Sunday, August 14, 2011

Shoujo Jidai (少女時代) over So Nyu Shi Dae (소녀시대)

I write a crap ton about 2NE1 on this blog, if you didn't know already. Today I'd like to switch gears and write about their anti-thesis, Girl's Generation (hereafter SNSD). I don't really want to talk about the negative aspects of their overly cutesy image, because that's a dead and buried horse that needn't be exhumed for beating. Rather, I'd like to examine their Japanese promotional material in light of their Korean material and see if I can't construct a more sympathetic view of Asia's most loved, and possibly the international k-pop audience's most maligned girl group.

So this post basically began when I saw SNSD's most recent Japanese music video, "Bad Girl" (embedded below). The video itself is nothing to write home about, but I was surprised at the return to the "dark" concept they used for "Run Devil Run". More than that though, I realized that the song was actually pretty good, and that I hadn't actually given their Japanese album a proper listen. And now I was curious - could this album actually contain more than one good track?

I listened to it, and two main things stuck out to me: firstly, the slightly dark, glitchy electro-pop vibe of the entire thing, save their previous hits recorded in Japanese. This is not a sound that I expected from Korea's golden girls. It's not even something I expect from any Korean artist - it was very, very j-pop, and very in keeping with material put out by artists like Crystal Kay and Namie Amuro - pop with an edge. I was surprised they even bothered to record new Japanese material. The Japanese versions of their megahits "Gee" and "Genie" seemed all that they needed to conquer the market at first, but maybe they really want to be seen as Japanese artists, like their predecessors DBSK and BoA. Secondly, the music was good! And consistent! I thought it was just me, but most other reviews I've read have said pretty much the same thing, so I know I'm not alone here (unlike in my weird affection for "Gee" despite hating the concept). They really stepped up their game music-wise - I guess we have Universal Japan to thank for that. (For a proper review of the album, check out these ones over at Random J Pop and Call Me Patricia.)

Delving further into their promotions, another thing I noticed was the clear image change that accompanied the album. "Run Devil Run" and "Hoot" seemed to be attempts to move the girls into a more mature image, but for the promotion of their Japanese material, it seems that they've embraced it fully. Less gimmick, more style. I recommend checking out the lyrics to the songs to see this fully, since I can't post every song here in the interest of brevity (here's a Youtube account with great videos and translations). A great example though is this performance of "The Great Escape" (my favorite track off the album) and "Mr Taxi" from MTV Video Music Aid Japan:

There I was thinking, oh it'll be all girly like "Show Show Show" but then I saw the wide leg spread dance (!), what I like to call the "bend and snap" move (thank you, Elle Woods), and not an "oppa", pout or wiggle in sight. They went for the sexy. Not the "we're so adorable" sexy that you see in "Oh", but a realer sort of sexy. While the moves I just described are the mechanical markers of sexiness (often over-exploited by Korean female performers in the name of concept) there's more to this performance. The choreography is looser, allowing them to interpret it for themselves and show their personalities a bit more. They're confident on the stage - they don't look like they've performed this song 50 times over and just want it to be done with. They smile and stare down their audience as the mood takes them, not because they have to in order to sell their concept. All of those things add another dimension to the performance - it gives it life, so to speak - and so few k-pop artists manage to achieve that. They own their performance - not in a "they killed it" way, but in a "this is our music and our selves on stage, not just something someone told us to perform". It makes me want to go up there and dance and sing along with them. I love this performance. I also love the stage, the outfits, the camera and camerawork. Like, can the Korean TV stations step up their game? Immediately?

So after recovering a bit from my utter shock, I began to ask questions: why is it that SNSD chose to debut their new, less gimmicky mature image in Japan and not in Korea, where the majority of their fanbase resides? Why is it that their best non-single release to date (in my opinion) has been released on foreign shores? With regards to their image, it could just be timing - they've been a group for about four years now, and with none of them in their teens anymore, maybe it was just time to grow up. It could also be the market - specifically one that doesn't amass as much revenue and attention by simply being adorable, and places more of an emphasis on the quality of the music as compared to the Korean market because of the longer promotion cycle in the Japanese music industry. I'm more at ease with this thought because as much as I'd like to think that SM is letting their girls be young women, I also know that the album's sound is exactly what's hot in j-pop right now, and could just be a smart business move as opposed to an attempt to push the SNSD out of the pre-teen/teen years. Cute gets them in the door, while mature makes them real competition for their Japanese counterparts. And then they return to the cute to keep their original fans happy.

For the girls themselves then, maybe there's an advantage to promoting in Japan. Not just the lack of constant variety appearances and music show schedules, and being able to make their money (fulfill their contracts) without completely burning out, but they don't have to keep to the uber-cute image, which two of the members have stated that they're uncomfortable with (here and here). They can be sexy, without hiding it under pink frills and baby voices to please the older male fans* and can worry less about conservative k-netizens kicking up a fuss.

