Girls on Top (걸스온탑) by BoA (보아): Lyrics, Translation, & Explanation

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Why open a post about music with a mascara ad? Good question, to which the simple answer would be that Girls on Top came out nearly 6 years ago, and high-quality, eye-catching images of BoA from back then are hard to find. But also, serendipitously, it helps focus our minds on just how unconventional the song is.

In particular, ponder how “sexy” she appears in it. With her exposed navel; navel piercing; hand thrust in jeans; tight clothes; confident gaze at the viewer; hole in her clothes deliberately revealing her chest; and long windswept hair, then she’s every inch the sexually-empowered and assertive female, or at least modern advertising’s definition of one.

But still, that slight body cant does look a little awkward. And with her head raised back, accentuated by the BDSM-like clothing that covers her neck, then surely I’m not the only one reminded of poses you usually only see done by porn stars?

And just how sexy do those porn stars themselves feel doing them? Take Alex Arden for instance, a former Penthouse “Pet of the Month” (July 2001, if you’re curious):

When you get yourself into the really contortionist position that you’ve got to hold up and your back hurts and you’ve got to suck in your stomach, you’ve got to stick your hips out, you’ve got to arch your back and you’ve got to stick your butt out all at the same time and suck in and hold your breath, you don’t feel sexy. You feel pain. And you feel like you want to kill [the photographer].

Like Ariel Levy says in Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, from which that was taken (p. 42), “if sexy means passionate or invested in one’s own fantasies and sexual proclivities, then the pictorials [in Penthouse] don’t quite do it.” Nor, I’d wager, that ad.

Now compare the back and front covers of BoA’s Girls on Top album from 2005:

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About which her Wikipedia page says:

BoA reinvented her image on her fourth Korean album, My Name (2004); she left the “cute” and “youthful” style that had characterized previous years and presented herself as “sexy” and “sultry”.[7][19] The album was the beginning of a foray into the Chinese market and contained two songs sung in Mandarin Chinese.[19] The sales of BoA’s Korean albums began to decline: the album sold 191,000 units and became the eleventh-best-selling South Korean album of the year.[20] Her fifth Korean album, Girls on Top, continued her image change. The album portrayed the singer as more “mature and self-confident” and was a “declaration of war on male chauvinism”; the “bohemian” look of the cover photograph represented “freedom and depth”, while music videos and album photographs that portrayed BoA in traditional Korean dress brought the “idea of Korean womanhood” into her music. The album also continued BoA’s foray into the Chinese market and, like the previous album, contained Mandarin Chinese songs.[21] The album sold less than the previous album; it was the fourteenth-best-selling record of the year in South Korea with 113,000 units sold.[22]

Granted, the album covers don’t set out to present a sexy image of BoA per se. But if one considers the subjects themselves feeling sexy to be essential to them looking attractive (and hey, it’s important enough to affect the way women rate men at least), then those covers win by default (my weakness for smouldering stares notwithstanding).

Which leads me to the song itself, which I chose to look at because a reader sent me the following intriguing email:

…I have been following your girl group lyric translations but there’s one song I am really curious about, mostly because I’d like to know if it’s as overtly feminist as I suspect it is…

…It’s not only the gold lamé and skull ring that’s tough but the part at the end where she fake kicks her male dancers into submission in a Take Back the Night inspired bit of of pop choreography. I know you’re focusing mostly on girl groups, but I think this one’s interesting in the context of K-pop because it seems to fall outside the two ever present concepts of “sexy” and “cute.” I have tried to find the lyrics in English but most of them are poorly done. What I’ve gleaned so far is that she may be talking about the myriad conflicting expectations a modern girl must fulfill and might even be bemoaning the constant pressure to embody male views of sexiness (!). Or it could be a girl power-lite anthem conceived by greedy business men; but either way I’d like to hear your views.

