In 2011, the world was first baffled and then enthralled by the release of BABYMETAL’s “Doki Doki☆Morning” music video.
Not quite metal, not quite idol music, the video of three “dangerous kawaii” Japanese middle school girls singing and dancing to heavy metal music was difficult for some to comprehend. Were they for real? Was it okay for us to like them? And why couldn’t we stop listening to this song?
Two years later, the group has proved themselves to be anything but a joke, with legions of fans both in Japan and abroad. This Wednesday (June 19), they released their second major-label single, titled “Megitsune,” so we sat down with the group for an exclusive interview to learn more about them.
Who is BABYMETAL?
BABYMETAL primarily consists of three young girls who sing, dance, and shout with the backing of a very talented live band. SU-METAL, the main vocalist, is 15 years old, while YUIMETAL and MOA-METAL, the backup singers/screamers/dancers, are only 13. In live appearances, SU-METAL, a few inches taller than the others, takes the middle spot, with YUIMETAL and MOA-METAL flanking her on either side. (Note: On the day of the interview, MOA-METAL was, unfortunately, not able to join us due to a school event. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to hear from her in the future!)
What is BABYMETAL?
BABYMETAL was conceived of by KOBAMETAL, a producer at Amuse, Inc. His strong affinity for both heavy metal and idol music led to the idea for BABYMETAL. “At Amuse, we have this group called Perfume and I really like them. But I thought, if I’m gonna make a group, how would I do it? I really like metal, so I figured I’d try mixing metal and idol music.”
Idol music, for those who may not be familiar with the term, is a Japanese genre of pop music with a strong focus on sugary sweet, extremely catchy songs and cuteness. In the world of Japanese music, Amuse is one of the largest and most influential labels. Still, it’s hard to imagine two genres more incongruous. But, as KOBAMETAL told us, “When we actually tried it out, it turned out to be even better than I had imagined!”
▼Check out BABYMETAL’s first single “Doki Doki Morning”
What was the inspiration for creating something so different?
“[I was hoping] to incite that strange feeling that makes you go ‘what is this?’” KOBAMETAL explains, going on to give a concrete example; “Like the movie Kill Bill. I think Tarantino probably really likes Japan, and he worked hard on reproducing that in the movie, but it’s just slightly off, right? Still, it has a lot of originality.” For KOBAMETAL, that’s where the entertainment is. “[If] we were to do just straight metal—having the girls screaming—it probably wouldn’t be as interesting!”
A phrase that came up a lot when talking with the BABYMETAL crew was “Only One,” which is meant to evoke their relatively unique status in the music world. While there are any number of metal bands and idol groups to choose from, there’s only one BABYMETAL with their “dangerous kawaii” image.
Even so, KOBAMETAL pointed out that “Metal, as a genre, is really wide open. Within metal there’s a lot of variation, and that sense of variety makes the metal scene really interesting, I think.”
That’s not to discount the idol world though. As Sean McPhillips, the North American Senior Vice President of Tokyo-based Dream Link Entertainment (better known as DLE) and former Mirimax Films executive, pointed out when talking with us about the band, “In Japan, at the moment, idol acts are experimenting more than ever, and that landscape is transforming into one of the most interesting places for entertainment–where concept, performance, art, and commerce all join up.” Sean told us that he’s very interested in seeing where the group goes, both musically and otherwise.
So far, BABYMETAL has released four singles—two as “indies” and two on a major label, Toy’s Factory. Like many idol groups, BABYMETAL hasn’t released a full-length album yet. In fact, it is common for Japanese musicians to release only singles as they grow and then later in their careers put out full-length albums.
BABYMETAL’s music videos, like the anti-bullying “Ijime, Dame, Zettai,” have garnered a lot of attention both domestically and internationally.
▼ “Ijime, Dame, Zettai”
So, what do the girls think about all the international fame?
“Well, I don’t really speak any languages besides Japanese,” SU-METAL laughed. “So I didn’t really know what people were writing in the YouTube comments at first. But getting comments from all these different countries… I was really surprised! And I’d never even been abroad!”
In 2011, the group played their first international show: a convention in Singapore. YUIMETAL, like SU-METAL, was really surprised and happy with the turnout. “People came from other countries–places like Hong Kong and Malaysia–to Singapore, so I hope we’ll be able to go to their home countries to perform and say thank you!”
It may surprise people to see how well known the group is internationally, especially in the United States, the home of their largest concentration of international fans. After all, for a long time, the popular assumption was that artists using a language other than English couldn’t make it in the US. Korean artist Psy’s success, obviously, shows how wrong this assumption is and hints at a large potential market for BABYMETAL.
Not only are there a lot of international fans, but some of them are so enamored with the group that they’ve actually recorded their own versions of the videos, with more than 70 unique contributions on YouTube already!
▼Here’s one fan’s take on “Doki Doki Metal”
What do the girls think about their fans’ videos?
