Strange Boutique (March 2014)

My March column for The Japan Times was something I’d been planning to write for a long time anyway and was really a development of things I’d written about before and which had come together in part through the process of writing my book. The sudden viral explosion of all things Babymetal-related was a serendipitous bit of timing that gave me a single focus to hook the idea into, and I daresay being able to hop onto the back of an international hot topic made the JT web site people happy as well.

One thing that changed with the new focus on Babymetal was that the international angle made the story sort of about the international reporting of the group and by extension about Japan generally. The opening gambit, where I write a hypothetical “false intro” imagining British pop culture being written about from a similar “aren’t they wacky!” perspective was one I had some doubts about and these doubts were later confirmed when the Slovenian musician N’toko, who was staying with me during his Japan tour at that time, pointed out that’s pretty much exactly how most of Europe does tend to see the British. I suppose given that the JT is an English language paper though, that’s less of an issue. In any case, I think it still makes its point.

I’m not a particular fan of Babymetal, although I think they’re nice enough, I dig the metal angle, and the silliness of some of their stage performances makes me smile. I mean, when you think about how stupid, theatrical and childish a lot of metal really is, isn’t it the sort of music that’s more appropriate for little kids to be doing than middle-aged guys?Babymetal: Death

What surprised me a bit about the response to the article was how quickly the comments coalesced around the idea of it as something sexist or exploitative. I guess it shouldn’t have, since you can’t take a couple of 14 year-old girls (and that’s just how old they are now — they were younger when the group started), stick them on a stage and tell them to dance in front of a massive crowd of adult men without there being something creepy and exploitative about it. It’s the nature of the beast, and no idol music will ever really escape from that, whatever excuses the scene’s apologists offer. That said, taken in context, they’re pretty benign in comparison to Yasushi Akimoto’s Evil Empire.

Another point I didn’t really go into in the article was the relationship with visual-kei, which seems a bit odd from a Japanese perspective, since it’s been a dead genre for a long time now, but once you see it in the context of trying to capture overseas fans, it makes more sense. Despite having been dead in Japan for over a decade, visual-kei has enjoyed a long spell of, posthumous zombie popularity abroad, and I get the impression that the lack of new material from the scene has left an under-served overseas market primed for stuff like visual-kei. The dreadful One OK Rock seem to have tapped into that need, and I wonder if Babymetal were at least partly deliberately attempting to do likewise, at least in part.Babymetal: Headbanger

Anyway, I don’t really think Babymetal are a positive thing so much as someone making the best of a bad situation. The whole “take subcultural thing, add small girls, serve” approach to music just seems like a terribly reductive approach to music, and there must be other ways of selling it. Seeing indie bands and promoters adopt a similar approach is really starting to get a bit pathetic. I remember the way Agata from Melt Banana (a fan of Babymetal) expressed a bit of anxiety about how their use of blast beats could end up with a situation where people hear blast beats in a Melt Banana song and just think, “Oh, they’re being like Babymetal,” but I think that’s just how underground music’s responsibility to keep finding new ways to move things forward is enforced and I can’t really see any advantage in ring-fencing certain tools of musical expression for the exclusive use of the underground. Where it becomes a problem is where the underground pioneers who develop these ideas don’t get the credit they deserve for them, and that is certainly the situation you have now. Unless Melt Banana start producing idol music, no one outside their little core fanbase is ever going to give two shits about them in Japan, and that’s sad and a failure of the industry as a whole. Still, critical though I’ve been of idol culture over the years, I’m not completely against it, and we have to recognise what it offers that other aspects of the music scene in Japan don’t.

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