What the ‘KARATE’ Video Says about the Future of Babymetal & Idol Metal

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.

20 thoughts on “What the ‘KARATE’ Video Says about the Future of Babymetal & Idol Metal

  1. Good piece Maniac. Here’s what I see,with all new trends , there is always a successful second wave, and sometimes a successful third wave. There’s bound to be an artist that follows in the footsteps of BM, who pushes the envelope further. In my heart of hearts, I hope that BM only produces 2 more albums after MR. I, personally do not want to see these girls at 25 or 30 yrs old, trying to recreate the energy they currently possess, it’s just not humanly possible. JUST MY OPINION. Very few bands in history have gone beyond the 4 album mark before it becomes a regurgitation or parody of themselves, That’s generally when the second wave usually appears.Who will ride the second wave created by BM? I don’t see anyone at the moment You mentioned MCZ, I am a fan of them as well, however last summer they did a one-off show in L.A., I could never find out how successful it was,I have a feeling it did not go over as expected. Would Stardust continue to block their content on Youtube if they wanted to continue promoting in the States ??? Two hurdles the newer breed of idols need to overcome. First, the western audiences want a live band with consistent members, and second,they need western distribution, (hello Homicidol Records). The other issue is that the “idol” culture is concentrated in a small region of the world, outside of that, the fan base is so dispersed, it may be impossible for acts to gain a foothold in other regions worthy of touring.That’s what makes the BM phenom so special to witness. But guaranteed, there will be second wave that will take this to another level.

  2. I like Jaxson’s points here. I’ll be explaining using a parallel to something I know: Black metal. Black metal had a similar phenomenon happen. The first black metal bands were small time outfits, and never got much popularity beyond the shores of their home countries (spelled: Norway lol). But, then the groups that were inspired by those first bands came to be, and blew the doors off of the black metal scene in such a way as to give it to the rest of the world, and burn some churches along the way. The scene is now the largest cultural export for an entire country, and has millions of fans, and dozens if not hundreds of bands.

    This is how I see this whole idol-metal thing going: Babymetal and company are the first wave. They are making it a possibility. They are embracing the ideals and what it means to belong to this genre of music. Then, the bands that will be inspired by THEM will come around, and blow us all away. The world is a flatter place now than it was in the 80s when black metal was being born, and because of this I can justify that Babymetal is still first-wave even though they are now world-wide.

    I hope that in going world-wide we don’t see the loss of that spark, that something that puts the “J” there. J-rock and J-pop all have very unique sounds, so lets hope that idol-metal never loses that “J”-ness.

    • You are wise my friend. Your Black Metal reference is what I would consider the third wave of evolution from the 70’s era metal. the second wave being the 80’s speed/thrash, each making a huge leap forward from their predecessor.What often launches 2nd & 3rd wave artists, is the full satauration or over saturation of the previous artists.I don’t believe our beloved Babymetal has reached their peak yet. but if they want to firmly cement themselves into the annals of history, they would be wise to have an exit strategy before over saturation occurs, and allow the 2nd wave artists to continue their legacy.In reality, we are only 4 or 5 years into this wave, and it may be another 4 or 5 years before the saturation point is reached.As much as I love what Maniac is doing on this site, I personally don’t see a 2nd wave artist emerging just yet. Would I love to see my beloved Kamen Joshi break out and tour the world and come stomping through my home town??? Sure.economically it would save me from traveling across the planet to witness their insanity.but that’s just being lazy on my part Much of the charm of this music is the dedicated fans chanting along and lifting the entire live experience beyond what the cd recordings can offer. My goal for 2016 is witnessing, in person, Babymetal at Tokyo Dome and 3 or 4 nights with the “Mask Girls” in Akiba. Wish me luck (;_;)

  3. Hey Maniac, as you may have noticed some us here have some expanded ideas on the subjects you post, often, some good details get lost in the back and forth of post and replies. I know you mentioned thoughts about starting a forum, a good idea, but still somewhat limiting. What is the possibility that you could set up and host a live chat???? I bet Phillter would participate, as he seems to know his stuff. I would love to “stir the puddin'” with some folks from various parts of the globe.Just an idea. See Ya

    • I’m actually weighing pros and cons of these different platforms right now. Some of them let you build your own little internal social network, some of them have those extra chat etc. features. It also might be way too early to try to lift that up. I love you guys, but we’re still kind of few in number.

      • Hell yeah I’d be down for that! I was going to send an email to Maniac today asking if he was interested in having a guest column writer from time to time too. But, he’s right, it seems to be a very, very small group of core people here that would really be interested in a forums/social site etc. Don’t grow too fast and burn out maniac, I love what you are doing with this site!

