Miss A (Still) Don’t Need a Man…And Neither Did Destiny’s Child

Fei Doesn't Need a Man(Source)

Has it been a year already?

Sorry for the slow posting everyone — I’ve had a bad cold for over two weeks. But, serendipitously, it’s a great time to be thinking about Miss A again, their second album Hush being released just a few hours ago.

Sure enough, I’ve just learned about the connections between their 2012 song I Don’t Need a Man and Independent Women by Destiny’s Child, through translating the following music column. I completely overlooked them when I compared Miss A’s song to Bloom by Ga-in, and it’s made me keen to learn more about the genealogy of the seven new songs coming up too, especially as JYP is no longer composing them.

Unfortunately though, letting us know about those connections proves to be just about the only thing of interest in the column, and in hindsight they were also pointed out by many other commentators last year, who discussed them in much greater depth. So, after I post my translation, I’ll do my best to sum-up that earlier commentary, for the sake of readers like me who are also only just now learning of the ties to Destiny’s Child.

But first, to refresh your memory (with just the Korean, Romanized, and English lyrics):

The music video itself:

Here’s Destiny’s Child Independent Women:

Here are the lyrics alone:

Technically, those last two were Part 1, and here’s Part 2 below, which is why (duh) Miss A’s mini-album was called Independent Women Part 3. But beyond this sole video, I’ve been unable to find any more information about Part 2 specifically, so would appreciate it if any readers can help out.

Finally, here’s a video of Destiny’s Child reuniting to perform the song at the last Superbowl. Also, see Sociological Images for a response to misguided complaints of Beyoncé’s (alleged) sexual objectification in her performance, which I applied to K-pop here:

Which brings us to the (curiously-titled) column:

고민없는 이야기는 고민없이 들어야 할까 / Do We Have to Listen to a Story Without Worry…Without Worry?

Ilda Women’s Journal, 6 October 2013

– 음악칼럼 ‘블럭의 한 곡 들여다보기’가 연재됩니다. 필자 ‘블럭(bluc)’님은 음악웹진 스캐터브레인의 편집자이자 흑인음악 매거진 힙합엘이의 운영진입니다. [편집자 주]

– This is the music column “Let’s Check out a Song with Bluc.” Bluc is a writer for webzine Scatterbrain and the manager of black music magazine Hiphop LE.

데스티니스 차일드의 오마주 / A Homage to Destiny’s Child

“남자 없이 잘 살아”는 2012년 10월에 미스에이(Miss A)가 EP(Extended Play, 미니앨범) [Independent Women Part III]를 발표하면서, 첫 싱글로 선택하여 활동했던 곡이다. 곡은 나쁘지 않은 흥행 성적을 거두었고, 생각보다 크지는 않았지만 가사 내용으로도 나름의 주목을 받았다.

In October last year, “I Don’t Need a Man” was released as the lead track of Miss A’s extended play mini-album, “Independent Women Part III.” It was moderately popular, and the lyrics also received some attention, although not as much as I expected.

음반 보도자료에서는 이 곡을 “당당하고 독립적인 여성상을 그린 서던힙합 곡”이라고 소개했다. 근데 정말 이 곡은 홍보 내용 그대로일까?

The music media portrayed introduced the song as “Southern [US] hip-hop style with bold and independent women.” But do the contents live up to the PR hype?

Miss A I Don't Need a Man Suzy Hair Salon(Source)

우선 앨범 제목(Independent Women Part III)이 다소 뜬금없이 파트 3으로 건너뛰는 이유에 대해서 찾아보니, 이전에 미국 3인조 알앤비 걸그룹 데스티니스 차일드(Destiny’s Child)가 “Independent Women” 이라는 이름의 곡을 Part 1과 2라는 이름으로 발표한 바 있다. 말하자면 이번 앨범의 컨셉을 데스티니스 차일드의 오마주 격으로 쓴 것이다. 전후 이야기를 알고 보니 원곡들의 가사와 의도를 따라 “남자 없이 잘 살아”라는 곡을 만든 이유, 동시에 타이틀 곡으로 밀게 된 이유를 어느 정도 짐작할 수 있다.

Frist, the album title — Independent Women Part III — comes a little out of the blue. Researching the reason for it, I learned it came from the “Independent Women” Part 1 and Part 2 songs of Destiny’s Child, a former US girl’s R&B group — this album concept was written as a homage to them. From this, I was able to make a guess as to why Miss A followed the lyrics of the original Destiny’s Child song(s) and why they made “I Don’t Need a Man” the title track.

그러나 미안한 이야기지만 데스티니스 차일드의 원곡은 그렇게 감수성을 지닌 곡이 아니다. 2000년에 발표된 영화 <미녀 삼총사>의 OST인데, 영화는 세 명의 천사라고 불리는 사립탐정들이 사건을 해결해 나가는 내용이다. 극중 세 여성은 당당하고 진취적인 캐릭터이다. 그런 맥락을 따라 OST 중 하나로 “Independent Women”이라는 곡을 쓴 것이다.

However, although I hate to say this, the original Destiny’s Child song is not very inspiring or moving. It was made in 2000 for the movie Charlie’s Angels, about three private detectives who solve crimes. Their characters are all bold and take the initiative, and the song “Independent Women” followed accordingly.

Destiny's Child - Independent Women Part I(Source)

영화 자체가 할리우드 특유의 가부장적 남성성이나 여성의 시각적 상품화를 벗어난 것이 아니기 때문에, OST 수록곡 역시 영화가 지닌 감수성에서 크게 벗어나지 않는다. 그나마 강인한 캐릭터에 어느 정도 틀을 맞춰가다 보니 “남자 없이 잘 살아”와 비슷한 내용의 가사가 나오게 된 것이다.

Because the movie just has the typical Hollywood patriarchal male sexuality and visual objectification of women, likewise the songs in the soundtrack don’t stray very far from that vibe. Nevertheless the lyrics of “Independent Women” do match the actresses’ strong characters and the later lyrics of “I Don’t Need a Man” to a certain extent.

Cameron Diaz in Charlie's Angels(Source)

당당하고 독립적인 여성상이란 무엇일까 What is the form of a bold, independent woman?

사실 원곡의 가사와 비교해보면 “남자 없이 잘 살아”의 절반 정도는 번안에 가깝다. 원곡과 이 곡 모두 들었을 때 뚜렷한 상이 떠오르지 않는 일차적이고 추상적인 문구들로 채워져 있다. 그래서 가사는 다소 유치하게 느껴진다. 그리고 “나는 함부로 날 안 팔아”, 혹은 “잘나진 않았지만 자신감은 넘쳐”, “남자 믿고 놀다 남자 떠나면 어떡할 거야” 등 한 발짝 빼는 듯한 뉘앙스로 수세적인 표현들이 이어진다.

About half of the lyrics of “I Don’t Need a Man” closely follow those of “Independent Women.” When you listen to both songs, no clear images emerge, as they are full of vague, abstract lines. So, to a large extent the lyrics sound childish. Also, lines like “I won’t sell myself short,” “I’m not the best but I’m full of confidence,” and “If you just mindlessly attach yourself to a man, what will you do if he leaves?” and so on stand out for their defensiveness.

그 결과, 곡은 독립적인 여성을 표방하려는 시도는 좋았으나 일종의 편견을 드러내고 있다. 남녀간의 관계만이 ‘관계’인가? 하는 질문부터 해볼 수도 있겠으나 생략하고, ‘독립적인 여성상’이라고 했을 때 단순히 경제력만 이야기하고 있다는 점, 동시에 그 경제력이 남성에 비해 낮다는 전제만을 깔고 있다는 점에서 그러하다. 남자가 작사해서 그렇다고는 말하지 않겠다. 혼자 작사했는지 혹은 멤버들의 의견이 반영되었는지도 모르는 일이고, 그렇게 생각하는 것도 일종의 선입견이 될 수 있으니까.

As a result, although it’s a good attempt at propounding the notion of independent women, it shows certain biases. First, are relationships between men and women the only ones to be concerned about? I could start with that question, but will pass. Instead, also note that when the song talks about independent women, it’s simply in terms of their economic power, and moreover this economic power is always compared to that of men’s and implied to be lower. I’m not saying that this is because the lyrics were written by a man, as we don’t know if he wrote the song alone, or if he incorporated the group members’ opinions. But either way, it does show this bias.

