“3 Reasons BABYMETAL Should Make Everyone Uncomfortable” was originally published on Kaala, your guide to exploring the Japanese extreme music underground.
The conversation about why BABYMETAL should make everyone uncomfortable is far more complicated than opening the window and shouting “BABYMETAL IS NOT METAL” as loud as one can, which is fortunate for me because it’s pretty hard to get five pages of content out of startling pedestrians. And to be honest the subject really does deserve some space, if not just to avoid the danger of falling into the never-ending conversation about what is and is not metal. It’s all too easy to waste an entire day hunting that mythical beast Authenticity and end up with nothing to show for it. I’ve tried hard to avoid those pitfalls in this article, so I hope you appreciate it.
Let me begin by noting that the very act of liking BABYMETAL does not make you a monster. It doesn’t make you an idiot, and it doesn’t mean you have bad taste. The sort of music with which Kaala involves itself is considered by many to be so inaccessible as to be outright unlistenable, so it’s not as if we have a leg to stand on when we tell someone their taste in music is garbage (in truth this rarely stops us from doing exactly that, but I digress). The purpose of this article is not to make fun of anyone that finds something fun or enjoyable in the spectacle that is BABYMETAL, but rather to explain why the band’s ongoing rise in popularity reflects something very troubling.
1. IT’S AN EXPLOITATION OF EXTREME MUSIC
One of my favorite lines about Japan, written by professional internet funnyman Sean Reiley, goes as follows: “Japan has a childlike fascination with strange match-ups. If two things are stupidly different, Japan will put them in a cage and see what happens. …If a man with no arms and a man with no legs started learning karate, the same light bulb would appear over every head in Japan. That’s right: Glue them together and see if it can kill a panda.” He was describing the sort of novelty MMA fights that frequently occur here, in which one may witness a sumo wrestler battling a Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion or a professional wrestler kicking Muhammed Ali in the kneetwo hundred times, but we see further evidence of this general trend in BABYMETAL. And in the case of BABYMETAL, it’s becoming clear that the insouciant-title tail is wagging the strength-of-concept dog.
The fusion of J-pop girls and heavy metal may seem on paper to be an interesting combination (it must have seemed interesting to at least one person at some point), but it is by it’s very nature problematic. First: it hardly needs to be mentioned that the idol industry in country is pretty gross in a number of different ways, such as thesexualization of young women or punishing them for being human or the numerous abuse allegations. It’s a sleazy industry, and while we can’t put the blame for the standards and practices of that industry on BABYMETAL they’re nevertheless a product of it.
Second: the “OMG kawaii teenage girls and METAL??? So WEIRD!!! So JAPAN!!!” attitude is so very ridiculous because no, it’s not actually weird or unnatural, and it happens pretty regularly . Real, actual Japanese metal bands have plenty of female fans, and Japan has a number of female-lead extreme music groups (such as Begräbnis and Self-Deconstruction, both of whom can be counted on to bury men, women, and children in the cold dead earth with every performance). It’s a fact that some young women like to listen to extreme music and that some of them even like to play extreme music, yet this very real phenomenon is being fetishized and sold as something bizarre or kitschy. It’s no secret that there’s already a problem in extreme music circles when it comes to female fans and bands. BABYMETAL isn’t helping at all with their portrayal of young women playing metal as being something worthy of such a spectacle.
Please bear in mind, it’s not that I’m upset with bands that indulge in spectacle. Any Begräbnis performance involves a lot of costumes and makeup and, yes, even some spectacle (not to mention a theremin), but the strength of that spectacle is primarily derived from the music, along with vocals that sound as if the vocalist has been dead for centuries. I have no doubt a BABYMETAL show is a fun performance to see, but once you get behind the glamour is there anything to it? Is the music capable of backing up the glitz and sparkle? Is it even metal–
–Whoa! Shit, that was close. You know what, in the interest of avoiding the true-metal-vs-fake-metal argument, I’ll simply borrow a phrase from an article I read on Metalsucks.net — “There Is True Metal, There Is False Metal, And There Is BABYMETAL“. It’s not true metal, but it’s not fair to call it false metal either. I don’t know what it is, to be honest, but I have often opined (and others have agreed) that their music feels as if someone took two seemingly disparate genres and handcuffed them together, quite against their will. The two tastes don’t blend, they don’t mix, they don’t fuse together and create something new — they’re just sort of there, in the same place at the same time, and we’re all supposed to be amazed. To my mind, the music sounds as if metal and J-pop are being forced at gunpoint to embrace one another purely for the shock value, and neither participant is very happy about it. They’re essentially Japan’s answer to the Rappin’ Grandma, and in both cases the final product is utterly toothless (maybe literally! Hell I dunno, I didn’t do her autopsy) and tame compared to the genres they were drawing from and exploiting.
2. MANUFACTURED CULTURE OBSCURES ACTUAL CULTURE
While the Rappin’ Grandma was moderately amusing for about thirty seconds and painfully cringe-inducing forever after, she was in the end ultimately harmless. There was never any danger that she would be mistaken for an actual hip-hop artist, or that someone would attempt to make an album featuring her performing songs written by professionals and ask the audience to take it seriously. Certainly there was never any chance of a venue hiring her rather than an actual hip-hop performer, but unfortunately for us all this has not been the case with BABYMETAL and the results have been disturbing.
Back in February of this year the Wall Street Journal published an article titled “The Weird Global Appeal of Heavy Metal” in which author Neil Shah takes the readers around the world and attempts to explain why metal is so popular in so many different places. In his article Shah named several obscure bands from all over the world, and as I read further and further down the page I couldn’t help wondering which Japanese bands he would mention. Coffins? Sabbat?