Whereas the concept of “cute” really needs no explanation, it’s the mascara ad that helped me realize what version of “sexy” BoA might have been trying to avoid – and challenge – in Girls on Top (although I beg to differ on that being a “male view of [female] sexiness,” and would argue that it’s more a media one). Certainly the choreography and costumes give that impression:

As do the lyrics in this English version, although unfortunately they don’t at all match the Korean ones (and, call me picky, but that picture of her is actually from 2010!):

Or at least, what I think the Korean ones are. Maybe I’m just rusty, as it’s been 2 months since I last translated any song lyrics, but even my wife and sister-in-law really struggled with understanding some of these ones, let alone with what they might be in English. I apologize in advance for the numerous mistakes then, and would really appreciate any corrections:

모든게 나에게 여자가 여자다운 것을 강요해

날 바라보는 네 야릇한 시선들이 난 싫어

(약한 여자 사랑에 약한 여자)

내게 강요하지마 틀에 갇혀버릴 내가 아닌 걸

(내뜻대로) 전부 나의 뜻대로

Everything forces me to be feminine

I hate your strange stares as you gaze at me

(A woman that goes crazy in love, a woman that goes crazy in love)

Don’t force me, don’t confine me in a cage

(My way) Everything done my way

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Line 1 is literally “everything-to me-woman-womanly-thing-force”, which hopefully gives you an inkling of how open to interpretation these song lyrics are. Next, in line 2, “야릇하다” means “odd; queer; strange; peculiar; curious; mysterious” according to my electronic dictionary, but I’d be interested in hearing from someone who gets much more everyday speaking practice than me (probably most of you!) if it has connotations of “sleazy” or something like that, which sounds more appropriate for the song. Either way, in line 3 by “crazy in love” I mean someone who gets distracted and/or can’t think straight when in love rather than being deeply in love, and finally in line 4 “틀” is technically a “frame” that she’s confined to, but – after being distracted by the “think outside of the box” idiom for a while – I think “cage” works better in English.

Next is the chorus:

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나는 나인걸 누구도 대신 하지 말아

(그렇게 만만하게 넘어갈 내가 아니야)

내 모습 그대로 당당하고 싶어

(그늘에 갇혀 사는 여자를 기대하진 마)

I am myself, nobody can replace me

(I’m not someone who lets go easily like that)

Myself, I want to be confident

Don’t expect a woman who hides in the shade

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Two things in this verse, I couldn’t have understood without a native speaker to help. The first in line 1 – “나는 나인걸”, literally “I am myself” – probably because my Korean isn’t remotely as good as I like to think, but “넘어가다” in line 2 has no less than 11 meanings, only the last of which “be swallowed; be choked down; be taken/got down; be drunk in” sounds remotely like the “let go [take/endure it]” that my wife said it means.

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섹시한 차분한 영원히 한 남자만 아는 따분함 그건 바로 착각 모든 남자들의 관심사

난 이 세상을 모두 바꿔버릴 꿈을 다 가진걸

Get it up 난 부족해 Get it up 모든 게 다 말이 되지 않잖아

그들만의 평등 같은 건 그대들이 만든 기준에 맞게

The boring notion [that women] want forever to be with only one sexy, quiet man is a direct illusion that all men are under

A dream I have can change everything in this world

Get it up I am insufficient Get it up Everything doesn’t make sense

Their thing like equality only matches their standards

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Yeah, I liked the “get it up” too, a barb very appropriate for the tone of this song, but the level of the Konglish in the rest of the song means it’s probably accidental. And any humor I found in it was soon ruined by trying to figure out those god-awful opening couple of lines, which I wish I’d realized much earlier (and have consequently presented as) were actually just the one.

In a nutshell, they say “sexy-quiet/calm-eternally-one-man only-know-boredom/weariness-that-directly-illusion-all-man’s-affair/interest”. After half an hour’s discussion between my wife, sister-in-law, and I (and – for good measure – my daughters trying to get us to talk about farting instead), we think that “The boring notion [that women] want forever to be with only one sexy, quiet man is a direct illusion that all men are under” is what is meant, but accept that – repeated distracting farting sounds aside – it doesn’t really make sense in the context of the song, and so are more than open to alternatives.

Meanwhile, it’s my significant other that says that “말이 되지 않잖아” means “doesn’t make sense”. And on that note – lest we’ve made mistakes with those also – that from “Get it up” to the final “맞게” was originally 3 lines, but I’ve rearranged them so that they make sense for you at least!