Min Ponders her Money(Source)

아쉬운 것은, 별 고민이 느껴지지 않는 가사이다. 우리 사회 전반적인 인식의 수준에 비춰보았을 때 이 곡은 큰 문제는 없지만, 나름의 반향을 일으킬 수도 있을 것이다. 그러나 그것은 정확한 위치가 없는 반쪽짜리 반향일 뿐이다. 독립적인 여성상을 메인 테마로 세운 것은 좋았다. 흔히 가부장제 사회에서 이야기하는 ‘수동적, 피지배적, 감정적, 도구적’인 여성에서 벗어난 것도 좋다. 하지만 자신감 넘친다고 말하면서도 어딘가 부족해 보이는 자존감이 아쉬운 것이다. 어쩌면 ‘남자 없이 잘 사는 여자’ 역시 성공과 물질, 외적 조건을 중시하는 기존 사회가 요구하는 여성상의 변형 판이 아닐까.

Unfortunately, the lyrics prove to be shallow. If you consider our society’s general knowledge [of feminism, the position of women etc.], this is not a big problem, but it does mean that the song, which was intended to rock the boat, only caused a few ripples.

[Still],it is good that it ran with the theme of independent women, and challenged common images of passive, controlled, sensitive, and objectified women in our patriarchal society. Also, it puts a spin on societal norms that require women to emphasize success and consumption. However, while it is good that the lyrics were overflowing with confidence, at the same time the protagonist(s) don’t have enough self-respect.

마지막으로, 이 곡은 서던 힙합(미국 남부에서 발생하여 유행하는 곡 스타일) 곡이라고 하기에는 다소 무리가 있다. 물론 서던 힙합이라고 할 수 있는 BPM(음악속도)과 분위기를 지니고 있기는 하나, 풀어내는 방식은 팝 곡이라고 할 수 있다. 안무 속에 잠시 남부에서 유행했던 춤 스타일들을 차용하였기에 서던 힙합이라고 했을 가능성도 크다. 그러나 이 춤도 사실 2000년대 후반에 유행했던, 시기가 좀 지난 춤이다. 개인적으로는 이래 저래 아쉬움이 많은 곡이다.

Finally, it is difficult to claim that this is Southern US Hip-hop. Certainly, it has the atmosphere and BPM of the genre, but it comes across as pop — there’s a strong possibility that it’s called hip-hop only because of the style of dance (and, being popular in the late-2000s, that would make the dance style in the video quite old). [Either way], personally I have a lot of regrets about this song. (End)

Suzy tells us off(Source)

And now on to (hopefully) more incisive commentary. But first, a reminder of what made Destiny’s Child — and still makes Beyoncé — so distinctive:

This hardworking act of [Destiny's Child] could be guaranteed a fair share of [their huge sales] because Beyoncé took a major role in songwriting and production. On The Writing’s On The Wall, for instance, she wrote and co-produced 17 tracks with beat architects Shek’spere and Timbaland, helping to create the Destiny’s Child trademark sound of bass rhythms, baroque samples, and daring vocal harmonies, a cross between TLC and Kraftwerk. By the time of 2001′s Survivor, Beyoncé had graduated to sole producer on most tracks. Despite disruptive line-up changes, the group remained consistently at the top of the charts. Much of this was due to Beyoncé’s leadership and innate sense of what was appropriate for them….

the supremes destiny's child….Within a few years Beyoncé had ‘done a Diana Ross’ and embarked upon a widely successful solo career…I wasn’t surprised — the young woman I met [in 2000] was determined and focused, her single-minded approach tempered by a Southern-style grace….

…Second singer Kelly Rowland didn’t fare too badly either…Destiny’s Child had learned from the experience of their idols The Supremes, retaining control and living out the message of independence that they preached in their songs.

(Lucy O’Brien, She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Popular Music (2012), pp. 249-250; my emphases. Source, above)

As such icons, I’d really like to like their music. Alas, I don’t, and glossed over references to them a year ago because I much preferred to read about Miss A and Ga-in instead. Also, because what girl-group with a bit of spunk isn’t glibly compared to one from the ‘girl-power era‘ these days?

Indeed — seriously — I found one in the very next tab I opened as I typed that:

The front woman of 2NE1, the undisputed queens of the wildly popular Korean subgenre known as K-Pop, CL (aka Chaelin Lee) launched her solo career this summer with the single “The Baddest Female.” The lithe and spunky ballerina–meets–Fly Girl careers in and out of English and Korean, rapping and singing about gold chains, B-boys, and private planes. The accompanying video racked up around 1 million views on YouTube in less than 24 hours, but despite that success, CL vows not to Beyoncé her bandmates to the curb, citing personal exploration as the impetus for stepping out on her own. Where have we heard that one before?

Destiny’s Child, Spice Girls, TLC(Source. In fairness, I too just compared Ailee to Beyoncé in my latest K-pop review for Busan Haps. But I can — and will — justify that in a later post!)

That aside, I’m certainly paying attention now. While I can’t pretend that the following is an exhaustive look at the debates about both songs, from what I have read I’ve found that people who compare them generally make one of two arguments.

The first, is that any sense of feminist empowerment gained from Miss A’s song is a form of false consciousness. After all, you cant help but note it was written by a man, namely JYP himself; that it seems to be about nothing but men; and, some claim, that it even seems to be directed towards men too. Whereas men are only notable for their absence in Independent Women.

In particular, one anonymous commenter lays the blame for this squarely on the male-dominated idol-system as a whole:

The main obstacle to real female empowerment messages in Kpop is that these “feminist messages” are coming from idols whose every statement, performance and lyric comes from the minds of men. All the directors of note are men, all but a slight few of the songwriters are men, the entertainment companies are all run by men. See the trend? I wonder right now, honestly, if a strong-willed Korean girl who wants to write songs and speak out on gender inequality in her country would even be heard — that is just wrong.

2NE1 is a group I respect very much because a lot of their music comes from a place of female empowerment, not specifically male bashing or placing too much emphasis on others instead of self. I like that, and think it is the right way to go — but if that message stopped selling records, would they tell YG to shove it and keep screaming female empowerment because they believe strongly in what they are doing and their message? More importantly, would they be ABLE to keep going without Teddy Park writing those messages into their songs?

October 2013 Girl-Group RankingThe start isn’t going to happen until someone starts caring more about the message than being a world famous idol. Somebody has to lay the groundwork in Kpop for real empowering feminist theory — not just sing a half-feminist message without knowing a God damn thing about the subject in order to sell records. Otherwise, all we’ll ever see from Kpop is a girl group come out with a song like this one every now and again…

And, expanding on that last in a later comment: (source, right)

Less hollow girl power anthems targeted at consumers, and more sincere female empowerment statements are needed for Korea. Especially if an artist is going to scream female empowerment on one single, and then go right back to dropping a feminist message to go to whichever new message their writers deign to have them cover on the next. Consistency is needed so much more than a girl power message that is just going to get lost as soon as a group moves onto the next promotional cycle.

I make many of the same points about the need for a consistent feminist message in my Who are the Korean Pin-up Grrrls series, and couldn’t help but note with sadness that 2NE1 are the only girl-group that come close to having one among the 14 most popular girl-groups at the moment.

That said, the second argument often made is that Miss A’s effort is actually very apt for, and even radical in its Korean context, where unmarried women tend to have much more restricted, much more dependent lives than their Western counterparts. Rebecca at Kpop for Noobcakes has written a lot about this, and is especially good — see under the screenshot — at linking it to specific scenes in the music video:

…family approval is…extremely important in finding a suitable life partner, and surely contributes to the aspirations to date a wealthier or more influential man.

Taking this in mind, this music video really goes against what Korean culture has to say about dating, while still maintaining the values of Korean society as a whole. Koreans are very work focused, and believe that the only way to be successful is to work hard. This music video’s goal is to tell women that as long as they work hard they should feel good about themselves. The first few lines of the first verse are about how proud she is about living paycheck to paycheck providing for herself, and paying her own rent.

