SMDH: Mellowyel Rants about Girl Groups

So I was going to do a top ten things I liked in k-pop this year, but then I was watching the SBS Gayo Daejun and got mad for a number of reasons, so this is going to be an angry girl rant. Excuse my while I get my soapbox...

First of all: The SBS Gayo was a hot mess. In fact, one of the hottest messes of k-pop this year. Mic problems, dull performances, and the odd collab or two for the people who don't listen to pop music. I won't even bother with the other ones if this is all I'm going to see. I'm just thankful there was no cross-dressing this year - I would have busted a capillary.

I got into k-pop in the summer of 2009, but only really started following it in earnest this year. It's been a good year - the Korean music scene is filled with a lot of talent and quality tracks. But in terms of female performers, I have been sorely disappointed. I was super excited for BoA's comeback, but the pop songs weren't as awesome as I'd hoped and the amazing slower tracks barely got any attention. Girl groups continually promised to wow us with new concepts, but failed to deliver music for long term enjoyment or even anything mildly innovative. It was great when it was new, and we were just happy to see these groups back on the stage, but now at the end of the year, looking back, they really weren't all that great. Only 2NE1's material really stands out for me, and that might only be because they came back recently, and it hasn't gotten old yet.

Watching the girl groups on the Gayo was a painful experience for me. They all looked bored and tired and like they didn't ever want to perform that song EVER again. There was an uproar after Jiyeon looked particularly uninterested on a recent TV appearance. While I still think it was unprofessional, I am mirroring her sentiments right now. I am sick and tired of this veneer of what it means to be a woman/girl with no substance. In k-pop, the range of representations of women is limited to "sexy", "cute" and "lovelorn", with the occasional addition of "fierce" to mix it up and sell a few more CDs. At least, if you're going to dictate how these women are going to present themselves, and deprive them of any agency they have in their performance, at least try harder to SELL it to me. Convince me that they have simply chosen to express this side of themselves with that particular song, instead of making it blatantly obvious that it's just the new gimmick that their management came up with.

Girl groups like 2NE1 and After School are the only ones that seem somewhat genuine because on and off-stage, they come off as genuine. It's as if they manage somehow to connect with whatever they're performing, which is really the only way any performance will be convincing. I believe that 2NE1 are badass independent women who love and hurt but move on, despite their dating bans, and that After School are the hottest ish around, despite not having as much exposure as other groups. IU is another performer who is convincing; partly because her on-stage persona is close to the image she puts forth when she's not performing, but also because she's not always switching up gimmicks like Narsha switches wigs. These performers have established their character as a group and stuck to it, and that makes whatever they do considerably more believable. Speaking of Narsha, Brown Eyed Girls is another girl group I connect with, albeit on the other side of the spectrum: they are  convincing even though their concepts vary widely. The members have the ability to blend into any role they're given - you'd think that that concept was always what they did, until you look at what they last put out.

Some girl groups sell decently enough, but I just don't like what they're selling. 4minute is a great example. They are fixed in my mind as little preteens playing dress-up: they play dress up very well, but I won't ever take them seriously. They need to age five or ten years. Or stop performing the fantasies of pervert ajhussis. SNSD, despite my earlier "I'm in their boat" comment, also don't go well with me. I'm on board whenever they're not selling me candy-coated girliness wrapped up in a pink ribbon. I react badly to over-cutesyness and large quantities of pink - I break out in hives and what not. When they're acting their age, I can get with them. Otherwise I won't touch them with a ten foot pole (except maybe "Gee" because it's amazingly produced).

As a girl who is decidedly not girly, and doesn't believe that sexiness only comes in hot pants and black glitter, I generally dislike the concept of womanhood that k-pop is trying to sell. And it bothers me even more that this idea of womanhood is dominant in a whole music industry and by extension a whole national media. Even though it's a small media compared with that of other developed countries like Japan, the US and the UK, it has the potential to showcase so much more variety than they do. Yet priority is given to the idols, because they're the easiest to market. At least Rihanna and Robyn both get performances on awards shows (though Rihanna would get more screen time). In Korea, talented women who aren't idols rarely get seen on TV, or even have their videos played. There are equal amounts of hours in a day all over the world - can't I have non-stereotypical women for one hour of that, Korea? Maybe give those jaded overworked girls a break for once? They do represent some aspects of real womanhood, yes - it's not like women can never be cute or girly, or that I get the urge to bitch-slap any girl who even mutters the word "oppa" within earshot. My problem is that this extremely limited view of womanhood is the only one presented in Korean pop music, and it's aggravating. So much potential for varied representations of women, and for amazing awards shows and performances, and all I get is recycled hits that maybe won one chart award, and lackluster performances by girls who simply can't be bothered anymore. And who can bloody blame them?

In the end, I'm just left drained and sad. Because groups like f(x) with so much talent are stuck with crappy songs and can't even be bothered to perform with any commitment. Because girl groups promoting songs that do present an image of female independence or agency are forced to perform them so often that that image is no longer enough to keep them committed to their performances. Because BoA will perform an average pop track over an amazing ballad because otherwise, she won't sell CDs. I will still listen to k-pop, if only to keep searching for those occasional diamonds in the rough. But in 2011 I will be spending considerably less money and time watching or supporting an image of women that I inherently have a problem with.


  1. The girl groups are so disappointing. I was introduced to Kpop through Rain who owns the stage. Now Mblaq is no where near as commanding as papa Rain but they do pretty well and have some performances where they do own it. BEAST performs like they were born on a stage. There are countless other boy groups that do decent to great live. The majority of the girl groups suck live. They have no stage presence, weak dance skills, weaker vocals. They look awkward. It is painful to watch. Maybe it because they have no agency and do not connect to the performances. I've heard girl group members say they were uncomfortable with the skimpy outfits they are made to wear. Why not put them in something they can really dance in without worrying about flashing they coochie? Supposedly they go through the same rigorous training as the boy groups but it sure doesn't show on stage.

  2. The funny thing is that usually I listen to music by women, most of the African musicians I listen to are women, same with my metal music and visual kei yet I tend to listen to more boy groups when it comes to k-pop.

    I agree with everything that you have written. Goodness, my k-pop flame is slowly dying and I'm going back to listening to indie music from Korea...much better stuff there. Besides I totally pushed groups like Serengeti to the sideline in favour of the flashy lights, pomp and glamour of idols and I may have made a mistake...sad.

    I think 2NE1 did great this year because their music finally caught my attention, you know I didn't like them before but now I do. I'll still follow them and I'll never lose my love for 'global beats' but I guess I'll be waiting with bated breath for girl groups to step up their game.

  3. It's really hard to come up with a different idea about girls in k-pop industry, however, I, as a hardcore fan of girlgroups, must admit that they have shown something interesting last year which is that girlgroups are as worthy as boybands used to be before 2009... The success of KARA and SNSD in Japan is something really important for Korean music industry, since it shows that girls can show something consistent and good just like popular groups such as BIGBANG or TVXQ. Unfortunately, this is a sign of a general problem of Korean society as women's rights aren't developed at all, and as long as women themselves don't do anything to change this situation, companies such as SM or JYP will continue creating this kind of cute and lovely groups with no dough. Sorry for my long comment, and nice blog indeed.

    Luis x


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