Have you seen Babymetal’s “KARATE” video yet?
Now you have.
When it comes to a cultural touchstone like Babymetal, there’s no such thing as “just a video,” and I can’t imagine a more “just a video” than “KARATE.” But it says an incredible amount about where Babymetal is now, where they’re going as a performing entity and what the future of what we call homicidols might be challenged to be.
Babymetal became a Western sensation on the strength of videos for “Megitsune” (25 million+ views) and, especially, “Gimme Chocolate!!” (approximately all the views), which went viral as hell two years ago. One of those is a nice metal/Japanese traditional combo shot with striking-as-hell visuals; the other has nonsense lyrics, a ridiculous theme and involves the intense setting of Legend 97.
“KARATE” is neither of the above. We all know that the song is good and will hopefully become a radio staple — it’s been cleaning up on the singles charts in Japan and the UK in particular, and once that marketing effort steps up in the United States, it’ll hopefully do comparatively well here, too. People report hearing it on satellite and local radio; it may not be a hit at the moment, but it’s out there. Not-yet-fans are getting a chance to hear the song that Babymetal’s management are pinning a full breakout on.
The video, on the other hand, follows in that stripped-down mode that’s become popular of late, with desaturated colors, a bit of CGI and sharp accents, and the emphasis on the staged performance of the song while simple visuals convey the theme. In fact, it’s so stripped-down that this attitude isn’t all that rare. (And to the surprise of nobody, it’s been downvoted so hard that it’s practically disappeared.)
It’s not that it doesn’t have a good visual quality; Babymetal always has a good visual quality, with the crisp dancing and deceptive power in how the trio moves together. It’ll probably do at least as well as the official video for “Road of Resistance,” which is just a re-edit from the official recording at Saitama Super Arena but tells a huge story of its own.
It’s just that, given how overwhelmingly influential some of their other videos were in building the group’s popularity, this is a video that’s showing off the music first.
And that’s a big step for Babymetal.
If you’re a fan and you’re active online, you’ve no doubt come across people talking about how much Babymetal’s music means to them, how its creativity and frequent unembellished joy is so infectious. Yes, even hardened metalheads will find themselves going a little idol when it comes to Babymetal, but what’s long served them well and given them cred that a lot of other groups have struggled to gain has been the fact that the music is always just so damn good.
Up until now, up until Metal Resistance, all of Babymetal’s released music (save for “Road of Resistance”) has been from their formative period, when they lived with one foot in their idol roots and another stepping deeper and deeper into the international rock and metal scenes every time they performed.
I’ve had a great Twitter discussion about what Babymetal is now. In Japan, maybe until right this minute, they’re an idol group, full stop, that’s managed to connect with the metal scene; in most of the rest of the world, though, where idol only exists as a niche phenomenon, they’re a metal band that has idol elements.
In both places, their difference from the pack is a big part of their success, but the Twitter discussion centered on how they’ll deal with being both idol and metal at the same time in spaces where the two sides must collide — for instance, in their music videos.
The answer, as shown in this video, seems to be that Babymetal — and Kobametal and Amuse management — are going all-in on the metal side. Yes, they may yet release more elaborate music videos down the road, and heaven help us all if BLACK BABYMETAL gets a standalone video (my heart may stop just from thinking about it), but this video, for this song at this moment, is sending a huge signal about just where Babymetal stands now: They’re a metal band.
I think that’s immensely important for them and for how other idols doing heavy music can approach business going forward.
I’m going to use an example that I wish more people would seriously look into: Mugen Regina.
As mentioned in their profile and prominently on their home page is the fact that Mugen Regina exists to explore and challenge notions about idols can be and do. That isn’t rare — if you were to ask members of most of the groups on this site, or the likes of Oyasumi Hologram or sora tob sakana, they’d probably be saying the same thing: Idols are performers, and music is about performance, so there’s really no upper limit to what idols are capable of doing.
Just to cite another Twitter discussion with a person who’s close to a particular group and who asked that these comments not be associated with him/her, a lot of managers and smaller agencies are looking abroad right now. Some more than others, obviously, and most don’t have much more of a plan than “use YouTube to get kind of popular and then play Taiwan” right now, but that’s also a crude copy of Babymetal’s path, or about what a lot of companies that aren’t the size of Amuse can accomplish.
