating interest and desire is critical in sustaining strong and vibrant language learning communities everywhere – what happens outside the classroom is just as important as what happens inside it. The possibilities of what can be done with Babymetal and their music in this context are immense – if the successful re-use of pop music of Coláiste Lurgan in Ireland that I have blogged about in the past is any guide.
And of course Babymetal is not the latest inspired Kawaii Metal craze in Japan: that mantle currently goes to Ladybaby with Australia’s very own multilingual Ladybeard (a bearded wrestler dressed like a 5y.o. girl who also sings, growls and dances). But that’s a whole ‘nother blog post coming soon with a lot to say about language, style, success and Australians abroad.