No heavy analysis today folks. Just a fancam video of a performance by 2NE1 this morning. Because they were awesome:
I’m just sick of Bora’s boobs.
Okay…no, not really. They’re just a constant reminder of the curse of blogging about sexuality and popular culture. Thanks to them, “Consent is Sexy: SISTAR, slut-shaming, and sexual objectification in the Korean idol system” is literally my most viewed post—but also, per view, probably one of the least actually read.
You’d never think it took a month to research and write, and that I consider it one of my proudest blogging achievements.
Ironically for the frustration that causes now though, it too was born out of the frustration of two weeks of watching interviews of SISTAR members, naively hoping that they would reveal something about the extent to which they consented to—indeed, hopefully played an active role in choosing—the sexualized costumes, choreography, and so on provided by their management company. Instead, I was left with nothing more substantial than learning their favorite flavors of ice-creams, and a firm resolve never to watch any more of the crap that counts as most K-pop entertainment.
But finally, nearly a year later, I’ve just learned of two interviews where girl-group members were able to talk about their jobs like actual human beings.
The first, on the new show The Spokespeople (대변인들), where Rainbow’s Jisook, Stellar’s Gayoung, and Dal Shabet’s Subin, from roughly 8:00 to 26:00 (it’s—grr—unavailable in Korea; click here to overcome that) discussed their recent ‘sexy concepts.’ It’s a still a little frustrating in places, the MCs being “spokespeople” for the “weaker people who can’t speak out” apparently meaning that guests should shut up while the MCs speak for them instead, with poor Subin barely getting a chance to speak at all. But when they did, all three sounded quite genuine:
Next, as Asian Junkie put it:
And you can read a breakdown of the interview there, including those eating disorders, her complete lack of input into her image, and the debts members are sometimes left with.
Finally, it’s not a recent interview, but The Learned Fangirl just did a review of Nine Muses of Star Empire (2012), which I also covered in last year’s post. While that documovie may sound dated by K-pop standards, it easily remains the most revealing look inside the industry, and I completely agree with the authors’ conclusion:
Interestingly, Billboard‘s Jeff Benjamin had a very different take than us on the documentary, calling it a film that would cause “k-pop haters [to] completely shift their paradigm.” We doubt that — instead it will make a manufactured music form seem manufactured. It’s a warts-and-all look behind the curtain of music industry, and is an unsentimental look at what it takes to create pop star fantasy.
My latest piece for Busan Haps, on the contributions that K-pop has made to cosmetic surgery medical tourism.
I chose the topic because I’d always assumed that K-pop was easily Korea’s #1 cultural export. And, building on from that, that surely most medical tourists to Korea would be coming for cosmetic surgery. After all, what would this blog be without all the posts on dieting and body-image narratives in K-pop songs? On stars’ cosmetic, beauty, and dieting-related endorsements? Or, of course, on the ideals set by their bodies themselves?
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
First, because K-pop only accounted for just five per cent of the revenues from cultural content exports in 2013, as demonstrated in this Arirang news report from January. That worked out to $255 million, out of a total of $5.1 billion.
Next, because cosmetic surgery tourists only comprised seven point six percent of medical tourists in 2012. Yes, really.
When I wrote the article, I mistook that for the 2013 percentage, which isn’t available yet. But, assuming it remained the same (although the trend is for rapid growth), that would have resulted in a paltry $7.6 million in revenues in the January to November 2013 period, based on these figures that incorporate revenues lost from Korea’s surprisingly high numbers of outgoing medical tourists (unlike the grossly inflated KTO figures).
No wonder “a renowned business professor” recently dismissed the economic benefits of K-pop.
Frankly, another reason I chose this topic was because I expected I’d quickly prove him wrong. Instead, I soon found myself chagrined, forced to concede that perhaps he had a point.
But the long-term benefits? He’s dead wrong about those. To find out why, please see the article!
Yawn. It’s been three years since I first noted that the financial imperatives of the K-pop industry meant that attention was everything, in which case “courting controversy with ever more provocative performances is a no-brainer” for management companies. And really, how are these latest examples any different to those of last summer, or those of late-2012? How is Stellar’s recent comeback with Marionette, say, any more shocking than RaNia’s debut with Dr Feel Good in 2011? How has the logic of manufactured outrage changed since 4Minute’s comeback with Mirror Mirror, if at all?
Beats me. So, not to imply anyone else hasn’t made any original observations, but I’ve had nothing to add to this latest storm in a K-pop teacup. Blogging, after all, is all about the delicate art of knowing when to shut up.
Still, there’s always Korean commentaries that deserve much more exposure among English readers. One of which is this article by a team at News Jelly, who not only took the time to analyze the stats surrounding sexy concepts, but provided a handy interactive graphic too, with accompanying download links that just beg for the data to be spread much more widely. After all their hard work, passing it on here is the least I could do.
Here’s the first graph, of the numbers of girl-groups with sexy concepts (pink) vs. those without (orange):
Of course, much more information about the statistics would still be useful though, such as how sexy concepts were defined (although which songs have them and which don’t is provided in some Excel files). And it would be good to have additional graphs of girl-groups’ commercial endorsements signed, television show invites received, and concert tickets sold, which I’d argue are much more useful barometers of their success than absurdly cheap (legal) downloads.
That said, the verdict is in: sexy concepts produce little more than hype, and management companies would be well advised to avoid them for the remainder of 2014.*
But we all know they won’t. Until the next controversy then, here’s my translation of the accompanying article:
(*Update: In hindsight, I was little too enthused about finding actual data — and tired from all the translating — to realize that its flaws meant there wasn’t enough to support that conclusion. For more discussion of those, see Asian Junkie or Reddit.)
News Jelly, 3 March 2014, by Jo Gwang-hyeon (조광현)
2014년도 역시 걸그룹 선정성 논란은 잠잠해질 기미가 보이지 않는다. 속옷 같은 의상을 입고 엉덩이를 흔들거나 가슴을 쓸어 내리는 안무, 바닥에 엎드려 옷을 젖히고 노골적으로 처다 보는 눈빛을 보고 있으면 더 이상 그들의 음악은 들리지 않는다. 걸그룹 선정성 논란은 여전히 뉴스의 중심에 있다. 과연 그들은 무엇을 얻기 위해 그토록 선정적일까?
In 2014, the sexual controversies surrounding girl-groups show no signs of abating. With costumes that resemble underwear, dance moves involving shaking buttocks, stroking breasts, and flinging open clothes while staring into viewers’ eyes, it’s difficult to notice the music anymore.
Girl-groups are still at the center of the news. But what do they hope to achieve with such hyper-sexualized performances?
걸그룹 선정성 논란, 살 길은 섹시뿐? Girl-groups’ Sexuality Controversy: Is sexiness the only way for them to survive?
지난 2월, 걸그룹 스텔라는 사상 초유의 섹시 컨셉을 들고 컴백했다. 2011년 데뷔 이후 깜찍하고 발랄한 이미지였던 이들은 작정이나 한 듯 섹시를 들고 나왔다. 이후 스텔라는 각종 포털사이트의 실시간 검색어 1위를 차지했고 관련 기사는 쏟아졌다. 자극적인 안무와 뮤직비디오뿐만 아니라 음란물을 연상케 하는 사진과 영상은 폭발적인 관심을 불러일으킨 동시에 비난도 받고 있다.
실제 무명의 걸그룹이 단숨에 화제에 올라 가요차트 상위권에 오르는 모습을 자주 볼 수 있다. 섹시 컨셉은 음악성이나 뛰어난 외모가 아니면 주목받기 힘든 요즘 연예계에서 일약 스타덤에 오르기 위해 공공연한 전략으로 자리잡았다.
In February, Stellar made a comeback with a [for them] unprecedented sexy concept. But when they debuted in 2011, they had a cute and fresh one, so this change seems like a deliberate decision to sex up. Afterwards, they dominated the searches in portal sites, with a host of related articles spewing out. This wasn’t just due to the stimulating choreography and music video, but more to the pictures and videos that resembled pornography, which brought both great interest and a lot of criticism.
In reality though, you can frequently see middling girl-groups rise up the music charts almost overnight. Using a sexy concept is a well-known strategy for doing so in the entertainment world if your music’s quality isn’t high, and/or if you’re not exceptionally attractive.
뉴스젤리 소셜키워드 분석 결과 걸그룹과 관련 있는 소셜 키워드로 “티저, 섹시, 자극적, 노출, 공개하다” ‘와 같은 자극적이고 노출, 선정성과 관련된 단어들과 관련 있다. 여자가수이 음악으로 어필하는 것이 아닌 섹슈얼 이미지로 승부하는 모습이 기정사실화 되어 가고 있다.
News Jelly did an analysis of girl-groups and related keywords such as “teaser”, “sexy”, “stimulating/arousing”, “exposure”, “opening”, and others related to arousing exposure and sexuality. The results demonstrated beyond a doubt that the appeal of female singers is due to their sexual image rather than their music.
그렇다면 과연 여자가수들의 섹시 컨셉은 정말 효과가 있는 것일까? So, sexy concepts are really effective for female singers?
2011년부터 2014년 2월 현재까지 음원을 발표한 2~5년차 여자가수들의 섹시 컨셉 여부에 따른 음반 판매량과 언론 노출 정도를 측정해보았다*.
(*가온차트 디지털 음원지수, 유튜브 공식영상 조회수, 뉴스 노출수 자체조사)
에이핑크, 2NE1, f(x)와 같이 독특한 컨셉으로 이미지 메이킹에 성공한 걸그룹을 제외하고 음원을 발표한 모든 걸그룹이 섹시컨셉을 내세우고 있었다.
Our analysis looked at female singers who had been in the industry between 2-5 years, and examined downloadable music releases from [January?] 2011 to February 2014 to determine if there was a relationship between sales figures and sexy concepts or not.*
(*For data, The Gaon Digital Downloads Chart, official Youtube visitor numbers, and numbers of news stories about the respective groups were used.)
With the exceptions of Apink, 2NE1, and f(x), which have their own unique concepts, all [the] girl-groups [examined?] used sexy concepts.
Caption: This chart compares girl-groups with and without sexy concepts in 2012, examining [James — In order: Numbers of fan club members; Youtube visitors; Number of #1 rankings on TV music shows; Numbers of online news reports about the group, within one month after a song’s release; and number of downloads, within 2 weeks after a song’s release]. It shows that songs by girl-groups with sexy concepts were downloaded 7 million more times than songs by girl-groups without.
Caption: Looking at the results for 2013 though, only exceptionally revealing works have gotten the public’s attention; indeed, as time goes on the public seems tired of the excessive exposure war of the girl-groups. Whereas once it seemed a necessity or mission, now it seems to have overshadowed their music, and had a negative reaction.
Compared to the year before, there were close to twice as many girl-groups with sexy concepts. However, the results were different. Compared to girl-groups without them, [the differences are not that great], and in fact the number of downloads was less!
걸그룹이 섹시 컨셉을 내세워야만 살아남을 수 있는 것인가에 대해 일각에서는 가요 소비문화와 걸그룹 제작 환경에 비판의 목소리를 제기하고 있다.
기 획사 대표 A씨는 지난 2월 14일 CBS라디오 ‘김현정의 뉴스쇼’와의 전화 인터뷰에서 “요즘 가수의 주 수입원은 음원 판매와 방송을 통해 얻은 유명세로 이뤄지는 행사인데, 유명세를 타게 되면 행사 섭외도 많아지고 몸값이 올라가다 보니까 노출 경쟁이 더 치열해질 수밖에 없다”고 지적했다.
대중문화의 전반적인 흐름이 다양성을 즐기는 것이 아니라 더 강하고 자극적인 소비로 가고 있으며 가요 제작자나 가수들은 눈길을 끌기 위해 경쟁적으로 더 강한 섹시 컨셉을 카드로 제시한 것이다. 게다가 아이돌 그룹 한 팀을 데뷔시키려면 적게는 2~3억 원, 많게는 5~7억 원 정도가 들며 그렇게 만들어진 수백 팀 중에 한두 팀만 살아남는 ‘전쟁터’에서 두각을 나타내기 위해서는 “‘남들보다 더 특별한 것을 보여줘야 한다’는 강박증이 생길 수 밖에 없는 현실이다*. (2월 14일 CBS 김현정의 뉴스쇼 인터뷰 요약)
There are many critics of girl-groups that can only survive in the music industry through using sexy concepts.
On February 14th, “Mr. A,” an anonymous management company representative on the Kim Hyeon-jeong’s News Show on CBS Radio, stated in a phone interview that “These days, singers’ main source of income is through downloads of songs and appearances at events, but invites to those events only come once a group is already famous. This can’t but help increase the ferocity of the exposure wars between girl-groups.” [James — A translation of the interview is available on Reddit here.]
The mass media these days is not about providing variety but getting consumers’ attention through products’ shock value. In this ever more competitive environment, using sexy concepts is a card girl-groups must play. In addition, as each idol group costs in a range between 200 to 700 million won to bring to debut, and so few of them ultimately survive, Mr. A continued, “To survive groups must show ever more unique or shocking things.”
섹시 컨셉을 바라보는 대중의 이중적 태도에도 문제가 있다. 수많은 미디어가 섹시코드를 질타하면서도 반면 걸그룹의 선정성 논란을 더 부추기는 자극적인 기사내용과 사진, 제목으로 경쟁을 과열시키고 있다. 즉, 소속사와 걸그룹은 자신의 인지도를 높이기 위해 ‘섹시 경쟁’에 뛰어들고, 인터넷 언론은 그 ‘섹시 코드’로 방문자 숫자를 늘리고, 방송은 그 ‘섹시 코드’로 시청률을 높이며, 대중은 언론과 방송을 통해 섹시 컨셉을 비난하면서 소비하고 있다. .
물론 ‘퍼포먼스도 음악에 중요한 요소다. 하지만 그렇다고 맹목적인 여자가수들의 섹시 컨셉은 성공을 100% 보장하는 마법의 열쇠가 아니다. 연예인은 자신이 갖고 있는 이미지와 콘텐츠로 소비되는 만큼 무조건적인 섹시 컨셉과 자극적인 노이즈 마케팅은 자신의 정체성을 만들어 가고 롱런 하는데 큰 걸림돌이 되지않을까?
There is also a problem of the media’s double-standards. Many media sources criticize girl-groups’ sexy concepts on the one hand, but on the other stir-up sexual controversy with suggestive photos and article titles. Management companies take part in the “sexy wars” to increase girl-groups’ popularity; internet media use the “sexy code” to increase visitor numbers and hits, television broadcaster also use the code to increase viewer ratings; and and he public consumes the sexy concept at the same time as it criticizes them.
Of course, music and performances are still important factors. But adopting a sexy concept is not a magical key to a 100% success rate. Entertainers are consumed for their image and contents, so in the long run unconditionally using a sexy concept, noise-making strategy for their identity will surely be detrimental. (End)
Yes, it’s back on, and
I promise that none of my relatives will be in hospital this time!
Once again, please see Disruptive Voices’ Facebook Event page for more details and RSVPs, or if you’re not on Facebook then please feel free to ask any questions in the comments here, and/or to just turn up to Bar Carmen in Itaewon on the day. (Note that it’s not on the main drag though, but on the other side of the hill: see here or here for maps.)
Ahem. But, it has been a very long and frustrating wait at my end, so frankly I’m thrilled to finally have my contributor’s copy of The Korean Popular Culture Reader in my hands. And on the day before my birthday no less!
For a free, downloadable copy of the introduction, see Scribd here. Alas, you’ll have to actually buy the book itself for Stephen Epstein’s and my contribution, the chapter “Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment, and K- pop,” but it’s a surprisingly cheap $25 for the whole 450-page tome.
To any readers who do buy it, thank you, and please feel free to post any rants, raves, or questions below. I’ll also put a link to this post in the right sidebar for continued easy access in the future.
What are you waiting for? ;)
And I’ll be the guest speaker! Please see Disruptive Voices’ Facebook Event page for more details and RSVPs, or if you’re not on Facebook then please feel free to ask any questions in the comments here, and/or to just turn up to Bar Carmen in Itaewon on the day. (Note that it’s not on the main drag though, but on the other side of the hill: see here or here for maps.)
Blogging-wise, unfortunately the timing is terrible sorry: my father-in-law is having a major operation in Seoul in a few days, and my wife will be attending to him, leaving me to look after our children until the night before the workshop. A demanding enough job even when we’re both here, that means that all my spare time will be spent on preparing my presentation (yes, they really do take that long!). So, apologies to readers, and I’ll get back to writing here as soon as I can.
Update, Saturday 22nd: PRESENTATION HAS BEEN CANCELLED — I’m not used to this sort of thing sorry, so I’ll just say it: I’m afraid my father-in-law’s condition has rapidly deteriorated, and there’s a possibility he may not make the night. I’ll keep you posted, but of course I can no longer give the presentation. Sorry everybody, and thanks for understanding.
Update, Sunday 23rd: To clarify sorry, the workshop itself is still going ahead.
My father-in-law is still in critical condition.
Update, Thursday 27th: There were some very scary moments, but I’m happy to say that father-in-law recovered earlier in the week, and is due to be discharged today :)