Next is the chorus again, then the next verse. But I don’t think there’s really anything to explain in it, although I’m quite happy to if anyone wants me to:

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모든게 나에게 여자가 여자다운 것을 강요해

더 이상은 참지 말아

Shake it Everything I like that

마음을 더 열어봐 우린 같은 곳을 향해가잖아

모두 함께 영원할텐데

서로 다른 성일뿐 존재하기 위한 인간인걸

Why 이젠 부정하지마

Everything forces me to be feminine

Don’t endure it any more

Shake it Everything I like that

Try opening my heart more, we both want the same thing

With everything eternally

Each other, we are humans that only exist to be different sexes

Why Now don’t deny it

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남자들 모두가 세상의 진리는 절대로 불변의 법칙이라고

이 칼을 잡은 난 세상의 지배자

힘의 논리 남자만의 법칙들

아주 웃기시네 Blurr Blurr Blurr Blurr

(Do you need money? I pay you)

돈에 눈이 멀어 자존심을 사는 남자

그대 이젠 맞이해라 Dooms and a Dooms

자 이제 보아 얘길 담아 듣자

새 시대 Story Girls on Top

All men [say/think] the world’s truth is an absolute, unchangeable law

I [am] the world’s leader grabbing this knife

Strength’s logic is only men’s rule

Yeah, right Blurr Blurr Blurr Blurr

(Do you need money? I pay you)

Men that only have eyes for money buy pride

Now you greet/welcome Dooms and a Dooms

Well, now listen carefully to BoA’s story

New age, Story Girls on Top

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Spoken with the confidence of someone with 2 bilingual speakers helping him, but that was refreshingly easy!

First, in line 1 I wrote “say/think” because which one it is isn’t actually mentioned in the indirect speech (there’s nothing after “법칙이라고”). Then in line 3, “웃기시네” is slang for “Yeah, right” (with or without the “아주”), and finally in line 5 “눈이 멀어” literally means “eyes far”, but combined with “[something]에” then it means “only have eyes for [something]”.

And now we’re in the home straight:

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이 세상의 반 그건 여자들이 만들거야

(Go baby Girl Rise up Throw your hands up Do you like that)

당당하게 난 멀리 앞을 향해 걸어갈래

(Go baby Go baby)

Women will make half of this world

(Go baby Girl Rise up Throw your hands up Do you like that)

I will walk further forward confidently

(Go baby Go baby)

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Again I got a little distracted by the first line, originally thinking it was an allusion to Mao-Zedong’s quote that “women hold up half the sky”, but apart from that then there’s not much of note language-wise there. And with just the chorus after that, then now it’s time to ponder the original question of whether BoA is “talking about the myriad conflicting expectations a modern girl must fulfill, [maybe even] bemoaning the constant pressure to embody male views of sexiness”, or if the song is merely “a girl power-lite anthem conceived by greedy business men”?

What do you think?

The cynic in me says the latter, as it’s just too incoherent to justify the former, no matter how much I’d like to. But some things may well be be lost in translation, and as this is in fact the very first song of BoA’s I’ve ever really listened to — let alone translated — then I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. Indeed, although frankly I don’t particularly like it, it’s definitely piqued my interest in both the development of her image over the last 10 years, especially in her American debut with Eat You Up in 2008 (covered extensively in “Playing the Race and Sexuality Cards in the Transnational Pop Game: Korean Music Videos for the US Market” by Eun-Young Jung in Journal of Popular Music Studies Volume 22, Issue 2, pages 219–236, June 2010; email me for a copy), and also in how female singers and girl groups use sexuality to rebrand themselves (and for more on that, see ‘What’s Your Definition of Dirty, Baby?': Sex in Music Video” by Andsager, J.  & Roe, K. in Sexuality and Culture, 2003, Vol 7; PART 3, pages 79-97; again, email me for a copy).

