FOR THOSE OF you whose musical tastes don’t intersect with J-pop, heavy metal or viral videos, Babymetal exploded onto the scene last spring with the launch of their video for “Gimme Chocolate!!” The video is an eyeball-melting amalgamation of teenage Japanese girls performing high-energy dance routines and singing about chocolate while backed with thunderous metal riffs. It’s the perfect chocolate-and-peanut butter situation: Babymetal is both pop and metal, which is hard to wrap your mind around until you experience it for yourself. Heavy pop? Cute metal? Yes and yes. And together it’s absolutely brilliant. Just watch:
“Gimme Chocolate!!” was followed by the release of a full-length album and a hastily thrown together world tour, which consisted of a handful of appearances at music festivals and a few scattered concerts, including a half-dozen appearances on Lady Gaga’s tour. Their first show in the United States was a Los Angeles date at The Fonda in Hollywood. I was there and this is what I saw.
The overwhelming majority of the audience was white, male and middle-aged i.e. me, which was both encouraging (I am not alone) and depressing (Is that what I look like?) Virtually all the men had long thinning hair, stout stomachs, and faded metal t-shirts that smelled like Cheetos and weed.
As you might expect, Babymetal caused a stir in the heavy metal community this summer. Here were these totes adorbs performers dressed like heroines in a PG-rated manga. Babymetal was made for glossy magazine spreads and they received a ton of coverage; but when their album debuted in the UK at #1 on the heavy metal chart, shit got serious. Tons of new fans rushed to declare them the best thing to happen to heavy metal since spandex, while the old guard went into turf-protecting mode. With songs that made forays into rap, reggae and dub, the Babymetal album wasn’t real metal, they argued. The performers didn’t even play instruments. On one hand, I sympathize with these guys. How would you feel if the music of your youth was co-opted by something that looks suspiciously like the Japanese version of the Disney Channel? On the other hand, when was the last time a heavy metal video, even one as slickly produced as this one, went viral?
I didn’t see any obvious pervs at the show, but I’m not going to pretend they weren’t there. Japan’s fetish culture bleeds into the mainstream in ways that could never happen here in the United States, but let’s not kid ourselves: there’s bound to be a percentage of male Babymetal fans who act like Wayne and Garth drooling over Tia Carrere singing “Ballroom Blitz” in Wayne’s World and are counting down the days until the girls start posing like Doris Yeh from Cthonic.
4. My Wife
There were a handful of people at the show who clearly didn’t want to be there, people for whom attending a Babymetal concert had all the appeal of hanging out in a pachinko parlor on acid. Nuvia was one of those people. This was how I got her to go.
Nuvia: What would you like for your birthday?
Jim: I want to go to see Babymetal.
Nuvia: Maybe we can…
Jim: I already bought the tickets.
Nuvia: Ok then.
Nuvia was a good sport and we had a good time – or at least she acted like it — but her tweets from that night tell a different story.
5. Female Japanese-American J-Pop Fanatic
While waiting in line, which stretched for several blocks and wrapped around the block, I listened as a young college-age Japanese-American woman explained Babymetal to her two geeky friends. She went into great detail about how Babymetal was the perfect synthesis of concept-driven J-Pop and heavy metal, and she completely nailed it. What makes the Japanese idol system that created Babymetal work is the organizing principle around which the songs cohere. The participants are playing a role — just like everyone who ever put on face paint and stood in front of a white strobe and pretended to summon Satan with their guitar. With Babymetal there’s a cosmology at work: The Metal Masters have watched the American and Europe metal scenes and found it wanting, so the Fox God created a new kind of Metal Resistance to unite the world in heavy metal. These aren’t kids playing dress up. They are assuming the identities of godlike beings. In early interviews, the metals (Sui-metal, Yui Metal and Moa Metal) are completely sincere about this. They always stay in character. None of what the Japanese-American J-Pop Fanatic said was new to me, but her friends didn’t get it, and they didn’t want to get it.
6. Asian Headbangers
Why is it that when Asians adopt American subcultures they look so much cooler than their American counterparts?
7. A Million Fucktards with Cameras
If you’ve been to a live music performance in the last few years, you know that from the first note to the last the crowd turns into a sea of screens. As the technology gets better, so does the quality of the video, like the one this guy made from the show in Hollywood, which is well edited and has some great audio. He also moves around, providing a number of different perspectives. I’m glad he did it. It makes me happy this video exists. But if a club were to make a stand and prevent people from bringing their phones into the venue with them, I’d be all for it. I suspect we are much closer to the day when some asshole gets his $500 phone knocked out of his hands and he sues the club for damages. I did, however, see a young shirtless guy circling the pit with a phone held up for all to see. Someone had dropped it and he was trying to return it to its owner. Good for him. In my day we did this with shoes but whatever.
8. Bored Sound Tech
Nuvia and I stood in front of the sound engineers’ booth. The performance involved several pre-recorded bits so they were busy throughout the show. There was one guy who wasn’t busy it all, and he studiously avoided watching the show. It was like a performance art piece. He was refusing to acknowledge the spectacle that he had helped create. If there is a god, I imagine this is what he’s like: scrolling through social media, spam, old sexts, and goat videos while the world collapses upon itself.
9. People Throwing the Goat Horn Sign – And Doing It Wrong
Speaking of goats, in virtually every photo of Babymetal, the girls are throwing the goat horn sign, except it’s not a goat horn symbol they’re replicating but the pointed ears of the Fox God that created them. It is a symbol to their allegiance. Thus, providing the answer to the riddle of our times: What does the fox say?
10. Violent Drunk Woman
Nuvia was worried about her when she started crying. I was wary of her after she slapped her extremely patient boyfriend. I don’t know why you came to see Babymetal so blitzed the emotions you couldn’t control came pouring out of you, and I hope you find peace, but for future reference heavy metal shows probably aren’t the best place to find it.
11. Merch Fetishists
I used to have a policy of never paying more than $10 for a t-shirt, but those days are over. It’s fairly common knowledge that merchandise is the bread and butter of touring bands, especially indie and underground bands, so I don’t mind shelling out money for merch when I know the cash is going right into the gas tank of the band’s touring van. Babymetal is a different story. They’re the product of a huge hit factory in Japan. I had no idea where the $20 they were charging for t-shirts would go but I knew that I might not ever get a chance to buy a t-shirt from Babymetal again, so I went for it. And so did every other headbanger in the joint. The merch line zigzagged accordion style through the lobby like a buffet line at a casino, went around the corner across the bar and then up not one but two flights of stairs. I’ve never seen anything like it. Was it worth it? No. Would I do it again? Probably.
12. This Guy
And what did I learn? I learned that as much as I love listening to the Babymetal album while I’m driving in the car or working on my laptop, the choreography may be the best thing about the Babymetal phenomenon. The nonstop action is irresistible to the eye. But in the same way that Babymetal is both metal and pop, it’s both legit and it isn’t. The music is unquestionably metal, but the spectacle turns it into something else. Heavy metal lite. That’s not a bad thing. I’d bring my daughter to see Babymetal in a heartbeat. But was it a “real” metal show? I don’t think so. The first time I saw two people having sex was at a Ronnie James Dio concert, the bathrooms at Metallica shows I’ve been to looked like triage centers, and it’s probably best that I not talk about what went on before, during and after the time I went to see GWAR in Phoenix. About halfway though the Babymetal show, I saw the Japanese-American J-Pop Fanatic dancing at the edge of the pit like a boss — in flip-flops. Maybe this is Babymetal’s greatest contribution to music: synthesizing metal you can dance to.