So much of what they've done in Japan would never fly in Korea, especially with the Korean Cultural Commission banning songs and performances left and right. Not only the "wide leg-spread" dance and some other moves from the "Great Escape" choreo, but also the line "You're the gin inside my tonic" from "you-aholic", and the crop-tops and booty shorts from "Bad Girl". Granted, SM probably has the TV producers in their back pocket and could get away with nudity with only a slap on the wrist or a belated ban after they've raked in most of the money. But Korea want their idols to be role models, and won't let them even hint their sexuality in any way unless they lose potential revenue due to negative press. Public opinion means everything in Korean entertainment, while there seems to be more freedom, particularly on issues of sexuality, in Japan. So it makes sense that we would see more varied images of women in the foreign k-pop industry than in the local one.

This makes me wary for their Korean comeback. There's a possibility that SNSD might retain the improved songwriting and vocals (Seohyun and Jessica I see you!), but I don't see them bringing back the sexy to Korean shores. That may mean that they don't recycle Japanese songs into Korea, but considering the Japanese album came out in June, and they're releasing a full album in Korea in September, I'm not holding my breath. So while Girls' Generation, due to their popularity and exposure, are perfectly positioned to shake up the female images k-pop gives us, there's not a lot of chance that they actually will.

To be honest, I think that in a way I am actually a fan of Girls' Generation, despite their super-aegyo image, since I follow their work and choose to focus on only the material I like. I'm glad to see them tapping into the potential I suspected was there hidden behind the aegyo through their Japanese work. And, despite their image, their music is catchy and well produced, and the girls are fun to watch and listen to. However, in order for them to really resonate with me as artists and performers, they need to be more than paper dolls who fit any ideas - good or bad - that SM decides to slap onto them. And right now, SM just isn't giving them the room to do that. It'll be interesting to see if in the future they stick with SNSD and SM, or choose to move in a different direction.

What I'm most curious about, then, is YG's announcement that he's got a Girls Generation-esque group in the works. Will they also be simply a vehicle for endless rotating concepts, providing pretty faces and voices to make them marketable? Will they take on the cute as their mantra, as 2NE1 has taken on the fierce as theirs? Or will they be something else entirely? We can only wait and see.

*So every time someone mentions girl group's "ahjussi fans", I get suspicious. Not only is their little proof of it in any English-language source I've come across, or on music shows, I don't see why men in their 30s and 40s would spend considerable money on music or merchandise related to a young teen pop star, no matter how gorgeous. That's stuff for pre-teens mostly (and possibly young adults due to the slow growing process of Korea's youth). My current theory is that these "men in their 30s and 40s" aren't the people who are going to buy the albums, but the industry executives and television producers who will scout SNSD for CFs and music and variety show appearances. Because without that exposure, SNSD wouldn't have the huge fanbase they have right now, which seems to be more female than male, even with the deep-voiced fan chants on music shows. Either that, or they choose to market to the population that ostensibly has the most disposable income, thus reducing the value of the younger female consumers who seem to drive the k-pop industry. Thus they market to their ideal audience, and not the real audience, and thus preventing that audience from demanding/accessing content that actually appeals to them.( I prefer the first theory, but the second doesn't seem so far out to me.)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

HyunA vs Hyun-ah: Deconstructing Korea's Sexy Idol

I feel bad for this girl sometimes. I think that she's the single most-scrutinized girl group member in the whole of K-pop. And why? Because she can pop her butt like few can. Therefore you get people calling her a slut, a tramp, etc etc because her company decides to take advantage of this particular skill of hers. *sigh. Just another day in the world of female performance.

For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, check out this video of HyunA's latest single, "Bubble Pop", and if you care to, read the comments on the Youtube page:

EDIT: As of today, HyunA will no longer be promoting "Bubble Pop", as the choreography and costumes have been deemed too suggestive to air. The video will be pulled from the air too. Well, not like we didn't see this coming, but they sure took their time with it. The "wide-leg-spread dance" fiasco happened the very week Rania debuted with "Dr. Feel Good", and a week after 4minute came back with "Mirror Mirror".

While I don't particularly care for HyunA - what I like to think of as her "performer"side - I have a soft spot for Kim Hyun-ah, the real girl behind the image, because I see the vitriol that swims to the surface any time she does anything that's mildly suggestive, and I feel for her. Granted, most of the time she's being very suggestive, but she doesn't deserve to be called a "slut" or a "whore" or "dirty". Whether or not you think she is morally sound, you shouldn't attack her so viciously simply because she don't ascribe to your life standards.

Another reason why I hate the insults is that they're clearly confounding her stage persona and her real life persona. Most performers purposefully create fictional versions of themselves to present on stage, and from what I know of k-pop, this phenomenon is very present. The idols themselves even acknowledge it in a way, as they always want to show "a different side of themselves" to their audience either through variety shows or constantly changing "concepts". It's obvious to anyone that their images are manufactured in order to create the most appeal and therefore the most revenue. So it makes no sense to judge their character due to their performances when more often than not, they're not really like that in real life.