“In the ‘Doki Doki☆Morning’ video, there were lots of parts where we weren’t dancing,” SU-METAL explained, “It was just, you know, our faces. But fans thought up their own movements and dances for those parts, and they made lots of outfits, too. So, even though it was the same song, everyone’s was different! And that’s what BABYMETAL is aiming at: ‘Only one.’ It was really exciting and interesting!”
Still, it was surprising having so many international fans. SU-METAL explains how at first she couldn’t quite believe that people outside of Japan would legitimately follow them. “In Singapore, when we actually met foreign fans and talked to them, it was like ‘Wow! They really exist!’” she smiled.
So, do they like heavy metal music?
“At first I thought [it] was kind of scary. They looked like ghosts with their white face paint, and their screams…” YUIMETAL admits, but assures us that now it’s a different story. “It’s fun and I see why people enjoy it so much! I still don’t completely understand it, but I’m interested.”
SU-METAL added, “I didn’t even know the word at first, so when they played the music for ‘Doki Doki☆Morning’ I was just like, ‘What the heck is this??’” She’s obviously gotten used to it though, and her fans have been providing the girls with lots of music to help educate them. “The number of CDs we’ve gotten from fans is always increasing. So, you know, I can’t explain song meanings or anything… but I’ve been listening to a lot of them,” she nodded enthusiastically.
Mark of the fox
With a Summer Sonic gig on the cards and the international stage opening up, it’s an exciting time for BABYMETAL. The girls themselves may not be heavy metal aficionados quite yet, but it’s the little misunderstandings and the unique blend of genres that makes the band so interesting.
“We definitely want to go abroad, to meet fans and spread BABYMETAL even further,” said YUIMETAL. “You know how you wave your hands when you say good-bye? We want to get so big that people use the kitsune sign instead!”
The kitsune sign, for those of you wondering, is the girls’ take on the heavy metal “devil horns.” During a photo shoot, they mistook the horns for a fox (“kitsune”) and they just decided to keep using it. As SU-METAL said, when asked what made BABYMETAL standout, “While we don’t always ‘get’ metal, we’re doing our very best. A lot of things come from our mistakes!” This makes it even more fitting that the group has adopted the kitsune as their de facto mascot.
▼BABYMETAL demonstrating the kitsune sign
In Japanese legend, the fox is a trickster and a shape shifter; an excellent metaphor for the fluidity of the group’s music. It also shows how well the group has incorporated aspects of traditional Japanese iconography and culture with contemporary music.
These kinds of flourishes, in addition to the catchy melodies, head banging riffs, and sing-along choruses, really add to the whole BABYMETAL image. DLE’s Sean explained his vision for the band, describing how he feels their ability to straddle the genres produces something new and exciting. “BABYMETAL has a quality that reaches beyond the assumed core audience of otaku and the timing is right for them to make more of an impact internationally. They have a fantastic concept that uses juxtaposition to achieve its aim. Hard and soft. Heavy metal (and many other genres of music) with melodic J-pop hooks. Demons and innocence. For me personally, it evokes the feel of a genre in Japanese animation that I and many others love, which is girls with powers beset by dark forces reigning triumphant.”
The girls echoed Sean’s sentiments. For SU-METAL, “When I was performing in the idol group, that felt like it was kind of my real self, but with BABYMETAL, it’s like I transform! So there’s this other world—this other me.”
YUIMETAL also felt that the music allows another side of her personality to come forward, saying, “I’m doing stuff in the idol world as well. […] But with BABYMETAL, it feels as if there’s this ‘YUIMETAL’ that comes out from inside of me.”
The newest single was released on Wednesday, June 19, with the video already online for fans to enjoy and newcomers to discover, having already been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
The song title “Megitsune” literally means “female fox,” but it has another meaning as well in popular culture: a crafty woman, with both vengeful and helpful female fox spirits often appearing in traditional Japanese Noh theater. Megitsune can been seen tricking haughty warriors or protecting those they care about (or owe a debt to). This amorphous imagery fits the group exquisitely as they walk the line between angry metal and cute idol music.
“In Japanese, we have this word ‘wayou secchu,’ which basically means a mixture of something kind of Japanese and kind of western,” KOBAMETAL told us. “The song is really a mixture of everything we’ve done so far; it’s got the catchiness of ‘Doki Doki☆Morning’ and also the kind of hard, fierce vocals from ‘Ijime, Dame, Zettai.’” At the same time, he explained, there are a lot of Japanese elements at play here: the traditional melody “Sakura Sakura” is woven into the breakdown, and in the video the girls wear Noh fox masks and a dancer performs a classic Japanese fan dance.
We can’t wait to see what the group has in store for us next! There’s definitely a lot of room for more delightful and unique stories!
"We can’t wait to see what the group has in store for us next! There’s definitely a lot of room for more delightful and unique stories!"
How long are they going to prolong this when SU-METAL graduated in March tho?