So, needless to say, I’ll be covering some more BoA songs this summer!^^

13 thoughts on “Girls on Top (걸스온탑) by BoA (보아): Lyrics, Translation, & Explanation

  1. Thanks so much for this! This isn’t my favorite BoA song, but I definitely like the girl power-lite vibe. And I’m digging the photos for the album booklet.

    I almost feel as if the song can’t really be more than girl power-lite, because she’s a mainstream artist, and because it was written by a guy (Yoo Young-Jin). However, I do feel that BoA has embodied in her career a different brand of sexiness and girl power than the usual in k-pop, and I kind of love her for it. I’ve always found her videos and performances refreshing because she’s a great dancer with loads of stage presence. Excited to see more of her on this site!

    • Thanks for the info about the songwriter, and it’s good to know about her different brand of sexiness and girl power etc. than the usual. Here’s hoping I find some songs of hers I actually like listening to though!

      • I would recommend the songs “Implode” “Game”, and “Romance” (from her most recent Korean album), “Eien” and “Bump Bump” (Japanese) and from the older songs, “My Name”, “Valenti”, “Meri Kuri” and “Love Song” (last one’s Japanese).

        I think this might interest you; BoA performing “My Name” at age 17 compared to performing it when she was 20; the contrast is quite striking.

        Age 17/18

        Age 20/21

  2. If nothing else, BoA looks way good, more so I’d say if she isn’t trying too hard to be “sexy”. But I’m not sure the poor girl (and she’s been in the industry for a long time already) does anything but work. Don’t listen to the music, so can’t comment on that.

  3. BoA is one of my favorite artists, period (American and singers from Asia). Although I’m pretty white washed and my knowledge of Asian artists is limited at best, what I can say is that BoA is a slant different than many of her female peers than her mainstream peers (S.Korea and Japan). Just watch her music videos. True her vocal isn’t great compared to say someone like Mariah Carey (she actually has a pretty average range), but her true strength lies in her ability to dance – to improvise, adapt to, and learn any type of dance.

    In 2008 I fell in love in BoA after being introduced by a friend and I have to say I’m not regretting it! I have practically all of her music videos since 2001 and over 400 concert and commercial videos of her since then too.

    Now that my fanboy status has been announced, yes she is different. You bring ladies such as Hyori Lee, the girls of SNSD, and even a lot of the leading ladies from Japan, there’s something different about BoA that you just can’t place. Now don’t get me wrong, all of the other ladies are smokin’ hot and can give BoA a run in the looks department but you have to remember that BoA was the “Korean wave” in Japan before there was the “wave”. Not only is she under contract with one of the most famous (and aggressive to some) companies out there (SM entertainment) , she’s kinda of her own lady in some ways and has stayed that way. I have yet to see BoA expose her body like Hyori Lee – come to think about it I have yet to see BoA in a bikini! (am still waiting for that day…)

    I like how you’re bringing up BoA, she’s definitely one of a kind and I look forward to your analysis of her songs. I will agree that I don’t like the fact that she doesn’t write most of her own songs but isn’t that the norm for any “mainstream” artist these days? Utada Hikaru is a great songwriter and artist but she’s constantly being eclipsed by her more mainstream peers (as an example).

    Although her Japanese handlers seem to be more accepting of her writing her own stuff; check out “Outgrow” – one of her Japanese albums, she wrote about 3 or 4 songs.

    BoA is one of the few truly multi-talented artists out in the Asian music market out here. She’s down right gorgeous, an out of this world dancer, and graceful singer.

  4. Well, when I first saw the My Name music video and performances, I swore that her belly-shaking must be trick photography (videography?). See about 2m44s in the above clip, although she doesn’t appear quite as enthusaistic in this particular show as others. I was finally convinced otherwise when I saw a couple of her live performances. There were definitely NO tricks. She can really shake it that fast! I love to watch performances live. I have a whole new appreciation of 신지 after one studio visit, but that’s another story…

    Belly shaking aside, she has a GREAT voice and can really sing. Have you listened to My Prayer?

    (If you need some music videos of her, ask me, I might have some archived somewhere)

  5. Pingback: Finding K-Pop Songs to Learn « Beginner's Mind: South Korea

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