It's particularly silly to call Hyun-ah or HyunA a slut. The dictionary definition of slut is "[a woman] who is promiscuous, or has loose sexual morals". While her dancing is suggestive, her lyrics are decidedly not. "Change" was all about changing up your style and not worrying about other people's opinions, while "Bubble Pop" is about her deciding to do what she wants despite what her boyfriend might think. I don't see how this indicates that she sleeps around in any way. And we don't know what goes on in her personal life (frankly it's none of our business) so any judgement of her real self from her music and videos is based purely on speculation, and is therefore groundless.

What do we know about Hyun-ah though? From watching her appearances on variety shows, it would appear that she actually makes an effort to distance herself from her sexpot stage persona. If you look at her dance performances on variety shows, she often avoids doing the standard sexy dance (best exemplified in this video of Rainbow's Jaekyung) and tries to do dances involving more complicated choreography:

(She's not the only idol to do this: Kahi of After School also makes a point to do things differently when asked to perform on variety shows, taking on challenging choreography and playing acoustic guitar instead of simply wowing us with her "sexy aura" [lol].)

When she does do the standard choreography - particularly in the examples I've found, her "Change" dance - she's reluctant and embarrassed:

Notice how in the first and last video she goes all out for the performance itself, but turns into a shy, embarrassed girl right afterwards. Clearly, she's not just a "slut".

I'm inclined to construct a more complicated image of Hyun-ah the girl, based on what I know about the k-pop industry, and what I've seen of her from TV. She is definitely not afraid to be sexy, otherwise her sexy dances would look much less convincing or appealing. As I've said before, I believe a performer needs to connect on some level with whatever they're performing in order to be good. And despite what you think of her, you have to admit Hyun-ah is a sick performer. Her confidence and charisma is really what makes her stand out, not the booty-popping. After being reminded during the Rania debacle that the k-pop industry is more than willing to use sex in order to make money, I wouldn't be surprised if her constant booty-popping is encouraged by her management in order to maintain her popularity. Though her pelvic thrust dance from "Change" was a pelvic thrust dance, I find it to be much less provocative than Rania's version, as well as a lot of the ones you see the male idols doing. Yet that was what established her as a "sexy idol", and pretty much established how she would be perceived by the public and marketed by her agency - as a sexy girl existing purely for your entertainment. She does the sexy dance, but it's SBS's cameras that zoom in on her butt and crotch. And that's what gets them, her and her company paid.

If anything, that's the reason I'm not a fan of HyunA - I feel that she's selling herself short by sticking to the booty popping, and we're all keeping her from reaching her potential by constantly praising her for it and not challenging her to do more than that. Even if it was just working on her rapping, or getting proper vocal training or just doing more interesting choreo - either one of these things would elevate her as a performer. Yet she sticks to drawing in scandals galore instead. Whether she does it because she's bound by contract, or because she actually likes it, I just don't think it's a good choice for her on a professional level. It's all well and good to capitalize on your popularity, but you should at least show a desire to constantly improve and develop yourself regardless of what the public is buying right now.

Quoted from allkpop's review of her mini-album:

HyunA isn’t loved by everyone, but to her credit, at least she continues to be herself, whether we like it or not. She relishes the idea of acting in overly sexual ways, and while she was full of drive a year ago, now she’s teasing listeners and on-lookers with a sexy song masked by novelty gloss.

The album as a whole makes little sense as an entity, but it breaks up into the pieces that have come to define HyunA: it’s partly saucy, partly gimmicky and dubious, and above all, blatantly artificial.

Yet, that’s exactly what works for her and from the get-go, she’s owned it. She may lose street cred for sounding like a complete robot in her ‘raps’, and for groaning through most of her songs, but she at least wins some brownie points for not giving a crap about it and carrying on.

This conclusion presents us with four key points: (1) that Hyun-ah enjoys being an oversexed doll (2) that this image is pretty much how she is in real life; (3) that her persona is completely manufactured; and (4) that she carries on with it despite what people think. From the evidence I've already given, I think I've proved that #1 and #2 are at best assumption, and quite possibly false. #3 not only contradicts #1 and #2, but is also obvious and something that everyone who wants to discuss Hyun-ah as an artist or a person should keep in mind. And #4 is something we can never really know for sure. Does she continue to do it because she doesn't care about being called a slut? Or because she's contractually obligated to? Or because she actually is promiscuous and isn't ashamed to be who she is? I think the evidence given proves that the answers to all those questions are dubious at best, so we shouldn't try to put her in any box, but rather accept her complexity as we are presented it. This, of course, the goal of writing all this and other posts on women in k-pop: it's to allow for and encourage more positive and complex and less stereotypical representations of women in k-pop that are true to the experiences of real women and those of the women who perform these representations.

P.S. If this post is TL;DR for you, check out Ellie from Seoulbeats/AATheory's video review of "Bubble Pop" for a pretty good summary of what I said: