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Essay

Babymetal

By Patrick St. Michel

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It's always surprising when my mom and dad, living in Southern California, email me about Japanese pop culture. Like the great parents they are, they dutifully read every article I write about J-pop. But rarely do they dig much deeper into entertainment made in a language they don't understand.

So I did a double take when my mother emailed me to say how much she enjoyed watching the Japanese group Babymetal perform on an American late-night TV show last month. "They were so cute and interesting, even though we thought the band behind them in white face paint was kind of freaky."

They aren't the only people outside of Japan falling for a trio of teenage girls combining J-pop with heavy metal. This spring, Babymetal have played to sold-out shows in England and the United States. They've received a lot of media attention, too. The BBC did a piece on them, and they've been interviewed by all sorts of music publications. Capping it off, their latest album Metal Resistance reached No. 39 on the U.S. album charts, a rare feat for a Japanese group.

Babymetal are currently the biggest Japanese music act in the world, but they've achieved that in an unconventional way. The group formed in 2010 as part of a project called Sakura Gakuin, a J-pop idol outfit performing cute music while wearing school uniforms. At the time, it seemed like they were trying to attract a niche audience — metal fans who could also accept something with a radio-friendly edge.

Despite being aimed at a small audience, the idea behind Babymetal quickly caught the attention of many. Thanks to their eye-popping videos and over-the-top live shows, Babymetal caught the attention of viewers outside of Japan. They certainly got attention for seeming like the latest "weird" trend to come from Japan — most Japanese musical acts or TV personalities who get attention online in the West do so because everyone thinks they are strange.

That view usually turns Japanese artists into novelties, but Babymetal handled the situation just right. They started playing shows and festivals in North America and Europe, and their incredible stage presence — featuring a backing band of seasoned musicians — won over metalheads. They developed a passionate fan base who supported them, which helped them get more media attention and live gigs.

All this Western attention also helped them become bigger in their native country. Japanese listeners wanted to check out a group gaining steam abroad, leading to bigger shows domestically. Which, in turn, earned them more looks from those outside the country. This sustained interest has resulted in them going from a silly YouTube novelty to a musical force that made history on U.S. charts and is capable of playing huge festival slots.

Time will tell what's next for the group and how long they can keep going as Babymetal, but they've already achieved more worldwide than most J-pop performers. Including capturing my parent's interest.

ベビーメタル

Jポップとヘビーメタルを融合した3人組女性ユニット、ベビーメタルは今世界から注目される日本のミュージシャンだ。南カリフォルニアに住む筆者の両親までも虜にした彼女たちの魅力とは?

The Japan Times ST: May 27, 2016

The Japan Times ST 読者アンケート

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