Sunday, July 25, 2010

YG vs. SM - Fight!

Okay, so we all know that YG Entertainment and SM Entertainment are two of the biggest entertainment companies in Korea. Recently, a friend asked me which company I thought was currently winning the battle for k-pop domination, and I had to think about it. Here's my take on the situation:

SME: So far, they've released SNSD's Oh!, Super Junior's BONAMANA, f(x)'s NU ABO,  SHINee's Lucifer and BoA's Hurricane Venus. It's kind of unfair to compare them to YG at this point because YG has yet to pull out its own juggernaut groups, but SM's not holding back at all this year. Oh! is the most popular k-pop album of the year so far, and BONAMANA is arguably one of the year's most successful singles, as it cleared the weekly music chart awards week after week. Then they came out with "No Other" and continued to win awards and the hearts of their adoring public. Surprisingly, f(x)'s NU ABO didn't do as well, despite being popular with the fans. In comparison SHINee's Lucifer has won four chart awards and is still charting high, with album and digital sales looking very good. Finally, BoA, SME's shining star, is back to Korean music after ten years of winning over Japan and the rest of Asia, and testing out the waters in the US. Hurricane Venus is currently being well received, and BoA had her first K-Chart win last week. Despite concerns that her new, mature image might distance some fans, Korea still seems to be in love with BoA. SME has had to deal with a lot this year: they've officially lost Jaejoong, Junsu, and Yoochun from TVXQ, signaling the end of the reign of Asia's hottest boyband; they've lost a member of Super Junior, relinquished another one to the military, and can't seem to keep a hold on the other one who's pursuing his acting career. Despite all this, they forge on, and will likely continue to deliver hit singles through the year's end.

YG is like the rebellious middle child of k-pop. It purposefully avoids copying the style of what's currently popular in k-pop, and its artists all lean towards R&B/hip-hop as opposed to pop. I personally think that they're less rebellious than they make themselves out to be, as they often make overly grand gestures such as pulling their artists from major K-pop concerts in order to distance themselves from other management companies. That being said, they shake up the Korean music world with every release. This year, it's been Gummy with Loveless, TOP with his single, "Turn It Up",Taeyang with Solar and Se7en with Digital Bounce. Gummy's album seemed to be well-received, as most of kpopdom has mad respect for her and her pipes. Se7en just returned to kpop after four years with "Digital Bounce", an electrified album much more adventurous than your typical electro-kpop, and so far things are looking good for him. TOP's good looks and smooth flow were showcased in "Turn It Up" and it seems a solo album is on the way for him too. Taeyang's much-anticipated solo album is doing well despite having a slow start, and he's busy charming the girls on the music shows as always. However, most people are waiting eagerly for the promised returns of Big Bang and 2NE1 later this year. This will be Big Bang's first Korean album in two years, after traveling to Japan and taking their pop music scene by storm, and people are itching with anticipation. 2NE1 had one of the most successful debuts of 2009, and everyone's so excited about new material from them that YG decided to gift the fans with a music video for the song "Try To Copy Me" which was originally only a promotional track for a Samsung phone. YG is saving the best for last this year, and you can be sure that they will deliver.

I think that so far, there's no clear winner. SM may have topped the charts with Oh! and Bonamana, but the albums that accompany those singles are average at best. NU ABO was disappointing, especially since those girls are so talented. Quality-wise, I feel SM put all its effort into SHINee, and their album is full of good track after good track, such that they could legitimately promote any of those tracks after "Lucifer" and do pretty well. It's unfair to the other groups, but then SHINee's success depends on the quality of their material more so than SNSD's or Super Junior's does. f(x) are the losers in this case, and I can only hope SM steps up its efforts with them, lest they end up like the girl group M.I.L.K, who we recently learned suffered from underpromotion by SM. SM has claimed that they'll treat their artists better, but that's yet to be seen. BoA has made an impressive return, though for some strange reason I prefer her non-pop tracks to the pop tracks, with the exception of "Game". She and SHINee in my opinion have the best SM albums of the year, but with 5 album releases this year, that's not saying much.

YG, on the other hand, has been holding back, and they're losing out because of it. Gummy's album was okay, but not amazing, and she only promoted for a brief moment before disappearing again. Solar is probably my favorite YG release this year, despite it having only three songs that I love and two other tracks that I like, not including previously released singles. Digital Bounce grew on me, and the success of that and Solar showcase YG's talent for bringing different sounds into k-pop and onto our headphones and speakers. I loved Try To Copy Me, and am itching to see 2NE1 come back. Turn It Up has a sick beat but not much else - the song pretty much rides on TOP's charismatic presence on screen in the video, which actually isn't a bad thing. Despite all this, they haven't been able to top the charts this year the way SM has. The Big Bang/2NE1 comeback has to be explosive (no pun intended - okay, maybe a little) in order for them to claim the crown of best entertainment company of 2010.

