On Saturday, Aug. 9, more than 40,000 people descended upon Montreal’s Parc Jean-Drapeau for the first day of Heavy Montreal, North America’s biggest heavy metal festival. The main draw was headliner Metallica; respected veterans in Anthrax, Voivod and Overkill; and upstarts like Municipal Waste and Protest the Hero featured on the eclectic undercard. Early in the day though, it was a performance by a trio who performed a confounding, surreal fusion of bubbly Japanese pop and edgy heavy metal that attracted the crowd’s attention.
The metal scene loves to wring its hands over anything that upsets the status quo, and Babymetal have been especially polarizing in 2014. After all, co-opting metal music and juxtaposing it with J-pop melodies and Japanese “idol” fashion, choreography, and marketing will do that. The cries of foul have been predictable, skeptics up in arms about the act’s seeming lack of sincerity, its “corporate” approach, its prefab quality. It’s a common complaint in an era when the mainstream side of heavy metal is stuck between the nostalgic and the milquetoast. The best-selling metal acts of the past 12 months are a hodgepodge of old-school heroes (Black Sabbath), late-’90s holdovers (Korn, Godsmack), younger bands that pander to the lowest common denominator (Avenged Sevenfold, Five Finger Death Punch) and the odd mild bright spot (Volbeat). It’s as if post-millennial mainstream metal doesn’t know where to go next. There’s little galvanizing the entire metal scene anymore: The older metal crowd has its favorites, the kids have theirs, the underground carries on and never the twain shall meet. The fact that the sudden notoriety of this shrewdly marketed trio of teenaged Japanese singers has brought people together in a combination of excitement, confusion and revulsion is not a bad thing at all.
What Babymetal’s naysayers tend to forget is that heavy metal is no stranger to contrivance and gimmickry. Some of the most popular heavy metal albums ever released were awfully contrived, whether the carefully honed sleaze of Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil and Guns N’ Roses' Appetite for Destruction, Metallica's made-for-the-masses Black Album and Def Leppard’s similarly intended Pyromania, or the calculated cathartic sounds of Pantera’sVulgar Display of Power and Korn’s Follow the Leader. Even today’s extreme metal is laden with gimmicks; just look at the cartoonish Satanism of Watain and the Viking shtick of Amon Amarth. Heavy metal is as much about contrivance as it is about substance, and often its best bands have been able to skillfully combine the two. What makes metal so uniquely charming is that the bands and their audiences buy into those contrivances and gimmicks fully, without irony.