I don't need a man -- kangaroo cardShe goes on to talk about how most Korean women (and men) live with their parents until marriage. That’s certainly true, although also note that Korea has one of the highest rates of growth of single households in the world (with more of them now than in both the US and Australia), albeit most of them being middle-aged men and elderly women rather than Sex and the City-esque singles (my emphases):

Since it’s so hard to rent a space by oneself, many young men and women live with their parents. This is acceptable in Korean society, because like other Asian societies, Korea has just recently transitioned from a “clan” or “family” first mentality. As a result, young women have a tendency to rely on their parents for the purchase of items, as shown in Jia’s first verse. The girl with the Kangaroo card [above] keeps sucking up to her father to get items that she wants…

…As media themselves, Miss A go in a Lipstick Feminism direction, and don’t give up traditionally feminine items throughout most of the music video as they are allowed to wear dresses and makeup. They even have giant beauty products dispersed throughout the video. It’s their lack of reliance on a man to purchase items for themselves and their disinterest in the dating scene that goes directly against the theme of most Kpop music videos and Korean dramas.

Every Korean Drama(Source)

So, is I Don’t Need a Man by, about, and for men, or is it Independent Women’s kid-Korean cousin? Both arguments have merits really, and they’re not mutually exclusive either. But I’m tending towards the latter view, as it centers on Korean women’s increasing financial power and reflection of that in their consumption choices, for which they’ve been victims of a popular social and media backlash ever since the 1990s, and especially from the late-2000s (see my Revealing the Korean Body Politic series — Part One, Two, Three, Four; also here and here — for more information).

Gomushin Girl’s comment to my post on Bloom illustrates this well:

I think that there’s an effort to portray Miss A’s members as criticizing feminine consumption in Korea (note that they’re lecturing the ladies getting their hair done, etc., and are always positioned well ahead of background couples and women who are actually engaging in consumption) in “I Don’t Need a Man.” I don’t know that it’s visually as clear and effective as it could be, but it *is* there.

Which is also, as noted above, a problem – it positions Miss A as “good” through their disengagement in feminine habits, while “bad” women allow men to support them and fund their consumption of material goods. It also doesn’t acknowledge that many women (and men) *enjoy* getting their hair and nails done, dressing stylishly, or shopping, in a way that is independent of how Suzy tells us to deal with itit equips them for the male gaze…It also gets a little confused in its capitalist critique, constantly mentioning that it’s better to have a small salary from satisfying work than lots of money through other means, but also mentions things like owning ones own car, which for most young Koreans would be a bit of a luxury purchase. Even a decent used car will probably cost you more than many luxury handbags (which you can also get used).

To be clear, I don’t think that Miss A’s song is a fantastic manifesto, but I don’t think it’s nearly as problematic as [another commenter was] making it out to be. Particularly in a place like Korea, where marital/dating status really does define women, singing clearly and distinctly about financial emancipation from (male) lovers and parents is . . . well, kind of awesome. And I don’t think in Korea that a song that did not relate that emancipation to gender would be either convincing or very meaningful. That particular kind of *not* needing is significant (source, above).

I would just add that my impression is that people are more critical of I Don’t Need a Man than Independent Women because it seemed have a greater emphasis on consumption. So, it was with a certain surprise and irony that I read the following at Snippets of Stories, albeit written by someone who is also a complete beginner on Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child:

I am extremely ignorant when it comes to Beyoncé, especially compared to most of y’all reading this, but the thing I find most fascinating about her work is the materialism of it. Pretty much every song I can think of off the top of my head — again, we’re talking the most frequently played songs, my knowledge is pretty shallow — relies on very specific, recognizable details of ownership and consumption to get the message across. Such as the car keys and suitcases in “Irreplaceable,” the “come pick up your clothes” line* of “Me, Myself and I,” the discussions of what can and can’t be bought in “Independent Women (Part I)” and “Bills, Bills, Bills,” the Dereon jeans in “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” and “Tennis shoes, don’t even need to buy a new dress” in “Crazy in Love.”

Destiny's Child by Hayden Williams(Source)

And on that note, let me again defer to readers — probably most of you — more knowledgeable than myself. Also, my apologies to any of you that expected a post on Hush — I too would have preferred to complete this one two weeks ago (sniff!), and I’ll try to give their new album a proper look soon. But first, my promised post on A’s Doll House!

Update: Aaaaand…as I searched for that final illustration above, I discovered I’d completely missed the excellent “Is this feminism? A critical look at miss A’s I don’t need a man” at J-Popping, which references and considerably expands upon “[Op-Ed] Questioning miss A’s ‘I Don’t Need a Man’: Are They Truly Independent?” at allkpop. Enjoy!

Korean Girl Rockers, Defying the Stereotypes

Jia, Rubber Duckie(Jia of Rubber Duckie; source)

This translated article is maddeningly short on details, and the author writes as if sexual attractiveness and musical ability were mutually exclusive. But it’s good for learning some of the names out there.

Can any readers tell me any more about any of the bands mentioned, or recommend any grrrl-power songs of theirs to translate? :)

상품화 판치는 가요계, 걸밴드의 비애 / Girl Bands’ Disillusionment as Sexual Objectification Reigns Supreme over the Music World

Korean Indie Girl-groupsNate News via StarIN, 15/11/2012, by Cho Woo-yeong

왼쪽부터 시계방향으로 스윙즈, 스윗리벤지, 러버더키(사진=디앤씨뮤직 제공) / Caption — Clockwise from left: Swingz, Sweet Revenge, Rubber Duckie (Photo= DNC Music)

여성록밴드 ‘런어웨이즈’(Runaways)를 아는가. 런어웨이즈는 1970년대 후반 미국 록 음악계의 견고한 남성 카르텔에 당당히 도전장을 내밀었던 10대 걸밴드다. 이들은 당시 여성의 자유와 해방, 저항 정신의 아이콘이었다.

Do you know the US Girl Rock Band “The Runaways”? They were a group of teens that set it upon themselves to boldly challenge the firm male cartel of the US rock world in the late-1970s. At the time, they were an icon of female liberation, resistance, and rebellion.

기성음반 제작자들은 런어웨이즈의 저항 의식을 철저히 상업화했다. 결국 이들은 자신 스스로 무대에서 옷을 벗는 등 성적 상품화되는 데 익숙해져 버렸다. 약 3년간의 활동기 동안 런어웨이즈는 해방을 부르짖으면서 정작 자신들은 해방될 수 없었던 역설을 노래했다. 그들은 결코 자유롭지 않았던 셈이다.

(Cherry Bomb, their signature 1976 hit which went to #1 in Japan)

Their seasoned record producers would strongly promote this image of them. [However], ultimately the group became used to taking off their clothes and sexually objectifying themselves. Doing this for about 3 years, while singing about independence they would also sing about [the irony of] how they lacked that independence themselves. In the end, they had never been free.

30여년이 지난 지금, 대한민국 록 음악계는 어떨까. 음반 제작자들의 마인드와 환경은 변했을지 몰라도 대중의 인식은 크게 달라지지 않았다. 록은 여전히 남자들의 전유물이다. ‘자우림’ 김윤아, ‘체리필터’ 조유진 같은 몇몇 여성 멤버가 팀의 보컬을 맡아 인기를 끌고 있으나 홍일점일 뿐이다.

Korean Girls Rock Fesitival 2013Roughly 30 years have passed since then — what is the Korean rock industry like? [Unfortunately], while the minds of producers and the environment has changed, the public’s remains largely the same. Rock will always be a man’s world. Kim Yun-ah of Jaurim, Cho You-jeen of Cherry Filter, and others like them are popular vocalists of their groups but are also the only female members in them [source, right].

국내에서 온전한 여성 밴드는 다섯 손가락으로 꼽을 수 있다. 홍대 인디신서 현재 이름이 알려진 여성 밴드는 스윙즈, 와인홀비너스, 스윗 리벤지(Sweet revenge), 러버 더키(Rubber Duckie), 니아(NIA) 정도다. 최근에 씨엔블루·FT아일랜드 소속사에서 내놓은 에이오에이(AOA)가 인기를 끌고 있지만 이들은 아이돌 밴드에 가깝다. 상업적으로 최소한의 수익을 담보한 걸그룹 색깔을 포기하지 못했다.