Now, obviously there are other successful companies in the industry. There's Pledis, which released new material from Son Dambi, After School and Orange Caramel. There's DSP, which brought back by popular demand SS501, and dominated charts with Kara's "Lupin". M.net Media swept up a number of awards for T-ara's "I Go Crazy Because of You", and Lee Hyori's "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang", although Hyori's album promotion has been set back considerably due to plagiarism on the part of the album's producer. And of course, let's not forget JYP Entertainment, who this year saw a burst in popularity for their vocal group 2AM, consistent popularity for 2PM despite Jaebeom Park officially leaving the group and the company, the return of the Wonder Girls, if only for a brief moment, and a decent run for rookie groups Beast and 4minute, and new solo singer G.NA under their subsidiary Cube Entertainment, not to mention a hot debut for their female dance group Miss A. However, none seem to have the dominance over the k-pop scene as YG and SM have. They are the hitmakers and the charttoppers, and in the end, the k-pop crowns belong to them. Who will win this year? Only time will tell.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ladies (and Men?) of Korea: Keep It Classy

Sorry for the break in posts guys - I'm really busy these days (shooting a film!! For a class. Having a ton of fun. Want to keep doing this in future.) But I found something that I wanted to write up quickly and see if anyone had an opinion. Due to lack of time to devote to my exploration of Korean culture, I get all my news from allkpop, and two of their articles from yesterday peaked my interest: one being the comments of South Korean model Choi Eun Jung saying that "10-19 is the perfect age to show a lot of skin" and "Since the sexy concept is the trend, the young idols are carrying it out. Is it really necessary to look at all of this from a negative perspective?" The other was the news that all the music chart shows were upping their age rating from 12 to 15 because of the sexy dancing and clothing.

What i find interesting about both of these articles is that what is under consideration is the affect that the exposure of skin has on the public, and no one is talking about how the women themselves feel about it. Do young girls ages 10-19 generally WANT to wear skimpier clothing, and are simply not being allowed to? Do female k-pop idols they feel empowered by being able to wear sexier outfits on stage than Korean culture normally allows? Or do they feel objectified knowing that they're dressing and dancing that way simply to attract fans? This is a problem that I feel a lot of women performers face, and have to negotiate through their choices of clothing and performance - when they have them. A professor of mine argued that in the case of Josephine Baker, her sexy performances were empowering rather than demeaning. As a performer, she had great creative control over her performances. However, she worked in a entertainment industry where her "wildness" (i.e. nakedness and silliness) were what drew in the crowds and got her gigs at a time when black performers who performed for white audiences were few and far between. She could have easily decided not to perform these shows (which would have likely led to her exit from the entertainment industry), but she chose to perform, and she chose to perform in that particular style, drawing people in by creating this image of a "wild, African woman." My professor thought that the creative choices that led to this image are indication that she held the power, and while I agree with her, I also think it's still a pretty complicated issue, and not everyone could do what she did. My question now is, where do female Korean artists stand on this issue? Do they think their images are too sexy? Do they agree to do suggestive performances in the hopes that in the future they'll have more control and won't have to be sexy if they don't want to? Or do they find it empowering that they can be sexy on stage, since in real life they're much more limited? (Lucky them they don't have Megan Fox's problem - many people think that because she's sexy, she's also a slut.)

Korean rap artist Defconn responded to Choi Eun Jung's comments with outrage, suggesting that she was not considering the feelings of other young girls, and her comments are improper in light of recent news about sexual offenses against elementary school students. Which wouldn't bother me if it didn't remind me of the common thought process of people towards women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted - "They were dressing provocatively so they are complicit in the crime." I agree completely that young girls dressing provocatively could draw attention of the wrong kind, but I have never heard a sex offender say that he assaulted a woman or girl because she was wearing a short skirt. More often than not, a woman is sexually assaulted simply because she's at the wrong place at the wrong time, and cannot defend herself successfully. It would be great if people could focus less on what the woman did to get herself assaulted (which is often, nothing) and focus instead on the motivations of the attacker.

I think Defconn's comments come from the right place, though. 10-19 is pretty young, and girls that age are not only impressionable, but also in my opinion, not yet as knowledgeable about their sexuality as they need to be in order to make choices about how they want to display that sexuality to others. Encouraging them to show more skin at a younger age will not make them more knowledgeable, but will only make them more confused and insecure, as the reactions of society - both positive and negative - will greatly influence the way they view their bodies and themselves, and could make growing up just that much more difficult.

Back to the music shows: I'm talking about it in relation to women, but is the indecent exposure of men also being taken into consideration? I mean, often times they're simply an ab-fest, and even on family shows such as Star King, men are free to bare their upper bodies. I don't know about you, but if I was preventing my young kids from seeing scantily clad women on TV, I'd do the same for men as well, because half-naked men are not asexual. Maybe they've been desexualized, (and half-naked women over-sexualized) but they can still evoke the same thoughts in the minds of young ones that scantily clad women can. I dislike double standards, and this new rule reeks of it.

Finally, Choi Eun Jung's comment about older women in bikinis INFURIATES ME. How DARE she call other women's bodies "disgusting"? Who made her judge of all that is pretty? And now that I think about it, who the hell cares if she thinks they're disgusting? If she doesn't like it, she should stay away from the beach!!! Those women are proud of how they look and don't go to extremes to keep themselves looking unnaturally young, thin or shiny-skinned, while I'm sure Choi works her ass off just to make sure some other pretty girl who's 8 ounces lighter than her doesn't steal her jobs. Whose life would you rather have?

Seriously, though, whose life would you rather have? One where your image is constantly manipulated to appeal to the masses (either to entice them or to not offend them), or one where you get to decide what that image is for yourself? Are these two lives ever mutually exclusive? I don't think so, but what I'm wondering now is, is that a good thing? A bad thing? Or one of those things about life that we just have to deal with?

NB: Question for those more familiar with Korean culture - how much do Korean parents control what their kids watch? Would this rating change (which is a small 3-year increase on the age limit) have a significant effect on the careers of idols?