I have no idea if Mugen Regina is thinking about trying to go international, but put yourself in their shoes: Luna Factory and Life Is Sweet* Music aren’t impossibly small, but they aren’t large, either. Japan during this Warring Idols Period may have a lot of opportunity for idols who want to do things differently, but like half of idol is trying to do things differently.
My second-favorite at-work YouTube playlist is based on a path of recommendations that cascade from Bellheart‘s “Gigabite.” There’s more Bellheart and there’s You’ll Melt More! Among alt-rock types, there’s the very-promising Avandoned; POP and Maison Book Girl and sora tob sakana doing alt-pop; BiSH and Billie Idle on the punkier side; a bunch of random throw-ins from the likes of Girls Excellency International, Koutei Camera Girl and Swallow Maze Paraguay; in other words, many, many, many very good songs by very good groups across a very wide array of styles, all done by idols.
This is to say that, even with this new breathing room for experimentation and the fact that idol has never been more popular, it’s a very crowded field. It’s hard to make money. If you’re a manager or whatever, what do you do in that situation? You look for untapped markets.
Asia in general digs idols, so there’s opportunity there, but with Babymetal opening the door in the West not for J-pop (Perfume has that taken care of) or idol in particular (see: Morning Musume, Houston), but for idols who are doing heavy music, I have to imagine that other groups are craning their necks toward the light that’s peeking through and wondering if they can’t get in on that, too.
One has to think that Momoiro Clover Z, hot off the release of a nigh-epochal double album, a genuinely idol group that happens to use a lot of rock music, might be the next to get a foot in, but are they in fact too idol to do it? Too close to that culture? Do more than a few thousand people, period, in the entire United States want to see the prawn jump? Even now, probably not.
So if you’re Mugen Regina and what you’re doing right now is looking pretty seriously at this metal thing, and you do the kind of symphonic / melodic stuff that has a defined sort of market, is that a move that you consider, given that somebody with the heft of Momoclo might be averse to make a serious attempt? And if so, how do you make that move?
One thing that works in many idols’ favor, even though it seems counter-intuitive based on a lot of the above, is that metal fans and certain types of punk fans LOVE a good show. They’ll complain all day about something not being tr00 (well, maybe not that group of punk fans), but this is music that’s traditionally very much celebrated the ridiculous, the over-the-top. KISS became international stars FFS, and there’s one good musician in the entire band. If you can lead with your music but still be just idol enough (group dance, coordinated vocals, etc.), it’s possible to get attention and exploit that little opening.
People who are smarter about the idol business can and should share their thoughts around this; it seems to me, though, that anybody who’s trying to go beyond traditional idol and alt-idol markets, who think that they have a chance to successfully market to Westerners who aren’t already wota, need to follow not necessarily Babymetal’s business model (again, without resources, good luck), but their presentation:
They have to go metal.
Or, for that matter, punk or hardcore, or be so singularly compelling that they can either have a viral sensation a la PSY or just plain win over a particular niche audience the way post-punk bands used to latch on to college radio. The point is, they’ll need to look very seriously at putting the music at the forefront, and history is littered with good-to-great bands that never really succeeded for reasons completely independent of whether they made enjoyable music. It’ll be very hard, even with a small opening being presented, but whatever the hook — a great groove, the novelty of idols, etc. — it won’t be able to last if the music doesn’t meet the expectations of a non-idol market.
But can it be done? This site wouldn’t exist if it couldn’t. We’d be a pretty boring collection of like-minded people that never grew or changed if it were just a website about ass-kicking idols; the point is to turn other people into converts and create the basis for other rock-based idols to succeed away from Japan. Yes, it’s basically your grandfather talking about the walk to school, uphill both ways and three feet of snow and carrying lumps of coal to keep the unheated one-room schoolhouse warm enough to hold the pencil that you had to sharpen with your teeth, but what do “long” and “difficult” even mean nowadays? Three teenaged idols with a Fox God mythology and promotion by a talent agency had 50,000 English metalheads chanting for more: It can be done.
If Babymetal can go full metal and have their visual and performance styles be the difference makers, as opposed to music that doesn’t fit a typical idol mold while still presenting themselves as idols first, it means that others can, too. And even if they don’t succeed now, the standard is raised, the ceiling is raised, and the people like us who enjoy this music may be able to look forward to the development of a real international hard idol scene in the future.