Domestically, the number of all-female rock bands can be counted on just one hand. Well known in Hongdae at the moment are Swingz, Wind Hold Venus, Sweet Revenge, Rubber Duckie, and NIA. Also, recently CNBlue and FT Island’s management company [FNC Entertainment] has been promoting the popular AOA, but they are very similar to a typical idol band — FNC couldn’t give up on getting at least a minimum profit from them.

이들 모두 밴드로서의 기본인 작사·작곡 능력과 악기 연주 실력을 갖췄다. 웬만한 남성 밴드 못지않다. 특히 KBS2 ‘톱밴드2’에 얼굴을 내비친 스윙즈는 3차 예선까지 올랐다. 660팀 가운데 49강이었다. 다소 부족한 경험과 긴장 탓에 중도 탈락의 고배를 마셨으나 심사위원 신대철과 김도균으로부터 “떨어지기 아까운 밴드”라는 칭찬을 받았다.

All these bands have the skills necessary to be described as such (writing lyrics, composing songs, and being able to play instruments), and are just as good as their all-male counterparts. In particular, Swingz came to prominence through competing in Top Band 2 on KBS2, coming 49th out of 660 teams and making it to the 3rd round, but ultimately failing through inexperience and nerves. Judges Shin Dae-chul and Kim Do-kyun complimented them and said it was a pity they didn’t make it further in the competition.

James – Over at Koreanindie, Dahee confirms that Swingz were betrayed by their nervousness (see here for more on their performance in earlier rounds). Yet a much more interesting — if controversial — choice of Top Band 2 group to discuss might have been Rubber Duckie instead, who Dahee alleges suffered from the judges’ own stereotypes of female musicians on the one hand, but who Lightinthemind alleges emphasized their “charm and cuteness and looks” rather than their musical ability on the other:

Dahee: Right away I’m struck with the bad choice of songs for Rubber Duckie. Their vocals aren’t strong enough for the cover song, and it doesn’t really show off their charms very well. And then Shin Dae Chul starts talking about how some of the judges whispered amongst themselves before their performance that “The guitar is a man’s instrument”(!!!), and how hard it is to find a good female guitarist. I cannot believe he is saying this. The guitarist kind of looks like she wants to sock him in the face. And then he compliments her on her skills, saying “I didn’t know you’d be so good,” meaning he didn’t expect much from her BECAUSE SHE’S A WOMAN. Ugh. Sorry, Shin, but you’re officially on my shit list now. Maybe it’s this kind of attitude that stops women from taking up the electric guitar in the first place, ever thought of that? I wonder if Rubber Duckie has to deal with this kind of bullshit on a regular basis? This also makes me wonder why there isn’t a female judge. Would it have been so hard for them to get someone like Kim Yoon Ah on the panel?

Lightinthemind: Urgh… I have double feelings here. No, triple-way feelings. First, I like their attempt to pull off another song which is not as sweet as their own. Unfortunately it wasn’t so successful but at least they tried. Second, I also liked the guitar solo and can agree with Shin Dae Chul that to find women playing guitar on this level is a rarity. And it is not a thing of feminism here. Just a fact. How many really famous females guitarist do we know? Can you name? And third, the thing that I don’t like in girlish bands. If you take advantage of your charm and cuteness and looks, don’t pretend that you weren’t expecting all these compliments from other musicians and that attitude towards you. ‘That’ means “oh, such pretty young girls, let’s enjoy their young bright faces cause they won’t be able to compete here anyway’’. Sorry again, but this sweety image these groups are taking is hurting my teeth. That is why I was relieved when they took the Sixpence None the Richer cover. Hope that they would concentrate on really doing music rather than entertaining with their looks.

Neh Magazine Rubber DuckieFor the record, a September 2010 interview in the now defunct Neh Magazine (p.16) also fixates on their looks — but that may or may not be the fault of the interviewer rather than Rubber Duckie themselves. Either way, alleged prejudiced judges and/or allegedly exploiting one’s looks would certainly disrupt author Cho Woo-yeong’s breezy narrative here, which is possibly why Rubber Duckie weren’t also interviewed (although I concede they may simply have been unavailable).

Continuing:

스윙즈는 “그럼에도 사람들의 선입견을 바꾸기는 아직 어렵다”고 고충을 털어놨다. ‘걸(Girl)’ 밴드에 대한 대중의 편견 때문이다. 걸밴드가 무대에 오르면 대부분 사람은 ‘너희가 해 봐야 얼마나 잘하겠어’라는 생각부터 머릿속에 떠올린다. 아무리 실력이 좋아도 ‘어? 좀 하네’ 식의 반응이 돌아온다. 스윙즈는 “남성 밴드들보다 두 배 세 배 더 연습했다. 인정받지 못하는 서운함보다 보이지 않는 벽이 존재한다는 사실에 부담감이 크다”고 말했다.

Swingz lamented that “Rather than that setback, we’re more saddened that the public’s preconceptions about girl rock bands haven’t changed. When we step on stage, people think ‘Let’s see how good they are,’ but no matter our ability they will still think we’re ‘just okay’ [at best].” They continued “Compared to male bands, we have to practice two to three times more. But it’s not that the public doesn’t acknowledge us that really gets us down — it’s the unseen barriers thrown in the way [of female performers].”

Swingz vs Rubber Duckie아쉬운 점은 이들이 단지 여성이라는 이유로, 무대 매너나 음악적 역량이 아닌 성적 매력이 얼마 만큼 있느냐가 먼저 평가되는 현실이다. ‘홍대 여자 싱어송라이터’에서 ‘홍대 여신’이란 중의적인 의미의 대명사로 굳어진 요조·타루 등 미모의 여성 가수들 인기와 달콤한 노래가 이러한 편견을 더했다. 우리 사회가 얼마나 여성 가수의 외모에 민감한지를 단적으로 드러내는 대목이다.

What’s regretful is that, as female performers, they are judged more on their sexual attractiveness and charms than their stage manners and musical ability. The sweet songs and popularity of pretty female singers Yozoh and Taru, who were originally known as ‘Hongdae female singer-songwriters,’ have added to this sentiment through their transformation into ‘Hongdae goddesses’ instead. That female singers have to be so careful about their appearance like this directly exposes a flaw of our society.[source, right]

스윙즈는 “우리가 아무리 혼신의 힘을 다 해도 결론은 항상 ‘예뻐요’라는 목소리가 들려온다”며 “물론 그 역시 팬분들의 소중한 응원이지만 기왕이면 ‘연주 멋졌어요’라는 말을 듣고 싶다”고 바랐다.

Swingz said “No matter how much work we put in, in the end we just hear cries of ‘You’re so pretty!’,” and wished that, “Although of course we do find our fans’ support valuable, we really want them to say “That was a great performance!’ instead.”

세상이 바뀌었지만 일부 우리 정서에는 남존여비 사상도 뿌리깊게 박혀 있다. 스윙즈는 “걸밴드는 호사가들의 입방아에 오르내리기 쉽다”고 한숨을 내쉬었다. 공연이 끝난 후 뒤풀이 때 맥주 한 잔 마셨을 뿐인데 다음날 ‘술고래’가 돼 있다. 다른 남성 밴드 멤버와 친해져 차(茶)도 마시고 늦은 시간까지 함께 연습이라도 했다가는 ‘두 사람이 그렇고 그런 사이’라는 소문이 돌아 활동에 타격을 받기 십상이다.

SNSD gossipping and judgingThe world has changed, but this patriarchal system is deeply embedded in our unconscious. Swingz sighed “Girl bands are an easy target of gossipers. If we have one beer after a hard performance, we’re labelled alcoholics. If we go out late and have a friendly cup of tea with a member of a male band, we’re hit with all sorts of rumors about our relationship.” [source, left]

윤정주 여성연예인인권지원센터 소장은 “그간 여성의 선정적인 콘셉트를 내세워 돈을 벌려는 일부 기획사와 그를 쫓는 대중·미디어의 책임이 크다”고 지적했다. 음악적 실력보다 성적 매력을 부각하는 기획사와 이를 자극적으로 확대·재생산하는 미디어가 여성에 대한 대중의 인식을 가볍게 하고 있다는 설명이다.

Yun Jeong-ju, head of the Female Entertainers’ Human Rights Support Center [below; source], pointed out that “The media has a big responsibility for management companies making money through using sexy concepts with women and for the public following that trend.” The widely-held notion that sexual attractiveness is more important than music ability is heavily encouraged by the media.