      • Obviously any expansion on your site will require some extra effort. The idea is to create something that doesn’t currently exist, creating unique delivery methods to drive traffic to your site. Forums already exist with sub forums for individual groups.These days most people seem to prefer news delivered in video format, in an entertaining way, not by reading news script. The idea would be a weekly(once a week) video chat session via Skype or Google Hangouts,etc. covering events of the week, with discussion of said events, involving at least one other informed individual, preferably two besides yourself, each offering a different perspective on the topics. This would not be all that difficult, the formats are readily available. I would like to participate in something like this. Perhaps our friend Phillter might chime in and like to be involved as well. I think he is in Europe???, as he mentioned in another post regarding paying import tax on cd’s. That would enhance the discussion further involving regional perspectives.. You may find this avenue may free up some of your time by tapering off some of your daily posts and compiling them as one “Weekly Roundup”. Just an idea, I like your site just fine and greatly appreciate the time you take to cull all the info,but everything can be improved. Now, if your camera shy, then that’s another story. CU

        • I was on a weekly podcast for a D3 site I used to frequent, so I’d of course be down for a news podcast for this site, even got myself a studio mic and everything!

          I’m on the West Coast US actually, still have to pay those import taxes though.

          • Outstanding !!!!!! I didn’t realize any part of the US has import taxes, lucky you(;_;) No such thing over here in FL, not even state taxes. Yeah !!!!!! Now we just need Maniac to jump on board and take this thing to another level.

          • I’m going to go ahead and respond in general here as sort of the terminus of the thing:

            I’ll put together the tech tools that work for the greater goals of this project if/when it feels appropriate to do so. A better platform for internal chatter, for one, a step ahead of a social networky thing. Some of those products include chat, but I always worry about bandwidth use. I do have a longer view, but I won’t pretend to know exactly what that is. And I’m reluctant to put very much work into anything until after this little game we’re playing ends in full; the Corenament is a great driver of traffic, and I’m trying to find the sweet spots to keep more people around after we crown a winner, but there could also be a big drop in engagement at that point.

            I will allow that podcasting is interesting. I’d only be interested in doing it if it were more like a traditional radio show, very much focused on music with a little bit of jabber here and there. Reluctance there, too, because this Maniac enjoys the anonymity. Formats like that would probably work best live, anyway, to allow for some give-and-take. Also costs! /sigh

  4. This is good stuff! I appreciate the thoughtful discussion.

    Phillter, I may not know what the second wave is right now, but I do know two things:

    * I hope that it doesn’t involve any of the obvious knock-offs ;
    * I hope that there’s some domestic development.

    But do you know who looks rather like an archetype to me? Deep Girl (I know!). They look relatively gimmick-free, but they look *good*. Their chosen sound is more akin to the metalcore that folks like now than the trash / power stuff that a lot of groups opt for. They’re inexplicable in a way that could get people to pay attention. I’m not necessarily saying “it’s Deep Girl,” but somebody like that.

    I also think that, of all of the groups happening now, if anybody could turn a little bit of attention into a regular run, it’d be Necronomidol. The Dark Girls could catch on not necessarily with metal people (but also plenty of metal people), and the various little festivals and fringe fests and the like would give them something to tour in. They’re hurt by the fact that they defy the idol mold maybe too much, but I do see opportunity that’s almost specific to them.

    OR some genius producer could put together a high-quality cross-genre band, recruit three multi-talented young women to front it and create something that’s a combination of Perfume, PassCode and BiS. That’d probably turn some heads.

    • Yeah I agree that I hope it doesn’t involve knock-offs. To go for a more distantly-related analogy: MMORPGs. Not the full history, but still. When World of Warcraft came out and took the genre by storm, so many people tried to be “WoW, but with…”. for example, Age of Conan was WoW, but with combos and darkness, etc. So, we will probably see a peaking of idol-metal in a few years (as Jaxson said), where there are lots of bands that are “Babymetal, but with…”. When these bands don’t make it because people just keep going back to the Babymetal that they know and love, when the bands that are inspired by but not trying to BE Babymetal emerge, then we will have hit the second wave.

      I like the Deep Girl call there, even if that “I Kill” video is NOT one that I enjoy watching :/ They have a great sound, and they don’t really have a gimmick. Necronomidol is a little too underground-y sounding I think to really launch off.

      God damn…if there was a band that is the combo that you mention (maybe sprinkle in something a little heavier sound-wise too, like my girls GuDro haha), then that would be incredible. Simply, purely, incredible. Just thinking about the amount of talent, musicianship, and power that would be in that group is chill-inducing. (O_O)

  5. I’m a fan of BM since January 2013. At that time they were not so famous. I do not really like the new songs. I want to get back to the “old” BM. 🙂 I want more power metal and less chewing gum.

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