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.)