Yun Jeong-ju대중이 다양한 장르의 가수들을 주목하기 어려운 상황에서 이러한 악순환은 반복된다. 윤 소장은 “록 장르 자체가 우리나라에서는 비주류인데다 남성성이 강한 분야여서 여성들이 진출하기 어렵다”면서 “그들이 ‘섹시 가수’에 밀려 미디어 속에서 배제되고 있는 현실이 더 높은 장벽”이라고 말했다.

This leads to a viscous circle whereby [female] singers from varied genres [beyond K-pop] get ignored by the public. Yun continued “In Korea, rock isn’t mainstream and is dominated by men; it’s difficult for women to get ahead in that world,” and that “The media creates a high barrier for [female] singers by placing them [so far] behind sexy ones.” (end)

As always, I appreciate any corrections, and thanks from my long suffering wife to some of my FB and Twitter followers for help with some questions I had while I was working on the translation!

The Pornification of K-pop?

K-pop Porn

Pornography is art, sometimes harmonious, sometimes dissonant. Its glut and glitter are a Babylonian excess. Modern middle-class women cannot bear the thought that their hard-won professional achievements can be outweighed in an instant by a young hussy flashing a little tits and ass. But the gods have given her power, and we must welcome it. Pornography forces a radical reassessment of sexual value, nature’s bequest of our tarnished treasure.

Camille Paglia, Vamps & Tramps, 1994.

For reasons of space and propriety, an opening quote that didn’t make it to my latest article for Busan Haps. But, without denying for a moment that there’s been a lot of gratuitous T&A in K-pop this summer, with many more examples in just the few weeks since this article was written, I think Paglia’s quote brings a healthy dose of realism to the discussion, and frames the one on Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime show in the conclusion nicely. Please click on the image to see what I mean.

For much more on the concept of sexual objectification, why it can sometimes be positive, and why consent is so important for determining that, please see here. Also, a must-read is Peter Robinson’s “Naked women in pop videos: art, misogyny or downright cynical?” in The Guardian from last week, which raises many of the same issues (and is a reminder that the “pornification” of K-pop still has quite a long way to go).

Music Break: Two K-pop Gems You’ve Been Missing

I’d like to like Misogyny Drop Dead by Planningtorock, but agree with a commenter that its more “experimental” and “obscure” than something you can actually dance to.

As for that “problem” though, the author definitely has a point. Just type “trance” into a Youtube search and see for yourself:

Trance Music ObjectificationThoughts? Any more quality K-pop (or covers or remixes) out there that should be much better known? Would you say the objectifying imagery is simply because — I assume — most of the DJs are male? Or some other reason?

*Update: Link is just about the regional Wellington competition sorry. Any sources on the national competition would be appreciated.

Consent is Sexy, Part 3: Female President by Girl’s Day #FAIL

Girl's Day Female President(Source)

…whenever claims of female empowerment or sexual expression are made of girl groups, just a little investigation reveals the conspicuous absence of the voices of the girls themselves. Rather, you find that it’s the entertainment companies speaking for them…

(Korea Herald, July 2011)

I do apologize for quoting myself. But it’s not often that K-pop makes you laugh so hard:

After Girl’s Day held their comeback showcase with the uber-sexy Female President song and choreography, some expressed concerns about the group’s change in image becoming perhaps too sexual.

Their label said,

“They got so much love from ‘Expectation’ that it’s true we were at first burdened about this new song and choreography. Since we worked so hard, the members were confident in the new song, but they’re so happy because the reaction was better than expected. We’re so thankful for the interest.”

Regarding the sexy choreography and concept, the label said, “After the suspenders dance, now it’s the nine-tailed fox dance. It’s the point choreography of the new song, so they worked on it for a long time. They’re not burdened at all by the skin exposure. They’re just happy to have a new image. They’re working hard with the determination to look even sexier when promoting ‘Female President’. As the members are working hard and passionately, please watch over them fondly.”

 (Allkpop; original unsourced, but it appears to be a translation of this Newsen article)

Girl's Day SwimmingAmusement turned to consternation though, when I read the following, harrowing account of what really happened at one of their recent promotions (my emphases; source, right):

…Girl’s Day performed right under the sun and lighting equipment for eight straight songs. By the second song, Sojin practically fainted back stage and Minah could barely stand on her own…

After their stages, the journalists asked questions and one of them asked what they would promise their fans if they won #1. The host asked the girls to do their promise early and do it by jumping into the water ㅋㅋㅋㅋ Ridiculous. The girls obviously looked distressed and Minah kept looking at the staff section, looking like she was asking her CEO what they should do. The girls were drenched in sweat and it was obvious that they just wanted to finish up and go home early but the CEO and the host forced the girls to go ahead with the promise anyway…

….I guess the problem was that once they were done greeting their fans, the girls could not walk at all… They tried to get out of the pool but it was obvious they had no strength left in their bodies. Minah was practically crawling out of the water because her legs had no strength and Sojin had to be supported by her manager… Meanwhile fans and journalists were taking pictures of this, of course [but making them appear erotic and consensual]…

Tellingly, those scenes where they were coerced into jumping into the water have been edited out of videos of the event (out of those I’ve been able to find). But their tiredness is still evident afterwards. For example:

(Update: Billboard Korea disingenuously claims that the Girl’s Day members “surprised viewers at one point when they jumped into the pool… in their hot pink ensembles.”

For more, read the full article at Netizen Buzz. Technically, their lack of consent to the swimming at that promotion is unrelated to the girl on girl action, the panties fashion, or the stripping in the MV to Female President, and I don’t bemoan anyone for enjoying any of that. But personally, it’s completely overshadowed by what happened above, which just speaks volumes about the coercive relationship between Girl’s Day and their management company, Dream Tea Entertainment. Add that all the skin in the MV is gratuitous anyway, then I have no qualms about also labeling that negative sexual objectification, as defined by the criteria outlined in the previous posts in the series.

The irony though? The lyrics to the chorus at least are relatively empowering.

As Amy at YAM Magazine puts it, the title may be a misnomer, but it’s still a song…

…to empower girls to not sit around waiting for guys to give the first step, but to go for it saying “you love him,” and to go and “kiss him first”…

Commenters to a review at McRoth’s Residence disagree, including Kyungmi, who is “angered” by how “bland” they are. While her opinions necessarily carry more weight than my own, and my knowledge of K-pop is hardly exhaustive, I’m still struggling to think of more examples of girl-groups’ songs promoting such boldness in taking relationships to the next level, compared to a plethora of ones that promote passivity instead. In particular, compare Female President’s:

Come on come on oh oh oh

Come on come on oh oh oh

You go first and say you love him

Now is the time, you can start first

We have a female president

Why so serious? What’s the problem?

If a girl kisses first, she gets arrested or what?

Come up to him and kiss him first

Now is the time, you can start first

Girl's Day Female President Feigned Lesbian KissTo those to Dal Shabet’s Be Ambitious (but better translated as “Look at my Legs“), also recently released, and also notorious for its “sexy concept”:

You always only hold my hand and let go,

Is that enough for you? You don’t even kiss me,

When are you gonna make a move?

We stay up all night just talking, even when you’re drunk, you just go home.

Are you really a guy? Or are you just shy?

And, later:

I really can’t wait anymore,

I can’t believe this situation,

I really can’t wait anymore,

I don’t wanna just wait anymore.

Dal Shabet Be Ambitious(Source, above; source below — unknown)

To which Asian Junkie aptly responds:

SO DON’T WAIT WTF

Get it yourself, goddammit. I’m not a fucking mindreader.

And about the lyrics in general:

So as I said, people are apparently touting this as a sexualized, female empowerment song or whatever. In the music video’s comments, there are those commenting about how this is about women gaining control of their sexuality and shit.

But to me, it’s the exact opposite. It’s either saying, “Men need to be more rapey and force themselves on us because we’re wearing slutty clothes” OR “It’s not socially acceptable for us to make the first move because that would be slutty, so here’s our whining about not being aggressive enough to demand dick, we’re still waiting on you.”