“FiD recently played Maryland Deathfest and got mentioned in Vice, so maybe they’ll get named!” I thought to myself. “If he wanted to get historical, though, he could mention Sigh, and how they were signed to Euronymous’ label Deathlike Silence Productions mere weeks before he was stabbed to death…but really, with so many bands to choose from, I can’t begin to guess whom he will mention!”
The answer, of course, is none of them. BABYMETAL is the only Japanese band named in the article, and that is unforgivable. It’d be very easy to place all the blame on Neil Shah, who clearly did not do the research he should have, but if you Google “Japanese metal bands” the most common factor in all of the lists that pop up is BABYMETAL. It’s not even a close contest; I guess at some point the entire world agreed that any list or article about both Japan and metal must have a picture of BABYMETAL included. Given all the exposure they’ve been given in the last two years, why wouldn’t he mention them? They’re all over the place. People won’t stop talking about them. And I’m well aware of the irony of complaining about too many people talking about BABYMETAL in an article written about BABYMETAL, so don’t bother pointing it out.
By the way, we contacted Neil Shah and he replied (via a very polite email) that he hadn’t had time to investigate to any great detail, which only sounds like a shitty excuse because it is absolutely a shitty excuse.
See, the difference between the Rappin’ Granny and BABYMETAL is that while no one important ever gave two shits in a bucket about the former, the latter has the backing of Cool Japan. And, for real guys, I hate to be the one to tell you, but…
3. “COOL JAPAN” IS AWFUL, JUST AWFUL
From the Japan Times:
The auto and electronics industries have served as the economy’s main locomotives for decades, but now they are being eclipsed by heavier global competition, particularly from their aggressive Asian rivals.
To offset the dip in dominance, the government is turning to Japan’s cultural exports, including animation, fashion and food, to promote Japan’s “soft power” in a PR strategy called “Cool Japan.”
The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is in charge of Cool Japan, the goals of which are to promote the nation’s creativity-based industries both at home and overseas.
These industries have about a ¥2 trillion share of the global market, which is projected to surpass ¥900 trillion in 2020. Cool Japan aims to expand that share to between ¥8 trillion and ¥11 trillion by then.
METI hopes to facilitate the global entry of some of Japan’s small and midsize companies, while luring their creative foreign counterparts here to give them a competitive edge.
It is hoped that the increased presence of Japanese cultural products will attract more international travelers and boost domestic tourism, METI said.
The trade ministry uses the term “creative industries” to describe the businesses targeted by the soft power strategy. But since there is no strict definition of them, the term can cover everything from manga, “anime” and art to food, traditional crafts, fashion, tourism and music.
I know what you’re thinking. “PR strategies? Global market shares? ‘Soft power’? Man, these are all things I think of when someone mentions the word ‘cool’!”
Hahaha but seriously. Let it be stated for the record that Kaala is not and will not ever try to tell Japanese people (or anyone else for that matter) what is and is not “real” Japan. We simply report on the culture that we see around us and give others the means to investigate that same culture. The stereotypical things people imagine when someone mentions Japan — anime, J-pop, sushi, kimonos, all of that — certainly exist here and they are indeed part of Japanese culture. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry is not dumb for trying to push these things abroad. Although anime and manga were already moderately popular overseas, the article mentions that previous attempts to distribute abroad has been “a disorganized approach that has not significantly cultivated merchandising opportunities”, so trying to clean that up makes sense. And if popularizing the sort of fashion seen in Harajuku might be profitable avenue to investigate, then METI has every right in the world to do exactly that. So what’s the problem?
Well, for starters, this is all beginning to feel like the acquiescence of Japan Inc. to the fetishization of Japan as an intrinsically exotic nation full of endearing quirks. And if Japan wants to reduce itself to that, to allow it’s image abroad to be informed entirely by anime, J-pop, and Harajuku, to allow it to be fetishized more than it already is, then there’s really not much that I, as a westerner, can say to that. But enough Japanese people have told me that this is not what they want for Japan that I’m able to say with some certainty that Cool Japan is not representative of any sort of national will to solidify their cultural identity along these lines. Cool Japan is simply amplifying the small pieces of Japanese culture that were already popular overseas and almost nothing else.
Think about it: when’s the last time you saw a Japanese actor in a western film? I remember seeing Tadanobu Asano in the first Thor movie, and before that Ken Watanabe in Inception, but that’s about it. Like pop musician Gackt said in July of last year:
“With Byung-hun Lee cast as the villain in the new ‘Terminator’ movie, we can see how the South Korean government is continuing to firmly push their culture.
“Meanwhile, what actors are representing Japan around the world? Ken Watanabe has been active overseas after the hit ‘Last Samurai,’ but the sad fact is that it was a private production without any support from the government whatsoever. And since Ken, no world-class Japanese actor has appeared.”
“But the Cool Japan budget is still floating in the air. Who the hell is this budget for? I wonder if anyone living in Japan actually understands what Cool Japan does. I wonder what Cool Japan does. How many people can clearly answer that question? It’s sad.”
“Desolate feelings well up when I think about how my country is not keeping pace with the government/private sector cooperation of other developed nations. Can anyone fix this? Our next generation will not grow in this way.”
I want you to ask yourself: what parts of Japanese culture have you seen abroad that are not anime or J-pop-related? There’s so much neat stuff here aside from those things, and yet despite Cool Japan’s efforts (or maybe because of them) none of it is getting out there into the world. Worse, when someone like Neil Shah does investigate the weird underground culture of metal around the world, what does he find when he comes to Japan? A band that isn’t underground, isn’t metal, and is more of a brand than an actual band.
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