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No Destination: How K-Pop Made Me Love Lady Gaga

on August 07, 2012, 11:00am

nodestination e1343746973937 No Destination: How K Pop Made Me Love Lady Gaga

Usually, when we travel, the remarks we hear upon coming home are how nice it is to have running water, electricity, a life free of disease, and other things relatively low on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. But the thing that traveling really made me look at differently was being a woman, how that experience is portrayed in pop music and how that portrayal influences women’s self-images. This was never more true than while listening to and watching music videos for K-pop.

K-pop has been gophering in and out of the pop culture for the last few years, bolstered by the music video for and Nicki Minaj’s “Check It Out,” Stephen Colbert’s goofy dance rivalry with “Korean pop star Rain!” and the occasional feature heralding the Korean Wave’s arrival. But it has yet to make a crossover into the mainstream hit it’s made out to be in the ROK. If the handful of native university students, housewives, and schoolchildren I knew in South Korea were indicative of how the rest of the country perceives K-pop’s reception overseas, the hallyu (or Korean Wave) is just about all anybody in America talks about when they talk about music (except, of course, Justin Bieber). But considering the lyrical content of much of Korean pop music made by ubiquitous and eerily similar-looking girl groups, the national pride in the modest international success of K-pop is actually a little weird.

Let’s start with the similar-looking part. Women in popular Korean girl bands like Girls Generation and Wonder Girls often have plastic surgery to make them look more “standardized,” usually in a Western sense — almond-shaped eyes, more pronounced noses, and the like. And they all have the troubling combination of baby faces on grown-up bodies that Korean academic Kang In-kyu says are designed to appeal to men who can’t handle mature and confident women: “Japan […] went through a period of long-term economic stagnation in the 1980s, and ‘Lolicon’ characters quickly appeared. Korean girl-group [members] share many characteristics of these Lolicon characters. With childlike faces with adult bodies, they are non-threatening sex-objects.”

James Turnbull, in his excellent blog The Grand Narrative, which explores feminism, sexuality, and gender roles in Korea, translated a long article Kang In-kyu discussing the troubling confluence of infantilization and sexualization of women in Korean pop music. “What Did Depraved Oppas Do to Girls Generation?” highlights the most recent wave in Korean girl groups, which emphasizes de-individualized members, lots of exposed skin and aegyo, which roughly translates to a childlike innocence and charm that is usually used to describe how women relate to older men. (Before we go any further, I should also note that oppa, which is a respectful term when loosely translated to “older brother,” has a similar connotation to “daddy” in English when used in a dirty or lecherous way.)

What struck me about this article and got me thinking differently about American female pop icons was Kang’s reference to the “oppa craze” in girl group’s lyrics: “Oppa, look at me,” “I’m so embarrassed,” “I don’t know, I don’t know,” “This is my first time,” “I’m light-headed,” “Don’t just think of me as a little sister,” “I think I’m so foolish,” “I believe everything.” An accompanying video, illustrating the frequency with which women say, “I don’t know” in pop songs really hammered the point home. Whereas little girls in America are listening to songs like “Put a Ring on It”, “Since U Been Gone”, and “Born This Way”, which celebrate a sense of independence and worth, little girls in Korea are growing up idolizing women who present themselves as subservient, foolish, and needy.

About nine months into my tenure as an English teacher in Korea, the real-life implications of K-pop’s “Lolicons” became clear. I taught an aptly named group of a dozen kindergarteners — Kindness Class. Among my charges were twin girls, Chloe and Olivia, who were affectionate, thoughtful, and earnest, not to mention some of the more lovely little girls who crossed my path at school. One morning, they came to school with red, puffy eyelids smeared in something that looked like Vaseline. It looked painful, and they were listless all day. When I asked my Korean assistant teacher what was wrong with them, she informed me that their mother had taken them to get plastic surgery to give them wider, rounder eyes, a pervasive procedure among celebrities of all stripes, especially singers. Chloe and Olivia were five years old.

When searching to understand what was going on, I asked my class of five-year-olds later that day how common plastic surgery was and how they felt about it, the five young ladies present treated the idea that they’d need plastic surgery “like Girls Generation” before they turned 18 as a foregone conclusion.

It’s easy to get into a chicken-or-egg discussion about this — are women in Korean music portrayed this way because of gender inequality, or vice versa — but probably the best answer is that it’s cyclical. I don’t have any delusions that we don’t have our own mini-“oppa craze” being perpetuated by the careers of young women who, in the ultimate twist of creepiness, often got their start on the Disney Channel. Nor do I deny that women are still extremely sexualized and objectified in music and other media. (A teenaged Britney Spears’ appearance in lingerie on the cover of Rolling Stone was a lot more “oppa craze” than “you go, girl!”) That, to some degree, will probably never change. But it’s a lot more difficult to malign the careers of the Lady Gagas and Beyonces of the U.S. charts, with their outlandish personal styles and songs admonishing listeners to love themselves, now that I’ve seen how a media landscape full of de-individualized Lolicons can shape young minds.

In a recent episode of The Simpsons“Lisa Goes Gaga,” Lady Gaga comes to Springfield to try to help Lisa after she’s voted the least popular student at school. Gaga gives a concert, and at one point, she addresses the crowd. “Does everybody love themselves?” she asks, and someone from the audience shouts a reply: “That kind of thing sounds hollow coming from anyone but you!” The joke, of course, is that it sounds hollow coming from a pop star who has built her empire in part by pandering to all the “little monsters” out there. And yes, her career strikes me as cynical and frustratingly devoid of substance, as is Korean oppa music.

