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, I found one—seriously—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 K-pop 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, Five; 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!

Miss A’s Greatest Fans?

At 6 and 4, Alice and Elizabeth aren’t quite strong, confident “independent ladies” yet. But I’m going to try damn hard to make sure they will be, and I’m certain taking to heart some of the messages in Miss A‘s (미쓰에이) I Don’t Need a Man (남자 없이 잘 살아) will help.

Probably, I was much too harsh on the song in my last post. And their obvious enjoyment of the song has reminded me that nobody really has the right to tell any girl or woman what she should and shouldn’t find empowering. Not least, a fat, bald, middle-aged man like myself.

That aside, I think they’re both really good dancers too, even if that is just my parental pride speaking. Let me leave you with the original to compare, which may help explain some of their stranger-looking moves (like the finger on the lip at 3:24, and the bending on the floor at 3:40) to those of you that aren’t Miss A fans yourself (yet):

Enjoy!