Girl's Day Female President Screenshot(Source)

Getting back to Female President, again I acknowledge the irony of empowering lyrics accompanying a song so negatively objectifying, and would be very happy to learn that there’s actually many more out there in K-pop that encourage women to be more assertive in their relationships (not just empowering in general though — I already know of many of those). Also, I fear that again it’s appropriate to quote myself, as I can never stress enough that…

…it’s not the place of this author—a slightly fat, bald, middle-aged man—to tell any young female singer or consumer what they should and shouldn’t consider empowering.

But to argue that the “saddest fact” about this song is that the lyricists Nam Gi-sang (남기상), Gang Jeon-myeong (강전명), and Daniel R. are men though?

That’s sexist.

(Update: Dana’s “‘Female President’ Has Nothing To Do With A Female President” at Seoulbeats is a must-read)

Related Posts:

Consent is Sexy: SISTAR, slut-shaming, and sexual objectification in the Korean idol system

SISTAR GOT CONSENT(Sources, edited: text, image)

Give it to me, SISTAR.

Slip up just once while you’re promoting your new album, and give me your honest opinion of your costumes, your choreography, or your lyrics. Tell me what input you had in them. Tell me if you ever rejected those that Starship Entertainment provided for you.

Or did you waive that right when you signed your contracts?

Because several things are going to happen in the next few weeks: some people are going to slut-shame you for the lewdness of your performances, and some people are going to raise concerns about your sexual objectification. Some people might even do both.

용감한 Producer 씨스타 SistarAnd whatever they say, the issue of your consent will be the elephant in the room.

First, because it’s both misogynistic and asinine to slut-shame you if you’re actually projecting a creation of your management company, rather than expressing your own sexuality and personality. Second, because as discussed back in April, there is both negative and positive (or benign) objectification, and the presence or absence of the consent of the person(s) involved is crucial for determining which is which:

According to Martha Nussbaum (1995; opens PDF) then: ‘In the matter of objectification context is everything. … in many if not all cases, the difference between an objectionable and a benign use of objectification will be made by the overall context of the human relationship (p. 271); ‘… objectification has features that may be either good or bad, depending upon the overall context’ (p. 251). Objectification is negative, when it takes place in a context where equality, respect and consent are absent.

(Evangelia Papadaki,”Feminist Perspectives on Objectification“; source, above)

On positive objectification, “dissident feminist” Camille Paglia is very much on point (my emphases in bold):

SISTAR BoraEarly on, I was in love with beauty. I don’t feel less because I’m in the presence of a beautiful person. I don’t go [imitates crying and dabbing tears], “Oh, I’ll never be that beautiful!” What a ridiculous attitude to take!–the Naomi Wolf attitude. When men look at sports, when they look at football, they don’t go [crying], “Oh, I’ll never be that fast, I’ll never be that strong!” When people look at Michelangelo’s David, do they commit suicide? No. See what I mean? When you see a strong person, a fast person, you go, “Wow! That is fabulous.” When you see a beautiful person: “How beautiful.” That’s what I’m bringing back to feminism. You go, “What a beautiful person, what a beautiful man, what a beautiful woman, what beautiful hair, what beautiful boobs!” Okay, now I’ll be charged with sexual harassment, probably. I won’t even be able to get out of the room!

We should not have to apologize for reveling in beauty. It is not a trick invented by nasty men in a room someplace on Madison Avenue….It is so provincial, feminism’s problem with beauty. We have got to get over this.

(Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays by Camille Paglia {1992}, pp.264-5; source, above)

Granted, Paglia is unfairly homogenizing and stereotyping feminism, as my own favorite feminist scholar explains:

Few issues have caused more debate within feminism’s history than the sexualized representation of women….Feminist activists and scholars have long tangled with the issue of whether images liberate women from or enforce traditional patriarchal notions of female sexuality. From Laura Mulvey’s psychoanalytical constructions of the “masculine gaze” to Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon’s longstanding appeals to broaden both cultural and legal definitions of pornography, there is a wide and influential range of contemporary feminist discourse on the ways in which women are manipulated and victimized through various cultural representations. These have led to a popular stereotype of the “feminist view” (if there ever were such a monolith) of the sexualized woman as a consistently negative one. However, the history and evolution of the women’s movement problematizes this stereotype, as women have actively demanded the right to act as free and discerning sexual subjects even as they may be interpreted or serve as another’s object of desire.

(Pin-up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture, Maria Buszek {2006}, p. 5)
Sinfest Sex Object(Source)

Be that as it may, in my experience there are precious few commentators on K-pop that heed Paglia’s imperative, let alone make any consent-based distinctions between negative and positive objectification. I’m especially frustrated with Korean commentators who, caveats about my article-searching skills aside, tend to view increasing sexual objectification — and/or sexualization — as a blanket evil, SISTAR usually only getting a mention as one, interchangeable example in a roll-call of groups at the forefront of these pernicious trends. Certainly, I’ve yet to find someone who bothered to find out if equality, respect and consent are indeed absent in your relationship with Starship Entertainment.

Then I remembered that if you want something done properly, you have to do it yourself.

So, I became your biggest fanboy, spending the last two weeks poring over all your interviews and TV appearances. Whereas I used to think that they were just mindless trash, and that you weren’t free to speak openly, I finally — belatedly — realized I could no longer simply assume either.

But ten plus hours of videos, and numerous reading later? No offense SISTAR, but now I know they’re mindless trash.

I’ve learned, for instance, that: Bora has a mole on her left ear (32:37); Hyorin met her first love when she was in her second year of high school (7:10); all of them just love Las Vagas (7:00); there is an unofficial rule that band members can secretly start going out on dates once they approach 1000 days since their debut, but as of 973 days neither Hyorin nor Bora had (15:20); Hyorin has a pet snakeSoyou prepared for Christmas, 2011 by listening to a lot of carols (1:55); Dasom‘s mother is a big fan of the host of YHY’s Sketchbook (4:35); and so mindlessly on and on…

Sistar AegyoI would have watched more, but stopped paying much attention after watching one show that had you all spitting gum at a target for five minutes. Then I quit altogether when I came across another that opened with a pig shitting, as if to taunt me. Because suddenly I realized, what on Earth was I doing? How was that pig shit really any different to the contents of all those other programs? (Source, right).

But, most of all, I was giving up out of frustration at how many interviewers and TV show hosts would waste their precious time with you by almost always asking the same sort of inane questions, with the same predictable “Awww-we-love-you-[insert city/country/name of show]-guyz” type answers.

True: I am highlighting the most inane, the most vacuous, the most trivial parts of them. This may be patronizing and unfair: after all, some people are interested in such things, I’d probably be more interested myself if they were about, say, Lee Hyori, and providing them is an integral part of creating and sustaining a fanbase. Also, the Sketchbook one is interesting in another way — albeit a negative one — for the disproportionate attention given to the handful of samchon (uncle) fans in the audience (5:50; that will have to be another post!). And I did learn one thing, albeit via the Soompi blog, rather than a video — that perhaps you’re forced to wear short skirts sometimes:

SISTAR’s Soyu recently revealed her dislike of short stage outfits.

On the June 1 episode of “Beatle’s Code: Season 2,” Soyu honestly talked about the late controversies behind the group’s outfits.

Park Han-byul short skirts high stools yoga schoolSoyu stated, “It is a little upsetting, it might be a good thing in a way. Even if we wear the same hot pants as other girl group members, when we wear them people call it racy. We think it’s because we have a healthy image so we try to think of it in a good way.”

When asked if she liked wearing short skirts/dresses, Soyu answered, “I really hate wearing short skirts/dresses. Sometimes there are rude people who take photos from below us. There are even people who touch us with their hands.”

I’d add that sometimes PR people or press conference organizers will take advantage of this, only providing high stools for female celebrities to sit on (source, above-right). But Soyu, did you mean you would wear something different given the choice? Or that you just don’t like the perving? Why, oh why, didn’t the interviewer just ask?

And that was the best I got for ten hours work. (Readers will surely understand why I’ll refrain from the addressing the post to SISTAR from this point!) But in hindsight, perhaps it was naive of me to expect anything more than frequently tantalizing — but always unsatisfying — hints, for several reasons.

The Dazed and Confused Blogger October 29th 2011First, because I’ve already discussed the problem of Korean language sources in my ongoing Who are the Korean Pin-up Grrrls? series. As always, I welcome readers’ suggestions for critical Korean commentary on K-pop; of course do know of, have read, and have translated some here; and acknowledge that my inability to find as much as I’d like doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s not more of it out there.