But that’s not how their listeners see them. To fans, this music can be important, emotional, and a reflection of how they see the world. What the music we listen to says to us matters. K-pop’s messages to women are largely about being demure, accommodating, sexy, and pliable. Gaga and her peers, on the other hand, make music about feeling empowered, loving yourself as you are, self sufficiency, and dancing your ass off. It’s tempting to wave both K-pop and American Top 40 radio off as just so much empty auto-tunage, but the truth is that both these genres do have substance and that their messages matter.

It hasn’t been that long since Britney Spears was shimmying around in a skimpy schoolgirl skirt or whisper-singing about being a “slave for you.” The Spears icon of ten years ago is a lot more akin to contemporary Korean shrinking violets than to American divas of today. Let’s, just for a minute, put derision aside and appreciate what Gaga’s popularity may imply about progress toward gender equality. It may be tough — heck, I’m not sure I’d ever have done it without basting in a soup of real-life “Lolicons” for a year — but it’s worth considering.

Rachel Bailey is on the Twitters and  travels and writes.

August 9, 2012 at 3:52 pm

I agree with toak, please take more care and research when criticizing another culture’s music. I think the artists (American and Korean) are more similar than you are presenting them to be.

What you note in Lady Gaga and Beyonce as female empowerment and individualism is only a surface-read of their music. They are products to be sold, and their images and songs are largely manufactured by men (just like kpop). I think the main difference between American pop stars and Korean pop stars is their packaging.

American pop stars may seem more empowered, and pro-women, but it is just a marketing tool. Americans like individualism and have a longer, complex relationship with feminist movements so it’s smart to market to them as such. Korean society is more collective, and more racially homogeneous, so it makes sense to emphasize groups than any one individual.

If you are going to take issue with the collective, childlike aspects of Kpop, you can find similar American counterparts in Phil Spector’s girl groups who wore matching outfits, sang songs of naive love with melodramatic and de-individualized lyrics. I won’t rattle off counter examples, but The Crystals, “He Hit Me and it Felt Like a Kiss,” will be support enough.

Yes, that song is from the sixties and you are talking about contemporary pop music, but keep in mind, Kpop’s industry is younger than the US; the folk/protest music in Korea began more in the 70’s and 80’s vs. 60’s in the US, and the closest relatives of Kpop today started in the mid-80’s before slickening up in the 90’s.

I am by no means saying there should be a learning curve when judging an music’s worth, but I think it’s helpful to contextualize the situation as much as possible to avoid presenting a bare, black and white comparison.

August 8, 2012 at 4:05 am

It’s very unfortunate to see criticism of pop culture and gender politics, and even more so pop culture that’s not your own (even if you’ve lived there) where concepts such as fact and reality are treated lightly, or willfully ignored to make a point. You end up talking about a lot of women as if they’re much dumber than they are.

“Women in popular Korean girl bands like Girls Generation and Wonder Girls often have plastic surgery to make them look more “standardized,” usually in a Western sense — almond-shaped eyes, more pronounced noses, and the like.”

Not true – not proven, anyway, and no evidence or even strong indication has been given that it’s the case. They’ve explicitly said they haven’t done it, and whether that’s true or not haven’t changed much from their pre-debut photos. Especially the Wonder Girls are quite a varied-looking group of different types of faces and bodies. All fit, of course.

Now some Korean celebs have admitted to plastic surgery, of course, but others have denied, or said it’s not needed, or that it’s a negative thing. You pick two groups where it doesn’t apply to support an entire argument and it all falls through. It’s not a good thing to lie, and the hyperactive netizens’ witch hunt for pop stars who have gone through plastic surgery, whether true or not, is another sad case of sexism blogs like this shouldn’t contribute to.

As for the rest, it’s largely not true. Yes, there have been cases of pop stars acting like clueless, demure little kittens, but they’re not the majority. And coming up with examples of the opposite is super easy: The in-your-face attitude of groups like 2NE1, Miss A or 4Minute, whose lyrics are all about self-confidence, the social conciousness and play with the absurd that matches Gaga of groups like Sunny Hill, the sexual aggresion of artists like Narsha/Brown Eyed Girls/Lee Hyori. These are all the biggest sort of names, the kind of stars fans are inspired by, and they don’t fit your description in anyway.

Among newcomers we largely see this as the template to follow, whether it ‘s through super tough hip hop girls or groups promoting free love across genders, both only this month. K-pop as a shining light of empowerment the society needs (and which the powers that be are often struggling to accept, as per the censorship troubles of the artists the last ten years) .

The kind of generalization you’ve presented here is unfortunately how many people write about pop, and it hurts serious discussion about gender, politics and culture.

Matthew Brehm
August 7, 2012 at 11:53 pm

Lady GaGa is such a good role model! No plastic surgery, no lip-synching just pure raw talent and creativity! Her concert in Seoul was attended many K-Pop stars and was a huge lesson to them and since it was the second highest attended concert for a solo artists in Korean history (behind Michael Jackson) it was a huge lesson to the korean public

August 7, 2012 at 8:35 pm

I can’t believe you just wasted XXXX number of words on Kpop. There’s pop, there’s crappy shallow pop, there’s shameless ripoff crappy shallow pop, and then there’s Kpop far below that.
Kpop has less depth than a car full of Kardashians and less relevance than Bieber’s hairstylists’ home recordings of herself singing in the shower.
The fact that you were unfortunate enough to live in Korea and were submerged 24/7 in Kpop crap doesn’t magically infuse that crap with “substance” due to overexposure. Stop embarrassing yourself.


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