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).


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!

13 thoughts on “Korean Girl Rockers, Defying the Stereotypes

  1. The woman from Cherry Filter has an outstanding voice. If you’re able to, track down a version of 해뜰날 they did for the soundtrack to the film 인정사정볼것없다, it’s awesome. Or just get hold of a copy of the film, it’s worth a watch.

    Edit: Here it is: http://ya3542.blog.me/90083342080 although it’s not exactly the same as the version in the film (which is better, in my opinion).


    1. Thanks. Honestly though, the song was a bit intense for me, and an “outstanding” voice wasn’t exactly the first adjective that came to mind. But she certainly has a powerful one.


      1. Yeah, I prefer the version they have in the film, which you really should watch if you haven’t seen it.

        Maybe you’ll find more to appreciate about her voice in this one as well:

        I’m not a huge fan of the song, but it’s quite well known among theirs.


  2. I’d like to know your thoughts on this song and MV:

    Unfortunately I don’t understand the lyrics, but as far as I know they use words mainly as a musical instrument (like in this case -engrish galore-: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AL6p-Zn0yMk). Sure the song is sexual, but I won’t call “objectification” on this (Nam Sang-Ah, the singer, looks incredibly attractive even in a plain white shirt to me, but that’s a whole another point), plus the metaphores used in the video add some (wacky?) humour to a topic that is usually taken too seriously. Their last album, Dreamtalk, was kinda pretentious, but I really loved it!


    1. Looks interesting thanks — I’ll take a closer look and make a blog post about it once I finish work on a translation I’m already doing (so, maybe a week or so from now Update: more like a month sorry!). Can you tell me any more about the group to get me started (or have any links)?


  3. Unfortunately I don’t know much about the band myself, sorry. I’ve found about them only last year thanks to korean indie’s review of Dreamtalk (http://www.koreanindie.com/2012/10/03/3%ED%98%B8%EC%84%A0-%EB%B2%84%ED%84%B0%ED%94%8C%EB%9D%BC%EC%9D%B4-3rd-line-butterfly-dreamtalk/), and bought the album on iTunes right after that. Here’s an interview koreanindie’s staff made when they met them at Seoulsonic:

    I stumbled upon this: http://www.koarecords.com/zine/kiwan.html, a nice interview with their guitarist, songwriter and co-founder Sung Kiwan.

    In this performance in particular it sounds to me like they’re parodying the usual “love song” clichè, http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x12rhdg_3rd-line-butterfly-you-will-be-surprised-when-i-propose-live-sub-ita_music , but I’m probably wrong and reading too much into it :D.


  4. 3rd Line Butterfly is truly great. I like Jaurim and Cherry Filter and all that, but 3rd Line Butterfly is truly my favorite. Their live shows are amazing. They’ve been around for a long time but don’t do a ton of interviews, as they’re really about the music and try not to be gimmicky. Recently they were opposite Galaxy Express in the show “Age of the Bands.” You’ll appreciate this cover!


    1. I LOVE Juck Juck Grunzie! Loose Union has announced their upcoming album last march and I’m still waiting! The girl from Vidulgy OoyoO (AWESOME band) palys the guitar in JJG and is very good, plus sh’s quite a character :


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