How Japanese Phenoms Babymetal Were Made in Pop's Image
The rare Japanese act to crack the Billboard 200's top 40 is Babymetal, a trio of teenage girls who sing sugary pop melodies over head-banging, guitar-shredding heavy metal, which landed at No. 39 on the chart dated April 23. The creation of 38-year-old Tokyo-based entertainment company Amuse, the group has gained millions of followers in its home country as well as on YouTube. Thanks to songs like "Gimme Chocolate!!" and "Karate," the former performed on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert in April, the act is now poised to break out of the J-pop-dominated circuit in Japan to tour North America and Europe.
To hear executives at Amuse tell it -- proudly -- every Babymetal move is calculated, down to the grim reaper face paint the backing musicians wear. "We select everyone we work with in the studio and on tour, as well as the visuals," says Key Kobayashi, who as Babymetal's Svengali and producer goes by the name Kobametal. Relatively anonymous offstage, he has been involved with the group since its inception in 2010. "The team of composers and musicians ... everybody is serious about metal music. Getting praise from other metal musicians and people in the scene in general proves that we're doing something right."
Indeed, as prefab acts go, Babymetal has seemed to garner the sort of credibility rarely found in Japan's assembly-line-like K- and J-pop industries, where entertainment companies create groups in audition scenarios that take their cues from reality TV. Slipknot's Corey Taylor, Guns N' Roses' Slash and, most recently, Rob Zombie, who marveled that Babymetal "are like nothing I've ever seen before," are among those who have praised the tutued and ponytailed Su-metal, Yuimetal and Moametal (ages 18, 16 and 16, respectively). But while the girls -- who typify Japan's kawaii, or cutesy, culture -- carry the distinction of having opened up for both Lady Gaga and Metallica, in terms of Babymetal's own drawing power domestically, it is among the smaller acts on Amuse's roster, which includes arena-filling groups like One OK Rock and Perfume. (Stateside, Babymetal's Metal Resistance album was released by RED Associated Labels, a Sony subsidiary, on April 1.) The difference for Babymetal, says Kobayashi, is knowing "what works outside Japan. These [other] acts are not traveling abroad."
“I think Amuse has done a great job of promoting the group, especially of taking what easily could have been a one-hit-YouTube-wonder and turning them into something that has lasted way longer,” says Tokyo-based Japanese music journalist Patrick St. Michel. “It will be interesting to see what Japanese artists or labels try to replicate the Babymetal strategy.”
The global market is waiting. Says Los Angeles-based rock promoter/festival producer Danny Wimmer: "Kids that saw 5 Seconds of Summer at 12, now they're 15 and looking for something more rebellious. There's something happening."
Additional reporting by Ray Waddell.
A version of this article first appeared in the May 28 issue of Billboard.