But frankly? As someone whose idea of a good time is to Google “성 상품화” after a couple of Black Russians, that caveat is sounding increasingly hollow and unnecessary.

Second, because for all the associations with the Korean idol and Japanese jumisho systems, as I’ll discuss in a moment, things are really little different for Western performers:

Women have always felt the pressure to look decorative or pleasing, but within pop and rock, when the star is the focus of a mass gaze, this expectation is increased tenfold. In the face of the pop orthodoxy that a woman is there first and foremost to look attractive, female artists have consistently had to negotiate the Image issue. “There’s always what we call the Cleavage Question,” said singer Suzanne Vega. “How much to show, when to show it, if at all.”

While Cleavage was the main sexual barometer of the 80s, when pop was in its infancy, with 20s vaudeville blueswomen and 40s jazz swingers, focus was on the Leg. With 50s dream babes the emphasis may have been on the Derriere, as opposed to the fetishizing of the Hair in the 60s. Whatever the focus, the acceptability of women in pop has rested on their ability to read and wear the codes, to promote whatever body part is fashionable at the time.

(She-Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Popular Music by Lucy O’Brien, 2012; pp.168-169)
Kate Bush The Kick Inside 1978(Source)

Kate Bush provides an illustrative example:

An early shot from Kate Bush’s 1978 publicity campaign has her looking full-lipped and big-eyed, wearing a clinging vest, her nipples showing through. When asked about her image at the time, Bush insisted that she didn’t feel exploited. “I suppose the poster is reasonably sexy just ’cause you can see my tits,” she continued matter-of-factly. “But I think the vibe from the face is there….Often you get pictures of females showing their legs with a very plastic face. I think that poster projects a mood….I’m going to have trouble because people tend to put the sexuality first. I hope they don’t. I want to be recognized as an artist.”

Some years later, at the time of her third or fourth album, the penny dropped. “I was very naive and I was very young,” she said of the early photo sessions which led to her being one of the most popular ‘wank’ images to grace student bedrooms. “It was all very new to me and, in the first year, I learned so many lessons about how people wanted to manipulate me.”

(p.171; see 3rd paragraph down *here* also)

(Update: I really wanted to mention — but felt that the post already had more than enough quotes –  “Selling an image: girl groups of the 1960s”  by Cynthia J. Cyrus in Popular Music, May 2003, as the similarities between Korean girl-groups of today and US and UK girl-groups of the 1960s are simply astounding. Please email me if you’d like a copy, or of any of the other journal articles mentioned here.)

Taeyeon 25 No Boyfriend NeededThird, because it’s by no means only Korean reporters and TV hosts that are restricted in what they can ask Korean stars. As John Seabrook revealed in “Factory Girls: Cultural technology and the making of K-pop” in last October’s New Yorker, for instance:

Half an hour before the Anaheim show, I was backstage, on my way to meet Tiffany and Jessica, the two members of Girls’ Generation born and brought up in the U.S., who are both in their early twenties. An S.M. man was guiding me through the labyrinth of dressing rooms, where various idols, mainly guys, were having their hair fussed over and their outfits adjusted. There was a lot of nervous bowing. My minder hustled me along, telling me what questions not to ask the Girls. “Was it sad to say goodbye to your friends who didn’t make it?” he said. “Do you have a boyfriend?” He paused. “This is all going to Korea, and it’s a little different there,” he said. “So if we could stay away from the personal questions like boyfriends.”

(Update: Gag Halfrunt provides a second example in the comments)

Nine Muses of Star Empire(Source)

Finally, because I watched Nine Muses of Star Empire (2012), an 82 minute documentary about Nine Muses’ life and training under management company Star Empire Entertainment, directed by Lee Hark-joon.

Or rather, I watched the 47 minute version that played on BBC World in mid-February (available here; it doesn’t embed well sorry), which by all accounts turned it into much more of a “journalistic exposé” than was originally intended, and certainly — deservedly — portrays Star Empire Entertainment in a very negative light. While SISTAR’s Starship Entertainment is of course a completely different company, I still probably wouldn’t even have bothered with their interviews if I’d first seen Nine Muses’ PR Manager (3:15) schooling them in exactly what to say at theirs, or their CEO (10:15) personally choosing — how empowering! — outfits that showed off their honey thighs:

Nine Muses Honey ThighsThat said, I do encourage readers to check out two interviews of the director, particularly in the latter link where he says:

Q) In the documentary the managers can be seen deciding on the girls’ outfits, songs and choreography. Do the girls have any say in their group’s concept, or is everything decided on for them?

A) The girls’ and boys’ band concept is decided by the agency. However, not all successful bands are like that. As they adjust to the music industry, they start composing their own songs and have more of a voice in their concept. In the documentary, the girls are told by managers: “If you become a star, your opinion is law. If you think you are treated unfairly, become a star.” What the manger said is cruel but it shows a reality.

Nine Muses I really did my best(Source)

Next, I insist readers check out at least Part One of — and especially the much longer comments to — W. David Marx’s series at néojapanisme on the Japanese jumisho system that the Korean idol system is based on, and which it’s clearly still very similar to. (The introductory chapter to Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture{2012} is also helpful, as is Googling “idol” and “Seoulbeats“; here’s a good starting post). Assuming that you have, then it’s an opportune moment to stop and take stock here:

  • CL GQKRIt’s difficult to find material on SISTAR specifically
  • There is great variation in different management companies’ relationships with their employees/groups/artists. Star Empire Entertainment, T-ara’s Core Contents Media, and KARA’s DSP Media would be at one end of the scale, and probably 2NE1′s YG Entertainment and The Brown Eyed Girls’ Nega Network at the other.
  • These relationships — i.e., level of groups’ freedom, autonomy, and involvement in their work — change over time, as indicated by director Lee Hark-joon above. To wit, SM Entertainment has reportedly improved in recent years, and just this week JYP announced that he no would no longer insist on having his name mentioned at the beginning of songs, and would allow his artists more freedom with composer choices
  • Not being able to ask artists tough questions doesn’t preclude us from making informed guesses about their relationships with their management companies. Moreover, unfiltered news and confessions does appear all the time, After School’s UEE admitting just last week that their CEO effectively forced them to do (painful) pole dances in their latest MV for example, and CL on the right (source; edited) mentioning back in March that she refused her company’s requests for her to get cosmetic surgery before her debut (something YG would later do a complete 180 on). Likewise, I hope SISTAR will be more  — er — revealing in the future too.

But where does all that leave the question of how to determine sexual objectification in K-pop?

Recall that in the last post, I provided some criteria on sexual objectification devised by various feminist scholars, and concluded that most purported examples in K-pop (and specifically, SISTAR’s Gone Not Around Any Longer MV and TV performances) didn’t meet those. Commenter ‘dash’ however, to whom I’m eternally grateful, pointed out that because of the levels of coercion involved in the idol system, then most likely idols did meet those criteria, even if — the main thrust of my post — sexy dancing and showing skin aren’t necessarily sexually objectifying — or rather, negatively sexually objectifying — in themselves.

To refresh readers’ memories, here are the seven specific criteria devised by Nussbaum, plus three more provided by Rae Langton:

  1. instrumentality: the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes;
  2. denial of autonomy: the treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination;
  3. inertness: the treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity;
  4. fungibility: the treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects;
  5. violability: the treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity;
  6. ownership: the treatment of a person as something that is owned by another (can be bought or sold);
  7. denial of subjectivity: the treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.
  8. reduction to body: the treatment of a person as identified with their body, or body parts;
  9. reduction to appearance: the treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses;
  10. silencing: the treatment of a person as if they are silent, lacking the capacity to speak.

Applying academic theories to the real world is often messy and unsatisfying, but to conclude that we just don’t know if SISTAR are coerced by Starship Entertainment, so we just don’t know if #3, #7, and #10 apply, so we just don’t know if they’re negatively sexually objectified or not? It just felt galling, as if the last two weeks had been a complete waste.

It also presented quite an impasse, which took another two weeks to overcome.

