Babymetal

Over the past year or so, I’ve become something of a fan of Babymetal.  This may seem odd to people who know me, because I’m a classically trained musician, and I find most metal to be just people making noise, loudly.  But Babymetal has proven to be an exception.

There is a particular characteristic of classical music, in my view:  it’s all perfect.  As I’ve mentioned, I’m a huge fan of romantic era piano concertos (Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, etc.) and I’ve come to believe that every one of them is perfect, even as they are different, perhaps even vastly so.  I cannot conceive of any one of Rachmaninoff’s works, Saint-Saens’ works (except for perhaps his organ symphony), Tchaikovsky’s works, being any different or improved upon, even as not one of them is the same as the other.  Even from the same composer, each work is very different, and perfect in its own right.

I don’t quite have the same feeling about Babymetal, but it’s a similar feeling.  They cross all sorts of genres, and it seems that none of their music is formulaic, and yet pretty much every song I’ve heard except for Megitsune, I like – and I like for different reasons.  I like “Gimme Chocolate” because it’s cute.  I like “Road of Resistance” because it’s very flashy – I’d liken it a bit to Tchaikovsky’s first concerto.  I like “Karate” because of Suzuka’s vocal solos in a very strange musical mode – I can’t identify it offhand, but I think it’s… phrygian?  I like Akatsuki because it allows Suzuka to shine and she really delivers in vocal power.  And I like Metataro because of the fact that it really is genre defying – I’d almost think of it as an appropriated Celtic folk song.  Morning Musume did the same thing in being genre defying (“Mr. Moonlight” comes to mind), but they didn’t break out of the J-pop mold like Babymetal has.  I haven’t heard many more of their works but I’m sure I’ll get exposed to more as time goes on, I’m not seeking it out.

But that’s the thing I think I like most about them – they have the same qualities as classical and romantic composers – each piece they create is nearly perfection for what it is and yet none of them are anywhere near remotely the same.  If you don’t like one piece, that’s okay, there will be another one that will blow your socks off.  The whole band seems to be built on experimentation and pushing the boundaries, and what comes out, I think, actually (and as I say, for what it is) rivals the great composers of western civilization – Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Saint-Saens.  It’s not that genre of music, but the spirit is the same, and I think that’s what people pick up about it and what makes them fans.  They do things no one has ever even considered doing before, and do it in such a way that, many years down the road, I think they will be seen as one of the more influential musical influences of our time.

And coming from a classically trained musician such as myself, that is high praise indeed.  I would not say that about nearly any other metal band.  For all of their talent, skill, and even popularity, most of them have never been really good at pushing the envelope.  Babymetal broke through it and became something truly transcendental.

Why does a Classically Trained Pianist like J-Pop?

As I might have mentioned at one point, I am a classically trained musician.  I am familiar with most of the works of many major composers, but my favorite classical pieces – or romantic pieces, as the case may be, are some of the more famous piano concertos.  Those by Saint-Saens, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Schumann – I love them all and have been listening to them for many years.  I love the complexity, the interplay between the soloist instruments and the orchestra, and most important, how even though there are many notes (the piano itself can have thousands spread over the better part of an hour) not one is wasted and every note has a place.

So why does someone like me like J-Pop, which is essentially none of these things?  In many cases, the performers don’t harmonize or even have any idea what harmonizing is, the lyrics are trite (though for those who don’t know Japanese that doesn’t really matter, the fact that they’re Japanese is good enough), the harmonies can be intersting but are rather poppish – it’s everything classical music isn’t.  You could get rid of half the notes and it really wouldn’t matter, and all but one or two singers are superfluous in most cases.  By classical standards, J-Pop is barely even worth noticing, much less paying attention to.  About the only thing they really do well is dance around in sync with each other, for the most part.

Nonetheless, I still rather like it.

I’ve remarked before on the Japanese word “ganbatte”, or “ganbarou”.  It basically means “good luck” or “try my best”, but there is an undercurrent of demand there.  Basically, if you fail, you didn’t “ganbatte”.  You can only be said to “ganbatte” if you’ve succeeded.  You can sometimes hear one of the girls in J-Pop saying “I didn’t try my best” when they fail at something.  The implication being, that if you try your best, you will always succeed.

I think this is the spirit around J-Pop that I like, even more than the music themselves.  They’re always challenging themselves, and deliberately so.  Take AKB-48.  People said “they can’t dance well”, so they made a piece that deliberately was the most difficult dancing they’d ever done.  People said “they can’t harmonize”, so they release an a-capella choir piece.  People said “Well, they can’t sing solo”, so they actually had an a capella piece where there was a solo singer and a few of the girls were actually singing harmony.  People said “OK, they can’t play any instruments.”  Well, I guess, challenge accepted, because they put together “gimme five” where some of the girls learned how to play instruments just to prove everyone wrong.

Basically, J-Pop seems to be mostly oriented to an “I’ll show you” kind of “ganbatte” attitude.  If you tell them they can’t do something, they’ll do it just to spite you, and be all smiles and cute all the way.

I was watching a performance of Saint-Saens concerto #4 today – one of my favorites, especially the last movement, and I was watching the performer’s fingers dancing all over the keyboard, and I realized, for all of their talent and practice, most classical musicians don’t seem to have this quality.  They work on playing their instrument, on perfecting their instrument, and sometimes get a job on a symphony orchestra or as a soloist career.  But unless they want to branch out into different kinds of music, that’s where it stops.  Don’t get me wrong, you can become very well known and prosperous doing that – but to me, it seems a bit like a waste.  You only learn to do one thing very well.

But the J-Pop artists seem to alwys want to improve themselves, always try new things, always branch out into new ideas and see if they work.  Take Babymetal, for example.  If you tell a person off the street to try to merge heavy metal and J-Pop, they’ll look at you like you’re an idiot and say “that would be awful.”  And I can’t tell you how many Youtube reaction videos I’ve seen where the sentiment is “Holy crap!  That shouldn’t work at all, but it does!  What did I just watch?”  And then they go down the foxhole.

I think this is why I like J-Pop.  They’re always reinventing and improving themselves, trying new things.  Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t, but they never seem happy with the status quo.  You say “well, you can’t do that”, and they say “oh yeah?  Watch me.”  And they do.  One even got into a play-off with a true concert pianist playing Mozart’s “Turkish Rondo”.  You could tell the difference in their playing – the concert pianist was far better – but she held her own.  Someone challenged her, and she said “ganbatte”.  I’ll try my best.

And that is why I, being a classical pianist admire groups such as Morning Musume, AKB48, Sakura Gakuin and its offshoot Babymetal, and a few other groups besides.  It’s not that their music is particularly interesting – most professional musicians could – and do – wipe the floor with them.  Even the K-Pop artists are in such a different class performance-wise that the J-pop artists seem to get a complex when watching them.  But at the end of the day, they understand “Ganbatte”.  Trying their best.  And that’s why I like them.

They’re scrappy, and if someone tosses a challenge at them, they own it.

It’s really hard not to admire that.  Even as a classical pianist.

Karate – Babymetal

I’m not going to review this song.  We’ll just say I rather like it and leave it at that.  But I do want to point out something interesting about it.

One of the central musical themes of this song is a contrast between staccato and lyrical.  The part of the chorus that starts “hikasura seiya soiya” are very sharp, cut off, and aggressive, while the part that is “wow” is very lyrical.  These two things contrast off of each other to make the music more effective than it might otherwise be.  I think it actually represents the tension and release of the fight that is being described in the lyrics, and on the video.

But one of the things that makes this possible is the rapid fire nature of the Japanese syllabic structure itself.  I saw a video where a girl tried to do an English translation, and it was lacking.  Not because the words were bad, and she wasn’t even a particularly bad singer, but the rapid fire staccato didn’t translate well and she didn’t seem to understand why it was necessary to try to keep that character.  So, instead, she did it lyrically, and didn’t attack it hard enough, so her voice was wavering.  It didn’t work well.

When translating Japanese, things can be lost in translation, even when all the words are correct.

That’s the worst trap to fall into.  Japanese are people like me, yes, but theirs is a very different culture, and a very different way of looking at the world.  If one doesn’t see and accept that for what it is, one runs the very real risk of losing something important in translation.

Road of Resistance

I have recently stumbled upon this particular song by Babymetal, which may have become one of my all time favorite songs and/or pieces of all time.  And that’s saying something considering I have a classical background and also rank Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto #3 as one of my favorite pieces of all time.

 

The Japanese are in a very real way not very innovative.  There is little that has come out of their country or culture that they can truly say originated there.  True, there are a few things, and they are wonderful things indeed, but until now I thought that the Japanese strength was taking things from other cultures and making them their own.

After listening to this, I came to realize that I have it entirely backwards.

I had thought that this was a western metal song with a Japanese twist, but it is not.  It is a Japanese song, I mean truly and completely Japanese, which borrows heavily from western genres.  That’s a subtle distinction, but extremely important.

We in the west tend to think that Japan appropriates Western culture as its own, improves upon it, and returns it back in better shape than they found it.  But the Japanese don’t assimilate.  They never have and I don’t think they ever will.  What they do instead is use modes of expression that they borrow from other cultures to express something that is completely Japanese and very difficult to quantify.

They took a genre, deconstructed it, put it back together in a completely unique way, and then made a production out of it in a way that I don’t think would ever occur to a western music producer.  I mean, who in the west would have possibly thought to put a heavy metal band together with three cute teenage girls and have it actually work?

The answer is simple.  In the west, it wouldn’t have worked.  We aren’t Japanese.  The energy would have been different.  We couldn’t find a way to harmonize those disparate things because we could never get past seeing them as separate.  But for them – why not?  It just makes a whole that is far more interesting than the parts.  And that is what makes the Japanese, well, Japanese.

I read that many metal fans think it’s kind of a watered-down metal that only hipsters would like, but that’s missing the whole point.  It’s not metal.  It’s not pop, either.  It’s kawaii metal.  It’s Japanese.  It’s what they do.