Nana After School What's Next(Source)

For a while, it was tempting to leave it just at that, as you could argue that objective definitions are actually unnecessary, and/or seeking them misguided. After all, you’d think devising some for pornography would be much easier, but my (layperson’s) impression is that despite laws distinguishing between its many forms, and despite various coda used by law enforcement agencies to police, say, child porn (for example, the COPINE scale), we’re actually no closer to having objective definitions of it than when Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said in 1964 that it was hard to define the hard-core stuff, but that he knew it when he saw it (note it was later regretted and retracted however).

Perhaps, that vagueness is partially because the world’s first peer-reviewed academic journal on pornography won’t even be launched until next year?

In contrast, Buszek’s quote in the introduction is a reminder that academic work on objectification has a long pedigree, and is indeed the primary means — and likely will remain the primary means — by which we discuss “the ways in which women are manipulated and victimized through various cultural representations.” And who could doubt it the necessity of doing so, after watching the following video?

Not what it may seem, Escher Girls describes it as:

A video about the straight cis male gaze in cinema (and video games), examples of it, and talking about how even when men are sexualized on screen, it’s still as active agents and not as a collection of body parts where the camera zooms in and cuts to various secondary sex characteristics. Not a new concept, but the video is still interesting, even as just food for thought.

I also think having it deconstructed visually like he does, helps one pay a little more attention to how the world around us is constructed via the media we consume, in even small subtle ways, like where the camera focuses, pans, and zooms in on, and the difference between cuts that show pieces of the body versus full face & body shots.

….Also, this doesn’t mean it’s NEVER a thing to do, sometimes it can be used very effectively, and increases the understanding of a scene…but it’s when it becomes the norm of depicting women in all situations…

Dal Shabet Legs Objectification(Source)

So, after two weeks of banging my head against a brick wall, it finally occurred to me to Google PDF files with “sexual objectification” in the title. In just — ahem — five minutes of looking, I came across the solution in the form of “Sexual Objectification of Women: Advances to Theory and Research” in The Counseling Psychologist 39(1), 2011, pp. 6-38 by Dawn Szymanski, Lauren Moffitt, and Erika Carr, as I was immediately struck by how their five core — but very interrelated — criteria of a “sexually objectifying environment” were eerily similar to life in a management company:

A) Traditional gender roles exist

The first thing that came to mind upon reading this were the traditional gender roles perpetuated by a significant number — but by no means majority — of songs and MVs by girl-groups, buttressed by the ridiculous double-standards of Korean censors. But, while that’s certainly something worth exploring, it’s more appropriate to focus on the environment in which management company employees work in.

Especially as this is a concept originally devised for places like Hooters (pp. 21-22):

Hooters KoreaSpecific to the workplace, [one researcher] used the term gender role spillover to refer to the carryover of these traditional gender roles into work environments where they are irrelevant or inappropriate. This phenomenon is more likely to occur when gender role is more salient than work role and/or gender ratios are highly skewed, because under many circumstances, individuals use gender role stereotypes to guide behavior, especially in male-female interactions. In particular, gender role spillover occurs when women (more than men in similar occupational roles) are expected to project their sexuality through behavior, appearance, or dress. When gender role spillover occurs, the effects may be magnified when women hold jobs where one aspect is reminiscent of a sex object (i.e., cocktail waitress). In this position, women are likely to be targets of unwanted sexual attention but may (inaccurately) attribute the way they are treated to their job rather than to their gender. A dynamic is then set up where men are expected to take the role of sexual initiator. One potential outcome is a sexualized work environment where sexual remarks, seductive clothing, and sexual advances are tolerated and encouraged.

(Update: See here for more on Hooters in Korea {source, above})

B) A high probability of male contact exists (physically speaking, a male-dominated environment)

Here, the authors’ meaning is the greater numbers of men compared to women in the environment in question; lacking that data, this cannot be confirmed or denied in the case of Korean management companies. But we can guess — and this is confirmed by Nine Muses of Star Empire — that the female idols do have considerable contact with the same few men, and…

…the extent of contact with men [is] a key predictor of incidence of harassment, number of different types of harassment, sexual comments, sexual categorical remarks, and sexual materials for women. Thus, contact with men may serve as a mediator between women and sexual objectification (SO). Frequent contact with men may create a more sexualized environment, which in turn allows for more SO experiences. (pp. 22-23)

Next, consider the disproportionate power of those men:

C) Women typically hold less power than men in that environment

This can be taken as a given. But Seabrook puts it well, and the combination he describes is covered well in the comments to Part One of the jumisho series at neojaponismé:

When you replicate the American entertainment business, and add the Confucian virtue of rigid respect for elders to the traditionally unequal relationship between artists and suits, the consequences can be nasty.

I’d also add that although men can and do write, direct, and/or produce — for want of a better word — feminist songs and MVs, and that although those intended for heterosexual men can be willingly embraced by women (of all sexualities) nevertheless, the example of lyricist Kim Eana (and others) points to the common-sense conclusion that the more women in the industry, the more feminist and/or positively-objectifying songs and MVs will likely be produced.

California Beach Jewelry red(Source, right)

The final two are also self-evidently true:

D) A high degree of attention is drawn to sexual/physical attributes of women’s bodies

Environments where women are required, often by specifications of a uniform, to reveal and emphasize their bodies are clearly sexually objectifying. Additionally, wearing tight or revealing clothing may facilitate self-objectification, as women constantly review their appearance and the fit of their clothing in the surrounding mirrors. Supporting this notion, [one study] found that women in fitness centers who wore tight and fitted exercise clothing (gym tops and gym pants) placed greater emphasis on their appearance attributes and engaged in more habitual body monitoring than women who wore looser clothing (T-shirts and sweatpants). Relatedly, [other researchers] found that the attention focused on women’s bodies in fitness centers leads women to self-objectify more. (p. 23)

E) The approval and acknowledgement of male gaze

세상을 바꾸는 퀴즈 현아…girl watching is a “targeted tactic of power” where men use gaze to demonstrate their right to physically and sexually evaluate women. The activity serves as a form of playing a game among some men; however, the targeted woman is generally understood to be an object, rather than a player, in the game. Thus, from a male point of view, “acts such as girl watching are simply games played with objects: women’s bodies”. The effects of male gaze on women may be intensified by the accompaniment of sexually evaluative commentary. (p. 24; source, right)

And with that, I could finally conclude my month-long inquiry. Which in short, is that I now more or less agree with dash(!), the commenter that started me on it. Or in full, that:

  • Given everything we know about the idol system, it is fair to assume that management companies are sexually objectifying environments
  • Consequently, it fair to assume that female performers do not always consent to the sexual objectification asked of them
  • Consequently, it is negative sexual objectification
  • And crucially, if the management companies and/or performers feel that these assumptions are incorrect and unfair, that the onus is on them to prove us feminist whiners wrong

As many do

Ga-in Bloom(Source, above; below)

Yes, you can argue that that’s a lot of assumptions. And/or that, because the first set ivory tower criteria from the last post didn’t work in the real world, that I’ve merely gone and replaced them with another. Both criticisms are fair. Also, I acknowledge the very very broad range of topics above, and am aware of the many exceptions, over-generalizations, and just plain simple mistakes involved in covering them all. I welcome and appreciate readers pointing them out to me, and look forward to discussing them in the comments.

SISTAR give it to me pleaseYet most of all, I’m happy that I now longer feel so stymied, so…inadequate when talking about objectification in K-pop because I feel I won’t ever been able to hear enough about it — or indeed, anything about it — from the singers themselves.

Of course, the drudgery of religiously scanning news reports and interviews for their voices — i.e. to make assumptions into facts –  is still essential, and, having recognized that, motivated fanboying is something I definitely plan to continue doing in the future. But spending hours toiling over, say, all 114 pages of the SISTAR tag on allkrap allkpop for those slip-ups before you can feel you can even write? Really, us feminist whiners can do much better than that.

And SISTAR, so can you too. Give it to me indeed.

You know what I mean!

Update: The dynamics of guest-host interactions on Korean talk-shows are a little more subtle than I gave them credit for in this post. See “Goo Hara is Allegedly Rude because ‘MCs Gotta MC’” at Seoulbeats to learn more.

p.s. Like this post? Did it keep you occupied for half an hour? Please consider making a small donation, to help me write more of them — I’ve only had one two so far this year! ㅠㅠ